Gentle Decline 2/22: Answers & Alienation
Hello. This issue is something of a grab-bag of bits and pieces; some answers to questions, rejoinders to remarks, and a bit of cut-and-pasted stuff from other writers I think are worth reading.
(Midjourney’s idea of a post-apocalyptic celebration. I think it looks more like a staging of Les Miserables, myself)
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. All issues are free! You can support the newsletter via Patreon (where there’s often some further discussion about particular points), Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise, including the new Plant More Trees t-shirt.]
Alright, then. On with the show. Most questions here have been asked by more than one person, or came up in unrecorded conversation, so I’m paraphrasing rather than using direct quotes.
One thing I didn’t think of, and was reminded of by an entirely different conversation, is that most prescriptions (at least in Ireland) are now recorded on computer systems of some kind in the pharmacies, rather than being a sheet of paper you can carry around. So if you’re expecting a blackout to last for more than a couple of days, make sure you have enough of any medications you need; it may be quite difficult to get hold of them while the power is out.
You didn’t mention hot water bottles in when you were talking about dealing with blackouts!
I did not. This is because they don’t really occur to me as being out of the ordinary; they’re a regular piece of technology in use in this house. For those unfamiliar - and for me, the hot water bottle is such a homely, ordinary thing that it seems a little weird for anyone not to be familiar with it - these are flat-ish rubber containers with threaded stoppers, which hold about 2 litres of water. You fill them up with just-off-the-boil water. Most modern ones have a cloth cover; you can wrap them in a towel if not. They will stay hot for about 2-3 hours (4-5 under a blanket, and at least pleasantly warm out to about 12 hours). You can stick them in a bed at your feet, hug them to you like an unusually cooperative cat, keep one on your lap while you’re sitting up, or basically put them wherever you need some heat. They’re also good for period pains and other cramps. Low Tech Magazine has an excellent article about the history and use of the hot water bottle, and the comments there contain a vast number of folk solutions on related topics.
The blackout stuff looks like it’d come in handy when there are hurricanes or other bad weather driven power cuts.
Absolutely. I mean, a power cut is a power cut, the actual cause doesn’t matter much. The difference there is that you probably won’t want to be outside at all, and that it’s really unpredictable when the power will be back. The recent storm that hit Nova Scotia was expected, planned for, people had been told to prepare, and there were still quite a few people without power 5 days after.
Power cuts are associated with heavy snow in Ireland. This seems to be because snow builds up on overhead power lines and breaks them, or because ice forming on them does the same thing (or perhaps as with cold anywhere, more people turn on electrical heating and the supply suffers). As more power lines are put underground, this becomes less likely, but there are still a plenitude of overhead ones. It’s useful to know what kind of supply lines there are in your area - the house in Maynooth has underground lines, and we haven’t had a more-than-a-few-seconds power cut in more than 14 years.
Obviously, heavy winds, ice storms, flooding, and in some cases extremely hot weather can have impacts on electrical infrastructure, too.
What do you think of carbon offset via tree planting?
I pay for it it, when I get the option, for flights and so on. Not that I have taken many flights in the last few years. But I have very definite doubts about it. First, I have no idea if the money actually ends up funding tree planting, and no real way to check. Second, planting trees, while extremely important, doesn’t actually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere there and then. It’ll do so over a number of years, but in the meantime the CO2 from the flight is going straight into the atmosphere, and increasing the heat effects. Similarly, planting to replace established woodland that has been destroyed leaves a gap in the carbon absorption available (not to mention biodiversity of mature woodland is far greater) for a few years, so it’s not the same as emitting no carbon dioxide (or whatever else).
This is true of any carbon offset scheme, of course. Planting trees or working any other form of carbon sequestration does not compensate immediately; the emissions still happen and still do damage. Ideally, what we need to be doing is carbon sequestration now for emissions we’ll cause in ten years’ time.
Do the canals have a part to play in an era of climate change?
It’s certainly possible. They were essential infrastructure in their time. Ireland has two major east-west canals, the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal, and the UK has a whole network of them. It’s cheaper, per weight of goods you’re moving, to put stuff on a boat than on a lorry - boats are slower, but take a lot less fuel. So for routine movement of stuff that doesn’t decay (raw materials, timber, most non-food consumer goods) or stuff with a long shelf life (preserved food, alcohol), it would work out better in a time of very expensive fuel. As is, the logistics of getting stuff on to and off of canal boats, coupled with the fact that the canals have a very limited set of destinations, mean that they’re of limited use. Also, in Ireland at least, the idea of Irish Waterways doing something more than bare maintenance of the canals before it’s completely necessary is unlikely.
But I think it is possible for some enterprising person or company to provide “slow freight” from Dublin to Athlone, Limerick and Waterford, and make a decent living from it. And it’s worth noting that the canals are almost by definition one of the most resilient pieces of infrastructure in terms of flooding, sea-level rise, and so on. They were built to be used by boats towed by horses on the canal path, so almost any method of making the boats move is viable. They also pass through the most inland areas of the country, and thereby the ones that are mostly safest - in the medium term, at least - from sea level rise.
Do you know of any community electricity projects in Ireland?
I don’t. But here’s a French one (Google Translate makes a decent go of it if you don’t read French). And there’s a company in Ireland which appears to be doing something in this space, although I haven’t looked into them in detail yet.
Speaking of community projects, though, urban farming is raising its head again in various contexts. One of the frequent objections to urban farming is that it can’t support the populations who live in urban areas. Dublin is about 29,000 acres, and generally speaking, it takes one acres to feed one person. Dublin’s population is well over a million now, so it’s absolutely self-evidently true that urban farming will not feed the urban population. But I feel that people with this objection are missing the point, sometimes by such a margin I think it’s deliberate. First and foremost, the point is not to feed the entire population of an urban area - it’s to diversify a little bit in terms of supply. Every bit of diversification lends a bit more resilience. Second, urban farming (and to be fair, almost anything that’s not tarmac, concrete, and other impermeable surfaces) contributes massively to preventing flooding. And third, it does a lot more for local community (as referenced in the Wired article linked above). There are plenty of effects from having more plants growing in urban environments, too; cleaner air, lower temperatures, and so forth.
What do you think of the idea that higher energy bills will drive people who are currently working remotely back to offices?
Well, let me state my opposition to the idea that offices are necessary anymore at all. It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated over the pandemic that beyond having a postal address, there isn’t much need for offices to get work done. Extroverts may like them for social purposes, but that’s not a great reason to pay urban rents for desk space, not to mention energy bills. Middle management being terrified that people will notice they don’t really do much in remote work (and thereby don’t really do much at all) is definitely not a great reason. That polemic delivered, let me continue.
Offices are a lot more expensive to heat than homes. There’s more wasted space, more doors opened and closed, and a considerably higher chance that Drew in Marketing has the window near his desk open a crack so he doesn’t die of overheating from the thermostat setting. There are rules being brought in in many parts of Europe as to how warm offices can be kept - at least one of my clients, who’s in Berlin, says that her office thermostat is now not allowed be set higher than 19C, and there’s talk of some places limiting it to 15C. With energy bills looking to be pretty mad this winter, many businesses are not going to want to - or in some cases, not going to be able to afford to - have the office at a comfortable temperature.
Offices also necessitate commuting. For most people, that’s between half an hour and an hour of sitting in a car (and in winter, sitting in a car in the dark) each way, every day. Or a similar time sitting or standing on a bus, having been waiting in cold and very likely wet conditions, surrounded by people who have colds or worse. Or on a bike or on foot in the aforementioned weather. So the desire on the part of individuals who have a choice to go through that and then sit in a cold office all day doesn’t really look likely.
That’s not to say that keeping your home office warm is going to be easy. But if it’s a small-ish space, or it’s the kitchen or living room, it’s not going to add a lot to your already existing costs. So overall, I don’t think people are going to be driven back to the office.
Finally, Venkatesh Rao is pointing out a state of mind he’s observing and calling “Ark Head”.
We’ve concluded the flood cannot be stopped, and we’re building arks to retreat to. The specifics of the arks don’t matter: utopian city-states, tech sectors (like AI, crypto, or metaverse) that seem capable of weathering the flood, narrow altruistic ventures, or artistic subcultures. With or without DAOs and Discord servers. If you can retreat within it, and either tune out or delusionally recode the rest of reality, it works as an ark. The point of an ark is to survive a cataclysmic flood while preserving as much of everything you care about as possible. Not to make sense of the world past the hull. Ark-head is a survivalist mindset, not a sensemaking mindset. If there are portholes in the hull of your ark, all you see out there is stormy flooding, and you don’t care to make sense of it.
Rao is being snarky about it, which is his usual mode of communication, but even he concludes:
That’s perhaps the way out — keep trying to tell stories beyond ark-scale until one succeeds in expanding your horizons again. But until such narrative traction returns, we’ll have to make do with ark head.
I don’t disagree. And this newsletter is, more than anything else, about constructing arks that will float, mostly metaphorically, in a time of flooding.