Friday, June 6, 2008

Polar cities as fire exits for future global warming days

1. Sami Grover, over at, writes insightfully: "Rob Hopkins has an interesting post about this over at Transition Culture, specifically discussing how the peak oil community is shifting from sounding the alarm, to leading people towards the fire exits."

"And what better way to illustrate his point, than to draw on the age-old wisdom of Winnie the Pooh:"

“As I read last night, I found a bit that illustrated something I have been musing on over the past couple of days. Pooh and Piglet are out walking one very windy day….

“Supposing a tree fell down Pooh, when we were standing underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

2. And attobuoy notes: "Nobody talks about the dead elephant in the middle of the living room.
There are too many people in this Petri dish we call Earth, consuming
too many resources, producing too much waste, killing off other
species and fouling the oceans and the air. A world population of 3
billion may be sustainable, or may not. A population over 6 billion is
certainly not. Absent population reduction, we can't sustain our
environment. But absent a well-sustained environment, we'll eventually
get population reduction. It won't be pleasant."

3. Said a top scientist at Yale to me today:

"Wow. I have thought about worst-case contingency plans in terms of policy
(mitigation) action, but not this polar cities adaptation measure."

He was referring to polar cities, our fire exits for the future, our
lifeboats for the future. Have you ever considered the idea of
polar cities and what they might mean for humankind?

I feel it is already too late. We passed the tipping point
about 40 years ago, and we are now living on borrowed time. Forget
2012 or 2015. We are done for as a civilized humanity. O the humanity!
Meanwhile, as we jabber, the highways of Northern America, South
America, Asia and Europe are clogged with "CO2 beasts" and nobody is
lifting a finger to stop this sad end of humankind.

Now is the time to prepare for transition towns, and later for polar
cities. We will need transition towns by 2050, and we will need polar
cities by 2500. For the breeding pairs in the north to continue to
human species. This is serious. We need to face the reality of it all.
We are not in kindergarten anymore. Time has run out.

We cannot get down from the tree because we climbed to high, yes.
Perfect metaphor. We are done for. Our goose is cooked. But we still
have 30 more generations to prepare for the worst. The worst won't
happen for another 500 years. So let's roll up our sleeves, our mental
sleeves, our spiritual sleeves, and get to work. Forget life in the
Lower 48 and Europe and South America and China and India. All those
"places" will be unlivable by 2500.

What do YOU think of these ideas?

"Keep it up, Danny. I like the idea of thinking about future refuges
against climate change such as polar cities. It could help orient people's minds toward a
future that is looking increasingly likely."

-- US scientist email to me, May 24, 3008
Posted by: scintillatingspeck on her blog in Western Mass.
May 23, 2008

"Talking people down off of ledgesI just read a post over on Rob Hopkins’ blog, Transition Culture, that startled me with its resonance to my current experience. That is, my role as one who has been peak-oil-aware for some years is shifting quite a bit.

Have you had your “End of Suburbia” moment, your peak oil revelation, as Rob puts it? I have. Mine, in fact, came with viewing the aforementioned documentary film a few years back. Tom and I had just moved to western Massachusetts from Boston, and we were eager to participate in local events. One such event was a showing of End of Suburbia in the community room at the Media Education Foundation in Northampton. I remember it well. There was a small gathering of people. The documentary was shown. There was a bit of a discussion afterwards. Then we went home. I looked up some of the featured guests from the film on the Internet, including Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Matthew Simmons, and Colin Campbell. And my life was irrevocably changed.

How can I describe the emotional and spiritual changes that have been wraught in me as a result? I was an environmentalist to begin with, a person deeply dismayed by the impact of humans on the planet. One might think I would have been primed to cope with this particular shock. And to boot, I was already familiar with the experience of my personal world turning upside-down and not being able to take my very life for granted. Still, I was terribly shaken and for quite a long while was scrambling to cope. I am still coping, although in a somewhat calmer fashion.

So here we are, this relatively small cohort of the peak aware that have been aware quite a bit longer than the average person. We are quite a group. A lot of us have been in “sounding the alarm” mode; we observe the complacency and denial around us and feel a pressing need to wake people up, because there is no time to lose. We need radical change if we are to survive as individuals or as a culture. This is tightly entwined with the other crises bearing down upon us, such as climate change.

The time has been lost.

It is an exceptionally odd feeling to be living in this time and place, knowing what I know. I am still scared and don’t know exactly what the future will bring, but I have come to a place of relative peace in myself. I trust my mind and my heart. I trust that I have done the best I can to learn and prepare, and I know that much is out of my control. Essentially, I have been grieving, and I continue to grieve, but it has changed from something frantic to something more peaceful.

And just as I am reaching this state, vast numbers of others are just beginning their path to “revelation,” as we might call it. And they are frantic.

The times are no longer demanding that I sound the alarm. Circumstances are arranging that instead. The rise in gas prices and food prices. The shift in the mainstream media. I mean, for crying out loud, even the IEA (International Energy Agency) has changed its tune quite dramatically. The meme, the awareness, is spreading like wildfire.

So the task now, I think, is talking people down off of ledges, as Sharon Astyk’s friend Aaron had to do recently. This task, somehow, feels much more doable to me than sounding the alarm. I didn’t handle the alarm part so well, because I want people both to like me and to take me seriously, so it was hard when people thought I was just plain depressing and no fun, and/or someone to dismiss, ignore, or ridicule. I am not a thick-skinned sort. Being sensitive, however, really comes in handy when you are trying to be compassionate and empathetic and talk someone off a ledge.

Let me be clear, I don’t want people to end up on the ledge in the first place. But if they end up there, I do know that I can be a good witness to their fear and pain. I can hang out on the ledge a while with them. I have visited the ledge in the past, and I’m not afraid of heights anymore."


Anonymous said...

It's an intriguing idea, Danny. I think most people are psychologically unprepared for the idea of polar cities, but I appreciate your forward thinking, especially because you don't limit your scope to, say, 100 years or less. We owe it to future generations to think about these things.


Dear S Speck,

Thanks for your note and reaction to polar cities idea. RE: "It's an intriguing idea, Danny. I think most people are psychologically unprepared for the idea of polar cities, but I appreciate your forward thinking, especially because you don't limit your scope to, say, 100 years or less. We owe it to future generations to think about these things."

You ''get'' it. I am still having trouble getting the message across to most people, but I understand why, and I knew from the beginning that this was a kind of quixotic quest, but I am determined to soldier on, PR-wise, quietly, gently, without trying to scaremonger people. When they get it, they will get it. Meanwhile, there are lots of other people doing other creative things, trying to think this Great Interruption which is coming down the road through, with other lifeboat ideas and fire exit ideas and seasteading ideas, etc.

I do wonder if you can help me out on one thing. You mentioned the need to use social psychology in these discussions of the coming future, and I wonder if you can give me some ideas about how I can use social psychology to help people understand what I am trying to do with this concept of polar cities. Any ideas?

I feel that polar cities is really a psychological mindset, and that humans will need to prepare themselves both mentally and spiritually, and psychologically to get ready to what's coming down the road. I'm not PHD, so I have not expertise on this. Just compassion for the future.

Any ideas?

-- Danny Taiwan....(manning one of the fire exits in this gigantic world theater seating 7 billion people!)


Scinspeck also told me:

"Danny, pleased to meet you, my fellow [former] western Mass. person. I’m intrigued by the idea of polar cities, particularly in the context of thinking super-long-term. Most people alive today don’t bother to think that far ahead. I’m also reminded of some recent essays by John Michael Greer who is also thinking hundreds of years into the future, specifically about preserving culture and knowledge. I haven’t had a chance yet to check out your blog, Danny, but I will soon."

Danny adds: [NOTE: I plan to read JM Greer today. Never heard of him before. Thanks for the link. I've been out of the USA for 17 years, so don't always know what's going on there, also I still a little English, but the Internet keeps me connected so I don't really feel there are any national borders anymore. Just one Earth, in big trouble. The next 1000 - 5000 years will be pivotal.]

Anonymous said...

''To all non-believers in global warming: Please go tell the US military that it doesn’t exist because they are engaged in long-range strategic planning on what their role will have to be in dealing with the potential effects of civil unrest around the world as a result of drought, changes in weather patterns, what/where food can be grown, demagogues who feed on social instability, etc. Try to catch up with those who are way past fantasy and are dealing with reality.''

— Posted by Reality-based via DOT EARTH


Inertia. How many ways can one spell "intertia"?

Our goose is cooked. Although I am not in favor of polar cities, or whatever they are called in the future, year 2500 or so, and although I very much never want to see them coming into being .... this "inertia" stuff kinda makes me think that we are heading down a very dangerous "Road", far more terrible than Cormac McCarthy imagined in print or that John Hillcoat will imagine with his new movie of the same title.

So even though I am not in favor "polar cities" and hate the very idea of them, I can see the possibility, the probability of them, coming down the road, more and more. PPM is almost at 400 PPM now. Arctic summer ice is on the melt again.

Just where are the "fire exits"? (that's what I am thinking alot about now: the fire exits.) Anybody know. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

2 for 1

''To George Mobus:

Thanks for a refreshingly factual writeup of the energy supply/global warming problem.

I wish it had the attention-grabbing qualities of the typical enviro or wingnut rant, but dispassionate factual writing is not usually like that.

I suspect it is about 30 years too late to begin an orderly, well-planned transition to an energy supply system that allows us to support ourselves even minimally while also producing enough energy etc to replicate itself and keep things going.

We may be about to enter an era of starvation and population contraction of planet-wide scope. Perhaps those “6000 richest people” we read about represent the next phase of human evolution. People like them could be the only survivors in a few decades.

— Posted by Bill Mosby ''


Your last line said it all.

There are, in this world, problems that are intractable - there are NO solutions, feasible or otherwise, when the problem is improperly formulated (understood). The energy/climate/economy problem is one such for the reason that real physical work requires the expenditure of energy and our economy (real work) is based on very high energy throughput. That level of energy is dependent on fossil fuels (high density energy content). There is no alternative for humanity right now but to lower the amount of work being done per unit time if we are to lower emissions of carbon. And that means everything gets expensive in monetary terms.

Another valid aphorism: You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

This really isn’t rocket science, but people just don’t have a natural intuition for the consequences of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They actually believe there is such a thing as a free lunch. That is why they are complaining about high gasoline and other fuel costs. And that is why they will continue to look for any political, speculation, weather, or whatever excuse to blame for high prices. The simple truth is that the cost of fossil fuels follows from the increasing amount of energy it takes to get the energy we use. It is so mind-boggling simple yet the vast majority of people don’t grasp it. They want someone to blame rather than open up to the reality that it has been their own mindless consumption practices vis-a-vis a finite, hence exhaustible, resource.

All of the proposals, carbon tax, cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, and Manhattan-style deployment of technology all suffer from this myopia. They all expect that somehow the technologies (whatever they are) will magically thwart the Second Law; that we will somehow replace tit-for-tat the current energy flow from fossil fuel with sunlight or nuclear or geothermal, you name it. Most imply that some measure of conservation will be adequate. But they all assume that we will just make a transition (possibly with a little sacrifice here and there) and then just get on with our normal lives in a happy low-carbon future.

This is an ignorant belief based on hope rather than reality.

Not only is the lunch not free, it is going to be damned expensive, the most expensive lunch we will have ever eaten. The reason is that while technological progress is essential to increasing the capacity of alternative energy production sources, like solar (thermal and electrical), such improvements will be marginal at best. You don’t jump from 15% efficiency to 25% efficiency overnight, which is essentially what will need to happen. And for most of these technologies we are really close to the maximum working efficiency now anyway.

Also the scale of replacement is beyond what most people realize. Ramping up a massive effort to replace electricity generation with solar and nuclear, for example, will take decades and cost far more than most people realize. Who will pay for it? It for sure won’t be done on debt. WWII-style sacrifices combined with depression-style loss of wealth will look tame by comparison.

Moreover, and this is the other hidden cost issue, production of all of these new systems is based on using fossil fuels to do the work. There is, in fact, a whole pyramid of fossil fuel inputs to the production of all alternative energy capital equipment. Alternative energy is subsidized by fossil fuel! Thus as fossil fuel costs increase, the cost of production of the alternative equipment increases too. There will never be a time when the alternatives become cost competitive with fossil fuels because their costs are predicated on fossil fuels! If we have in fact reached the peak of oil production, and I strongly suspect we have, then unless the alternative energy sources produce enough excess energy to support themselves, in other words become truly sustainable, we find ourselves in a steep decline in economic production. A solar panel will have to produce another solar panel sometime during its productive life, or the whole thing grinds to a halt. Such is the result of the Second Law.

Bringing us back to the cost of this lunch. The only way out of this quagmire is to recognize that our lifestyle and consumption habits have got to radically change. We have to redirect a significant proportion of what fossil fuels we have left into a truly massive development of alternative energy capital equipment. We have to come to grips with population size vs. consumption level. There is some balance point between what we have to consume per individual and how many are doing the consuming. There is no avoiding this issue. The revamping of society as a result of a contracting energy supply will be much greater than most people are ready to comprehend. This is not a crystal-ball prediction. Wiewed from the perspective of thermodynamics, energy-in/work accomplished/biomass supported/waste heat-out, it is a realistic constraint on the world.

For anyone interested in better understanding of these claims, I recommend works in the field of ecological economics. Google Herman Daly or Robert Costanza (c.f. “An Introduction to Ecological Economics”)

As formulated now: We need to switch to carbonless energy generation so that we can get on with our consumptive lifestyle — the problem is intractable. Formulated as: We need to drop everything else and focus our dwindling energy reserves to bootstrapping a sustainable (and reasonably sized) renewable energy infrastructure that will support a reasonably sized population — there is a chance (no guarantees) that we might be able to solve that one. Solutions start when people actually grasp the nature of the problem and resolve to do whatever it takes. Denial doesn’t generally work.

George (channel to Cassandra)

PS. To readers in general: I designed and built solar energy systems back in the 80s when HUD was sponsoring demonstration projects. So grant me the possibility that I’m not blowing smoke out my a.. Also I’ve probably heard every push back argument you might think of, so don’t bother to waste bandwidth trying to convince me I’m wrong!

— Posted by George Mobus


When I asked a man who was interviwed on a CNN story last week about peak oil and survivalistm what he thought about the idea of polar cities, he wrote back:

"The polar area doesn't seem to have much wood, and the soils are poor."

David Flint said...

When someone shouts fire everyone heads for the exits. Currently the IPCC has shouted fire several times but lots of people in the developed world don't really believe it.

Oh, they don't disbelieve it - they aren't deniers - but they just don't give it much priority. One day something will happen to capture their attention, probably a disaster, and then the stampede will start. I can't tell you the date but it will be years not centuries.

Here's the problem. Migration to polar cities will need major engineering projects - much bigger than the Space Shuttle. Will any nation be able to mount such a project when everyone who can is moving north?

It's already clear that the US can't control its southern border. The EU has the same problem.

What chance major investment when we can't even control the flow of people?