Pluralistic: 29 Jul 2022


Today's links



A leafy suburb, flooded to the roofline. In the foreground is a sign advertising a new subdivision, askew and partially submerged.

Spending $200b to relocated doomed communities will save $1T (permalink)

One million US homes are built on floodplains. It would cost $200B to relocate the people who live in them. If we do that, we will save $1T. Those homes are doomed. When (not if) people leave them (either before or after floods come), they'll merely be arriving at a conclusion that is inevitable today.

https://prospect.org/environment/how-to-de-develop-in-an-age-of-fire-and-flood/

There's a useful concept to think about here: "Bezzle," JK Galbraith's term for "the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it."

Some people call this the anthropocene, but we could also call it the bezzlepocene, the magic interval in which we can pretend that there is a chance that we'll return to "normal," and can therefore ignore the increasingly pressing need to get 1,000,000 American homeowners out of the path of the rising, violent waters coming their way.

https://pluralistic.net/2022/02/11/bezzlers-gonna-bezzle/#gryft

An ad for Vita Radium suppositories.

Here's another useful concept: "peak indifference." Peak indifference is the point at which the number of people who admit that there is a problem begins an uninterrupted, continuous rise. Think of "medical radium" as a model for this. Back in the old days, people used to stuff radium – a deadly, poisonous radioactive substance – into every orifice, from asshole to appetite:

https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/radioactive-quack-cures/pills-potions-and-other-miscellany/vita-radium-suppositories.html

Eating radium, smearing it on your skin, rubbing it on your teeth and stuffing it up your asshole is a Really Bad Idea. Do it long enough and you will die, in a very horrible way indeed. But people took the radium cure for a long-ass time and swore it helped. Some of them weren't sick to begin with. Some got better on their own. Some experienced the placebo effect.

All of that meant that, while there were always doctors and scientists running around shouting, "Please, for the love of God, stop putting radium in your asshole!" there were also lots of people saying "Don't you dare tell me what to put in my asshole!" while others were getting rich hocking radioactive butt-plugs.

Eventually, we stopped putting radium in our assholes. Somewhere in the journey from the first ad for a radium suppository and the last one, people started to self-radicalize as radium deniers. They saw enough of their loved ones develop suppurating lesions and ghastly tumors that they no longer needed convincing. Once that happened, it was inevitable: America became a land of radium-free back passages.

If a problem is real, denial can only last so long. Eventually, the interest on policy debt you accumulate from inaction will overwhelm your ability to service it, and you will end up in policy bankruptcy. No matter how many people are shouting "Don't look up!" eventually, even the hardest-bitten ideologue will become a believer, even if only as he breathes his last breath:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbIxYm3mKzI

In an ideal world, the point of peak indifference will come before the point of no return. Otherwise, denial can easily become nihilism: "Yeah, I get it now, you were right, rhinos are endangered! But now that there's only one left, we might as well find out what he tastes like, right?"

https://doctorow.medium.com/what-is-peak-indifference-b7ddb6d92ca5

(Or, more prosaically, "Yeah, you were right, these cigarettes were gonna kill me, but now that I've got Stage Four lung cancer, why quit?")

https://doctorow.medium.com/i-quit-9ae7b6010c99

There is a lot of housing stock that is in floodplains, and still more that is in urban/wilderness interfaces where wildfires are inevitable. We have to do something about that, and we're past the point where that something is "preventing floods and fires."

The thing we have to do is "managed retreat." As Gabrielle Gurley writes for The American Prospect, managed retreat is "simple, if hard-to-accept." It means ending decades of deference to developers who insist that "beauty spots" on the coast or in the woods are safe for human habitation:

https://prospect.org/environment/how-to-de-develop-in-an-age-of-fire-and-flood/

It's a lesson that California coastal towns are wrestling with. These are places where "managed retreat" is a curse-word, where politicians who dare to whisper about the risks of literally building a house on an eroding cliff-face is a bad idea are recalled and replaced with politicians who swear that we're just not putting enough radium in our assholes:

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-02-24/marina-sea-level-rise

Swish resort towns where the residents wake up one morning to find that their driveway and front lawn have disappeared overnight, so that their front door now opens onto a 200' plunge onto sharp rocks and surging seas are spectacular and cinematic, but they're not representative.

As Gurley writes, the history of "managed buyouts" is typically American, riven by racism that further punishes poor and marginalized people who were shoved into unsafe housing on floodplains by denying them fair compensation for the homes they were forced out of. A Pew Charitable Trusts report details a plausible plan for creating a new agency to manage this:

https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2022/04/property-buyouts-can-be-an-effective-solution-for-flood-prone-communities

We're already living in the managed retreat. The 2018 California Camp Fire and the 2021 Lytton Creek fire in BC simply wiped away whole towns, poof, gone, literally up in smoke. But there are localized pockets of peak indifference, places taking action before the point of no return.

In Charleston, SC, they're buying and demolishing houses in the floodplain, and blocking developers from building in low-lying areas.

Managed retreat is not defeat, it's victory. Managed retreat maintains our wild and beautiful places as buffer zones that are also recreation areas: campsites, public beaches, hiking trails. Just not places where you built a permanent structure that you fill with your every worldly good and everyone you love the most in this world.

During the lockdown, the World Economic Forum asked me to give a speech on AI and technological unemployment. They agreed that I could do a talk on why this was nonsense – not least because "AI unemployment" is a shell-game of bad statistics and hand-waving and sales literature masquerading as futurism.

But more importantly, it's nonsense because we have full employment for every person alive today and yet to be born. We are going to spend the next century or more relocating every coastal human settlement inland and uphill. This isn't something that will happen – it's something that is already happening.

It's a bezzle. The con artist takes your money but you don't know it's a con, so you think you're rich. The therms we've sunk into our oceans are going to melt a lot of polar ice. If you think we can prevent it, you're proposing that we repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It's fantasy, not sf.

When I turned in the text of my talk, the World Economic Forum uninvited me from their virtual event. I published it instead:

https://locusmag.com/2020/07/cory-doctorow-full-employment/

The world I described in that speech is visible in Ruthanna Emrys's stellar new novel A Half-Built Garden, where one sub-plot revolves around when we should stop taking ever-more-extreme measures to keep the Mississippi from bursting its banks and finding a new course, as it did for millennia. This is something that will happen inevitably, but moving all the people whose towns will drown is not a simple technical or social matter:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/07/26/aislands/#dead-ringers

Fiction is one of the key ways to hasten the point of peak indifference: it's an appeal to our imaginations, one that warns about how bad the point of no return will be, and also what a victory addressing our problems will be. When the bus is barreling towards a cliff, swerving hard is a happy ending, even if the bus rolls:

https://locusmag.com/2022/07/cory-doctorow-the-swerve/

This is the premise behind my 2024 Tor novel, The Lost Cause, which tells the story of truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias following a successful Green New Deal transition. In the book's backstory, the GND is kickstarted by a series of (ultimately) fortuitous coincidences: first, a set of late-breaking electoral scandals results in Canada's NDP winning a large parliamentary majority in a year that they had anticipated losing badly. The new Prime Minister is a Metis woman who had been picked by party grandees as a symbolic candidate in an election she was supposed to lose.

Instead, she finds herself commanding a bulletproof majority just as floods wipe half of Calgary (a city where unregulated developers have built extensively on floodplains) off the map. Rather than continuing the cycle of rebuilding and reflooding, the new PM commands that the city of Calgary will be relocated off the floodplain altogether.

This is the foundation of the "Canadian Miracle," which leads to the creation of national high-speed rail, national renewable electrification, and, eventually, an international civilian conservation corps that travels around the world, learning from and assisting in comparable projects everywhere.

Lost Cause is a novel filled with wildfires, zoonotic plagues, internal refugee crises and flashfloods. But it's a utopian novel – because it's a novel where we got to the point of peak indifference before we crossed the point of no return. It's a novel about confronting problems, rather than ignoring them.

Because managed retreat is a victory, not a defeat.

(Image: Bdelisle, CC BY 3.0; Rick Obst, CC BY 2.0; modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago UK high court experiences flash of sanity, decriminalizes sarcastic aviation tweeting https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/uk-high-court-overturns-conviction-for-twitter-joke/

#5yrsago New York property speculators have figured out how to evict everyone https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/08/17/tenants-under-siege-inside-new-york-city-housing-crisis/

#1yrago Stories from Black women's customer service hell: The women who answer the phone when you call Disney, Airbnb, Carnival and others https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/29/impunity-corrodes/#arise-ye-prisoners



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 532 words (26749 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 538 words (22961 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


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