A peek at a possible post-peak oil future

July 31, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Over the past decade, a number of thinkers have tried to imagine how a post peak-oil, energy-descent future might manifest. While important details differ, the emerging consensus among many has been that–in the best case–the world will look less like the current globalized consumer leviathan and a more like what Jeff Vail has called the “hamlet economy” in which people live and work in a non-hierarchical, “lattice-like” rhizome network of largely self-reliant but still interdependent small settlements.

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Sienna, Italy.

In Vail’s vision, these resilient settlements would make use of a “hybrid of horticulture, gathering and hunting” in the surrounding commons, to produce most of what they need close to home; in addition, each hamlet would develop one or more specialized products for trade with others, thus reinforcing communal connectivity and achieving a much higher standard of living than a completely isolated village or homestead could.

Because it’s difficult for a suburban American to envision what such a future really might look like, Vail offered the Tuscan hill towns of Italy as a historical and present-day, real-world model, which, he wrote, is “certainly not a perfect example of rhizome, but [is] . . . a decent example of a networked economic topology that consisted of many relatively self-sufficient nodes.”

Importantly, what the Tuscan model offers, says Vail, is “a positive vision of the future—not a reversion to feudal serfdom, but a progression to a more egalitarian and human-compatible life … if the average American could live the ‘good life’ of living in a stereotypical Tuscan villa, and if they are shown how they, too, CAN have this lifestyle, then people will literally flock to this structure.”

I recently had the opportunity to reflect on Vail’s vision during a two-week visit to Central Italy to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday.

We stayed in a refurbished old villa on a hillside, just outside the village of Cerbaia, about half an hour from Florence. It’s difficult not romanticize life here — as Vail points out, Tuscany as it exists today has a deep appeal. In spite of the wearying effects of hoards of tourists who serve as a seasonal occupying army here, the region retains its soulful heart: twisting cobblestone streets in medieval villages, layer upon layer of sublime public art, spiritually uplifting architecture and a rich, nourishing food culture. It is in short, the kind of place that other, less authentic places imitate, in an attempt to invoke a feeling that people flock to—a feeling which is deeper than “charm,” though it often goes by that name.

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The villa, near Cerbaia.

As for present-day sustainability–as conventionally understood–the region almost certainly does better than the most of the US on almost all measures. While I couldn’t find statistics specific to Tuscany, Italy as a whole is extremely energy efficient compared to the United States, Canada and the rest of the gas-guzzling developed world in the Western Hemisphere.

A recent report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Italy first in transportation and second in overall efficiency (after Germany) in a survey of the world 16 largest economies. Average fuel economy of passenger vehicles on Italy’s roads is 38.4 miles per gallon, compared to the US average of 21 miles per gallon. More important, in my opinion, is the ranking of Vehicle Miles Traveled Per Capita. Not surprisingly, India and China come out far ahead on this measurement, at 85 and 513 VMT per pserson, respectively—reflecting the low mobility for large segments of their countries’ large populations.

Italy ranked third, with 1,379 VMT per capita. The United States ranked last, coming in at 9,361 VMT. In other words, the average resident of Italy puts 1/6 as many miles on automobiles per year than the average US citizen—and half as many as of New York City residents do, a fact which should give pause to those who argue that super-dense New York-style urban living at the megacity scale is inherently more efficient and eco-friendly than rural or small town living. According to United Nations statistics, Italy is actually less urbanized than the United States: where 82 percent of Americans live in urban areas, only 68.4 percent of Italians do.

Tuscany, which is about the area of New Jersey, it itself is heavily rural, but contains a number of small to medium sized pedestrian cities, including Luca, Pisa, Sienna — all of which are connected by regular train service. The largest city, Florence, has a metro area that is home to about 1.5 million people. Tuscany’s entire population is only 3.6 million—which makes the region’s high quality transit even more impressive. For a major agricultural region and a global producer of olive oil and wine, the Tuscan region has a fairly high population density by American standards.

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Comparison of per capita energy use, United States versus Italy. Data from the World Bank.

So—how is it possible that a modern, developed nation with a high standard of living and a relatively large rural population could consume so much less oil per capita than Canada, Australia or the United States?

Consider this: From the villa we stayed in, we took three day trips to Florence. In order to avoid driving in the city, we took the car 13 kilometers (8 miles) along a pleasant country road to Scandicci, where we picked up the Florence’s single light-rail line into the city.

Imagine a hypothetical commuter living in such an arrangement; waking up in a Tuscan farmhouse amidst 15 or so acres of olive trees and vineyards, driving or perhaps riding a small motorbike (getting 60-70 mpg) to the train station, and walking to work in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. (Alternatively, a 35 minute bus ride takes you straight from Cerbaia into the city). High-speed trains from Florence connect to all of the other major Italian cities.

Thus, even in the pre-collapse present, it’s possible in Italy to live a substantially more efficient, lower footprint, higher quality, fully modern, 21st century existence provided the right infrastructure design and the right cultural attitude toward life.

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Street market, Florence.

Of course the peak oil/energy descent argument is concerned not with present efficiency but with resilience to inevitable future oil and financial shocks. How would Italy in general and the Tuscan region in particular fare in far more energy-constrained or even post petro-collapse world? To be sure, the tourist-dependent Tuscan economy would suffer, adding to Italy’s already high overall unemployment rate.

Food production would have to be relocalized. In spite of the fact that this is where the “slow-food” movement was started a few years ago, and that Tuscany is a magnet for sustainable agriculture and agro-tourism, the region is certainly far from food independent. As Zach Nowak, professor of food history at the Umbra Institute in Perugia has pointed out, the Chianti region in Tuscany produces Italy’s most famous wine, and the area is a major exporter of olive oil—which means that it’s more cost-efficient for a local butcher to buy grain-fed beef from Spain than to grass-feed it on land that could be put to growing grapes. It’s not so difficult to imagine a transition, however that turns pieces of land over to local production as economics and local need dictates. Tuscany is known for its Cucina Povera, or peasant cuisine, which made delicious use of what could be grown or made cheaply.

All of this is hypothetical of course. Vail’s thesis rests on creating a “rhizome structure that provides negative feedback against encroaching hierarchy.” In reality, Tuscany was never a truly non-hierarchical society, and the Tuscan peasantry—like the poor in the rest of Italy—suffered terribly in various periods, struggling with poverty and illiteracy in the early 20th century, enduring two world wars and hyperinflation before finally achieving a post-war prosperity in the 1960s and 70s.

But maybe that’s the point: if we compare the life of the average Tusacan peasant—in which with a little bit of land, a meager self-sufficiency was possible and communal and spiritual life was taken for granted, even in the worst of times—with the depredations of the modern, alienated urban poor, who have been denied, as David Holmgren says, even the basic skills of poverty—a case can be made for old-fashioned, Tuscan-style poverertà.

Lakis Polycarpou

Lakis Polycarpou is a writer, ecological designer and sustainable development consultant.

A veteran of the 2008 banking crisis, Lakis watched from the inside as the company he worked for collapsed, nearly bringing down the global economy. This perspective reinforced his belief that society must find new approaches to confront the emerging climate, resource and economic challenges of the 21st century. Since then, he has worked to develop and promote sustainable development, regenerative design and social innovation at various scales.

Lakis’ articles on water, climate, energy, social media, sustainability and resilience have appeared in numerous national and international publications. He is the author of City of the Future, a blog about urban life in a lower-energy future that has been quoted worldwide in discussions of energy, economics and urban sustainability.