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“Four Lost Cities”

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A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

This book showed up on my library hold list much faster than usual. It is not classed as a Fast Read by VPL but that is what it turned out to be. That is because it is very well written and engaging and it spends quite a bit of effort in debunking favourite interpretations of history and pre-history.

It is also written with an eye to the current market for books. As the jacket blurb says “it may also reveal something of our own fate”. Annalee Newitz strikes an optimistic note at the end of her book. Cities have always risen and fallen, and structures may survive but customs and practices adapt and in the long run humanity has managed to survive and thrive. So there have been major disasters – like the eruption of Vesuvius that ended old Pompeii – and administrative cock-ups and misdirections due to following false prophets – but somehow we manage to reorganize and keep going. There have been pandemics, and tidal waves, explosions natural and contrived and human spirit just keeps on going.

The reason I am writing this is that I do not share her optimism. We have never before lived through a time when we exceeded the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 400 parts per million (ppm) and we did that in 2013. And kept on going. The dramatic weather events we saw in 2021 were the result of the CO2 emitted years ago. What we are emitting now is going to have impacts in the next century. We are almost certainly going to exceed the 1.5℃ average warming – the current “target” – and, as we are seeing, that is bad enough. The fires and floods were unprecedented but will not be unusual – and will get worse. And it is unlikely to be a steady decline but one that gets bad rapidly as the tipping points are passed.

We have already extirpated more kinds of plants and animals than ever before. We have comprehensively wrecked ecosystems – coral reefs and temperate coastal rainforests being the most noticeable. It is not just humans that are suffering. And that also applies to the pandemic – which is not just a problem for our species.

The people displaced by the volcanoes, earthquakes and flash floods of the past simply moved on to somewhere else. We are currently organised on the principal that we will no longer accept refugees, except in very limited numbers and special cases. There are some who think that we might be able to get off this planet and go to another one. I think they are deluded.

And all of this is before we take into account the risks that have always been there but were, by their very nature, unpredictable. We have just refreshed the grab bag of emergency supplies that lives in the front hall, just by the door. But if the Big One hits … We ought be learning just how fragile our survival systems are in reality. The barge on the beach is not a comedy show – any more than the increasing number of abandoned boats in the harbour are. The day that was lost to the AWS failure is nothing in comparison to what is inevitable but impossible to predict accurately enough.

Worse than all of that is a political system that willfully ignores events. That does not understand the sunk cost fallacy. That thinks we can always build another freeway if we lose bits of one. That has no interest in even debating the need for change from business as usual. That ignores the solutions to the problems we have been refusing to deal with for many years. Homelessness isn’t new – it requires that we provide homes. We don’t want to do that, but we will open more temporary shelters if there is bad weather. Drug addictions and their commitment health issues have been dealt with effectively elsewhere – but we won’t do that either. Anymore that we will end the carnage of death and injuries on our roads that other places no longer face. We know what we must do to reduce fossil fuel use – but our emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are increasing and show no signs of stopping.

And none of these problems are confined to one city. They are more or less common to all the “advanced economies”. And we haven’t even touched on the troubles of most of the rest of the world. Most of which are driven by the same crises that we are failing to tackle.

The next book on my hold list has shown up as I write. It is fiction. Good. I have had enough of reality.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 12, 2021 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Transportation

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