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Cities in the deindustrial future

Some of the contemporary debates about the future of industrial society remind me forcefully of the opening scenes of John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. The whole cast is present and accounted for.

The main character, Christian, is an ordinary guy who does some incautious reading and discovers that the city where he lives is slated for total destruction. The more he reads, the more worried he gets, but he has no idea what to do about it all. He has plenty of equivalents today, of course, and so do his family and friends, who consider the whole thing overblown and are convinced that Christian has basically gone nuts.

As Christian paces back and forth in the fields, crying out "What shall I do?" and making his family's assessment look plausible, he meets a character named Evangelist - with Bunyan, you don't need a program to tell you who's who - who points out the direction Christian needs to run to escape the destruction to come. With that, he's off, and the result is a thumping good read even if you don't happen to share the religious beliefs that motivated Bunyan's story. That's where A Pilgrim's Progress parts company with today's less spiritually driven debates, though, because a contemporary pilgrim who hopes to flee the City of Destruction can count on a tolerably large mob of Evangelist wannabees pointing in every direction you care to name.

Since well before I launched The Archdruid Report I've fielded my share of emails from people in Christian's position, convinced they ought to take action to face the arrival of the deindustrial age but wholly at a loss about what exactly they ought to do about it. Most of them seem to be convinced that the wicket gate through which they need to pass is located some fairly large geographical distance from wherever they're currently living. That's a common assumption, of course, and it's not new to peak oil. One of the more amusing moments during the run-up to the Y2K noncrisis happened when two people preparing to relocate got into a conversation on an online forum; one of them lived in rural Alabama and had just decided to flee for safety to the Puget Sound area of Washington state, while the other lived in the Puget Sound area and had just decided to flee for safety to rural Alabama.

Go further back and you'll find the same thing in every secular millennialist movement the United States has seen since the dawn of the 20th century. Whether the apocalypse du jour is nuclear war, pandemic disease, racial conflict, Communist takeover, fascist police state takeover, the imminent arrival of Antichrist, or what have you, the accepted way to deal with it is to flee to some isolated location in the mountains and wait for the rubble to stop bouncing. I've tried to challenge the kneejerk application of this same way of thinking to the consequences of peak oil in a number of previous posts, but there's another side to the picture - the widespread notion that cities in the aftermath of peak oil will be deathtraps by definition.

That's a belief just as deeply rooted in Western cultural history as its counterpart, the dream of fleeing to the wilderness for sanctuary on the eve of destruction. Those with a penchant for the history of ideas can trace it back to the Book of Genesis, where Lot flees from Sodom into the wilderness of Zoar just before the fire and brimstone hits, and to other passages in the Old Testament that reflect the lasting distrust of urban life the ancient Hebrews absorbed in their nomad years. Bunyan's vision of the City of Destruction has archaic roots, and it played early and often into an enduring social schism in America's collective life between the genteel urban society of the east coast, with its gaze fixed on Europe as the source of culture and manners, and the impoverished rural society of the hinterlands further west where a culture independent of white America's European roots found its seedbed. Generations of circuit riders and revivalists riffed off the contrast between urban vices and rural virtues, simultaneously flattering their listeners, undercutting competition from older denominations with east coast roots, and feeding on popular bigotries against Catholics and Jews at a time when most American members of both these faiths lived in large east coast cities.

With the coming of the twentieth century, the same way of thinking helped drive the conviction that the best way to deal with the problems of urban America was to load up the moving van and leave the city behind, in exchange for the sanctuary of some comfortably middle-class suburb out of sight and reach of the poor. Thus it's not surprising that the same tune gets replayed in a different key in today's American secular apocalyptic, which draws its audience mostly from the white middle class. Too often the lifeboat communities imagined by today's peak oil writers are simply suburban bedroom communities on steroids, postapocalyptic Levittowns that, like their 1950s equivalents, are meant to allow their residents to maintain a privileged way of life while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket at a comfortable distance.

Step outside the potent complex of cultural factors that make a flight to rural isolation seem like the obvious response to peak oil, and things take on a very different shape. Now it's true, of course, that some cities are much too big and much too badly sited to survive the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Los Angeles is probably the poster child for these abandoned ruins of the not too distant future, though most of the large cities of the Southwest could give it a run for its money - it's easy to imagine tourists of the future wandering among the fallen skyscrapers of Phoenix or Santa Fe the way today's tourists visit Teotihuacan or Chaco Canyon. Equally, it's hard to imagine that Manhattan or inner city Chicago will become anything in the future but vast salvage yards for metals and other resources. Yet it's crucial to note that the vast majority of America's cities do not fall into these categories.

Imagine, by contrast, a city of between 20,000 and 200,000 people in a mostly agricultural region; there are hundreds of such cities scattered across the North American map, so this shouldn't be hard. In the sort of overnight collapse imagined by too many writers on peak oil these days, that could still be a very difficult place to be - but as I've pointed out more than once in this blog, an overnight collapse is very nearly the least likely way the downslope of Hubbert's peak might play out. In the far more plausible scenario of uneven decline and slow depopulation spread out over many decades, such a city would have immense advantages over a rural lifeboat community. Located within easy reach of surrounding farmland, stocked with raw materials in the form of surplus buildings, cars, and the like, and a large enough work force to allow division of labor and the production of specialty goods, the city could easily import food and other necessities by supplying trade goods to the nearby countryside, the way cities in preindustrial times have always done.

These same factors make the maintenance of public order much less challenging - the sort of rural brigandage that springs up in the last years of civilizations could make life very difficult for a rural lifeboat community, but a city with a large organized militia centered on its police force and pre-decline National Guard units would be a much tougher nut to crack. Finally, most small to midsized cities have the cultural and social resources - libraries and colleges, community groups of many kinds, and a lively tradition of local politics, among other things - to maintain some approximation of civilized life even in hard times. In a deindustrializing world, all these things are potent sources of strength. While there will undoubtedly be failures from a variety of causes, all these things make cities among the most viable options for personal and cultural survival as the deindustrial age opens around us.

Historically speaking, this pattern - the largely independent city-state surrounded by its own agricultural hinterland - is one of the most common foundations for urban society, and civilizations that manage a broader level of geographical integration routinely fall back to the city-state pattern in times of disintegration. Some variant of it is very likely in the North America of the deindustrial future. Some areas of the continent lack the agricultural and resource base to support such a pattern; others will likely be in the path of armed invasions or mass migration, in which case all bets are off; the fate of Roman Britain shows what can happen when an urban society is overwhelmed by armed and hostile migrants (though Roman Gaul, which passed through a similar experience, came through it with a surprising number of its cities intact, and most of those are still viable urban centers today). Elsewhere, though - especially east of the Mississippi and west of the Cascade crest, where rainfall and soil quality combine to make sustainable organic agriculture a good bet for the foreseeable future - urban centers are likely to play a significant role through the approaching deindustrial Dark Ages and on into the successor cultures to come.

One factor that could derail this vision is the failure of urban centers to make useful preparations in the early stages of crisis. Fortunately, steps in the right direction are already being taken. More than a dozen US municipalities are already at work on their own peak oil contingency plans, and more are considering it. The "transition town" movement in the UK is working in the same direction with at least as much success. The seismic shift that has placed municipal and local governments out in front on several other issues, and left national governments behind them in the dust, seems to be under way in the peak oil field as well. When city governments draw up meaningful plans to reduce their fossil fuel usage by 50%, as Portland, Oregon did in its recently released peak oil plan, or look seriously at reestablishing local rail service, as several US cities are now doing, it's hard to justify the claim that urban populations will check their common sense and their instinct for self-preservation at the door of peak oil and turn into the mindless ravening mobs of the classic survivalist fantasy.

For those looking for the wicket gate away from the City of Destruction, then, I have some possibly unexpected advice: the community you're looking for may be a city not so far away, and it may even be the one in which you're living right now. Different urban centers have different things to offer; you'll get one set of resources and amenities in a regional center of 100,000 people and quite a different set in a liberal college town of 20,000. The sooner you choose your community, and the more effort you put into contributing to it, the better off you'll be as the first wave of crises arrives. This option may not have the romantic aura or the symbolic kick of the isolated Utopian community so often discussed today, but it's likely to prove a good deal more viable in the real world of the 21st century and beyond.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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