How Is America Going To End?
We could be crushed by a climate strongman.
All of these people—a new generation of Okies—will need somewhere to go. Americans certainly have proved capable of big moves: the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the industrial North, the drift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, the mass evacuation of inner cities for suburbia. A migration brought on by climate change would have a different tenor, however. The push to the frontier helped form America; the movement away from the frontier would unmake the country we know today. As more people pack into a smaller space, scarce resources will become scarcer. Those who stick it out in the inhospitable hinterlands could become a new generation of pioneers, heroes and innovators who work to once again make this territory hospitable for the masses. Or these die-hard localists could become impoverished and estranged from America—survivalist guerrillas who fight and scrounge for whatever they can get.
It's possible the government of Hot America would buckle under the weight of such a disaster. With those in the most-livable zones unwilling to pay for the rebuilding or relocation of vast swathes of the country, the nation could split regionally. Areas with common interests and problems—coastal areas in need of massive flood walls, the arid Southwest and Great Plains—could pool their resources and form locally focused, regional governments within the former United States. The places hit hardest by climate woe might offer hazard pay and other enticements to settlers in order to prop up the tax base. America's few oases, meanwhile, might build walls to keep the teeming masses out.
Where might these oases be? Robert Shibley, a professor of architecture and planning at the University of Buffalo, says it's "unconscionable" for people to keep packing into potential climate hot zones. His alternative destination: the shores of Lake Erie.
A century ago, Buffalo was America's eighth-largest city. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the city was perfectly positioned to become a transshipment hub and manufacturing center. Shibley, the co-author of Buffalo's comprehensive plan, drives me around in his Toyota Prius, pointing out the landmarks of this bygone age. "Here's where you see us in our heyday," he says as we turn onto Lincoln Parkway, a tree-lined thoroughfare abutting a park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted.
By the time Shibley arrived in 1982, Buffalo was a textbook case of urban decay—one reason he moved was that the Rust Belt city "had every problem as an urban designer and a planner that I'd want to study." Buffalo is now America's third-poorest large city, behind only Detroit and Cleveland. The city proper has gone from a population of 580,000 in 1950 to an estimated 275,000 today. In working-class neighborhoods where grain scoopers and steel workers used to live, close-packed Queen Anne houses are now boarded up and vacant, their former residents having left town along with the manufacturing work.
Buffalo and Detroit and Cleveland are today's equivalent of old West ghost towns. They are empty husks that have been strip-mined and abandoned, relics of America's manufacturing age. But when the country melts down, we'll remember that these Great Lakes cities were settled in America's early days for a reason. The five Great Lakes hold 21 percent of the world's fresh surface water —an H 2 O supply that will come in handy in drier times. As for Buffalo's winning characteristics, Shibley notes that "you've got agricultural land around our perimeter, you have the power from the water and [Niagara] Falls, and you have the industrial infrastructure to die for, the roads and railroads." And even with all of those enticements, there's still plenty of primo waterfront land available for purchase. As he points out one inviting tract, Shibley shouts: "Come home, we're ready to go!"
In Hot America, Buffalo won't necessarily transform into a balmy paradise. Climate change will make extreme weather more extreme, so it's possible the city's brutal winters will become even less pleasant. But if large swaths of the country run out of water and are covered by swirling sands, the occasional blizzard doesn't sound so bad. It's no accident that apocalypticist James Howard Kunstler, who writes extensively about America's devolution in the post-petroleum age, resides in upstate New York. I "picked the place I live in for a reason," he writes in The Long Emergency. "[W]e are surrounded by excellent farmland here and I think my little corner of upstate New York may remain generally civilized."
If the Rust Belt becomes the best spot on the continent, Buffalo and Cleveland will no longer have to worry about massive population losses—their problem will be overpopulation. Of course, there's a lot more land abutting the Great Lakes, just across the border in Canada. In the event that North America's footprint shrinks, the condition of the Great White North will have a huge impact on the Lower 48.
There are two wildly incongruent ideas about how global warming will affect Canada. One possibility is that climate change will make the country more hospitable, increasing Canada's agricultural capacity as the rest of the world struggles to grow crops. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Canada's answer to societal-collapse guru Jared Diamond, says his home country needs to prepare for things to get much, much worse. The northern latitudes are "actually very vulnerable to climate change," he says. And while Canada's full of wide open spaces, most of that land is arid. "There's a reason America stopped at 49th parallel," he reasons. "They left England with land that was good for harvesting beaver pelts."
In the latter case, Canada will become Mexico—a nation whose citizens are driven to cross the border to improve their lot. In the former instance, in which the most-southerly parts of North America fare the worst, the U.S. becomes Mexico—and those wide open spaces to our north start to look mighty appealing. The Fire Next Time, a cheeseball TV miniseries from 1993, offers one vision of an America that's desperately pushing north. After a Louisiana shrimp fisherman (Coach's Craig T. Nelson) loses everything in a massive hurricane, he pays a mule to smuggle his family across the border on a motorboat, dodging Canada's version of a bum blockade. They all eventually settle in an idyllic Nova Scotian village, though the movie's final scene features an ominous shot of the glowing sun—a raging fireball that will force them to wander north for the rest of their lives.
Illustration by Jason Raish. Photograph of dust storm by NOAA George E. Marsh Album/Wikipedia. Photograph of the Temple of Music by C. D. Arnold/Wikipedia. Photograph of the Sattler Theater by Derrick Mealiffe/Wikipedia.