Saturday, April 5, 2008

Here Comes The Future

Peak gains traction and I'm as excited as I am scared. Though I'm in for as hard a time as everyone else I can't help but feel immense satisfaction at seeing these Peak Oil predictions come to pass. The news is filled with stories of people giving up driving and using the bus, a true sign of desperation for car-loving Americans. With the exception of Manhattan (and I suppose downtown Portland, OR) taking the bus in this country is an admission of economic hardship and normally relegated to penurious widows, unemployable ex-convicts and young residents of government housing projects. The airlines, ever the canary in the Peak mines, are coming undone fast. Air travel was expected to be the first thing to disappear from the lives of the non-billionaires among us. Car use is following right behind. Motorized transport of any sort will likely become rare and expensive. I'm holding out hope for rail making a comeback, but I suspect long-distance travel may again become the sole province of large wooden sailing ships.

A super-commuter I know who drives across three states to get to work has actually started calling for the sort of high-speed rail they have in Europe. He drives from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, across Manhattan and into Queens. He has also spent lots of time in Europe and wonders why Europe is criss-crossed with rail that condenses 10-hour car trip into 4-hour affairs while America relies mostly on airplanes for long-distance travel. A few years ago there was a poster ad from some airline that read "Planes are faster than trains." Of course in Europe quite a few trains are plenty fast if not quite as fast as planes. They also run on nuclear-generated electricity instead of fossil fuels (France gets 90% of its electricity from nuclear). I wonder if the airline that ran that ad is still in business. Even if it is, it probably won't be by the middle of the next decade. Mass consumer air travel is a luxury of the era of abundant hydrocarbons and it simply won't survive in the new energy scarce world. Funny that that used to a be a prediction and now it's current events.

The American Dream has generally meant having a detached house as far away from sources of food and income as possible. Many of my loved ones live this way and now are finding that they almost can't afford to get to work or to the grocery store. People in this situation clamor for lower fuel prices (not going to happen ever) or alternatives like functional solar (and blaming the big oil companies for keeping solar from them). No one ever thinks about moving closer to work or living in a place where most things can be gotten to by walking. Others have chronicled the development of the car-reliant postwar landscape and I won't repeat it here. What amazes is that the average person clings to this toxic lifestyle and will do anything to preserve it. I point out to everyone who will listen that human beings lived without cars for 99% of recorded history; we've had cities for around 10,000 years and cars and their cities for 100. The dimensions of the traditional village and town that worked just fine for 9,900 years (give or take) are defined by walking distances. Working versions still exist all over the world and they are often beautiful and pleasant places. It's funny how the retronym phrase "walkable city" had to be coined at all to describe places that never got the automobile overlay. The best material on this has to be by Leon Krier and everyone reading this should purchase and read his books right now.

So air travel is going bye-bye and automobile commuting is right behind. Next in the string of failures will be the automobile cities. I'm thinking sheer abandonment. The over-leveraged home-"owners" are walking away from their upside down mortgages in the latest and outermost ring of developments. I'm sure the rising costs of driving to and from these middle-of-nowhere places helped pushed the residents into bankruptcy a little faster. It just got too expensive to keep paying the bank on top of feeding the car. At some point one just has to see the physical location of the house as a millstone about one's financial neck. Easier to walk away from the cheaply made, cartoonish thing and relocate to within a much saner distance of food and employment. Eventually "saner" will mean "walkable."

The deracinated masses will be seeking refuge in the core industrial cities and towns after they decamp from the low density sprawl, but I'm not too optimistic about the future of these cores either. I used to be when I thought Peak only meant the End of Suburbia. Peak, however, means an End to the Industrial Saga and that means the industrial mega-city. That means Paris (as pretty as it is) as well as New York. The core cities are composed of highly walkable precincts connected by rail, however, and most if not all of them are situated on major waterways and excellent natural harbors (which is why they became such dense population and economic centers in the first place). Sadly without oil it will be impossible to maintain several million human lives on a few hundred square miles of concrete. There have been mega-cities before and they always prove to be relatively temporary things that rely on the brutal command of resources and lives from hundreds of miles in each direction: water, grain, raw materials, soldiers, slaves and specialists. The largest sustainable city is maybe what we would now consider a medium-sized town of about 30,000 people. That's about as many lives as can be sustained in the center of an arable ring without having to go afield and take from the neighbors. A city by definition cannot sustain itself with the resources in its immediate vicinity. Keep this in mind as you consider which places have a long-term shot at survival with minimal chaos.