Friday, November 24, 2006

Farming or Something Like It

That food production must become drastically more local is not in doubt. The manner of that production will have to change and whatever comes next probably won't be able to keep the number of humans in the billions. Industrial agriculture will no longer be possible, but even organic agriculture may not likely play the role in our future that it has in our past. Intense local horticulture in the form of ubiquitous urban gardens may seem the Pollyanna whimsy of Utopians, but vast urban horticulture may be one of the rafts that will collectively keep civilization afloat. Despite the optimistic projections of proponents of this idea, however, I doubt that this sort of permaculture will be enough to support current population levels much less more growth. It will entirely replace industrial agriculture and supplement organic agriculture, but it will not increase the planet's caloric carrying capacity enough to allow further growth or save billions of lives. Part of the deal is healing our degraded environment and you can't guide energy back into the soil and have enough energy left over to feed people. You don't get to hold your energy cake after you've eaten it. We could probably establish a permanent horticulture, but only while letting the number of humans diminish. There is a cost to everything. Some of the population is going to have to go back into the soil. This ups fertility while reducing the number of mouths to feed. It's an indirect form of cannibalism, but it's mild compared to the more direct version to which starving people will resort.

The most natural and least ecologically harmful method of procuring the calories to sustain human life is foraging in smallish nomadic tribes. Conversely industrial farming to sustain increasing millions of metroplex inhabitants is about as bad as it can get. Traveling foraging populations are directly limited in size by the availability of nutrients in the form of naturally occurring flora and fauna. If an area is always left to recover after a relatively brief period of fairly gentle exploitation by reasonable, small numbers of humans, then indefinite sustainability has been achieved. It's what all the other animals do. They scrounge around to find edible leaves, nuts, berries, bugs and other prey animals. They take it as they can get it. Shortages of one food source quickly lead to declines in the numbers of the things that rely on that food source and the food source itself then gets a chance to recover...normally. Negative feedbacks can be established and extinctions can occur (in fact, they occur with mind-boggling frequency in geological timeframes). With the exception of humans animals don't have deliberate agricultural practices. Other ecological checks and balances keep things like relative population of predator and prey stable overall unless some unforeseen outside event introduces a new factor. A limited number of humans who avoid setting up house in any one area for too long practice a form of light exploitation rotation. Staying in place and cultivating a food source and storing it are deliberate and uniquely human activities that can throw things out of whack at varying speeds. As soon as a band of humans sticks to a place and has a more reliable (if ultimately unsustainable) means of procuring food and storing it, then human population will increase geometrically as much as the growing surplus will allow. With the industrial mode of agriculture the land never gets a chance to recover from the relentless mining for nutrients. Overshoot, crash and dispersal of the remnant are imminent. I've read convincing arguments that any form of agriculture is ultimately unsustainable, but I've also read that very careful applications of traditional agriculture may reverse desertification. The best I can surmise is that with enough care, agricultural practices resemble horticultural ones. There is a continuum displaying an inverse relationship between efficiency and intensity from hoticulture to industrial agriculture. The costs of increasing absolute caloric yield is an accelerating decrease in efficiency and all the problems inherent in expanding populations surpassing (relatively rapidly) what can be sustained indefinitely.

Simple horticulture, though it too is a means of diverting more nutrients into making more humans, isn't the same sort of strip mining as agriculture nearer the industrial end of the scale always proves to be and can supplement the food cache for semi-nomadic foragers. Several horticultural sites can be established and their use rotated as the tribe makes its rounds. It's really just stewarding a miniature ecosystem and foraging for edibles in it. There is some threshold where stewardship and coaxing food energy from the ground becomes ecological rape and ruin, from personal garden to agribusiness. A garden is like a small, personal jungle full of nutritious plants. Agriculture introduces the use of monocultures grown in segregation on larger tracts of land. At its most intense agriculture essentially stamps out biodiversity for a more streamlined means of producing food for humans and their work animals. Doing such sets up an imbalance whereby the ability of the soil to sustain life is slowly eroded. Meanwhile, agriculture also allows for surplus which helps short circuit the natural feedbacks that keep population size in check. So even as agriculture forms the base for population increase and the societal complexities and role specifications collectively known as civilization, it is also a recipe for slow motion overshoot as it transforms soil into increasingly urbanized humans. I believe agriculture and civilization can be good neighbors that exist in balance with the rest of nature if humans consciously limit their numbers. (Here I will take the opportunity to point out that while so-called market forces are oftened accused of not being able to act quickly enough to affect individual choices to limit family size, some of the worst examples of rampant, imprudent breeding I have personally witnessed have been by those with the fewest resources as subsidized by the state and encouraged by state policy; the state itself and growing centralized control corelates to the absolute yield of intensifying agricultural practices--a positive feedback loop that ensures surplus will lead to overcomplexity and overshoot. The state is the summation of the biological urge to exploit resources and reproduce and thus tends to favor ever-expanding population even in the face of ecological disaster.)

What I can't imagine is how quickly urban and suburban horticulture will step in to compensate for the demise of industrial agriculture and the 3000-mile food supply lines. How many suburban lawns and tenement rooftops will actually become gardens and how many farms will be reestablished in the parking lots of the exurban mega-shopping centers? I believe the transition of the metroplex back to the small cities, towns, villages and farmland it smothered may prove to be impossible. What agriculture remains will be organic and will probably more closely resemble horticulture. The catch, as mentioned above, is that we have already used all our readily available hydrocarbons to rip most of the useful stuff out of the ecosystem and turn it into human bodies. We are left with a degraded environment and what fraction of the current world population can truly be sustained with a combination of agriculture, horticulture and hunting is any body's guess. There are 600 million tons of fertilizer locked up in the form of bipeds with visciously destructive habits. Some large percentage of this biomass may have to go back into the ground to fertilize it and the population will in the future ever be under the pre-hydrocarbon ceiling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Velocity of Collapse: First Expensive Food

How rapidly petroleum products become scarce will determine just how survivable this predicament is for our species. Cold turkey unavailability of oil and natural gas would surely kill most of us. If the oil and natgas really did just suddenly run out, I'd bet within just a few years the only people left would be whatever tribal folk are currently living at a stone age level and who have shunned any form of agriculture. Natural gas may taper out rather suddenly, but oil supplies will decline gradually and coal will be forced into the role of an expensive replacement. Scarcity will be gradual which means we will all get to experience the cloud cuckoo world of rising food and energy prices in the midst of a declining economic activity, job loss and falling wages: stagflation on steroids. Initially the collapse will be felt economically. Consider the hard financial times ahead sort of a prelude. Also consider it a gift. Escalating food and energy prices will act as Adam Smith's much-maligned invisible hand and shove folks however reluctant they may be to leave behind their energy-wasteful ways. This is where we see a permanent decline in the value of the suburban housing in which so many Americans live. People will be walking away from their mortgages becauses the location of their homes will make living there and the attendant driving impossibly expensive. A lot of folks commute to work (I take a train and bus combo for about 20 minutes each way), but not as many then need the car to do things like get to the grocery store. There are communities that are nothing more than a hundred houses or so many miles removed from any food source or commercial activity. It's bad enough that rising transportation costs of getting food from faraway farm to local market will make that food very expensive; imagine then having to burn a quarter gallon of $10/gal gas to get that food from the market to home.

The changes will be gradual. The exurbanites will do all the little things like making less small trips and combining as many activities as possible into the agenda per trip. Eventually, however, the notion of having to drive to do everything will be exposed for the folly it has always been. The exurban living arrangement will cease to be tenable. This is the first physical contraction of megalopolis. The outermost or exurban rings composed of those houses out with the megamalls in what used to be cornfields and nowhere near any old urban development will blow off first. The newer automobile suburbs are next. I consider these to be the suburban sprawl that grew between the small towns that used to comprise the railroad suburbs of the urban core. Eventually, there will be a noticeable decrease in car use and a return to "light rail." The metropolis will be reliant on rail and foot instead of automobiles. If it weren't for the blacktop poisoning of most of the farmland in a hundred-mile radius, I'd be more hopeful about holding the line against collapse here. Sadly, at some point just feeding the people of the shrinking metropolis will become problematic. Surely unecessary amounts of mobility represents the modern era's greatest waste of petroleum-derived energy. Yet natural gas has been feeding and heating humanity. Natural gas augmented the food yield of the soil and without the input of the gas-based fertilizers, less people will be able to be fed. Even if nuclear allows us to keep the lights on, stay warm and get around in a rail-centric metro area, there remains the issue of food production.

Food will get more expensive before there is a sheer starvation-inducing shortage. People won't be able to afford to reproduce. My fear is that we will continue to reproduce in numbers that suggest food surplus. Personally, if I see that I could not afford to feed offspring, I simply refrain from any thoughts of reproduction. If forethought is truly a trait inherent in humanity, then this would be an excellent time for the general populace to start exercising it a bit more assiduously. Nature will surely be exercising her number-culling through her usual kit of starvation and resource war when we fail to meet her depreciation quota under our own cognisance. Before this, however, price inflation for food and energy accompanying a deflation of credit and things that depend on credit like mortgaged home prices. The economic squeeze will force people out from the edges of megalopolis and back toward the nodes of the megacities and suburban town cores. Three generations under one roof may become the norm again. Rail will replace autos. People will have to live in places where getting around on foot is realistic.

Of course I'm supposing that their something to get to such as a job or food market. There's every chance that staying in the big city and suburbs will become so difficult so quickly that people flee back to towns in the midst of farmland. Metroplex living could get increasingly unbearable until a tipping point is reached and absolutely everyone left tries to get out. That's what keeps me up nights more than anything else. I'm pretty sure that my current region will be an unlivable ruin within a decade or so. I have plans to head to a smaller, more salvageable town with farmland, but I wonder how long I have left to make good on my escape plans. I do believe the first years of the collapse (having started somewhere between 2000 and 2005) will be a slow time of gathering momentum. It's like the gods are rocking the boulder back and forth to dislodge it and get it speeding down the mountain toward us. Even when this rock actually gets moving and it becomes obvious that it will strike with deadly force at the bottom of the mountain, it won't be anywhere near top speed during the initial portion of the descent. If I had known about Hubbert's Peak ten years ago when I was first employed, I'd be ready to retreat to a safe zone by now. The seriousness of this situation only became clear to me a couple years back--I initially figured we'd just lose the automobile but keep the megacities--and now I worry about how best to use the remaining time to prepare. How long do I have before my job disappears or before frequent blackouts make my neighborhood dangerous or food becomes scarce? I imagine that things won't get outright scary till after 2008 or so, but that's not far away at all. I certainly don't think I'd want to be living here in 2015.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Doomers and Ecotopians

The Peaknik movement is naturally fracturing as it rolls along. Among those who understand that future hydrocarbon availability will start an irreversible decline in the near future there are a spectrum of views from resulting sustainable ecotopia or extinction-level collapse. I detest the End-of-Worlder rationale of solitary survivalist plans. I revere the idea of human civilization as an evolving thing and something for which we have tens of thousands of years of pre-carbon examples. Plus, I think a small town or village is a better option than an individual or small family against roving brigands. The ecotopians who imagine a well-planned and fairly smooth "transition" to sustainability strike me as maddeningly optimistic. The fact is civilization can and probably will survive and if it does, it will greatly resemble the pre-carbon age models with smaller population centers reliant on nearby food production: lights and hot water optional. The other salient fact is that many of us parading around our mega-industrial cities and exurb/suburb sprawl are not going to make it into this saner, sustainable world. Yes, humans will adjust, but I am not being an apocalypse-obsessed doomsayer by saying that adjustment will include significant depopulation.

As I said in an earlier entry, I used to think that Peak would mean scaling back: trains instead of highways, small towns and farms replacing suburbs. But Peak means so much more than that. No amount of what Jim Kunstler correctly dismisses as "perpetual motion" claptrap (hypermileage cars, alternatives to oil, etc) will sustain our modern megacity/suburb arrangement or the number of humans on the planet. The folks over at WorldChanging have a great time getting on Mr. Kunstler's case, but they really are missing the point. No amount of alternative fuels and urban gardening are going to allow the big city and its suburbs to drift gently into a lower energy world. That billions have to disappear from the face of the earth in short order seems so inescapably obvious that I wonder that anyone familiar with hydrocarbon depletion would argue that point. Again, fact: the metroplex and its growing populations are a direct result of hydrocarbon exploitation; these phenomena will shrink in near lockstep with diminishing hydrocarbon availability. We are not all going to be struck with lucidity and resolve to have no children or just one. Rather population is going to continue to run away even as we crest the top of the hydrocarbon summit. We'll probably get between 7 and 9 billion hungry mouths before the starvation starts and then it will be that much more painful than when we just had 6 billion.

The further along we get in this drama, the more I feel like smacking around the ecotopians. Predicting a die back (instead of a die off) isn't gloom and doom; it's acknowledging the unassailable facts of overshoot and its results. I leave them to their urban gardens between the skyscrapers, highways and raised ranches. Best of luck.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Getting Around

The car as an expected accessory to daily life will seem like an outlandish notion to our immediate descendants. There will still be cars for the foreseeable future, but they will be increasingly viewed as intolerable wastes in a reduced-energy world. This is ironic because there are simply so many cars. The place is lousy with them and they're not likely to disappear from the urban setting even if there is not enough fuel to make them all run. The metroplex could come to resemble an automobile graveyard. I'm not quite sure that even light rail (trolleys) will be commonly available despite its relatively high efficiency (though I hope it will). Cities managed to get pretty big and populous before even bicycles were invented so we shouldn't think that having mass or individual transit is a requirement for continued human civilization and all the marks of culture that spring from city life. Mass transit would be a minor luxury in the future and most of us will be walking or bicycling across town, so expect to see less and less of the outrageously luxurious personal auto. Private motorized transport and air travel may both become exclusively the domain of the wealthy within the lifetimes of those reading this. I despair to think of the psychosis this will induce in the average North American who thinks of the car as essentially a limb that grows from one's biological body on cue upon reaching legal driving age. Though fixed path mass motorized transport (rail) is ridiculously more efficient, there remains the question of whether renewable energy sources will be enough to keep up the metalworking necessary to keep the infrastructure in usable condition and also move the mass along the track.

Limited access motor highways will become relics rather rapidly. Overland movement of people and goods will be increasingly by rail, at least for a while. Though far more efficient than automobile transport, rail will be relatively a lot more expensive than it is now. Mining, smelting and shaping the ore for the infrastructure is energy intensive and I'd love to see it done with the energy gotten from wind and water turbines. Considering the energy and cost necessary to get the U.S. system back to serviceable levels across the continent, generating the power to move the trains along the track is a relative cakewalk. It will be possible to move fairly rapidly over large distances overland, but it probably won't be cheap. Sailing by windpower will likely once again become the most affordable method of long distance travel. Thus access to rail and to a good port are next in importance to the basics of nearness to water and food and functioning local production and commerce, but this may not matter until after a lower energy framework has been established with no further corrective contractions in sight. Until towns and cities sort themselves out in terms of feeding themselves, interurban commerce may be the last of concerns. This puts a place like New York City in an awkward position. As a megacity, its prospects are dim, yet it has the redeeming qualities of a remarkably intact rail system and miles of spectacular deep water port. Its commercial center is also crowded with soon-to-be-useless skyscrapers and it, like big cities everywhere, will still be in the middle of a disintegrating conurbative goo.

A port with easy access to a navigable waterway may be of a lot more use than rail. Wind-powered sailing in wooden ships will be cheaper and less destructive than burning organic compounds to move hundreds of tons of steel and cargo along a rail. This is why I'm not even that hopeful about mass transit via rail having much presence in whatever form the city takes in a lower-energy world. The megalopolis linked by highways is certainly an aberration whose passing we are now witnessing, but perhaps even the relatively humble metropolis that sprawled only a bit with the help of intraurban rail links may also be an impossibility soon. Fixed path transit is an order of magnitude more efficient than automobile (cellular) transit, but motorized transport and its underlying support system of any sort will be harder to maintain in a world with far less available energy. Rail may face the same fate as automobile highways. With reduced reliance or the complete absence of motorized transit the physical size of the city will once again be prescribed by what an average healthy citizen could traverse on foot in a reasonable amount of time. The very largest cities in the future may be no bigger than those of the past, that is to say significantly less than ten miles across, perhaps encompassing a relatively tiny 35 square miles (a square 6 miles on a side or a circle with a radius a little over 3 miles). This would allow for a central district easily reached by walking from the edges, even if going from edge to edge isn't quite as easy. Even the very poorest inhabitant living at the edge of such a place could walk to work or the market downtown in less than an hour's time. These larger cities would surely naturally divide themselves into quarters or neighborhoods wherein a resident could perform most daily activities in Leon Krier's suggested 80 acres.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Something as simple as the pleasure of a hot shower induces melancholy in me nowadays. I can't help but wonder how many of these I have left in store. How much longer will I be able to burn through dwindling energy reserves in order to comport myself like a monarch? The high speed internet access, the lights at night, the trains, buses and automobiles: how much longer can all of us live so comfortably? Coal and nuclear may well keep me warm till the end of my days, but that the endowments of coal and uranium give us another 200 years of plentiful energy, tops. And these two resources won't make up for dwindling natural gas fertilizers that feed the human six billion. Ironically, the inevitable die off may destroy so much demand that the remnant can remain warm and well fed with the remaining resources. Overall, however, the world will be an increasingly cold, dark, dangerous place for all of us. It begs the morality of reproduction. What kind of sadistic jerks would bring children into a world like this? Your descendants will almost certainly never live as comfortably as you have. They won't have the easy access to energy to power machines that provide basic comforts like heat and light. Then again, more than 99% of humanity never had these comforts in their lifetimes because they didn't have the good fortune to live in the industrial era. The idea of reversion to the mean is so hard to digest, however. We've all been infected by the idea of eternal progress and the notion that all those who follow of will never have it this good can make for ill feeling. This doesn't alter the fact that the humans of 2250 would be lucky to live as well as the humans of 1250.

In many ways I firmly believe the non-industrial world is better. I've read arguments that anything other than a tribal foraging existence is an insult to nature, but I refuse to take things that far. Humanity has accomplished as many admirable things with civilization as it has abominable things. I don't hope for the perfection of man and the complete renouncing of all the evils that start to accrue with agriculture, yet I can't help but believe that civilization will develop into new and slightly improved forms. That's how natural selection works. It's a cruel process that culls species to extinction, but the biosphere keeps bouncing back and getting richer. The freeing of the buried energy of hydrocarbons turned out to be an extinction level event, like a slow-motion comet strike, but the process of speciation and evolutionary specialization will restock the world with abundant biodiversity. I expect a richer, wiser and much tinier human civilized culture will somehow be a part of that.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New York

After much deliberation I've decided that there isn't much hope of New York remaining entirely habitable. No amount of alternative energies will prop this type of overgrown urbanism up. New York--and cities like it--needs hydrocarbons. Never mind keeping the cars running. Rail service will not operate at this scale on wind and water. All these lights, mechanical ventilators and elevators that keep acres of skyscrapers usable won't run on wind and water either. Understand that it is possible to power a handful of buildings, but not hundreds. Manhattan at the very least will be largely abandoned. There are plenty of low-rise, naturally lit and otherwise low-energy buildings on the island, but there are just as many high-energy ones whose abandonment may make plenty of neighborhoods desolate and dangerous. Even the more modest tenements that crowd the boroughs don't have very good prospects. A lot of the post war apartment buildings are over six stories high and at the very least may face sanitation problems if it becomes very expensive to pump water past the fifth floor. Too, many of these buildings weren't designed to allow natural light to filter into the common areas like hallways, stairwells and cellars. If generating electricity for light becomes troublesome, then these places will largely be in the dark while the city itself will be populated by increasingly desperate people. Just getting from the lobby to an apartment may become so dangerous that these buildings won't be used by anyone but the foolhardy. The big cities and their suburbs may become increasingly lawless and deadly until the final food shipments are made and everyone clears out. People who can afford to leave will do so and those left behind will be living in a no man's land, for a while at least. There may be pockets of civilization, but these will abut the dangerous areas. Even if a given neighborhood has features that allow it to be livable like small scale power generation, a large percentage of buildings under five stories, and wide scale urban horticulture, there would for a while be the danger of invasion from the denizens of dying areas.

The historic model for urbanization is one of cities (small by today's standards), towns and villages surrounded by farmland and separated by wilderness--a well-defined nucleus of permanent dwellings encased in an agricultural cytoplasm beyond which the ecosystem is left largely unmolested; The modern model is the industrial megacity surrounded by suburbs and exurbs; this organism tends to grow taller and denser in its center while its low density edge creeps out in an ever widening circle of raised ranch ruination. The latter will not gently drift back into the former. Those still in the cities and suburbs during energy descent will be far worse off than those in faraway towns and farms. Everyone is going to have a tough time of it during energy descent, but it is the metroplexes that will suffer disproportionately and be more prone to loss of life through violence. I worry that not even pockets of civility will remain in the vast swaths of land already covered by megalopolis. Some of the best sites for city-building may be lost for as long as it takes nature to digest the remains of the industrial wreckage. Global warming may have already be doing the job of submersing a lot of these soon-to-be-abandoned ruins anyway. Maybe in a thousand years coastal villagers in what is now Rutherford, NJ, will paddle their canoes around the spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The essential truth is this; what we've built in our cities and our suburbs will be useless in the future when the energy available is simply not enough to keep it all running and livable.

The main problem is one of population and density. The inappropriate furnishings of the industrial city can be abandoned and replaced over decades and centuries. The inhabitants, however, would need to cobble together quickly other means of procuring food calories. One square mile of healthy agricultural land can support about two or three thousand human beings. There are nearly 9 million full-time residents of New York's 300 or so square land miles. That means about 3000 square miles of nearby farmland would be necessary to keep New York fed. Ironically, the "urban area" or suburban sprawl around New York proper is about 3000 square miles and home to another 10 million suburbanites. So all the nearby farmland that would be required to feed New York's millions have been ruined by suburbanization. The city itself is simply too big and populous anyway, even before we add in the suburban sprawl that knots the area into the chain of conurbation along the northeast coast. Megacities and megasuburbs would not have been possible without the energy density ("bang for the buck") of abundant hydrocarbon fuel. Such a concentration of people and resources requires an immense energy feed in order to hold together. During energy descent, the arrangement simply won't hold. Oil and natural gas are the binding agents keeping the urban mega-golem's parts together and without them the montrous patchwork will fall apart. The swollen populations of the big cities would have to melt back into smaller communities with nearby agriculture already established or relatively easily re-established. Whatever happens, the metroplexes will not be able to support anything resembling their current populations or any at all. This is precisely how the ruins of a once-powerful civilization are made. I think the ruins created by the industrial age may be the most impressive and outrageous the world will ever see.

As I write this there is an effort to remove cars entirely from 42nd St and install light rail. This fills me with nervous hope. If megalopolis were to devote itself to rescaling immediately, then we could avoid the scenarios of chaos and abandonment that populate my nightmares. At the same time, I have to wonder at any intended symbolism of laying light rail and sidewalks over the city's most famous street in the center of the center; it smacks of the proverbial laying of a band aid across a disembowlment. The destruction, disfigurement and other distortions (like living 40 miles from one's job or working in an office 200 ft off the ground) of the post-war industrial hypergrowth will not be easily corrected. Most of the skyscrapers-- especially the postwar glass cuboids-- would have to be demolished and replaced with sensibly scaled buildings made from lasting materials like brick and stone. In fact, the same holds for most all the postwar housing stock throughout the region. Just about all of that junk would have to go and be replaced by buildings with natural ventilation and lighting. That's a tall order and I really don't think it will be accomplished by means of public will or that it could even be accomplished within the energy window we have remaining. By the time the general public can no longer avoid the fact that things as they stand won't work in the future, we will likely be too energy-poor to do much about it. Yet, if cars were to be banned from the nexus of the biggest metropolis in the U.S. and light rail (more efficient than either buses or subways) installed in its place, then I would have to rethink the fate of megalopolis. We still face food shortages yet I also hear of farms being established within city limits and urban gardening is growing more popular. If a major American city makes such drastic moves toward lower energy usage and relocalizing food production, then one can't help but hope. On the other hand, residential skyscrapers are going up in my sister-neighborhood of Long Island City. I do maintain a small hope for this petroleum-spawned disaster, but I'm keeping an eye on the exits.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Civilization and Its Discontents

Is Civilization worth the effort?

There have been tradeoffs. Civilization at base is urbanism. Trading nomadic hunting/gathering for stationary horticulture. Horticulture grows more intense and leads to agriculture. More surplus leads to population increase. This leads to role stratification and specialization. Villages grow into towns which grow into cities which grow into states and empires. At every level complexity is increased. Meanwhile environments are degraded and till the tipping point is reached and overshoot results in collapse. Complexity retreats.

Diminishing returns have struck with a vengeance in the form of the industrial megalopolis. This is as bad as it gets. Yet, I'm not quite comfortable with my descendants living entirely as hunter-gatherers no matter how uncomplicated and happy their primitivist lives may be. This is at the root of the creation myth at the heart of Judeo-Christianity and Greek myth. Humanity trades the garden of delight for the curse of knowledge, the farm and the city.

Is it possible to have a restrained civilization that doesn't require constant growth in population and complexity? Can civilization be sliced into static levels or is civilization a process in and of itself? Certainly industrial capitalist civilization is a process that requires eternal, accelerating growth. It's effectively a Ponzi scheme that tallies the cost which is paid by those at the bottom of the pyramid. These costs manifest as ecological destruction, increasingly dehumanizing hierarchy and the diminishing returns on complexity which afflict the last generation before the collapse.

Yet civilization as merely the grouping of humans into permanent settlements produces a wide range of non-toxic benefits. The danger comes when growth tips over some critical point which results in environmental abuse and resource wars. The exact location of this point depends largely on just what the carrying capacity of a given region is. Some places may easily support towns of 10,000 people without danger of environmental degradation while other harsher locales could sustainably support 100. The problem seems to arise from the fact that a stable population is not something that any species seems to be able to choose to maintain. Correcting populations has ever been the province of accident, disease and starvation and in the case of humans war. To be honest, life itself is about runaway reproduction, or converting as much matter as possible into replications of the reproducing things. Successful genes use various roundabout strategies basically to organize other elements into copies of themselves. Life by its nature is ultimately viral. Nothing truly exists "in balance" in the bioshpere; things just reproduce as much as constraining factors let them. This is true of bacteria, algae, deer, buffalo, eagles, humans, etc. What are resources? Things that can be used. What are they really used for: Energy and material, more specifically the energy to turn material into copies of genes. So aggregate behavior of any species, including ours, will be to maximize strategies that make copies of its genes (these can involve indirect strategies outside of direct reproduction which is "higher" animals often have strategies involving helping others in direct degree of genetic closeness).

Human beings are in the unique position among all the species ever to exist. We can recognize that there are situations in which it would be wise to limit our numbers. It's not civilization itself at fault, but our biological natures skew the civilizing process out of control every time. Whatever the carrying capacity is, we will be sure to exceed it once we figure out how to establish any sort of surplus. Whatever level of complexity brings us technological comfort, we will be sure to press and increase complexity until bureaucracy and specialization turn the majority of us into slaves for the organizers and administrators at the top of the hierarchy.

I honestly believe a) that some level of civilization is worth the loss of Eden and b) we have the means to make civilization a sustainable affair . I would like to stop here to point out that although our prevailing creation myth shows the Garden of our origin as being a tragic trade for agriculture and science(knowledge), it also depicts the paradise following the apocalypse as a shining city. Urbanity free of unchecked population growth and the resulting resource depletion, tyranny and war is possible. The most salient practical step is a limit on urban populations. Hunting and gathering tribes have the luxury of resource availibility rather immediately limiting their numbers. Agricultural-urbanites do not. We have to accept the responsibility to regulate our birthrates and the size of our settlements so that they never strain their regions. If a sensible estimate shows that there is enough food and fuel to support 20,000 humans and still allow for regeneration of resource stocks, then keeping the population well within this natural limit should be the obvious course of action. Allowing the population to swell to 40, 50, 60,000 and more is an act of suicide. This is what leads to want and to going further afield to rob neighbors of their resources after your own stash has been depleted beyond the regeneration level. Sadly this seems to be the inevitable outcome with regard to our species. Maybe our latest experience on the downside of Hubbert's peak will teach us a lesson; we will have to curb our tendency to replicate if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits and comforts of some level of complexity and technology, or to continue to exist at all.

Salvaging the Industrial Wreck

The furnishings of hydrocarbon-based industrialization are not suitable for the post-hydrocarbon world. Hardly a square mile of traditional human habitation has escaped the blanket of the industrial "modern" model over what is now called the historic. The built environment that is home to nearly half the world's people bears no resemblance to the sustainable pre-industrial model. The industrial city in its late stages is a disastrously overgrown mess. If the historic city is a well-defined single cell, the industrial megalopolis is a cancerous clump. Yet suburban sprawl, highways and conurbation aren't simply going to disappear. These acres of monoculture zones and asphalt will be with us for a very long time. Given the physical arrangement we have and with limited prospects for physically altering it, how can we expect to retrofit its use to a lower energy environment? I don't envision wise government-directed programs. Rather people will make personal changes to their immediate surroundings and property when they have no other choice. Will intense gardening feed the people of suburbia? Will active solar, wind and water generated electricity continue to allow mass commuting by rail? Will jobs and trade relocalize as it becomes too expensive to commute? Will local economies redevolop as globalization and corporatism contract and local production and commerce become needed?

I used to imagine that at the very worst, peak oil would mean the death of car culture and that we'd simply see a return of intraurban and interurban fixed path transit. Whatever parts of suburbia and exurbia couldn't be retrofitted for efficient use of rail might be abandoned or regain use as farmland. What I saw was a fracturing of the overwrought metroplex back to the humble metropolis; the world would look like it did in the early parts of the industrial saga. I now view this notion as quaint and naively optimistic. On the slide down Hubbert's Curve all the sorts of changes I used to imagine will indeed become the norm, but only as a stopgap toward even lower levels of energy use. The last stages of terminal industrialization will be the most vulnerable to the increasing costs and scarcity of energy so the exurban and then suburban modes of living can be expected to collapse first. But as we move inexorably toward solar sustenance, even the young industrial metropolis--like New York 1931 or Paris 1889--won't be possible. Of course even a simple somewhat rocky descent to pre-industrial modes of existence may be hoping for too much. As Matt Savinar has written "we won't simply go back to 1750." Rather, we could be in for civilization freefall ending with a few million humans huddled into wherever the tropical zones may lie after the effects of global warming are in full swing, hunting and gathering and spending their spare time painting stick figures on the rocky walls of their caves.


The only incarnation of the city I have ever known has been the industrial metroplex. Ever growing hordes of human beings live in what are putatively urban settings, but it cannot be said that these people live in anything that might have passed for a civic environment before the transformations brought on by harnessing hydrocarbons in the industrial age. What we see today are city "centers" chockful of variously bland or shocking--but rarely beautiful-- highrise buildings and those centers surrounded by monofunctional urban and suburban zones. The megalopolis is the agglomeration of these cosmic suburban and urban spaces that have woven themselves together to form a nearly unbroken concrete and asphalt carpet over thousands of square miles: galactic "cities" composed of constellations of skyscraper farms, housing projects, subdivisions and commercial centers nestled in an ether of blacktop. In the age of cheap energy we have lost all sense of beauty, proportion and comprehension of the inherent good of recognizing natural limits, especially as embodied by a city with an actual edge that doesn't require motorized transport. The living arrangements of every human society prior to the hydrocarbon age had no choice but to recognize limits. Their practices and built environments reflected this, producing things that while not Utopian were pleasing in their rationality and appropriateness for human utility, habitation and ultimately human comfort by means of symmetry and proportion which are the underlying factors of beauty. The industrial desecration of urban space and its organic scale, aesthetics and defining lines is a result of refitting for the commonplace use of machines, especially in regards to mobility, i.e. inherent reliance on the automobile and the elevator to traverse formerly impossible dimensions of horizontal and vertical space. The true city today has little to do with arbitrary municipal borders denoting "Boston", "New York" and such, but is instead all the farflung zones of the metroplex connected by motorized transportation, dotted with central districts in which the quarters intended for regular use are placed several hundred feet above street level.

I'm sure that everyone everywhere notices that cities are growing uglier and more alienating and have been for several decades. I make this assumption because urban populations have been decamping to the automobile suburbs ever since industry began making cities into toxic engines of economic growth. The answer in the age of suburbanization has been flight from the cities as living places, yet retaining oily tethers of highway (and decreasingly rail) to them for work and entertainment. There seems to be a worldwide amnesia concerning the preindustrial urban environment. The Renaissance cities wrapping medieval cores may represent the highest such forms and look nothing like the edgeless sprawl that denotes industrial progress. Cities existed before industry scattered smoky factories, brutal skyscrapers, automobiles, roadways and parking lots all over them. Industrialization, despite all the promises of progress and comfort, has destroyed what makes places worth inhabiting. The coming energy descent will bring the industrial era to a decisive close and despite the human misery this implies, our species will be better off when the worst is over and we have been bushwhacked back to whatever the solar input carrying capacity really is . We will not be putting up any more skyscrapers because projects like these just won't be possible with solar-powered machinery with anything resembling cost efficiency. The use of limited access highways and suburban enclaves will end because the alternatives to oil just don't have the required energy density. Alternative energies will be sufficiently expensive to make building low-rise structures with pre-carbon age methods and human effort the natural choice; Whatever urban environment we fashion in the future will be scaled for people on foot, not riding in cars and elevators. City size will track the general population decline as the burgeoning numbers of working poor, underemployed and subsidized unemployed that we associate with the modern city are a product of industrial growth and industrial agriculture and their continued existence is not compatible with a world in energy decline freefall and the chaotic collapse and undoing of industrialization. The idea of cities of millions spread out over hundreds of square miles will seem ridiculous.

As I write this I am still living in a neighborhood in a borough of the City of New York. Though I live within the precincts of New York City, I am in truth part of the megalopolis that winds from Boston to Washington. The energy descent following peak hydrocarbon production will probably render megalopolis unlivable. Suppositions about the possible patterns of chaos, abandonment and retrofitting will be the subject of these pages. Though I live in an unsustainable mess, there are elements of my life here with which I am absolutely in love. This is a historic neighborhood with an amazing concentration of pleasing, prewar buildings. It's no Renaissance city, but it's far better than living in an imitation colonial in a cul-de-sac in the exurbs. Everything I need is within an easy walk. I have to commute a few subway stops to get to work, but aside from that my life is happily prescribed by a radius of 500 paces from my building's front door. Yet I recognise that this is only a very small aberration preserved mostly by accident. And I am still living in the middle of a vast area vulnerable to disruptions to its massive energy feed. Living in a walkable neighborhood won't protect me from the economic contraction as the industrial engine that powers this agglomeration of megacities, their suburbs and hub cities grinds to a halt for want of oil and natural gas. It won't protect me from food scarcity due to both reduced transportation capacities from faraway agribusiness and reduced food production. I have inclinations to stay and help with whatever retrofitting must be cobbled together, but as will become clear in these pages, the evidence suggests flight would be more prudent.

I invite your comments, corrections and suggestions. I also apologize for the disappearance of the initial blog entry and the comments that were initially sent to it.