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Arcologies and Climate Refugees

Tonight, Olga and I went to a book discussion at our local library. The book, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, is one that I had read before, but I re-read most of it for the book club discussion. I needn't have bothered, at least not for the purposes of contributing to the discussion. The majority of the people in attendance claimed to have read the book, but when it came time to discuss its themes, most everyone wanted to tell stories about their own experiences around water scarcity with nary a passing reference to the events, settings or characters in the novel. I sat quietly most of the time, but when I did speak out, I always referenced something from the book in the service of whatever point I was making.

The events of the novel mostly unfold somewhere near the middle of this century in Pheonix, Arizona, a city that is contracting and collapsing due to its insufficient supply of water and over-abundance of climate refugees, mostly from Texas. The wealthy and their well-heeled servants live in a giant, Chinese-built arcology, a closed habitat which recycles its own water. The residents, known in the world of the novel as "fivers" for their five-digit addresses in the ecology, venture out into the city to take advantage of the desperation of the refugees much like American, Japanese, Arab and European tourists go to places like Thailand or the Philippines. The party favors are cheap and the Texas bang bang girls will do just about anything for a hot shower and some pocket change.

Outside the glass walls of the arcology, street kids, desperate and dehydrated, dream of getting inside and dipping a cup into the water features and koi ponds which provide not only luxurious ambiance but also serve as stages in the water filtration and purification process that makes the arcology largely self-sufficient. One member of the discussion group, an older gentleman who came with his wife, talked about how nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can make their own drinking water from sea water and have all the power they need from their nuclear reactors. He seemed to be implying that we can build nuclear-powered desalination plants on the coasts and create plenty of fresh water and thereby maintain the status quo in the American southwest. He didn't mention building arcologies. I'm not sure if he was familiar with the concept.

I made a note to look up how much a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier costs and how many people can live on board. I was assuming the price per head would be astronomical. A Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier costs about $5 billion dollars and can accommodate a crew of up to 5,000. Those figures make the math pretty easy. That's a million bucks a head.

"Hmmm..." I thought, "that's not all THAT much." It's conceivable that as a society we could embark on a monumental engineering project in which we spend a million dollars for every citizen. And it's also conceivable that such a project could be undertaken in a way that avoided the absurd cost overruns of military projects. What if we could do it for six hundred thousand dollars a head? That's the average cost of keeping someone in prison for ten years. Is that in the realm of possibility?

Then I decided to do an image search for aircraft carrier crew quarters. What I found were photos of spartan, windowless rooms with bunks stacked from floor to ceiling and tiny built-in lockers. Not very appealing. A far cry from the atriums, waterfalls and pleasant mezzanine cafes of the novel's archology.

Nuclear aircraft carriers can go 20 years without refueling, but even though they can supply all their own water, they don't grow any crops on those things. Sure, a desperate person might take a berth on such a ship to escape the misery and predation of a refugee's life, but they'd soon pine for something less stark. Do an image search for "seasteading" and you'll find lots of lovely images of utopian-looking floating habitats, and if such things are possible in the ocean, surely they are possible on land. I think arcology-like structures will probably play some part in the human future, but I think Paolo Bacigalupi got it right in the novel. These will be the redoubts of the wealthy and the people who serve the wealthy. They will not be sanctuaries for thirsty climate refugees.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Cloudwalking Owl
Feb. 28th, 2017 02:42 pm (UTC)
Don't forget the hidden social design-factor
Maybe I'm a bit of a fool. My wife considers me "super optimistic", whereas my friends usually call me the "ultimate pessimist", but I just don't get most of this dystopian literature. I assume that there is some explanation in the novel you are referring to, but the obvious question that comes to mind is "why aren't these people moving to a place with more water?" People don't just sit and bake when their society falls apart, they move.

Also, I don't think most people understand how hard society works to ensure that we are as wasteful as possible. North America above the Rio Grande is so appallingly wasteful that we could cut huge amounts of waste out of the system and still raise the quality of life for most people. What if the USA decided to cut it's military budget to a quarter of its present level? And if the majority of people found themselves priced out of air travel? How much wealth would that free up in society to deal with other problems?

Increasingly, I've come to the conclusion that the problem is that most doomers secretly love the status quo---or at least cannot imagine anything different. When they read books about people fighting over crusts of food or cups of water, what they are doing is projecting their fear of not being able to live in a single detached home, drive their own car, and, fly to visit the folks in Kookamunga on Thanksgiving.


You said that people at the book club wanted to talk about their own experiences of water scarcity. Really? In Vermont?
Feb. 28th, 2017 03:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Don't forget the hidden social design-factor
Page 42:

They'd been a little too slow to move our of Texas, and then the State Independence and Sovereignty Act had put up walls they couldn't cross. Every single state realizing it was in trouble if it kept letting people flood in.


In Papa's head, things looked one way, but in Maria's experience they were nothing the same. He kept saying that this was America and America was all about freedom and doing what you wanted, but the crumbling America that they drove across, where Texans were strung up on New Mexico fence lines as warnings, most definitely wasn't the America he kept inside his head.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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