When suburban uniformity and reality collide

It is difficult to overstate the importance of water for life. It’s one of the reasons why so many human cities and human civilizations sprung up in places next to rivers or lakes where fresh water was plentiful. And in many places the bringing in of fresh water is one of the first public utilities to appear. Even here in Boston, a public water system was available by the end of the 18th century.
So how is it that in the 21st century, we have so many places, not just in the developing world but right here in the United States, that are struggling just to provide potable water for their population?

California’s drought has been a huge and growing problem for several years now. And it is hardly the only part of the country that is experiencing water shortages. There is a major water crisis going on in Detroit, where the city’s emergency manager is threatening to shut off the water to tens of thousands of residents. And now the greater Toledo area in Ohio and Michigan is experiencing a water crisis due to giant algae blooms in Lake Erie.

Of course there are many other examples of major water issues across the United States: Atlanta is the largest city in the U.S. not on a major body of water and is going to have serious water shortage problems if it continues to grow; Phoenix is already in trouble; and there are plenty of stories of contaminated well water all over the United States (the USGS estimates 1 in 5 water wells in the country are contaminated).

To me, this is one of those issues related to problems with our country’s infrastructure in general, and how we as a country tend to not pay attention to any problem until it becomes huge. In many ways, that sort of procrastination, followed by slapping a Band-Aid temporary solution on the problem, is our great national pastime. Not until fairly recently have people begun to use rain barrels to the point that you can find them for sale at a place like Home Depot or Lowe’s. And, no matter where in the country you live, people seem to insist on having a lawn of green grass, no matter how out of place it may be in terms of local ecosystem and flora.

This odd contradiction is beginning to get more attention as droughts worsen. It is ridiculous to fine people for not watering their damn lawn when you have a critical water shortage. People should be discouraged from planting lawns in the first place, unless they are encouraged to conserve rain water somehow. But that I guess is my point. Until fairly recently, no one was much encouraged to do anything like that, and even now many people blow it off or poo-poo it.

As a society in the Americas, we sort of ended up with such a ridiculous amount of natural resources that we have almost always acted as if they would never run out. In some ways we still do that. We still build houses more or less the same across the country, regardless of climate, we still expect our clean water to be endless, and our pipes and sewers to always be working. We still build sprawling gigantic buildings that are ridiculously inefficient in terms of heating or cooling regardless of where they are. We do this sort of thing without any sense of long-term consequences.

Growing up in Alabama it seemed to me that there had to be a better way of building homes that would make them more energy-efficient and more tornado-proof. But it just wasn’t done. I remember when I was about twelve being shocked when I realized that most houses in Alabama didn’t have cellars. For a long time I thought it was just houses in my neighborhood that were like that. Then I realized that just about ALL of them were like that. “So where do people go when there’s a tornado?” you might wonder. Well, they go in the tub, like we did in my house for countless tornado warnings. Or, if they’re lucky, they go to a windowless interior room. That might let you survive a small tornado, but a big one? Well, try to imagine how that played out with these homes. These are from North Alabama (near where I grew up) and are fairly recent photos.

No safe room in this house, sadly.
I see the toilet, but no sign of the bathtub. Wonder if it protected anyone?
A relatively simple shelter that saved the lives of six people in Tanner, AL, on the other side of I-65 not far from Huntsville.

My point is… at what point does it matter to people? Sure, a shelter might cost a few thousand dollars, but people in these areas find that kind of money to spend on stuff that costs a lot more: ATVs, motorcycles, jet-skis, pools, LOTS of guns… you name it. So for many people money is not the issue, then. Thinking about more than the here and now just doesn’t seem to be that important. They would rather spend the money on something else, something tangible and immediate. At what threshold do people finally say “OK, fine, I will get a tornado shelter instead of that new bass boat” or even “we will insulate the hell out of this place before we remodel the kitchen”? Is it not on the radar for most people? It clearly isn’t on the radar for the government. Cut spending for wildfire control in CA, we get bigger and badder wildfires, leave infrastructure that was built during the Eisenhower administration to rot and we get crumbling bridges, pour toxic chemicals into the earth and we get poisoned wells.

It just seems like saving your life from something that might actually happen (as opposed to the black helicopters from the UN or aliens or zombies) would be worth the trouble. But I guess I am not really an expert. I grew up with a bathtub.

-Geoff

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