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Superbia! (book review)

Let me be clear. I agree with James Howard Kunstler. "Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." The idea that we can live and work, play and teach, manufacture and grow everything necessary to foster some sort of meaningful life miles away from each other is silly. It has worked for a short time because we have been able to tap an incredible energy source that took millions of years to materialize. The only energy input onto this planet Earth is radiation from our sun. It has been stored over the ages by plants. Some of these plants died and decomposed in such a way that their remains were converted by heat and geological action into the petroleum we are now using at a rate of over 20 million barrels per day here in the United States of America. We have been cashing out of this solar bank account for more than a century. As this reserve supply proves unable to grow we will become poor and we will have to reexamine the nature of our physical relationship with the landscape. Driving many miles a day, transporting food from far flung regions of the globe, importing goods from nations with lower standards of living and low wage requirements will become a thing of the past. A friend recently challenged me, “You’re predicting the end of Wal-Mart?” he said. “Yes” I countered, “That organization will fail when the cost of shipping 70% of their product from China triples in price.” He enjoys watching a good show. I imagine he’s in for one.

The built environment of civilization on any number of density levels has remained roughly the same for thousands of years. Cities in ancient times were not so dissimilar from cities observed during the beginning of the 1800’s. People, on average, are only able to walk so far without becoming tired. The physical arrangements of ancient towns developed out of a response to the needs and capabilities of humans with specific resources at their disposal. Dietary requirements and other staples of life have not become radically altered during the past 50 years but they way we build human habitations has. I don’t blame those who created the post WWII suburbs for bankrupting the American people. I doubt they would have proceeded if they had stopped and seriously considered the ramifications of what they were doing. The truth is most of them still don't get it 50 years later. The cheap price of energy has blinded most Americans who are more than willing to embrace the idea that there is always more of everything available. They are slow to face the fact that the laws of physics are not breakable; even by the ingenious human mind. So what will become of the Suburban landscape developed in the heyday of oil? Kunstler says, "The suburbs are going to become the slums of tomorrow... some of them will be the ruins of tomorrow." I'm not willing to concede quite so easily. Besides, as my colleague asks, “Where would all the suburbanites go?” I just finished reading the book Superbia! by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann. Buy a used copy and save a tree. The book develops the idea of changing the suburbs into a more sustainable arrangement. It focuses on affecting that change. I agree in hindsight that the suburbs were a bad idea, but reality is here and now. What are we going to do about suburban Americans? Are we going to forsake them? Are they to become abandoned casualties in the evolution of human beings? Not so fast says Chiras and Wann. “Today, more than ever before, our society is seeking ways to live more conscientiously.” This book is a how-to guide that teaches about navigating the river of pre-peak oil changes in attitude and perception. The ideas about how to do more with less and how to transform the average suburban house into a suburban homestead are some what simple and very similar to the ideas of others. Run a check list of basic human needs and the paradigm of land use takes a turn. If food is in short supply front yard gardens aren’t cool, they’re necessary. If you’re famished you make entirely different decisions about what sort of trees to plant. You’re more likely to grow peach trees when you’re hungry. Food, water, shelter, energy, these are the more important requirements for human life. How humans are able to adjust the setup of the suburbs to meet their basic needs in times of trouble will fall to those in need. Necessity is the mother of invention, or reinvention as it were.

But how can you begin to make this sort of change in your neighborhood in advance of the Long Emergency set to arrive with the peaking of global oil production? How can you prepare as a neighborhood to meet more of your needs as the price of fuel steadily increases? What can you do to facilitate change in your community? That is what this book is about. The relationships involved in any situation help determine the outcome. You might want to take steps towards creating a more self sustainable neighborhood but what is the best way to share that goal with your neighbors? Superbia! is a guide to understanding the human dynamics of neighborhood change. I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to affect revision in his or her community.

Editorial Notes: The excellent Powering Down blog is "a discussion on peak oil with an emphasis on relocalization as a reponse for North Carolina and the greater Southeast." Aaron Nuline is a land planner from North Carolina. He recently participated in a ‘blogathon’ where he basically sat and posted blogs on his site all night in support of Trees for Life. -AF

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