How to Read This Blog


To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer Sabbatical

Anyone following this blog, either in real time or post factum, will see that there is a considerable break in writing the past several months.  As the days became warmer,  the world became green and I found myself less inclined to spend time typing on a computer.

In addition to the call of the outdoors, there are ominous signs (locally and globally) that things are rapidly deteriorating, and the time we have left before collapse is running thin.  This sense of running out of time has only further discouraged me from taking to my online activities.

I imagine I'll find inspiration to take up writing again when the good weather begins to wane.  As we should know by now, nothing is certain.  Perhaps there will be time to finish my various series in this space, but quite possibly not.

For now, let's just enjoy this:

I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky
I am the hawk and there's blood on my feathers
But time is still turning they soon will be dry
And all of those who see me, all who believe in me
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly
Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops
Sail over the canyons and up to the stars
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
And all that we can be and not what we are
Written by John Denver, Mike Taylor • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Reservoir Media Management Inc

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LPS 3: Projection of Future Conditions

Now that we've established the current set of conditions in Anytown, USA, it's time for us to predict what the future conditions will look like assuming no significant alteration in the current trajectory.  Fortunately for us, we've already done the bulk of the most difficult work in the World Planning Series, where we questioned common knowledge about the possibility of infinite growth on our finite planet.

The reader should keep in mind that this post explores baseline conditions predicated on continuation of existing policies.  In a future post, we will extract key lessons from these forecasts and use them to develop alternative courses of action, which we will then evaluate for feasibility and likelihood of meeting our stated objectives.

To begin this conversation, we should first review the way local planning agencies do these projections today so we can determine how we might proceed differently.

The Standard Process Today

We will assume that the reader has been following these posts sequentially, and is already familiar with the general outline of how planning projections are done as described in the World Planning Series.  As a refresher: the basic concept is to review past data, determine trends, and project these trends into the future to estimate conditions at a predetermined date.  The mechanics of the projection will vary depending on the data we're working with and the sophistication of the tools available.

In local government planning, we typically choose a "planning horizon", or the date we're trying to plan around, that is between 20 and 25 years out.  It's not that we don't care about other timeframes, it's just that this gives us a middle ground that is close enough to feel comfortable with but far enough in the future to actually impact outcomes via gradual change.  For our purposes, we will use 2040 as a nice round number for our planning horizon.

Normally, we would turn to our state demographers office as a first step of estimating future trends in population.  These offices create detailed projections of statewide population and then use statistical models to distribute that future growth to individual counties and towns.  From these numbers, we would see that Anytown is expected to grow by more than 50% by the time our planning horizon arrives, adding 100,000-150,000 people.

Now that we know the future population, we will use sophisticated modeling tools to predict what this means for the development pattern of the community.  A land use modeling package will use the population numbers, existing land use patterns, and the future land use map and zoning map as inputs.  The software applies algorithms that approximate the behavior patterns of growth and estimates where, at what time, and of what type development will occur.

The output of this model then becomes the input to our transportation model, which maps out all of the streets in Anytown.  Based on the projected locations of land uses in our future year, "trips" are dumped onto the network and a different set of algorithms that approximates the behavior of travel determines how much traffic there is and where it goes.  Depending on how sophisticated our process is, we may have several iterations between the land use and transportation model, where the output of the transportation system helps drive the development of land uses and then vice versa.

This process paints us a picture of Anytown in 2040 that looks mostly like it does today, only with 50% more people, 50% more cars, 50% more traffic, pollution, etc.  If the future proceeds just like the past, this is what we get.

But as the reader knows by now, we cannot count on a future that looks anything like the past or present.  Let us proceed with our own projection, based on what we know about the likely direction of world events.

Near Term Projection: The Next 5 to 10 Years Or So

What we know about the macro situation unfolding will have a substantial impact on our local projections.  We already know that the global economy, fueled by cheap energy that is becoming unaffordable to those who need it, is teetering on the brink of another meltdown.  All indications are that there will be some kind of major financial "situation" comparable to 2008-2009 within the next few years.  Because governments and central banks have already spent most of their ammunition (NIRP/ZIRP, QE, fiscal stimulus, bailouts, monetization of debt, etc.), we would expect that this leg down will be much more severe and will have little or no chance of substantial recovery.

But right now in Anytown, life is good.  The economy is whirring along and everyone is fascinated by the stock markets rocketing ever higher.  Real estate is still booming, construction is rolling right along.  It will be a complete surprise to most when things rapidly fall apart.

At some point during the next few years there will be a massive shock and panic from the local credit union, to City Hall, to the Chamber of Commerce and into each and every home.  The business leaders, finance people, and government officials who have been reveling in the comparative boom time we're experiencing will wake up one day to find frantic bank executives on CNN, congressional hearings, presidential press conferences.  As the stock market plummets, financial institutions become illiquid.  Credit that used to flow into Anytown to fuel growth and consumption grinds to a halt.

Many businesses in Anytown, even successful ones, are heavily dependent on consistent cash flow.  As credit freezes, some businesses will begin having trouble meeting obligations in the very first month.  Within a few months, it will simply be unreasonable for them to continue operations while they lose money they don't have.  This will be particularly true for the smaller local companies that don't have the support of a larger corporate network to keep things afloat.  Pink slips start flying, as jobs are cut across all industries in a desperate attempt to stem the bleeding.

At this point, the people in Anytown are beginning to panic: especially those impacted by the wave of layoffs.  Social media rumors and hysteria drive runs on banks and stores as people try to hoard cash and goods.  In some instances, the crowds cast aside the idea of "buying" things entirely and devolve into episodes of looting.  Like the businesses, the people in Anytown are largely living paycheck to paycheck.  The lucky ones are able to withdraw what little cash they have from the local banks, but there will likely be cash shortages and limitations on withdrawals.  For many, their savings are really only enough for a month or two, assuming they can get access to it.

What this means for the governance of Anytown is break from the expected normal way of doing things into management of the crisis of the day.  While the local economy limps along for a few short years after the initial shock, critical services become strained under the weight of high demand and dwindling resources to meet that demand.  More people seek government services at the same time that tax revenue falls and layoffs are required.  Maintenance of infrastructure is deferred, non-essential services are cut, and the problems of homelessness and social strife become highly visible.  In the beginning, many people continue to go to work and try to behave as they normally would; but as time progresses fewer organizations have resources to provide goods or services or to pay employees.  One by one, businesses, nonprofits, and finally government agencies simply shut their doors because there is nothing left to do, and no money left to spend.  We would expect that the critical utility infrastructure underlying the normal function of Anytown is kept operating at any cost- whether this is by the local government or through intervention by state or federal authorities.  At least for the time being, electricity, water, and sewage keep flowing.

This phase ends with a basic collapse of economic activity, where it is no longer possible to go to the bank and get money, or buy things in stores.  Paying bills becomes an anachronism.  All vestiges of the economy, all transactions, are now occurring in an informal way outside of traditional supply chains, which have ground to a halt.  This marks the transition to the next stage in Anytown's future.

Mid Term Projection: Sometime in the 2020s

As the financial and economic systems underlying society continue to erode, things in Anytown will reach a critical point where the problems are no longer about money, but about the very cohesiveness of civil society.  For some period of time, people will band together and support the central institutions of government such as city leaders, police officers, emergency managers, and locally stationed units of state and federal government.  However, as time progresses and it becomes clear that no help is coming from the outside, internal power conflicts will grow in intensity.

The basic rules of civilization, ie the ten commandments (about not killing, stealing, coveting, and all the rest), will progressively deteriorate as survival of individuals and families becomes uncertain.  Likely sources of violence during this period will be disagreements about distribution of resources.  Existing channels of power will attempt to keep control of that distribution to themselves, while increasingly desperate population groups will necessarily see that seizing control of that process provides the best chances of survival.  It is likely that the first new social divisions will be based on racial and ethnic identity: it seems natural that the black community will band together around a shared race and heritage.  Likewise with Hispanic and Asian communities.  Within the majority white community in Anytown, divisions will most likely occur along class and perhaps political lines.  Even within these default groups of similar backgrounds, divisions quickly develop as intra-group struggles for power and resources trump even clan identity.  Police forces may become divided between those who support the existing local power structure and those who choose to focus on what is best for their own particular race/class/clan interest.

Population is now falling rather than rising, as very few births take place, migration is sporadic, and death from violence and disease is rapidly on the rise.  Residential areas of town become half fortification, half ghost town as surviving residents barricade themselves in and attempt to maintain control over their belongings.  Commercial areas are looted and burned, serving no real purpose other than as battlegrounds in the increasingly violent efforts to secure territory.  Neighborhood groups erect makeshift fences and walls to keep out intruders, set up sentries and guard details.  With gasoline and diesel fuel no longer being delivered and distributed in the community, most travel takes place by foot or by bicycle.  Particularly successful (and probably ruthless) gangs will secure the last local fuel depots at abandoned gas stations, commercial and industrial facilities, and fleet yards.  Access to even limited motorized travel will only increase these groups ability to dominate other less fortunate groups and confiscate their resources.

It is during this stage that the utility infrastructure that makes modern civilization possible finally stops functioning.  As Anytown's society devolves into small groups fighting among one another, the blue and white collar workers who carry out the daily tasks to keep this infrastructure functioning stop going to work.  There are no longer paychecks to incentivize them, nor are there supply chains to provide resources to do the job.  There may be some period of time where central/federal military government attempts to operate core facilities like water and sewage treatment plants, hospitals, and electric distribution systems, but the demands of attempting this undertaking nationally will not be sustainable.  Finally, Anytown's fresh water stops flowing, the electricity goes off, sewage is no longer treated, and the last semblance of traditional governance disappears.  From here, Anytown progresses to it's final stage.

Long Term Projection: 2030 and Beyond

As national and state power structures dissolve, life in Anytown becomes about day-to-day survival rather than any expectation of a return to normalcy.  No central government with any power or authority remains.  Governance now takes the form of clan or gang affiliation, where groups of people attempt to control geographically defensible areas.  These might be individual neighborhoods or areas of town, or there may be a loose association of relationships between clans interacting at a city-wide level.  Population has fallen precipitously as disease, violence, starvation, and exposure take many more lives than are replaced by births.  Older people, people dependent on medical care and technology, and the disabled quickly perish as the last stores of medical supplies and resources are exhausted.  Without access to clean water, sanitation, and nutritious foods, disease is rampant and once established often fatal due to lack of antibiotics.  Infections once again become a likely death sentence.

Buildings all over town are damaged and decaying from small-scale warfare and neglect.  Repairing and maintaining buildings and infrastructure are low on the list of people's priorities, as they struggle day to day to survive.  Every building in town is picked over for anything that can be helpful to survival; open landfills created during the 2020's collapse period become resources for materials to build shelters, weapons, clothing, and tools.

By the time our planning horizon of 2040 arrives, Anytown will be unrecognizable from today's perspective.  Roadways left unmaintained have cracked open and deteriorated to gravel.  Climate change has tipped the weather into chaos, so that many native species of plants have died.  In their place, only the heartiest and most invasive species survive- attempting to swallow up disturbed and open ground.  If there are human survivors, they number no more than 10,000-20,000, about a 90% drop in population over the course of 20 years.  These wild creatures scavenge the desolate landscape, feeding off the remains of what was once civilization, growing whatever food they can, hunting the last remaining animals roaming the ruins (perhaps colonies of feral cats and dogs).  It would be unsurprising if cannibalism becomes a common occurrence, as remaining humans (citizens of Anytown) seek any possible way to meet their nutritional needs.  As the climate gets hotter, and food more scarce, more and more survivors abandon the town and set off to the north in a desperate effort to find more hospitable environments.  Anytown ceases to have an identity as a place of permanent habitation, becoming one more stop-off point on a mass migration of nomads in search of life-supporting ecosystem.


In this post we have taken what we know about future global events, and applied them to the local conditions of Anytown.  It it clear that there are substantial risks and extremely negative outcomes that are likely.  Our task is now to identify potential alternatives that the citizens of Anytown might engage to mitigate some of the worst of these outcomes, adapt to changes that are inevitable, and build as much resilience as possible.

In the next post, we will assemble a list of possible alternatives.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Musical Interlude: Home We'll Go

Don't let your head hang low
You've seen the darkest skies I know
Let your heart run child like horses in the wild
So take my hand and home we'll go
The sun it glows like gold
Feel it warm as a burning coal
Let your soul shine bright like diamonds in the sky
So take my hand and home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go
It's a long road but we're not alone
Together we stand and we're coming home
It's a long road but we're not alone
Together we stand and we're coming home
Don't let your head hang low
You've seen the darkest skies I know
Let your heart run child like horses in the wild
So take my hand and home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go
Home we'll go, home we'll go

Friday, January 27, 2017

LPS 2: Inventory of Existing Conditions

In the first post of this series, we established a general outline of our study area:  Anytown, USA.  Anytown may not be exactly like your town, but it shares characteristics with many places in America.

For the purposes of plan development, we will inventory the general conditions of the built, natural, and social/economic environment of Anytown.  This will provide the base set of conditions from which we will project future scenarios, given what we know about the unfolding macro situation from the World Planning Series.

This post will be intentionally more graphic-heavy than most posts on this blog, in order to relay a highly visual and hopefully relatable narrative that describes the kind of place under discussion.


We'll begin at the starting point of all stationary and semi-stationary civilization: shelter for habitation of human families, or, "residential" development.  In Anytown the majority of housing stock is the detached, single family home, making up about 60% of total homes.  In itself, this does not necessarily presuppose a particular pattern of development; however, these housing units are developed in a manner that is primarily supported by and is supportive of automobile transportation.  The resulting suburban development pattern looks largely like this:

Is this really so different from  apartment life?

Of course, other housing types can easily be found, including about 20% apartments and condos, 15% duplex or townhomes, and 5% mobile or manufactured homes.  However, even most of these types of housing follow a similar overall pattern of development as the single family home.  Individual or shared front and rear yards contain boxlike buildings, generally following similar architectural styles within neighborhood areas, as determined by the decade of construction and the anticipated class of the inhabitants (or cost of the units).

A large portion of the total land area is taken up by rights-of-way, containing meandering roads wide enough to accommodate two passing vehicles plus parking on-street.  In many cases (especially in newer neighborhoods) there are also sidewalks, but the street is the dominant feature of the space.

Generally the units are about 2,000 square feet, smaller in older or lower income areas.  There are several bedrooms, large communal spaces for cooking, dining, and leisure.  The units have all the necessities of modernity including electricity from the grid, potable water on tap, and sewer service to carry it all away.


Of course there are also considerable areas of commercial development, generally separated by some distance from the residential areas (especially the higher income residential areas).  These tend to be aggregated along the more major roadways that extend continuously across the city for long distances (arterial roadways).  The reason for this is that the majority of the citizens in Anytown travel by car, and they tend towards the most efficient route to their destination which results in large volumes of traffic along these key roadways.  Business operators have learned that placing their business directly on roadways with high traffic volumes provides maximum exposure to their customers and increases their chances of success.  These areas are the home to strip malls and big-box chain stores, which provide a majority of the goods and services needed and wanted on a daily basis for the average citizen.  As a result, many of the commercial areas in the city look like some version of this:

The main exception to the strip-mall pattern of commercial development is in the city's downtown, which was platted in the 1800's and reflects a development pattern based on pedestrian scale transportation rather than automobile scale transportation.  Buildings are compact and close together, with a mix of uses including retail and offices on the ground floor, and various mixes of office and even housing in stories above.  Overall, the balance in downtown is in favor of commercial development, necessitating additional housing outside of the downtown core and resulting in a daily in-migration of workers and shoppers during the day and an exodus back to suburban houses in the evening.  For the most part, however, once people arrive in downtown in their automobiles they are able to get around by foot.

While suburban commercial areas include retailers and service providers that most people need access to on a daily basis, the types of commercial development that remain in downtown tend to be of a different mix.  The older more compact buildings in downtown tend to not be conducive to major chain stores, so locally owned and operated businesses tend to have a greater presence.  Because of the large number of office workers, there is a proliferation of dining and entertainment establishments.  While some core daily services like a small grocery, drug store, hardware store, and others are all present, the majority of the retail businesses tend to be boutique in nature, fitting specific niches like antiques, coffee shops, or apothecaries.  The walkable development pattern supports a pleasant urban environment that looks something like this:
Downtown Main Street Jacksonville, OR

Supply Chains

Of course, whether talking about downtown or the suburbs, very few of the products being sold at any of the businesses actually come from the area.  Anytown is fed by a constant stream of truck and rail traffic delivering all of the goods being consumed by its citizens.  Highly perishable goods, like food, arrive and are sold or consumed within days or a few weeks of their arrival in town.  This means that at any given time, there is perhaps a week's supply of food and other products available from the last delivery.  This supply must constantly be replentished in order to keep products on the shelves of stores and food in the pantries of citizens.


By this point, we have already alluded to the various forms of transportation present in Anytown, simply due to the necessity of transportation to the normal operation of the local economy.  While the government of Anytown likes to pay lip service to being "multimodal", the reality is that one mode of transportation totally dominates all others: the car.

All day, every day, even late at night, there are automobiles cruising the streets from one place to the next.  Anytown is actually one of the more progressive cities in the US, with about 60% of its total commute trips being taken by a single person in a car.  Bicycles, for comparison, make up around 5% of commute trips, which is a very high rate for American cities.  The car is so embedded into the culture of Anytown that huge swaths of land are dedicated just to accommodating them both in travel as well as at their destination in the form of parking lots and garages.  Because it is assumed that everyone is travelling by car, the design of land uses is such that it is difficult to get between places by any other mode.  Even for short trips, it is easier to drive from one parking lot to another than undertake a potentially dangerous voyage by foot or pedal.

Of course, some people do travel by other modes.  One of these is public transportation, in the form of buses.  Long ago, streetcars traveled across Anytown, but as the use of cars expanded even public transportation came to consist of giant gas-powered cars.  The majority of the people using public transportation fall into two categories:  people who cannot drive for some reason (poverty, illness or disability, inability to obtain a driver's license), and students at the local university who use it as a shuttle service to campus.

Civic Infrastructure

In addition to the privately held assets of individuals (such as houses and commercial businesses), there are a number of assets held by public and nonprofit entities in the name of the entire public.  These pieces of civic infrastructure serve key functions such as putting out fires, maintaining law and order, dispensing justice, or providing medical care.  They include the public buildings where government workers toil such as City Hall and various office buildings.  They also include firehouses, vehicle and machine shops, and storage yards and warehouses for the development of public sector projects.  These facilities are generally kept operational by support from tax dollars, both locally as well as passed-down from state and federal government sources.

One piece of civic infrastructure worth mentioning explicitly is medical facilities.  This includes hospitals of course, but also a vast network of private and nonprofit facilities as well from private practice clinics to urgent care facilities to pharmacies.  All of these facilities are dependent upon easy access to energy, technology, and national supply chains.  They are also extensively used, as a very significant proportion of the population is reliant upon regular medical care and products.

Utility Infrastructure

Behind and often underneath all of these public and private facilities, there is a vast network of utility infrastructure feeding the buildings and streets so that they can function as we have come to expect.  Most people do not understand or recognize the importance of these facilities because they operate silently in the background.  However, if they ever stop functioning, people would notice very quickly.

Each building in Anytown has it's own internal system of plumbing for clean water and waste.  Outside of the building envelope, the local municipality owns and maintains a vast network of pipes which must be regularly inspected and cared for, and occasionally patched in the event of a break or leak.  The potable water is carried from large water purification plants, which draw water out of above-ground reservoirs and use a complex process of filters and chemicals to produce clean drinking water.  These facilities must be manned and supplied every day to keep the water safe and flowing.  At the other end are large wastewater treatment facilities.  Once again, these facilities use complex processes of chemicals, filters, and bacteria to break down contaminants enough to release the waste into the environment.  They must also be continually manned in order to ensure proper function.

In Anytown, the local municipality owns the electric distribution system via its own electric utility.  It does not generate its own electricity, except for a few small community solar gardens.  All of the electricity feeding the system is purchased from a local Power Authority, which owns generation plants for the entire region and then allocates the electricity to the member jurisdictions.  The vast majority of the electricity is provided by the burning of coal, although a small and growing percentage comes from utility scale solar and wind facilities.  For the most part, however, Anytown is involved in keeping up its distribution grid.  This requires regular ongoing maintenance on a daily basis, as well as the ability to respond quickly to outages and broken lines.

Human Resources

Lest we forget, all of these buildings and infrastructure exist for the purpose of housing, employing, and serving the human beings who occupy Anytown.  What are the characteristics of these people?  Clearly, they are not a homogeneous mass- but rather a wide spectrum.  While we won't go into details here, there is an active civic life in Anytown, including an abundance of arts and cultural activities.  The people of Anytown have a wide variety of past times and diversions to choose from, including local sports, recreational activities, theaters and museums.

By race, Anytown is about 70% white, 10% black, 15% Hispanic, and 5% other races.  Most people are in their productive adult years, with about 20% of the population under the age of 15 and about 15% over the age of 65.  The majority of the population falls squarely in the "middle class", with one or two wage earners allowing a typically American middle class lifestyle.  About 15% of the population is living at or below the poverty line, most of them chronically.  While the official unemployment rate is extremely low, a large but unspecified number of people are underemployed or have dropped out of the workforce and are reliant upon public assistance.  There is a noticeable homeless presence in the town, numbering over a thousand over the course of a year, or about a half a percent of the total population.

About a third of people are obese (physically limited in what they can do because of body weight), and more than 2/3 are at least "overweight".  15% of the population is dependent upon multiple maintenance medications, which they must take on a daily basis.  20% of people have some type of physical or mental handicap.

Natural Resources

Of course, before Anytown was even constructed there was the natural environment that defines Anytown's unique set of circumstances.  One of the major industries in the surrounding area is oil and gas.  Outside of City limits, it is possible to find rigs operating and new wells being dug.  These resources are far under the ground and require sophisticated techniques and technology to locate and extract; however, there are a number of wells already in operation that automatically and continuously pump oil and natural gas out of the ground and into pipelines.

Not too far from the population of Anytown, it is possible to see a much more natural environment with relatively little disturbance by humans.  Within an hour's drive, there are federally protected lands held by the forest service.  These lands are open to only limited development (for example, for oil and gas by permit only), and other uses by citizens such as hunting and other recreational activities.  Compared to the valley floor where Anytown lies, these forests seem fairly pristine and remote; however, there is an extensive network of forest roads and regular presence of humans in the area for various purposes

File:Gallatin National Forest.jpg


Where humans on the outside edges of Anytown have attempted to tame and exploit the land under their feet, the result is agriculture.  It used to be that the agricultural area surrounding Anytown provided all of the food needed by the citizens.  Now the food distribution system is consolidated and globalized, so locally grown produce and animal products are consolidated at regional facilities and then distributed across the country.

Agricultural practices follow the general procedures described in the World Planning Series Inventory of Existing Conditions, so we won't expand too much upon them here.  Because of the prevalence of cattle around Anytown, there are more independent and semi-independent land owners than in many other places, who simply sell their product to corporations but still own the ranch property.  For a large part of the cattle's lives, they roam across the prairie as they have for hundreds of years.  It isn't until they are finished at feedlots and shipped to commercial butchering facilities that the process becomes distinctly industrial.  Most vegetable production follows a strictly industrial process, with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, airplane sprayers, and massive diesel-powered equipment.

And then there are some small-scale agriculturalists, generally on smaller acreages from 5-20 acres, who fill a specific niche for boutique agricultural products.  These are often organic or near-organic, and include both family farms as well as Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and community gardens.  These are a very small part of the total agricultural community, however.


While there are certainly other details we could delve into, the above categories should provide the reader with a fairly understandable mental map of Anytown.  Many of these characteristics should seem familiar, because they are deeply embedded in the dominant culture.

Overall, Anytown is a fine place to live.  It offers many amenities, diverse activities, a beautiful natural landscape, and a wide assortment of people to find things in common with.  While it may be somewhat average among other similar American cities, the reality is that  Anytown boasts a quality of life higher than just about anywhere, at any time past or present.  It truly is the beneficiary of a global empire, built upon the energy produced by fossil fuels.

In the next post, we will take what we know about events unfolding at the global level, and use this information to project future conditions for Anytown.

Friday, December 30, 2016

LPS 1: Introduction to the Local Planning Series

Having completed our series on events and alternatives at the planetary level, it is now time to explore alternatives at the local scale.

The Importance of "Localism"

One of the recurring themes in the World Planning Series is the incredible inertia inherent in global industrial civilization and the extreme unlikelihood of directly altering its course.  At smaller scales, however, there remains a much greater possibility of pursuing dramatically different courses of action and potentially arriving at different results.  While the economic, environmental, political and social conditions dictated by global industrial civilization will have tremendous impact on local conditions, there still remains the option for local communities to prepare and react to those conditions in different ways.

As we have seen, the collapse of industrial civilization powered by fossil fuels will inevitably result in the breakdown of large, complex organizations of humans into smaller social groups like those we initially evolved to participate in.  This holds true whether we follow the Most Likely Alternative path and accelerate consumption of resources and growth of complexity, or whether we elect a "Transition" approach and attempt to intentionally deconstruct civilization as it collapses.  At the tail end of collapse, all remaining humans will be functioning at very localized levels, where power and control only extend as far as one can travel.

It stands to reason that a prudent populace would be best served by making preparations at the local level, regardless of what is happening at the national and global scale.  We would expect that those who have the good fortune of living in areas that have made better preparation for a collapse environment will fare better and live more comfortably than those areas that are poorly prepared.  Naturally, these efforts could be greatly assisted if the world followed the Transition approach and aggressively allocated resources to building local resilience, but we cannot expect that this will be the case.

A New Vision

Here we encounter a similar precondition to success that we encountered in the Epilogue to the World Planning Series:  to arrive at different outcomes at the local level, we will need to assume a different vision and different objectives from the BAU path.  We can no longer focus on just today, we have to approach our activity as if we were time travelers. DeLorean Time

What I mean is that we have to project ourselves into the future and imagine ourselves living in a post-collapse environment.  Then, we must work backwards and think, "What can we do today that will provide those future people with what they need to survive?"  In a way, this becomes the new vision: maximizing the survivability and quality of life of people living in our location in the future.

To achieve our vision we will develop an action plan not based on our current needs and desires but rather the projected needs and desires of our future selves.  As wise and benevolent benefactors of these future people, we have the opportunity to use our cheap and abundant energy today to leave treasures of immense value tucked away for their use.

At the end of the day what this means is that we have to actually plan, instead of just drawing a trend line of our past success and growth into the future and calling that "the plan."  This way is much more difficult, but is clearly the only model that makes sense when the future no longer reflects past trends.  This series will attempt to explore this perspective and provide a blueprint for local communities that elect to truly position themselves to weather the dangerous times approaching us.

Defining the Study Area

One of the challenges we will face in this series is that local planning processes are highly dependent on the unique geographic, economic, demographic, and climatic conditions that define the study area.  For our purposes, we want to keep this exercise abstract and general enough to be translatable to many different circumstances, but not so abstract that it loses bearing on the real physical world around us.

To help address this challenge, we will define a study area that is an abstraction based on real places with characteristics that are common to many population centers in different regions.

Panels show the evolution of American suburbs.

Our study area will be a mid-sized American town (perhaps 100,000-250,000 people).  This town serves as a regional center of sorts, but there is a much larger major city (million+ population) 50-100 miles away.  The town is located near sources of fresh water (rivers, streams, or lakes).  The local economy is diversified, with a mix of blue and white collar jobs.  Perhaps there is a university in town, or at least a substantial community college.  A few major employers are in the area, with factories and offices where they produce mostly high tech products, with little real heavy industry.  The town has a mix of neighborhoods, from extremely wealthy gated subdivisions to run-down areas of historically oppressed minority populations.

Various natural resources are available within a fairly short distance (forests, some oil and natural gas wells, maybe an abandoned coal mine): but nothing of state or national significance like major mining operations.  Aside from the city population itself, there is a fair amount of suburban/exurban development on the fringes of the community.  Beyond these suburbs, there is farmland, both in smaller plots as well as large commercial operations.  Some infrastructure is in place for getting around by foot, bicycle, or bus, but the vast majority of the town is automobile dependent.  Large swaths of land are taken up by wide roads and parking lots.  The climate is generally agreeable under current conditions, with a few very hot months in summer and a few months of bitter cold in winter.  There is some possibility of natural disaster which we might expect to be exacerbated by climate change in the future.

These are some of the general characteristics that define many hundreds of unique places in the US (or in many other countries in fact).  While we may take some artistic license with the particulars, this is how we will define the study area for this exercise.  Obviously, our recommendations and observations will be different than if we were studying New York City, or Podunk, Alabama, but those highly urban or highly rural locations are really the exceptions and not the rule.  Our mid-sized city model ensures wide transfer-ability.

Organization of this Series

Roughly, I anticipate this series to include the following topic areas.  As this is an evolving process, we may discover the need to add or remove subject areas as we proceed.  By now, these general steps in the planning process should be familiar to the reader:

Inventory of Existing Conditions: specifically with an eye towards what may be useful in the future.

Projection of Future Conditions: what will things look like in our little community in 10, 20, or 30 years?

Development of Alternatives: what approaches are available to us to prepare for that future?

Alternatives Evaluation: weighing out the pros and cons of our various alternatives.

Selection of Preferred Alternative:  choosing our ultimate course of action.


The next post in this series will proceed with an inventory of existing conditions to further define the local conditions as they exist today.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Epilogue to the World Planning Series: What Would I Do?

As promised during the development of the World Planning Series, the purpose of this post is to propose another possible set of actions in opposition to the Most Likely Alternative.

While the focus of the WPS is on applying realistic assumptions about outcomes, we can certainly speculate about what "should" be done in a hypothetical situation where "we" have the power to overcome the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate the unfolding of future events.  We should be very clear that the proposals in this post are not likely, or even realistic.  They defy the dynamics that have driven civilization to its current predicament; the dynamics that virtually guarantee us the future described in the Most Likely Alternative.  However, as human beings we have an incredible capacity to imagine things that cannot be, to work through alternative scenarios even though the underlying premise is faulty.

I don't know if there is any real utility in pursuing this exercise.  Perhaps, somewhere in the development of events, something will happen that might allow certain actions described here to be implemented concurrent or in opposition to the Most Likely Alternative.  But more likely these words are just "art", in and of itself:  "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination... to be appreciated primarily for their beauty and emotional power."

The Premise

The underlying premise of this alternative is that an individual or small group somehow has the ability to usurp complete and essentially unopposed authority over all people and things on the planet.  In this example, I will use the person of Froggman to represent this individual or entity.  Emperor Froggman.

In this post, Emperor Froggman chooses a different path for global civilization and uses his omnipotent control over human subjects to direct them toward these new objectives.  They obey, even against their own self-interest, because that is what would be required.

Choosing an Objective

Where to begin, if we want to address the massive destruction and suffering that is rapidly heading our way?  In my mind, the first step is to make a fundamental decision between two possible objectives.

Is our objective to continue a high quality of life for the people currently living on the planet for as long as possible; OR, is our objective to take what actions are necessary to improve the possibility of the long-term survivability of humans and other living things on the planet?

At first blush these objectives may seem similar, but in reality they are dramatically different.  Our guiding vision for the Most Likely Alternative (more and better) assumes the first of these two objectives.  Continuation of BAU is all about maintaining or improving on the quality of life we have today, with very little consideration of long-term consequences.

If we accept the second objective, however, we must also accept the correlary consequences.  If our primary aim is to attempt to preserve humans, animals, and habitat in the long term, this may have a major impact on how we as a species can afford to live in the near term.  At its most extreme, it might also imply a need for depopulation.  Removing moral considerations from the equation, for example, we might arrive at the conclusion that the most efficient way to remove constraints on resources that endanger the planet is to exterminate a large part of the human population.  Keeping 7+ billion people alive is certainly a more difficult endeavor than refocusing our energy on say 100 or 200 million.  There is little doubt that we have the means to quickly and efficiently bring about these ends; and with biological agents, it wouldn't even be necessary to damage critical infrastructure in the process.

For this exercise, Emporer Froggman will select the second objective, with an important caveat.  The caveat is that the treatment of existing human populations must be humane, and cannot include extermination as a solution.  This will allow a more interesting exploration of ideas, and steer us clear of that very dark place where the Emporer implements a "final solution" and orders the death of billions of souls.  Not to say that there aren't powerful and influential psychopaths out there who may choose this route:  just that Emporor Froggman will avoid it.

It does make the task exponentially more difficult, as we try to keep people alive and treat them humanely on the steep downside of the Seneca Cliff.

Getting Started

Now that we've established our objectives, how should we approach the impossible task?  To begin with, we should establish a set of strategies that we believe will guide us towards our desired objective.  In my mind, the set of strategies that will help us to achieve this new objective most closely adhere to the scenario we defined as "Transition to Local Economies" in our Alternatives Development and Evaluation process.  This is also supported by the outcome of our informed subjective evaluation, which assigned the highest ratings in resilience to this alternative.  Therefore, charting a path forward begins by fleshing out a more detailed set of conditions to implement our Transition alternative.

In order to improve the chances of human, animal, and habitat survival, we will need to do the following things, not listed chronologically or in order of importance:

1.  Immediately cease activities that are accelerating progress towards our demise, UNLESS those activities are essential to implementation of other strategies.  In this case, they should be minimized and then phased out as conditions allow.

This is where we encounter the need for absolute power and absolute compliance, because the current system is geared to continually grow destructive activities, or collapse.  Examples of activities that must be stopped immediately include things like the construction of new infrastructure for exploiting fossil fuels, as well as infrastructure for fossil fuel dependent activities (such as roads for driving cars).  There is simply no point in continuing to pour scarce resources into building things that will only operate under BAU conditions.  Unfortunately, taking this course will turn the clock forward on collapsing globalized civilization, because we refuse to compromise continued environmental destruction for the flow of cheap and abundant energy that keeps things going.  No new energy exploration means that we have only a limited supply of fossil fuels, basically what is already coming out of the ground, before we simply cannot operate a society on a large scale.

On the one hand, the act of stopping this type of development will be hugely destructive to economic conditions.  Many people are employed by industries that build, maintain, operate, or otherwise depend on fossil fuel infrastructure, and all of these jobs and companies would no longer be viable.  However, on the other hand, we will have freed up a tremendous number of potential workers for more productive tasks, as well as sparing scarce resources that might be repurposed into activities more useful for the future of humanity.  For example, all of the construction workers involved in building BAU infrastructure (streets, new houses, commercial buildings, etc) can transfer their skills to projects that build local resiliency.  In the end, we can say that this strategy is both destructive and also potentially creative.

Certain activities might need to be phased out more gradually than just being stopped.  For example, existing coal mines that are already being exploited would likely need to continue operations, as well as the power plants that burn that coal.  The key is that the electricity being generated must now be directed toward the purpose of decommissioning civilization and building local resiliency, with the understanding that the mining and burning will end in the near term.

2.  Develop detailed sector plans for the dismantling of industrial civilization into local and regional affiliations of small population units that humans are well adapted to (approximately 150 individuals per unit).

Obviously this exercise is operating at a 50,000 foot level; in one blog post we are attempting to chart an entirely new direction for humanity and design the deconstruction of global civilization.  There is no way that one single effort can identify all of the best (or least bad) possible methods of achieving this deconstruction in various sectors.

Fortunately, we have a huge global community of people who develop complex plans for a living.  The various planning associations around the world should be redirected at this new purpose: how to plan and organize the end of civilization by sector and geographic area, to arrive at some marginally more sustainable arrangement of small-scale communities that no longer rely on fossil fuels or global civilization.

The need for planning in the deconstruction of civilization is no less than the need for planning in the development of civilization.  Engineers specializing in the electrical grid will need to develop plans for how to decentralize and manage small pieces of the current system.  Transportation planners and engineers will need to figure out how to best provide mobility in the absence of cars, trucks, and new infrastructure.  Each of these sector plans will need to be developed rapidly in order to guide deconstruction efforts in a coordinated manner, before the dynamics of collapse make it too difficult to implement.

3.  Reeducation and repurposing of the human population to face the new conditions that will define our existence.

Repurposing would include preparation of the population for an environment that will demand hard physical labor and will produce significantly fewer calories than most westerners are used to.  We have discussed the 35% obesity rate in the United States (with 69% of the population overweight).  Immediate caloric restriction and daily manual labor to build strength, endurance, and work capacity would be mandatory for these populations.

This physical training is not only for the good of the people being trained, it is to prevent the drain on precious resources they will represent if they do not become physically capable of contributing to small group labor.  During collapse, able-bodied and physically fit people will need all of their strength and energy to support themselves and their families, and cannot be required to work harder or longer to compensate for fat or frail people's inability to carry their own weight (figuratively and literally).

Survival Skills Class

Universities must be repurposed to become institutions for the learning of skilled trades, from basic survival skills to more technical or specialized skill sets that will assist their community in a post-civilization environment.  Doctors and other medical personnel will need to learn how to do their jobs in conditions we would consider third-world by today's standards.  More people will need to be equipped with construction skills and trades completed by hand, from carpentry to blacksmithing to gardening.  Many of the academic and intellectual pursuits we currently value will have no utility in the near future, so there will be no need to produce more young people trained in these areas.  For example, the world probably has an adequate supply of computer programmers, political scientists, historians, and anthropologists to get us through the end of civilization.  Unless the skill set associated with a particular training has real and direct implications in a post-collapse environment, there is no use in continuing to train people with those skills.

4.  Decentralization of all economic activity and political authority, except for the global directives guiding deconstruction.

As the end of globalization rapidly approaches, accelerated by our decision to dramatically cut parts of the economy contributing to environmental collapse, it will become increasingly difficult to support the complex networks of power that define our current system.  Corporations, international organizations, trade agreements, even national and state governments are a drain on resources and will have no place in a post-fossil fuel world.

This decentralization will need to be planned out carefully, taking full inventory of existing authorities and responsibilities assigned to larger organizations and developing a delegation plan that reassigns critical responsibilities to smaller units of government or business.  For example, large centralized military forces should first be broken down into state/regional level units along the lines of a national guard model.  These forces could then be used for public works, relocations, survival and skills training, or policing activities at the state level.  As deconstruction proceeds, these units will become even more localized, to the vicinity of bases of operations.  To the extent organized units still remain after motorized travel ceases to be feasible, they can still perform vital public service functions within the communities that host them.

Likewise, private business activities that provide critical services (like food production and delivery) may first be broken into state/regional level operations.  Supply chains will need to be renegotiated, mergers with other companies may be required, or new lines of business created in order to be able to provide the services at a more localized level.  As transport, mobility, and communication at state and regional distances become more difficult, the individual functions will need to be further broken down and distributed.  For example, farmers and equipment that previously served as part of the supply chain for a national grocer would now diversify food production and distribute locally.  Transition away from petroleum based fertilizers would require massive effort to either restore soils, or construct new farming operations in communities around the world that have never been subjected to the stresses of industrial farming.

5.  Final allocation of retrievable energy sources to regional control, including some level of "renewable" energy deployment in cases that it can help ease the transition to post-industrialism.

As economies and political authority are divested from large national and international entities and handed over to smaller local groups, there will be certain communities that will benefit from locally present energy resources.  Starting today, with BAU energy infrastructure running at full capacity, we should begin the process of establishing distributed access to some type of energy resources for use by small groups of humans in the future.

Lest the reader believe I'm falling victim to techno-Utopian dreams here, I'll reassert that these measures are not being taken to ensure continued BAU-like conditions, or even something we might equate to BAU-light.  Rather, I see these energy investments as helping ease the transition into an energy future that looks like the distant past (no electricity, no combustion engines, etc).  Eventually solar panels and wind turbines will fail, and there will be no replacement parts without industrial civilization. Likewise, local and regional supplies of fossil fuels will prove a poor substitute for our current system of national distribution.  Still, in the interim, they may provide the last generation of people who remember industrial civilization with an improved quality of life while they adapt to the conditions of pre/post-history.

The point is that we currently do have energy resources and we can do one of two things.  We can continue to use them the way we always have, or we can strategically invest them into things that might make life a little easier for people 20 years from now.  An example of this type of measured redistribution of resources might include taking the energy/carbon hit now to manufacture PV systems, and placing them on critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations, or food distribution centers.  The purpose would not be to guarantee a functional grid under post collapse conditions, but rather to potentially provide some of the luxuries of modern life to people over the next 20, 30, 40 years who are trying to survive desperate conditions.  Perhaps those solar panels allow a hospital to provide people with some services in a particular town in a particular region long after any semblance of organized global civilization has crumbled. Small scale mining of coal or oil may provide energy and fuel for nearby residents for some time, even if this is not part of a larger energy system.  The question we should be asking is:  "What can we do now with our relatively cheap, relatively abundant energy, that might help small groups in the future as they shift from civilized life to post-civilized life."

6.  Governmental assumption of responsibility for the distribution of essential services and goods (ie, food) in the absence of the current business-driven model until such time as complete transition to local economic control is in place.

Really, this strategy serves as a backdrop to the implementation of all of the other strategies aimed at deconstruction.  We are after all talking about elimination of the very system that breathes life into the bulk of humanity.  Our previous strategy directs us to decentralize the sprawling system of production and distribution into small local units; clearly this will not be "economically feasible" in any traditional sense of the phrase.

This is where government must vigilantly monitor the progress of deconstruction and make swift interventions to keep critical systems in operation at least long enough to deliver on sector and geographic deconstruction plans.  There are large elements of the economy in the western world that are "service based" and don't produce the type of critical goods and services that will be needed during deconstruction.  For example, the restaurant industry, or the tourism industry, is all that supports certain areas or groups of people.  During collapse and deconstruction, a point will soon arrive where these industries can no longer support the large number of employees they now do.  It will be the role of government to keep track of these people, and employ them in deconstruction efforts or otherwise ensure they are in a position to receive critical goods and services.

It may be that at some point, any semblance of market economics dissolves and government provides all employment, goods, and services.  If this is necessary to keep people fed and the deconstruction process moving, it must be done.

7.  Focused decommissioning of all facilities posing a threat to the survival of humanity (all nuclear weapons, reactors, encapsulation of spent fuel ponds, elimination of biological warfare programs, etc).

This is perhaps one of the last large scale industrial efforts worth continuing as long as possible, and would be a set of activities that would justify some continuation of BAU exploitation.  Organizing the safe decommissioning of facilities that endanger life on the planet would require energy and resources, and we should continue dedicating what is necessary to see these tasks completed.

Members of the media receive briefing from Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees at tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture

Like the deconstruction of other sectors of civilization, decommissioning these facilities will require detailed planning.  In the early stages, it may be relatively simple and straightforward to follow standard procedures for making these facilities safe.  As resources run thin and collapse proceeds, we may need to settle for the least catastrophic solution.  One can imagine a scenario where targeted oil mining and refining operations are kept going specifically for the purpose of producing fuels to power the transport of dangerous radioactive materials to an isolated site in a last ditch effort to at least get the remaining materials away from populated areas.  Perhaps dropping spent fuel into volcanoes or sinking it to the bottom of the ocean.  I am not a specialist in this area (obviously) and don't have the actual solutions that we need- but we must as a species commit to resourcing this effort to the bitter end.

Possible Outcomes

Of course the most obvious balancing act in this whole scenario is attempting to hold together enough of the current BAU distribution network to keep people alive and functioning, while simultaneously deconstructing the very systems that make that network possible.  The administrators in charge of sector decommissioning would have very difficult tasks, taking feedback and adjusting plans in response to the disaster of the day.

Assuming "success", the best possible outcome I think we might hope for in this scenario is a relatively orderly transition from a highly complex society to a much less complex one, with a minimum of human suffering in the process.  As an end result, we would hope that humans currently alive could live out a mostly natural lifespan with no more suffering than would be expected in pre-civilization conditions.  Of course, this is a very different standard from what we might expect as members of industrial civilization.  Even success, when compared to the standards we are accustomed to, might seem appalling to our modern sensibilities.

For example, if this process of transition results in a rapid drop in life expectancy from 80 years give or take, down to 35 years, we would likely perceive this as very dire.  In reality, even the successful implementation of this alternative could not result in any different outcome.  This is, after all, a return to the historical conditions of human life as described in our inventory of existing conditions.  Likewise, many of the people currently kept alive by medical technology derived from fossil fuel industry would perish at a young age.

Likewise, we would have to expect that childhood mortality would return to the historical norm for humans.  Instead of 99% of children surviving to breeding age, we might hope for roughly a 50% survival rate.  Keep in mind, I am a parent.  I understand what this means.  But the alternative is to keep driving towards a wall and pushing down on the accelerator, virtually ensuring an even more horrible outcome (ie, extinction).

Photograph by Carolyn Drake

Success as defined by this alternative would look like millions of small tribes of humans wandering the post-industrial landscape.  Population numbers would be dropping radically, from our current 7+ billion down to a number in the millions.  To the degree possible, this reduction comes from a general attrition- that is, very few children are being born compared to the much more rapid death of the current population simply due to decreased life expectancy.  While undesirable and contrary to the conditions we have sought to achieve, it is also likely that survival will vary greatly by geography.  In some regions famine, and drought, disease, or other disasters may result in much more rapid depopulation than others.

In this alternative future, major ongoing and controllable threats to life, primarily nuclear reactors, weapons, and waste, would be decommissioned and disposed of, or otherwise encapsulated so as to limit the impact to the global environment.  It may be that there are still large areas of "badlands," that will for all intents and purposes be uninhabitable where these products have been disposed of.  The major uncontrollable large-scale threat to life, climate change, is a different story.  The effects are widespread and disastrous no matter what we do during our period of deconstruction.  The best we might hope for is that rapidly ending carbon emissions allows for some ability of the natural ecosystem to begin a recovery process that moves towards equilibrium.  Perhaps changes move just slowly enough that plant and animal species can adapt to their changing environment, eventually moving toward and environment that looks more like the warmer periods in Earth's history.

Each band of humans would be adapted to the particular circumstances of their local environment. During deconstruction, these people were equipped with the skills and simple tools they need to eke out a living however they can.  Many will be nomadic, because it will become necessary to follow food and resources to where they are available.  In those circumstances where local resources are available to benefit nearby populations, higher quality of life as well as a more stationary lifestyle may be possible.  Access to small scale fossil fuel resources (ie, old coal mines) or to local renewable energy centers established during deconstruction might allow some small-scale village life in some places, possibly even with limited electricity and technology (while these things still remain viable).  Even these vestiges of civilization would likely deteriorate within a few generations.

Of course, this geographical inequality- people near natural and man-made resources- sets up a dangerous situation for localized conflict.  It is hard to imagine how one group might be able to hold on to a better set of living arrangements than another, without the use of force.  But this tendency towards local and regional violence over resources may be unavoidable in the end, and at least will be small-scale enough as to not threaten all of life on the planet as our current conflicts do.

The world will look very different than it does today, but with tremendous luck and perfect implementation, perhaps enough ecosystem would survive to allow some semblance of the world we know and love to survive on and eventually recover from our reckless and maniacal experiment with civilization.

Concluding Remarks

As I disclaimed at the beginning of this post, I understand that the premise presented here is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.  I've also taken care to acknowledge the fact that this exercise is so speculative that I could not possible have answers for all of the contingencies involved in executing something like this.  However, my hope has been to show what an alternative road map might need to look like in order to for humanity and the other living things that support us to survive impending ecosystem collapse.

As I have previously alluded to, I find it highly likely that the main determining factors that will contribute to the long-term survival or non-survival of any particular group or individual will be local in nature.  The motion of history is already set at the macro level, and fretting about changing things at that level is pointless.  I do believe that implementing some sort of an alternative of planned decommissioning like what is described in this post would go a long way to help facilitate the success of small-scale local efforts.

This would be an ideal situation- use of the last bit of civilized resources to empower local and individual actions that might help us survive.  However, we as individuals and small groups cannot count on this kind of an idealized and unlikely global effort.  We will have to chart our own course and make our own preparations for whatever may come.

This is the final, great adventure that we will explore in future posts.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gracias, Fidel

He tried to save us all.