Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent

Houston will be rebuilt to withstand challenges of the past, not the future, because that’s what declining civilizations do.

Every few years some event makes me come back  to The Long Descent, John Michael Greer’s book about the end of civilization as we know it. This time, it was Hurricane Harvey and the destruction in Houston.

The Long Descent came out in 2008, and I reviewed it for the Sift in 2010 (long enough ago that I’ll assume you either hadn’t discovered the Sift yet or lack encyclopedic recall of everything that’s been in it since). TLD is both depressing and reassuring: depressing because Greer thinks our civilization is already on the way down, and reassuring because he believes that a civilization-wide decline takes a very long time to play out. (The peak of the Roman Empire was in the 2nd century, but the last Caesar didn’t fall until the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. As Adam Smith is supposed to have remarked in 1778, when told that Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga marked the ruin of England: “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.“) So Greer doesn’t predict a Mad Max future for our children, just an era of greater difficulty and more constraint, followed by an era of even more difficulty and constraint for their children.

Oversimplifying greatly, Greer sees civilization as a constant struggle between Construction and Destruction. Construction is happening all the time and is fairly gradual, while Destruction tends to concentrate in big disasters. In an ascending civilization, Construction is the long-term winner; every big disaster is just an excuse to rebuild bigger and better, as London (1666) and Chicago (1871) did after their Great Fires.

But during the descent, Destruction has the upper hand: A certain amount of rebuilding happens after each disaster, and sometimes it even briefly looks like things have turned up again, but you never quite get back to the previous peak before the next disaster sends you reeling. A constant shortfall of constructive energy means that maintenance is always getting deferred, which invites the next disaster sooner than it would otherwise show up.

New Orleans, for example, had about 450K people before Katrina. It shrunk by about half immediately afterward, and has “recovered” back to about 390K. Pre-Harvey Houston clocked in at 2.3 million. What does its future hold?

That’s not really a fair comparison, though, because New Orleans was already shrinking before Katrina, while Houston has been growing. Houston is a still full of oil money,  so maybe its recovery will look more like London or Chicago.

However, there’s one way in which New Orleans and Houston are similar: Both were disasters waiting to happen, but it was always easier to live in denial of that fact than to build the infrastructure necessary to mitigate the destruction. New Orleans’ vulnerability was pointed out in 2002 (three years before Katrina) by a five-part series in The Times-Picayune:

It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.

Houston’s precarious situation was described last year by Pro Publica and The Texas Tribune in their “Boomtown, Flood Town” series.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It’s home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it’s a sitting duck for the next big hurricane.

When New Orleans rebuilt, it only kinda-sorta dealt with the risks that Katrina had exposed. In 2015, Scientific American asked: “Is New Orleans Safer Today Than When Katrina Hit Ten Years Ago?

It took state officials, scientists and engineers seven years to finally agree on a master recovery plan, released in 2012, and only then did work begin in earnest. The region had dodged an annual bullet because no big hurricane had returned. But several shortcomings in the plan, being discussed by experts, raise questions about whether the New Orleans area is safer now and whether it will be safer in the future.

The article’s conclusion is that the center of New Orleans is now safe against the mythical “100-year storm” (an insurance standard based on pre-climate-change statistics) as long as the newly rebuilt levees and floodwalls are properly maintained. (In addition to normal deterioration, New Orleans is still sinking, so levees and floodwalls will need to be raised periodically.) But this is exactly the kind of maintenance that doesn’t get done in Greer’s model of declining civilizations. There’s always a budget crisis, a more urgent problem, and various other reasons to defer the work until next year.

Communities outside the city center, where more people live than in New Orleans proper, are as exposed as ever. Various kinds of human activity have destroyed the vegetation in the Mississippi Delta’s marshlands, so nothing slows down a storm surge. There’s a restoration plan, but it is still unfunded. Maybe the resources will come from BP’s settlement for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, maybe the rest of the local oil industry can be convinced or compelled to cough up money, or maybe somebody (local? state? federal?) will be willing to pay higher taxes. But the more likely scenario is that everybody will just cross their fingers and prepare to blame somebody else when the next storm hits.

Houston is bigger and richer than New Orleans, and Texas is bigger and richer than Louisiana, so maybe things will be different this time. But probably not. The Northeast is also richer than Louisiana, and the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging. Last October, WNYC reported:

At first, Sandy seemed to be the calamity that was finally big enough to rouse the country to the arrival of climate change’s many risks. … But even as the inevitability of rising seas and extreme storms settled in, a chasm opened between the actions necessary and what would actually get done.

… Every 30 years FEMA tries to update flood maps which determine two things: cost of insurance and guidelines for building standards. Property owners get lower premiums if they meet or exceed FEMA’s standards.

What is not commonly understood is FEMA’s limitations. It is not allowed to use predictive science. It is supposed to use the present and past as guidelines, but it has not included Sandy’s impact in drafting the most recent maps that the communities are using to rebuild.

Even if FEMA is required to give obsolete advice to local builders, President Obama had at least managed to include climate change in the federal government’s own building plans. But President Trump just reversed that policy.

A key element of the new executive order rolls back standards set by former President Barack Obama that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.

His justification:

This overregulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community.

In other words: Realistic federal regulations are too onerous; they slow down the building process and make it more expensive. Projects can be built faster and bigger and grander if we let ourselves live in a fantasy world.

Texas, where state government is also dominated by climate-change deniers, is not likely to buck this trend. So when Houston is rebuilt, it will undoubtedly be built to withstand last year’s weather, but not next year’s weather, and certainly not the weather of 2030. For a time, it will look fabulous. And then it won’t.

Rising civilizations respond to challenges with visionary bursts of construction. At the height of the British Empire, for example, London responded to a series of cholera epidemics and the Great Stink of 1858 by building a citywide sewer system that is still in use today.

But declining civilizations are always a step behind. They congratulate themselves for how well their plans would deal with yesterday’s problems, while ignoring the predictable challenges they soon will have to face.

Watching up close the forces Greer describes, I come to realize that decline is as much a psychological condition as an objective situation. A civilization on the cusp of decline may still have enough constructive energy to deal with its real challenges, if it faces them. But if instead it indulges in magical thinking, and builds for a fantasy future in which those challenges simply go away, then it will miss all its opportunities to turn things around. Its wishful thinking about its own greatness will be precisely what keeps it from ever making itself great again.

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  • mary scriver  On September 4, 2017 at 11:23 am

    What you describe afflicts religious denominations as well.

    • Larry Benjamin  On September 4, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      True, but a religion in decline only means that fewer people attend worship services, and more houses of worship shut down than new ones are opened. A civilization in decline has serious consequences for everyone.

  • Anonymous  On September 4, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Federal aid is going to be critical for Houston. I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to include something in the aid package that says they can’t just rebuild the same problems, but need to fix some of them in order to use federal money. I’d be more optimistic about that if there were fewer people in congress who don’t think climate change is a real thing.

  • ccyager  On September 4, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Eloquent indictment of Trump’s policies. We don’t need leaders who live in a fantasy world of their own dreaming.

  • Kim Cooper  On September 4, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    What makes a whole civilization start to decline? And, is it just the US or the whole of Western Civilization that is declining?

    • weeklysift  On September 5, 2017 at 7:09 am

      Greer envisions a decline based on the failure of the fossil fuel economy, so that would be the entire West, and maybe more.

  • Anonymous  On September 4, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    “Its wishful thinking about its own greatness will be precisely what keeps it from ever making itself great again.”

    This is precisely why I think that “American Exceptionalism” is one of the most dangerous ideas I’ve ever heard. The GOP has it as it’s foundational point in the 2016 party platform. “American Exceptionalism” has as it’s basis the wishful thinking that the U.S. can do whatever it feels like doing, and it’s always the right thing to do, because the U.S. is such an exceptional nation. The GOP should be reminded hourly that exceptional is as exceptional does.

  • nwbaxter  On September 6, 2017 at 8:34 am

    I disagree that the decline of America will take a long time. Rome was a complex civilization for its time, but nothing compared to the complexity of American civilization. Ours is a fragile edifice, and can be readily undone. That fragility is put at greater risk by the unwillingness of large portions of our population to accept fact based reality as a basis for action, and further undermined by the absurd notion that the only responsibility anyone has is to take care of themselves. The idea of the common good has been relegated to the “dustbin of history”, at least in our nation. Witness the destruction of what was left of the commons after Katrina. Greer is entirely too optimistic.

    • Anonymous  On September 7, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      I think that the decline of the idea of the common good is at least partly the result of the way that we fund political campaigns.

      Corporations are organized around doing what’s best for themselves, regardless of how it affects the rest of society. Corporations can also contribute to political campaigns. Once they do that, they have the candidate’s ear. And they lobby for things that are good for them, regardless of how it affects the rest of society. Private prisons that want mandatory minimum sentences are one example, but there are many more.

      I think that if you are concerned about the decline of the idea of the common good, you should also be concerned about our money in politics problem. Here’s a couple of relevant links:
      * TED talk and book by Laurence Lessig (http://lesterland.lessig.org/). He does a very good job of laying out what the problem is. He did the TED talk a few years ago, but unfortunately, the problem hasn’t gone away in the meantime.
      * Issue One (https://www.issueone.org/). Former government officials – senators, governors, members of the house – from both parties – people who have lived the problem speaking out to end it.
      * Sarbanes (https://sarbanes.house.gov/). Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) has been very vocal on this topic. He introduced a bill in the House that would create a national system similar to what is used in New York City (https://youtu.be/4C4wGHfL_a4), and he travels around to talk about it. His bill is the Government By the People Act (https://sarbanes.house.gov/bythepeople).


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