When Technology Drives Us Off the Climate-Change Cliff

By on June 22nd, 2021 in Blog Posts, Environment, Human Impacts, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Does a lack of social cohesion accelerate our demise?

An SSIT FutureProof Blog Post


The heat dome currently breaking records all over North America is creating yet another stress test for our society. The Covid pandemic, ongoing, reveals the myriad injustices faced by so-called essential workers every single day. Now the “business-friendly” (synonym for “environmentally disastrous”) belief system of political leaders is coming face-to-face with another reality. The markets they chase are comprised of humans, and humans cannot physically survive the consequences of anthropocene climate change. Especially when we are using technology to exacerbate the problem, rather than to solve it.

Humans cannot physically survive the consequences of anthropocene climate change.

Instead of using widely-available technologies to protect water sources and reduce water usage, business interests are aggressively exploiting our scarce natural resources. The population of the desert states is exploding. Instead of requiring new residents to adapt to the climate, city governments and developers market the very bad idea that the desert can be made green, and thus more desirable. This is a sure path to disaster.

It is mid-June 2021 right now, and in the American Southwest birds and wildlife are panting. Territorial species are converging at dried-out watering spots. The unhoused population tries to cover layers of burned skin while sheltering in sparse shade. For those with running water, scalding is a real risk when a faucet it opened during the daytime. Metal objects, even in shade, burn the skin. Plants are dying, and no amount of water can save them.  Air conditioning is unaffordable for many.

Instead of requiring new residents to adapt to the climate, city governments and developers market the very bad idea that the desert can be made green, and thus more desirable.

A tragic marker is being seen in the Sonoran Desert this year: the majestic saguaro cactus is so heat-stressed that it has lost the ability to bloom at the top as it normally would. This is a very bad sign.

Extreme weather is clearly no longer the province of science fiction. In severely drought-stricken areas, the ability to function on any kind of normal basis is quickly disappearing.  Cracked earth and dust storms are the reality behind the verdant images promoted by developers. Lake Mead – the largest water reservoir in the United States – is vanishing. Dessication leads to more heating, more drought, while cities try to suck water out of resources that are literally evaporating. Utah, whose residents use twice the amount of water  as the average American , plans to use water from Lake Powell, which in many places has been reduced to mud flats.

The state government of Arizona, arguably one of the places most at risk from drought, continues to build, build, build, assuming water and cooling will always be there. Sort of the same way the state of Florida continues to build, build, build, literally as the seas rise and manatees die in record numbers  due to contamination of the state’s waterways.

Two speculative works come to mind as illustrative at this moment. The first, of course, is Frank Herbert‘s classic, Dune, written in 1965. The other is Paolo Bacigulapi’s trenchant 2015 novel, The Water Knife. Both books address the social and technological impacts of extreme weather, but in very different ways. In Dune, the threatened population has social cohesion. In The Water Knife, there is none. The lack of social cohesion in the most threatened places has hardened into social division during the six years since the book’s publication, and Bacigulapi seems downright predictive now.

In the American Southwest birds and wildlife are panting

Let’s start with the better-known work. Dune, rightfully considered a classic for its epic scale and unprecedented combination of ecology, politics, and religion, offers us lessons we must begin applying now. “Dune” is the common term for Arrakis, a desert planet that exists in a future after the war between machines and humanity. Its indigenous people live with their climate, instead of fighting it. This is true until the Fremen, as they are known, undergo brutal and unforeseen changes when colonizers begin to modify planetary weather. (There’s a cautionary tale for today’s weather-meddlers.)

The Water Knife feels as if it were written yesterday, or tomorrow. In Bacigalupi‘s sixth novel, set in the very near future, the United States government has run out of resources to fight extreme climate events. So it picks the winners and abandons the losers; Texan refugees fleeing a Category 6 hurricane head west only to find themselves in the jaws of the water knives, enforcers for a Colorado River water authority that has cut off Arizona and New Mexico from any hope of survival.

In this post-climate-catastrophe hellscape, the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona have become desperate encampments. There is no law enforcement, no social order; the Phoenix suburbs die overnight once they lose their water. Empty swimming pools become a favored way to dispose of those who run afoul of local gangs.  Glass-box commercial buildings reliant on power and water are now useless. Haboobs – huge dust storms rising a mile into the sky – are a way of life for those who can’t escape. The population’s only reliable source of water is the Clearsac, a personal device that filters urine into potable water.

The dog-eat-dog chaos of The Water Knife contrasts starkly with the deep community preserved and cherished by the Fremen of Dune. These children of Arrakis have learned how to extract every bit of water from their extreme environment, as well as how to save every drop. The purpose and leadership of the group goes unquestioned; preservation of the Fremen culture is everyone’s priority. The community is the priority. And even when outside forces begin to cause upheaval in the desert environment, the social cohesion of the Fremen gives them the ability to adapt and survive.

What happens when the water runs out?

Bacigalupi, on the other hand, seems quite familiar with the lack of social cohesion among the newer inhabitants of the American southwest. In choosing Phoenix as the setting for his tale, he simply extrapolates from the antisocial conditions seen there today. The defiant insistence on green lawns, golf courses, and SUVs is jarring in a place that has been called the least sustainable city in the United States. There is no agreement on how to control the increasingly severe and terrifying haboob storms. There is no limit on the water-hungry plants and lawns that inhabitants can install. And there’s no way that the inhabitants of Phoenix, most of whom come from water-rich places, will give up their air conditioning, their asphalt, or the wasteful water misters that make outdoor time more tolerable.

The fact that Arizona allowed the Nestle corporation to bottle water in Phoenix – until Nestle pulled out for mysterious reasons, some of which could be the bad look  – demonstrates the short-sightedness of the fragile state’s government. “Any company that leaves the market, we try to do an exit interview with to find out, what caused you to leave? Was it something within your own business model? Was it something Arizona did?” said Phoenix Community and Economic Development director Christine Mackay. The real question should have been, “How did we let this happen in the first place?”

The power of The Water Knife lies in its very simple premise. What happens when the water runs out? What happens if FEMA can’t stretch any further to assist the victims of an unprecedented series of climate catastrophes? In states such as Arizona and Utah, where business interests always matter more than environmental consequences, it’s easy to imagine what might happen. The rich would pay to leave. The poor would be left to die of thirst, or to be exploited by those who choose to do so.

Some of The Water Knife’s most jarring passages come from the almost casual mentions of efforts we currently associate with war zones. The Red Cross, NGOs, and outdoor lifestyle brands creating relief stations for those dying of thirst in the wreckage of Phoenix. A daily “body lotty” where the remaining few can gamble on how many died that day. The Phoenix residents quietly seeking out coyotes to smuggle them north, leaving everything behind while hoping their smugglers won’t just kill them. The presence of Chinese-funded, self-sustaining arcologies reserved for the elite. Real estate in Arizona is very cheap in this world.

(Side note: science fiction’s nod to the economic power of China in a crisis was seen in the film 2012, where the only way to escape global flooding is to buy passage on Chinese-built arks.)

While Dune and The Water Knife both address the survival of humanity in extreme conditions, the key difference is a cultural one, an ethical one. Technology itself is agnostic. We choose what we do with it. Herbert’s classic argues that a cohesive society where life is valued can use technology to evolve and survive. Bacigulapi sees our present with clearer eyes.

As for water, we need to stop saying “just water” when asked for a beverage selection. Soon it will not be “just water” – it will be liquid gold.

One thing is certain. You will never look at a swimming pool the same way again. Especially if you live in Phoenix.

Author Information

More about Cia Romano here.

About Future Proof

Future Proof, a blog of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, seeks to open a dialog between formal studies on the societal implications of technology and the daily existence of all people.