Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, June 02, 2007

We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars

by James Howard Kunstler

AlterNet (April 04 2007)

The following is James Howard Kunstler's recent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California {1}. An audio stream of the speech is available {2}.

Two years ago in my book The Long Emergency {3} I wrote that our nation was sleepwalking into an era of unprecedented hardship and disorder - largely due to the end of reliably cheap and abundant oil. We're still blindly following that path into a dangerous future, lost in dark raptures of infotainment, diverted by inane preoccupations with sex and celebrity, made frantic by incessant motoring.

The coming age of energy scarcity will change everything about how we live in this country. It will ignite more desperate contests between nations for the remaining oil and natural gas around the world. It will alter the fundamental terms of industrial economies. It will ramify and amplify many of the problems presented by climate change. It will require us to behave differently. But we are not paying attention.

As the American public continues sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening, as the fantastic transports of the unconscious begin to merge with the demands of waking reality. The dream is a particularly American dream on an American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We'll run them on ethanol! We'll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil ... !

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline-replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal Liquids ...

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. The global oil production peak is not a cult theory, it's a fact. The earth does not have a creamy nougat center of petroleum. The supply in finite, and we have ample evidence that all-time global production has peaked.

Of course, the issue is not about running out of oil, and never has been. There will always be some oil left underground - it just might take more than a barrel-of-oil's worth of energy to pump each barrel out, so it won't be worth doing.

The issue is not about running out - it's about what happens when you head over the all-time production peak down the slippery slope of depletion. And what happens is that the complex systems we depend on for everyday life in advanced societies begin to falter, wobble, and fail - and the failures in each system will in turn weaken the others. By complex systems I mean the way we produce our food, the way we conduct manufacture and trade, the way we operate banking and finance, the way we move people and things from one place to another, and the way we inhabit the landscape.

I'll try not to dwell excessively on the statistics since I am more concerned here with the implications for everyday life in our nation. But it is probably helpful to understand a few of the numbers.

Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. We're now producing about half of what we did then, and our own production continues to run down steadily at the rate of a few percentage points of recoverable reserves each year. It adds up. In 1970, we were producing about ten million barrels a day. Now we're down to less than five - and we consume over twenty million barrels a day. We have compensated for that since 1970 by importing oil from other nations. Today we import about two-thirds of all the oil we use. Today, the world is consuming all the oil it can produce. As global production passes its own peak, the world will not be able to compensate for its shortfall by importing oil from other planets.

Nor is there any real likelihood that new discoveries will be adequate to compensate. Discovery precedes production, of course, because you can't pump oil that you haven't discovered. Discovery of oil in the US peaked in the 1930s - and production started declining roughly thirty years later. Discovery of oil peaked worldwide in the 1960s, and now the signs suggest the world has peaked. Discovery of new oil worldwide in recent years has amounted to a tiny fraction of replacement levels. In fact, we may be burning more oil just in our exploration efforts than we will get from the oil we're discovering.

The oil industry has been dominated by what are called supergiant fields. The four reigning supergiant fields of oil our time were discovered decades ago and are now in decline. The Burgan field of Kuwait, the Daqing of China, Cantarell of Mexico, and Ghawar of Saudi Arabia. Together in recent decades they were responsible for fourteen percent of the world's oil production, and they are now in decline. All except Ghawar of Saudi Arabia have been declared officially past peak by their own governments and Ghawar is showing clear signs of trouble - though Aramco itself won't say so. Ghawar has provided sixty percent of Saudi Arabia's production. Saudi Arabia's total production is down eight percent in the year past, despite a massive increase in drilling rigs, and the incentive of high prices.

Last year, the Mexican national oil company, Pemex, declared its supergiant field, Cantarell, to be officially past peak and in decline. As in the case with Ghawar and Saudi Arabia, Cantarell has been responsible for sixty percent of Mexico's oil production. Cantarell is now crashing at an official decline rate of at least fifteen percent a year - perhaps steeper. Mexico has been our Number Three source of oil imports (after Canada and Saudi Arabia). The crash of Cantarell means in just a few years Mexico, our Number Three source of imports, will have no surplus oil to sell to the US. It also means that the Mexican government will be strapped for operating revenue - and you can draw your own conclusions about the political implications.

The North Sea and Alaska's North Slope were some of the last great discoveries of the oil era. Plentiful North Sea and Alaskan production took away OPEC's leverage over the oil markets. This led to the oil glut of the 1990s, driving oil prices down finally to $10 a barrel. It is also what induced the American public to fall asleep on energy issues. It seemed as if cheap oil was here to stay. Forever.

Both The North Sea and Alaska are now past peak and in depletion. Prudhoe Bay proved to be Alaska's only super giant oil field. Several other key fields were discovered. None were even 1/6th the size of Prudhoe Bay.

North Sea oil was produced using the latest and greatest new technology for drilling and guess what: it only allowed the region to be drained more rapidly and efficiently. Now 57 of Norway's 69 oil fields are past peak and the average post-peak decline rates average seventeen percent a year. The UK's share of the North Sea has declined to the extent that England is now a net energy importer.

Russia, despite current high levels of post-Soviet-era production, peaked in the 1980s, and may now be past seventy percent of its ultimate recoverable reserves. Iran is past peak. Indonesia, an OPEC member, is so far past peak it became a net oil importer last year. Venezuela is past peak. Iraq and Nigeria are consumed by political insurrection. The companies developing Canada's tar sands have announced this past year that their costs will double original estimates - in other words, whatever comes out of the ground there will be very expensive.

Meanwhile, in the background, completely ignored by the US media, an additional problem is developing on the oil scene. Net world production is going down by just under three percent a year, but total exports from the top ten exporters are going down at an even steeper rate. Geologist Jeffrey Brown, among the excellent technicians at website, writes that the top ten exporters are showing a net export decline rate of seven percent the past year, trending toward a fifty percent export decline over the coming ten years. Why? Because on top of production decline rates, nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela are using more of their own oil at home with rising populations and more automobiles.

A few additional background items. Most of the easy-to-get, light and sweet crude oil is gone. We got that out of the ground in the run-up to peak [oil]. We found that high quality oil in temperate places onshore, like Texas, where it was easy and pleasant to work, and the stuff was relatively close to the surface. The remaining oil is, each year, proportionally made up more of heavy and sour crudes that are hard to refine and yield less gasoline. Most of the refinery capacity in the world cannot process these heavy and sour crudes and there is no world-class industrial effort to build new ones - and on top of that, existing world refinery infrastructure is old and rusty. Finally, most of the remaining oil in the world exists either in geographically forbidding places where it is extremely difficult and expensive to work, like deep water out in the ocean or in frozen regions, or else it belongs to people who are indisposed to be friendly to us.

The natural gas situation is at least equally ominous, with some differences in the technical details - and by the way, I'm referring here not to gasoline but to methane gas (CH4), the stuff we run in kitchen stoves and home furnaces. Natural gas doesn't deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground very suddenly, and then that particular gas well is played out. You get your gas from the continent you're on. Natural gas is moved to customers in the US, Canada, and Mexico in an extensive pipeline network. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of tanker ship that is expensive to build and operate, and then offloaded at specialized marine terminal, all adding layers of cost. The process also obviously affords us poor control over foreign suppliers who are not always friendly.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about sixteen percent of our electricity is made with it. Industry uses natural gas as the main ingredient in fertilizer, plastics, ink, glue, paint, laundry detergent, insect repellents and many other common household necessities. Synthetic rubber and man-made fibers like nylon could not be made without the chemicals derived from natural gas. In North America, natural gas production peaked in 1973. We are drilling as fast as we can to keep the air conditioners and furnaces running.

That's the background on our energy predicament. Against this background is the whole question of how we live in the United States. I wrote three books previously about the fiasco of suburbia. There are many ways of describing it, but lately I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Why? Because it is a living arrangement with no future. Why doesn't it have a future? Because it was designed to run on cheap oil and gas, and in just a few years we won't have those things anymore.

Having made these choices, we are now hobbled by a tragic psychology of previous investment - that is, having poured so much of our late-20th century wealth into this living arrangement - this Happy Motoring utopia - we can't imagine letting go of it, or substantially reforming it.

We have compounded the problem lately by making the building of suburban sprawl the basis of our economy. Insidiously, we have replaced America's manufacturing capacity with an economy based on building evermore suburban houses and the accessories and furnishings that go with them - the highway strips, the big box shopping pods, et cetera - meaning that our economy is now largely based on building more and more stuff with no future - on a continued misallocation of resources. Roughly forty percent of the new jobs created between 2001 last year were in housing bubble related fields - the builders, the real estate agents, the mortgage brokers, the installers of granite countertops.

If you subtracted the housing bubble from the rest of the economy in recent years, there wouldn't be much left besides hair-styling, fried chicken, and open heart surgery. Much of this housing bubble itself was promulgated by an equally unprecedented lapse in standards and norms of finance - a tragedy-in-the-making that has now begun to unwind. What are we going to do about our extreme oil dependence and the living arrangement that goes with it?

There's a widespread wish across America these days that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us; will allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what has been called "the non-negotiable American way of life". The wish is perhaps understandable given the psychology of previous investment.

But the truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America the way we have been, or even a substantial fraction of it. We are not going to run Wal Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the interstate highway system on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, nuclear, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, thermal depolymerization, zero-point energy, used french-fry oil, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed by what they can actually do for us, particularly in terms of scale - apart from the fact that most or all of them are probably net energy losers in economic terms.

For instance, we are much more likely to use wind power on a household or neighborhood basis rather than in deployments of Godzilla-sized turbines in so-called wind farms.

The key to understanding what we face is that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life. It is a long, detailed "to do" list that we can't afford to ignore. The public discussion of these issues is impressively incoherent. This failure of the collective imagination is reflected in the especially poor job being done by the mainstream media covering this story - in particular, The New York Times, which does little besides publish feel-good press releases from Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the oil industry's chief public relations consultant.

These days, the only aspect of these issues that we are willing to talk about at all is how we might keep all our cars running by other means. We have to get beyond this obsession with running the cars by other means. The future is not just about motoring. We have to make other arrangements comprehensively for all the major activities of daily life in this nation.

We'll have to grow our food differently. The ADM / Monsanto / Cargill model of industrial-scale agribusiness will not survive the discontinuities of the Long Emergency - the system of pouring oil-and-gas-based fertilizers and herbicides on the ground to grow all the cheez doodles and hamburgers. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this.

We will find out the hard way that we can't afford to dedicate our crop lands to growing grains and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel. A Pennsylvania farmer put it this way to me last month: "It looks like we're going to take the last six inches of Midwest topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks". The disruptions to world grain supplies by the ethanol mania are just beginning to thunder through the system. Last months there were riots in Mexico City because so much Mexican corn is now being already being diverted to American ethanol production that poor people living on the economic margins cannot afford to pay for their food staples.

You can see, by the way, how this is a tragic extension of our obsession with running all the cars.

In the years ahead, farming will come back much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human attention. Many of the value-added activities associated with farming - making products like cheese, wine, oils - will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people. It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history.

We're going to have to move people and things from place to place differently. It is imperative that we restore the US passenger railroad system. No other project we could do right away would have such a positive impact on our oil consumption. We used to have a railroad system that was the envy of the world. Now we have a system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

The infrastructure for this great task is lying out there rusting in the rain. This project would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs, at every level, from labor to management. It would benefit all ranks of society. Fixing the US passenger rail system doesn't require any great technological leaps into the unknown. The technology is thoroughly understood. The fact that from end-to-end of the political spectrum there is no public discussion about fixing the US passenger rail system shows how un-serious we are.

There's another compelling reason we should undertake the great project of repairing the US passenger rail system: it is something that would restore our confidence, a way we could demonstrate to ourselves that we are competent and capable of meeting the difficult challenges of this energy-scarce future ... And it might inspire us to get on with the other great tasks that we will have to face.

By the way, it is important that we electrify our railroad system. All the other advanced nations have electric rail systems which allow them to run on something other than fossil fuel or to control the source point of the carbon emissions and pollution in the case of coal-fired power generation. Electric motors are far simpler and way more efficient even than diesel engines. The US was well underway with the project of electrifying our railroad system, but we just gave up after the Second World War as we directed all our investment to the interstate highway system instead.

We're going to have to move things by boat. But we've just finished a fifty-year effort in taking apart most of the infrastructure for maritime trade in America. Our harbors and riverfronts have been almost completely de-activated. The public now thinks that harbors and riverfronts should only be used for condo sites, parks, bikeways, band shells and festival marketplaces. Guess what: We're going to have to put back the piers and warehouses and even the crummy accommodations for sailors.

We're going to have to move a lot more stuff by water or our ability to do commerce will suffer. Meanwhile, if we use trucks, it will be for the very last local increment of the journey. Leaders in business and municipal politics will have to wrap their minds around this new reality.

We are probably in the twilight of Happy Motoring - as we have known it. The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives. I'm not saying that cars will disappear, but it will become self-evident that our extreme dependency will have to end. It is possible, but not likely, that affordable electric cars will come on the market before we get into serious trouble with oil. More likely, we'll be facing an entirely new political problem with cars as motoring becomes increasingly only something that the economic elite can enjoy.

For decades, motoring has been absolutely democratic. Everybody from the lowliest hamburger flipper to the richest Microsoft millionaire could participate in the American motoring program. Right now, let's say six percent of adults in this nation can't drive, for one reason or another: They're blind, too old, too poor, et cetera. What if that number rose to thirteen percent, or 26 percent of Americans because either the price of fuel or the cost of a vehicle rose beyond their means. Do you suppose that a whole new mood of grievance and resentment might arise against those who were still driving cars? And how would the large new class of non-drivers feel about paying taxes to maintain the very expensive interstate highway systems?

Back to the task list:

We're going to have to make other arrangements for commerce and manufacturing. The national chain discount stores that took over American retail in recent decades will not survive the discontinuities of the Long Emergency. Their business equations and methods of operations will fail, in particular their remorseless cancer-like drive toward replication and expansion. They will lack the resilience to adapt due to their gigantic scale of operations - a scale that will no longer be appropriate to the contracting available energy "nutrients".

The so-called "warehouse on wheels" composed of thousands of trucks circulating incessantly around the interstate highways will not work economically in a new era of scarcer and expensive oil. Not to mention the 12,000-mile supply line to the factories of Asia which we have tragically come to depend on for so many of our household goods.

We have to check all our assumptions at the door about how things will work in the years ahead. Lately, thanks to Tom Friedman and other cheerleaders for the global economy, we've adopted the notion that globalism is a permanent condition of life. I think we will be disappointed to learn the truth - that globalism was a set of transient economic relations made possible at a particular time by very special conditions, namely half a century of cheap energy and half a century of relative peace between the great powers.

Those conditions are about to end, and with them, I predict, will go many of the far-flung economic relations that we've come to rely on. When the US and China are contesting for the world's remaining oil resources, do you think it's possible that our trade relations might be affected? These are things we had better be prepared to think about it. China has way outstripped its own dwindling oil supply. China has gone all over the world in recent years systematically making contracts for future delivery of oil with other nations, including Canada, as that nation ramps up production of the tar sands in Alberta.

I want to remind you that there is such a thing as the Monroe Doctrine, an American foreign policy position that essentially forbids nations outside the western hemisphere from intruding in or exploiting affairs in this part of the world. It may be an old and perhaps an arrogant policy - but I predict the time will come when the United States will invoke it in order to preserve our access to Canadian oil supplies. And if-and-when that occurs, what do you suppose that will mean to our trade relations with China? How many plastic wading pools and salad shooters will Wal-Mart be ordering then?

These are the kinds of things we are not thinking about at all, and which leave us woefully unprepared to face a very uncertain future.

Getting back to retail trade in the US - it is important to recognize the damage that the national discount chain stores have already done in systematically destroying local commercial economies. If you travel around the main street towns of this nation, as I do, you see places in Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and Alabama, and Oklahoma, and Connecticut, and in my region of the upper Hudson Valley in New York that look like former soviet backwaters. The destruction, the abandonment and desolation in the fabric of our towns is just out of this world.

This era of chain store supremacy will not continue far into the future, and as it wobbles and falls we will be faced with a tremendous task of rebuilding the fine-grained, multi-layered local networks of economic interdependency that the chain stores destroyed. As that rebuilding occurs we will restore social roles as well as economic roles that have long been absent in our home places.

In destroying local retail infrastructures, the chain stores wiped out a whole mercantile middle class. These were the people ran local businesses, who sat on the library and hospital boards, who sponsored the little league baseball, who employed their neighbors and had to behave decently toward them, as well as treating their neighbors decently in matters of trade. They were people who uniformly had to take care of at least two buildings in town - the place where they did business and the place where they lived. These were the people who were the caretakers of our communities, and the extermination of this class of citizens has been devastating.

We don't know how we are going to make things again in America, for instance, ordinary household products. We're not going to re-live the 20th century, when the US was on a great upswing of energy resources and we made everything for ourselves from toasters to record players. Where I live, in the upper Hudson and Mohawk Valley region of New York, most of the factories have actually been knocked down in the past twenty years. The water power is still there in many of these places, but the buildings are gone. Among all our other wishes, there is a wish that we will innovate stunning new methods for making things, such as nanotechnology. I'd repeat that we'd better check all our assumptions at the door and that we are liable to be disappointed by what these wishes will eventually lead to.

I think the truth is, we are going to have fewer things to buy. The Blue-Light-Special retail orgy of recent decades will fade into history, and shopping will retreat into the background of daily life. Consuming things will not be our sole reason for living.

The role of finance as we know it today will be severely challenged by the Long Emergency. Declining energy supplies have one particular grave implication for industrial societies: that they can no longer take for granted the three to seven percent annual growth in gross domestic product that has been assumed to be normal throughout recent history. In fact, the energy picture - the dwindling of a particular, extraordinary, one-time, very special resource - implies a general contraction of productive activity.

Our expectations for growth are vested in tradable paper certificates - currencies, stocks, bonds, and other instruments that represent our confidence that society will produce more wealth, and that this increase can be enjoyed in the form of profits and dividends. What happens when that consensus about reliable increase falls apart? What happens to the entire edifice of finance when these abstract certificates are no longer backed by the faith of people who have been trading them?

We can see the beginning of this process right now in the unwinding of the home mortgage sector. This recent experiment in the abolition of moral hazard, in the suspension of norms-and-standards in lending, in the fobbing off of risk, is climaxing in one of the great debacles of modern economics. It was based on the idea that immense numbers of promises for future payment could be bundled into bonds, resold, and parlayed to leverage evermore abstract casino-like bets masquerading as investments. This is anything but investment in future productive activity.

It is now being discovered that at the foundation of all this jive-finance activity lie bundles of broken promises, "non-performing loans", as they're called. It remains to be seen how this mortgage and housing bubble fiasco will play out, but I think it will be one of the major events leading to an overall loss of presumed wealth for American society. And is likely, as well, to infect the jury-rigged structures of global finance to a disastrous degree.

The key to all our everyday activities in the future is scale. We will probably have to live more locally than has been the case in recent decades. I think we can state categorically that anything organized on the gigantic scale, whether it is an agricultural system, or a finance system, or a corporation, or a chain of stores, or a school, or a government, is going to run into trouble.

School is another item on our "to do" list of things that we have to make other arrangements for. The gigantic centralized public school systems all over America that depend on the massive fleets of yellow school buses for collecting the students every morning around the fifty-mile-radius 'pupil sheds' - this way of doing things will probably encounter failure. Not to mention that we used the same kind of sprawling, one-story, flat-roofed buildings in Florida as in Minnesota - and given the situation with natural gas we'll have trouble heating these buildings in the colder states. Of course there are plenty of reasons to suspect that schools this large, designed like medium security prisons, are not optimum settings for learning even if oil and gas were plentiful.

Complicating the issue is the fact that our school systems are at the center of the psychology of previous investment. We have put so much of our collective wealth in these sprawling, oversized, vehicle-dependent institutions - with all their fabulous amenities of swimming pools, video labs, and free parking - that it will be very difficult for us to let go of them - even after it is self-evident that they are no longer working.

What will replace our giant centralized public schools? School districts will be starved for cash in the Long Emergency. I doubt that we will be able to replace the centralized schools with a whole new system of smaller buildings distributed more equitably around the places where people live. If anything, I suppose a replacement may arise out of home schooling, especially as home schools aggregate into larger neighborhood units so that every parent doesn't have to duplicate the vocational role of teacher (and of course not all parents would even be capable of acting in that role).

The destiny of higher education ought to be especially troubling. The giant universities are exactly the kinds of institutions that will prove unwieldy and unsupportable in the Long Emergency. College will cease to be the mass consumer activity it became in the cheap energy heyday. If it survives at all, it is likely to be - as earlier in history - an activity for a much smaller economic elite.

The question of class relations per se will be affected by our energy situation, since it is necessarily linked to our economy. The Long Emergency is going to produce a lot of economic losers - a whole new group I call the formerly middle class. They will lose jobs, vocations, and incomes that they will never get back. They are going to be full of grievance, anger, resentment, and bewilderment at the loss of their entitlements to the "non-negotiable" American way of life, including home ownership and affordable happy motoring. They are likely to express these feelings politically. We will be lucky if they do not turn to demagogues who promise to mount one sort of campaign or another to restore the entitlements of suburbia.

Such a campaign would be an enormous exercise in futility and a gross waste of our scarce remaining resources. But it is the kind of thing that happens when a society comes under extreme stress, and we had better be prepared for it. Social friction may also be prompted as agriculture comes closer to the center of our economic life, and we're faced with conflict between those who retain wealth in productive land and those who must resort to working in agriculture to make a living. In history, this typically sets the stage for the radical redistribution of property, seizure of land, in short, for political revolution. It could happen here. We are certain to experience epochal demographic shifts in any case. The 200-year-long trend of people leaving the rural places and the small towns to go to the big cities will very likely go into reverse.

Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble - the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.

As our cities contract, I think they will re-densify at their centers and around their waterfronts, if they are located favorably on water, and depending on how (or if) rising ocean levels might affect them. The process of contraction in our cities is likely to be difficult, disorderly and unequal. Some cities will do better than others. In my opinion, Phoenix and Tucson will be substantially depopulated. They will face additional problems with their ability to produce food locally and with water.

In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. That will be a good thing since it has become the holy shrine of America's new chief religion: the worship of unearned riches - based on the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing - a belief that underlies, by the way, a great deal of the delusional thinking abroad in this land about the ability of alternative fuels and energy schemes to rescue our current mode of living.

It is hard to be optimistic about the destiny of our suburbs. My referring to them as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world pretty much says it all. There will be a wish to rescue them, of course, but it is unlikely to go beyond the wishing stage. We will be a less affluent society in the years ahead than we were when we built the suburbs in the first place, and we will have fewer resources to fix them or retrofit them. The Jolly Green Giant is not going to come and move the houses closer to the shopping - to undo the vast absurdities of single-use-zoning.

We could reform our codes and regulations which have virtually mandated a suburban sprawl outcome in every American locality - but it's a little late for that. The horse is out of the barn on that one. And anyway, I believe the mortgage-and-housing bubble fiasco will mark the end of the whole project of suburbanization per se. I don't believe the production home builders will ever recover from it in our lifetimes; we certainly don't need a single additional WalMart or fried food joint; and the energy problems we face will eventually overcome all our wishes to keep that system going, whether we like it or not.

Realistically, I think we will have to return to a set of traditional ways of inhabiting the terrain - towns, smaller-scaled cities composed of walkable neighborhoods, and a productive rural landscape with more of a human presence than we see in today's countryside. We have thousands of smaller towns and cities waiting to be re-inhabited and re-activated. Most of them occupy geographically important or valuable sites, especially the ones near fresh running water.

For the past two decades I have been associated with the New Urbanist movement. The New Urbanists were architects, planners, and developers who recognized the tremendous weaknesses and liabilities of the suburban pattern and have been campaigning to reform the way we build things in this country. Their methods are consistent with what we are going to need in the decades ahead to refashion human habitats that have a future and which are worth caring about.

The great achievement of the New Urbanists was not in the projects and new towns that they designed and caused to get built in recent years, but in their heroic act of retrieving lost knowledge from the dumpster of history - a whole body of principles, methods, and skills necessary to design places worth living in. This was knowledge and principle that we had thrown away in our mad rush to become a drive-in utopia. We threw it away thinking that we could replace urban design and artistry with mere traffic engineering and statistical analysis.

The result of that is now visible for all to see in the tragic landscape of the highway strips and the single-income housing pods. What we managed to do was build a land full of scary places that turned us into a nation of scary people. But this was the final tragedy of suburbia: we put up thousands of places that aren't worth caring about, not understanding that when we had enough of them, we might be left with a nation not worth defending.

So there you have a comprehensive "to do" list of efforts we can make to meet the challenges of the permanent global energy crisis, things we can do to mount an intelligent response to these circumstances that reality is sending our way. Growing more of our food locally; restoring our railroads and other forms of public transit; rebuilding local networks of commerce and economic interdependency; reorganizing education at an appropriate scale for the future.

We cannot assume a seamless transition between where we are today and where we're going. It maybe turbulent and disorderly.

We cannot assume that technology alone will rescue us. In fact, one of the major obstacles to clear thinking these days is the mistaken belief that technology and energy are the same thing; that they are interchangeable; that if you run out of one, you can just plug in the other.

Energy and technology are related to each other but they are not the same. Technology may help us get energy resources, or use energy resources, but it is not an energy resource itself. We assume magical properties for technology largely because, in our lifetimes, the energy has always been there behind it, steady, dependable, and cheap.

What's more energy and technology both entail very insidious side effects. Energy throws off entropy, a protean force of disorder and loss that manifests in everything from the wasted heat coming out of an engine tailpipe to the immersive ugliness of the American commercial highway strip - which is entropy-made-visible.

Technology throws off diminishing returns, in the sense that the more complex you make things, often the worse the effect on society as a whole. My favorite example is the telephone system. For more than two decades we have invested billions in computerizing every phone system in the land. The net result, after all that investment and effort, is that it is practically impossible to reach a live human being on a telephone - not to mention the monumental ten-times-a-day aggravation of getting booted into a computerized phone menu leading to the purgatory of terminal "hold".

I hope we can overcome our tendencies to try to get something for nothing and to engage in wishful thinking. The subject of hope itself is an interesting one. College kids on the lecture circuit always ask me if I can give them some hope. Apparently, they find this view of the future to be discouraging. It may mean fewer hours playing Grand Theft Auto with a side order of Domino's pepperoni pizza, but there are many positive implications for our lives in the future. We may once again live in places worth caring about, where beauty and grace are considered everybody's birthright. We may work side-by-side with our neighbors, on things that are meaningful. Instead of canned entertainments, we may hear the sounds of our own voices making music, see the works of our own dramatists and dancers.

Hope is something we really have to supply for ourselves. We are our own generators of hope, and we do it by demonstrating to ourselves that we are capable of facing the circumstances of our time, of working competently to meet these challenges, and of learning the difference between wishing and doing. In fact, what we need is not so much hope, but confidence in our inherent abilities and the will to act.

We've got a lot to do. We've got to put down the iPods and get busy. There's no time for hand-wringing and whining. As Yogi Berra said, our whole future's ahead of us.





(c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten


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