The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The End of Suburbia

One of the assignments associated with Will Hooker's permaculture course is to watch The End of Suburbia, a documentary assessing the future of American suburbs post Peak Oil.  Since Sharon Astyk's Making Home covered the same hypothetical (but with different imagined results), I thought it would be interesting for me to sum up the differences between each philosopher's take on the issue.

James Howard Kunstler (and other speakers) spend the majority of the video explaining how suburbs came about.  I won't rehash all of this information, but the major factors leading to the rise of suburbia seem to have been the ubiquity of the automobile, cheap oil allowing us to drive everywhere we want to go, and a post-World-War-II push for non-urban housing.  Kunstler suspects that transportation will become much more expensive in the future, making suburbs unsustainable as they're currently laid out.  His solution is to relocalize our suburbs so basic needs can be met within walking distance --- otherwise, he sees the suburban experiment failing.

Fifties familySharon Astyk considered the issue more broadly by looking at the impact of Peak Oil on the three places you can live (cities, suburbia, and farms).  She believes that each area has a future, but that the future is different for each one (and, in each, is different from the way we live now). 

Astyk wrote that rural areas will suffer in many of the ways they already do, only more so.  Jobs will become even scarcer, and transportation costs will make it increasingly difficult to get from place to place.  People who currently live in bedroom communities (enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside while commuting into jobs in the city) will have to make a choice between the rural and urban life, and will likely choose the latter.  The resulting lower tax base will force rural governments to make tough decisions about what to pay for --- schools or snowplows? --- so those of us remaining behind will need to fend for ourselves.  On the plus side, ungentrification will result in lower land prices, meaning that people may be able to afford better housing (or at least to scavenge building materials from abandoned McMansions), while people with subsistence skills will be able to take advantage of the open space to grow or hunt their food.

Future cityAstyk thinks cities of the future will have lower populations, but many people will be able to maintain an urban life if they're able to change rapidly from business to business to fill shifting niches.  Close-knit communities are one of the characteristics Astyk thinks all post-peak-oil people will need to focus on, but this will be even more true in the cities.  There won't be as much deterioration of public infrastructure as in the country, but when power outages and other events occur, the results will be more severe in urban areas.  Astyk recommends making your home in an urban area only if you think you could live in the worst part of town as it is now; in essence, she envisions the future there being much like life currently is for the urban poor.

Astyk believes some suburbs will survive Peak Oil, but those that do will become similar to nineteenth-century towns, able to meet most of their needs by containing farmland interspersed with homes and businesses.  The problems and opportunities offered by post-Peak-Oil suburbia will be a halfway house between urban and rural areas, with suburban inhabitants also taking a dual approach of becoming partly self-sufficient while also taking part in the larger economy, at least part-time.  Success in suburbia will depend on maintaining a small income while minimizing expenses, and Astyk suspects that will involve extended family groups living together in consolidated housing.

As with Sharon Astyk's book, I feel like this type of philosophizing has limited utility (although it can be a fun thought problem).  On the other hand, envisioning a post-Peak-Oil future can lead into the always-interesting discussion of which type of home is more sustainable right now, a farmhouse, a city apartment, or a McMansion in suburbia.  What do you think?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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In answer to your last question it seems that the centers most likely to succeed are the ones most knowledgeable about where food comes from and most able to grow their own food. I don't see that happening in either rural or suburban areas.
Comment by Robin E. Wed Jul 17 12:21:20 2013

We like to call ourselves "sub-rural" (pronounced "sub-RRROOOOO-uhl"), because we are on the outskirts of the suburbs outside our state's capital (and yours!). We live in Hanover County, which has a strong agricultural tradition and only a few residential areas, and over 90% of the land remains designated as agricultural zoning. However, the "tradition" of agriculture has in many ways fallen by the wayside, and what remains of the farm land is farmed by a few landowners using fossil fuel-intensive monoculture. I see our advantages as:

  • the land is largely a blank slate, mostly zoned A-1
  • the development is mostly a continuation of old times, centered on crossroads situations, near intersections of main roads and/or waterways
  • more people (relative to city people) do grow their own food in a smaller scale, or have enhanced self-sufficiency skills like construction, mechanical repair, hunting, fishing, food preparation and preservation
  • less dense population means less of a gap to supplying our community's needs, more resilience to shocks due to high fuel prices or electric grid downtime
  • less intense regulation; though there are still building codes and such, we have chickens (including roosters) and can build small outbuildings without permits
  • in my experience/opinion (I have lived in rural, suburb, and city situations) the sense of community is stronger in the country
  • again my opinion, and perhaps most importantly, there would be less of a cultural shift required in most rural areas to relocalize and provide your basic needs using local sources

About the only con against rural living is transportation, which pretty much covers access to hospitals, many jobs, and "cultural amenities". These factors can be mitigated, but I am sure you would agree that rural living is not for everyone!

Our current location is not even rural enough to suit our desires, as the encroaching suburbs surround our little 3.3 acre homestead. We are currently searching for family farm land in Virginia's Northern Neck, where we hope the proximity to the Chesapeake Bay will provide us with seafood and sail transportation (on land above 100 feet elevation, thankyouverymuch).

Comment by Chris Lumpkin Wed Jul 17 13:38:21 2013

Hi All,

Food, shelter, freedom and protection from pirates of various types.

Which brings up the MOST disturbing question IMHO:

How are you going to pay your taxes? Taxes basically supporting a large number of non productive parasites who in addition to costing you lots of your produce and productive capacity, harass you with their regulations!


Comment by john Wed Jul 17 13:39:48 2013

I think it's really hard to say what 'suburbia' is. My particular suburb has 2 acre lots and access to two different train lines into the city. It is not by accident that we live in walking distance to a train stop ... It would have to be an advantage to be reachable with public transport (if the system at least doesn't deteriorate more .... ) from a city, while also being able to grow some food? It would take little in terms of transition work for our town itself to become bike friendly, too. Don't forget bicycles! One can bike much further than walk!

It really is an interesting thought problem. The trick is not to get depressed.

Comment by Katharina Wed Jul 17 14:42:46 2013

I find the descriptions from both predictions to be fantastical, frankly; ones that appear to conflate the downslope from peak oil as some cliff that will unweave the fabric of society, with droves of carless migrants abandon their vehicles in three car garages and either move to shanties in the country or flock to urban warscapes that conjure up visions of Gotham in Batman.

I think our mode of transport will be affected, sure, but the profit motive is a pretty strong pull and I think alternative mass transit options will make a series of hub and spoke communities entirely feasible. Transportation as we know it will be reserved for profit making exercises - no longer will you visit the store, the store will come to you. It doesn't happen now because fossil fuels allow everyday folks to go where they need to go, when they want to go, so there is really no money in it. But look at a city where no one owns cars, and you will see these types of delivery services everywhere. One example of the entrepenureal spirit that I say will help humans respond to just one of many crises in our existense.

Personal travel will likely be on alternative forms, someone already mentioned bikes, which are totally adaptable and entirely effecient. I use a bike with a tow-behind trailer that is capable of carrying a 200lb load. We do our grocery shopping, pick up garden supplies, haul recycling on this thing and we wouldn't blink an eye to ride 20 miles one way on a series of well-planned, saved-up errands that others might do seperately by car on a whim otherwise. It takes planning and muscle and time, but totally replicated by recreational bikers everywhere. Also, as a positivist, I think there is nothing that will hinder alternative energy usage once the peak is clearly seen by the common man, not just those with an environmental streak.

Anyway, look at Iowa at the turn of the 20th century. Lots of small towns that could suffice because they had a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker, and what you couldn't get in town, you got by mail order Wells Fargo style. That is the model I envision we get back to, albiet with greater populations at the end of every spoke/small town. What they didn't have then, and what we do have now, is mass communications infrastructure that will enable non-farmers to live in these towns and maintain contributing societal roles, while doing a lot of their own food production on their own to manage transportation costs. We don't have to live in cities to make a dent in the economy anymore, so we won't.

In the meantime, bank on these self-sufficiency skills that are the reason I read this blog, but don't go to ground (or to your bunker). These kinds of future hellscapes are really conjured up to standout, excite, incite (and perhaps sell something along the way). Nothing about human history to me suggests we won't weather this perhaps rocky point in our sometime future, so I say, stay positive,smile, and grow delicious food and lives.

Comment by David the McMansion Scavange Wed Jul 17 18:53:43 2013

People where talking so much about Peak oil a few years ago. Who would have thought then that the US would soon become the world's leading exporter of oil, and self sufficient in all its energy needs, in just a few years. Massive new reserves have been discovered that are estimated to last at least a century (albeit more expensive to extract). I try to find Sharon Astyk's website but mainly find a webpages selling personal loans

Comment by Jeff Wed Jul 17 20:44:15 2013
"The End of Suburbia" was made in - was it 2004? - and seems way out of date. Mainstream climate models failed to give sufficient weight to positive feedback loops. With RUNAWAY positive feedback (see "Arctic Methane: Why the Sea Ice Matters" on youtube), it's looking like the arctic ice will be pretty much gone within 5 years (see for ex. Paul Beckwith's blog). With the reduced temperature differential between ice cap and equator, the jet stream no longer behaves "normally". Etc. It's too late. We'll be extinct within probably 100 years, imo. We've had our "Age of Exuberance" (see "Interview with William R. Catton Jr." on youtube) There is no "sustainable", and nothing and no-one is to blame. In the near term, all that's left is to be compassionate, enjoy life (eat well!), and embrace Alex Rosenberg's "nice nihilism". As conditions worsen, it may matter less whether one is located in city, suburb, or countryside as what part of the globe one occupies, and whether that part is favourable or not may be purely a matter of luck (although they do say that the southern hemisphere will be better off).
Comment by Jackie Wed Jul 17 21:11:46 2013

In our PDC course, I was exposed to the case study of Cuba, a country that for all intents and purposes has already experienced peak oil when the Soviet Union, and its supply of petrochemicals and oil, dried up.

"The Power of Community" is a documentary that outlines what happens in the cities, suburbs and country when fuel and imported goods stop coming.

The real pain suffered by all the Cuban people is perhaps not addressed enough, but the end message is that people are resilient. We adapt, even if it hurts. There is a different reality for each population, but it is survivable as people are forced to become more self-sufficient for food, and rely on their neighbors.

I was left with the feeling that peak oil might just be a blessing in disguise, and with the deep desire to travel to Cuba and meet the people who experienced what I believe is coming, to gain knowledge and hope from their recent history.

Comment by Karen Wed Jul 17 21:41:04 2013

My husband and I were just talking about this the other night. We are trying to get our quarter acre lot more sustainable one tiny piece at a time but we will never be independent of the requirements for life in north Texas. With almost no rainfall in the summer months and temps over 100 for three months out of every year we will always be dependent on outside water facilities. We have two 55 gallon rain barrels but if I just water my garden beds that water is gone in less than a week. My parents on the other hand live in Southern Illinois in a rural environment. They could be more self-sustainable due to the amount of rainfall they get yearly. They live close enough to town that making a trip every other month could fill the basic necessities. The downfall of living in the middle of nowhere is what happens when tragedy strikes. In the winter months if they would fall ill and get snowed in and not able to get firewood they would freeze to death. Urban life might be similar to what it was 100 years ago. There would be cities but they would be filthy and diseases would run wild. Crimes would also increase dramatically. There is no right or wrong answer to your question. All places would have pros and cons. Technology will either advance or it will take a step back. If it advances life will continue much the same as it is now and possibly better. If technology falls back things could get rocky. Life may look more like it did in the frontier days than now. No matter what happens people have a way of stepping up and taking care of themselves and each other. It has been happening since the beginning of time.

Comment by Jamie Wed Jul 17 22:01:56 2013
I always find these “what if” scenarios entertaining and thought provoking, but my trains of though always return to the concept that “life goes on”. I recall that when my son was born 2 years ago, my grandfather said, “Wow, I wonder what his life will be like?” To which my uncle replied, “Probably not much different than ours.” The human experience constantly morphs over the course of one lifetime such that only in retrospect does the change seem drastic. I think this will be the case with the issues raised in Anna’s post. I don’t foresee a drastic, instantaneous drop off in oil supplies or a rise in transportation issues; these things will happen gradually (envision a bell curve…tapering away from the peak). Concurrently, other factors such as solar panels, hybrid buses, and local food co-ops will slowly work their way into our lives. Humans are ingenious beasts, but also ones prone to emotion. I think we gardeners tend to assume that when society fails, the gardeners will survive. Hunters think the hunters will survive, and so on. I also think that some of us eco-types fantasize about a return to pre-industrial times, but human history has shown a deliberate and inexorable progression of knowledge and technology. There is no going back, for better or worse.
Comment by Mike G. Thu Jul 18 08:38:27 2013

Peak oil as a theory have been with us since 1956, and during the back to the earth movements in the 70's it was just around the corner. Now it once again is expected in the next decade. The problem is not an oil shortage, it is a matter of energy generation. I have no doubt that our energy needs will be met by one method or an other. I do not necessarily think they will be any more environmentally friendly.

Climate change? Really who cares? A few permaculture types, your wild-eyed environmentalist? The critical mass is not going to embrace the problem, and climate change is going to be _itch. World population will crash and is that a bad thing. Mother Earth could use a lot less of us.

There is an outstanding book on historical climate change: “climates of Hunger” written by Reid A. Bryson in 1979 when folks were still talking about the coming ice age. It covers many societal declines in history and the meteorological reasons for them. There is no monolithic “We are all going to fry” or “We are all going to suffer extreme drought”. There will be changes that humans will adapt to, and the world will go on. [For folks in third world countries times will be tough and perhaps a dieing time.]

OH, this is not in our life times, nor even our kid's.

Comment by Gerry Thu Jul 18 10:17:41 2013

It seems to me that people see the future they want to see. A case in point:

Close-knit communities are one of the characteristics Astyk thinks all post-peak-oil people will need to focus on

Maybe because she lives in that kind of community and wants them to succeed?

All these predictions remind me of a quote:

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

A pattern that we has been seen before is that new technology and higher prices make more fossil fuel reserves economical to exploit.

I think it it good to be mindful of ones resource usage. But I don't see reason for doom and gloom. Especially because that doesn't solve problems.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Jul 18 13:20:47 2013

I was worried about the end of oil, too, and it's effect on agriculture and food production for the masses, until the huge natural gas reserves here became available thru fracking. It's a really easy conversion of gasoline burning ICEs to natural gas burners. Our transportation style will go on unimpeded and the 'burbs will survive.

It's fresh water that will be the shortest stave in the barrel limiting population growth as we go forward.

ps to those worried about "climate change": co2 levels have risen from ~360ppm in 1998 to ~ 395ppm today, but world temps have not risen at all during that time. Stressing "climate change" is a fear tactic used by those with a political agenda and no scientific support.

Comment by doc Thu Jul 18 18:26:38 2013

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