Top 10 Signs of U.S. Empire’s Passing

Lady_Liberty_UnderwaterIt’s not fashionable to talk about American empire these days, much less our empire’s coming demise. Our status as the world’s preeminent superpower remains largely unquestioned (at least domestically). Politicians and media pundits still portray our military as the world’s last great hope against tyranny and global terrorism.

And yet, despite the U.S. military’s clear planetary dominance — its hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in more than 150 countries, its growing interventions in Africa and the Middle East, and its vast network of bases and installations across the globe — our empire’s days are indeed numbered. Like other past empires, the unraveling of our empire is shrouded in denial, masking the fraying foundations of our once-prosperous nation.

Ironically, the seeds of America’s decline were planted with its founding, marred as it was by the brutal conquest of the native population, the rapacious destruction of the natural environment, the shameful enslavement of African peoples, and the hypocritical disenfranchisement of women and non-property-holding immigrants. These traumatic beginnings have echoed through the centuries that followed, in the form of aggressive military interventions, deepening social divisions, and ecologically ruinous relations to the country’s land, air, and water. Together, these festering dynamics now threaten to upend the great American experiment.

Of course, they’ve also provided the backdrop against which most Americans have struggled to secure their place in the social order, their human rights and dignity, and the protection of their precious lands and watersheds. America’s central animating ideal of “liberty and justice for all” may have been poorly instituted in practice, but the hopeful movements it inspired have gone a long way toward creating a more equitable and democratic union.

Today, as compound stresses and fractures undermine the foundation of U.S. empire, the central question remains: will the forces of hate and domination prevail, hijacking today’s crises to justify an authoritarian state and continued aggression? Or will enough people and communities willingly abandon the vision of empire, and reassert America’s cherished values of freedom and democracy?

The answer to that will depend on how we respond to the multiple signs of empire’s passing that are increasingly coming to a head. Here are ten (in no particular order) that are especially worth noting:

1. SKYROCKETING INEQUALITY: It’s now a popular truism that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. President Obama often derides the fact that the middle class is shrinking, that average wages are barely keeping up with inflation, and that more and more American children are going to bed hungry. But neither he nor his allies in Congress have been able to halt these trends, much less slow them. According to a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, most recent economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent, who took home more than half (53.9 percent) of the total increase in U.S. income over the past several decades. “Over this period, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by [only] 18.9 percent. Simultaneously, the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much — by 200.5 percent,” stated the authors. And that’s just income. Distribution of total wealth when one includes stocks, property, and other assets has also widened to levels now resembling a new gilded age. Indeed, the wealth gap has become so obscene that billionaires themselves are starting to sound the alarms about the stability of American society. One tech billionaire recently wrote a scathing article in Politico arguing that unless something is done to redistribute wealth more equitably, we can expect everyday people falling between the cracks to foment a pitchfork rebellion.

2. DETERIORATING INFRASTRUCTURE: Decades of neglect and underinvestment have left America’s roads and bridges, its waterways and sanitation systems, its power plants and electrical grids (most of which are hopelessly outmoded and geared mostly to run on diminishing fossil fuels), and its harbors and transport hubs in severe disrepair. According to a report by The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our nation faces an infrastructure investment shortfall of $1.1 trillion by 2020, possibly increasing to $4.7 trillion by 2040. If sufficient investments fail to materialize, Americans can expect increasing risks associated with using deteriorating infrastructure, lower standards of living due to rising costs, and a less and less hospitable climate for commerce, given that businesses also rely heavily on smoothly functioning infrastructure. Shifting even a fraction of the $500+ billion spent annually on the military would be a wise investment in our future.

3. HOLLOWED-OUT DOMESTIC INDUSTRY: It’s little surprise that high-wage U.S. manufacturing would suffer in a race-to-the-bottom, über-competitive global economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturing employment fell from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007. The decade of 2000-2010 was particularly devastating, according to a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: “Not only did America lose 5.7 million manufacturing jobs, but the decline as a share of total manufacturing jobs (33 percent) exceeded the rate of loss in the Great Depression.” A misplaced faith in so-called “free trade” agreements that favor corporate offshoring of jobs while sacrificing much-needed tariff revenue has contributed mightily to this decline, along with a reluctance to boost training and skills-building among our nation’s growing underemployed and unemployed. The consequences of this “hollowing out” of domestic manufacturing are already being keenly felt in terms of wage stagnation, a shrinking middle class, and diminished consumer spending capacity. Perhaps even more tragic is the growing dependence Americans now have on imported goods, and the fact that we’re rapidly losing our capacity to make tangible goods of real value.

4. THE U.S. DOLLAR’S DECLINE: The status of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency is quickly eroding. Between 2002 and 2012, the dollar declined 54.7% against the euro, which coincided with a near tripling of the U.S. debt, from $5.9 trillion to $15 trillion. Meanwhile, rising powers like Russia, China, Brazil and other emerging economies are separating themselves from the dollar-based global financial system, either by trading in other reserve currencies or actively proposing replacements. All told, foreign countries own more than $5 trillion in U.S. debt, with China alone owning more than $1 trillion. If enough major debt holders started dumping their Treasury notes on the open market, this could cause a panic leading to a collapse of the dollar, and along with it a major decline in the standard of living for most Americans. At this point, the biggest holders of U.S. Treasury notes also rely on American markets for the sale of their products, minimizing the likelihood of any major dollar sell-offs. But with consumer buying power declining, infrastructure deteriorating, and America’s ability to repay debt diminishing, the U.S. dollar’s future standing as the global currency of choice is in doubt.

5. DOMESTIC ENERGY SCARCITY: As recently as 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was predicting that the United States would overtake Saudia Arabia in oil production by 2020, and that North America would be a net oil exporter by 2030. Now, the world’s leading energy agency has done a 180 degree about-face, predicting in its latest report that the United States will have to rely more heavily on Middle East oil in the years ahead, now that North American sources are starting to run dry. Probably the most damaging news to the industry came earlier this year when the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently downgraded its earlier assessment of the Montery Shale “tight oil” fields by a whopping 96%. Admittedly, U.S. energy production has had a “boomlet” recently, with much of it coming from oil and gas extracted from shale. But the IEA now says U.S. production will start to lose steam around 2020, putting more bargaining power back in the hands of OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and diminishing our influence abroad. Sadly, the search for energy in ever-more remote and sensitive locations has also ravaged the environment, endangering sensitive waterways, gulf zones, the arctic, and even the stability of the global climate.

6. DIMINISHING U.S. INFLUENCE ABROAD: From the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War, U.S. imperialism moved into overdrive. Following the devastating U.S. nuclear bombardment of Japan, American presidents began using the “fight against communism” to justify interventions throughout the globe, most notably in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Haiti, among others. Almost always, the actual “threat” was the desire of the local populations in these countries to decide their own economic destinies, rather than submit to open exploitation of their markets by U.S. or Western-based corporations. In recent decades, however, as U.S. debt has grown and popular uprisings like the “Arab Spring” and new populist movements in Latin America have gained traction, American influence has diminished. A resurgent Russia under President Putin has rebuffed U.S. attempts to encircle the country with new NATO members, bases, and pro-Western regimes — even brazenly annexing Crimea with only symbolic protest from a largely helpless United States. American empire is also waning in parts of the Middle East, especially in Iraq where previously deposed Sunni militants have taken control of much of the country’s northern cities and towns, and may even bring down the pro-Western government in Baghdad. The most recent presidential election in Afghanistan has also revealed the growing limits of American influence, with the losing candidate threatening to set up his own parallel government rather than honor the much-lauded democratic process the U.S. military spent so much effort supposedly trying to establish. But perhaps the most telling example is the growing instability in Israel, arguably the U.S. empire’s most beloved ally. In its grossly lopsided conflict with the occupied Palestinians, the Israeli government has increasingly defied attempts by Washington to sit down and hammer out a workable peace agreement, even though time and time again the terms are mainly in their favor. Instead, they use any provocation by Palestinians as an excuse to launch merciless air strikes and invasions of their territories, ensuring a nightmarish future for all concerned. Once the lavish U.S. military subsidies begin to dry up, the state of Israel will have a very difficult time maintaining peaceful conditions, much less its own survival.

7. DEMOCRACY FOR SALE: The high esteem that public officials once held in America seems little more than a quaint memory today, as democratic “contests” for seats from City Hall to the White House now appear more like auctions than elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions, most notably Citizens United, have undone even the most basic restrictions on special interest contributions to political candidates, opening the floodgates to private donors seeking special favors and legislation from candidates once they’re elected to office. Sadly, the trends are only getting worse. In 2008, spending on the U.S. presidential election almost doubled compared with 2004. In 2012, it nearly quadrupled compared with 2008. What’s worse is that as inequality worsens (see above), it’s largely the super-wealthy who are now providing the most donor power. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a mere 0.01% of Americans in 2010 accounted for one-quarter of ALL money given to politicians, parties and political action committees. Little wonder most Americans think the system is rigged.

8. THE RISE OF CHINA: Ever since it shook off its British and Japanese imperial chains and reunified under the banner of Communist revolution, China has been a resurgent global economic superpower. Under Communist Party rule, the country established universal education and health care, modernized its rural agrarian economy, and invested heavily in technology and infrastructure. Decades of internal development and policies that protected domestic industry combined to provide the foundation of modern China’s world-class economy, which has been averaging unrivaled growth rates of 9% each year. Of course, since the 1980s, China has also opened its economy to more direct foreign investment, privatized much of its industry, and slashed its social safety net, creating a new elite class of wealthy capitalists alongside an increasingly exploited class of landless rural peasants and urban poor. As the U.S. has encircled China’s borders with pro-Western governments (Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines, etc.), China has largely taken a non-aggressive approach, favoring a strategy of developing ever-greater economic relations with countries around the world. Initially, it pursued investment mostly in developing countries for resource purposes, but has recently ramped up investments in industrial regions like Europe and North America. This still leaves China vulnerable to imperial attacks on its investments by the U.S. and other powers (i.e., the U.S./NATO military strikes on Libya, which forced the evacuation of 35,000 of its oil workers and engineers). In response to this threat, Chinese military strategists successfully called for a 19% annual increase in military spending from 2010 through 2015. And while this will still amount to a fraction of what the U.S. empire spends militarily, it foreshadows a new era in Chinese determination to back up its meteoric economic rise with increasing military muscle.

9. THE GROWING SURVEILLANCE STATE: In recent decades, with the dramatic advances in computers, communications, and information technologies, U.S. intelligence and security agencies have developed intricate systems of monitoring and assessing “threats” to American assets both at home and abroad. A shift is happening toward increasing surveillance of the U.S. domestic population, growing numbers of whom find themselves on the margins of society, whether through sudden unemployment, downsizing, or existential angst in a meaning-starved, conflict-ridden materialistic age. Much of what the security apparatus was actually doing remained shrouded in secrecy until very recently, when the heroic actions of former National Security Agency specialist Edward Snowden helped reveal the full extent to which Americans’ civil liberties were being routinely violated. Perhaps most disconcerting among these revelations was the indiscriminate, sweeping process by which virtually every citizens’ phone records, e-mails, purchases, and other important data were being collected, analyzed, and vetted – not solely to assess potential “terrorist” activity, but also to target those deemed “radical” by the NSA. According to The Huffington Post, the NSA recently hatched a plan to discredit a group of “radicalizers” who merely held “extreme” views based on their Muslim faith, a tactic that FBI and NSA officials have employed over the decades against civil rights leaders, environmental activists, and labor organizers. Clearly, the security state is getting nervous. The fact that increasing sums of taxpayer funds and expertise are being used to spy on U.S. citizens doesn’t bode well for the future of American democracy.

10. APOCALYPTIC DREAMING: Rarely does a summer blockbuster season now pass without several mega-budget motion pictures hitting theaters that feature catastrophic, apocalyptic, or wrenchingly dystopian themes. Almost all of the recent super hero flicks have seemingly required that major U.S. cities be bombarded, thrashed, or completely devastated, almost with a feeling of cathartic glee. The zombie genre has also made a powerful comeback, with scores of films released in the last decade alone, including such widely popular flicks as 28 Weeks, I Am Legend, and World War Z. Fantastical, supernatural themes have also been accompanied by increasingly realistic accounts of a world in chaos. Children of Men depicts a world experiencing a plummeting human population due to sudden universal infertility, Contagion tells of a merciless virus that kills millions upon millions in only a few days’ time, and Elysium portrays a world divided where the wealthy elite have fled the earth to live on a luxury satellite while the rest of the planet wallows in squalor and environmental devastation.

All of these signs of U.S. empire’s passing may, at face value, seem deeply disturbing. To be sure, most Americans will face increasingly hard times as the disproportionate wealth that now flows freely through military force to our shores finally begins to slip from our reach. There will be demagogues (indeed, there already are) who will call for more campaigns to reclaim our imperial birthright. They will conjure tales of lost glory to enlist us in more futile wars to maintain our “rightful place” as the world’s greatest superpower. We must ignore their call.

The passing of empire affords us all with an incredible opportunity to reclaim those values that once inspired America to true greatness, and lifted the spirits of all who call this beautiful country our home. Virtues like self-reliance, democratic self-government, and conservation of our land. Current and future generations deserve much better than being saddled with crushing debt, being conscripted into wars in the Middle East and beyond, or wasting away in meaningless jobs hawking more and more needless consumer products. Our nation harbors a wellspring of talented, hardworking, and passionate souls who yearn for the chance to do right by their families and their communities. Rather than bemoan empire’s loss, we can rebuild our cities and towns to work with nature’s cycles rather than against them; we can reforge lost arts, crafts, and industries that were so carelessly discarded in the rush to globalization; and we can revitalize our local democratic institutions and practices that were once the lifeblood of community life, ensuring that everyone has a voice in the great transformations ahead.

We can create a better future. It won’t come without serious challenges. Indeed, it may only come through them.

 

Clash of the Citadels, Part III (Finale)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part II.

ImageMarch 15, 2115, 0530 Hours, St. Francis Citadel, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce couldn’t sleep. Battle strategy was all he could think about. He was set to help lead the armada attack in a little more than an hour. He turned to his sleeping lover, tracing his index finger along his neck, down his spine, and slowly to his buttocks. Would he see him again? Bryce planted a gentle kiss on his neck, and rose to greet the dawn. He dressed and quietly exited his quarters, heading down the corridor to Main Defense. “Morning Chief,” he heard repeatedly from the stream of officers and soldiers he passed. He entered the central planning chamber where Premier Alito, along with more than thirty commanders and captains, had gathered for their final briefing.

All ears were tuned in to an East Bay radio program. The broadcaster said:

“… Some fear an attack could take place as early as this morning. In a statement released yesterday, Council President Nesalla Imani vowed to use all means necessary to protect East Bay residents. She praised Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee for rebuilding ties with Piedmont Citadel. Lee is widely credited for brokering regional water-sharing agreements between many of the Bay Area’s competing citadels, cities, and townships.

In an interview with Oakland Prime Radio, Lee extended his thanks to Piedmont Citadel Premier John Stewart: ‘The premier has not only committed ships to help protect our shores, he has vowed to release a quarter of his citadel’s water flow to East Bay communities in greatest need. We are deeply grateful for his partnership during this crisis. Now is the time for us all to unite in common cause to defend our coastland.’ The premier could not be reached for comment …”

Alara cast a menacing stare at Bryce. She was clearly incensed by this latest development. “Isn’t that sweet? Premier Stewart thinks he can buy his way into the hearts and minds of East Bay lowlanders,” she said. “What a fool. He and his fleet of latecomers are in for a big surprise.”

The SF Defense team poured over the details of their plan, double-checking their weapons inventories and cross-bay attack formations. Their hidden fleet of some 50 ships had already sailed from Baker Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, where SF soldiers were boarding by the hundreds

“Is each frontline attack vessel fully equipped with bayonets and canon balls?” asked Bryce.

“Every one,” answered his fleet commander. “Once we’ve breached the weakest section of their wall, we should overwhelm them in less than an hour.”

“Just be sure you take out Piedmont’s so-called defense ships first,” said Alara. “We’ll stand watch at the overlook with the solar reflector ray, in case you need an assist.”

“To victory!” Bryce announced, signaling his command team to depart. They marched single file to the northern exit chutes, and caravanned to the waterfront to take command of their vessels.

A thick fog blanketed the wharf, providing a welcome cloak to their armada. Hints of sunlight began piercing the night as the fleet’s 3,000-strong contingent waited for their cue to launch. Bryce wondered what Piedmont Citadel’s new “partnership” might mean for them in the minutes and hours to follow. It was only a matter of time before their “unity” would prove too little, too late.

A deep, reverberating horn sounded from the shore. The pier lighthouse suddenly came to life, its radiant beam slicing repeatedly through the fog layer. It was time. They disembarked, sailing southeasterly in perfect V-formation, with their heavy attack vessels leading the charge. Sailing five ships behind the main attack cruiser, Bryce peered through his eye scope toward the eastern defense wall along Oakland Inner Harbor. Strangely, there was no sign of any ships.

Not in front of them anyway. SF’s lead attack cruiser was showered with flaming canon balls, a dozen of which slammed into the hull, ripping two gaping holes into its port side. Walls of fire consumed the main sails, while dozens of burning soldiers quickly jumped overboard. Bryce hadn’t anticipated such a maneuver: a group of six East Bay attack ships had been waiting for them under the bridge by Yerba Buena Island, and were in perfect position to bombard their offensive line. They continued their deadly volley, managing to sink several more SF attack vessels. Before long, however, return fire from SF’s front line laid waste to their small contingent.

By now, the sun began to rise above the East Bay hills, thinning what remained of the early morning fog. The SF attack fleet reinforced their frontlines, and Bryce lit a signal flare to continue their approach. Once again, he peered through his eye scope, scanning their northern and southern flanks for any more surprises. He refocused on Oakland Inner Harbor. Something was different this time. A hint of motion. And then he saw them: a fast-moving line of defense-class cruisers, sailing one-by-one toward their position. Piedmont Citadel’s fleet. He began counting. Surely, there couldn’t be more than 20, he thought. As the number breached 40, however, he knew the game had changed. They had clearly requisitioned more vessels from the inner delta. This would be a bloodbath.

Still, if they maintained formation, they just might be able to breach the wall. And if Alara can see Piedmont’s expanded fleet from her position, she’ll know to offer her assistance, he thought. They sailed on at full speed, veering northeasterly toward Uptown Harbor, which SF intelligence agents found had the weakest barrier walls. They also just happened to block off an underground “tube-like” corridor leading straight to Regional Hall. This would be their pathway to triumph.

Bryce started to make out the oncoming ships’ masts as their distance rapidly closed. In seconds, they would be within range of Piedmont’s catapult arcs, exposing their fleet to enemy fire. At this point, however, they had no choice. An instant later, Piedmont’s lead vessel was hit with a blistering circle of bright light. Its path cut a deep swath of searing heat through the ship’s central mast, loosening the ropes. They snapped free of the rigging, lacerating several crewmen on deck. The solar ray worked! The blazing circle adjusted itself, burning through the bottom crossbeam and bursting the mast and sails into flame. The ship slowed, veering sharply off course. The vessel directly behind crashed into its stern, starting a pileup of crashed ships. One by one, the solar ray seared through them, turning Piedmont’s frontline ships into little more than smoldering ruins.

Bryce regained his confidence, and his smile. Now they must move quickly to breach the wall.

*   *   *   *   *

March 15, 2115, 0800 Hours, Oakland Central Plaza, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Desirae mingled among her newfound allies, doing her best to assure them that their bravery would make a difference. As Brandon had predicted, she had made significant strides yesterday, trekking around town from one community hub to the next, listening to people’s hopes and fears, and slowly bringing them into the fold. Once word of Premier Stewart’s water-sharing offer spread amongst the lowlands, people’s sense of optimism grew, as did the number of those willing to join their cause. By last count, over 2,700 citizen recruits had signed up with the defense corps, nearly a thousand of whom now stood guard in front of Regional Hall at Oakland Central Plaza.

Brandon dashed over to her, his CB radio blaring. “They’re breaching the Uptown wall!” he said. “Commander Dolman’s fleet has been decimated. Only about twenty of our defense ships are still in the game.” He took Desirae’s arm, and lowered his voice. “You worked miracles yesterday. I know it’s not easy to hear right now, but because of you, we may still stand a chance.” He kissed her cheek, and rushed off to consult with several field commanders.

The sound of gunfire roared in the distance. Why had SF forces chosen Uptown Harbor to make their way through? It made no sense. Desirae looked around at her comrades, wondering how many of them would survive this day. A feeling of pride overwhelmed her now, as she took in the faces of all the selfless, committed souls standing by her side. In the corner of her eye she saw something strange: a small plume of billowing smoke, rising from the far end of the plaza. The area appeared to be an abandoned stairwell. Where it led, she had no idea. She wandered over for a closer look.

As she came within yards of the stairwell, she noticed a crack in the sealed entryway from where the smoke was coming. “Desirae!” she heard Brandon yell from behind her. “Come back!”

But it was too late. A firestorm of flame, metal, and stone blasted towards her. A flying metal panel sliced into her lower torso, and the impact tossed her 50 feet from the blast zone. She laid under a tree bordering the plaza, wheezing from pain and losing blood rapidly. “Noooo!” she heard Brandon yell. Her vision was fuzzy, but she could make out his likeness moving towards her. Then came the shots, firing mercilessly toward the citizen soldiers assembled in the plaza.

“Focus your fire on the stairwell!” pleaded one of the field commanders. “They’re coming up from the old train tunnels!” Bullets whizzed past her through the air. She saw the SF forces emerge, seemingly in slow motion, as dozens stormed into the plaza, guns blazing. East Bay forces held their ground, showering the invaders with their own punishing fire. But SF soldiers were now half-way across the plaza, flanking the defense bunkers as they made their way toward Regional Hall.

It was too late now to stop more loss of life. But perhaps she could do something to stem the conflict. Desirae fought the pain as she grabbed the grenade from her belt. She held it to her mouth, pulled out the safety pin with her teeth, and threw it as hard as she could toward the stairwell. Metal clanked on stone, becoming fainter as the grenade bounced down the stairs. Moments later, she saw dozens of SF forces blown into the air, along with streams of rock, dirt, and metal. A deep rumbling sound followed as huge swaths of the entryway collapsed, blocking the flow of SF forces.

Desirae managed a slight grin, and slowly turned her head toward the plaza. Fighting continued, but SF forces were now on the run, vastly outnumbered by the East Bay defense line. Brandon ran towards her in shock, yelling something she could not understand. “Thank God you’re alive,” she finally heard him say as he approached. He leaned over her and checked her pulse. “You’re going to be fine, Desirae,” he said calmly, smiling as he took her hand. Several medics arrived to remove the metal section and dress her wounds. She had never known so much pain.

“How many did we lose?” she asked. He looked her in the eyes, trying to hold back the tears. One tear escaped anyway, cleaning a narrow line down his soot-stained cheek.

“Too many,” he said, caressing her shoulder. “But we prevailed. Alito will think twice about ever attacking these shores again. Who knows? She may even face new resistance on her side of the bay.”

“Councilor, are you there?” crackled Commander Dolman’s voice from Brandon’s radio. “If you can hear me, they’re retreating. I repeat, SF’s ships are retreating from Uptown Harbor!”

Brandon turned off his radio, and leaned forward to kiss Desirae’s cheek. She grabbed his neck and moved his lips to hers. They took each other in, soothed by the warmth and wetness of their kiss, if only for a moment.

As they looked around the plaza, they saw hundreds of people laying down their guns and embracing one another. Joy. Relief. Hope. Sadness. All these emotions and more flowed through the East Bay citizen defense corps. For now, the foreboding fear of a pending attack was over. For now.

Clash of the Citadels, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part III.

ImageMarch 14, 2115, 0900 Hours, East Bay Regional Hall, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Regional hall was crowded like never before, bustling with scores of councilors and their aides from towns as far north as Pittsburg, as far east as Pleasanton, and as far south as Fremont. Everyone had been summoned with the same basic message: an attack by SF forces seemed imminent. But was an all-out conflict inevitable? Could anything be done to stop it?

Council President Imani slammed her gavel on the podium. Conversations ebbed, and everyone quickly took to their seats. The tension in the air was palpable. The president would have a lot of explaining to do. “This emergency session of the East Bay Regional Authority has commenced,” announced the hall guard. “Council President Nessalla Imani presiding.”

“Friends… allies… freely elected representatives of our united East Bay — I want to thank each and every one of you for making the journey to Regional Hall on such short notice,” Nesalla began. “You elected me president to look out for the best interests of our communities and to safeguard our common defense. As you know, access to our precious waters is vital to our economy and to all of us who call this land our home. Today, I fear we face the greatest threat we’ve ever faced: SF Citadel’s renegade premier, Alara Alito.” Approving cheers mixed with angry jeers rang through the hall.

Nesalla raised her arms, sending her commanding gaze throughout the room. Shushes and calming pleas brought the frenzy to a murmur. “I understand those are harsh words,” she continued. “But you all know her forces were caught sneaking through security at San Pablo Reservoir three years ago. And now, we have proof that SF forces with high-power explosives were patrolling inside the security perimeter only two days ago. Please shut the curtains.”

Darkness consumed the hall. A large projection image flashed above Nesalla showing several men carrying what appeared to be bundles of dynamite. “These three were spotted only yards away from one of the main aqueducts at San Pablo. If our security teams hadn’t seen them in time, who knows what they could have done?” She went on to outline the threat posed by potential sabotage, emphasizing how vulnerable East Bay communities would be if any of San Pablo’s flow were disrupted. “Each of these aqueducts serves over 50,000 people,” she said. “If we don’t come together with a defense plan — and soon — I fear we won’t just lose our water, we’ll also lose our freedom.”

The room remained uncomfortably quiet. People whispered to one another, assessing the evidence, wondering aloud what the appropriate response should be. Finally, Richmond Councilor Jerrod Jones stood up. “President Imani, you’ve made a compelling case. There is clear cause for concern,” he said. “But how can we be certain these infiltrators hail from SF Citadel? There seems to be a lot of assumptions being made here. Should we really be fanning the flames of conflict at such a sensitive time?” Since Richmond now had the most functional port in the East Bay, his town had a unique relationship with the citadel across the waters. Moving into defense mode might threaten that relationship. Still, his questions resonated with other councilors.

“Yes, with all due respect, president Imani, shouldn’t we confirm the identities of these men before doing anything rash?” asked Walnut Creek Councilor Sasha O’Reilly. Similar questions followed, creating a flurry of conversation in the hall. What had initially seemed a clear-cut case for action was quickly degenerating into furious debate about whether any action should be taken at all.

Sitting calmly in the far back of the hall, SF Citadel’s Defense Chief Bryce Morgan grinned. His disguise as a council aide was convincing, dressed as he was in semi-professional attire, and fitted with a wavy blond hairpiece. Earlier that morning, in a private meeting with Councilor Jones, he promised very favorable trade relations with the port town of Richmond, and assured the councilor that Premier Alito had no plans for aggressive action. The councilor harbored suspicions, but given the dire times facing his constituents, he managed to suspend them.

Nesalla surveyed the room, visibly flustered by the growing dissent. She pounded the gavel firmly three times, and took a deep breath. This would be her last chance to turn the tide. “Friends, it’s moments like these when I’m reminded why we’ve stood so strong together over all these years. While so many regions have devolved into little more than feudal states lorded over by fools and tyrants, we’ve built on our democratic traditions, holding fast as one of the last remaining freely elected regional authorities in California.” She paused for emphasis, hoping people would remember that other decidedly undemocratic district ruled by its citadel across the bay.

“I understand your hesitation, and I respect your call for clear evidence,” she continued. “What I haven’t yet told you is that our patrols were able to monitor the infiltrators’ movements after they left the scene. Upon reaching Richmond Inner Harbor, they boarded a schooner and sailed around Angel Island, veering south toward Fishermans Wharf, SF Citadel’s main harbor.” That clinched it. Only the most cynical in the room would doubt Nesalla now. Throughout her political career, she had sued for peace between and among the cities and townships of the Bay Area. And even with this clear case of attempted sabotage, she was only calling for a united defense plan, not retaliation.

Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee rose from his bench, meeting Nesalla’s eyes for permission to speak. “President Imani, the people of Hayward — I dare say all residents in these parts — thank you for your efforts to protect us from this clear and present threat,” he said. “But given that Alito’s original plan has failed, I assume you believe we now face the possibility of a full-scale attack to seize control. If so, I fear we will need nothing less an army to defend our shores.”

“I agree with your assessment, councilor. And yes, we’ve acquired intelligence confirming that SF forces have stepped up military exercises in the Presidio, and that cross-bay rifle shipments rose sharply in the days leading up to the breach,” said Nesalla. “We’re going to need all the troops we can muster. That, and probably a several dozen large ships from the coastal marinas.”

Suddenly, the sound of people turning around in mass echoed through the hall. From below the rear balcony, about a half-dozen soldiers from Piedmont Citadel marched forward in perfect unison. Commander Torm Dolman motioned for them to halt. Looking squarely at Nessala, Torm said calmly, “You’ll have your ships. Twenty from Piedmont’s defense fleet, and however many more we can requisition by midnight.”

“Thank you commander,” said Nesalla. “Please send our appreciations to Premier Stewart.” Piedmont Citadel was making amends. Last time things came to a head over security issues, East Bay Regional didn’t hear a word from them, which didn’t help their standing with the low-lying communities. Clearly, they’ve come to see Alito as a threat to their own interests as well.

By this time, Bryce’s grin had long-vanished. His plan to sow the seeds of discord amongst the councilors had failed. Their unity under pressure was an alarming surprise, and now with Piedmont Citadel coming to their defense, there was little time left to prepare for a frontal assault. SF Citadel’s forces would need something more powerful to carry the day. As all eyes were on Torm, Bryce snuck out through a side passage. He had to get back to Alara at once.

Brandon, by contrast, was pleased by this turn of events. Still, it would take far more than a few dozens ships to change Alito’s mind. She would need to see thousands on the move, ready to take a stand. That made Desirae’s mission all the more critical. “President, I’ve put out a call for support from our friends in the Urban Water Guild and neighborhood assemblies,” he announced. “However, I strongly suggest that we call upon our local assemblies to set up recruitment centers, just in case.” Cheers of agreement filled the hall. The East Bay was truly coming together, Brandon thought. Now, if only he could get Premier Stewart to make a stronger gesture of support for the lowland communities. Then, perhaps only then, they might stand a chance to rally the support of the people.

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 1115 Hours, Ferry Plaza, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce became anxious as his shuttle boat approached the docks at the Ferry Building. He glanced up at the old clocktower. Time was not on their side, not with all the newfound unity being forged, minute by minute, amongst his enemies. Enemies. Is that what they were? The word came forth so easily in his mind now. Granted, most people he’d encountered in the East Bay were hard-working and honest, but their backward devotion to democracy, and meetings — constant meetings! — was exhausting. Good lord, it was enough to drive any normal person insane. And for what? So they can bicker and posture, make false promises to one another, and in the end, forge weak-kneed compromises where everyone loses just a little bit more of the dignity they once had.

Yes, those people were definitely his enemies. They may feel smug and secure now, but their fixation on process would soon be their undoing. The San Francisco Bay Area needs bold leaders like Premier Alito to restore the international glory it once had, he thought. As he strode through Ferry Plaza, Bryce surveyed the landscape. Or rather, the seascape. Most of the piers, the Embarcadero, and China Basin were now under water. But thanks to a major seawall and land bridge constructed to connect the Ferry Building and the foot of California Street, there was still a major point of embarkation on the city’s eastern waterfront. Keeping it safe was another matter.

His carriage entourage wended its way along the well-guarded waterfront streets, newly restored with perfectly laid bricks and lined with well-trimmed hedges. This sector, once known as the Financial District, now boasted some of San Francisco’s finest construction firms, SF Waterworks, locally-renowned breweries, and bustling butcher shops. A few furniture, textile, and carriage dealers were also tucked away amidst the cafes, groceries, stables, and tailors.

As they turned to begin their ride up Columbus Ave., Bryce was suddenly showered in white light. He looked up at the Transamerica Pyramid, where a repeating flash of sunlight beamed down upon him, reflecting off a hanging sheet of metal. Most of the upper floors had been gutted of useful materials, having long been abandoned due to their sheer height. Without electrical lifts, most of the upper towers had simply ceased to be useful, except to the birds. That piercing reflection of light though. Now that could be useful, if only it could be harnessed in battle.

They passed through citadel security at the Columbus and Broadway gate. Bryce leaned forward. Something was amiss. A dozen or so soldiers surrounded his carriage, pulled him abruptly from his seat, and escorted him to the main lift. “What’s going on?” he demanded. Silence. The workhorses began circling the lift turnstile. He gazed out toward the bay as he and four soldiers made their ascent. Those few minutes seemed like an eternity. What had he done to deserve this? Once they reached the eastern defense corridor, he was pushed out of the lift.

Alara stood facing him, arms crossed, clearly enraged by his recent East Bay adventure. “Leave us,” she said, waving the soldiers away. “I had half a mind to send an assassins party to come after you. What if you’d been captured? They could have assessed our plans straight from the SF Defense Chief himself! Wouldn’t Nesalla have thoroughly enjoyed that?” she laughed.

Bryce carefully considered his next words, knowing his future with the citadel was far from certain. “Premier, please forgive this oversight,” he said. “You’re right to be upset. I acted rashly.”

“Rashly?” she asked, flashing him a look of disbelief. “Foolishly is more like it.” She began to walk toward the main defense chamber. “Lucky for you, we’re on the eve of a major operation that requires your leadership, such as it is. And what did you learn on your secret journey?”

“They know we’re preparing for an assault,” he said. “But it’s clear they have little sense of the scale of our forces. Most coastal leaders appear committed to Nesalla. She whipped up quite a frenzy at Regional Hall. Her, and that damned peacemaker, Councilor Brandon Lee.”

“The water deal-maker?” asked Alara. “What a curious new role for him. Peacemaker turned warmonger. He must be up to something.”

“He’s definitely rallying to Nesalla’s cause,” he said. “Seems to think they’ll need an army to withstand us.”

“Well, he’s right about that. But it won’t be enough,” she boasted. “The armada we’ve amassed will carry thousands of our soldiers swiftly to their shores. They won’t know what hit them. No more water swindles from Regional Hall.”

Bryce was afraid to bring it up, but Alara had to know. “Premier, I’ve also learned that Piedmont Citadel has struck an alliance with Nesalla. They’re offering ships, at least twenty from their fleet.”

Alara fell silent. This was unexpected. “I never thought we’d reach this point,” she said, sighing in disbelief. “A clash of the citadels.”

At this, Bryce began pouring over their battle plans. Yes, they still had naval superiority. Yes, they had them outnumbered, at least in terms of battle-ready soldiers. And yet, he could sense that momentum was building amongst the people of the East Bay. A growing sense of unity and pride. As a veteran of many battles, he knew that counted for something. Indeed, it often makes all the difference in the world. SF Citadel must strengthen its hand. But how?

And then it came to him: the light. The painful, blinding light that rained down on him as he rode back this morning. “Premier, do we still have that large reflector telescope in the observation tower?”

“Yes, I think Proctor Gabriel has been using it to study sunspots and flares, or something like that,” she said. “Why are we talking about astronomy right now?”

“Let’s just say we’re going to have to commandeer it. It may just give us the advantage we need.”

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 1230 Hours, Piedmont Citadel, Piedmont, California Autonomous Region

Premier John Stewart scanned the intel reports his defense team had drawn up detailing SF Citadel’s recent military buildup, its attempts to sabotage San Pablo Reservior, and Council President Imani’s increasing defense measures. Ever since the war for California Autonomy had ended, Piedmont Citadel hadn’t really engaged in military matters, leaving East Bay Regional Hall in the driver’s seat. The past couple of decades have seen mostly peace throughout the region, interrupted only by the occasional ground skirmish or gun battle between contending parties.

Now, however, with water reserves running low, and tensions running high, a crisis seemed unavoidable. John was a reluctant premier, having questioned the continued rationale for the citadel since secondary school. Now that last century’s food and water riots were largely over, and democratic rule had returned to most of the East Bay, why couldn’t Piedmont simply rejoin the rest of the region in shared governance and economic development? “They’ll always covet what we have,” scolded his father. “You can’t trust a lowlander. Plain and simple.”

What his father didn’t know at the time was that he was dating one of those “lowlanders” since he was 16. Maya caught his eye on one of father’s trade trips to the Oakland shipyards back in 2095. Her graceful poise, silky dark hair, and stunning smile kept him dreaming for days. Finally, when he journeyed on his own to the waterfront one fateful afternoon, they found joy in each other’s shared passion for bayshore hikes, rowboat adventures, and deep conversation. They fell in love. Now, with her and their two children by his side, the thought of possible war with SF Citadel made him cringe.

“Premier, Commander Dolman has returned,” one of John’s security guards informed him. “And he’s brought an elected from Hayward, Councilor Brandon Lee.”

“Please show them in,” said John. He gathered the intel reports, and took a seat at his desk.

Torm Dolman hurriedly entered. “Premier, my apologies. Councilor Lee insisted on meeting with you,” he said, clearly irritated by his tagalong visitor. Brandon entered, following closely behind.

“Greetings, Premier Stewart,” Brandon said. “Deepest appreciations for your contributions to the defense of our shores. President Imani sends her regards.”

John took a moment to look upon him, a man whom he deeply respected. From what he knew of him, Brandon Lee was an honest broker, an idealist who put his people skills to the service of peace. And he produced results. He must be here for the same purpose, John thought.

“You’ve made quite a name for yourself,” he said. “I’ve watched your political career with a great deal of admiration, councilor.” He smiled at Brandon, stood up, and extended his hand.

“Thank you, Premier,” Brandon said, shaking his hand. “Your father was very helpful in the ’95 water accords. It was an honor working with him.” He paused, knowing that there was still an awkward feeling in the room. He had to ask: “Pardon me for my curiosity, but I can’t help but wonder: why is Piedmont Citadel now taking such an active role in regional military affairs?”

“The situation calls for greater involvement, don’t you think?” John said. He turned to walk around his desk toward Brandon. Facing him, he continued: “It’s been far too long that we’ve allowed our divisions to fester, letting our past get in the way of charting a new future together. Alito’s aggression has simply sped up that poorly tended possibility, I’d say.”

Commander Dolman stepped forward. “Premier, I’ve relayed to President Imani that we can add at least twenty of our coastal defense-class ships to their contingent. If I may, my team and I plan to continue seeking additional vessels in the event of an attack.”

“Please carry on, commander,” said John. “And thank you for representing us today.”

Brandon was intrigued by the premier’s collaborative tone. Obviously, he was willing to put serious resources toward their campaign. Still, he knew SF Citadel’s forces were far more numerous than the East Bay’s largely volunteer army, and far more experienced. They would need more than a fleet of ships and a rag-tag militia to carry the day. “Premier, Piedmont Citadel’s participation is truly a godsend. I had my doubts that we could resist SF’s formidable forces before Torm showed up at Regional Hall,” he said. “But I need to be honest with you. It’s not enough.”

John’s face turned quizzical. He looked down for a moment, pondering Brandon’s words. “What more would you suggest, councilor? Guns, bayonets? Perhaps commanders from our guard?”

“Yes, yes, all that would help,” Brandon replied. “But if Alito is serious about gaining a commanding foothold here, she must be readying thousands of her troops. Even if a sizable fraction of them broke through our defenses, what resistance would they meet? Hundreds of freedom-loving, courageous souls, to be sure. But not enough to withstand the power and number of her forces.”

“I see what you mean,” John acknowledged. “But even if we offered all of our commanders, soldiers, and field officers, that would only double, or at best triple East Bay forces, as I understand them.”

“True, true,” said Brandon. “But there’s something you can offer that’s even more powerful, premier.” He paused for emphasis, and said: “A share of your water flow as a gesture of good faith.”

John was taken aback. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the opposing cries from the Quorum, much less the protests he’d receive from the master gardeners, the metalsmiths, the chefs, or the bath, pool, and fountain stewards — the list of expected grievances seemed endless in his mind. But perhaps that was the point. If everyone sacrificed a little, that could add up to a major contribution.

“Despite appearances to the contrary, councilor, this isn’t a dictatorship,” John said. “I’d need to consult with the Quorum, our water chief, and forum of advisors. We’d need a compelling story to convince our ten-thousand-plus pampered cita-dwellers that it’s all for the greater good, you see.” He smiled at Brandon, and raised his eyebrows in search of suggestions.

“Well, if the prospect of a military occupation by a competing citadel at your doorstep doesn’t concern your people, premier, I don’t know what would,” said Brandon. “Thinking optimistically, it’s fair to say an offering of this scale would not only bring far greater numbers to our cause, it might go a long way toward healing the mistrust that has built up over the years.”

John reflected on Brandon’s words. Perhaps a new era was truly within reach. He walked over to a west-facing window on the far end of his quarters, and peered out over the bay toward SF Citadel. Its stone towers rose ominously above San Francisco’s aging skyline. The peoples of the Bay Area have a lot of healing to do, John thought. It was time for him to do his part to turn history’s pages.

He turned to Brandon and said, “It would appear I have quite a bit of leading to do this day.”

 

Clash of the Citadels, Part I (Enhanced)

by Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part II or Part III.

ImageMarch 13, 2115, 2330 Hours, St. Francis Citadel, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce Morgan peered through his eye scope across San Francisco Bay, scanning the East Bay hills for signs of troop movements. Some on the High Council thought him paranoid for his constant surveillance. But as defense chief for St. Francis Citadel, Bryce figured he couldn’t be too cautious.

Especially in times like these. Especially since 2115 marked the eleventh straight year of the Great Drought, with all the water skirmishes and rising cross-bay conflict that’s come with it. Thankfully, with recent reinforcement along the Eastern Wall, there’s little chance of outside forces breaching SF Citadel. It’s been an uneasy truce between the San Francisco and East Bay factions: a landmark water sharing agreement has held the peace for nearly 20 years now, even in the face of ever-drier winters. But now, with citadel citizens being forced to cut back on water privileges and lowland neighborhoods facing punishing shortages, everyone’s feeling a bit more on edge. Of course, political tensions are about to rise a few levels, now that Premier Alito has…

“See anything interesting, chief?” asked Alara Alito as she strode into the overlook antechamber. Her long white gown flowed freely in the night air, complemented by her waist-length silver braid.

Bryce gathered his composure before turning to face her. “Nothing out of the ordinary, premier. Mostly water scavengers trying to tap the main lines again. Nothing our patrols can’t handle.”

“Of course,” said Alara, joining his side by the overlook archway. “May I?” she asked, reaching for the eye scope. Scanning eastward, her expression turned quickly from calm to alarm: “Wait! Why is the Stone Mason Lodge lit up at this time of night?”

“Let me see that!” Bryce grunted, snatching the eye scope. “I had no idea. They must have been commissioned by East Bay Regional Hall, or perhaps even someone from Piedmont Citadel.”

Alara frowned at Bryce, sighing in disappointment. “Well, whomever it was, chief, they’ve obviously gotten wind of our plans. And now, we have only weeks before their entire waterfront is walled with stone barricades!”

“They can’t possibly have the manpower to work that quickly,” Bryce pleaded.

Alara stared at him in disbelief, then returned her gaze eastward. “You, of all people, should never underestimate their determination, especially after their last bit of water thievery,” she said. “We’re simply going to have to speed up our timetable.”

“But premier, what if we’re going about this the wrong way? What if we infiltrate their Defense Corps instead? Find a trusted confidant to learn more about their plans?”

What?!? And give Councilor Imani even more time to rally her people against us?” screamed Alara. “I’m afraid that’s a risk we can’t afford to take.” She exited swiftly, clearly consumed by the challenges ahead. Bryce put on his overcoat, heading for the main lift. He needed to find out what was going on, and perhaps find a way to undermine the East Bay’s defense plans.

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 0200 Hours, Fairview Heights, Hayward, California Autonomous Region

Thump! Thump! Thump!

“Uh, wha?” answered Brandon Lee, stumbling to his feet from a deep slumber. “Just a minute!” Pulling open the security panel, he saw two men dressed in defense garb just inches from his door.

“What’s going on?” Brandon demanded. “Why wasn’t I called on my radio?”

“Apologies, councilor,” replied the taller of the two, handing Brandon a sealed letter through the barred opening. “It’s an urgent, top secret message from Council President Imani. She couldn’t risk anyone listening in on your frequency.”

“Thank you for your service,” Brandon said. The men mounted their horses and strode off in the night.

Brandon lit his lamp and reached for his monocle. Unsealing the letter, he read:

EMERGENCY SUMMONS: PLEASE DESTROY AFTER FULL REVIEW

Dearest Brandon:

Sadly, I must inform you we’ve once again spotted SF forces at San Pablo Reservoir. Sources confirmed at least three SF infiltrators carrying what appeared to be explosives.

Don’t worry, nothing has happened. Not yet anyway. But we weren’t able to make any arrests. If these breaches say anything about their resolve, we have every reason to believe they’re now planning to threaten our very own primary water source.

Brandon, you know how much I’ve admired your efforts to keep the peace over the years by brokering water agreements between our region’s various factions. But we simply cannot let them jeopardize our rightful fair share of the Hetch Hetchy water flow. If they disrupt even a small portion of San Pablo, they could force us to relinquish our claim. You know the chaos that would ensue if that ever happened, especially within the communities you hold most dear.

As a precautionary measure, I’ve established security checkpoints at the harbors and Bay Bridge feeder roads. I’ve also asked the Masons to begin 24-hour requisition and production of wall-grade stone. I know these moves might appear extreme, but I will not go down in history as the East Bay’s first council president who left her guard down in a time of crisis.

In any event, we need you Brandon. Please come as quickly as you can to an emergency security session at East Bay Regional Hall. We’ll begin proceedings at 0900 hours tomorrow morning. I’m confident we can forge a strong defense plan to counter Alito’s aggression.

Yours truly,

Nesalla Imani
Council President
East Bay Regional Authority, Oakland

Brandon couldn’t believe it was coming to this. Security checkpoints? Stone walls? Granted, Alito’s minions were obviously behind the security breach at San Pablo a few years back. But these kinds of moves would only fuel people’s fury. The last thing the East Bay needs is more angry San Francisco visitors, merchants, and public officials being frisked or having their boats and carriages searched.

There must be a way to stop this from spiraling, he thought. And then he remembered: “Desirae…”

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 0715 Hours, Arroyo Viejo Training Farm, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Desirae Greene wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. Today was shaping up to be another scorcher here at the farm. It had been that way as long as she can remember. Granny used to tell stories of cooler times, when the sea breezes would rush inland, and springtime highs would reach only into the 70s. These days, East Bay towns like Oakland were lucky to see highs lower than 90.

The way she tells it, there was also a lot more coastland back in her day. Alameda Island once had some of the area’s most beautiful neighborhoods and beaches. But as the sea crept inland, most of the island and West Oakland were lost. People tried desperately to save the port from the rising tide. But with every new sea wall built, the waters found a way around it. Eventually, the only portside remnants left were the rusting husks of the giant container cranes rising skyward from the water.

According to Granny, a vast network of winding pavement once carried busy Oaklanders to sit-down jobs in the old towers downtown and even across the bridge to San Francisco! That was before the energy rationing began, before waves of folks suddenly lost their jobs. By 2090, most had fled the East Bay. The half-million or so who stayed forged a new economy based on salvaging what was left. Today, Oakland’s mostly a mish-mash of poor and working-class neighborhoods, market districts, repurposed warehouses, and clusters of earthen homesteads and stables. Connecting them all are gravel roads, dirt pathways, and a few stone-laid central corridors.

Deep in the heart of East Oakland, Arroyo Viejo Training Farm’s bountiful gardens have become some of the lushest landscapes around. Since 2111, they’ve grown enough produce to feed more than 80 families while serving as a popular training ground for upstart growers who hope to carry their knowledge back to the eastern and northern farms. Of course, if it weren’t for the massive rainwater basins constructed decades ago, Arroyo Viejo wouldn’t exist. As head steward of this oasis, and elected leader of the Urban Water Guild, Desirae kept it all going, and everyone knew it.

“Sis, you have a visitor,” said Honor Greene, arguably the most slender of Desirae’s family, also known as Sly among the locals. “It’s him again,” he said, not hiding his disdain.

Desirae’s stomach turned. Anxious flashes of energy coursed through her chest. She smiled. How long had it been since she’d seen him? Two months, maybe three? Something serious must have come up for him to be here this early in the day. Something very serious.

“Please let him in Sly,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I promise not to get too caught up.” Sly opened the front gates, waving Brandon’s horse-drawn carriage into the main storage yard. Brandon approached her with diplomatic assuredness, dressed in full council garb. This wouldn’t be a romantic visit, she thought. Probably for the best.

“You’ve done wonders here,” said Brandon, flashing his warm, familiar smile. She couldn’t help but smile back as she reached for him. They embraced, and held one another tightly, if only for a moment. Brandon peered over her shoulder, furrowing his brow.

“What’s going on, Brandon?” she asked. “Are you here to drag me, kicking and screaming, on one of your wild-ass political crusades?”

“You know me well,” he said. “But this time it’s different. Seems the citizens of SF Citadel are screaming bloody murder over their recent losses. Nesalla thinks Premier Alito’s planning an all-out attack to claim exclusive access to Hetch Hetchy’s water. It’s starting to get ugly.”

“When hasn’t it been?” she asked. “Why should I care if cita-dwellers are forced to cut back a little? Serves them right for walling themselves off and taking more than their fair share.”

“It’s not that simple, and you know it,” he pleaded. “Not everyone in these parts is as fortunate as your Water Guild communities. Most still rely on that new flow. For them, this is life and death, Desirae.” He gazed into her eyes, searching for agreement.

“I know,” she sighed. “But what can we do about it? Alito will simply take what she wants.”

“Not if our cities and townships come together to defend our rights,” he said. “Alito’s expecting us to be divided, too busy squabbling amongst ourselves to pay attention to her schemes. But if she faced a united front with people putting their lives on the line, she’d have to back off.”

Desirae looked at him with worry, the kind of worry that won’t be comforted away. “There’ll be losses, painful losses,” she said. “And folks are still mighty pissed from the last time Piedmont Citadel turned its back on us. It’s gonna take some hard convincing.”

“I understand,” Brandon said. “But this is coming from Nesalla directly, not citadel leadership. I’m heading to an emergency session at East Bay Regional in an hour. I’ll try to whip up as much official support as I can, but we need the people to come together on this, Desirae.”

“All right, all right. I’ll check with the guild,” she said. “And put out the call to our friends in the neighborhood assemblies. Maybe Spirit Mount. But I can’t offer any promises.”

“No promises,” he acknowledged. “But if I know you, we’ll have scores of allies by nightfall.”

Obama’s Trans-Pacific Pact Lets Corporations Rule

Here we go again. Under the guise of “free trade,” President Obama is following in the footsteps of his predecessors by pushing yet another global pact designed to let multi-national corporations overrule popular democracy. Much like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) would grant new rights to corporations to challenge our hard-won democratic laws protecting public health, consumers, and the environment.

Essentially, the TPPA would allow corporations to legally contest democratic laws before an international tribunal. The tribunal could not only overrule our legal standards, but also impose economic sanctions against us if we refuse to abide by its rulings. If passed, the agreement would go into effect between the United States and twelve Pacific Rim countries, including Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia, posing one of the biggest threats ever to our countries’ climate, consumer, and worker protection laws. According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, other TPPA measures would restrict internet users’ freedom of speech, curb their right to privacy and due process, and hinder their ability to innovate.

Noted MIT professor Noam Chomsky says of the pact: “It’s called free trade, but that’s just a joke. These are extreme, highly protectionist measures designed to undermine freedom of trade. In fact, much of what’s leaked about the TPP indicates that it’s not about trade at all, it’s about investor rights.” In other words, the pact would grant even more power to corporations at a time when their free-wheeling practices have already contributed mightily to growing economic inequality, financial insecurity, environmental pollution, and public health crises. Indeed, a select group of corporate partners — companies like General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer — have sent legions of lobbyists to Washington to push the TPPA at all costs, knowing full well that looser regulations will help boost their bottom lines at our expense.

What’s worse is that the terms of the agreement are being negotiated in secret, with the Obama administration regarding the terms of the deal as classified information, even going so far as to limit Congress’s ability to review the negotiation text. Thankfully, a growing number of congressional representatives are coming out against this corporate domination scheme, along with a coalescing movement of grassroots organizations and community groups across the country. The climate advocacy group 350.org has organized an online petition calling on Congress to reject the TPPA. An Inter-Continental Day of Action will be held on Friday, January 31st with activities scheduled in cities around the world.

Rather than granting unaccountable corporations more control over our lives, communities, and environment, we the people must begin demanding that corporations serve the public interest first. Our common heritage is our climate, our water, our energy, our airwaves, and our land. Corporations have proven themselves incredibly capable of amazing innovation, speedy dissemination of new technologies, and efficient provision of services (at least to those with the ability to pay for them). But they’ve simultaneously proven themselves to be incredibly incapable of creating sufficient employment opportunities for supporting our families, ensuring public health, stabilizing our communities, or sustaining our environment — arguably the most fundamental aspects of everyday life that hold our society together.

Given these colossal failures, the last thing we should be doing is enshrining new rights to corporations into international treaties. It is they who should serve at our pleasure. We should not only reject the TPPA, we must overturn the Citizens United federal ruling that granted corporations unlimited rights to donate money to political candidates, essentially transforming our elections into little more than bidding wars between the wealthiest donors to control seats in Congress.

Eventually, as our social and ecological crises come to a head, we will need to reassert public authority over corporations entirely, making their existence subject to performance measures that we democratically decide together must be met. We could harness the market to put them in competition with one another to meet public objectives like providing employment, housing, creating sustainable transportation and energy systems, and much more. Failure to do so would simply mean their public contracts would end, and new opportunities would be granted to those who can.

Preparedness Matters More than CO2 Targets

[Reposted from the Winter 2014 issue of the Earth Island Journal.]

If we environmentalists were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that several decades of heroic efforts to curb carbon emissions have yielded very little progress. Despite repeated warnings from scientists and the inspiring rise of climate activism, global emissions continue to grow, having recently passed the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm).

“Passing the 400 [ppm] mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels,” says Dr. Michael Gunson of the Global Change & Energy Program. Such views are sobering, to say the least, especially knowing that it takes about four decades for the impacts of prior emissions to take full effect. We’ve already witnessed nearly a 1˚ C increase in average global temperatures from emissions between 1900 and the early 1970s. If you add the emissions “already in the pipeline” over the decades since, we’re almost guaranteed another 0.5˚ C in warming by mid-century. This would take us precariously close to the much-dreaded 2˚ C increase that scientists warn would have “severe climate impacts on social and natural systems.”

Preventing Climate Change No Longer a Viable Strategy

Stabilizing the global climate at or below a 2˚ C increase would require unprecedented cuts in emissions — on the order of 80 percent or more — by 2050. Translated into real-life terms, residents, governments, and businesses the world over would practically need to cease their reliance on fossil fuels in little more than a generation.

Given the anemic international agreements attempted thus far and the glacial pace of progress in Washington, the prospects for meaningful political action seem remote. Moreover, if we were to continue being honest, we’d have to acknowledge that industrial civilization is simply too “locked in” to fossil fuel dependency to cut emissions quickly or deeply enough to prevent climate instability. We’re not only addicted to fossil fuels, the needle is grafted to our collective arm.

Peak Oil Will Curb Carbon Emissions

Thankfully, that one-time reservoir of fossil fuels we’ve been gifted is starting to run dry, which will grant our overtaxed atmosphere some reprieve from carbon emissions in the decades to come. We’re entering a period that petroleum geologists refer to as “peak oil,” that maximum point in production when we can no longer extract oil at rates higher than we have before. It corresponds roughly to the half-way point in our global endowment, which will soon mean that we modern-day humans will have less and less oil and related fossil fuels to work with each and every year.

According to a recent assessment by Europe’s Energy Watch Group, “world [crude] oil production has not increased anymore but has entered a plateau since about 2005.” We can expect crude oil from mature fields to continue to decline, dropping as much as 40 percent by 2030. In another new report, Climate After Growth, Post Carbon Institute’s director Asher Miller and Transition Network founder Rob Hopkins note that the planet’s oil fields are declining at an average rate of 4 million barrels per day — roughly one-fifth of what Americans consume every day.

In response, oil firms are desperately trying to replace those losses via costly and risky forms of extraction like hydro-fracking and deepwater drilling to reach unconventional forms of energy like shale gas and Canadian tar sands. Great media hoopla has accompanied the resurgence of the US fossil fuel industry from such development. But the Energy Watch Group’s analysis reveals that US shale oil will actually “peak between 2015 and 2017, followed by a steep decline,” a pattern that’s expected to repeat itself globally.

Energy analyst Chris Nelder sums up our present conundrum this way: “Global production will fall when the decline of mature fields overwhelms new additions. When, precisely, that will happen, no one can say for certain. But it’s almost definitely before 2020.”

Many environmentalists still hold out hope that we can simply “swap in” renewable energy to replace the vast, concentrated energy provided by fossil fuels. We’ll need all the solar, wind, oceanic, biomass, hydro, and geothermal energy we can get, but renewable energy (now about 13 percent of global energy use) simply cannot be scaled up at the pace needed to supplant our fossil fuel use — certainly not before the predicted down-curve in available oil and gas supplies.

Shifting the Debate to Infrastructure Transformation

If true, then the question shifts from, “How do we reduce fossil fuel use?” (which will happen anyway) to, “How do we make the best use of what we have left to adapt to climate change and the coming energy crunch?”

Mitigating climate change’s worst impacts is critical, especially when they disproportionately affect society’s most vulnerable and our vital life-support systems. But the idea that we should simply leave the rest of the recoverable fossil fuels in the ground is starting to sound increasingly naïve and morally questionable. It’s naïve because of the sheer inertia we’ve witnessed during the past three decades in terms of global climate action. To think that will change anytime soon is wishful thinking. And it’s wrong because leaving our remaining fossil fuels untapped would consign hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people to their deaths, given how dependent we are on fossil-fueled infrastructure.

What’s vital now is shifting our infrastructure away from fossil dependency and migrating threatened coastal communities and economies inland. As fossil fuels decline, we’ll need to rehabilitate rural economies, re-nutrify denuded soils, and rebuild diverse local food systems. As the snowpack diminishes from climate change, we’ll need rainwater catchment and storage basins, reforested watersheds, and water-efficient irrigation systems. As sea levels rise, we’ll need to build more dikes, levees, and channels to protect our cities. We’ll need to de-pave many of our streets, highways, and parking lots to free up space for growing food, open up covered creeks, and reseed natural landscapes. We’ll need to energy retrofit our buildings, revitalize rail transport lines, convert seafaring vessels to sail, and retool our decaying manufacturing infrastructure.

All of this will require redirecting substantial fossil fuels from wasteful consumption toward these ends. We face challenging times ahead from the global warming that is already coming, along with the consequences of overshooting our planet’s resource limits. We must brace ourselves. Instead of saddling future generations with a crumbling, oil-dependent infrastructure, our legacy must be to carefully apply the resources we have left to fertilize, fortify, and beautify our world.

Denial of Nature’s Limits is the Problem

The_World_in_His_hands_by_SaviourMachineLast week, The New York Times published a fantastical piece on human exceptionalism entitled “Overpopulation Is Not The Problem,” in which author Erle C. Ellis claimed that human societies have no limits to their growth. That’s right — limits are merely an illusion. Expansion über alles! That’s our species’ birthright, and rightful destiny.

“There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Ellis, castigating those of us concerned with ecological limits as believers that humans are little different than “bacteria in a petri dish.” Perhaps even more outlandishly, Ellis goes on to state that “[t]he idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future.” Who’s history exactly?

As an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Ellis should know better. Unless he steered clear of the stacks of thoughtful volumes available to him on the rise and fall of past civilizations, he would surely have encountered chronicle after chronicle of societies that faced progressively daunting ecological challenges, and which plummeted in population as a result.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s recent treatise, Collapse, offers a sobering survey of past human overshoot: from the fall of the Anasazi of southwestern North America due to deforestation and warfare over depleting resources, to the collapse of the Maya due to overcultivation and prolonged drought, to the recent genocide in Rwanda, due in part to increasing numbers of people contending for land in a formerly sustainable subsistence economy. In each of these cases, people (quite unlike bacteria) deployed complex social and technological innovations under increasingly stressful circumstances. And yet, their societies collapsed.

The lesson we should draw from this is not that that we are immune from nature’s limits. Quite the contrary: we fail to moderate our environmental impact at our own peril.

In fairness to Ellis, he rightly points out that humans are “niche creators,” beings who have an impressive history of transforming ecosystems to sustain ourselves and often to facilitate our very survival. This recognition, however, does not magically exempt us from ecological processes, pressures, and limits. It simply means we must utilize our “niche creation” skills in ways that allow our planet’s life-support systems to persevere.

Unfortunately, many of our world’s vital ecosystems are already on the brink of collapse. Despite incredible leaps in resource-use efficiency, ecological understanding, and technological know-how, our planet’s forests and sensitive habitats are being devastated far faster than they’re regenerating, arable lands are turning into deserts and soils are being mined of their critical nutrients, our oceans are being overfished and polluted with more toxins than can safely be absorbed, our freshwater aquifers and waterways are being depleted at rates several times faster than they’re being replenished, and our atmosphere is being flooded with so much carbon that our global climate is warming to extreme degrees. Moreover, the fossil fuels we rely on for transportation, agriculture, housing, manufacturing, and so much more are becoming harder and harder to find and extract, posing severe challenges to the very foundation of industrial civilization.

All of these realities will pose severe constraints on economic activity, which in turn, will limit human numbers. Just because we’ve overcome ecological constraints in the past, expanding from smaller niches to ever-larger ones, doesn’t mean we can therefore transcend our entire planet’s very real ecological boundaries.

Yes, we humans are “niche creators,” as Ellis so colorfully calls us. But rather than cling to the tired and dangerous myth of human exceptionalism from nature, it’s time to embrace our proper role as stewards and balancers of Earth’s incredible bounty. Through the knowledge we’ve gained from ecology, permaculture, and anthropology, we have within our power the capacity to remake our societies to respect nature’s cycles, life-giving processes, and yes, even its limits — while simultaneously allowing us all to live life to its fullest. Constant expansion of our numbers isn’t necessary for that vision. Humility and belief in ourselves is.