JH Kunstler: We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars


Richard Moore

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We Must Imagine a Future Without Cars
By James Howard Kunstler, AlterNet
Posted on April 4, 2007, Printed on April 6, 2007

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

Two years ago in my book The Long Emergency 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 

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 10 million barrels a day. Now we're down to less 
than five -- and we consume over 20 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 30 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 14 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 60 percent of Saudi 
Arabia's production. Saudi Arabia's total production is down 8 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 60 percent of 
Mexico's oil production. Cantarell is now crashing at an official decline rate 
of at least 15 percent a year -- perhaps steeper. Mexico has been our No. 3 
source of oil imports (after Canada and Saudi Arabia). The crash of Cantarell 
means in just a few years Mexico, our No. 3 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 17 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 70 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 3 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 TheOilDrum.com website, writes that the top ten exporters are 
showing a net export decline rate of 7 percent the past year, trending toward a 
50 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 

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 expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker 
ship, and then offloaded at specialized marine terminal, all adding layers of 
cost. The process also obviously affords us poor control over 
not-always-friendly foreign suppliers.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about 16 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 40 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 

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 50-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 13 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 

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 

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 20 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 3 to 7 
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 50-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 

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

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 

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 

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.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/50049/

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