The fragility of our modern human civilization did not become clear to me until I began living full-time in South America. As a resident of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of knowing where the things I consume come from.
The water I drink, for example, comes from a hole in the ground that taps into a water table replenished by the clouds hanging over the Podocarpus National Forest to the East. I can make a logical connection between the clouds, the rainfall, and the water in my glass. And if the well pump fails, I know I can always carry a bucket to the river a few hundred meters away and scoop up virtually unlimited quantities of water that recently fell out of the sky.
During a recent trip to Tucson, however, I found myself hesitating when I turned on the kitchen faucet. I paused, marveling at the magic of this water which apparently appears from nowhere. And it’s always there, reliable and uninterrupted. That’s when I noticed myself asking the commonsense question: “Where does the water come from around here?”
I had no idea.
The realization astonished me. I lived in Tucson for over five years and yet the thought suddenly occurred to me that if the water stopped magically flowing out of these pipes, I had absolutely no idea where to physically find waterbeyond the bottled water in the grocery stores, and that wouldn’t last very long.
Sure, I know where the rivers are in Tucson, but these desert rivers are bone dry river beds for all but a few days of the year. And yes, I know how to get water out of cactus, but it’s hard work, and the water isn’t pure water. Try to live off cactus juice for a few days and you’ll end up with severe diarrhea (which is dehydrating).
This thought never hit me when I lived in America, but now it struck me hard: Life in many U.S. cities is extremely fragile. Much of the abundance and convenience of city life is pure illusion, conjured up by a system of underground pipes that deliver water to your home and another set of pipes that magically dispose of your flushed liquid waste. A set of wires brings electricity that makes your home livable (at the great expenditure of energy for heat or cooling), and cheap gasoline makes it possible for fresh produce to magically appear in the grocery stores that feed us all with food from who-knows-where.
Take away any one of these — electricity, water, sewers, fuel, food — and virtually every U.S. city becomes an urban death trap for all its citizens.
It’s not just Tucson, either: The entire American Southwest is extremely fragile when it comes to supporting life. The same story holds true with Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and many other cities and towns of all sizes. The population currently living in the Southwest USA is far greater than what those geographic regions could support on their own: It is the mass-importation of water, electricity, food and fuel that makes life possible there.
And all those mass imports are extremely fragile.
The flipside of this problem exists across Northern USA and Canada, where extremely cold winters make these regions unlivable without the steady importation of heating fuel. Most Americans and Canadians would freeze to death in less than a week if left without some ability to heat their homes during a severe winter freeze. Very few people (in the cities especially) still have free-standing, non-electric wood-burning stoves or effective fireplaces that can keep them warm and alive during such an outage. Most of the younger generation has never even chopped wood! (And wouldn’t know where to start if they had to…)