A recent podcast discussion between architect/urban planner Douglas Farr and professional cranky old guy James Howard Kunstler presented two opposing schools of thought within the same general New Urbanist camp. Farr expects business as usual to persist for a very long time even as external circumstances force incremental adjustments. Kunstler just sees collapse. I’d like to focus on one particular example they bounced around.
If the climate is changing and sea level is rising (for the record, I have no particular opinion on the topic) there’s a good chance that places like Miami will have to adapt to increasing floods. Kunstler stated that once sea water infiltrates southern Florida’s porous limestone ground water it’s “game over.” Farr suggested that high value locations will respond with engineered fortifications and infrastructure projects to preserve existing real estate. If Florida’s drinking water supply goes brackish people could return to the ancient practice of collecting rain water off roofs.
Here’s a short YouTube video demonstrating how a family lives comfortably in the Arizona desert using rain water catchment to supply their needs year round in a harsh dry environment. The homes of Florida would have a much easier time adapting in this manner given the generous rainfall in the Caribbean. High rise towers? Not so much since the roof of a skyscraper is too small relative to the concentrated demand from the many floors below.
This Israeli company manufactures water generators that pull potable water out of the atmosphere using standard refrigeration equipment similar to an air conditioner or dehumidifier. When air is chilled water vapor condenses into a liquid and can be collected for household use. Put a large enough condenser on the roof of a tall building and drinking water can be supplied to each unit below. 95% of the water we all use isn’t actually for drinking so lower quality water from another source could be used for flushing toilets, washing clothes, and so on. The trade off is that this equipment costs money to install and maintain and requires a substantial amount of energy (electricity, natural gas, diesel…) But compare that cost to having a building become uninhabitable due to a lack of potable water. It’s also something that individual properties can do semi-independently of government infrastructure.
Here’s a cheesy South African promotional video for a similar water generator designed for household use. Cape Town’s recent water crisis as well as ongoing concerns (real or imagined) about municipal water quality are prompting middle class households to consider personal drinking water supply systems. These machines are available at a price point that affluent families can afford, but not people lower down the income ladder. As wealthier people adapt to stress on an individual level the urgency to fix the larger societal systems is reduced. This is nothing new in a place like South Africa or the United States.
Personally, I prefer simple, small scale, low cost, distributed, low energy solutions to whatever problem I’m trying to solve. I’m reminded of the mail order catalogues from a century ago that supplied rural homesteads with low tech equipment. Whatever might go wrong with a sheet metal windmill can be repaired with ordinary hand tools by a farmer with common sense. These systems tend to be slow, intermittent, and deliver less of what we have become used to with modern infrastructure. But they’re also still operational after a hundred years of benign neglect.
Compare that to a large scale computer controlled desalination plant powered by a nuclear reactor. There are entirely too many delicate interdependent parts to such a system and they all have to work perfectly all the time in order to function properly. These systems do produce large amounts of fresh water. But it’s a precarious and expensive arrangement for something so vital to life. I suspect we’re going to see more of these technological responses to future challenges, but each will come with its own set of trade offs and unintended consequences.
Douglas Farr is most likely correct that society will adapt in fits and starts to the stresses of the new century wherever money and organizational talent are available. And Kunstler is also probably correct that for the wrong people in the wrong places collapse is already essentially upon them. It’s an all-of-the-above situation, not an either/or.