6 min read

An Atlas of Collapse: Infrastructure and the Economy

An Atlas of Collapse: Infrastructure and the Economy

Following on the heels of climate change comes some of what climate change does to us: it breaks down our infrastructure, ruins harvests, and makes it difficult to work. This, in turn, tanks the economy. Not that it needed any help. We don't generally talk much about the economy here because I'm not an economist and it's all made up and silly, but. It is the system by which we supposedly have and gain value and get food–so I guess some of it has to be addressed.

With or without the help of climate change, our infrastructure is in disrepair in the United States. This puts us at risk of calamities large and small, at any hour of the day. Something as minor as a car crash can pull the plug on 911 services across multiple states, or an improperly barricaded bridge can collapse after a collision with a container ship. Trains are deregulated and derail, explode, poison water. Disproportionately Black towns and neighborhoods are neglected to the point of poisoned water. And that's not the half of it.

The Collapse of Insurance

The most boring collapse of them all, until you realize that insurance underpins mortgages, which underpin a significant portion of dollars in our banking system, which, obviously, makes this about the whole pie. We've talked about insurance before in previous letters, but as with all things When/If, the situation only becomes more pressing with time. Let's start with the big problem–the dinosaur's meteor as opposed to the singular volcano. Then, I want to address a growing problem that is relatively new to the scene.

The central issue to insurance and its position as a keystone in our economy is that insurance is required as a condition of having a mortgage. Most people are in need of mortgages in order to own homes, and those loans funnel dollars from honest hard-working people into the economy, where they probably go on to provide people with yachts–I don't know. But honestly, mortgages actually make up 15% of the United States' GDP, and, taken another way, the lack of affordable housing in this country costs us an estimated two trillion dollars yearly. Which is going to tick up a bit when the insurance market freefalls in Florida, California, and the better part of the eastern seaboard. Insurance companies have been abandoning these states as it becomes harder and harder to remain solvent while fighting against the ever-increasing costs of being a business that gives people money when their property is damaged by disasters in states increasingly prone to disasters. As insurance becomes harder to find, it will become harder to afford. Eventually this will empty out these regions of all but the rich, and property values for those that remain will crater. This means that property taxes will fall, and any remaining infrastructure will be without a lifeline.

This isn't just a Florida thing. I want that to be clear. This is Florida, New Orleans, Houston, Galveston, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, the Outer Banks, Washington DC, Atlantic City, New York City, and Boston. These cities are going to see increased flooding, and many of them increased storms and storm surge, as the oceans rise. Many of these cities will see quicker sea level rise than the rest of the world, thanks to the fading of AMOC. Roughly one third of the entire US population lives on the East Coast–and I haven't even started talking about the West. This is a significant blow to the US economy. It won't happen all at once, but once it starts you'll be able to see it coming apart.

California and the Pacific Northwest, likewise, will face similar problems as these states become harder and harder to insure in the face of, in part, rising seas, but mostly wildfires. We may not see a collapse of the market the way we'll end up seeing on the East Coast, mostly because California by itself is such an economic powerhouse that it may be able to legislate its way clear of a complete shuttering, but it will put a major hurt on the region. Between the coasts, this is such an enormous blow to all of our made up numbers that it's hard to say how things will shake out. While the US has been insulated from some of the major impacts of climate change thus far, we will be one of the earlier victims of sea level rise–whether our economy will start to simply tumble with all the rest or whether this will be a more major disruption (than an already major disruption) remains to be seen.

Having said all that about the collapse we've seen coming, here's one that we didn't: this is starting to happen everywhere. Even in regions considered relative oases from climate change, insurance companies are having difficulty remaining profitable. While it is extremely difficult to pin a causal relationship between climate change and a single storm–it's all but impossible, really–the trend for more and stronger storms is hard to ignore. These storms have made it such that even Midwestern states aren't safe for insurance companies to make a dirty buck.

The Collapse of Infrastructure

I brought this up briefly earlier: our shit's fucked up. Surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers actually raised our national grade recently, from a D+ to a C-. But that doesn't mean there aren't critical failures in the wings, or that what we've got is up to the task of fighting off the rising proverbial and non-proverbial waters. It's not just major infrastructure projects we have to worry about, either, like bridges and levees. Private infrastructure, like powerlines, is a frequent cause of property damage and loss of life.

Take, for instance, the biggest fire in Texas history just a few months ago. Or multiple fires in northern California, which occurred all because of aging electrical infrastructure. The Paradise fire, which killed four people, was caused when a PG&E pole was struck by a falling pine tree. (If you haven't seen the documentary Fire in Paradise, do. It's 45 minutes and I think adequately expresses the havoc of modern wildfires.) If you want a metric for how prepared our power grid is for climate change, take Arizona as an example: a study in 2016 found that a 1.8 degree rise in summer temperatures made the Arizona grid 30 times more susceptible to failure. That kind of temperature increase is not guaranteed–it is already here.

The efforts of the federal government to put some bandages on these boo-boos isn't as pitiful as you might think, but it is, ultimately, pretty pitiful. $830 million toward roads, bridges, and the like, meant to toughen up said infrastructure against the ravages of climate change. There is another $50 billion in store for climate-related projects, inevitably headed for the circular when Trump gets in office. It's also not a terrible lot when you consider how much we've given to Ukraine, (75 bills), Israel ($26 billion, just recently), and how much Biden has pledged to give to cops ($38 fucking billion).

Then there's the baked-in threadiness of a lot of our infrastructure, like the ability of a single wrecked pole (or, in the case of Nashville, a single bomb) to take out 911 capabilities for multiple states. This is simply neglectful, and speaks to the tendency of governments in this capitalist environment to offload duties onto commercial entities–which often happens to 911 call centers. There's no money to be made in helping to ensure the safety of your community, so if a government can pawn this responsibility off on a company that it says can do the job cheaper than the government can? Great. And that, right there, is a big part of why we're in such a state.

All Told

It's not just that soon you won't be able to buy property in Florida, nor is it that a butterfly in Africa can bring down 911 communications in Kansas. The issue here is the ultimate one: we have created a system that is unsustainable, and that lack of sustainability is going to cause us pain. As our infrastructure continues to fail and our economy starts to wither, it will be harder and harder to do avoid these impacts. Eventually, there won't really be anywhere to hide. A lot of what we talk about in these letters are worst-case scenarios that may or may not impact you or people you know in the immediate future; that's not the case with our subject matter today. You can't, unfortunately, avoid the economy. You can't help but use our infrastructure. You can get lucky and miss out on heatwaves and hurricanes, but you've still got to buy groceries. And that's going to be harder to do when a good portion of our economy buckles.

It may sound a bit strange to talk about mutual aid in response to this all-encompassing and slow-rolling problem, but mutual aid has a lot of the answers. Mutual aid and dual power structures replace the need for capitalist economies by providing alternatives that remove profit motives and replace them with sustainability. It's a huge leap, and in a currently-capitalist ecosystem it will likely require from you a buy-in of capital, but it is absolutely worth it to participate in these endeavors (likely already existing in your communities) to ensure you are not caught flat-footed when things turn upside down. This is not a problem someone can solve on their own. It will take everyone to fix, just like it will hit everyone with the same wave.