The Ambivalent Observer’s Guide to What’s Next

6 thoughts on “The Ambivalent Observer’s Guide to What’s Next”

  1. I would like to invite you to look at a photograph of people standing in line for inoculations in Georgia in 1961.
    There is not a single fat person in the photo.

    And in every single photo of a group of Americans today, the people look like dirigibles with flip-flops. XXXL black t-shirts and baseball caps.
    The drop in physical activity, the acceptance and even glee in being oversized, this is the way America lives today. And so much of it is about how we have built our nation into a car driving, parking lot, mall and office building monstrosity.

    We have a health crisis and an environmental crisis and the two are interrelated but also solvable.

  2. I’ll make a stab at characterizing which towns/cities/communities will likely be around fifteen years from now and which will not.

    First off, the deal breakers. If a town cannot provide each resident with at least 25 gallons of water a day, it will no longer exist. If a town already experiences extreme heat (> 10 days a year over 105 degrees) in the not-too-distant future it will likely experience > 30 days a year over 110, causing people to migrate out. Lastly, if a town is likely to spend a considerable amount of time flooded, it is unlikely to exist in 2030. Some places (such as Manhattan) will definitely be defended against rising sea levels. Other places that are irreplaceable, I hope will be defended. (Charleston, New Orleans.) Other places cannot be defended due to geology (all of South Florida); or the expense won’t be worth it. (In the Bay Area, Treasure Island and Foster City. Sadly, in San Francisco we are set to lose Crissy Field and the zoo. We may defend SFO.) Places that have experienced significant river flooding in the past ten years are also vulnerable and may cease to exist if steps are not taken soon.

    Next is economics. If a town existed 100 years ago, it probably has a historic reason for existence (farming town, port, etc.) and will likely continue to have one. If a town is on some kind of rail line within 15 miles of a city with a solid economic base, it will likely continue. If it contains or is near industries likely to hold on or at least not decline steeply, it has a good chance for survival. If its main industries are doomed, it had better get some new ones quick.

    **Doomed industries–oil and gas extraction, motor vehicle and parts manufacturing, truck transportation, any type of internal combustion motor/tool/vehicle production, pipeline transport, retail of motor vehicles and parts, suburban housing construction, strip mall construction, petroleum and coal products, road construction, most corn farming, corn processing, ethanol
    **Industries facing steep contraction (at least 50%)–processed food/beverage/tobacco manufacturing, hotels (tourist and business), FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate), parts of health care (expensive/ineffective/cosmetic), air travel, retirement communities, social media, advertising, companies whose income streams rely on advertising (especially car advertising), fast food, chain restaurants, cable, gambling, wine, cheese (currently heavily subsidized), print publishing, cattle ranching, slaughterhouses and other industrial meat processing, sports franchises, golf, expensive children’s sports/classes/tutors/etc.
    **Industries facing significant contraction (10 – 35%)–most of health care (drug-based, non-curative), pharmaceuticals, professional/business/administrative services, college education, government (including military and defense contractors), retail trade, wholesale trade, warehousing, international water-borne freight, gadget/phone manufacturing, high end restaurants, plastics
    **Industries that will hold or even increase a bit–utilities (if they manage not to be complete idiots), internet providers, rail and domestic water-borne freight, construction (urban infill, density around rail transit hubs, heating districts, solar and wind installations, electrical infrastructure, rail infrastructure), some health care (effective, high impact), durable goods manufacturing (especially solar, wind turbines, heat pumps, electric appliances, rail and transit vehicles, but Made in USA will gain ground in general), locally made textiles/apparel, recycled steel, transportation other than trucking/private cars/air travel, education other than college, truck farms near cities, farms in general that produce food other than (currently subsidized) commodities, locally-sourced food retail, marijuana (farming and sales), big data, energy efficiency, water efficiency, sustainable forestry, tourism in places easy to get to by rail, commodities popular for export (wheat, some fruit and soy, some chemicals, some gadgets, some heavy equipment including turbines, possibly hydrogen fuel derived from wind-powered electrolysis.)

    A town/city/community gets survivability bonus points if 1) it has walkability designed into rather than designed out of its infrastructure; 2) it has some kind of central core with less than a quarter of surface area devoted to parking; 3) it is on some kind of rail line (heavy or light); 4) it has a tax base that can currently support all town services without debt; 5) it is possible to source more than half its food calories from within 50 miles; 6) it is possible to live there without air conditioning; 7) it has some type of physical beauty/charm/social cohesion; 8) it already gets more than a quarter of its electricity from sources other than coal, oil or natural gas; 9) it has more than one core industry, and 10) it is already allowing incremental infill and gradual increase of core population density. But water issues (not enough or too much), extreme heat, and/or lack of economic base will trump all these when push comes to shove.

    1. Karen – As always we agree a lot and disagree a little.

      Short version? Things are going to get a whole lot more local due to plain old economics. Some locations have abundant local resources. Others, not so much.

      Yes, poorly built sprawling desert suburbs with questionable water supplies will not be making a smooth transition into the future. The cost of delivering scarce water will outstrip the market’s willingness to pay and some towns will simply dry up.

      And yes, extreme weather will make some places less desirable/valuable. The insurance industry will most likely be the agent of change. After too many floods, storms, or fires coverage will be denied to certain locations. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t get a mortgage or refinance a property. Without financing, there is no property value. No property value? No reinvestment or maintenance. That’s called a slum.

      You feel comfortable assuming green energy will supplant fossil fuels moving forward. Me? Well… a black tank in a glass box facing south will work to heat water with very little technology or expense. I see a lot of that sort of thing cropping up in the future. But an array of photovoltaic panels to charge your electric car? Not so much. At least not if we expect 300+ million people to jump on that particular bandwagon.

      That doesn’t mean fossil fuels will get a free pass. Oil in particular will experience problems as geopolitics messes with supply chains and price volatility. That will ripple through the transportation system in unpleasant ways. But I expect coal in particular to continue to supply more electrical power than treehuggers expect – for better or worse.

    2. You are obviously a smart person, but, like everyone at least some of the time, you fail to check the “wishful thinker” part of your brain, much like me.

      I agree with much of your thoughtful post, and generally agree that changes will continue to occur — but it is dangerous to be too much of a Kunstler-type ideological futurist. Some things to consider: even though a slice of the traditional left HATES the automobile, it is showing ZERO signs of decline (before I am pigeon-holed; know that I love bikes and bike-infrastructure and have lived in urban-town environments since after high school). Indeed, putting aside all the libertarian or right-wing perspectives on how much the car has done to help people be mobile and independent, consider the enormous strides made in car technology over the last 50 years, and see that that progress has actually started ACCERERATING. Also note that our most brilliant get-it-done minds tend to be working on improving the car, as opposed to replacing it (excepting perhaps Elon Musk, whose mind is flexible enough to both advocate “tube flight” as well as advance car sustainability. The future is very unlikely to mean humans will be chained only to a dense node where they call home and other nodes they can train to.

      What I see under greater threat, imo, is flight. Possibly. I think there will be an expanding market for alternatives, and what I can “mid-speed rail” (1930s speeds) and better busing may be the obvious answers, but something unexpected like tube-flight could disrupt that.

      I like trains and streetcars; I live in a streetcar suburb of in the metro of the first successful electric streetcar system in the world (Richmond, VA) — but as I nostalgically lamented the demise of the streetcar to the less-cool motor-coach, I also did some research as to why, and discovered compelling reasons why streetcars were abandoned (here, they were actually BURNED). Those reasons haven’t gone away—-I think buses will be further improved. The low-hanging fruit has been NG engines. Next may be hybrid or electric engines (many locomotives are now hybrid, I think).

      What I might agree more with is the water issue. Not sure though. Places likes Colorado all seem to be growing like crazy in spite.of lack of water, due to a smart balance of policy priorities, and I suspect that if this trend continues, it will have to become more like Arizona, but not dry up and blow away. Meanwhile, I always comment to anyone who will listen that thereby lakes region is one of the most underutilized places on earth at this point in time, considering all the surplus infrastructure and natural resources (save heat and light in the Winter). I suspect that both cold areas and hot areas will delve deeper into the hills to solve these problems, but who really knows?

      1. For reference, *all* “diesel” railroad locomotives are series hybrids — they all consist of diesel generators and electric motors. True since the 1960s.

        The main problem with streetcars was that they didn’t have their own lanes. The streetcars with their own lanes mostly still exist. I’ve spent quite a while working out the economics of rail, and basically rail thrives on volume: you never want branch lines to the boondocks, you always want lines from one dense cluster of buildings to another.

        Because of this, buses don’t have much of a niche. If you’ve got low density, people will use cars. If you have high density, and cars are congesting the road to the point where cars don’t work, your best bet is rail, which can carry 2400 people on a single articulated streetcar in its own lane.

    3. Pretty good list. Quibbles:

      My study of history says unfortunately you’re wrong about wine (always popular even in the worst economies). You’re unfortunately probably wrong about gambling too, since it’s basically an addiction, and will do just as well as addictive drug sales. 😛 You’re also wrong about tutors for the children of the rich (a remarkably stable business for 7000 years). High end restaurants are likely to do fine for the same reason as tutors.

      And my study of economics says you’re wrong about warehousing. Amazon is building and expanding warehouses at a phenomenal rate, and UPS and FedEx have warehouses, and China has enormous warehouses… warehousing is *useful* logistically. The thing about warehouses is that it matters where they are: they have to be at the right transportation links between the correct cities. Ports, rail junctions, etc.

      You’re also wrong about plastics. Not only are they remarkably useful, they use startlingly little oil (one estimate was 2% of the world’s oil use).

      And you’re definitely wrong about gadget manufacturing *overall*; I think that’s been on a trajectory straight up since 5000 BC. The danger with gadget manufacturing is that the preferred type of gadget can change very suddenly. So although everyone has cameraphones now, Kodak’s entire camera business died overnight. It’s a constant race to avoid irrelevance in gadget manufacturing; if your city is based on one particular type of gadget, it’s prone to collapse on a much shorter time scale (like, boom for 20 years and then bust) than if its economy is based on anything else at all.

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