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Are cities sustainable in a post-peak oil world?

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

Depletion of Key Resources: Facts at Your Fingertips
Peter Goodchild, Culture Change

From Culture Change:
Editor's note: The author presents a definitive essay. Learn why:

-Those who expect to get by with 'victory gardens' are unaware of the arithmetic involved.
-There are already too many people to be supported by non-mechanized agriculture.
-To meet the world's present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need... a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world's energy problems.
-In a milieu of social chaos, what are the chances that the oil industry will be using extremely advanced technology to extract the last drops of oil?

Peter Goodchild's new book The Coming Chaos will be appearing shortly.
- Jan Lundberg, Culture Change

Modern industrial society is based on a triad of hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity. The three are intricately connected; each is accessible only if the other two are present. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more hydrocarbons for smelting. In turn, without metals and electricity there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons. Of the three members of the triad, electricity is the most fragile, and its failure serves as an early warning of trouble with the other two [6, 7].

Often the interactions of this triad are hiding in plain sight. Global production of steel, for example, requires 420 million tonnes of coke (from coal) annually, as well as other hydrocarbons adding up to an equivalent of another 100 million tonnes [22]. To maintain industrial society, the production of steel cannot be curtailed: there are no “green” materials for the construction of skyscrapers, large bridges, automobiles, machinery, or tools. But the interconnections among fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are innumerable. As each of the three members of the triad threatens to break down, we are looking at a society that is far more primitive than the one to which we have been accustomed.

The ascent and descent of oil production are those of the famous promontory known as Hubbert’s curve. The back side of the mountain probably does not greatly resemble the front. It is likely that the descent will be rather steep, again because of synergistic factors. As oil declines, more energy and money must be devoted to getting the less-accessible and lower-quality oil out of the ground [10]. In turn, as more energy and money are devoted to oil production, the production of metals and electricity becomes more difficult. One problem feeds on another. The issue can also be described in terms of sheer money: when oil production costs about 4.5 percent of the economy, the latter begins a downward spiral [14].
(27 Jan 2010)
related: Peter's earlier article on Culture Change, When the lights go out. -KS


Cities, peak oil, and sustainability
Toby Hemenway, Energy Bulletin

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.

...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?

...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.

...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...
(7 Dec 2005)
An older article but one that speaks directly to this topic. -KS


Reconsidering Cities
Sharon Astyk, The Chatelaine's Keys

I get a lot of emails from people who want to get out of the city. Sometimes the reasons are really good ones – they don’t like cities or the ones they live in, but were drawn there by the promise of salaries and jobs, but now see other options opening up in rural areas or small towns. Maybe they always dreamed of land and space to be self-sufficient, or maybe it was a new dream – but now they want to explore it. Maybe they want lower cost of living and stronger community ties and think a rural small town is the way to get it. Maybe they want cleaner air and more green spaces, or to go home to a place they loved. Maybe they believed the idea that it was too hard to grow your own and make your own, but they’ve stopped believing this. To which I say - great!

But not all the people I hear from have these reasons. Sometimes people think they should get out of the city because they’ve been told they have to, or they’ve seen too many apocalyptic movies. Sometimes people read about peak oil and climate change and their first reaction is “I’ve got to get out of the city” - but their family is there, and their home and their work. Sometimes people really like cities, and don’t want to leave, but feel like they have to to be safe. Sometimes what is burgeoning under the surface is a real fear of crime, and sometimes it is a nebulous fear of the alien and strange. And sometimes there’s a racist and classist element to this – a fear of “them” who will “riot.” Sometimes there are concerns that cities are unadaptable – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. Sometimes people just haven’t given much thought to what is possible in the city and they don’t realize that many of their dreams might be fulfillable in the city.

We moved here to the country a few months before 9/11, and I can’t count the number of people who called up and said “you have the right idea, get out of the cities!” In vain did we protest that we hadn’t left Lowell and Boston to escape terrorism, nameless violence and scary people but because we wanted to grow things and raise animals. I don’t blame folks who instinctively reacted that way, but I do think that if we’re leaving the cities, we should go for the right reasons – because we love the country, not because we fear the city. Moreover, I feel that many cities have a future – and a rich and complicated and probably quite wonderful (and difficult) ones. Nor is it self-evident to me that the countryside will always be better off than the city. So let’s talk about why people should revisit the idea of cities.

I think it is important also to distinguish between several kinds of cities. Just as I’ve written before that there are suburbs and suburbs, there are cities and cities. There are cities I think have little or no future in the face of climate change and energy depletion, and ones I think have quite a bright future. How do you know which kind of city yours is? Well, there are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Was this a major city before 1900? This is an important question if you are interested in your city’s future. As a general rule, the best way to evaluate a city’s long term future in the face of depletion and the ability to produce less carbon is to ask “Back when we used less energy, did people want to live here? If so, why? If not, why not?” If, for example, your city is a major port city, or connected by waterway to a major port city, your city probably has a future. The age of water transport is hardly over – it is just beginning again, and ports will be needed. If your city was a mill city with lots of hydropower – that’s another good sign. Or a major rail hub – we know that rail is much more efficient than private cars. On the other hand, if not very many people lived there until air conditioning or until we stole water from somewhere else, that might not be so good.

2. What are the best projections for its future in climate change? The exception to the rule that you should use the past to predict the future is climate change. If your city is expected to be underwater and subject to increasingly violent storm surges, you might not want to stay – even if you imagine you won’t be alive for the worst consequences, you might consider asking yourself “When I’m 70, will I want to evacuate every hurricane season?” Or if increasing heatwaves and drought are the projection, you should honestly ask whether you are prepared to deal with them. Cities with no good reliable supply of water will probably do very badly indeed.

3. What kind of local food and energy infrastructure have you got? Cities that didn’t develop hugely in the last decades that still have farmland around them will be at an advantage – not an insurmountable ones if they have natural transportation lines, but still, this is a powerful advantage. Smaller cities of 1 million or less may do better than bigger ones – the biggest cities will probably have to get smaller, particularly if they are built up for many miles outside their limits, have a lot of high rises or other major disadvantages. That said, even a big city that has to get smaller will have some particularly well developed people who do very well there

4. Finally, what’s the culture of your city/neighborhood within it? Are you surrounded by immigrants who are growing gardens in every spare inch? Awesome. Are you surrounded by affluent neighbors who don’t like to see undies out on the line? Not so great. Is your city in decline with a high violent crime rate? Not so good. Does your city have an active and powerful community organizing presence that helps keep people safe? Good. Is your municipality actively preparing for the future? Terrific. Are they not helping but not hindering much? Pretty good.

Moreover, the country will have some disadvantages over cities in difficult times – this is almost certain to happen. It is important to be prepared for those difficulties, and many city people aren’t – given that they will be facing challenges in either place, it may be better to face challenges that are more familiar, in a place where you have ties, than to try and face totally unfamiliar ones in a new place.

What are the disadvantages of the countryside? Here are a few:

1. Fewer jobs, more poverty, at least at first. While in the longer term, rural areas may do better, in early transitional periods, the odds are that they will do worse, because they have fewer jobs to begin with. In an economic crisis, many people in rural areas become very poor and areas become severely depressed. If you are thinking that we will have an instant apocalypse where everyone moves out to the countryside looking for food, you probably should give some thought to a slow grind, where there’s plenty of food but no money to buy it.

2. Shortages of goods and higher prices for things not made locally. Many rural areas have few stores and are at thee nd of shipping lines. If gas gets expensive or resources get constrained, outer perimeter stores will be serviced last, and at higher cost. Few rural dwellers make everything they use or even grow all their own food – it may cost you a lot more to get things and you may be the first to see shortages.

3. Tight knit and conservative communities can be alienating to people who are different or simply outsiders. While I know, for example, many gay and lesbian people living in rural areas, I know others who were driven out by small mindedness and hostility. Plenty of people move out our way and complain that if you aren’t related to someone, there’s no social life, and it is hard to integrate. The reality is you may be an outsider for a long time.

4. It can be far away from family and friends if they are tied to the city. Life in the country also requires that you live differently – fewer formal activities for the kids, more just playing, maybe multiple sources of part time income instead of one steady job.

5. Lack of services – as economic consequences get greater, small towns with small tax bases either need to raise taxes (a tough sell) or they need to cut services. When oil prices spiked in 2008 schools cut back to 4 days a week, got rid of staff, plowing was cut back, garbage collection abandoned and town courts closed. The consequences are worse in the city when services do shut down because of population density, but cities are less likely to get hit as early.

...Underestimating the power of urban agriculture is one of the deepest flaws in reasoning. Most nations of the global south produce substantial portions of meat and vegetables within city limits – Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, both produce more than 20% of their meat and vegetables within the city limits. In 2002 with more than 6 million people, Hong Kong was producing 33% of their produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and 20% of the farmed fish eaten in the city limits, much the animale being rased on 160,000 tons annually of food waste that was recycled into meat and eggs. Will cities grow all their own food? No, but they don’t necessarily have to. A substantial portion can be enough, as long as they also build ties to surrounding rural areas...
(12 Jan 2010)


Peter Newman: The Crash, Peak Oil and Resilient Cities
Peter Newman, blog.islandpress.org

How did the crash happen? Over-inflating the economic balloon with debt that was vulnerable to rises in oil price. What do we do about it? Use non-oil-based projects and approaches to generate economic growth or else we are going to make things worse. In detail….

Peak oil theorists have been squabbling about when the geological peak will happen but in economic terms it happened in 2005 when the production of conventional oil (cheap oil which can be produced under about $65/bbl) peaked. The five mega Major oil companies peaked in their oil production in 2005 and have gone down since.

The price of oil was then based on the marginal production from unconventional oil (deep water, remote and dirty oil like shale). Oil rapidly increased in price from $40 to $140 between 2005 and July 2008.

The first financial fall-out was the exposure of debt in sub-prime mortgages based primarily in highly car dependent urban areas. Tripling of fuel prices made it impossible to pay mortgages. Non-recourse financing meant that people in many vulnerable areas walked away from their homes without carrying the debt with them (can't do this in Australia).

All global debt began to be pulled into the crash as the vulnerability to oil underlies just about everything...
How can oil-vulnerable cities create an economy that reduces their oil use and creates a more resilient future? In our new book Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change (Newman, Beatley and Boyer, Island Press) we set out a range of technological, land use and governance options based on experience of where these are beginning to be demonstrated. Simply put….

-Electrified transit. This means high capacity electric Metros and Suburban Rail (heavy rail) with their associated dense centers or Transit Oriented Developments. It also means plug-in electric buses (already quite common in some cities) and electric light rail with their associated local corridors of denser linear development.

-Electrified vehicles. This means plug-in electric vehicles (and plug-in hybrids) which together with a range of smaller electric vehicles like scooters, gophers and golf carts, are associated with more dispersed land uses. The key value in these plug-in vehicles is that they enable renewable energy to be 100% of a city’s grid through providing a storage mechanism (they are likely therefore to be part of the transport systems in denser parts of the city as well, though supplementary). We call this Renewable Transport. See http://sustainability.curtin.edu.au/research_publications/.

-Electrified rail and the associated denser land uses will be cheaper and more resilient than the road-based dispersed kind of development as we have shown in a number of publications, including a recent assessment of the costs of urban development for Parsons Brinckerhoff (http://sustainability.curtin.edu.au/research_publications/). However most cities have a combination of these land use types and although dispersed land uses will be more vulnerable they cannot be abandoned - some extremely dispersed parts of cities may need to be.

-Ruralising cities based around local food production is unlikely to occur as cities will still need to be cities providing a range of opportunities not available in rural areas. However cities can incorporate greater local food production as in Cuba though they will remain primarily urban and not rural in function. Ruralised land uses in peri urban areas that are highly car dependent are likely to die first.

-Plans to rebuild local economies will need to factor in how to reduce car use and create more walkable and bikeable local areas. Green buildings and green industries will not create green cities unless they are based around electric renewable transport or non motorised transport.

It is time to refill the economic balloon based around these innovations, not try to reinflate the old oil-based urban development paradigm...
(9 Jan 2008)
related: Podcast: Can Renewables Really Power our Cities?, with Nate Hagens and Herbert Girardet.


Where do we go from here?
Guy McPherson, Nature Bats Last

Some doors are closed. We will no longer observe long-term growth of the industrial economy. In fact, any growth reported by the government or media is suspect at this point, and probably a result of the age-old fudging-the-numbers trick. We have entered the age of contraction. The days of access to the inexpensive fossil fuels that fueled American Empire are waning.

But if the government would get out of the way or, better yet, serve as an inspiration and provide resources, we could shape our society to deal effectively with economic contraction. We could focus on the delivery of water, the production of food, and maintenance of public health with a substantially re-localized, and significantly more durable, set of living arrangements. The alternative we are currently pursuing — a last-ditch attempt to maintain the impossible dream of endless suburbia followed by a rapid trip to the post-industrial Stone Age — is an unmitigated apocalypse in slow motion. I feel as if I’m watching a cheesy 1970s disaster film, waiting for the director to yell, “Cut!” so we can all go back to our pre-HFCS cheese doodles and soda pop.

Assuming we all jump on board the contraction train, we have several options at our disposable. I’m a fan of one of them, and I’ll present an alternative likely to be more appealing to most readers. These two routes are simply points along a continuum from (1) the omnicidal, destined-for-disaster business as usual and (2) its attendant massive die-off of humans as we enter the Stone Age without advance planning.

Route number one is such a durable outcome we did it for two million years. That’s essentially the entire human experience. We had easy lives, characterized by a few hours of work each week to supply our hunted-and-gathered food. We spent a lot of time communing with the natural world, and creating art that reflected our time with nature. We were a bit too spiritual for my own personal tastes, but that spirituality was rooted in ignorance. Now that we know better than to believe in spirits, the next trip to the Stone Age can be characterized by rational thought, free inquiry, intelligent discussions, and strong communities rooted in place.

Our lives will be short, relatively speaking, but they will be far from the Hobbesian wage-slavery in which we’re currently mired. All aboard the peace train, everybody.

The next stop is agricultural anarchy, in the spirit of Monticello. I know Thomas Jefferson’s model was built on the backs of slaves, and I know about the horrors of patriarchy. But again, we know better this time. The local, organic production of food will once again form the center of commerce, and also our lives. The animals we respect and nurture will provide power. We will honor soil as the life-giving entity it is.

If we pursue the latter route, we’ll need to abandon the cities en masse. We’ll need to develop a crash course in country living. If you think it can’t be done, you haven’t been reading this blog. Believe me: If I can develop the attitude and skills I’ve developed within a year, after spending an entire life as an imperialist educator, just about anybody else can, too. Surely people with fewer than my 49 years can do this, and without the physical pain that results from heaping large doses of physical abuse onto a long-neglected body. Had I known how long I was going to be using these old bones, I’d have taken better care of them, back when I was younger.

There you go, then: Two possibilities for a future with infinite possibilities. Neither involves long-distance travel, but the recent luxury of overseas, overnight is a big part of the problem. Ditto for the summer driving vacation and the long-distance commute to “live” in soulless suburbia.

Yes, we’ll need to work out myriad details. The transition will not be easy. But it will not be lethal to a majority of people in industrialized countries, either. Many other advantages come to mind, in addition to the ones I pointed out a few months ago. For example, we might not have to prepare for civil war, and we won’t be all atwitter about which bubbles are about to burst.
That’s my two cents, undoubtedly overpriced. And you?
(28 Jan 2010)

Editorial Notes: Recently I have been thinking about the long-term sustainability of cities as we slide down the slippery backside of Hubbert's curve. This was partly brought on by the fact that I am engaged in Transition work here in Bristol UK, so I have to think about it, and also by a recent spate of articles either suggested or published on Energy Bulletin. We seem to have the more extreme "get out of town" perspectives a la Peter Goodchild and Guy McPherson, Toby Hemenway stating that cities are more sustainable in some ways than rural areas, and with other opinions such as Sharon Astyk's falling somewhere in between. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out in the future as things unfold. -KS Photo credit: flickr/Claudio.Ar

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