The Built Environment: A Look Back and a Leap Forward

March 21, 2019

Below is the transcript of a talk PCI Executive Director gave to the current class of Leadership Corvallis, a professional development organization, as part of their Community by Design day.

It looks from the agenda that today you are going to be covering a lot of practical, nuts-and-bolts issues related to land use planning here in Corvallis. Well, I’m going to do something completely different, and that’s to ask us all to step way back and ask some bigger questions about why our community looks and functions the way it does. Not just our particular community here in Corvallis, but modern cities in general. And I’m also going to challenge all of us to think differently about how our community may need to change over the coming decades.

To begin, I’d like to quickly talk about three different, overlapping spheres of human community life: 1) our belief systems and values; 2) our institutions and means of making decisions; and 3) our material, or physical environment.

Every human society has a shared set of beliefs that encourage cooperative behavior. Some societies tend to be very homogenous in terms of religion, language, or culture. Others, like the United States, tend to be quite diverse in these regards but they still tend to have certain shared beliefs that cross these differences.

Many anthropologists call these kinds of shared beliefs the superstructure of society.

Every human society is also made up of particular institutions and mechanisms for making decisions and allocating resources—essentially its political and economic systems. Here in the U.S., that means representative democracy and a market-based economy. We elect people to pass laws, determine how to spend our tax dollars, and set policies. And we allow individuals a great deal of freedom to earn and spend their money how they wish. Now that doesn’t mean everyone is afforded the same economic opportunity or that our representative democracy always works well. I think most of us would agree that our democracy and our economy have some real issues, but most Americans don’t question the fundamental nature of these institutions.

Anthropologists refer to a society’s political and economic systems as its structure.

Finally, there’s a society’s infrastructure—the means of obtaining food, energy, and materials. Most of us think of infrastructure as elements of our built environment—like roads and bridges and buildings. But in anthropology, infrastructure is thought of in much broader terms—essentially the physical world and how we interact with it, whether it’s natural or human made.

Anthropologists and archaeologists studying a wide range of societies over human history have uncovered a pattern, wherein social structures and superstructures tend to adapt to changes in infrastructure.

Let that sink in for a minute…

When most of us think about things like land use planning, urban design, infrastructure development—if think of them at all—we tend to assume that we make collective decisions about housing, transportation, green spaces, etc. based on our values and economics, not the other way around. And that’s true in specific instances and at a localized scale, but on the whole it’s our relationship with the natural world that wags the dog.

Here’s what I mean…

Humanity’s original form of infrastructure was hunting and gathering, which lasted for 95% of our history as a species. From what we understand about hunting & gathering societies, they lived in small bands that relied on whatever sources of food, energy, clothing, and shelter were immediately available, and were oriented around sharing and situational authority rather than hierarchies. They were heavily dependent upon their environment for survival, and their religious and spiritual beliefs were animistic in nature—they believed that all animals, plants, objects were possessed by spirits that they had to respect.

About 10,000 years ago, agrarian societies began to form. Agriculture allowed communities to create permanent settlements, to store surpluses of food grown each season, and for a small percentage of the population to specialize in things beyond growing food and meeting day-to-day survival needs. This infrastructural change led to dramatic changes in the religious, political, and economic characteristics of these societies. No longer dependent on hunting and gathering from their environs, agrarians looked much more to the sky for their needs—rain and sun—and their spiritual beliefs changed accordingly. They began to pray to sky gods. And with food surpluses providing opportunity for some people to engage in other activities, hierarchies and specialized jobs like being scribes or priests or kings and queens were formed.

Over just the last two centuries, our societies have gone through arguably the most profound, rapid, and all-encompassing shift in human history. People tend to think of the growth of cities, of electricity, cars and planes, computers and modern medicine, and so on as a result of human ingenuity and the development of new technologies. And that’s true, in part.

But the story is really one of energy—specifically, fossil fuels.

This may sound like a stupidly obvious statement but without energy literally nothing would happen. We need energy in the form of food in order to move and even to think.

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We’re a clever creature and so figured out thousands of years ago how to harness what’s called exosomatic energy—energy that is consumed outside our own bodies, through things like firewood and human and animal muscle power.

But for 99.9% of human history we lived on what can be thought of as our annual solar income. The food we ate, the firewood we burned, the animals we used for labor, even the wind for primitive windmills—all of these forms of energy came from recent solar flows.

All that changed when we figured out how to put to use the power of fossil fuels—first coal, then oil, then natural gas. Fossil fuels are the product of tens of millions of years of solar energy—deceased organic life that’s been buried and compressed into incredibly dense, powerful, and portable forms.

The amount of energy in fossil fuels is almost impossible to grasp.

If you had to replace the energetic value of a barrel of oil with human labor, how many hours of physical work do you think it would take?

A barrel of crude oil, which is arguably our most important energy resource, contains 1.7 million watt-hours of energy. The average person working continuously can produce about 70 watts per hour, or 70 watt-hours.

That means that if a human being were to try to replace the energy value of a barrel of oil he or she would have to work for nearly 25,000 hours! If you were to pay that person $45,000 year—roughly the median income in the United States—to work a 40-hour per week, full time job, it would take them more than 11 years of labor and cost you over $500,000 to replace the energy value of a single barrel of oil. But instead, that barrel of oil costs about $60 dollars.

And not only is it unbelievably cheap, oil can do things that you simply couldn’t pay a human being to do, no matter how much time or money you had—like push a two-ton vehicle up a mountain at sixty miles per hour.

It’s like we won the energy lottery. And like a lot of lottery winners we went a little crazy with our winnings.

The harnessing of fossil fuels led to the complete transformation of every aspect of human society. Take food production for example. In agrarian societies ¾ or more of the population was involved in food production, with surpluses that supported a relatively small percentage of more specialized occupations in cities. But with fossil fuels, machinery could replace most farm laborers. The result was urbanization and the growth of the middle class.

Currently less than 2% of the US population is occupied in growing food, and we burn about 12 calories of fossil fuels for every calorie of food we produce.

And it wasn’t just food. Fossil fuels allowed us to mechanize as much as we possibly could, and to apply all kinds of technologies to replace human labor, improve human health and communications, provide educational opportunities to more people, and so on.

The benefits of this energy bounty have not been equally distributed, of course, but on the whole material well-being have improved tremendously. Even a middle-class American enjoys more material wealth than the Kings and Queens of yesteryear could have imagined.

Fossil fuels were so abundant, so powerful, so useful, and so cheap that we were able to increase the amount of people on the planet from a little over 1 billion people in 1850 to more than 7.5 billion today. And the amount of energy consumed on average per person increased by more than 800% over that time. We’re currently consuming the equivalent of 100 billion barrels of oil per year.

For most of our history as a species, we had to live within the limits of the resources around us and the flow of energy from the sun. No longer was that the case. In fact, the issue of having TOO MANY resources, and using those resources to produce TOO MANY things created an economic crisis and led to an economy that is now 70% dependent on consumerism.

This dramatic change in infrastructure has directly led to structural changes — for example in our economy, which is wholly dependent on consumption and growth to function — and the widely held belief in progress and technology: that the future will undoubtedly be more advanced, wealthier, and simply better than the present.


You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? Well, actually there are three I want to briefly touch upon.

The first is climate change. I’m not going to spend any time on the science but I’d be happy to talk offline with anyone who wants to understand the issue better. What I do want to share however is this:

  • That the planet has warmed a little over 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution. That may not sound like a lot but we’re already experiencing a dramatic increase in the severity and frequency of climate-related natural disasters. In just the last two years, my former home of Sonoma County, California was absolutely devasted by a wildfire that took a record number of lives and financial costs. And just this month it was inundated by flooding.

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the leading climate science organization, representing every nation—published a report six months ago warning that we have to slash carbon dioxide emissions by nearly half in the next decade and completely by 2050 if we’re to keep warming below the level viewed as calamitous.

  • There is a direct correlation between the increase in fossil fuel consumption and the rise in levels of the greenhouse gases that heat the planet. That means we have no choice but to radically reduce the amount of fossil fuels we consume if we want a habitable planet.

Which gets me to the second but:

Fossil fuels are a depleting, non-renewable resource. Even if there wasn’t a climate crisis, we are dangerously dependent upon energy sources that will become more and more difficult, more expensive, more environmentally ruinous, and less energetically valuable.

We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit and are now resorting to more and more desperate schemes—drilling tens of thousands of feet in deep ocean waters, cutting down arboreal forests to dig up and finish cooking bitumen from tar sands, blowing up mountains to get at low-grade coal, and pumping billions of gallons of water and chemicals into horizontal wells in order to get at gas and oil trapped in shale rocks.

At some point soon our production of these resources will peak and decline, even if we didn’t take action on climate change.

And, finally, the third but, and this is admittedly subjective…

The power, portability, density, and temporary abundance of fossil fuels led us—particularly in places that weren’t already urbanized—to build places and spaces oriented around the car.

Not only has this, as James Howard Kunstler likes to say, led us to surround ourselves with “places not worth caring about,” it’s made us design many of our communities—through low-density sprawl—in a way that virtually force us to keep driving.

And that includes our local land use codes, which require things like the 500 car garage that is going up downtown to accommodate the 200 unit housing development being built on there.

A lot of people are optimistic about the prospects of electric vehicles. But fossil fuels are still embodied in virtually every aspect of those vehicles — from the mining of the ore and rare earth minerals like lithium, to the asphalt in roads, the steel and concrete and cement that go into roads and the parking structures, and the cars themselves, not to mention all the plastics. Fossil fuels are not just used in the operation of vehicles, they are feed stock in all aspects of the infrastructure that goes into building and maintaining them.

This is one of the concerns we at Post Carbon Institute raised in a book called Our Renewable Future that we published, based on a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and opportunities in the transition to 100% renewable energy.  That analysis essentially concluded that we can’t simply substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy like solar and wind.

This transition will require a transformation in virtually every aspect of society, including all facets of our infrastructure—how we feed ourselves, our homes and built environment, and how we move ourselves and our things, not just our sources of energy.

There’s opportunity in all of that, including the opportunity to redesign our communities in a way that makes us happier, healthier, and more connected to one another and to our environment.

But there are a lot of challenges, too. Perhaps the biggest is that we may have to actually change our superstructures — our values, beliefs, and expectations for the future—and our socio-political and economic structures first in order to have an infrastructure that supports a functioning and sustainable community.

Thank you.

Asher Miller

Asher became the Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute in October 2008, after having served as the manager of our former Relocalization Network program. He’s worked in the nonprofit sector since 1996 in various capacities. Prior to joining Post Carbon Institute, Asher founded Climate Changers, an organization that inspires people to reduce their impact on the climate by focusing on simple and achievable actions anyone can take.

Tags: building urban resilience, built environment, Fossil Fuels