The beach that ate Silicon Valley

Jennifer LaForce has noticed that the residents and workers of Silicon Vally treat climate change like they treat homelessness — not their problem.

Silicon Valley, California. You can admire; you can hate it. Most of the world’s leading edge technology either comes from here or is made usable here. Tucked into the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay, you will find an old quai in the tiny towns of Alviso and Milpitas [now best seen at a local park]. Here the bay is shallow: 85 percent of the water is less than 30 feet deep. Circulation depends on strong tidal action, river inflow, winds and storms. From a wildlife perspective, the salt marshes are highly productive and very valuable. When the tide is high, many fish species forage for food along the shore. Once the tide goes out, water birds feast on those unfortunate enough to get stuck.


Not too long ago, the Milpitas quai was a destination. Standing on the old pilings, a little imagination takes you on unday boat rides in 1915 or even farther back to a Native American fishing for dinner.

Now there is a new kind of production on the quai. Not quite sky scrapers, new commercial buildings full of valuable equipment and more valuable ideas indicate that the recession is over and Silicon Valley is pushing at the edges of its geography yet again. Water treatment plants responsible for most of the usable water in the Bay area dot the marsh shores. Highway 237 is a critical connection between continental California and the San Francisco peninsula, connecting the states two major highways, 880 along the eastern side of the bay and 101 along the western side.

Two meters of sea level rise will inundate the Bay Area’s coastline

A sea-level rise of 2 meters has all of Milpitas and Alviso completely underwater. Highway 237 will belong to the sea creatures as will much of Highway 101.

Such a sea-level rise will inundate both developed and natural areas, cause salinity contamination of groundwater aquifers and rivers, damage ports and recreational beaches. The cost of protecting against sea-level rise is large, but often below the value of the property protected. Preventative (“Hey! Don’t build there!”) and/or defensive actions taken today can prevent large damages in the future

Numerous studies have been done and there is no need to reproduce their conclusions. What is strangely remarkable about the rise in sea-level and the corresponding results is how we, as California communities, respond to it in almost exactly the same way we respond to homelessness.

Study after study, proof after proof – If you don’t know by now that it costs less to house a homeless person than to leave them on the streets, you just don’t want to know. Between jail time and emergency room visits, it costs about $30,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets. Add business loss, shelter costs and the figure increases to a staggering $40,000 a year. Guess what, they could be in a home for a lot less.

Perhaps because the costs are not easily seen by an individual or because the costs are spread out over service areas, we can’t seem to respond to these facts.

Likewise the value of property threatened by sea-level rise in Silicon Valley is extremely high because of past development and getting higher every day because of new development. Around the perimeter of the Bay, existing commercial, residential, and industrial structures threatened by a two-meter sea-level rise is valued at $100 billion.

Perhaps because of the slow rate of increase of sea level or perhaps because the individual can’t see it, there is little advanced planning and an inadequate response to these facts.

I’ve worked in disabled and disadvantaged communities for 30 years. I understand emotional response. I understand bias. But I have yet to figure out why my peers cannot step beyond both when presented with undisputable fact. If we could figure this out, we could address the fact that the sea level is rising without over or under reacting. We could address homelessness and probably every other polarizing issue. For me, that’s the task to undertake.

laforceJennifer LaForce is a Business Consultant in Silicon Valley, missionary, author & traveler with the grandiose goal of understanding why we do what we do.

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I don’t like these storms anymore

Ben Ruddell’s view on storms has changed, is changing and will change…

As a kid in the Midwest, the distant rolling thunder of a summer soaker was soothing, and the lightning bolts were exciting, bursting with neon light and color. Those storms were beautiful, with their sunbursts, whipping winds, and towering black clouds sweeping across the flat open land.

Those storms changed, flooding fields and towns but leaving withered crops and dry riverbeds in the summer. Those tenacious farm towns survived fifty years of depopulation, but collapsed as the groundwater ran out and the corn moved north to Canada. We followed so many others when fled the economic blight of the Midwest for greener pastures in the Mountain West. There were jobs, and the reservoirs had enough water for the dry spells.

The Southwest was so beautiful: pristine pine forests ringing towering mountains, vistas and red rocks, deserts and flowers. I never saw anything like it, and once I came I never wanted to leave. We had storms here, too, but they brought the most welcome rain to the arid hills. And rainbows- so many rainbows in these desert storms. No wonder these mountain towns are so popular. Everyone wanted to come here.

The kids felt the fear before I did. We tried to calm them when the lightning struck, but they felt a fear too deep for a parent to reach, a fear I didn’t understand. My oldest piled rocks around a tree to keep it safe from the lightning. It was cute. I thought he would grow out of it, but he didn’t; we did. Us older folks fooled ourselves with a lifetime of false experience.

When I first smelled the smoke, I felt that same fear- ominous, imminent, unavoidable. The fires were all over the summer news. A million acres here, a hundred houses there, year after year. Fort McMurray burned in Canada, but it was always far away. Still, my subconscious mind was catching on. When I caught myself hugging the kids because I was scared, I knew didn’t like storms anymore. The lightning made me jumpy, and if nobody was looking I would walk nervously to the window to check for smoke. I wrote my Congressmen about funding for the Forest Service after I read they only had money to manage a tiny fraction of the public forest in these mountains.

Every year the fires were worse than the last, and Congress finally funded the overdue thinning project out here. It was ten years of work, Billions of dollars. It was too late for us. That big, dry monsoon storm came in at the wrong time, and the lightning set the forest ablaze in a thousand fires. A hundred years of overgrown fuel went up in smoke, along with the power transmission lines and half of the town. It was all the fire service could do just to keep the highway open for evacuation.

The mountains burned, leaving a charred and sediment-choked moonscape. The power and water were out for a long time, and most of us had nothing to come back to after the evacuation. The tourists and students vanished, and with them my job. We moved back east to live with family, and figured out how to make ends meet. We survived, but things aren’t the same. I heard that a few of the mountain towns are recovering, but only rich vacationers can live there now. These fires woke middle class folks like us from our Southwestern dream.

Now, on those the terribly hot Chicago summer nights when the rain falls, I tell the kids these storms are as beautiful as I remember from my childhood, and we’re lucky to be here. But to tell the truth, I don’t like these storms anymore.

ruddellBen Ruddell Ben Ruddell is from the Midwestern U.S., works on the faculty at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife Jennifer and their children. This vision published in Life + 2 meters is vaguely autobiographical.

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This project is working as expected!

I wrote this to the writers who participated in the HourofWrites contest that has brought so many interesting visions to this project, but it applies to ALL authors, as the best way to learn is to understand a topic through someone else’s eyes.

Dear Writers, Thank you very much for bringing such an amazing range of perspectives and voices to this topic. I enjoyed reading all of your pieces, and it was genuinely difficult to choose the top three. In the end, I choose those that captured the uncertainty and upheaval of Life plus 2m. (If you were not aware, the title refers to a world in which a changed climate means our lives are not the same as they used to be, ie. sea levels are 2 meters higher, storms strike where you’d not expect, people are forced to abandon regions, etc.)

I choose the winner (“The bore is coming“) because of its intimacy and intensity. I also felt the unease and acceptance of the characters as they confronted a new normal that may not work in their favor. For the alternatives, I thought that the punishment story (“The sentencing”) cleverly showed how someone might be literally forced to experience a different (and scary) new perspective. The report from the “semi-arid prairies of West Texas” didn’t jolt you as much as the 2m punishment in the law courts, but its calm perspective forced you to consider the magnitude of change that would put us in an entirely different world in only a few decades. How would we live? Would we enjoy it? That’s as hard to know as how much we’d enjoy living in the world as it was 100 years ago.

I could say similar things about the feelings and images that the other stories created, but I’d prefer to let readers decide for themselves, and I hope these “writes” get a much larger audience. I’m hoping to include many of them on the LifePlus2m website because they really show the range of ways that we can think about – and feel – ourselves, our actions and our humanity.

Thank you again for such an excellent display of talent.

And I’m definitely looking for more authors! Please contribute.


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The sentencing

Annie Percik puts some perspective on the difference of two meters.

“Life plus two metres!”

A collective gasp travels around the courtroom, and the judge’s gavel comes down like the final nail in my coffin.

I hear the words but I can’t process them. There are fingers clutching painfully at my arm, and I look down into the despairing eyes of my mother.

“We’ll fight this,” she says, trying to sound confident, but failing by several degrees.

The likelihood that any appeal will go through before the worst part of the sentence is carried out is vanishingly small. And, once that part is done, there’s no going back, no matter what may be decided later.

I’m still finding it difficult to understand what’s going on. I realise I’ve stopped breathing, and I force myself to take in a strained lungful of air. Suddenly, my knees feel weak and I slump down onto the wooden bench, utterly defeated.

For a crime I didn’t commit, I have been given the heaviest sentence possible. I will have to serve a lifetime of indentured servitude, working the hardest tasks in the most inhospitable and dangerous environments. It’s no consolation that the other part of my sentence will equip me better for such work than I am now. It is not an equipping I want or will be able to endure without great suffering.

Sooner than I can imagine at this moment, I will be taken from this place and delivered to the Department of Transmogrification. There, my bones will be broken and extended, and my body stretched almost beyond its capacity, adding a full two metres to my height. Then, I will be provided with acclimatisation training, to teach me how to live and move in my new body, and how to use it to the benefit of the establishment that has forced it upon me.

I have heard tell that everything slows down when the two metres are added. Having such reach and such mass may be useful in undertaking certain types of manual labour and military tasks, but it necessarily results in a slowing of all movements and accompanying thought processes. It is not possible to utilise the familiar speed and flexibility of the human body on a grander scale.

I will no longer be able to meet the gaze of my friends and family eye to eye, even if I get the opportunity to see them at all. I will no longer even be able to relate to them on a level playing field. They will never be able to comprehend my new existence, and I will quickly forget what it is like to be one of the small and hasty beings that will soon be scurrying beneath my notice.

It may be a life sentence, but it will be the end of the life I have known up until now. The person I am now will cease to exist as surely as if I was to be executed. A new being will take up my newly assigned role in society, with different abilities, a different perspective, and different companions in my servitude.

My mind shies away from the implications of what has just happened, and I retreat into the oblivion of unconsciousness, hoping I will awake to discover it has all been a dream. More likely, I will awake to a nightmare of a new existence I will have to endure for the rest of my life.

annieAnnie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She also publishes a photo-story blog recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time. Annie has won the weekly Hour of Writes competition four times, and been runner-up on several more occasions. Her collected entries are due to be published in two anthologies later this year.

hourofwrites* This vision was a runner up in the “Life plus 2m” prompt at Hour of Writes, which carries out weekly, peer-reviewed writing competitions.

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Six feet under in California?

I wrote this for Maven’s notebook, but you can read it here:

Most of us worry about current tasks, problems and choices. We lead complicated lives, negotiate tight spaces at work, and barely have enough time to rest as we go from one task to the next. (Americans don’t just get fewer paid vacation days than most; they don’t even use all their days!)

Given these facts, it’s not exactly easy to think more of the future. Retirement is going to happen. Next year will be different. Why bother to worry about things over which you have no control?

You’ve probably heard a version of “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory” (Cervantes), which — if you’ve experienced such a situation — is good advice. We don’t often do well when confronted by challenges where we have no time to think about which reaction will work BEST for us. Sometimes we make the wrong choice and have to live with consequences that were — in hindsight — avoidable.

I started the Life plus 2 meters Project to help people think different about life in a climate changed world in which sea levels are 2 m higher, unusual storms are the norm, 1-in100 year floods happen every three years, and so on. (The American version of the name is “six feet under”.) I started the Project because there are good scientific reasons to think that the conventional wisdom on climate change impacts is far too conservative, i.e., that we may get 6-9m of sea level rise by 2100, rather than the IPCC consensus of 2 meters.

It’s hard to underestimate how dramatic those impacts might be on our lives, but it’s also hard to think of all the changes in all the areas we care about. That’s why the Project draws on crowdsourced “visions” — short blog posts by authors of all backgrounds, geographies and perspectives. There is no one right way to see our world today, and there is no right way to see a future world. All we know is that we all experience the world in different ways and will also experience its changes in different ways.

What will happen in California with climate change? The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will grow more salty and inundate settled areas. Northern California might get more rain, but sinking land due to groundwater use in the Central Valley may fracture the California and CVP Aqueducts, leaving most of the water in Northern California. Los Angeles will, by necessity, rely on local sources for 100% of its water as the Los Angeles Aqueduct dries up from lack of snowmelt. Luckily, wastewater recycling and technology to purify local groundwater of military-industrial pollution makes this possible.  Inland California will see temperatures over 120 degrees during many summer days, leading some people to air condition their garages to make it easier to travel and live in an air conditioned bubble. Agricultural labor will change radically as outdoor work is banned as a violation of human rights and machines harvest crops in greenhouses designed to protect crops from sudden hail or dust storms…

That’s just one string of related possible ideas of how life will change in California, but I invite you to submit yours. This project already has a dozen visions from other authors, but it needs more, since everyone has a useful and interesting idea of how life might be different in a climate changed world.

About David Zetland:  David Zetland was born and raised in California, where he earned his PhD at UC Davis with a dissertation on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He has been working on policies to improve water management resilience and adaptation for over 10 years, usually via posts and discussions at Aguanomics. His most recent book is Living with Water Scarcity, which is free to download. This non-commercial Project is therefore the latest in a series of efforts to improve our use of water. David now lives in Amsterdam and works as an assistant professor at Leiden University College in The Hague.