Saturday, July 28, 2012

System Disruption and The World Without Us

I recently read a book called The World Without Us. There was a TV series a couple years ago of the same name, perhaps based on or inspired by this book. Basically, it is about how things would fare if, in one sudden instant, all humans simply died or disappeared in a sort of Rapture or human-specific disease (think biological weapons), or whatever. A thought experiment.

I think I enjoyed the TV show better, because the visuals help, but the book was interesting. Both go into how long buildings (and everything else human-made) would last. Surprisingly not very long for most things. Concrete dissolves in acidic rain, and if there's rebar in it, it goes even faster, since concrete is permeable and when the iron rusts, it expands, crumbling the human-made stone. True stone (granite, marble) lasts millenia, but concrete, steel and glass is cheaper, so our empire's buildings will not inspire people two or three hundred years from now. Besides stainless steel and plastics, very little trace of us will be lasting.

Water turns out to be the major force of destruction. A quote in the book goes, "if you want to tear down a barn, cut an 18 inch hole in the roof and stand back" or something like that. The rot sets in, comes through where roof nails rust, or the plywood glues decay or dissolve, or when the window caulk crumbles, or animals chew holes in. It doesn't take long after that.

There are places in Detroit, abandoned schools, homes, hotels, factories, and so on, where urban explorers like to haunt. I never went myself but I've seen blogs and photos and such about it, plus the afore mentioned TV show which talked about Gary, Indiana, in a similar state of abandonment and decay. Trees growing under broken roofs, pigeon guano and windblown leaves and dirt creating new soils and hastening the rot and rust, root-swell and the freeze-thaw cycle breaking down what was built. Of course, looters, explorers, and vandals hasten this process, but either way it goes quick. There are whole city blocks in Detroit that could be better named prairie than urban. The houses are all gone, burned by vandals or demolished by the city. Feral dogs roam in packs, deer move in, the game-bird population swells during hunting season, there in the new refuge, where the center is hollowing out in this late stage of our modern urban development cycle. Post-worthy all on itself, really.

The thing that really got me thinking, though, was the chapter late in the book about Houston. With all its refineries, chemical plants, and heavy industrialization, and the talk about nuclear plants in general. This is important to consider not merely for the fun of wondering what the world would look like if humans disappeared, how Nature would fare. No, this is important because of what could result from "system disruption." We live in frightening times. Climate is changing, the West is burning, the seas will be rising, cities flooded by the rising tide and destroyed by storms, Peak Oil is here, the Hollow State is here, confidence in the future is looking pretty bad. Who knows what could happen in the next decade or two? The collapse of our modern system is not as far fetched as it was ten, fifteen years ago.

So what about all these highly technical, delicate, and unfathomably dangerous and toxic systems we have. When the power goes out, when the oil and the money stops flowing, who is going to man the power stations, the chemical plant safety systems. It's not terrorism I worry about, and maybe not even World War Three, but systemic failure of these just-so systems and long supply lines is possible and terrifying.

Complex systems WILL fail. I read in the book Deep Survival about this, it's an aspect of Chaos Theory. The example was a pile of sand in a kitchen timer. Flip it over and watch. The sand piles up, up, up. There are little collapses of grains cascading down, but once in a while, the big slip happens, and the whole mound collapses. That may not seem a complex system, but it is, in a way: thousands of irregular-shaped grains piled up randomly and with stress (weight of more sand) being continually added. This model applies to survival disasters, like mountain climbing (all those many factors: snow conditions, sunlight and temperature, the ropes, knots, and anchors, human choice, etc); how much more so must it apply to what goes into creating and maintaining a working nuclear power plant?

I recently saw a show about nuclear weapons, the arms race, and disarmament, and one segment talked about near-accidents. A bomber carrying nukes accidentally drops one in South Carolina, and 14 of 15 redundant safety systems failed. One switch was all that stood between us and a nuclear explosion in a populous region. That was one example in a long list given: nuclear subs sinking with numerous warheads never recovered, false alarms at command posts (on both sides of the Iron Curtain), mid-flight collisions of bombers carrying nukes, the list went on.

And then look at Japan's recent tsunami, and the nuclear disaster. The earth can shift, the weather can turn, and suddenly we're swamped in toxins. I worry every time a hurricane looks like it might hit Houston. And how many chemical and nuclear plants and storage facilities are located in the area of the lower Ohio River and on down the Mississippi? The New Madrid Fault could slip at any time, and who knows what could happen then. Last time it did, in 1812, the Mississippi jumped out of it's bed, flowed backwards for a time, and finally took a new course. Chimneys toppled in Maine, sidewalks cracked in Washington, DC. Back then, the immediate area of the quake was almost unpopulated, save for a few white settlements and of course the Native American villages. Now, we have heavy industry, major cities, and a lot at stake.

So. If humans disappeared, Nature would suffer in the short run. The chemicals and radioactivity would be hard on selected regions for a good while. But left alone, Nature clenses itself rather well. Even if we remained, things could be alright if we'd stop piling on the hurt to the environment and let the healing procede. Truly, the main problem with the human effect on the world is what it does to humans. Yes, extinction is tragic, and the individuals that are dying would surely like to live. But on the whole, the Earth doesn't care, and Nature will fill the niches, or it will have simpler ecosystems. Whether there are lawns, or prairies winking at the sky with a million wildflowers, doesn't matter except in the minds of humans. If things went back to bacterial sludge, so be it. Evolution would start out again, perhaps. And of course, eventually the sun will expand and boil the oceans away and that will be the end of it. Nature, evolution, the Earth, none of them care about any of that. Humans do, or, at least they can.

Environmentalism is about people. Keeping people healthy and well, physically, aesthetically, spiritually, economically, et cetera. Naturally, all is One, so this means that the highest good for humanity is also that for the natural systems; biodiversity is resilience. So it does tie back in to saving the forest for the forest's own sake, because it's sake and ours are the same in the end. But my worry about system disruption in terms of chemical spills and nuclear disasters is more about the horrors it will cause for society, for people. Chernobyl is already basically a nature preserve, though too radioactive for humans thus far. 

And that's sort of the point, right? We could be walking into a world-wide Chernobyl. Humans aren't about to be erased from the world, so we need to be asking ourselves, just what kind of future do we want for ourselves? With so much hanging by a thread, we should be acting far more cautiously than we are, with our cavalier attitude, building cities on fault lines, toxic industry in the path of hurricanes and on the shores of rising seas, arming ourselves to the teeth and powering our cities with things we have no way of disposing of safely, simply waiting for some panicking fool in a bunker to push the big red button or for the safety systems to fail. Yeah, Nature will get by, and even some level of society will get by, but is this sort of progress worth the suffering?

Sad thing is, we will do nothing to change. We know we're warming the planet, but nothing is done. There's even a big new coal rush happening in Africa. We know how bad it is, but we keep making it worse. We build one Sword of Damocles after another. Why more people aren't lost in despair is beyond me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lines of Travel

Path through a relic piece of urban prairie

There were two places back in Metro Detroit that I used to hang out in, two tiny little patches of woods (one makes do with what nature one has, in the city). One, Tenhave Woods, was right behind my old high school, a patch of trees about 22 acres, a relic somehow left alone when the area was suburbanized starting in the 40's. It felt larger because it was pretty thick with undergrowth in many places. Part of it (naturally the part where the gates both were) was swampy as hell in the spring, I'd have to wade, shin deep, through standing water and liquid, sucking mud, but it would dry out eventually. It had some really old, big trees in there, mostly maple, white oak, and beech, and a vast diversity of wildflowers and other plants. There was a decent little trail network constructed by local Boy Scouts, where people could walk or even jog. In one corner sat a little pond, and the whole wood was a helpful refuge for raccoon, opossum, even a little herd of deer, and probably by now, coyote. There were even remnants in there from the last Ice Age: Glacial Lake Erie had a shore running through those woods, visible to one who knows what to look for.

The other spot, at Douglas Evans Nature Preserve, was even better. It was a little smaller than the other, but the best part was that it had the very windy Main Fork of the River Rouge running through it. Half prairie (mowed once a year), half forest, a little trail along the river, a big tree fallen across the river serving as a bridge, even more wildlife, actual topography changes (the "deep" cut river banks, mainly, but it made it feel hilly). All surrounded by the nice homes of Beverly Hills-- which just there felt more like country homes, when I'd see deer browsing in their flower gardens. I remember one mild December evening, just before sunset, I got off work and I rode my bike out there, enjoyed maybe the best Christmas Eve in my life, even though I only stayed an hour. It was the right place to be on such a day. Nature truly became my church that evening. 

I visited both places pretty often, came to truly love them; but still I don't feel like I really knew them fully. The seasons made them feel constantly new, and because I couldn't really hike these places (which, in winter with the leaves down, you could stand in the middle and see houses in every direction), I was forced to sit still or walk very slowly, to simply watch and listen, to really see and hear and feel and maybe even begin to understand.

And yet, there is so much in that handful of acres that I never exhausted them. Twenty acres of woods or even a Zen garden could provide endless opportunities, if you are sensitive to depth. The hiker in me ridicules the notion and calls for whole mountain ranges, but this is true. A cubic foot of soil contains more life than you can even imagine, every tree's bark is different and is traveled by all manner of insects, every bend in a little stream holds interest to a sensitive eye, and all of them change over time.

Then I look at this map, a life history of my travels, most from the last several years. Part of me feels like, damn, there's still 7 states to hit, and huge areas even in states I've visited that remain unexplored-- I've only seen extreme southeast Idaho, for example, and in Washington State, just the Portland suburbs on the north side of the Colombia River. Huge circles of unexplored area can be drawn in the Northwest, the northern plains, the Southwest and even my native Midwest. But my point is, can I claim to have really seen much of even the parts these lines do transect?

I've spent so much time trying to see more, bitten by the travel bug...but most of the lines are just me driving the interstates on my way to somewhere; and you don't see much on an interstate, or from a car in general. Example: I've been the length and breadth of Kentucky, but only on the roads, so I can't say I've really seen it. And all the trees in the east don't help much; even when they're just a "beauty strip," they block the view.  And when you have long views, so what? It's all whizzing past you, you'd be better off just looking at a picture back home, if that's all you're doing.

Some of the lines are better. One, from Georgia to Maine, is a rough estimation of the Appalachian Trail, which I walked all in one go, slow travel, immersed. Segments in the Sierra Nevada and SoCal mountains are the Pacific Crest Trail, same deal. Some of the stuff in Utah are hikes or places I worked in. Naturally I've seen a lot more of Michigan than I've been able to draw here, being a native of the state. And many of the lines have explorations along the way or at their ends that are too small to draw on this map.

So, while many people's maps would have far fewer lines than mine, what a meager thing it really comes to! There is a ton more of New England I'd like to see: the Adirondacks, the Maine coast, Boston, Cape Cod, to name a few. It'd be great to see the Cascade Mountains. What I saw of the Pacific Coast was paltry, mainly from cars while hitchhiking, or else being stuck in places not much worth seeing. All in all, I didn't take my time, and blew that opportunity. Even in Michigan there are places I wish I'd visited: never made it to Isle Royale (yet!), nor to Tahquamenon Falls, and I could be pretty happy in some of those towns "up north," like Manistee or Petoskey, or Alpena. To say nothing of Canada, or Europe!

Thoreau said something wise in his essay Walking, "There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you." And he was hiking around the rather gentle and tamed landscapes of eastern Massachusetts. I don't know how serious he was, since he took other trips, to Cape Cod, northern Maine, Canada, and even out to Minnesota. But he had his main stomping grounds, and was pretty much satisfied with them. 

The tree I call 
"Mother Oak,"
Tenhave Woods
How much space does it really take? Do we need to live next to Yellowstone to have a wilderness experience, or recreation in a natural area? The bigger the area, the less you get to know it, the more you miss and know you miss, and therefore the more restless you become, the more desirous. I remember many places along the AT, where I wished I wasn't thru-hiking, didn't have the need to push miles, and could hang around and explore, whether specific area like Smokey Mountains NP, various little towns along the way (especially in New England), even just random viewpoints where I'd have liked to just sit a few hours and bliss out.

I met a lady in Shennandoah National Park that summer of my hike; she lived nearby, and spent all the time she could hiking around in that one park, exploring, bushwhacking to places no one ever went to. She probably knows it better than anyone else alive, yet still finds more to keep her interested. My hike straight through was surely infinitely better than cruising Skyline Drive, but even so it was still just a tiny slice of the park, a fraction of what was there to be known. I'm starting to think she was on the right track.

I guess what I'm getting at is sort of an instance of the Little Way of St Therese. Clearly she wasn't talking about hiking or nature, but, "St Therese translated “the little way” in terms of a commitment to the tasks and to the people we meet in our everyday lives." It's rather Zen, and actually I wonder if having grown up in a parish where both my church and school were both named Shrine of the Little Flower, a nickname of hers, had anything to do with my Zen leanings. We did review her life in religion class, and I still remember her "little way" all these years later. Or maybe it's like Blake wrote, 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I still hold those two tiny natural patches, all the way up in Michigan, in the midst of so much suburban sprawl, as sacred, at least in my own personal spiritual landscape. The hours I spent there, the poems I wrote there, the memories I created there, they are all still with me. Their 'placeness' still resonates in my soul. I am still inspired by them. 

Though on balance I'd prefer more nature than is available even in such plots, and I'd prefer a smaller town (but not too small), I think a diet of little patches of woods and wild, while occasionally taking a real retreat, would work. Because I do need the occasional real escape from urbanity, it's noise and inroads, which are not available in the little places, where traffic sounds penetrate. And sometimes you just need an adventure. But over all, the point of these major retreats shouldn't, it seems, be to see ever more places, a mere catalogue of new terrain, but to find the peace, beauty, and spirit of Nature. Kids (and everyone) should travel to expand their minds and views, not to pile up a bragging list of exotica; to draw a map not of distances, but one with lines that lead toward depth.