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Climate Summer

July 31, 2018
April 22, 2019

We primarily need to address the causes of climate change: industrialism, capitalism, inequality, militarism, imperialism, institutional destruction of, and disrespect for, nature and people ... the list of contributors is long. We need to commit to stopping the bad economy and creating the good economy, so our daily efforts aren't continually, undeniably, contributing to the system we're opposed to.

But along with building coöps, democratic community development trusts, replacements for corporate imports, etc. ... we also need to develop a good economy of coping with disaster.

Extreme swings in weather are a
mong the most notable consequences of cataclysmic climate change. 

Today everyone and everything is entangled with a practical question: how can we protect ourselves, and our built and natural environments, from these windy and fiery "new normal" summers and droughts, and their complementary heavy rain and flooding? And how can we do so in a way that helps to reverse climate change, and helps us to grow a better society, in harmony with nature?

How about watering?

Now, I suppose it's predictable that someone living in Oregon -- writing for a publication called 'Rain' -- would ask this question. There's no doubt that in some of our seriously drought-afflicted regions on earth, this sounds gratuitous, because there seems to be no water at all! 

But even though aquifers are collapsing, we need to remember that there are ancient cultures and indigenous populations that adapted. They created oases for themselves in desert conditions, using hand-built infrastructure. Consider artificial lakes, ponds, and wetlands, as well as qanats, capillary canals, terraces, swales & berms: ecologically-sensitive infrastructure still in use today. It's not strange to suggest that we work harder to water plants, because they serve as a counter to heat -- since they provide shady microclimates -- and floods -- since they protect soil from runoff. Where we can, we need to do the equivalent of replacing the season-balancing role of the now rare glaciers and snowpacks.

Of course we need to do much more than water, based on local ecologies. But I want to make one thing clear about this one aspect of what is needed: this is not a 'geo-engineering' proposal.

Mega-projects have a poor history. The first principle of any proposed action, large or small, should be to do no harm, to people and ecologies, and create incremental improvements using techniques accessible to everyone, so everyone can get involved at a grassroots level. I will not be rushing towards 'big technological solutions', such as massive dams and canals. They are harmful and inequitable, erosive of the environment, and inefficient. Always. We can find more natural routes, which will be more sensitive, coöperative, flexible, and successful.

We want to reduce desertification, wildfires, extreme heat, etc.. Then, roughly, we need to retain more winter rain, for use throughout summers and droughts. It's an imposed balance, to correct an anthropogenic atmospheric imbalance that's wiping out the environment we depend upon. 

But we don't want to do this by further hurting our aquifers, lakes, rivers, and coasts. We want to enhance them, and, if appropriate, to stabilize them. In the most abstract sense, we need to keep the rainwater out of the ocean, by identifying and preventing the loss of wasted water (stormwater runoff, lost graywater, polluted waters, etc.) and preventing floods. But we also need to be sensitive to the erosion of coastal habitat and the runs of aquatic life. 

We don't want to hurt our ocean estuaries. But sometimes river overflow runoff does them great harm. We can help estuary ecologies to compensate -- we've been very bad to them in general, polluting the waters and denuding the shores of plant life -- to compensate for lowering river flows. We'll be lowering river fluctuations as well, to get hold of more water, and although people don't like floods, sometimes they are important, so we need to carefully address the issues. A serious and massive social movement of people, coöperatively engaged in ecological restoration and care, is necessary everywhere.

Hypothetically, retaining runoff could also help to reduce sea-level rise. But this will have limits, since the labor for restoring hydrological balance may only be available in places where there are enough people living there do to so. For example, the primary-contributing melting surface iceflows in Antarctica and Greenland are not suffused with workers and infrastructure. Even in crowded temperate regions, it will take a great deal of human effort, and reorganization of the economy, to compete with the travels of water vapor -- increasingly retained in our warming air -- or to compete with worldwide deglaciation, sufficiently to prevent sea-level rise. But where we can prevent runoff, every bit will help, as humans slowly organize the necessary social and economic changes to stop climate change.

One of the easiest and most efficient approaches to water retention -- incremental, again to avoid slow and expensive mega-projects -- is to save winter-water on the local level: in the home, farm, village, neighborhood, city, and rural district.

Again, new big dams would be too expensive to build and maintain, but as a start, if the populace was to draw off more water in the winter, when it's plentiful, through existing infrastructure, they could store the necessary-yet-wasteful dam-overflow-prevention releases in the winter. Many dams drawdowns are purposeful and annual, to allow for fish mobility. This water could be drained into much smaller, and hopefully less harmful, secondary reservoirs. Care must be taken that these storage systems are ecologically respectful, and don't block waterways ... a plethora of small river dams are just as harmful as one big river dam.

What would this local water storage be like? Many small off-stream reservoirs, ponds, swales, restored aquifers, tanks, cisterns ... Do we already have enough infrastructure to store and use this extra water properly? Nowhere near enough yet. We will need to consider distribution and storage strategies, the volume equivalent of a gradient of lakes and rivers, as if we were building 'sprinkler systems' throughout our urban, rural, and wild forests.

A feedback effect of watering will also lower CO2 in the atmosphere. The more we water and restore plant ecologies, the more CO2 they can withdraw. And the O2 they provide is very helpful for us animals.

The biggest risk comes if this watering system fails. In these increasingly dry summers, the more vegetation that has grown in the wet season, or through watering, the more vulnerable that region is to wildfires, if that vegetation then dries out. 

But what is the alternative? An increasingly hot, desert world. We need to start getting good at integrating water-retention and watering strategies with our artificial, landscaped, and wild natural environments.

As a stopgap measure, we can also use traditional techniques to remove some dry plant material -- flocks of sheep and goats can do this quite well. 

It's labor intensive. But, as it turns out, we have a vast population of mis-employed, underemployed, and unemployed people, many of whom feel quite rightly that they're currently wasting their lives and their abilities as wages-slaves for a machine that is destroying the earth and the possibilities for genuine personal fulfillment. Instead, they could work creatively and coöperatively, with everyone doing their share, to solve these problems. We need to find a way to mobilize our transnational global population -- and for this, community organizing is the key.

Still, even with a social revolution, I know the prospect of 'watering our way' out of this crisis seems unlikely. Look at, for example, the browning of Europe (which obviously lacks this imagined water distribution) in one year's time (from NASA):

brown europe
Even to those of us who assiduously continue to garden in this weather, that looks like a lot of watering! And when you consider that aquifers are collapsing in these vast areas, the prospects seem even more dire.

So let's do some first-order calculations.

Denmark, above, has a land mass of 2.2 million square kilometers.

Let's assume that 100% of this needs to be watered.

5.7 million people live in Denmark.

So each person in Denmark would be responsible for watering 0.45 kilometers of land -- saving water in the winter, distributing it in the summer.

That's 45 hectares of land. Or 111 acres. This is enough land for a productive export farm for several families.

But let's assume that, somehow, with enough collaboration, water, swales, and channels, this level of responsibility is possible. Or, at least, enough of it to make a difference.

How much water would it take?

How much are we starting with?

The average annual precipitation in Copenhagen is 525mm. If you could capture all of that and balance it throughout the year, that's 1.43 milimeters of water each day. 

That works. There's not much need to go further with the first-order approximation. 1.43mm of water on a hot summer's day doesn't sound like a lot to keep even some natural grassland green. However, that's water that will end up in self-organizing plant ecologies, along with carbon pulled from the atmosphere, to cool the local environment. It will make microclimates that can induce rain, and make the world more tolerable for us and our fellow creatures. It will involve people in activities that will make them fight against a world of climate injustice and carbon-emitters. It's the beginning of several virtuous feedback loops. 

I'm skipping over all the other good practices of ecological conservation and restoration, and thoughtful, careful enriching of our urban, agricultural, and wild areas. Soils need to be alive to retain water -- which will otherwise just evaporate while the soil erodes. Many cultures, and locally the permaculture people among others, have compiled good principles and techniques to help with naturally efficient enrichment. These have become more broadly understood by agricultural scientists in the last few decades. These can help compensate for deficits in our first-order estimates. Additionally, low-cost sensible technology from indigenous peoples all over the world, who needed to survive hot climates without modern air-conditioning, need to be carefully studied, reproduced, and adapted. Water stays cool in vessels kept out of radiant heat, and there are countless other cooling system strategies. The way we cool ourselves today -- with air conditioning that burns carbon fuel and directly heats the outside -- is of course not sustainable. 

The work of growing a sustainable hydrological infrastructure itself will need to be done with the lowest possible carbon footprint. Gangs of firetrucks, jumbo jets and helicopters carrying water are great in an emergency, but if we're doing fire-prevention work -- which like preventative medicine is intended to avoid emergencies -- it needs to be done as subtly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise we're not creating a sustainable economy and society around ecological water management.

Even this work will require breaking the chains of the modern economy, which is currently structured towards, and focusing our lives upon, the accumulating of money and power for the few. We must erode this terrible system, and the difficulties and debts it burdens people with, as we build the good. And we can only do it together. No single 'climate idea' will have an effect as long as people are trapped in the the current anti-climate system.

I imagine the volunteer, enthusiastic, grassroots organization of 'social hydrology' camps and brigades. It would provide a grand opportunity to grow a coöperative society. Living lightly throughout nature, independent but coöperating and connected to each other and cities, we can create an interactive relationship with nature and ourselves as we try to, ironically, save the wild. It is reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, when organic farming slowly became a way of life and coöp tree-planters like the Hoedads took on environmental issues, or the 1990s, when youth in the northwest put their lives on the line with tree-sitting, in a kind of precursor to the occupy movement in the 2010s. While I was writing this, I found a T-shirt created by the late Rain illustrator Paul Ollswang, which could have been an organizing tool for these initial 'social hydrology brigades'. On the back was Gary Snyder's Smokey the Bear Sutra, and on the front was Ollswang's illustration of that sutra:

Paul Ollswang Gary Snyder Smokey the Bear Sutra

"Let's get organized": that's my 'hot take' on this 'climate summer'. If communities at the grassroots work to resolve these disasters themselves, if everyone pitches in to do what's necessary, then it will be possible to force governments to help.

Update April 22, 2019:

The extra heat of the climate crisis has created more extremes that, on the one hand, we need to cope with, but on the other hand, we have the responsibility to use for the benefit of reversing climate change. We need to be the negative feedback loops that combat the positive feedback loops that we previously set in motion. I'll use the 'we' here even though there's an active fight between those who want to battle the climate crisis, and those who want this not to effect their lives, profits, or power.

In the spring we have worsening extreme rain and flooding events, because the extra heat leads to the air holding more moisture. But these downpours provide resources we can use to 1) protect ourselves from the drought later in the year, and 2) regenerate the ecosystems that have been directly and indirectly ravaged by our actions.

Look at this reservoir map of Oregon:

Oregon Spring Reservoirs 2019

Who knows how much water was lost this spring? The dams were overflowing requiring such high levels continual release (to prevent structural damage) that we were producing artificial flooding for weeks. This eroded soils, weakened civic and private infrastructure, and hurt wildlife. 

We could have done so much with that water. Specifically, we could have used it to protect wildlife during the drought we know is due to come for the next 8-9 months! During the drought, our forests and will dry up, stressing or destroying an ecosystem of thousands of plants, animals, and fungi working hard to store carbon and regenerate life.

Does the government want to help people with decent employment? How about this 'shovel-ready project': send anyone who can to the forest in the summer to carefully dig and handbuild networks of hillside swales, cachements, streams, and qanats in the forests, upstream from these dams. That will slow the flooding, provide badly needed work, and provide water to the forests throughout the drought.

a rainwater cachement

These are regenerative and rewilding -- the revival of local pond ecosystems through the construction of pond cachements is among the lowest-cost and best-outcome approaches to carbon sequestration.

rewilding ponds

It's often said that state governments can't print money. But that's simply incorrect. The state has land, and can facilitate the building of eco-housing communities which can provide a full, stable lifestyle in exchange for work. That's just like printing money. Actually, cities, counties -- even non-profits and co-ops -- could do the same thing.

Along with these positive things, we also need to stop the bad stuff. 

The federal government has been badly 'managing' forests in Oregon for years, in order to help corporations, not people or nature. We need to stop clearcuts, which destroy the forest ecosystem, and we need to stop log exports, which destroy local jobs. We need to provide jobs in wood reclamation -- we're throwing good wood away all the time, and frankly wasting our building stock itself through chronic habits of disrepair, which fund slumlord and developer profits when buildings are torn down and replaced. We need jobs in restoration, repair, maintenance, and improvement of buildings -- not in their wholesale destruction and reconstruction. We need to create more efficient, non-carbon cooling and heating systems, with an emphasis on negawatts, and integrated human-driven / passive climate control. There is so much to do, the fact that anyone is unemployed or homeless is just another example of a top-down system that fails miserably. That's the motivation behind initiatives like the green new deal and the leap manifesto. We can make it work, together. 

climate and the summer


dry grass


polluted river

firebird in clouds