My Brittle Garage
What an atmospheric river and a wonky drain pipe can teach us about the future.
Wide-hovering, all the clouds together drove... and now the thickened sky Like a dark ceiling stood; down rushed the rain Impetuous; and continued, till the earth No more was seen…
—Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XI
The flood began a few days ago, with a rain so light it was almost a mist.
I went to bed to the white noise of a gentle drizzle, and woke in the middle of the night to a downpour that sounded like someone was beating a snare drum to pieces.
Then it really started raining hard.
This rain had a message to deliver; it wanted to be heard. That message was apparently, “Your driveway drain pipe sucks, dude.”
To prove the point, water began to puddle around the drain grate that is meant to deliver runoff from the yard to the stormsewer underneath the street. And still it rained. Being a proactive sort, when absolutely forced into action, I called in a plumber. A hour of him banging and roto-rooting, and the puddle began to drain. The control of nature was once again assured.
So total was that control that upon waking this morning, after hours more of hard rain, I was able to step out onto the back deck and find myself with a scenic view of North America’s newest lake. A non-cooperative drain had birthed a lake whose waters now ran through — and beyond — the garage.
That’s right, the old garage I’d hoped to turn into a writing shed — in which to write about the realities of a discontinuous planetary future. Half a foot of climate reality is currently sloshing around inside it. My garage is brittle.
The irony is a bit thick. Climate futurist, forecast thy-own-self — right?
Now, this is no real tragedy. The water will drain. Things will dry out and be repaired. A few possessions got wet, but everyone’s safe. Steps will be taken to avoid this kind of problem in the future.
But we will see a lot more of these problems in the future. In the scientific parlance, a fuck-ton more. The future is a tapestry of problems, conflicts and weirdness.
As I write this, an “atmospheric river” is rolling overhead. Today is already the second wettest day since record-keeping began in San Francisco, and we’ve still got more than eight hours of rain forecast until midnight. That’s why I’ve spent the day splashing around ineffectually, playing hydrological engineer. But we haven’t seen anything yet.
Rainier days (and much larger atmospheric rivers) are forecast in the years to come, courtesy of global heating. Indeed, researchers say, “Climate change is rapidly increasing the risk of a California megaflood.” The weather here aims towards chaos. There’s a hard rain gonna fall.
The landscape onto which that hard rain falls is, like my driveway, brittle.
California is one of the most engineered hydrological landscapes in the world. Meltwater from the mountains is captured and dammed and piped to arid coastal cities. Tule marshes and seasonal bogs are drained and diked to feed a continental hunger for fruits and vegetables. Coastlines are redrawn. Huge swathes of what was once (within living memory) orchard, farmland and range are now buried under impervious arterials, parking lots, strip malls and subdivisions. Once-vast ancient forests have been logged and burned and bulldozed until soil erosion and landslides and baking heat have rendered most of the Northern part of the state into an industrial woodland crisis zone that will soon support more backcountry firefighters than salmon runs. Nothing about how water works here is natural.
California is an engineered place, and it has been engineered to perform within a set of expected tolerances. Whoever installed my driveway drain had no reason to expect the kind of rain we’ve had today. Similarly, the folks who maintain and repair and plan and expand California’s multitudinous engineering projects were educated to engineer things within that set of expected tolerances. Old thinking is not helpful in a world that works by new rules.
California’s strengths and wealth and talent, nonetheless make it one of the places in North America best preparing for the world to come… one of the few places ruggedizing for the wild world we’re living in. That should not blind us to the sheer scale of the challenges now blowing into our lives, economies and democracies. The future of California is far from secured.
The brittleness we’re surrounded with is far more than a weather problem, or an engineering problem. It is a disastrous mismatch between what we think assets, systems and places are worth, and what they turn out to be worth when we really get what’s going on: the brittleness bubble.
We are, none of us, ready for what’s already happened. Even where we are more ready than our neighbors, we live in a political context where our neighbors’ denial, reactionary anger and imperfectly understood self-interest put our own lives and fortunes at risk. Personal ruggedization is a critical survival skill.
The rain still falls, outside. The garage is still flooded. My writing shed hopes will have to float for a while.
Elsewhere, many millions of people struggle to survive unprecedented and transapocalyptic conditions — realities whose tolls escape the coping abilities of humor... and we have only had the faintest taste of the catastrophes that are now inevitable and irreversible. In the very near future, billions could be reeling away from the ruin of their homes and certainties.
None of this is news.
I have worked these question for more than three decades — when so many jobs would have been easier and more renumerative — because I grasped the rough truth of this new era since I first encountered it, in my late teens. I learned that truth from others who saw it coming, who had themselves learned it from others who imagined it might be. We’re many generations in, now — in some tellings of the story, the work has never stopped, going back into the mist times of our most remote ancestors. Have we ever been at home in the manifest facts of the planet?
The wisest and most learned men and women can find no agreement on this question. How the heck would I know the answer, when I work mostly from deep reading, lived work experience and educated intuitions? Having raced ahead to know so much more than others, I find the prize to be a growing relationship with uncertainty. I know a fair bit about how the world is, but when it comes to actual wisdom, I know I’m still a novice, floating in a small boat over vast depths, in whose watery twilights utterly transformative understandings swim and turn, unseen.
I can tell you as much as anyone else about what’s unfolding out of this shattering planetary crisis. I think we live in denial about how deep the relearning will go.
But for tomorrow, I have a drain to clear, and a garage to dry, and plans to revise. And for now, a change of years to celebrate with my love people.
May the New Year bring you love and joy and good fortune,