In a world of climate extremes, when there’s nothing left to do, you adapt or go extinct. For humans, adaptation is about being mentally and culturally agile, about thinking clearly and acting cooperatively. The way for us in our communities to survive the roulette of climate change disaster is to partner up and think clearly and innovatively together.
That’s the lesson of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and other lessons from communities around the world about how to endure and prevail against natural crises that would otherwise capsize them. They talk, they listen, they plan, they invent, they process together and some endure.
Extinction is a horrible word. It’s almost always applied to species dying out. But reading the New York Times Magazine two weekends ago about how we could have avoided the oncoming climate change catastrophe thirty years ago but failed to do so, I had the unsettling feeling that extinction could also be applied to more discrete events. We could use the word to describe the dying out of cities or neighborhoods, or habitats, or even regional ecosystems like the Southwest. It’s not too harsh to say, for instance, that certain parts of New Orleans where marginalized and less well-off people lived went extinct after Hurricane Katrina, never to be revived.
Extinction can also be said to apply to individuals and families who can’t adjust themselves to the circumstances that harsh and unpredictable new weather conditions could bring. It’s true for my family and my neighbors, too. Our way of life, along with our actual lives, could go extinct if we can’t adapt to what’s ahead.
Wrong thinking got us into this climate change mess — demanding absolutely certain proof about climate change before taking action (making that demand in a world in which there can be no absolute predictions, only probabilities); confusing wishful thinking about reality with reality itself, assuming maps and hopes are as real as what they refer to; letting questionable technologies get so entrenched they can never be changed and getting blindsided by unintended consequences that were, in scientific and governmental circles, long foretold.
So what are we to do? Climate change isn’t an asteroid wiping out life as we know it, at least not in our lifetimes. It will probably be a variable, piecemeal kind of trauma, sometimes widespread like extreme heat waves or 1,000-year droughts, but also site-specific, like a monsoon dump of brief duration but of hurricane proportions.
Short of migrating to higher ground or cooler climes, if there are any, are there real things we can do to prepare ourselves to survive where we are, if we aren’t completely blown away or desiccated beyond recognition?
I think the answer has to be a resounding yes. It’s not that one can avoid hardship. Getting through it more or less intact is what counts. Hurricane Maria and something called the Conversation Project give us important insights into how to start getting ready for a future we don’t want but probably can’t avoid.
The devastation of Puerto Rico was about as complete as you can get, short of a total annihilation. No power, no food, no phones, no internet, no health care, nothing across most of the island except floods, wreckage, mud and people thrown suddenly into a kind of technological dark ages. The devastation covered the whole island. It was universal, but not exactly the same in every region, town and neighborhood. As the science publication Mosaic reports in its piece “How to survive climate change: a lesson from Hurricane Maria,” Puerto Ricans survived Maria through grassroots, local efforts, community by community. The national government basically abandoned the island, and the territorial government was immobilized. All that was left was local groups, enclaves, suburbs, tiny villages, little neighborhoods that marshaled their collective skills, knowledge and willpower to help themselves and their neighbors to make essential repairs and to hold on until help arrived.
Maria has taught Puerto Rico that the decentralization of the power grid is essential to surviving climate-change-intensified hurricanes and other weather events. What that means is creating a great many very local power networks using solar and wind energy, so that when the big grid breaks down, other systems are in place.
Decentralization applies to many survival techniques and expertise, from doctoring, water purification and sanitation to road repair and debris removal. Decentralization also applies to planning for minor and major disruptions on a very local level. Just as all politics is local, so are all environments. Macro planning is important, but grassroots, micro planning is essential, too.
The model for micro planning, it seems to me, is the Conversation Project, which is designed to help each of us find a health care partner and advocate with whom we can talk openly and frankly about our desires for end of life situations and to whom we can express our values sincerely. It’s a powerful idea, and you can learn about it in depth at the Conversation Project website.
It’s entirely possible to start a conversation with someone in your immediate neighborhood or even family about the nuts and bolts of cleaning up and repairing after a discrete “climate event” in your area. You and your climate change partner would be the ultimate grassroots unit, if you will. You could study your terrain, the high points and sinks in your immediate area, where water collects, how fast it moves off, which direction it drains, and whether the elevation of the entrances to your house might allow even minor flood waters to enter. You could think about what might happen in many different scenarios in the short term and how you both might make do or make emergency repairs. You could have conversations about long-term strategies to mitigate relatively short-term intense drought situations. And you could branch out in your immediate neighborhood to find other climate change partners to think about short- and long-term possibilities and what you might do to mitigate the damage that extreme climate events might bring.
Decentralization, conversation, local conditions, facing up to the possibilities of what’s ahead — these won’t keep the future at bay, but they could make very bad moments more endurable. And if enough decentralized conversation groups came up with enough fresh ideas, they could contribute to a community survival chest of strategies to take care of ourselves and our friends when emergency systems are overloaded.
Decentralization. That’s the big lesson.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Andy Wilkinson)