City living in a post-peak world

This headline at today’s version of Energy Bulletin caught my eye: Are cities sustainable in a post-peak oil world?

The editors at Energy Bulletin, reflecting contemporary culture, clearly do not understand sustainability. At every level, from the individual through the culture and even through the species, ours is a transient existence. We should be focused on developing a durable set of living arrangements in the few blinks we have between trips from and to the void. We should not waste our time chasing the impossibility of sustainability, regardless of corporate green-washing to the contrary.

But enough about that particular pet peeve. If you follow the headline’s link, you’ll land at a set of five articles excerpted from longer articles by five authors. Each article discusses the prospects of surviving in the post-carbon era.

As you can imagine, that takes me to yet another pet peeve. We should be developing a set of living arrangements focused on thriving, not merely surviving. If I believed the future was truly Hobbesian, I’d simply save a bullet for myself.

Well, maybe two. I’ve never been a very good shot.

And finally, the focus of the headline, as well as the tone of the articles, ignores a central tenet of this blog: morality. The focus on survival at the expense of consideration of the immorality of cities is not surprising. Imperialists are loath to consider the morality of empires, so our national conversation rarely turns to morality beyond the hand-wringing of what to do with a person for an individual act. The larger and considerably more important issue of how industrial culture destroys people from every non-industrial culture as well as the living planet simply escapes the attention of Faux News (the most-trusted network in the U.S., according to this poll). Cities are the very apex of imperial living, and they function only by extracting resources from surrounding areas in exchange for various forms of waste. But cities are embedded within, and emblematic of, industrial culture, which apparently is beyond our ability to discuss. As should be clear, reasons to abandon cities extend far beyond survival, as I’ve described repeatedly (recent examples can be found here, here, here, here, and here).

Maybe I’m just peevish today.

Toby Hemenway is the most adamant defender of city living. Writing in 2005, he concluded that we’re in for a long descent. But, as became clear at least five times during 2008 and 2009, industrial culture can reach its overdue close quite abruptly. Simply because it didn’t happen yet — saved by unprecedented illegal actions by the federal government — doesn’t mean it cannot happen. Peter Goodchild posts the definitive warning with this line: “Those who expect to get by with ‘victory gardens’ are unaware of the arithmetic involved.”

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Comments 23

  • As usual, right on the money. I love to come here and get my dose of reality, especially after several days of listening to the gibbering idiots at CNN. Guy, you said that civilization almost came to an abrupt halt 5 times since the economic meltdown began. Can you expound on that a bit?

  • Read the latest issue of foreign policy magazine wich has an article in it by a top level economist stating that china with take over the world with a $123 trillion dollar GDP economy by the year 2040. It claims they will represent 40% of world GDP. Do these people actually think that this planet has the resources left to support this? China has no oil. This is not a situation that allows for the growth of another empire. I am afraid the U.S. is the last of the breed and everyone else is far to late to the party.

  • Thanks for the compliment, John Leslie. The five times occurred between mid-September 2008 (when Lehman Brothers nearly collapsed) and March 2009 (when we nearly reached capitulation of the stock markets during an episode described as a pandemic of fear by the Wall Street Journal). Sandwiched between were the collapse of Wachovia, which nearly brought it all down (according to Time magazine) and the $85 billion taxpayers gave AIG to prevent its collapse. I do not have the complete list at my fingertips, but even the mainstream media occasionally report on the near-demise of the industrial economy. Of course, they act as if that would be a bad thing.

  • As for cities being unsustainable and part of the problem this leads to the conclusion that there are far to many people that can be supported by the land mass and its environment. I do not think they will all walk quietly into the night and vanish. So guy tell us all how you intend to survive the most violent convulsion in history.

  • I cut off my cable here in tempe over a year ago except for the internet when I realized the talking heads really were of little use and they seem to go around in circles like a dog chasing its tail. This includes so called investment experts like jim cramer. I do not miss any of it. As long as the media controls the message no one will know what hits them until it is too late.

  • Fine question, Greg Breneman, and it’s one I am often asked in person and via email. I fear your assessment is correct: “As long as the media controls the message no one will know what hits them until it is too late.” I asked advice from readers here, and later addressed the issue, to a limited extent, here. I am still seeking a comprehensive response to this particular issue. In addition, I recognize (1) the fragility of human life, which leads to my Buddhist tendencies on the ephemeral nature of our existence, and (2) some lives are not worth living.

  • Greg – Funny, I canceled my cable a month ago for the exact same reasons. Once I realized that the talking heads were playing off each other like a bunch of professional wrestlers my days as a television viewer were numbered. It’s only been a month but I feel better already. I wish I’d done it years ago!

  • As long as we’re talking about pet peeves, here’s mine: the “long descent” models of middle wayers like John Michael Greer are mostly rubbish. Nature, and human civilizations, tend to operate in cycles of exponential growth and catastrophic collapse – there is nothing long or linear about these processes. Greer suffers from linear thinking and an obsession with Medieval European history, neither of which have much to tell us about our current global situation. If you want to know how this descent is going to play out, investigate the Bronze Age Collapse. 3200 years ago an entire region descended suddenly into anarchy, cities burned and were depopulated for centuries. This is the likely fate of our cities, and it could happen very suddenly and soon, spreading like a forest fire around the planet.

    The first world is propping up an ever-increasing number of unsustainable societies around the planet — Haiti being a prime example. But when the next big shock takes us down there won’t be international aid agencies or concerned celebrities flying into to save anyone, and the whole tottering system will experience cascading collapse. An obvious catalyst for such a collapse would be a solar storm on the order of the Carrington Event; climate chaos, super-viruses, world war and mega-terrorism and are other possibilities. The point is that the highly urbanized, interconnected global system we’ve created has set industrial civilization up for a massive shock from it may never recover. Cities are by their very nature not resilient or sustainable, and unless someone comes up with a viable alternative real soon, it looks to me like we’re headed back to the original resilient, sustainable mode of existence — nomadic hunter-gathering. So if you really want to be ahead of the curve, start sharpening your stone knives and find yourself a cave somewhere far from the doomed cities before they start to burn.

  • As for the land being able to support people, it just simply isn’t true that there is not enough food to go around. Back in 1997 it was estimated that the food that is used to produce livestock could feed 800 Million people . And there would still be enough livestock left on pasture to supply the average meat-eating American.

    On top of that the number of cows, chickens and turkeys outnumber the number of people living in the US. Even more there are 95 million Cows in the US link . The weight of US cattle exceed the weight of Americans. And cows eat about 100 lbs of feed a day link.

    I don’t know whether cities will survive the next few years or decades or centuries. I really don’t care if you want to be a vegetarian either, but the waste in modern agriculture, by producing meat products, is phenomenal. We could likely absorb a roughly 80% loss in production and still produce enough to feed people each year.

  • I think the better question to ask is whether cities can be made more resilient. Cities have never been sustainable, even before oil. They’ve always relied on plundering the hinterlands. And they never will be sustainable. But certainly, much could be done now, to make them more resilient. And less predatory.

    Will they survive? I doubt it. I see a world of small towns and villages. Although perhaps one larger town in a region could make it, if each neighborhood surrounded itself with farms and intensive gardens, and the energy flows were carefully finessed, and the town itself would make some smart choices about what to trade for with the region.

    It’s up to the townies. I myself see large cities pretty much as a plague. I know what Toby is talking about, and there are advantages, but in order to make it all work, they’d have to really hustle and change a lot. Not likely, IMO.

    I think once some big epidemic hits, the large cities will be sitting ducks.

  • Another thought… more interesting to me is, how will American countryside change in response? Lots of potential there… country dwellers are hamstrung by all the distance to travel from farm to farm, and from there to the town. Much better to cluster near other humans, and travel to the fields, the way European farmers do.

  • Do you mean sharing the Commons, Vera? That’s a great idea. It’s a blow against hierarchy, too, though that I suppose is also a blow against cities, and rule from above. It’ll be hard to maintain the Empire without satellites and the power grid.
    Is our future Socialist? Is it that, or the jungle?

    I see no chance of cities becoming sustainable post peak-oil. What’s there to eat, save each other? Lap dogs? Rats? Do many/any have aqueducts that aren’t oil-dependent? Who there knows how to grow food, especially lacking soil and manure and tools and beneficial insects and birds?
    Who even knows how to cook anymore?

    I also left commercial programming last year, Greg and del, when digital superceded analog. Enough. It’s thickly crapacious, and getting worse daily; not paying for weaker signals and devolving content was an easy call.
    We should get a break on health care premiums.

  • Well, the pattern I am familiar re villages is this: humans live in close proximity by each owning a strip of land adjacent to each other. Narrow, stretching from the road towards back, towards the fields. A narrow dwelling, then the horse stable, then the shed and hayloft. Pigsty and stable and manure heap on the other side… a paved yard stretches toward the back where there is a good sized barn. Past the barn, bees, orchard, garden. Gate out to the commons which surround the village. And each family either buys or leases various fields situated within the commons. The paths, hedges, woods, river are all freely accessible (though families may also lease stretches of the woods for firewood). Nobody is excluded from walking anywhere except near the houses. This is the most pleasant and workable arrangement I have ever seen. And because the village has some basic stuff available, a school, a pub, a community hall, a store… there is no need for the farmers to go to town all the time.

  • Oh, and the cities have no lack of manure! Humanure. It could become one of their exports… like in the old days.

  • Reply to Sean Taylor:

    Many think the Bronze Age collapse was caused by a catastrophic volcanic
    eruption,one of the most important pieces of evidence for this is the giant caldera at Santorini.

    Greg Breneman:

    I’m in Sun City,maybe if there are enough of us we could have a local get together.

    Frank Mezek
    Sun City,Arizona

  • Furthur reference to my above post:

    See “Fire in the Sea:The Santorini Volcano:Natural History and the
    Legend of Atlantis” by Walter Friedrich.

    Frank Mezek

  • Touche on the humanure, vera. Although it’s rather full of pharmaceuticals these days, there is plenty of it. Lettuce might be especially somatic, beets good for sexual prowess, and mushrooms…well, you never mind.

    That village sounds sublime. How to get there from here? It implies a changed view of ‘property’ and of possession, an acceptance of some socialist values, and a people making decisions for themselves, among themselves. What of lords and priests? They won’t take it lying down, save with the powerless who work for them.

  • Frank, Santorini blew 1600 BC… bronze age Myceanae were just getting started then. I think it badly damaged Crete, but not the other more outlying areas so much. I think environment was key there. And even though Greece recovered from Bronze collapse, and went thru its golden age… by the time of about 50 BC, it was a ruin again, I read records that say Athens was a city of statues, and Roman soldiers found no shortage of abandoned dwellings to occupy. Huge population crash… or flight.

    Vertalio: I am delighted you like it. I think the central European village I was describing emerged like that from time immemorial (organically)… the commons were first common, then they belonged to the church or nobles, and then with the land reform, came to the village. The design is ancient… it works.

    I think the way Americans do property is insane… all the damn fences and rude signs… I chalk it up to the madness of early land greed when surveyors were hired to just carve it all up like a golden goose. 🙁 None of western Europe is like that… And then people complain why is it that so many folks have such a disconnection from the land! When all they see is KEEP OUT! Hello?

    All it really takes is buying up a large tract, or combining several farms (time to buy some CAFOs, ey? 🙂 and starting a hamlet. Basically, it’s a combination of commons with private ownership and responsibility in good measure. When a field is part of the commons, even if in private holding for the moment, the neighbors are not likely to let you pour all sorts of poisons on it, or do soil-mining instead of husbandry, when their own field is next door.

  • Of course, a land reform would not hurt. But I am not holding my breath.

  • Big cities? Small cities? NONE SUSTAINABLE ! How big were the “cities” of ancient Mesopotamia? I doubt if any were as big as Spokane, where Guy’s brother, James, and I live.

    I like the line that Derrick Jensen likes: “Forests precede us. Deserts dog our heels.”

    Passing fad, cities. Guy writes right. P-f-f-f f f f f f f-tt ! ! !

    Us been here just about long enough to burn this place down. It took a couple million years to get up to full burn. Houston…, we got…. IGNITION.

  • You are tossing the baby out. Small towns have a future. Think those cute medieval urban places surrounded by fields and gardens. During the medieval warm period. Looks pretty sustainable to me.

    Mesopotamia… they were huge. I am talking only big enough to be able to mostly feed themselves from nearby land. (Which of course means limits, not paving over the land to fuel growth.) There is a theory that people started moving to towns because towns were better defensible, once the human crunch brought more conflict. Could well be a salient point in the future.