SF Gate ran a little game for its readers the other day where you could attempt to balance the needs for water of urban areas, agriculture and the environment. Like Whack-a-Mole, there was no final resolution to be found. The percentages just won’t balance, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much precipitation falls; there really has never been enough for California’s ever-growing population. Why am I feeling so uncomfortable?

California is in a third year of drought and a declared statewide emergency. Last year was the driest spring and summer on record. Our rainfall was 76 percent below average; the Sierra’s snowpack is 39 percent below normal.

So what does this mean? It means water is barely trickling into reservoirs that are already at historic lows — reservoirs that send water straight to your tap.

Since our last drought in 1991, 9 million more people live in California and the state has passed restrictions on how much water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Water goes to three main uses: urban, agricultural and the environment. The drought worries officials concerned about providing water to urban areas, threatens our agriculture and our environment and, ultimately, our economy.

It is easy to get tangled up in recent news: the call for a peripheral canal and new dams, the decline of the delta smelt, battles over who owns what water rights, farmers abandoning fields.

But the most important story is this: California has a limited amount of water. How do we decide who gets how much?

It takes trust and agreement to jointly decide to reduce a collective carbon footprint. Shared sacrifice and shared gratification, commitment and follow-through. It’s tricky to find all of that among neighbors in our transient, insular society, but a family is a good social building block toward a more widespread collaboration.

This post from Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog in the NY Times describes a family of five in Oregon that has decided to shrink its per capita footprint by a full 80% through home renovation and changes in their practices and habits.

Hello from Oregon — We’re a family of five in Eugene, involved in rehabbing an older, inner-city house for maximum energy efficiency. We were inspired by the 2,000 Watt Society in Switzerland, and are hoping to cut our per-capita energy use down by 80 percent or so, to a globally sustainable level — without losing a lot of quality of life. I guess you could say we’re looking at the same issues covered in Dot Earth (a favorite read) but from a bottom-up perspective, seeking single-family, real-world contributions to big environmental problems. Please let us know if you’re involved in similar efforts (you can track our family blog at thinhouse.net ).

Our living example of how bad things could get in areas prone to aridity is the continent of Australia where devastating drought, wildfires, heatwaves and flooding have plagued the land for years, now. This widely-circulated L.A. Times article describes how the situation in the land down under could visit many other regions of the planet including our own American Southwest if and when the atmosphere reaches a certain condition. We’re seeing plenty of water shortages already, and not only in our natural desert areas. The normally moist Southeast is just now recovering from severe drought.

If we can’t learn from Australia’s plight, we will have lost a perhaps irreplacable chance to plan and adapt.

Reporting from The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia — Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done .

“Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It’s devastation,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth. It’s desperate times.”

Local gumption and agreement. Develop some.

One of the main premises of this blog is that the time has come for your local community to assume more responsibility for the infrastructure and services you depend on. The writing on the wall is telling you that centralized economy, governance and care is breaking down. You can read that writing or ignore it, but you’d be better served by adopting a local do-it-yourself attitude as these folks did on Kauai, Hawaii:

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free.

Polihale State Park has been closed since severe flooding destroyed an access road to the park and damaged facilities in December.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix, money the agency doesn’t have, according to a news release from department Chairwoman Laura Thielen.

“It would not have been open this summer, and it probably wouldn’t be open next summer,” said Bruce Pleas, a local surfer who helped organize the volunteers. “They said it would probably take two years. And with the way they are cutting funds, we felt like they’d never get the money to fix it.”

This question has such an obvious answer – but “yesterday” without a time machine just doesn’t work. So, let’s say “today, right this second” and get our asses in gear.

A very easy to interpret chart provided by the Hadley Centre in the UK – and blogged here on Worldchanging demonstrates the risks of putting off significant corrective action for any amount of time past 2010. Clearly, we’d better figure out how to reduce carbon emissions immediately if we’re going to avoid the rises in temperature that condemn many of the planet’s species including our own.

For most people, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the daily commuting ordeal, and it’s especially stressful when there are surprises – traffic accidents, road construction, mass transit delays and breakdowns…

In several large cities (NY, Boston, D.C., Chicago, LA. London and Portland OR), with large volumes of commuters, there’s a Web/phone platform available for commuters to help one another along their regular routes by messaging into a dynamic digital status report.

Clever Commute and its accompanying blog asks its users to “define your line” by checking your home region, the routes and transit lines you normally take and your origin an destination points. Other commuters who travel the same lines report on conditions each day and those reports are sent to members of each line community via their cellphones and PDAs, warning them of obstacles or steering them to better alternate routes.

It’s a great application of location-based realtime crowdsourcing that has some environmental impact wherever it decreases the amount of time that mobs of people are stuck idling in stop-and-go traffic jams.

John Geraci is founder of DIYcity, which I blogged here. He’s a guest blogger at O’Reilly Radar and just posted an article there titled The Future of Our Cities: Open, Crowdsourced, and Participatory

I live near a city (San Francisco), but not in one. Yet what Geraci envisions could well apply to many counties and townships, also, where populations depend on common transportation systems and utilities. Where solutions can’t be funded in the forms insisted upon by government agencies, tech-savvy citizens can collaborate on hacking better-than-nothing solutions.

Geraci cites a potential example for New York City:

Take for example the case of the New York City MTA, which currently operates at a budget deficit of $1.2 billion, and has been trying and failing for almost 20 years to implement a realtime tracking system for the city’s buses, at a cost of millions. As the MTA sees it, their two options are 1. pay for a gigantic, centralized, monolithic tracking system or 2. don’t have bus tracking. (And with their current budget shortfall, it seems like option 2 is the only real choice for them). What if, instead, they entertained the idea of implementing an open bus tracking system, one that relied to some extent on aggregated individual input from bus riders? What if they then crowdsourced ideas on how best to do this? And finally, what if they cooperated with the people who came forward with ideas, to make it easy for them to implement them?

Where I live in Marin County, it was citizen action that instigated the preservation of hundreds of thousands of acres as open space and parkland; it was not government taking the initiative. That mostly happened in the pre-Internet days. Now that we’ve got the Net and there’s more talent, creativity and freedom in the civic sector than in government, it’s time that citizens once again take the lead in building tools and solving problems for their localities.

"This ice looks awful young."

Climate change is not linear. We must remind ourselves that, while we’re preoccupied with the economic and health care crises, we can’t ignore the 8-zillion pound gorilla of global warming feedback effects that looms over us.

No one contests the measurable fact that the arctic ice cap is rapidly thinning due to higher polar temperatures. And there’s little resistance to the idea that the less ice on the north pole, the more water is exposed and the greater the heating effect of sun on a dark surface. So as the ice disappears, there’s a likelihood of accelerated warming around the pole. Does this, then, mean that permafrost located within the arctic circle will begin to melt and then release the methane held within it? (Methane, you know,

Joe Romm blogs on the latest report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tells us that less than 10% of the ice covering the pole as of February was more than 2 years old. The old, permanently frozen ice is almost gone. Says Joe,

Sounds like a tipping point to me — and to NSIDC and IPY (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did.” and The International Polar Year: “Arctic sea ice will probably not recover.)

Recall that less than a month ago the scientifically prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research released the results of its annual poll of 52 global climate experts where the consensus was:

…there is more than a 50% chance of major changes in the global climate system if global warming proceeds at the current rate. Should average global temperature increase by more than 4 degrees Celsius, one or several parts of the climate system could tip to a new state. Experts’ estimates of the probability of tipping vary, and it also remains uncertain by how much global temperature will increase in the future. But – as the authors report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online early edition – these uncertainties do not imply that far-reaching events caused by global warming are unlikely.

I note that the survey did not seem to consider the question of methane release from permafrost as a critical tipping point. The five tipping points in the survey were Atlantic thermohaline circulation, El Niño phenomenon, Amazon rainforest, Greenland, and West Antarctic ice sheets.

So, is a dramatic permafrost tipping point now becoming likely enough to spur emergency action, or do we proceed as per status quo and deem such tipping points as uncertainties not yet worth acting on?

Methinks we’d better devote a lot more attention, funding and action on the 50% possibility identified by the Potsdam survey respondents – that irreversible and catastrophic damage could be staring us in the face.

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Bruce Elkins, a personal life coach, asked this incisive question in a comment on my article about Jamais Cascio’s essay on Resilience Economics:

Has anyone out there given any thought to differentiating between field-related “specific skills” (i.e. skills that apply to fields like golf or writing or bee-keeping) and higher-order, transferable “generic skills” (i.e. character skills or meta-skills)?

Skills such as resilience, patience, persitence, creativity…

This prompted me to do a quickie search on “resilience training.”

One of the reasons this subject fascinates me is that I have a history of making radical lifestyle adjustments and adapting to them. I was raised in a comfy middle class environment, then chose to live in a comparatively primitive environment for over a decade, then moved back into the mainstream and had to catch up financially while learning to develop a social life in the online world. I’ve lived for a couple years in close proximity to Guatemalan campesinos. I tend to think that I’m prepared for whatever changes the economy and climate can throw at me. And yet, I am cognizant of the stresses that all of those adjustments put on me as I went through them.

Could I, with my background, effectively train a group, an organization, a community how to become more proactively adaptive? This is a “skill” I’m currently developing.

My Google search brought up a few distinct variations on the practice of resilience training:

  • The University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center has resilience training programs for both children and adults. The skills taught help people deal with depression and anxiety, which may develop in many people as economic and climate-related stresses rise. Skills taught include techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making, social problem-solving, and relaxation.
  • The U.S. Army is looking into resilience training as a method of reducing the degree and amount of post-traumatic syndrome in soldiers exposed to combat. This would be approached by “developing all the dimensions of a Soldier, including the physical, emotional, social, spiritual and family elements.”
  • My search brought up many offers of “executive resilience training,” which all claim to provide guidance to help execs become more flexible, react better and be better prepared for shifts in the global business community.
  • The Resilience Institute, based in Australia, claims that through its program, “Language, practical skills and creative frameworks become part of organisational culture.”

Somehow, none of these perspectives and approaches fit with my idea of local community resilience skills, which would call on more collective exposure to diverse thinking, ideas, histories and scenario planning. If resilience helps a community bounce back from impacts and regain its balance while adapting to new conditions, there will certainly be a need for resilient leadership – people who keep a cool head in the midst of disruptive change. But there will also be a need for collective preparation that looks ahead and plans for a spectrum of possibilities.

Perhaps, the community resilience training in this case will entail more widespread sharing and understanding of scenario planning, spanning local government and civic organizations.

According to the meticulous researcher and climate blogger Joe Romm, “There are enough shipping containers on earth to build an eight-foot high wall around the equator–twice.” And a good portion of them are not being used. I know there are many in my area serving as storage containers for personal and business use, but that still leaves thousands being stacked indefinitely in the U.S. – one form of evidence of our huge trade deficit.

So, as we think about provisional housing ideas – for the homeless today and for the disaster refugees of tomorrow – there are some creative thinkers out there making plans for such futures. Joe Romm describes some of their ideas.

One organization utilizing this building technique is PFNC Global communities, which stands for “Por Fin Nuestra Casa,” the Spanish equivalent of “Finally, a Home of Our Own.” PFNC is in the process of launching their one-unit shipping container home business, and they plan to create housing for people currently living in dangerous or insufficient housing situations around the world. They can put together a unit for less than $10,000, and BusinessWeek even took note and named their concept one of the top 20 most important innovations of the next 10 years.

The shipping container method is also ideal for creating portable temporary disaster relief shelters. Small units can be constructed quickly and then shipped out to provide people with a roof and basic amenities until they are back on their feet.

[Addendum April 13]

Lloyd Kahn – famous among Whole Earthies for his groundbreaking series of books on Shelter, posted this nice photo of a shipping container cabin:

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