The People Aquarium

57 thoughts on “The People Aquarium”

  1. “I prefer to opt out of that debate and ask a different question. Where are the durable places that can ride out difficulties with some degree of grace in hard times?”

    I would love to live in an updated equivalent of an Umbrian hill town, population 10,000 to 20,000, or about the same as in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

    The problems are internal, and external. Would such a place, with few motor vehicles allowed and narrow lanes requiring special fire trucks and garbage trucks be allowed? And how would you commute to work, if you don’t work in a small business on the hill or a farm down in the valley?

  2. I live where it’s hot and humid. All the houses were built with thick insulation. This is great for lowering the AC bill – as long as the AC is running. If not, then these houses are death traps in the summer. And where the electric grid will be heading these days is an interesting question.

  3. I like this framework for looking at resilience: http://resiliencemaps.org. What can kill you? Too hot, too cold, illness, injury, hunger or thirst. When paired with Johnny’s assertion – “Let’s stop fighting over the window dressing.” – my takeaway is that, while some regions may be particularly vulnerable, we all depend on the same “aquarium” infrastructure for 99% of our survival, deep pantry notwithstanding.

    When I first started learning about this stuff, I freaked out. I needed to leave California now! Move to Idaho and live off the land, gun in hand! But slowly I realized that if I moved, I would just have different problems and not even better ones on most criteria above.

    In the final analysis, although we should prepare, as individuals, to the maximum extent possible, ultimately community resilience is what matters. And with that there’s a big cultural component. Whether we’re ready to say, hey, although it’s more expensive, let’s source from local farmers for our school lunch program. Whether we’re going to embark on that groundwater restoration program. And so on.

    From that perspective, California sounds… not a bad place all things considered. After all, our geographic doppelgänger, Portugal, has been through a lot and hasn’t fell into the ocean, yet 😉 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe5T3Jxhem0.

  4. Back in 2010 I was looking for “sand state” real estate bargains and as part of the process I looked at utility systems pretty hard. As I recall Phoenix had a excellent water rights and abundant, cheap energy. Phoenix obtained those water rights over 100 years ago as did that other early southwest city Denver. Las Vegas on the other hand was late to the game and didn’t secure nearly as many water rights.

    1. And if you think that means Las Vegas is going to dry up and blow away while Phoenix remains dripping in water because of some 18th century water rights, I have a bridge to sell you.

      1. Yes, that’s what Egypt thought, too, and then upriver states essentially tore up the colonial-era treaties and ganged up on it. Now with the Renaissance Dam nearing completion Egypt is in a deep, deep fix.

  5. I’m at the end of a mile of private dirt road with a just a few people on it besides myself and all of them part of a moderately cohesive Road Association. I’m also off grid for electricity (solar), heat (wood), and water (well). Even so I’m at best a few months safer than my compatriots in nearby cities. Keeping our tiny private infrastructure running smoothly is troublesome and sometimes not for the faint of hear, like dealing with battery acid and tree work. The real solution to collective, or even individual, resilience is, indeed, to “acknowledge our collective vulnerability…” and “start a new conversation based on mutual problem solving rather than collective antagonism.” We are ultimately all in this together.

  6. You often detail the ways that societal resistance to change has made you jaded about changing the system. What makes your call for us to wake up and smell the systemic vulnerabilities any more likely to be appreciated than your efforts to fix up that house in Cincinnati were? Or do you just (understandably) want to vent?

      1. Haha, fair! The “this is fine” meme just gets more and more relevant, doesn’t it?

        I am always glad to see your posts and am looking forward to the promised one on lawns vs food.

  7. My experience tells me that my hometown slice of northern lower Michigan is ideal – Alpena, MI, in my opinion.

    It’s the economic and cultural urban center of its mircopolitan area.

    It’s small – about 20 thousand population in, effectively, only 36 sq miles with half of that pop. in the 9 sq miles of the City.

    It’s on a navigable, relatively sheltered large bay of Lake Huron and has the large watershed of Thunder Bay river emptying right into the Lake through the downtown. The river drains a vast majority of the County.

    Fresh water (rain/snow, ground and surface) for forever*. (*not really forever, but many lifetimes for sure)

    Significant amounts of arable land within 10 miles of the city center

    Lots and lots of smallish single family properties in the City.

    Cheap real estate, in comparison.

    Relatively isolated and great potential for infrastructure self-sufficiency.

    Not too hot, not too cold.

    And a bunch of other stuff I don’t have time to come up with right now.

    1. I’m on board with your assessment of the Upper Midwest, but everyplace has a freaky vulnerability. The Great Lakes is saturated with elderly nuclear power stations. I’m not anti-nuke. I’m merely suggesting that just because you don’t have earthquakes or forest fires you’re all safe. You still need to be prepared and keep multiple Plan Bs in the works.

      1. Everything has vulnerabilities for sure. But the nuke power plants in MI are approximately 250-300 miles to the south and west of Alpena. I wouldn’t be too worried. If the plant south of Detroit ‘goes’ the prevailing winds will dump the pollution on Lake Erie, Ohio and Southern Ontario, Canada, though I currently live in NE OH…so…

    2. The Midwest has so many things going for it, but am I the only one that thinks that their Polar Vortex winters will be a huge problem if fossil fuel inputs become patchy? Of course older homes were built before central heating and such, but would your standard suburban home (or high rise in Chicago) be habitable with the heat turned off for weeks or months on end? Seems like it’d be a big effort to retrofit most post WWII homes… Sincerely, confused Californian.

      1. Johnny super-insulated his wine country ranch house and put a (tiny) wood stove in it, so that is very doable. We air sealed and insulated our 1915 house and put a medium sized wood stove in it, and that allowed us to heat the house comfortably when the boiler was out of commission.

        1. I meant to add that we live in New England, not Sonoma, and normal insulation (not super insulation) and a wood stove work fine for us, so that combination should work just as well in the Midwest.

        2. I see. I had to google “residential boiler.” I also learned recently some people in New England use heating oil?

          Not trying to humble brag, but I haven’t used heat for years and I don’t have AC. I live south of San Francisco. My house has a 1950s wall heater with a broken thermostat, a decorative fireplace and crappy insulation. I don’t plan to do anything about the situation for the time being. 45 degrees is the least of my worries. Water, however…

          1. I grew up in Oakland. I know what it is like to live in a climate that isn’t trying to kill you. February sucks here.

            On the other hand, we have consistent rain, no earthquakes, and minimal fire risk. I lived through Loma Prieta and the firestorm two years later.

            Nowhere is perfect. But I could afford a house here. Oakland, not so much.

      2. As a life long Great Lakes region resident, I particularly love this region. Yes, a vortex can push the temp way down in the winter, but it’s survivable trust me. The housing stock should be able to adapt as there are lot of people that currently heat with wood or pellet burners. Also…perfect is the enemy of good, so if you need to change you need to just start.

        1. Question for all you wood pellet people: where does and will all that wood come from? Is it sustainable? I am genuinely curious.

          1. Among other things, the mid-continent states (as well as the Eastern and northeastern ones) have abundant forests (and we’re near Canada, which has an overwhelming amount of forest). Firewood is a crop, not a resource that is “mined” or “extracted” and “used up”.

            1. Sure but even so what proportion of the population could heat its houses like that, even assuming you use all the available wood? My guess is not much. The population would have to come down a lot. Wood has a much lower energy density than oil.

              1. Well, there’s plenty of coal too. In Appalachia it’s still a common source of residential heat. My grandparents used coal until the first oil crisis/natural gas boom of the 1970s. (The coal regions are also natural gas/fracking regions in the East.)

      3. There’s been a lot of energy/conservation innovation over the last few decades that’s been closing the energy gap between the north & south. A relative built a 2,200 square foot house in northern wisconsin, put 12 inch thick insulated exterior walls with upmarket windows & doors, blew two feet of insulation into the attic, and his winter natural gas bills are 40/month.

        For comparison, I have an older home with thin walls, some 80 year old windows left unreplaced, and few inches of asbestos vermiculite in the attic. I’m about 140.

        1. I’m a big fan of DIY low budget renovations in order to keep out of debt. Building a super fabulous home from scratch is too spendy for my blood. I’ve rehabbed a few older homes in my day. Peeling back the ancient faux wood paneling and exposing uninsulated walls is easy. I like spray foam (either oil-based or soy if you prefer) because it radically improves the R-value of existing thin walls (R 7 per inch) and creates a whole house vapor barrier. I replace one or two windows at a time using the best quality I can pay cash for. Starting in the most important rooms. Meanwhile seasonal exterior storm windows, exterior shutters, and heavy interior drapes go a long way to fortify the old windows.

          1. My closets & built-ins have wood panelling wallpaper in them. Haha. It actually doesn’t look bad. Definitely a conversation starter.

            I am slowly working through a list of projects, with re-insulating high on the list. I had not considered replacing the old aluminum decorative shutters with something functional. Now, I’m intrigued. In my few trips to Europe, I’ve always enjoyed swinging open the those heavy wooded shutters.

  8. There’s a nice middle ground between tall towers and extreme sprawl. It’s what Brent Toderian calls “gentle density” and what some other planners call the “missing middle.” Gentle density helps address many of the concerns you frequently and rightly raise here. Neighborhoods full of duplexes, rowhouses, and small mixed-use buildings tend to have a more cohesive community spirit, less need for commutes and car trips, better walkability, and more resilience and self-reliance. Less crime too due to more “eyes on the street” as Jane Jacobs observed. And they are just fun places to live!

    1. I live in just such a place in San Francisco. The problem is it’s illegal and culturally repugnant to build more such places. So we get towers or suburban sprawl. The only middle ground I see being built is “density without urbanism” with condos and Texas Doughnut apartment complexes (density) build along the side of the highway across from strip malls and office parks. (No urbanism.)

      1. And then there are ‘manufactured home communities’ (aka mobile home parks) which, in many cases, are horizontal apartment towers with direct access to outside.

      2. What do you think about zoning changes like the one Minneapolis made, to end single family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes citywide? Could that allow the missing middle to emerge more organically over time?

        1. I have friends in Minneapolis who are in the thick of the zoning debate there and actively attempting to build some missing middle infill in one of the neighborhoods that is designated for up-zoning. They’re attempting to add an in-law suite for their mom to their existing single family home. Turns out zoning is only one of the administrative impediments to getting this kind of thing to happen. The political pushback is already mounting as part of the local election process with all sorts of clever work-arounds to ensure infill will be limited in many neighborhoods for the duration.

          Here’s the short version. Providing, flexible, bottom up, genuinely affordable housing is a problem society really doesn’t want to solve. So we won’t….

  9. Where are the durable places that can ride out difficulties with some degree of grace in hard times?
    —-
    I mean, the area around Dubai has only been occupied since the beginnings of time, so I’m not sure I agree.

    1. People have been living around Dubai for thousands of years – but in very small numbers. Dubai was a fishing village of a handful of people because that’s how many people could be supported given the local resource base – particularly fresh water. I could say something similar about Las Vegas, Phoenix and many other locations.

      But my primary point is that our cities “could” be far more capable of feeding themselves and providing for their own critical needs if we built them differently. All those lawns and decorative landscapes could be producing food. All those roofs could be collecting and storing rainwater. All those two car garages could be productive workshops and mini warehouses. Instead we’ve optimized for maximum efficiency on the one hand, and sterile consumptive aesthetics on the other.

      1. Actually, prior to 1300 or so, Phoenix probably had the highest population density in the continental US territory outside of maybe Cahokia due to extensive canal irrigation. Phoenix is a very habitable place, even if most modern USians would not like the summer weather.

        But the point stands that current development patterns are not sustainable.

  10. Arizona has one of the more interesting urbanism features (IMO): tons of mobile home parks. In some of the phoenix metro communities, it’s the most common housing type.

  11. Sounds like you’ve been in some “debates” with idealogues of late……

    Personally I think that semi-rural Sonoma County option ranks pretty near the top, fires and floods and quakes notwithstanding. It certainly provides more options with water, climate and fertile land.

    1. There is vastly more semi-rural productive acreage near mid-size to large Midwestern and Eastern and Southern cities than near SF and LA. It’s in places where natural disasters are far fewer and farther between (and NO fires or earthquakes), and where there are vastly superior quantities of fresh water. Of course, it’s more humid Continental climate than semi-arid Mediterranean, with three or four seasons, but that’s a tradeoff.

      1. Agreed, Chris B. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan south of the 45th parallel are great in my opinion. Then there’s pretty much all of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois as well. They all get to be thrown into the nice ‘not too hot, not too cold’ temperate zone.

        1. I also agree, for most healthy, non-riff-raff type people anyway;-) (When I lived there, people used to say that the cold climate kept the riff-raff out!)

          >”not too hot, not too cold”

          I was born in and grew up in Southern Minnesota, and upon reaching age 40 I concluded that the place was both too hot (& humid) and too cold! Shortly after that my wife and I moved to the Seattle area (now we are the riff-raff!) As expensive and traffic choked as this place is (not lately though!) the climate suits us more than any other place in the county.

          Johnny is right, there is no one perfect solution for everyone.

          1. Air conditioning only needs to run a few months of the year between about 38.5 and 42 degrees north latitude, (east of the 100th meridian) and can utilize solar energy.

            This defines what Minnesotans call “The Lower Midwest” but also includes chunks of Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

          2. Seattle area for sure as I understand it, but earthquakes, volcanoes, etc….so.

            I will still stick with the lower Great Lakes/upper midwest region, but this is what I know the best.

            1. I remember reading somewhere that Duluth MN was considered one of the most climate-robust cities in the US. Any reason you are cutting off the upper Great Lakes? Too isolated? Too short of growing season?

              1. Kent – north of the 45th parallel the environment and gets iffy for arable land and growing season particularly in MI. Basically I’m suggesting that most of the Midwest between the Mason-Dixon Line and the 45th parallel is where I’d settle and do currently live.

                1. I expect that is specific to central North America. In Europe, the 45th parallel runs through northern Italy, south of Milan and then through the south of France. So all of Germany and the UK would be above the 45th parallel. With changing climate patterns the northern Great Lakes might be more viable. Washington State is also entirely above the 45th parallel and it has a robust agricultural economy, as does central BC.

                  But I was curious so I did some google street view of the countryside around Duluth and none of it is agricultural. It’s mostly scrub timber. I don’t know if that’s climate, soils, or what.

                  An old friend of mine who thinks about this a lot want to return to Traverse City Michigan where he was stationed in the Coast Guard long ago. Says that’s his sweet spot for a climate robust city.

                  1. All these conversations about relocation tend to be piecemeal and subject to all sorts of counter-arguments. Is small town America in Ohio or Michigan the perfect climate refuge? Maybe. Is Vegas completely f*cked long term? Probably. But I’m 52. I’ll be long dead before those issues matter compared to economic and other forces that will play out in a much shorter timeframe.

                    It’s best to understand your particular vulnerabilities wherever you happen to live and get ahead of the curve. I’ve done what I could given the risks of Northern California. But my Plan C is to keep some liquid wealth and a willingness to pick up and move if all else fails. I know I can find a niche and start fresh almost anywhere if I really had to.

                    1. Agreed. I’m older than you, Johnny, so it’s an academic exercise unless there’s a SHTF breakdown.

                      But I moved to the Lower Midwest as a young man, on purpose, after having lived on both coasts and the Upper Midwest as well. Even 40 years ago a nice place in SoCal was not particularly affordable for a recent middle-income grad, as much as I would have liked to go there.

                    2. I agree, but like anything else, I find the thought exercise fascinating. I’m 55 and we recently moved our family from Waco TX to Camas Washington (suburban Portland) in part due to climate. But also social and family issues. Butting heads against a bright red state government and local population that wasn’t ever going to change just got to be too frustrating.

                      But then I have kids so I’m thinking multi-generations. Yes we live in a mobile society. But building some sort of a multi-generational homestead requires that one think out further ahead than the next 20 years. I try to think now about the greater Portland area like you might have about the San Francisco Bay area one or two generations ago. Because when my kids or grandkids are having families and settling down this area might well be as unaffordable.

                    3. Don’t underestimate the power and pace of and accrued interest in knowledge of Tech. Exponential change is happening, and you can see it if you look in the right places(like your phone, or whatever device you are reading this on, for example) You may live a lot longer than you expect. What has happened technologically in the last 100 year is unlike anything in else in Human or for that matter Earth history. In 40 years you might find yourself having climate/survivability/sustainability debates about various O’Neill Rings or regions of Mars. Call me crazy but some very knowledgable and not overly stupid people are betting big on just such an outcome.

                  2. Kent – I’m only referring to North America and the 45th. The temperate climates in Europe and the US PAC-NW are due to the massive climatic effects of the adjacent ocean currents, so those areas of the planet are a category unto themselves.

                    As a micro-climate, the Grand Traverse Bay area of northwestern lower Michigan is wonderful within the context of the rest of the state, at least. But due to the super regional westerly prevailing winds picking up moisture from Lake Michigan, you can get a ton of snowfall in winter if the Lake doesn’t freeze over (aka Lake Effect snow). But the spring, summer and fall as usually pretty gorgeous and if you’re mentally and physically prepared, the winters can be gorgeous too if you accept them for what they are.

                    1. The great lakes region is subject to significant micro-climate effects, and accordingly, opportunities for some optimization. For example, today (May 1 2020) Lake Michigan off the shores of Milwaukee is a heart stopping 43 degrees. Over the last 3 weeks, the mercury often rose well into the 70s in Madison WI while an onshore breeze has kept Milwaukee mostly a foggy & frigid 45 degrees.

                      Of course, this is something that can hacked with a bicycle ride. If coastal Milwaukee is 45 & foggy, it will be 50 just a mile from the lake (still foggy). 55 & clear at 2 miles, 60 at 5 miles, and 65 at 15 miles, and 70 at 30 miles as the climate switches fully from lakes coastal to plains savannah. And it play in reverse come the fall.

                      So, if you live about 1 mile from the lake, you basically have a 10 degree swing most of the year depending on which way you want to walk out your door.

  12. It’s all about stocks and flows. Cities have large flows, nobody has room for a spare box of toilet rolls but demand keeps things moving. The further out yet get the more it becomes about stocks, those rusty cars in the yard are there for a reason.

    When a crunch arrives it’s generally the poor that suffer first and they tend to be further out from the centre. They are further away from hospitals, have less choice on schools and are still utterly dependent on modern infrastructure to deliver groceries. Realistically few are going to become self sufficient in food.

    Like for like your environmental impact is going to be lower in a city yet cities emit 70% of our greenhouse gases despite being only 50% of the population. The reason is people in cities tend to be wealthier and so consume more goods and travel more.

    It almost seems somewhere in the middle would be a good compromise. The School of Life has an interesting video on this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy4QjmKzF1c Five stories seems to be an optimum.

  13. These crowded cities are like a forest of dead pines, just waiting for a lightning strike to be set ablaze. The population must diminish, and reducing births is more humane than any other option I can think of. When we support the education and empowerment of women, especially to control their reproduction, population growth naturally slows and reverses. Lately, though, the Earth has come up with another option: COVID-19. As tragic as it seems now, it probably won’t have a significant effect on population since it mostly kills the old and obese. There will be other plagues and pandemics, though, sooner or later.

    1. There’s not a population issue; we’re already below sustainability. Unnaturally, and violently, reducing the population doesn’t help. There are serious distribution and over-centralization issues. As much of this thread discusses, there is plenty of space and, in fact, resources, but there is very little know-how about living away from all the distractions and conveniences of the modern world.

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