Clash of the Citadels, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part two 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 is under consideration for publication within John Michael Greer’s next post-oil sci-fi anthology. For more about his first work, please visit the publisher’s page.

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?” Councilor Jones had made a habit of questioning the president, having lost his own bid for president three years ago. 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 turn of events. 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 survey 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 southward toward Fishermans Wharf, SF Citadel’s main harbor.” That clinched it. Only the most cynical representatives in the room would doubt Nesalla now. Throughout her entire political career, she had sued for peaceful relations between and among the cities and townships of the Greater Bay Area. And even with this obvious case of attempted sabotage, she was really 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 hundred large ships from the coastal marinas.”

That last suggestion immediately raised the stakes. Nesalla wasn’t just shoring up East Bay’s defenses, she was planning on taking the battle directly to Alito if necessary. Problem was, most of those ships were already moving people and cargo across the bay constantly. It would take a major sacrifice for harborside communities to spare that many ships.

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 twelve hundred hours tomorrow.”

“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 of people on the move, and ready to take a stand. That made Desirae’s mission all the more critical. But would it be enough? “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 all appeal to our local assemblies, and urge them to set up neighborhood recruitment centers, just in case.” Cheers of agreement filled the hall. The East Bay was truly coming together on this, 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, might they 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 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. We should have control of their command base, their waterfront, and all major East Bay power centers before the week’s out. 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. She’d never known Premier Stewart to take major risks. He’d always shied away from conflict whenever possible. Sometimes she even sensed he felt guilty for presiding over the East Bay’s elite fortress. It was, after all, a largely self-sufficient hillside sanctuary for the privileged, thriving amidst a sea of struggling cities, townships, and shanties. How much could it matter to him if new leadership took over at East Bay Regional? A lot, apparently.

“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. Her sharp wit, dry sense of humor, and social prowess captivated him. 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. But would anyone be safe under Alito’s reign? Perhaps this crisis could serve as an opportunity, a chance to rebuild normal relations with the broader region — assuming they win.

“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 one 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 is under consideration for publication within John Michael Greer’s next post-oil sci-fi anthology. For more about his first work, please visit the publisher’s page.

ImageMarch 13, 2115, 1130 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 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:


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 last year’s 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 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 tops 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 all those jobs. “Office day-dreamers,” she’d say. “Now shit’s gettin’ real ‘round here.” By 2090, most had fled the East Bay, heading to Central Valley or North Bay towns to try their luck on the farms. The half-million or so who stayed forged a new economy based on salvaging what was left and remaking their lives anew. Today, Oakland’s mostly a mish-mash of poor and working-class neighborhoods, market districts, repurposed industrial 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 providing a popular training ground for upstart farmers who hope to carry their knowledge back to the eastern and northern townships. 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 went to open 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 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.

Justice for Trayvon: Ungating Our Communities

Justice for TrayvonFor three straight nights following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, protests raged here in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area. Our communities have been reeling with fury, fear, and frustration.

For many in this historically black, culturally rich, and economically ravaged town, the “system” — the whole damned system — failed to provide an ounce of justice for Trayvon. The verdict’s message to young black and brown men: your lives matter less than those who fear you, and they have a right to kill you if you cross the line. It’s a horrifying and oppressive thought for anyone to hear. It’s even worse to have it sanctified by the courts.

Many see this case is proof-positive of the racial bias of our legal system. For all its vaunted ideals of equal justice before the law, that system now manages to cage 1 million African Americans in prison — out of 2.3 million incarcerated overall in the U.S. Not only are blacks over-represented, they’re imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of whites. If those trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

It’s this backdrop of systemic racism that stacked the deck against young Trayvon the moment he dared to wander freely in the gated community in Sanford, Florida. And while this particular community was racially diverse, Trayvon was nonetheless profiled as a young, black, loitering, non-property-owner — in other words, a trespasser who didn’t belong. Being the scary trespasser, young Mr. Martin was automatically treated like a criminal by police, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant.

The fear of “trespassers” and perceived “undesirables” is now fueling a housing boom of gated communities across the U.S. Between 2001 and 2009 alone, our country saw a 53 percent increase in homes built in gated communities, which in 2009 amounted to more than 10 million homes. Author Benjamin Rich, who traveled 27,000 miles between 2007 and 2009 living in predominantly white gated communities across the U.S., summed up his impressions in the New York Times: “Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.”

Indeed, the meteoric rise of all things private — private communities, private security guards, private schools, private parks, private roads, etc. — only contributes to the “us” versus “them” mentality. The privileged get to enclose and insulate themselves from their surroundings — creating a kind of Fortress America — while the rest of us are left to scramble for what’s left, hopefully not getting targeted, profiled, or killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we’re not careful, our world may one day become filled with ever-higher walls, endless security checkpoints, and a population consumed by fear. Is that the America we want?

Let me be clear: we all deserve safety and security. We all deserve communities where we and our children can flourish to our fullest potential, free of predators, criminals, or others who may wish to do us harm. But by erecting ever more walls, ever more security gates, and ever more barricades, we’re really only denying ourselves our full potential.

It’s time to ungate our communities, both figuratively and literally. Safe and vibrant communities have neighbors who know each other and look out for one another. They have active and proud residents who are involved in local improvement efforts. They’re mixed in income, race, cultural background, and cut across generations. They have homegrown businesses, neighborhood groups, and regular events that bring people together in common cause. And they have plenty of accessible parks, open spaces, and well-trafficked walkways that facilitate interaction, familiarity, and security.

Let’s honor Trayvon’s death by recommitting to building inclusive, welcoming, and resilient communities for us all.

A Message of Hope to My Son

ImageThis is my first Father’s Day. I’m one of those “older” parents: having spent most of my time in my 20s and 30s engaged in social activism and not enough time nurturing deep relationships, I ended up pushing off fatherhood until my early 40s.

Now here I am, with a beautiful, energetic 4-month-old son (we named him Justice) and an amazing life partner who has shown herself to be an incredibly attentive, deeply loving mother. Although we come from differing religious traditions — I’m a former Catholic turned spiritual agnostic, she’s a former Buddhist turned Baha’i — we both share a deep and abiding concern for the fate of our world.

This concern is fused inextricably with our love for our son. We expose him to a diverse circle of friends and caretakers so he’ll learn early on the common humanity in us all. We take him on forest hikes, let him gaze curiously at the sky, and help him cuddle with our cats so he’ll have appreciation for this planet we call home. And we babble, giggle, tickle, cradle, and sing to him as much as we can so he’ll know viscerally how precious and joyful life truly is. Of course, we know this is only the beginning. He’ll need far more than this.

For we live in profoundly perilous times, to say the least. Justice is inheriting a planet wracked by environmental decline, marred by violent conflict, and increasingly divided between the super-rich and increasingly super-poor. Oh yes, and all of these crises just happen to be converging just now in new and disturbing ways.

You might ask: then why have children? It’s a fair question.

My answer: because in the midst of it all, one of the most responsible things we can do is nurture our young to become caretakers and shepherds of a better future.

Having witnessed Justice’s fierce yearnings since birth — his adorable smiles, coos, rollovers, kicks, and yes, even his drools — I feel all the more committed to helping him prepare for the wrenching, and potentially glorious years ahead.

As the American Empire fades, forcing us to learn to make and do things we’ve off-shored to others, he’ll need a can-do attitude, an adaptive mindset, and a willingness to learn new skills (and some old ones too). As his friends and neighbors face economic difficulties in greater numbers, he’ll need to create and seize new opportunities in partnership with those around him. As our food, energy, and water become all the more taxed, he’ll need to help restore our land, air, and sea. And as stresses mount and conflicts arise, he’ll need the power of loving persuasion to bring people together in the spirit of sharing and unity.

Okay, perhaps I’m putting a bit too much on our “Little Man,” as we’re so fond of calling him. He’s not even a toddler yet!

Still, I have reason for hope for my son, his generation, and those yet born who will one day usher in a new era.

My first place of solace is nature’s resilience. Despite being clear-cut, over-harvested, polluted, mined, and abused in countless ways, our planet is still marvelously abundant, mostly functioning, and teeming with life. Its life-giving processes are, to be sure, being pushed to the brink, and our global climate has been shaken off balance in irrevocable ways. Still, our planet will survive, with or without us — and will almost certainly be granted a reprieve once fossil fuel-powered civilization begins to wind down in the decades to come. Justice will bear witness to incredible loss, but can take comfort in the fact that nature’s resilience, with the healing hands of millions, will restore, rehabilitate, and recalibrate life’s presence here on Earth.

My second reason for hope is history’s promise. While war, injustice, and hatred have scarred our existence for millennia, peacemakers, social justice advocates, and, dare I say, love-makers of all kinds have consistently sprung into action, reminding us of our humanity and changing history for the better, time and time again. From the early challenges to Roman imperial excess to the popular overthrow of dictators and tyrants, from courageous resistance in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto to the peaceful Indian revolution over British occupation, from the American anti-slavery movement to the Civil Rights movement — all of these and many more point to our species’ thirst for justice, and a willingness to make deep sacrifices to ensure dignity for us all.

Such passion and determination show no signs of letting up in the present day: less than one year ago, millions of people the world over took part in the “Occupy” movement to challenge Wall Street “banksters” and global financiers’ rigging of our economies. Right now, widespread demonstrations for freedom and justice are underway throughout Turkey, often in the face of violent government repression. Such determined action will be sorely needed in our own neck of the woods, at least if we hope to push our society from corporate domination to democratic community. Given the resurgence of the youth, permaculture, economic justice, food sovereignty, and climate protection movements, I remain hopeful for a more equitable, humane future.

Lastly, I have faith in the human heart. I don’t for a minute believe that humanity is bad or “evil” by nature. We’re all prone to selfishness, dishonesty, and misdeeds. But we also have an innate capacity for empathy, fellowship, and deeply felt love. This love, despite its failings, transcends space, time, race, gender, religion, nation, and species.

When I see Justice laugh or smile with joy, I nearly melt. His innocence has a due date, it’s true. But his heart need never shy away from love for his brothers and sisters, whose destiny we must all help guide toward brilliant tomorrows.