Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Tom Engelhardt is, but even he seems to stop one step short of the abyss.

What happens if, three months from now, or even a year from now, the people in metropolitan Atlanta - almost 5 million of them - open their faucets and nothing comes out but air? Engelhardt seems unwilling to follow through on the thought experiment, apparently because he's afraid he might be missing something, but I'm willing to be educated if what seems obvious to me really is not.

With no water in the pipes, people cannot flush toilets, bathe, do laundry, wash dishes, clean kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals -- not that there would be much point because all of those facilities would be useless. Obviously every restaurant would have to close, but so would all of the factories and offices, regardless of whether they use water in their operations, because the workers would be unable to perform the bodily functions of excretion.

Are you with me here? You could, conceivably, truck in drinking water for 5 million people, but all that would accomplish is to keep them alive long enough for the miserable death that awaits them, from starvation, infectious disease, fire, or the violence attendant on the collapse of social order. There would be no functioning economy. No-one would have an income. It would be nearly impossible to prepare food. Human excrement would pile up in the parks and front yards and gutters. There would be little or no health care, no local tax revenues. It would be impossible to extinguish fires; immense conflagrations would sweep whole neighborhoods. Atlanta would be uninhabitable. All of those 5 million people would have to be evacuated. And then, even if the rains came, they would not be able to return. The city would be destroyed.

If Sonny Perdue's prayer rally doesn't work, that's his Plan B. Why isn't anyone saying so? For the same reason the Boston Globe featured an in-depth story last week about the high price of oil, with all their expert analysts blaming it on rising demand and predicting that world-wide demand for petroleum will be 120 million barrels a day by 2020. No, it won't, because that much oil will never be extracted, not in 2020, not in 2030, not in 3030. Yes, demand has increased, but the reason that has caused such a price spike is because supply cannot increase in response. But they won't say so because they don't want to have to think about the consequences.

As Englehardt discusses, climate change is bringing drought to many parts of the earth, not just the Southeast. This is probably not, in many if not most cases, a temporary crisis. It is a long term change. Ultimately, water stores in many areas will be gone. The vegetation will burn. The people will have to leave. That just might turn out to include parts of the U.S. Southeast -- including densely populated, urbanized places with many trillions of dollars of fixed capital, all of which would be lost. Nobody is lifting a finger to make even the slightest plan of preparation for such a contingency. We knew damn well what a major hurricane would do to New Orleans, and nobody did a damn thing to get ready. Are we going there again?

And yes, it might not happen; enough rain might come in time. But nobody knows that; it's not in the forecast. Hope is not a plan.