A Metaphor for Ecological Disaster
Imagine this: A simple working-class neighborhood. A family of modest means, living on a small lot with a small 2-bedroom house, decides to expand. They have more and more children, and invite family from other places to come live with them. They begin by adding to the existing footprint of the house, expanding outward. The zoning regulations will only allow a certain amount of expansion, but they need the space, so they build anyway, ignoring what the laws will allow.
Four people have become ten people now, but more are coming. They need more space, so the homeowners dig beneath the foundation and build a basement. The soil is not able to support subterranean living spaces though, but people need a place to stay, so they live in the damp and crumbling space below the house. 10 people have become 18 people now, there’s no room in the main house, or below, so the homeowner builds a second and third story. The bearing capacity of the soil cannot support the loads above though, so the foundation starts to falter. People need a place to live though, so they prop up the beams above with whatever they can find.
18 people have become 30 people now. There’s very little room left in the house anymore, so people start building structures out of the junk left over from the house construction. They set up a cardboard box and tent dormitory in every yard adjacent to the house. The house is crumbling, and the yards are full of people, yet more keep coming. 30 people have become over 100, living in, on and around a small house on a small property. Space restrictions are problematic enough, but sanitary conditions are even worse.
The cesspool on the property is only designed for a family of five, yet over 100 people are using it. The homeowner decides to move many of the residents to another part of the yard, so they can enlarge the cesspool. This is a costly endeavor that has further compromised the soil around the house and caused it to sink into the ground, while still not solving the sewage problem. Consequentially, the new cesspool is still backing up and overflowing into the yard, and into some people’s living spaces. The residents have taken to dumping excess sewage into the nearby city storm drains. The effect this will have on the local community is yet to be determined, but it’s obviously not good.
Meanwhile, the house’s water supply is only designed to support a family of 5, not 100 (and still growing by the day), so residents have had to collect rainwater in large open-air tanks and cisterns. The open-air cisterns become a problem because they attract mosquitoes and bacteria from the overflowing sewage. The now contaminated drinking water causes a lot of sickness among the residents and, due to very cramped living spaces, the disease spreads to many people. The proliferation of disease prompts the homeowner to embark on another costly cesspool renovation, to account for the added waste produced by the now less and less healthy residents of the property. The new dig has compromised the soil so much, that the house has sunk more into the earth and put excessive strain on the water pipes coming into the house. The damaged water pipes are exposed to the waste-contaminated soil, so all the drinking water coming into the house is contaminated.
Many of the residents realize that their water source is contaminated, so they buy bottled water from outside. This does provide clean drinking water, but adds to an already overflowing solid waste catastrophe. An entire corner of the yard has been designated for solid waste. The homeowners try to recycle but there is way too much garbage to manage properly. Waste is accumulating far more greatly than it can be removed. The garbage pile is becoming so large that it is encroaching into the living space of some of the yard-dwellers. Realizing that their spaces will soon be overcome by garbage, they decide to make their home in the garbage pile. The fortunate ones had the foresight to see what was happening; they live amongst the plastic bottles. Others live among sickly, infected, soiled diapers.
The situation is unbearable. Even the homeowners, who maintain their own private bed and bathroom in the cleanest part of the original house cannot avoid the surrounding reality. Disease is spreading, garbage is piling up, sewage is seeping to the surface of the ground. Yet people keep coming to this little property. So, the digging continues, the house keeps sinking, the foundation keeps crumbling, the water gets dirtier, the people get sicker and the cycle continues. Periodically, a torrential rain will flood the entire property, including inside the house, causing some loss of life and extensive property damage. The residents remain undeterred though. They not only stay put, but more people keep coming!
Just when it seems that the situation is about to explode, that no one can stand another minute, the homeowners announce that they are going to host the neighborhood for not one but TWO huge parties! They clear out the tent areas and drive everyone into the garbage pile or the areas surrounding it, and erect huge temporary fences to hide the embarrassing reality. Some of the residents complain, but they are forcefully silenced, some even lose their lives in the fighting. The homeowners force all people living indoors into one room, leaving the best spaces for the guests. They spend an enormous amount of money, and sacrifice a lot of space to build a reception hall that will never be used for the residents’ housing needs.
The parties are very successful. The guests enjoy themselves. Very few of the residents are able to attend though, as the cost of admission is too high. Those who do attend feel out of place; they are not of the same socio-economic stock as the guests. Many private vendors sell food and beverage at the party and do very well financially. The homeowners take enough of the proceeds to almost recoup the cost of throwing the parties. The new structures are unused and have forced more people into less space on the property. The sanitary and safety problems are becoming worse, yet people keep coming to live here! They know the disaster that awaits them, yet they keep coming and the homeowners never have the will to say, “Enough is enough. This property cannot support this many people and this much construction. This has to stop before a tragedy of epic proportion.”
This scenario seems beyond ludicrous. Nothing like this would ever happen, and yet this is the story of Stiika-Dei, Pota-Mei’s doomed predecessor.
The Pota Basin - A Delicate Flower Depetalled and Defiled
Pota-Mei began as Stiika-Dei the ancient Western Capital of the native Nohonis - the Sons of Nohon (SoNs) - as modern Nohonis called them. The city was a manmade island in the middle of Lake Pota, in the northern Pota Basin. The region was a delicately balanced endorheic ecosystem, allowing no outflow to other bodies of water. The Pota Basin consisted of 17 interconnected lakes including subterranean aquifers and surrounding springs that overflowed or dryed out depending on periods of flood or drought. This delicate balance was first modified in 3324 when the SoNs constructed dams, dykes, drains, aqueducts, and other water management structures to supply water to the city, irrigate crops, and redirect flood water. Their decisions, however, set in motion a chain of negatively impactful events that continued until Stiika-Dei’s demise about 1500 years later. Floods destroyed their aqueducts, so they built more. They also began importing water into the city from more and more distant sources. These changes were minor strains on the hydrological balance compared to what happened after the Bookhtin Fugitive Coalition’s 47th century conquest of Nohon.
So here begins our metaphor. The SoNs build this simple metaphorical house in a simple neighborhood. The Bookhtin conquerors came in and began to make changes to the property, changes the property was not designed to facilitate. In fact, The Bookhtin realized the potential sustainability issue and mulled relocating the city, but they felt that having the city standing on the ruins of the conquered SoNs’ capital was too culturally important.
The water management situation became worse and worse over the next three centuries. Scientific advances at the end of the 51st century shed light on the correlation between dirty water and infectious disease. The mayor at that time prioritized water quality in order to make Stiika-Dei a “modern city.” Every attempt to either provide more clean water or drain away wastewater caused land subsidence though. In terms of our metaphor, the bigger cesspool caused the house to sink and the foundation to crumble.
Stiika-Dei’s water management problems continued indefinitely and became worse and worse over time. The city is sank more and more. It remained prone to flooding. Surrounding communities were either poisoned with dirty water or sucked dry by providing the city with water. The residents still never had reliable access to clean water. The government never took drastic measures to change things because water quality was not monitored consistently. Arbitrary tests and samples created a “statistical illusion” that water quality was fine. If Stiika-Dei was to survive, it would need to be honest with itself about the state of hydrological affairs, and it would need to be willing to make drastic changes in lifestyle, political, and business practices.
None of those changes happened.
While the city-center thrived and grew, people living in the periphery had no more than unplanned, self-constructed settlements. A focus on reorganizing the city to suit private industry and tourism seriously neglected the lower income residential areas. Back to our metaphor. The people in the house had it a lot better than the people living in tents and boxes in the yard. The metaphorical homeowner, however, failed to evict the illegal squatters so more kept coming.
In the context of Stiika-Dei, these metaphorical yard-dwelling squatters represent slums, which in many cases became immovable illegal neighborhoods. Even though their dwellings were openly illegal, and they lacked direct access to public services and utilities, residents were comfortable and constantly improving their dwellings. One reason for their comfort and resulting alacrity is that, due to their sheer numbers—3 million at the time of Stiika-Dei’s height—there was no way for law enforcement to consistently enforce housing laws. Eventually, the newly established Royal Family of Nohon sold the subject parcels to the residents at a low price. Unfortunately, the legitimization of this illegal population growth only encouraged an inbcrease in unsustainable growth.
As the population grew, so too did the waste it produced. Stiika-Dei had a major garbage problem. It’s largest landfill, was the largest in the world, receiving 12,000 tons of waste per day. There were also an estimated 1,000 illegal dumping sites around the city. Eventually garbage was lining the streets, mostly in poor areas. These overflowing landfills and illegal dumping sites are the large pile of garbage in our metaphor. The tent dwellers living on our metaphorical garbage pile represent some of the 15,000 “scavengers” who lived in the dumps of Stiika-Dei. The amount of effort required to clean up the city was unimaginable, but necessary if the city was to survive.
Despite all of the above mentioned disastrous problems, Stiika Dei’s need for international context, twice prompted it to host the Consortium of Nations (CoN), a four-month event featuring everything from athletic competitions to entertainment conventions to business conferences. These events were really prestige schemes involving large-scale and high-risk investment over a lengthy period. They suffered heavy cost overruns, and failed to deliver their supposed benefits, thus provoking financial crises. Although a great source of pride for Stiika-Dei and Nohon’s elite population, lower-class Stiika-Deians protested CoN expenditure in the face of competing social needs. The repression of protests led to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. The homeowners, metaphorically speaking, actively and forcefully, put the opinions of the neighbors above the very lives of their residents. Yet despite all of the above health risks, dangers and utter governmental disdain for its subjects, the people kept coming. Stiika-Dei had had enough though.
The Rise of Pota-Mei
In the year 4701, Stiika-Dei crumbled. It was swallowed up by the Earth. Millions perished. The contaminated soil became too prone to liquefaction. The aquifers were drained much faster than they could refill, and the resultant underground hollows could not support the weight of the city anymore. The collapse of the city had a rippling effect on the entire Pota Basin and beyond. The suction and air pressure affected the entire sprawling array of underground aquifers. Cracks in the Earth began to form even hundreds of miles from the old city center. Even 700 years later aftereffects were still being felt; land subsidence was still happening even in the latter days of Pota-Mei and cracks were still forming in the Earth.
The survivors of Stiika-Dei refused to quit. When the dust settled, literally when the dust settled—it took about two years for the air to clear, the survivors began to plan Pota-Mei. Since Stiika-Dei had turned the once lush and fertile Pota Basin into a wasteland, it seemed logical to build out instead of up—as Stiika-Dei’s buildings rivaled those of Malakatu. The city planners determined that all buildings had to be no more than two stories. They had to be built on piles driven miles into the Earth until they hit bedrock. If the land around a building or group of buildings crumbled away, those buildings—left teetering on long thin metal legs—would be fastened to adjacent buildings and bridges would be built to span the abyss. If you lived anywhere in Pota-Mei though, you might just get swallowed up by the Earth at any time. That was just the way it was. After the Stiika-Dei tragedy, Pota-Meians wore fatalism on their sleeves with pride though. Pota-Mei was founded in 5050 and it grew quickly. Within 50 years the entire Pota Basin was covered in short, cheap, boring buildings. Within 100 years the Gyulst Valley to the North of the Basin and the coastal flats to the west were also fully and developed.