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Cities, peak oil, and sustainability

In mid-August I drove to a party in the country outside of Portland, Oregon. Twenty miles of freeway took me to a two-lane road that wound ten miles up steep forested hills and down through remote valleys. As the roads grew narrower and less traveled, I began to wonder how, if gas hits $5 or $10 a gallon, people and supplies will reach these isolated spots. What kind of post-oil vehicle will climb this hilly, winding road that quite literally goes nowhere—a converted truck run on home-made biodigested methane? Then, after I arrived at the secluded acreage, I questioned whether my hosts could really supply most of their own needs, just the two of them and their kids.

I think these isolated places will disappear the way that Roman outposts in Britain and Gaul did during the empire’s decline.

In a recent issue of this magazine (Permaculture Activist 54 p. 2, “Designing Beyond Disaster”) I wrote that when I moved to the country 11 years ago, I assumed that rural people use fewer resources than urbanites, but now that I’m back in the city I can see that isn’t true. That article ["Urban vs. Rural Sustainability."] has generated more response than any other I’ve written, and has been reprinted around the Web many times, often with some furious comments. Obviously, a lot of people are thinking about the same topics. I’d like to re-visit the subject, respond to some of the commentary, elaborate on my reasoning, and describe some new thoughts on the subject.

First, a clarification on word usage. When I speak of rural, I generally mean places where people live on acreage outside of towns, with most services too far to walk to. Small towns decreasingly can be called rural, as their takeover by chain stores, engulfment by sprawl, and reliance on non-local goods renders many indistinguishable from suburbs.

Inspiration for my article came from a piece called “Green Manhattan” by David Owen in the October 18, 2004 New Yorker [PDF version]. Owen argued that Manhattanites have a far smaller ecological footprint than the average American, whether urban, rural, or suburban. In Manhattan, hardly anyone drives cars, dwellings are tiny (even a ritzy Park Avenue apartment is much smaller than a typical suburban McMansion), and per-capita energy use is relatively low, since far less energy per person is used to heat and cool an apartment building than single-family dwellings housing the same population. No, New Yorkers aren't growing their food, but then, neither are most other Americans.

But, you ask, what about all of New York’s infrastructure? It’s got enormous water pipes, thousands of miles of roads, and so forth. Doesn’t that use a ridiculous amount of resources? Well, yes. But that densely compacted infrastructure serves many million people. Owen pointed out that if the inhabitants of New York City were spread out at the same density of the small Connecticut town where he now lives, they would occupy all six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey. Think of all the roads, wires, pipes, fuel, and so on, those spread-out suburbanites would consume—far more than what New York uses now. Living in rural Connecticut, Owen uses seven times the electricity he used in Manhattan. Other non-urban sites fare as badly. An average apartment in San Francisco uses one-fifth the heating fuel per capita burned by a tract house out in the suburbs. Given two present-day urban and rural populations of equal size, the urban one has a much smaller ecological footprint.

Some readers of my article thought I was saying that cities are paragons of ecological living. Please. Little in the US, let alone an enormous city like New York, is sustainable. Manhattan may use a bit less energy than some places, but the practice of pouring billions of tons of resources, gathered from millions of acres, into a few square miles to supply many million people in sky-high buildings is only feasible in an era of cheap oil. And we all know that era is ending. When oil hits $200 a barrel, riding an elevator or pumping water to a 17th-story apartment won’t be an option for any but the ultra-rich. I think the mega-metropolises like New York, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago will decline as energy costs skyrocket. Some economies of scale become dis-economies when fuel is expensive.

Apocalypse, Not

I’m not a believer in the Peak Oil “end of the world” scenario, where decreasing oil production somehow mutates into the sudden, permanent shutoff of urban water supplies, and contented suburbanites are transformed overnight into looting gangs. Yes, fossil fuels surely will become much more expensive in the next decades, and scarce soon after. I don’t doubt that several tipping points will be broached along the way, with rapid and unexpected changes cascading through society. But civilization won’t end. People have repeatedly predicted the apocalypse: in millennial 1000, again in 1666 (the number of the beast), and many times between and since. Is our memory so short that we have forgotten the foolishness around Y2k? Or are we so wedded to the delicious notion of our annihilation that we grasp at any possibility? Why do we hunger so for our own extinction?

Many Peak Oil disaster scenarios are premised on an overnight catastrophe, as if suddenly all over America we’ll flip the light switch or turn the tap and nothing will happen. Yes, that would result in riots, martial law, and chaos. But Peak Oil almost certainly won’t look like that. We won’t drop from today’s production of 80 million barrels per day to nothing overnight, or even in 20 years. We’ll go to three-dollar-a-gallon gas, then four, then six, with increasing conservation steps along the way. Comparisons to major power outages or massive storms are wrong. Acute and chronic problems wreak very different results.

The US economy has gone from $1.50 per gallon gas to near $3 with nary a hiccup. A group of 60 economists predicted that gas prices will have to pass $4 per gallon before the economy even begins to slow perceptibly. So where is this magic trigger point that will spark the end of civilization?

Like any addict, we will fight for our fix. As the price of oil rises, hard-to-extract deposits will become worth refining, even in disregard of net energy yields (since large concentrations of money make it possible to temporarily ignore long-term economic reality). In August, Congress began authorizing states to drill in previously unavailable off-shore reserves. Record petroleum profits will be poured into new extraction techniques. We’ll probably—sigh—build a lot of nuke plants. And high prices will reduce demand and encourage conservation: SUV sales are already down nearly 30%. We’ve already cut back in response to high prices. Although the economy has doubled in size since 1979, oil use has only grown 9% (US DOE statistics). I’m not trying to paint a rosy scenario here—Peak Oil will hurt—but we won’t all die. Even a societal collapse (read Jared Diamond’s book) takes decades or centuries.

Some experts estimate that over 90% of all resources are wasted by the time the finished product or energy is used, so there is plenty of room for upping efficiency. Simply by doubling car mileage—which is within easy technological reach—the US would cut oil use by 25%, taking us back to the consumption levels of the 1950s. Conservation is the cheapest way to create more resources. So my bet is on a decades-long slide—not a sudden crash—into a post-oil age, while we learn to be far more efficient, urged on by skyrocketing costs. In the end, we won’t be cranking up the air-conditioner, but we won’t be scratching in the mud, either.

Size Matters

Neither the mega-cities nor the survivalist’s bunker will be viable in a post-oil future. The places with the best chance of surviving an oil peak will be cities of less than a million people, ranging down to well-placed smaller cities and towns. Cities of a million or so existed before fossil fuels—ancient Rome proper held roughly a million people—thus they are clearly possible in a limited-oil era.

Scale works to the advantage of sensibly sized cities. For example, Portland’s 500,000 people are served by two sewage treatment plants that use about 2000 miles of pipe to reach every home. Building this cost in the low hundreds of millions of dollars (exact figures don’t exist). Compare this to the sewage system for 500,000 rural people. That’s roughly 125,000 septic tanks, each with 300 or more feet of drain-field pipe, plus trenching and drain rock for all. A septic system costs about $10,000 to build, so the cost of 125,000 of them is $1.25 billion, several times that of the urban system, and the ruralites need 7000 miles of pipe compared to Portland’s 2000 miles. Of course, composting toilets and graywater systems would obviate the need for both of those unsustainable, resource-intensive methods of waste treatment, but I’m talking about what exists right now. Virtually any service system—electricity, fuel, food—follows the same brutal mathematics of scale. A dispersed population requires more resources to serve it—and to connect it together—than a concentrated one. That fact cannot be gotten around.

Some readers confused my concerns over the sustainability of rural life with my disappointment with the quality of my own rural community. Wonderful rural communities exist (as do wonderful urban ones). We happened not to choose one when we moved to the country, but rather, an area depressed by the collapse of the timber industry, where alcohol, spouse beating, methedrine, and child abuse were rampant responses to a shattered economy. But sadly, that describes most of the rural Pacific Northwest, and much of the rest of rural America. Our county was not unique. Country people in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the stricken farm states are not exactly flush with cash and optimistic about the future. There are pockets of prosperity in the rural US, but overall the social and economic picture is miserable, and most people there lack the education and resources to cope with even today’s economy, much less one ravaged by an oil shortage.

Even if a country community is vibrant, having friendly neighbors does not reduce rural America’s immense ecological footprint. In rural areas, a car is even more essential than in suburbia. As the sewage-plant example shows, the laws of physics force a spread-out populace to consume more resources than one that is compact. The key question is, how large can that compact populace be and still be sustainable? What size of community is best for a post-oil world? No one knows the answer, but the mega-cities are surely too large, and the survivalist in his bunker is too small.

My guess at a post-oil scenario is for the disappearance of suburbs and a return to the city/country pattern as it existed for thousands of years before the oil age. In the film, “The End of Suburbia,” James Howard Kunstler calls the suburbs “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” I believe as suburbs empty or condense over several decades they will be gutted for their re-usable resources and be replaced by what preceded it until forty years ago: small farms ringing every city, producing food in easy reach of urban markets.

I often hear the assumption that without land, urbanites will starve. Nonsense. Farmers were feeding urban populations long before the oil age, and they will do so after it. New Jersey’s seemingly absurd license plate motto, “The Garden State,” refers to its thousands of vanished market gardens that fed New York City until the 1960s. Even urbanites in triplexes will be able to buy locally grown food.

Giving up Fantasies

It’s likely that suburbs, many isolated small towns, and dispersed rural homes will wither and die. Tools and other essential supplies won’t be transported far from the cities where they are produced and where economic power is, so people outside urban areas will need to be virtually self-reliant.

One of the most common responses to the Peak Oil panic is, “We’re planning on moving to the country with our friends and producing everything we need.” Let me burst that bubble: Back-to-the-landers have been pursuing this dream for 40 years now, and I don’t know of a single homesteader or community that has achieved it. Even the Amish shop in town. When I moved to the country, I became rapidly disabused of the idea of growing even half my own food. I like doing one or two other things during my day. During my life.

Growing all your own food, repairing and maintaining tools, keeping livestock, cutting firewood, doing all the carpentry and plumbing, and so forth, is dawn-to-after-dark work. And learning to live in an intentional community is a supremely difficult task—I’ve been around plenty of them. Combine the donkeywork of survivalism with the stress of building a new community, and the failure rate climbs to near 100%. Post-oil, we will all still be as interdependent as we have been since before we came down from the trees, and the farther you live from other people, the poorer you will be.

One out of a thousand has the temperament to grow and make everything he needs. One out of a million—maybe—has actually done it. America’s pioneers were a tiny minority of the millions who stayed behind or came after the task of settlement was finished. If anyone reading this is utterly self-reliant, I would love to hear your story. And if anyone truly believes that fleeing to the country is the solution, then pack up now, because it will take a decade to develop the skills you’ll need to eke out a lonely subsistence.

Some of the back-to-the-landers do have one thing right. It will be healthy communities that will survive the end of the oil age. Even in the unlikely “roving terror gang” scenario, which neighborhood is likely to be invaded? One where each household and its own little garden is isolated, or one in which 30 neighbors are solidly looking out for each other?

Communities are much easier to create where people live near each other. They form when population passes a critical mass, and where people have similar interests and needs. During my rural sojourn, I was astounded by how little my neighbors had in common.

Present-day development in rural areas is wildly haphazard, with mansions next to decrepit trailers. The makeup of the new ruralism is not yeoman farmers and ranchers (fewer than 7% of ruralites farm), but a cheek-by-jowl mix of retirees, poor refugees from cities and declining inner suburbs, low-wage workers in service or resource industries, and affluent dabblers in country life.

Consider our two-mile gravel road in southern Oregon. There were no farmers. My wife and I were middle-class urban refugees. Our nearest neighbor on one side was a meth-selling ex-con living in a trailer; on the other, a retired psychiatrist. Nearby were lower-middle-class ex-suburbanites living in a double-wide, a right-wing retired graphics artist, a liberal young school teacher, and a Christian auto-body mechanic. With no commonality, there was no hope of community where I lived, and it didn’t happen. This miscellaneous assortment of unlinkable diversity is common in the rural US. In rural areas (meaning where houses have acreage), neighbors often come from utterly disparate income brackets, lifestyles, and beliefs, with scant chance of finding common ground. In contrast, in cities, zoning and housing prices encourage people of similar incomes and backgrounds to live near each other. The city neighborhoods I know—and I’ve lived in a lot of cities—have far less diversity than rural ones. Cities overall have more diverse populations than most countryside, but they are generally segregated into neighborhoods having similar attributes such as affordability, hipness or staidness, and ethnic make-up. Of course, uniformity can lead to monotony, exclusivity, and a false belief that everyone is like you. But it also means that urban opportunities for community are much greater than in the country, from sheer proximity, from common backgrounds, and because more galvanizing issues arise to spark gatherings.

Breadlines Are a Good Sign

In my earlier article, I cited scholars who said that that in hard times, city dwellers had in general fared better than those in the country. A few readers argued that during the Depression it was in the city that breadlines formed, not in the country. But this proves the point. Breadlines, though the classic image of the Depression, occur when local restaurants and other businesses team up with city governments to bake bread, cook meals, and offer them at little or no cost. Breadlines mean a community is pooling its resources. That can’t easily happen where people are dispersed and don’t have cars to connect them. During hard times, in the country, hungry people just starve—or flee to the city. Some readers cited anecdotes of their grandparents having plenty of food on their Depression-era farm, but this is belied by the data showing hundreds of thousands of rural folk abandoning their homesteads. Urban breadlines contained plenty of relocated farmers. The Okies weren’t from the city.

To believe that ruralites will fare better, post-oil, than urbanites is to believe that scattered individuals are more resourceful and capable than large assemblages of people acting in concert. Of course, groups can be as stupid as individuals. But collective wisdom and action are usually far more effective than isolated single efforts. Just as most science, technology, art, culture, education, political and social action, money, and power are created and applied in the city, solutions for a post-oil world will also evolve among concentrations of people.

Will a post-oil era look like the Depression? The Depression was not a time of scarce resources, but rather of money. Peak Oil, however, means scarce resources, so comparisons may not be apt. One thing we know about the future is that predictions are almost always wrong. Perhaps the doom-and-gloomers are right and Peak Oil will result in an utterly calamitous crash and unspeakable horror. In that case, all bets are off and both cities and farms will be places of death and misery. But the fact that the end-of-the-world crowd has been crowing for millennia and still have a 100% record of error suggests that they are wrong this time too. Any of several other scenarios is more probable: a technological fix and business as usual (I’m not betting on that one, either), slight descent to a techno-green future (only a bit less unlikely given our political leadership), or a long decline to living within our true energy budget.

My point is not to trade the scenario of post-oil urban chaos for one of rural disaster. I don’t believe either place will be the nightmare that some claim. I simply want to counter the notion that we’d be better off abandoning the city. In the “end of the world” scenario, cities and everywhere else may be full of gangs roving and looting—and then starving with the rest of us. But I don’t buy that prediction. I think as oil prices rise, driving 20 miles to get your chainsaw repaired or to take your child to soccer practice will be the first piece of contemporary life to evaporate. When prices soar, country people will be far from friends, manufactured goods, medical care, and everything but their gardens—if they know how to garden. Urbanites will have mass transit and bicycles. And my favorite urban farms, my livelihood, and my friends will still be within walking distance.

[A note added after Hurricane Katrina: For some, the looting and assaults in New Orleans after Katrina are signs of what Peak Oil has in store for cities, but I don't agree. There will be rough spots, and perhaps even sporadic gasoline riots. A generation of smug “I've got mine” leadership in this country has instilled a beggar-thy-neighbor ethic sadly evidenced in a few cases in Louisiana. But the rapid evacuation and destruction of a major city and the sudden deaths of hundreds from flood and disease bear little resemblance to the much slower evolution of Peak Oil stresses. Looting an empty store in a ruined metropolis deserted by its populace and police takes no courage or organization. Someone trying the same in a functional city inhabited by gun-toting store owners, a police force, and wary neighbors generally ends up in jail or dead. The circumstances, scale, time-frame, and causes in the two cases have little in common. A comparison is both forced and unwise.]

Toby Hemenway is the author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (Chelsea Green, 2001) and adjunct associate professor at Portland State University. Visit him at . This article originally appeared in Permaculture Activist #58.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE 31 Jan 2006. Author Toby Hemenway writes:
I was directed by a friend to a couple of blogs that were discussing an article I'd written on urban and rural sustainability, and the conversation there has gone way beyond that topic and has ranged into some interesting discussion of where permaculture fits onto society, of whether it is sustainable, its relation to earlier cultures, and even whether it can be co-opted as just one more way for elites to control people. The people writing seem remarkably intelligent and well-read (myself excepted, of course!), with no flaming. If this interests you, you should check out And also links from those sites. I also recommend: as it makes it clear why gardening is such a central element of permaculture.

Published with permission from the author. The article originally appeared in Permaculture Activist magazine. (No online version of this article is currently available at the Permaculture Activist site.) Toby Hemenway wrote a previous article to which this article refers: Urban vs. Rural Sustainability. David Holmgren is another permaculture thinker who has written on peak oil: Interview: Peak Oil and Permaculture Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability Global energy peak: threat or opportunity. -BA

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