Rethinking society: How can we redesign our lives and infrastructure to survive the rising heat?

From time to time, politicians are accused of taking the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” approach, and while crises are often exploited by disaster capitalists and demagogues, they can also be exploited by people who want to make the world a better place for everyone. In that vein, I want to take advantage of the current crisis (or the current tiny part of the larger climate crisis), to ask you to imagine a different world.

Summer has arrived in North America with infernal temperatures, and the wildfires seem to be getting worse every year. Between the heat and the smoke, going outside is increasingly dangerous in growing parts of the continent, at least for part of the year. It appears that the bleak reality of climate change is setting in for more people every year now, and I think that makes this a good time to really think about the dangers facing us in a warmer climate, and how our infrastructure, lifestyles, and even clothing may need to change.

These changes have already been underway, at a reactive level. The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a global increase in mask usage, but the areas affected by the growing wildfire problem have had masks on the list of recommended household safety gear for a while now, because of the problems caused by smoke inhalation. As temperatures rise, many chemical reactions will become more common. Air pollution in general is going to keep getting more dangerous, and wildfires make that problem worse not just by having more smoke in the air, but by burning human structures, waste, vehicles, and so on and releasing those chemicals into the air as well. We’re expected to have more pandemics in the near future, simply because of habitat destruction and climate chaos bringing humans into contact with new animal populations, but we’re also going to want to have masks around because hotter air is more likely to be poisonous.

It’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to believe that life as we’ve known it is ever going to return. We’re gazing into the unknown, and it’s natural for our minds to conjure images – to make spontaneous guesses for what might actually be out in the darkness. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the shape of what follows has yet to be determined.

Let’s continue thinking about masks, for example. I’ve been wearing one in public spaces for 16 months now, and I generally dislike them. I don’t like the close, muffled feel or the way the masks press against my beard. They’re uncomfortable, but also necessary. I think that as the temperature rises, and the necessity for masks increases, I’m going to want to make a re-usable mask that fits more comfortably, and that’s not going to make me feel like I’m suffocating if I have to wear it during a heat wave. I’ve toyed with the notion of a mask with a rigid skeleton, washable filters, and maybe even a battery powered air pump or fan for circulation. If we’re gonna have to deal with a dystopian hellscape of climate chaos and late-stage capitalism, we might as well get a cool cyberpunk aesthetic to go with it, right? Guess I’d better add some infrared LEDs to mess with surveillance equipment while I’m at it.

Aesthetics aside, with the temperatures we’re starting to see, I honestly think we’re approaching a point where going outside is going to require a full-body cooling suit on some days. Liquid-based thermal suits have been around for a while – they’re most famously used by astronauts for the under-suit worn inside a space suit. The basic principle is that the clothing holds a tube against the skin, through which water or some other fluid is pumped, drawing heat away from the body. According to Wikipedia, garments like this are designed to

…remove body heat from the wearer in environments where evaporative cooling from sweating and convection cooling does not work, or the wearer has a biological problem that hinders self-regulation of body temperature.

For the rest of our lives, a growing portion of humanity is going to live in those conditions for at least part of the year. Hopefully the fact that parts of Canada are approaching those conditions has disabused most people of the notion that anywhere on the planet is going to be guaranteed to avoid those conditions. People are going to need to have reliable shelter from the heat, and are going to need protective gear for going outdoors, especially for things like emergency services. What remains to be seen is how easy it’s going to be to build and maintain such garments as the heat continues to rise.

Even if it turns out we can make temperature-controlled clothing easily and safely, we can’t simply exist in full body suits for our entire lives – we’re going to need places where we can just exist, without protective gear, which means not just air conditioning of one form or another, but also common spaces that can be accessed without going outside, or without spending more than a couple minutes between buildings. I think there are a lot of forms this could take, but probably the most familiar would be dormitories, apartment blocks, and “co-housing” setups like this Norwegian project: 

In Vindmøllebakken, the units are arranged around a central core of communal

Vindmøllebakken Cohousing Project by Helen & Hard Architects interior courtyard

Sindre Ellingsen

spaces, which are equally and jointly owned by residents. The main entrance is through a lofty, light-filled courtyard space with an amphitheater, all built with spruce timber and insulated with hemp, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for residents to sit or to chat.

For those who want to skip this area of socializing, there is a more direct path from the street to residences that is available as well.

Adjacent to the courtyard, we have a communal kitchen and communal open-plan dining area, providing a space for residents to cook and eat together if they so choose. There is also a lounge and guest rooms. Further up, we have open walkways leading to a library, greenhouse, and workshop.

The architects say that: “The sequence of rooms is designed to create visual connections between spaces and people and to provide freedom to how much and when to engage in communal life.”

Another thing that is already the norm in some areas is to have grocery stores build into apartment buildings. The AirB&B we stayed at in Frankfurt on our move across the Atlantic had a full grocery store in the basement. I’m sure the residents of that building aren’t the only ones who shop there, but if they’re ever faced with conditions that require them to stay indoors as much as possible – like a killer heatwave – they’ll be able to get necessities without ever setting foot outside. Add in things like the monstrous floating cities used by the cruise industry, and subway stations built into the lower basements of skyscrapers, and it’s clear that we have all the pieces we need for cities that can function pretty well with a majority of people never needing to expose themselves to lethal outdoor conditions.

At the same time, the conditions we’ll be trying to avoid are likely to cause problems for both agriculture and freight, all of which brings us back to my long-standing belief that we’re going to need to invest heavily in indoor food production. That can be hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, algae or bacteria farming, insect farming, or even giant, artificially lit underground fields for all I care, but our food crops can’t survive these heat waves and fires any better than anything else can, and the cost of irrigating them is going to start rising exponentially as groundwater continues being depleted and temperatures continue to rise.

It may not be everywhere, and it should not be how we spend all of our time if it can be avoided (I think we need to maintain a broad personal connection between the state of the climate and the general population), but it will be necessary for survival in most parts of the globe at least some of the time. As we look into things like high speed rail networks, I think we might want to consider spending the extra resources to build those underground to protect our transit network from the rising climate chaos. The current above-ground arrangements for mass transit are currently melting, warping, or buckling.

But all of this is just what’s going on in my head, and I think we need as many people thinking about this as possible. How can we adapt ourselves and our society to the way climate change is affecting your region? What would be needed for that change?

What are the obstacles, and how might they be overcome?

What changes could we make at the same time to foster community building and organizing, and to improve everyday life, particularly for those at the bottom? How could we rebuild society to increase everybody’s free time?

We are in uncharted territory in a number of ways. The people in charge know the harm they’re doing, but they’re lying when they say they know what’s best for humanity – they don’t, and they never have. It’s up to us to figure out what needs to be done, and to make that happen.

Anyway, I’m curious what thoughts other people have on how we might change things to survive what looks to be a very tough time.

The image shows a portion of what looks to be a round, multi-story room. On the bottom story, and closer to the foreground, are shelves of plants growing under artificial lighting. The level above has cafe-style chairs and tables overlooking what appears to be a garden with a small tree or a shrub in the middle of it. It looks like both a pleasant bit of greenery, and a small source of food.

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A useful video from the Gravel Institute on the future of work envisioned by Silicon Valley

I’ll have some more substantial stuff up shortly, but in the meantime, I though you ought to watch and share this video. It’s a useful breakdown of one of the tactics being used to get around labor regulations, in the absence of a powerful labor movement to oppose them. A lot of this feels similar to the tactics used by Walmart and Amazon to gain monopolistic power.


The meaning of freedom in a finite life

One of the more common themes throughout history has been disagreement between society’s rulers, and those being ruled, about how society ought to be run. Fortunately, history has also shown that if enough people are able to work together towards a common vision of a better world, we can bring about needed change whether our current rulers want it or not. One difficulty we face is that in the midst of so much messaging designed to present the way things are as the only way things can be, it can be hard to actually find that vision through the clutter. I think many of us have a vague desire for a life similar to the one with which we’re already familiar, but “better”. In a lot of our daily lives, the desire for change is less about wanting something good to start, and more about wanting something bad to stop.

While most people can agree on what our basic needs are, I think it’s generally understood that the basics required for survival do not guarantee a fulfilling life, and that different people have different ideas of what a “fulfilling life” would mean. There are always going to be some limits; my right to do whatever I want doesn’t extend to causing problems for other people. When it comes down to it, though, the common thread in pretty much all the myriad visions of a good life seems to be the ability to control how we spend our time.

The problem of capitalism – in this context – is that “free time” is viewed as an extravagant luxury, rather than a human necessity. Only those who don’t need to work for a living are entitled to free time. For the rest of us, any time not spent earning money seems to be viewed as a vice more than anything else, and sufficient justification for poverty. If I’m not spending every minute of my time in pursuit of money, then any financial problems I have are my fault, and evidence that I am a burden on society, in some way.

The system cannot fail me, I can only fail the system.

Not only that, but the time I’ve spent trying to turn this blog into a source of income that will keep me fed and sheltered is now a liability. If – as is likely – I have to spend time hunting for wage labor again, I will have a “gap” in my C.V./resumé. If I want someone else to pay me to do work that they want done, and that I am competent to do, I will also have to justify the time I have spent not working for the financial gain of someone else.

Throughout 2020, as the United States struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, this cultural hatred of free time was brought into sharp focus. At a time when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved by keeping people at home, the the capitalists running our country seemed to be mostly horrified and offended at the notion that – for just a few months – a majority of the population might be allowed to simply exist, without having to do work apparently for the sake of doing work. There seems to be a deeply held belief that without the threat of misery and death through poverty, nobody would do any work at all.

I think it’s worth pointing out that for the ruling class, this does not seem to be about whether the resources needed to keep everybody housed, fed, and so on would exist if people were “paid to stay home”, but rather about the endless need for escalating profits. Never in my lifetime has the United States so openly told its own people that their lives are worth less than the desire of rich people to keep getting richer. The justification given, however, is not generally that multi-millionaires or billionaires might stop seeing their “net worth” rise, or might even see it decline a little. That’s not a line of argument that’s very persuasive to those of us whose concerns relate more to the basic necessities of survival.

Instead we are told that if people are allowed to control how they spend their own time, nobody will do the work that’s needed for humanity to survive, and we’ll all starve from laziness or something. We must be coerced into doing the work deemed necessary by those who have more money than us, and their right to decide that is justified by their legal control of that money, and the access to resources that it represents.

It should be clear to most people that this is nonsense. If meeting the material needs of humanity was the driving force behind capitalism’s relationship with labor and production, then we would have eradicated hunger and houselessness long ago. Certainly we would have eradicated them before anybody was able to measure their wealth in hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone billions. The scarcity suffered by so many of us is manufactured for the sake of controlling how people spend their time.

Poverty is the tool used by the capitalist class to force everyone else to work for their benefit, and as a result, most of humanity is denied the freedom – the free time – to pursue happiness.

Any society will require work to maintain, but no society in history has lacked people willing to do that work, provided the ability to do so in reasonable safety, and to have time and energy to spend on other things. The only time coercion is required, is when people are asked to do work that is neither necessary for survival, nor pleasant or interesting to do. If there is a job that needs doing, and there’s nobody willing to do it, then surely we can find ways to make that work more appealing. I’d love to divide my time between writing, growing food, and maintaining my home. I would happily also spend a day or two every week on pretty much any kind of work useful to society, in exchange for the ability to spend the rest of my time on those pursuits. I’d spend more time than that, depending on the work in question, and I know I’m not alone. How many of you have known someone who enjoyed a job that would make you miserable?

Do you enjoy building houses or furniture? What about inspecting or cleaning sewers? What about milking venomous snakes to make medicine, or studying spiders to further our understanding of biology? What about dissecting dead animals to discover what killed them? What about nursing sick people? Delivering mail? Repairing appliances? Teaching children? Farming? Teaching adults? What about composing music, or performing music composed by others? Cleaning boat hulls? Painting houses? Gathering evidence to help settle a dispute? Building roads? Dismantling broken electronics? Cleaning up pollution?

How many pages could I fill simply listing the kinds of work needed for a just and functional society with our level of technology? What jobs, of the tiny handful I’ve listed would you be willing to do because they needed doing, and you had the time and inclination, knowing that your needs were already met?

Which of them would you be willing to do in exchange for access to your favorite form of entertainment, your favorite drug, or your favorite foods?

Which of them would you do because it would allow someone you love to work on something that makes them happy?

I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who wasn’t willing to do some form of work that would make another person miserable.

A society that actually values the freedom of each human to pursue happiness, rather than endlessly growing “profits” isn’t just one that would be more pleasant for humanity as a whole, it would also be far more sustainable at pretty much every level.

Plenty of us would prefer to have toys or tools that last a long time, rather than disposable ones that pollute the environment when they have to be replaced.

How many of us would prefer to make tools or toys that last a long time, rather than ones that we knew would stop working soon, not because it’s not possible to build a better one, but because it’s more profitable to make and sell more items of lower quality?

With all the incredible technologies available to us, do you really think that it’s not possible for food to be distributed around the world based on need? Do  you really think it wasn’t possible to maintain a resource stockpile for pandemics that we’ve always known would happen? Do you really think we just don’t have the resources for everyone to have clean drinking water? Do you really think we need to have people claiming ownership of homes they will never need for themselves, just so they can charge other people for access? Do you really think our society is made better by forcing artists to do work they hate just to survive, rather than making art?

Is it so hard to imagine a society where all of our collective knowledge and skill is used for the health, education, and free time of everyone, rather than for one or two people to own a dozen yachts they never use, or to have private airplanes?

Is it so hard to imagine a society in which nobody gets rich off of war?

I don’t think it is, but it does require that we have the time and energy to do so, and the ability to learn from the passions and expertise of our fellow humans.

We have a finite time as sapient creatures on this planet, and it seems to me that the quality of our lives is centered around how we spend that time, and how our use of that time affects our fellow sapient creatures, both in the present, and in the future.

I believe we can work together to dismantle a system meant to control our existence, and to build a society that values our lives and our ability to enjoy them as best suits us, and I think that free time as the only true “freedom to pursue happiness” should be the central priority around which we rally.

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Dublin, at last

Well, where to begin?

Firstly, let me apologize for my long absence. My extended visa in the UK expired at the end of March, and so Tegan and I had arranged to move to Dublin, where her PhD began this year.

Unfortunately, her bout with Covid back in February is still showing up on tests, so she wasn’t allowed to travel. I came on ahead, with the cat and the dog to set up shop. Without going into too much detail, life got a lot more complicated than we had expected, and, I didn’t have much time or energy for anything other than moving.

Now I’m in Dublin at last, with Tegan shortly behind (I hope), and so far it has been lovely. Pretty much as soon as I got off the ferry from Holyhead, a fellow stopped to declaim at length about what a pretty dog Raksha is (which is an inarguable Truth), and to give me both his number, and the offer of help if I needed it.

That has set the tone for my time here the last couple days, with neighbors and contacts helping with boxes, groceries (since I am in quarantine) and other offers of assistance.

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very like the kind of community organizing/building work that inspired my direct action post, and after so long in the fragmented social landscape that seems so common in cities, there’s a lot for me to learn simply by trying to be a good member of this community to which I’ve moved.

It’s remarkable, for example, how a group of people going about their lives will cover enough ground in a city that if someone needs something, the odds are good that a neighbour will be able to pick it up, without needing a company like Amazon.

I suppose it comes with a loss in privacy – I’m not used to people outside my household knowing my grocery list and whatnot – but I find that it doesn’t bother me too much.

Maybe coming to terms with mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy has prepared us all to re-embrace the comparatively mild inconveniences that might come with a supportive community.

Multiple governments and corporations know, or will know as soon as they wish to, my health problems, my money problems, what I say near microphones, and what I do online.

They will never offer to pick up supplies for me, or to walk my dog.

When I get a terminal disease, they may well know it before I do, but they will not tell me or help me without a high price.

I’ve known them for two days, but I know for a fact that my new neighbours will bring me soup if I’m ill, whether or not I ask for it. I also know that being a renter impedes my ability to give as much to this community as I otherwise could.  Repairs, improvements, and maintenance all have to go through the company that owns my home, and while the people there are perfectly nice, and I’m sure are good people, their decisions in that regard are informed more by seeking profit than by the needs of their tenants.

I cannot be certain, but I suspect that is why my new refrigerator doesn’t work, and won’t until some time after my quarantine is over, despite this flat being vacant for weeks before I got here.

What would life be like if, instead of paying €1600 per month to someone else, somewhere else, I could spend that directly on what’s needed? Even if that was just a few hundred per month, it would allow me to save, and to spend more money on things like communal agriculture projects, or an algal farming cooperative, or something like that.

Instead, we have a long chain of people, each of whom is forced by law and circumstance to pay the next link, all funneling back to a small handful whose only skill is hoarding wealth.

In training themselves to become or remain wealthy, they neglected any of the creativity or human experience that would allow them to spend that wealth in a way that provides a net benefit for their own species, or the species on which we rely.

All.of this is to say that I’m “back”, with no intention of such lapses in the foreseeable future.  My formatting will be different for a bit because I’m doing this on a phone till I can get my computer running, but it good to be able to write for y’all again.

Tomorrow’s post will be on food forests, and as always I’m eager for feedback that will help me improve this blog as a resource for those who read it.

Edit: food forest post is going up Sunday. I lost track of time unpacking. It’s easy to forget that things other than writing also take time.