Gentle Decline 2/14: Locale & Leadership
In which it is reluctantly conceded that talking to the neighbours may be necessary.
Hello. This issue of Gentle Decline is about town and county level physical preparations for the effects of climate change. This centres around the third of the Gentle Decline principles, be generous, and depends on local community. This is, bluntly, an area in which I need to do some more work, so it’s not as comprehensive as I’d like it to be. After 14 years in this house, I know the names of my immediate neighbours, one name in the house across the road, and maybe ten people elsewhere in the town. In terms of local efforts, I’ve a lot of ground to make up.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. You can support the newsletter via Patreon, Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise. The spotlighted product for this issue is the Pullover Hoodie, which is comfy and warm and pretty much ideal for this time of year.]
One of the effects the internet has had is to free us from what might, in fancy terms, be called the tyranny of locality (not my term; I got it from a historiography talk a few years back, and as far as I can make out, it comes from a book called The Long Tail). Basically, this means that pre-internet, you were in most ways restricted to what the people in your immediate physical locality were into, in terms of both activities and resources. If you were, for instance, a D&D player in rural Ireland, then the chances of your local area having enough players for you to buy games locally was very near zero. The chances of there being enough players in the area for you to play a game regularly was also very low. The internet makes goods available over wider areas, and connects people over the same. The constraints are now international shipping and timezones, rather than mere physical distance.
This is not true of most of the effects of the climate crisis. They are real, physical, and local - sometimes hyperlocal. It’s possible that a flood, for instance, will only affect three or four houses on a given road or in a particular estate. Power cuts will affect whole estates, villages, or neighbourhoods. In many of these circumstances, your immediate physical neighbours are your best chance of getting help, and the mutual need makes this a lot easier.
As a slightly less hyper-local example, in Dresden on September 13 2021, Claudia tells me, power was cut to 300,000 households, trams stood still, traffic lights weren’t running, and people had to be rescued from lifts. The cut lasted most of an hour - because a foil balloon had drifted into an electric relay station and shorted it out. Single points of failure like that are almost certainly scattered up and down our electrical and water networks, and with infrastructure being affected by storms, floods, fires, and so on, some of them will fail.
For my part, I find it incredibly difficult to actually go out and talk to the neighbours (outside of exceptional circumstances). My community is very much online. Unfortunately, that’s no use for purposes of local change, so I’m going to have to bite down soon and start making contact with interested people in the town. What I’ve collected up here are a number of examples of things-done-at-a-local-scale, strategies and tools for local organisation, which I’m going to try to put to use myself. Usefully, there are already efforts under way in some parts of Ireland for this.
Water turbines are frequently seen as a large-scale investment, and built where there are either large drops in water level (waterfalls) or valleys that can be flooded (for dams). However, there’s a long history of low-head, low-flow power from water, such as water wheels for milling. Here’s an example of power generation from “micro-hydro” water turbines, which can be used with a 1.5m height difference, and 1000l/s of flow - which isn’t very much in either case. This is suitable for small groups of houses, say up to 20. It’s probably more usable in rural areas than in suburban, but might be a possibility in small estates that have a river alongside.
It’s also possible to take stream and small river management into local hands. Here’s one example from the US. In Ireland, this might run into some opposition from the OPW or the like - particularly if groups start to plant trees - but a bit of kicking up a fuss in local and national media and social media would probably cause them to back down. It’s very hard for any national body to argue against environmental improvement at the moment. The OPW are basically incompetent as far as environmental measures go, anyway, so someone has to do something.
Falling a little between personal and local are rain gardens, which are basically large planters into which rain is channeled from roofs or concreted areas. These prevent rain from accumulating quickly in streams and rivers, and thereby help with local flooding. Obviously, these can be put in place in houses and back yards, but they can also be used in offices, schools, retail premises, libraries, and so forth.
Traffic - particularly in estates - can also be pushed on by local groups. Dublin City Council are looking for fewer private cars and more shared cars, bikes, and scooters. Traffic reduction is a good thing on its own for multiple reasons, and decreasing the number of vehicles parked in any urban area allows more space for other projects - outdoor facilities, trees, and green space in general. This frees up room for things like park benches which - particularly in well-lit areas - can reduce anti-social behaviour (although some councils and residents’ associations appear to believe the opposite).
There’s then the concept of urban gardens - not just in people’s own backyards, but in otherwise empty spaces, the surroundings of derelict houses, and so on. An excellent post from the Vittles newsletter details some of these across the world:
It’s reasonably likely that there are already some environmentally focused local groups in your area. I’m going to be looking into Zero Waste Maynooth, both because their aim is definitely worthwhile, and because I think it’ll be a good place to find like-minded people. There are also a few people on Twitter with whom I’ve been meaning to make contact for a while, who are in the general area and are doing interesting things in terms of foraging, horticultural, and other activities. I do think it’s a great pity that the allotments on the far side of the town were closed down (because the site was sold to a developer); they would have been a great way to make contact with an at-least-somewhat coping-with-collapse community (collapse on predicted track, says Vice). And there are plenty of climate-focused groups across the country, though not all are local.
A few miscellaneous odds and ends to round out this issue, now. Gav asked some time back about my thinking on the flooding in Vancouver and British Columbia in general, and I have been intending to reply to him for… months, it seems. Sorry, Gav. Anyway: Vancouver is a coastal city, on a western coast in the northern hemisphere. This means - because of the way in which weather patterns move - that Vancouver is going to see more storms in the coming decades, and bigger ones than it’s used to. This is true of every such city in the Northern hemisphere, from Faro to Tromsø and Mazatlán to Anchorage. Vancouver city is sheltered by Vancouver island, so it hasn’t had to deal with as much of this as some other places, yet. The big deal in those weather patterns, though, was the rain. Western-coastal-places-in-the-northern-hemisphere get more rain anyway (see Galway, Lancaster and Seattle, for example, and Vancouver itself does have such a reputation), and this too will increase. There will also be higher tides (just what we need!) in the 2030s.
So my take on the BC flooding basically goes: Vancouver should have been expecting floods, and should have made preparations for them. So should all such places, though, and I see no signs of, for example, Galway making any (as far as I can see, the city council there is fighting hard to make sure there are no bike lanes brought in, and Salthill remains a car park). Also, some of the roads that were washed away in BC looked beforehand to be pretty solid - weather modelling and engineering tolerances for infrastructure simply aren’t built with “what happens if there’s a flood of Biblical proportions at a random point?” in mind.
(Johnstown Flood, Pennsylvania, 1889; a dam failure killed more than 2000 people)
The overall lesson is that almost anywhere can get hit with super-heavy rain (that was what hit Germany and Belgium, too), and that the risk is higher on northern-hemisphere-west-coasts and southern-hemisphere-east-coasts, and everywhere should have some preparations or plans in place. Flexible ones, because there’s little as chaotic as second-order weather events.
The threshold after which exceptional weather becomes “normal” appears to be five years, though. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to mean that people will be prepared for it, just that they don’t talk about it as much anymore.
This issue has been brought to you by not-really-having-had-a-winter-yet, some excellent Balkan food, and an increasingly querulent Elder Cat. I'm taking requests and questions. If you hit reply, you can send stuff straight to me!
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