Monday, January 7, 2008

When I asked a reporter in the western region of the USA if he might be interested in writing a story one day about my polar cities concept, he politely, but succinctly, wrote back with an 8-word email: "No thanks, I'll pass on doing a story."

That's fair enough. Np harm in asking. I was just wondering if he might be interested in doing an article one day since he has a blog that covers global warming issues and he seems very concerned about climate change.

So I wrote back to him a second time and asked him "why" he was not interested in doing a story about polar cities as a concept for future adaptation, if worst comes to worst in the far distant future, and he again politely wrote back:

"The main reason I am not interested in this point in doing a story about polar cities is that your idea hasn't passed what I call a "seriousness" test -- that is to say, being taken seriously by someone [an expert on global warming or a scientist with a good reputation in the field] who could place it on a path to fruition."

Talking about polar cities to skeptical reporters is not an easy row to hoe! [SMILE] But thanks to Stephen Leahy at IPS in Canada who wrote a very good introduction to the polar cities concept here:



Hi Dan,

I saw that IPS article by Stephen Leahy about polar cities when it first came out. It's intriguing, because obviously the place to be if the planet really warms up a lot is at the poles. However, I have mixed feelings about the idea, beyond what I said before about the impact of a converging multi-factorial crisis on our ability to execute suvh an ambitious plan.

The main concern I have is that we're not thinking of the right set of circumstances when we think of climate change. The immediate reaction of the public (and Jim Lovelock) to that phrase is to imagine a hot planet with rising sea levels. While that might ultimately come about, long before that happens we'll be hit by the real medium term concern - climate chaos. The world won't get gradually and uniformly warmer, and the big problem won't be rising oceans. The big problem will be changes in rainfall patterns. These changes could includes shifts in the rainy and dry areas of the planet, but are more likely to manifest as a sort of concentration effect. Dry areas get dryer, drought-prone areas turn to deserts; wet areas get wetter and flood-prone. Periods of rain like monsoons lose their regularity and start to come early, late or not at all; when they do come they may drop little rain or may drop a whole year's worth in a couple of weeks. These effects are already being seen in Europe, Australia, Africa and the American south-east. A climate like that would make industrial agriculture difficult to impossible, and even indigenous smallhold farmers would be knocked from pillar to post by not being able to plan their crops or their planting/harvesting cycles.

If that happens, moving people poleward may not accomplish much since the land quality and sunlight intensity are poor for agriculture, and the weather will be as chaotic there as anywhere else on the planet. In addition, cities imply concentrations of people. In an environment characterized by social, energy, ecological and financial instability, large collections of people will be inherently more vulnerable. Considered from many points of view cities lack resilience. They are efficient, but one of my favourite insights is that (Efficiency = 1/Resilience) - i.e. the more efficient a system becomes, the less resilient it is. I think cities suffer from this problem to a dangerous extent.

I still think our best bet for survival is to have a thin layer of small communities covering as wide as possible an area of the planet. Such communities are more resilient, more survivable, and put people into as wide a variety of circumstances as possible. If it is possible for us to survive the bottleneck we're likely to have better luck in maximizing our exposure to a wide variety of circumstances. I think that will ultimately be more successful than trying to forecast loci of stability within an inherently chaotic system and planning to put people large numbers of people into what we hope will be survivable situations.

[Reader/blogger in Canada]


Hi Danny,

I was just going through some old emails, and realized I hadn't responded to yours. Sorry about that. You wrote to me in June. It is January now. Oops!

If all we were facing as a species was climate change, I might be more positive about the idea. My current position is that humanity is facing a much larger and more complex problem than just global warming. It's really a set of mutually amplifying problems that are all converging on us at once. Broadly speaking, the problem set consists of Climate Change, Peak Oil and Gas, economic destabilization and a threat to the global food supply. Unfortunately, there is a compounding factor - the nature of our probable response (or lack of response) due to human psychology as described by the field of "evolutionary psychology". What this means is that the problem is too big - much larger than even the sum of its components - and that as a society we will react both too late and inappropriately.

The difficulties that would be faced by polar cities as a result of this situation would come from several directions. Constraints will include the lack of capital due to the economic crash, the lack of energy required to build them due to peak oil, and the unwillingness of people to even consider them as a solution because our mental "threat analysis circuitry" can't identify the problem as being that serious.

I agree that lifeboats will be required in the coming years, but my preferred approach is to ensure the creation of a great many small, ordinary communities, as self-sufficient and as widely distributed as possible. This of course relies much more on the workings of chance than planning to ensure the survival of the human species and some portion of our civilization, but I think it's a more likely solution than one that tries to engineer our way through the crisis. Engineered solutions, whether it's polar cities or a renaissance of nuclear power strike me as unsustainable even over the medium term.

Best regards,
{a reader/blogger in Canada}
Part 2