City, Country, Suburb? It isn't Where You Live, But How You Live There.

Sharon June 10th, 2008

I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions lately with various people about optimal locations.  First, there was the large city dweller who talked about his fear of living without access to land in a city.  Then there was there were the two news stories that suggested both outer suburban and rural dwellers were (surprise!) suffering more from high gas prices than those who live in population centers.  Finally, there was Kunstler’s latest screed, more gleeful than usual, about the death of the American South due to high energy prices.   So I thought it was worth taking on a topic I’ve written about before - whether to live in cities, suburbs or in the countryside in an increasingly energy depleted and warming world.  And the answer I’m going to give you is that IMHO, all of the above have possibilities.  But a lot depends on how you - and the people around you - choose to live in a place.  Or maybe it depends on what kind of person you are - or can become.

Despite much debate on this subject, I’d argue that many, perhaps even a majority of cities, suburbs and countrysides have a future of some sort.  What’s important, though, is that in every case, those futures are very different in ways they aren’t right now.  That is,  right now there are differences between the three, but they are easily overcome. It is perfectly possible, though miracles of cars, delivery trucks and online purchasing for city and country dwellers to have very similar frames of reference.  One may live in an apartment, the other in an old farmhouse, but they can vacation in each other’s neighborhoods, share the same frame of reference by seeing the same films, the same shows (one travels for this), wearing the same clothes, eat much the same diet, etc…  Now they may have different priorities, and there are distinctions, but the differences are comparatively small, and easily overcome if that’s one agenda. 

We are about to enter a period in which the differences in way of life between urban, rural and suburban are going to be magnified dramatically.  It will no longer be possible, for example, for city dwellers to have a “country place” far away, or for people to move out to the country and keep the amenities of suburban life.  So the question becomes - how do you want to live?

There has been a lot of lively debate about the merits of suburb, country, city - much of it, I think, far too polarized.  For example the powerful impact of James Kunstler and the (otherwise excellent) film _The End of Suburbia_ have effectively led a lot of people to simply dismiss the suburbs.  And yet many suburbs have approximately the same population density as 19th century large towns that supported considerable infrastructure.  Now in many cases, because of the ridiculous zoning laws, there is no such infrastructure, but large suburban houses and garages are appropriately sized to create it - interstitial businesses will spring up rapidly as people can no longer afford to shop, and zoning laws will be overthrown.

Let me be clear, I agree entirely with Kunstler that suburbia was a tremendous misallocation of resources - I think the project of the suburbs was deeply flawed.  Where I disagree is in the idea that we should now abandon them - that we must.  In fact, I think we must not, simply because industrial agriculture is increasingly disconnected from producing real food for real people.  As more and more Americans get poorer and are priced out of food by rising energy prices, we will absolutely require suburbia to keep fed - that arable land, much of it superb farmland - has to be brought back into production.  And since we won’t be commuting from the cities, we’ll be living the houses.  Yes, it would absolutely have been better to build better houses and design better- but that doesn’t make suburbia uninhabitable.

The same thing is true with cities - cities of 1 million or so have existed for a very, very long time.  I have my doubts about whether cities of 8-10 million will be sustainable in a world with high transport costs, but I also have no doubt that most cities, which were established for reasons - because they sit in a useful or valuable place - will continue to be cities, even if their infrastructure changes and their population reduces in the longer term.  Manhattan and Chicage and LA all do have a future - but it is important to be able to live within the kind of future they do have, and within the limitations of urban centers. 

The countryside suffers most from transportation costs, small tax base and lack of jobs - it is reasonable to believe that high energy prices may eventually result in deliveries ceasing to be made to rural stores, that rural towns may find themselves unable to pay for plows in winter and schools, and that job losses will reverbate more severely here. It become plausible to think that such shortfalls might begin comparatively soon.  And for those who live in the countryside and have enjoyed the advantages of city jobs, suburban amenities, etc… this is likely to be a rough transition.  But that doesn’t mean we will abandon the countryside - being able to eat creates tremendous incentives to keep some lines of connection open.

In short, I think it is most important to talk about how to live in the suburbs, or the city, or the country in a low energy future.  I think that may be more productive than extended screeds against one model or another.

The countryside may be likely to suffer first and deepest from the shortage of fuels and loss of services.  Now there are (and I am overgeneralizing here) two broad groups of people living in the country right now.  The first is made up of the rural poor and working class, farmers, homesteaders and country and those who want to be countr people - that is, people with ties either to land or other people in rural areas.  The other group are exurban commuters who may have hobby farms, keep horses (not all people with hobby farms and horses fall into this category, obviously), or built McMansions out in the pretty countryside when gas was cheap, but who have no particular tie to the area, and strong ties to suburban style amenities.  They have either gotten these amenities by encouraging rural towns to use their growing tax base of exurban commuters to provide them, or by driving distances to where they are available. 

Now the harrowing process of energy costs, high unemployment and low salaries are likely to drive a lot of group #2, the exurban middle class, back towards population centers.  Some will stay and become part of group #1, or find some other way to do well in the rural areas, but most of them will probably pick up and move in the coming few years, dropping tax bases, leaving a lot of empty housing, and in otherwise emptying a large part of the rural landscape.  This change is likely to have two big effects.  The first is that the exurban middle class (who often moved out as far as they did because they couldn’t afford good housing nearer population centers) will be competing with poorer urban residents for housing now - that is, they are likely to displace lower income people from cities and out into the countryside in a process of gentrification.  The second is that the tax and service base of rural areas is likely to simply collapse.  Many of these areas were pressed into making changes that won’t be sustainable - large multi-town district schools, for example, are simply going to be impossible to afford busing for.

On the other hand, group #1 probably won’t move, and shouldn’t.  They are (not universally, but often) lower in income than the departing exurbanites, but they are also better adapted to their place. The thing that makes it possible for most of the rural working class to get along where they do is that land prices are comparatively cheap - and they are going to become more so for at least a while.  In many ways this may be good - some of the buyers for the foreclosed McMansions are likely to be extended families, people who were already living together by necessity in trailers, and who now can live together in a four bedroom house. Universally my rural neighbors are extremely handy, and if they can’t afford the foreclosure, would be happy to help build an addition onto their trailer from the scavenged pieces of the McMansions as well.  The un-gentrification of rural areas may actually have some benefits.  The same is true as absentee property owners of rural land sell or rent their holdings - some of these may be purchased, others simply reclaimed if left unused long enough. 

The other thing that group number 1 often has are family ties - social connections that mean that Grandma takes care of the baby while doing their crappy low wage jobs, and then they take care of Grandma, rather than putting her in a home.  These ties are going to become increasingly valuable. Yes, the cost of gas is going to be troublesome, but rising prices for food, firewood and fiber will partially offset this, and in general, these places haven’t even begun seriously economizing.  Yes, it is presently illegal to put 8 people in your pickup flatbed and drive to the Walmart for morning shift.  How much enforcement do we expect there to be as the rural police departments can barely afford gas?  I’m guessing not much.  Rural dwellers are suffering now because of high food prices and energy prices, but they have barely begun to use mitigation strategies - in most rural areas, the jobs are all in one or two locations, as are the supermarkets.  It will not be hard to put together large carpools and taxi services.  The problem is that as yet, no one has figured out that this is a permanent situation, so the adaptation process has not begun. 

The same goes with growing food - yes, many rural dwellers don’t grow gardens.  But they are often not very far removed from people who did, and they probably hunt, and they often are very resourceful. Living in the formal economy, it is often very hard to do more than just get by - living in the informal economy can actually be much easier in rural areas, where there are natural resources to build upon (or exploit - but hopefully that will be kept to a minimum). 

 My expectation is that many of those displaced from cities will probably be recent immigrants, many not very far removed from agricultural livelihoods as well.  There are likely to be some difficulties with this transition, and some hostility on both ends, but in the end, I suspect that many rural dwellers will find that they have a considerable amount in common with their new Mexican or Somali or Hmong neighbors.  I anticipate some trouble here - and some surprising alliances.

What will not be possible is for rural dwellers to live the way they do now - families will have to do subsistence work, most families will have to go back to one earner status (because they can no longer afford transport costs), which should be possible as property values begin to fall.  The shift will be difficult and painful, and particularly hard on the elderly, but it will be possible in many cases.  That is not to say pleasant, or that many people won’t be ground up and spit out in the transition, but it is possible.

Living in rural areas will mean being comfortable with a degree of isolation previously unknown to those who went there - you won’t be taking the kids to soccer practice and swimming lessons - you may not be able to afford them.  Many of the amenities that once made exurban towns seem like suburbia in the country will disappear.  You will *have* to get along with the neighbors - you are going to need to work together to get enough gas to afford to truck your produce into the city.  You will have to be very comfortable with fixing things yourself, making do and adapting to shortages.  Meeting your own needs becomes more important when every trip to the city is begrudged, and won’t be repeated for a month or more. 

The nature of shopping changes - every expenditure of precious cash is begrudged (in the county my great-great-grandfather lived in in Maine, there was the story that the only cash money in the whole county was a gold piece brought home by a neighbor man from his service in the Civil War), and barter and growing/hunting/foraging your own become more and more essential.  Because shopping changes, eating practices will have to change.  Do you drink a lot of milk, or eat a lot of meat?  Well, I hope you plan to milk each morning and butcher your own - or have good relationships with someone who will, because you will not be buying fresh milk and meat regularly. 

That’s not to say that rural towns won’t have resources - for example, exurban McMansions will make great home business sites, and rural areas have been known to produce great local culture - many small rural towns had opera houses and theaters, recitation and music groups.  The Blues and Appalachian folk music, for example, grew up largely in rural areas where nearly everyone made music.  As the urban poor move outwards they will bring urban cultures into rural areas, and the cultures will blend and merge in creative (and probably sometimes destructive) ways.   Rural towns did once have thriving cultures - it is not at all impossible to imagine them having them again - or continuing to have them in many cases.  But they will be small cultures. It will be necessary to derive one’s pleasures from intense, deep knowledge of a narrow place, rather than broad shallow knowledge.  That is, we will have to find culture and diversity in new ways.  But while we can imagine having culture, we should assume virtually no *services* in rural areas - we will be on our own for protection, trash disposal, regulation of pollutants, etc…  What people don’t band together to do won’t get done.

Access to markets will be intermittent - when you can afford the trip, rather than when you necessarily want to go.   Employment may be intermittent and seasonal as well.  It may also be strenuous - bicycling for long distances, for example.  Eventually new market lines will be built in many places - and some places may die out for lack of them. But while a transition from the habit of being able to transport quickly may be hard to overcome and painful, it is worth remembering that rural life has existed for centuries.  Anyone who has ever seen a man walking for several days bringing his flock of sheep to market in a poor country, or a truck full of farmers heading down a mountain on market day, all crammed together, knows that it is perfectly possible to overcome scarcity of fuel - but setting up systems to do so is harder. Ultimately, the ability to adapt and make do will be a fundamental requirement to rural living.   

But that’s true of urban dwellers as well. Cities will certainly continue to be centers of trade, but the reality is that as prices for urban infrastructure rise, money, which becomes less available and less important for rural dwellers, becomes harder to come by and more essential for urbanites.  Perhaps the defining characteristic of succesful urban dwellers is the same one that defines rural dwellers - the ability to adapt.  But the adaptive abilities required are different - while rural dwellers may need subsistence skills, urban dwellers may need the ability to recognize commercial opportunities and fill them, to rapidly shift from one business to another - first importing goods, then auctioning repossessed items, then being the middleman with local farmers.   The informal economy is likely to be just as important for urban dwellers as for rural ones, but instead of the subsistence economy subsidizing job loss, scavenging, meeting newly opened needs and taking advantage of short-notice opportunities, and black market activities are likely to be among the biggest sources of jobs in cities.  Economic flexibility will probably be key. 

While urban centers are likely to be the last places where actual shortages will hit, the high cost of urban living - even urban slum living - is likely to effectively cut many people out of marketplaces.  And there is far less space for further consolidation in urban housing - there is some, and consolidation there will be, both because urban owners will only be able to keep their condos and homes by bringing in other people, and also because density is profitable. 

Living well in cities will probably involve the ability to live in quite small spaces, and to tolerate infrastructure breakdowns with reasonable good cheer.  They won’t happen as often as they do in the countryside, but when the sewer lines break or the gas goes off or the electricity goes out, the consequences are likely to be considerably more acute.  While country dwellers may find that many services simply disappear - there is no one to plow the road, there are no police anymore, intermittency is likely to be a characteristic of urban life.

The ability to work with others and self regulate well is also likely to be absolutely essential - urban population densities mean the threat that fairly commonsense responses to breakdown could lead to disaster - for example, if the water stops flowing, it only makes sense to begin bringing human manures out of the buildings - but *everyone* must do this in a way that avoids water contamination and that handles the wastes wisely, or disease spreads and the city stinks.  If the gas goes out, the temptation to use a small burner to cook becomes almost intolerable - but the need to regulate these and train people in safety is acute, since a single fire can take out a whole apartment building - or neighborhood.  

One of the questions worth asking is whether you will like urban life as it is lived by the poor - because that is probably the reality for most of us, no matter where we live.  For those who are comfortably living in cities, this may be a very rude awakening. And for those whose experience of urban poverty is primarily of the graduate student or actor/waitress kind, a similar, if not quite as acute shock awaits.

Job losses are rising in the financial centers, in tourism and tourism tied industries, and will rise further. Without the ability to borrow money to go to college, professors will be laid off.  Those who aren’t comfortably well off themselves in cities, but rely on the disposable income of the middle and upper middle class may also find themselves suffering as that class becomes less wealthy.  If you presently enjoy all the benefits of urban life with extended trips into the countryside to reconnect with nature, ask yourself how you will like doing without these - in August, during a heat wave.  If you have depended on air conditioning to keep cool, and heat to keep warm, think about what happens when the infrastructure fails, or when you simply can’t pay the bills. If you love your job, ask whether you will love the work you are going to be able to get.  In fact, I generally speaking would say that if you would be reasonably comfortable living in the poorest and worst neighborhood in your city now, you’ll be fine in the city.  Many urban poor already experience most of the dangers of post peak life - health complications because of urban life, insufficient security, insufficient access to food, energy shutoffs, indifferent response from the wealthy. 

The two worries most articulated about urban life are security and food.  Both of these are real worries - but they apply to everyone else on the paradigm to.  Rural areas that don’t produce all they eat risk not getting imports because it isn’t worth bringing in supplies to the outer margins of the supply lines.  Rural areas that have poor alliances between neighbors are likely to experience rising crime rates, as poverty provides greater incentives for crime and violence.  There is generally more crime in urban areas, but there are also more people - alliances are remarkably powerful in this regard.  Again, urban dwellers may be broadly divided into two groups - the kind who politely try not to know their neighbors and who never make eye contact, and those who have strong community ties.  Many urban dwellers in poor neighborhoods have been dealing with precisely the same things we are facing for decades - inadequate security, poor police presence or reason to fear the police themselves, high crime rates - and often community groups are able, working together, to minimize these problems.  The successful will be those who are prepared to work together in deep ways, and to prioritize the welfare of the community overall.

As for food, it is far more likely that you will go hungry because you can’t afford to buy food than because there is none in the stores.  Shortages are a possibility, but again, cities are cities for a reason - they are often at the hub of rail, water, or other lines.  Some cities, particularly those with acute water shortages, simply may end up with a comparatively small population by necessity.  But for the rest, the food will come in, usually.  The question is, will you be able to buy it.  My own feeling is that cities will have to produce a large portion of their produce and probably meat - the end of refrigerated shipping is coming, and probably quite quickly for any but the rich.  While grains will probably be shipped out by train, things that have to be kept cold, that now come from irrigated farmlands far away, are probably going to go out of the reach of many people.  Fortunately, this is possible - even Hong Kong, for example, produces a large portion of its meat and vegetables within the city limits.  For the dryest cities - LA, Las Vegas, Pheonix-Tucson, this may not be possible, and that may be their undoing - they won’t go away, but the populations of these cities may contract dramatically.  Not coincidentally, these are also tremendously hot places, and without air conditioning, urban dwellings may be nearly intolerable.

But it is completely possible to imagine even Manhattan or San Francisco or Chicago or Toronto producing quite a lot of its own meat and produce, and certainly Cleveland and Atlanta and Ottawa will be able to do so.  It will be done in vacant lots, on rooftops, on stoops and balconies in containers, in tiny backyards and by the reclamation of public space - food will have to go wherever there is room, and that includes livestock.  Anyone who plans to stay in a city really must take some responsibility for their own food systems, IMHO, not in a light way, but in a commitment to produce as much as possible within city limits.  The great difficulty for cold climate cities will be heat - if utilities become intermittent or too expensive, it will be very cold, and there are fewer options for heating in densely populated areas.  But cold won’t generally kill you - it will be merely unpleasant, and the heat island effect and the sheer proximity of neighbors will probably keep most people alive as they wait for spring, in worst case scenarios.

And thus we are back to this question of what kind of person you are - there are those entrepreneurial spirits who will take any job, do any work, and can turn anything into gold, and may always be able to buy food.  And there are those that simply can’t.  It is worth knowing thyself.  Again, the merits of strong family and community ties come up - a great deal can be accomplished by self-help groups working together.  Food supplies can be bought collectively, slum conditions overcome, community gardens reclaimed from the city, security provided, soup kitchens opened.  But one must work together, and be prepared to adapt.  In fact, where to live may depend on how you want to work with people.

Both urban and rural life will require community ties - in rural places, because without those ties, things simply won’t happen. In urban ones, to restrain one’s self-interest for the greater good.  My own observation is that most people tend to prefer one kind of these regulations to another - they chafe, for example, at the idea that one could restrict their right to do as they want on their property, no matter how stupid or dangerous, or they chafe at the idea that others might be doing things they consider unwise in the privacy of their own homes, and they are not there to observe and stop them.  It is useful, I think, to decide which sort of person you are, and thus, where you will be happy - out in the country where you can get drunk and shoot deer through the unopened windows of your trailer or in the city where you can get drunk and lecture a passerby on the evils of public urination ;-)

Then again, many of us prefer a middle ground - and suburbia, of course, is supposed to be precisely that.  Whether the ‘burbs are the best of both worlds or the worst depends on your perspective and probably on the kind of suburb you are living in.  Many suburbs near where I live actually have long histories as towns with meaningful economies, and now simply have more housing in them.  It is not at all improbable to imagine much, say, of suburban Boston reconstituting itself as towns, changing its restrictive zoning to allow the transformation of garages into shops and spare bedrooms into rental housing. 

The great advantage of suburbia is that it is often both reasonably proximate to some kind of employment and possible to produce a substantial part of one’s needs on the land attached to it.  Most suburban lots won’t enable any kind of self-sufficiency, but most suburbanites could meet a surprising portion of their needs.  Not enough to obviate the need for supplemental income - while rural dwellers may have little or no cash to pay the property taxes, and urban dwellers cash but not enough to buy food, suburbanites will struggle on both ends - their houses cost a great deal initially, and they won’t generally have large enough surpluses for sale.  Successful suburban dwelling may require more flexibility than either urban or rural life, because it will require the maintence of an income in most cases, while also requiring that costs be absolutely minimized so that people can keep their houses. 

On the other hand, this may actually be possible.  If people are willing to consolidate housing, and bring extended families (biological or chosen) together, keeping the roof over one’s head should be manageable.  Meanwhile, there probably will be some empty lots across the road, and a few foreclosed buildings to take down and scavenge.  We have essentially been filling suburbia with a large chunk of our wealth - it is no longer worth what we thought it was, of course, but that doesn’t mean that boards and reclaimed insulation, copper piping and shingles have no value.  That wealth will probably keep a surprisingly large number of people going, while they also grow gardens and commute, crammed together, into population centers.

The transition from nuclear family to extended is unlikely to be easy - and less easy on middle class suburbanites than on the poor in both rural and urban areas, who already require social ties to keep lives going.  The distances between suburban families will also be a problem as people begin to negotiate - which set of parents do you live near or with?  Who moves?  Whose house goes on the block and who keeps theirs.  In many cases, this will be shaped by sequence of events, rather than intent, but I suspect it will go better if intent is involved, if the conversations required for this begin sooner, rather than later.

The anomie of suburbia is legendary, and probably wildly overstated.  Some neighborhoods are better at ties than other. But what is true is that these ties are generally recreational, rather than practical.  That is, neighborhoods are having barbecues and commercial parties (cooking equipment, sex toys and lingerie being the most popular, an alliance I’ve always admired), playdates and PTA meetings, not organizing for survival.  That is true elsewhere, but suburbia has tended to have fewer self-help groups (by which I mean not emotional self-help but practical) than cities or the country.  That will have to change for suburbia to be successful.

And this, I think, may be the root shift that has to occur in suburbia - what must finally change is the perception of what constitutes “a good life.”  The suburbs were the good life for millions of Americans and Canadians - and what may ultimately hurt us most is what Kunstler calls “the psychology of previous investment” - our inability to let go of what we expect a particular life to be.  I think that Kunstler and others are right that this is particularly acute for suburban dwellers, who have had in their midst many fewer people showing alternate visions.  Zoning regulations, for example, will have to be rapidly overturned to allow people to survive in many suburbs - and that is likely to be contentious, simply because disaster never hits everyone equally.

But the psychology of previous investment has another side - it may prevent us from abandoning the suburbs, but the sheer psychological weight of our investmen in the suburbs may ultimately enable us to make that shift - that is, people are attached to their place, to the idea of their place, and it may be possible for them to make that space mean something else, in order to keep it.  The question of whether the suburbs are the best or worst of both worlds will depend, finally, on whether our attachement to our previous investment is to the place, or the idea of suburbia. If it is to the place, to the actual land and soil beneath our feet and if we can become attached to our houses, stop moving so much and settle in a place, it is possible that suburbia could thrive in many regions.  If it turns out that what we wanted was a dream of Eden, only without the snakes, suburbia will fall apart.

Suburbia is so tied up with children and family life that I feel like I should say something about that.  The suburban model of childhood will simply have to come to an end.  Many more children will probably be homeschooled, many more children will probably be put to work sooner helping out at home, and the child-centered model will probably disintegrate, replaced by a family-centered model in which children are expected to pitch in, listen and are not treated always like visiting heads of state to be deferred to and offered the best.  For those who moved to the suburbs for their children, the loss of the way of life and the hopes of giving them the best they can will be painful - and it may be here we are most unable to adapt.  This will apply to some rural and urban dwellers, particularly the wealthy ones now made poorer, but it will be most acute in suburbia.  Some people may actually leave, seeking the pleasures of urban or rural life now that the suburbs can’t offer them a fantasy-perfect childhood picture.  For others, a new vision of family life may grow up.

Suburbanites will always be more at risk in the general economy than those who are closer to economic centers, and they will always be more at risk in terms of food security than those who can meet their entire dietary needs, but most suburbs offer enormous potential to allow people to live with one foot in the formal economy and another in the informal economy (or both feet in the informal, but in different branches thereof).  Dmitry Orlov observes that most post-collapse soviet gardens were very small - smaller than the average suburban lot.  Now grains kept coming in - but except for the very outermost suburbs, the lines between city and suburb are fairly strong. Even if public transport doesn’t exist. there are enough people, a large enough market to justify moving food and fuel and goods out to many suburs.  Houses are large enough for suburban dwellers to stockpile, just as rural ones do - both the produce of their gardens and food bought on infrequent trips to supply centers by shared vehicle.

Suburban dwellers will probably need a wider balance of skills than either their city or country counterparts - they will simultaneously need the skills to minimize dependence on the public economy and the ability to function well there.  They will need to be able to grow their own, fix their own and make do, and also to run businesses or find work when old sources dry up.  And like everyone else they will require strong community ties to keep back the forces of collapse, and to create a local economy and culture worth having.

Moreover, while rural dwellers may struggle to get their pigs or their fruit to market in an era of reduced transportation, suburbanites who can produce moderate surpluses will have hungry and relatively proximate markets for what they own.  I recall someone telling me about their cousins who became “dill millionaires” growing dill on an 1/8 acre suburban lot outside of Moscow, simply bringing their herbs into the city.  For those in the areas around cities, the old system, where suburbanites shuttled in to work in city businesses may continue - and those going to work there may be bringing in their eggs and apples to sell to coworkers. Or the jobs themselves may disappear, and the eggs and apples become the point of the trip.  In this sense, the more proximate suburbs, despite (often) greater density, may have an advantage.

 In short, I don’t think it is easy to generalize about where the best place to live is.  In all cases, flexibility, adaptability, self-sufficiency and practicality will matter a lot.  And in each case, it isn’t that any choice is inherently bad, it is that it depends on what we are prepared for, what skills we want to emphasize, what balance we hope to find.  It is easier, of course, to generalize about one choice or another, but ultimately, IMHO, less productive.


47 Responses to “City, Country, Suburb? It isn't Where You Live, But How You Live There.”

  1. Steve says:

    “The countryside suffers most from transportation costs - it is reasonable to believe that deliveries may stop being made to rural areas. ”

    Deliveries of what? We make stuff out here. And “deliveries” typically require a return trip, a backhaul of other goods and commodities.

  2. Sharon says:

    You make everything you need? Wow, that’s great, but kind of unusual - even among my self-sufficient rural community, people mostly don’t make their own shoes, cast their own ammo, or pump their own oil for gasoline? And what are those gas trucks taking back with them when they come to fill up your local gas station. Not to mention that unless your backhaul is worth a lot, you may find that there are some problems with that - that was endemic in the great-depression, where the cost of hauling animals and commodities to urban markets rose so high that rural dwellers had to slaughter their animals en masse and let them rot, or leave fruit unharvested in the fields. The same thing seems to have happened in Argentina and in Russia.


  3. Susan in NJ says:

    Great post, Sharon. Lots of food for thought. Hmm, that phrase has some potential. (I’ve experienced quite a few of these living situations over the years (albeit without the worst pressures of economic distress) and I think you’ve done an excellent job of capturing the pros and cons. A long power outage in a nine story building when you’ve recently broken your tailbone makes you seriously consider the sustainability of an otherwise economic apartment when you’re not getting any younger.
    When I was a tween and we moved from a midwest small town to the surrounding countryside, with one car originally, us kids biked in to town for library, swimming and summer jobs. And for after school activities like sports or music lessons, everyone had to either make it to my dad’s office or be ready when he stopped to pick you up. I’m pretty sure the consequences, walking home after sports if you missed the pick up, would not be acceptable at all in today’s world (I’m pretty sure they were entirely acceptable back then). Plus there was the unlovely hour plus long circular bus trip to school (to cover 5 miles) unless you wanted to go in early with Dad.

  4. Basia says:

    Hi, I’m from Poland. Sharon, I’ve been reading your posts for over two months now. They are great:)) Thank you very much for your work:))
    Some examples from not so wealthy country:
    in rural area of north-east Poland where a lot of pensioners without cars live there are “car shops”, coming once a week, honking and selling stuff, flour, bread, sugar, soap, washing powder etc.
    Those old people still grow vegetables, have hens, eggs, have their own honey and so on…
    When changes came in 1990, a lot of city dwellers who lost their jobs started to sell stuff on the streets, from light folding tables and folding beds…

  5. Ani says:

    Yes- living in a rural area in a very rural state (VT) I have been pondering these issues. I am also somewhat perplexed by the recent influx of PO aware types to VT such as the producers of “What a Way to Go” and Carolyn Baker- both of whom I have heard have just relocated here. I also get e-mail from people considering doing just that. I hope that they will understand both the pros and the cons of such as rural place.

    When I first read “The Long Emergency” the part that stuck with me the most and was like a punch in the gut was when Kunstler proclaimed that rural dwellers would have to stop living urban lives and begin living rural ones once again. I realized how much we do tend to have adopted a more “urban” existence- some of us less than others but still it holds true.

    Many of my neighbors have long commutes to work, have their kids in private schools that they drive long distances to and won’t even put their darlings on the school bus, preferring to drive them to and from school every day. I watch the daily stream of large SUV’s and trucks off the mountain evey day and wonder how long that can continue.

    While there are some of us who are living here to farm and such, many people out here are just rural dwellers- they might or might not even have a garden- many don’t- and they just live in a rural location but their jobs and interests are elsewhere. I wonder how long this will continue and what everyone will do when it can’t?

    And then there is the steady stream of closures- stores, plants, restaurants- the job situation is getting scary here. Looked at the local paper and just about all the job openings were for people to take developmentally disabled people into their homes or work with them, plus the occasional special-ed aide position at school. It’s better if you go up to ” the city” but that’s over 50 miles each way…..

    I would agree though that each place has it’s pros and cons- and the key is learning to live within the constraints of the locale in which you reside- and figure out a way to thrive there be it urban, rural or the burbs…..

  6. Nita says:

    Excellent post as usual, I’m in agreement with Ani, our area is inundated with acreage dwellers, who will drive to town (20 miles) just for a latte. We are in a better position than most, because our family farm never “progressed” to modern practices. Since we started prepping for Y2K and PO, we have pretty much stuck to our plans, while trying to maintain a pasture based meat business. Our plans include jettisoning animals as needed, if things got to where we could not protect them, or our investment in them.
    We have our own gravity water supply, and heat with wood. However, we know fuel may be better used to cut firewood for heating and cooking. If not, we would just have to get used to being colder, since we would be cutting our firewood by hand.
    Your population comments ring true here. When this area was settled in the mid 1800′s, logging towns populated the area and the local farmers supplied the stores in these towns with eggs, dairy and meats. The farmers felt needed, transporting goods were not a problem, and there was a sense of community. Now all our neighbors commute at least 25 miles one way, shuttle their children to distant schools, and have no need (they think) for participating in community type events or planning for catastrophes. Time will tell - I hope people start paying a little more attention… There are numerous For Sale signs on properties right now, and some good places for homesteaders are left. If you have the right mindset, you can be prepared wherever you may be.

  7. Paula Hewitt says:

    This is a huge dilemma for us. we rent a largish house on a big suburban block. we have space to grow a lot more produce than we currently do (could be virtually self sufficent with veggie/fruit/eggs once we get better at it) - but no security. we also own a block of land - 15 acres, about 2 hours drive away (but only 3 km from nearest small town with hospital, shops etc). the plan is/was to build and move - with a view to self sufficency (as much as that is possible) rather than commuting to the city for work/school etc. the rising costs of fuel are such that we are wondering if we *can* move out to a rural area. we know enough to know that we can’t produce everything we need. At this stage we see the block as a bolt hole/ backup when the ‘suburban dream’ we are now living goes bust. timelines are an issue. saving to build the house, establish the fruit trees, work out what form our ‘off=farm’ income would take. its scary, but i reassure myself that we are, at least, aware of the issue, and trying to work it out.

  8. Joyce says:

    Thank you for standing up for suburbs! I’ve often pondered the dismal forecasts regarding suburbs, and couldn’t for the life of me see why they are unsalvageable.

    I know only one suburb well, although I’ve also lived in the country and the city. My particular suburb is designed so that everyone is within a 20 minute bike ride of a ‘town centre’ (mall) that is a public transportation hub. For now, the mall is full of dopey stuff, but it doesn’t have to be.

    The big houses and big garages seem perfect for small businesses, multifamily dwellings (a number are already occupied by extended families), and even barns. My suburb has the highest percentage of green space in the city, meaning room for community gardens and, in my dreams, commons where people could graze the animals that live in their garage-barns.

    From what I hear about suburbs, it’s a little unusual in that it’s the most multi-ethnic part of the city (it’s referred to as ‘the U.N.’), and already people who are interested learn quite a bit from each other about how to grow and prepare different kinds of food, make the best use of space, etc. I see potential to turn these casual connections into the kind of essential alliances you describe.

    There are natural areas, too, which are also important, so long as they can be protected from exploitation (As you point out, this will be a big challenge if people start to see trees as ‘heat’ rather than as ‘pretty.’

    Of course, there are lots of suburban problems here. I don’t mean to claim I’m in a paradise. Far from it; cars are overused, lawns are toxic with cosmetic pesticides, there are dumb bylaws that I’m working to change against keeping chickens or dwarf goats, etc. But these seem to me to be ephemeral. Bylaws can be changed in one term of a city council (one meeting, if the will is there). As you point out, truly useless houses can be turned into valuable scrap. And even poorly laid-out road systems can be altered (if car use becomes minimal, the smaller roads may even become irrelevant).

    It was also good to read the sober side of your predictions for suburbia, because you presented adaptation as a huge challenge, but not as insurmountable.

    Anyway, I’m a country girl who ended up in suburbia by way of the city. I’d love to get to the country again, but for now, my focus is on working to help suburbia to reach the potential I fully believe is there. Your post today has inspired me to keep going.

  9. Rosa says:

    I’m a city girl, myself - but a midwestern one, which means I live in a small city (just over 300,000?) and grew up in a town which was the local urban center at 20,000 people.

    We have a lot, lot, lot of resources sitting unused. Empty lots, half-empty buildings, empty river front, empty warehouses. Some people are leveraging those resources now - the City council refused to rezone to allow garage apartments a few years back, but that doesn’t mean people don’t live in the small-house-sized outbuildings that line our alleyways, and many more could. This is the time of year you see immigrant families spilling out of their houses, stringing tarps over the back yard to make shady dining rooms and having houseguests and older sons sleeping on porches and in tents.

    I worry more about my friends and family who live in rural areas because it’s cheap, but don’t raise plants or animals and bus their kids to far-away schools. Both my stepsisters live in very small towns and commute to slightly larger ones - how long before those roads can’t be repaired after floods, or plowed after snow storms? My parents are living in an RV until they find the perfect place to live…are we ever going to see them, if they decide to live in Arkansas or Arizona? My son’s other grandparents live 60 miles from their jobs, in a housing development glommed on to a tiny little town to take advantage of the scenic flood-control lake. At least they have the sun and rain to grow a heck of a crop - but most of their neighbors don’t even grow flowers.

    I’m really torn between selling our stupid-big house to move to a smaller, more energy-efficient one, and feeling that we’re going to end up with family moving in with us permanently, no matter how afraid they are to live in the big bad city. If nothing else, my nieces and nephews are going to want waged work someday. But it will be here in teh city - I’ve lived in the shadow of the bean fields, and it’s not my deal. Not unless we’re starving and completely unemployable.

  10. Karin says:

    I moved from Portland, Maine to Orono Maine about a 5 years ago. I moved because the real estate boom was pricing me out of rental opportunities in the city. Orono was more suburban but again house prices were beyond our means. I met my husband, had a baby. We had always wanted to homestead so moved about an hour from Bangor; to a small town in the country. I am fortunate because I can be self sufficient in veggies, eggs meat and fiber. But my husband has a long commute. Some of the neighbors look at us as outsiders and are not open to cooperative arrangements.

    We know with time we can build connections in this community. It is a small town but it used to be quite the center of activity for this region. it is very agricultural.

    We are building up skills that could be useful in a depleted future. I can process wool and use a non-electric knitting machine. My husband went to shearing school and is apprenticing this shearing season. He is also a musician.

    We just plug along with our preps and try to stay flexible.

  11. Leila says:

    Looking at Sharon’s assessment of the potential for cities, I still say Oakland, CA looks like a good bet, as long as the water holds out. Maybe the greater Bay Area (SF, Oakland, Richmond, San Jose and all the suburbs between including Silicon Valley) will have to contract and cannot support 8 million people total. But it will still be a good place to live. Hey, read Ecotopia for a vision of what it might all look like.

    My neighborhood was planned as a garden suburb a hundred years ago; it was plum orchards and dairy farms for the five decades before that. There are still plenty of largish, deep lots, canyons and streams, and some open spaces. People keep chickens and bees right now; dwarf goats would not be a problem. Food gardens could be plentiful (and I see more of them this year)

    Further up the hill from us is a huge open space belt along the east side of the ridge; on the city side of the ridge lots of people keep horses. THis is a fancy area and inconvenient for biking or pedestrians; in a future of scarce oil this neighborhood might revert to dairy farms again. And of course we have a good supply of horses for transportation if needed in an emergency.,+ca&ie=UTF8&ll=37.787674,-122.153721&spn=0.074885,0.128403&z=13&layer=c&cbll=37.800269,-122.145625&panoid=KbsgTuIDvGURJip_Fbj4gw

    Besides the horses currently in residence up in the hills (and the feed and tackle shop down here in the ‘hood, overlooking the tattoo parlors and loud “scraper” cars with 22″ rims) we also have teams of goats that pasture in the hills every spring to eat up all the weeds and underbrush. Fire is a terrible scourge around here in the dry season and the city employs goats to keep the brush under control. I will never forget seeing goats on an open space hillside in far East Oakland, with an old Spanish-style college belltower rising beyond. It looked like Spain, not the heart of hyphy rap. Anyway - the goats are here already. Easy enough to turn the roving goat brush-clearing operation into dairy and meat production.

    Draft horses are raised at local demonstration farms and zoos. THe man who keeps the draft horses at Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz told me he used them to log eucalyptus in our Oakland and Berkeley hills - good for the horses, who need the exercise, and good for the soil on steep terrain. (or rather, better than bulldozers or Cats). Eucalyptus trees explode in forest fires and are an invasive non-native so logging them and replacing with redwoods or oak is a Good Thing.

    We are close to four bus lines here. The medians in the big east/west arteries have flowers and trees now but could easily be retrofitted for the original trolley service, ripped out in the 1940s. Current buses run to Amtrak (with service to Seattle, L.A., and east through Sacramento). There are ferries at the moment to San Francisco and these could be expanded if needed, although rail service is a more efficient way to move people around. Much of our warehouse districts have been converted to residential lofts (dumb, dumb) but you know, we could still use docks and marinas for ferrying goods around.

    Oh yes, and you ought to see the solar panel array on my local hardware store. It’s a doozy. Oakland has a 100 year plan to become energy self-sufficient and they’ve been building out big solar panel arrays on rooftops for several years now. Our local waste contractor has been selling subsidized Smith and Hawken back yard composters for years (like $17 for the basic and $35 for the super-deluxe version)

    Lots of schools and libraries here. Lots of churches and temples and mosques and zendos. Lots of herbal stores and people cultivating old ways for medicine, healing and gardening. I know a guy in Berkeley who grows dozens of rare fruit trees on his house lot, next to a major avenue. Many, many folks like him all over the Bay Area grow their own food, compost, live lightly as they can. Check out the City Farmer in West Oakland, where she gardens an empty lot to the occasional sound of gunshots:

    I have a great deal of faith that things will be okay here.

  12. Leila says:

    Putting internet links into comments causes them to go to the moderator, but Google Maps just added all the streets in my neighborhood to street view. You can see the back of the hardware store with solar panels visible here:,+oakland,+ca&sll=37.791388,-122.196357&sspn=0.00936,0.01605&ie=UTF8&ll=37.809377,-122.193203&spn=0.037432,0.097504&z=14&layer=c&cbll=37.790604,-122.197058&panoid=ExgHEMMkb1v8PGbgR-RRDg&cbp=2,184.67603499653845,,0,4.832191430544611

    It’s the teal colored building. Use the turn buttons if you only see a little house, to view the other side of the street.

    My own house is a few blocks from here and son of a gun, they had to have taken the pix within the last two months. it’s a little freaky to see our pad… I can tell which of us were home on the block that moment.

    Anyway, if you want to walk around my neighborhood, now you can using Google maps.

  13. Daharja says:

    You can only live if you have enough food.

    Houses are one thing, but I’m reading a lot of estimates that say when you take oil out of the equation, both the US and Europe (plus several other notable locations) will simply not be able to feed their populations. Full stop.

    So what then?

    I for one am concerned about the gun culture of the Us in particular, and wouldn’t want to be there when the proverbial hits the fan, no matter which state or county. Europe could get scary too.

    In the end, I think it’s not a matter of which type of accommodation you have, or whether you’re rural or a city-dweller, but what the ratio of food supplies and natural resources to humans is - and how many people are living in the country/state/city next door and might like a bit of your resources when theirs run thin.

  14. Kim says:


    10 years ago we were the new kids here in our small rural town. It took a while before we were accepted and even longer before we were considered as belonging.

    One thing that helped is that we did as it sounds like you are doing. Tuck in and start. Let them see you are serious about rural life. Don’t try to change them — yet. A lot of people move the country and expect it to be “progressive” or get frustrated when their ideas aren’t accepted.

    We have to remember these people have roots that go down deep and they won’t take a shine to some city girl trying to change their ways.

    Just my experience.


  15. Sue (coffeepot) says:

    It is the country life for me no matter any problem.

    I have great neighbors.

    I will just have to get a horse /wagon.

    I never want to go back to urbania. never..never..never

  16. Rebecca says:

    I think rebuilidng community is going to be harder than a lot of people think. Most people in the neighborhood where I live (which is somewhere between urban and suburban) don’t even want to look at their neighbors. They won’t meet my eyes, they won’t wave back.

    Also, which environment to live in depends on lifestyle factors as well. I don’t mean that lightly. I’m a lesbian, and while I don’t flaunt it, I won’t hide it. There are a *lot* of hard core conservative fundamentalists down here in the south, and in the rural and small town areas I would (quite literally) be risking my life living there. I’m not joking. Gay men and lesbians (especially the former) have a bad habit of turning up dead down here. My openly and quite obviously -as in he can’t hide -friend who lives in the hills a bit from here can’t go to the store down the road from his house without being called faggot and almost gets into a fight about once a week. He has a lot less problems than most because a) his family’s from there, there’s about 50 of them and they won’t take kindly to someone messing with one of their clan and b) he’s 6’4″ and as broad as linebacker. That’s today of course, before things change. What things will be like when that happens is anyone’s guess.

    I’m a country girl at heart, but not here.

    In good news, the heat wave has finally broken. It was only 92 here yesterday!

  17. Mara says:

    Interesting post. I wonder how you would describe where I’m living right now, which is quite close to the heart of Charlottesville, VA. It’s certainly not “urban”- there are no skyscrapers here, and the population is something like 40,000. It’s not rural either, by any stretch, based on the population density of the neighborhoods, etc. And it can’t be “suburban” because there’s no urban area, also because it’s more self-sustaining; most people that live here, work here and shop here. From where I live, it’s an easy walk downtown, a moderate walk to the farmers’ market, and a difficult (but doable) walk to the main shopping area. The local food economy is thriving here in central Virginia- farmers’ market, a grocery that sells local, CSA’s, etc with most of the farms within an hour- I moved here from Dallas so that makes quite an impression on me. There are lots of vegetable gardens and even chickens here in town; this area has been farmland for centuries. I think “small city” deserves its own category, because it may just be the best possible combination of the three you described.

  18. kirk thompson says:

    Wow. What a great, well thought out, encouraging read. I’ve spent the last 2 years or so absorbing the gloom and doom peddled by Kunstler, Carolyn Baker and the peak oil crowd, and had pretty much assumed that the end is nigh, and there’s not much we can do, so why bother caring about it. Your post provides an uplifting, well written, logical opinion of what we, as a society, will be facing in the near future, and, more importantly, details steps we can take and reasons why it’s not necessarily the end of the world. Thank you for that.

  19. canuck says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I admire anyone who takes a serious stab at painting the picture of the world that is to come. I agree that some the End of Suburbia crowd (particularly the literalists as opposed to the “suburbia as a mentality” proponents) overstate the case against the burbs when they say that they will become “useless”. Without dismissing your analysis as unlikely, though, I’d like to offer a different take on their possible use. This is just a rough sketch of the horizon from where I stand. Instead of saying “maybe” or “perhaps” or “it is possible that” in every sentence, I will write as though this is what will happen. But I only intend this as a possible scenario (the most likely one to me) to be added to the stockpile of other very worthy candidates.

    The suburbs will very be useful, but useful to whom? Not primarily for the folks that end up living there. I’ll return to this point.

    Now I know you Americans are fond of free will ;) but it might be worth remembering (or re-stating) that we all have a lot more of that now than we will then. For the unaware, ie. 99% of the population, when faced with their own personal collapse of their current way of life, their living situation will generally not be a matter of choice but of overwhelming circumstance.

    Those group #2 exurbanites for example who find themselves unable to actually become country folk, either because they owe $300K on their McMansion, and now have no job, or no way of getting to their job, or a host of other reasons, will not be gentrifying the urban setting they flee to or competing with the urban poor. They will BE the urban poor. And not purely by choice, but largely by circumstance. And does this mean there will be a lot of empty housing in rural areas? Not really, because there isn’t a lot of housing in rural areas (that’s why they’re rural areas).

    True, urban property will be at a premium, but not no much in re-sale value as in RENTAL value, and only initially. I say this because in the aftermath of an economic meltdown, the “buy and sell” real estate market that we presently take for granted may be virtually non-existent for a while. Again, urban property owners may be victims of this circumstance in that their only option will be to hold the bag on deflated or meaningless re-sale values and try to stay afloat through renting. This may actually give an advantage to lower income urbanites who presently rent in jurisdictions where rent increases are controlled. That is, if they stay put, they may actually stand to pay a lot less than people newly arriving in the urban core where property is at a new (rental) premium. Remember, most of these new arrivals will have had their McMansions foreclosed on or even if they had them paid them off, have no means to even contemplate buying anything again.

    So what becomes of those rural areas? I think we’re looking at a tectonic economic shift. A shift from an information, services, numbers-on-paper based economy to one overwhelmingly based on food. How many other significant economic activities there are besides food depends on how far we fall and how hard we hit. Whatever the case, economic activities not connected to food, at least for the first long while, will be small in comparison. This means that, from a business-head point of view, the means of producing food (the land and its attendant infrastructure, out-buildings, dwellings etc.) will become the new oilfields of the post collapse world. Please excuse the disgusting metaphor.

    Now who presently owns these means of producing food, ie. land? In precious few cases, Old MacDonald might actually own his farm outright. In most cases, as with most of the rest of property in our world, the banks own the means of producing food. What’s not owned by the banks is owned by good friends of theirs, big corporate agriculture. Even if Ma and Pa Kettle had inherited their farm from Pa’s father, who inherited it from his pa etc., it is very likely that, if they are still farming, they have borrowed from the bank to stay afloat.

    We all know, it doesn’t take banks and Wall Streeters very long to smell the sweet scent of fresh green opportunity beginning to sprout, even in the springtime of cataclysmic new realities. So will they let Ma and Pa Kettle and the rest of the mortgaged folks who might know something about growing food to pay them in potatoes and green beans instead of the cash they no longer have any access to? Nay. If you can’t pay, you’ll either move on or be become part of a new indentured agricultural management class for the profit of the banks or big agriculture. They will profit. Furthermore, will they let the hordes of people forced out of other situations to peacefully come and squat or homestead on the “new oilfields” of North America (insert laughter)? This brings me to the suburbs.

    The suburbs will be very useful, but primarily from the point of view of the new banking/corporate agricultural interests. In your post, it almost seemed that you foresee the present country folk, with maybe a few new arrivals, turning their hands to producing the bulk of the food that will be needed by the hordes living in the cities and the suburbs who will be doing other things. The country folk - producing the bulk of the food without the present energy inputs - without the present amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides - largely without machinery. Ain’t gonna happen. For every one person presently involved in agricultural labour we’ll need a hundred in our future world (this is an educated guess). So that takes care of the non-urban hordes and their free time.

    “Now where to house them? Hmmm… The cities are too far away from the fields… there aren’t nearly enough buildings in truly rural areas and we’re letting our new agricultural management class (formerly called farmers or country folk) stay in all of those… too expensive to build now and that land is too valuable to us anyway. We need a lot of cheap housing… not too far from the fields so that these poor bastards can haul their butts to and fro work each day… I’ve got it!!! All those suburbs that we foreclosed on and that have become completely worthless! After all, we still own them! And all those bums still owe us money! We’ll let them move back into what’s left of them houses, but they’ll have to bend their backs dammit! Its win win!”

    What we’re looking at is massive sudden relocation. And it will happen in waves that crash back and forth like when a 300 pound suburbanite cannonballs into the middle of his above ground pool. And some will spill over the sides. We might do well to look at other massive sudden relocations and how people were disorganized, organized and corralled in their wake. And what’s our favorite example of agricultural bondage? Look south, son, way down South. The suburbs could well become the work camps for agricultural laborers bonded by debt or by the need to eat. As such they might be the least desirable places to be. Especially when the great numbers of urban poor who discovered that a food-based economy doesn’t support urban trade centers of even half the population that tried to stay, start to arrive at camp and shack up in already teeming houses owned by the banks/big agriculture. Like a flock of pigeons that swoops down on too few bread crumbs, a good chunk people who initially flock to the city will have to swoop back out to find a way to stay fed.

    I admit this is a darker picture, but I see the night coming. We have a choice about where we spend the night if we think about it during the day. But once that sun begins to set, and were in a strange land, we will find our choices much more limited. We will have to hunker down and bed where we are. Sure we will have some room to adapt, but much less than we do to prepare. We will then be subject to forces much larger than ourselves.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Canuck, what concerns me is the extent to which foreign countries with controlled economies (ahem, China) have bought up securitized debt. Lacking arable land to support their own populations, I can imagine them, along with our bankers, ending up owning too much of surburbia and farmland.

    Overall I’m not quite as pessimistic as you. I think that vision of serfdom you imagined very possible will be attempted, but will not happen before J6P revolts completely. Unless it happens so very very slowly that the frog doesn’t jump out of the boiling pot. I think the bankers realize that they can’t realistically set up such feudalism without too much risk of social unrest - I think they’ll try something different, though I don’ t know what exactly.

  21. canuck says:

    Thing is, it might not look like feudalism to the people its happening to while its happening, just like it probably didn’t look like it to most peasants in the middle ages. After all, their lords were doing them a favour, letting them work the land, have a hut to live in and some gruel to munch on.

    I can just see it. “Instead of throwing me in debtor’s prison, they’re offering me a place to live (Okay, so there are two other families in the same house) some work to pay my keep and some food. Seems like a pretty good deal.”

    Besides some say feudalism has already arrived, its just wearing a different shirt…

  22. Rebecca says:

    I forgot one thing: I think the hardest part might actually be convincing people that what is coming is permanent. A lot are going to think -a lot are going to want to think -that all the problems are only temporary, and everything will be back to “normal” and “the good times” soon.

  23. WNC Observer says:

    Personally, I think that small towns — either true rural towns, or the formerly rural towns that have become exurbs through no fault of their own as nearby cities have grown - are the best bet. The thing that a small town most has going for it is human scale. It is just possible for people to work together enough to actually solve problems and make the town work. Big cities just have too many unsolvable problems already, and things are going to only get much worse. Country living is fine for those few that can really cut it, but most can’t; what is not generally known and appreciated is that even in pioneer days, a lot of those hardy, self-reliant pioneers just couldn’t cut it either and had to head back to civilization, broke and broken.

  24. boethius says:

    Aren’t a lot of the suburban lots scraped of all organics before being built on? If suburban folks haven’t already spent a lot of time re-developing their soil, many will find it disappointing to try to grow food in clay covered with and inch or two of turf.

  25. What to write about? « Scintillating Speck says:

    [...] to Vermont as a way to prepare for collapse.  Also, Sharon Astyk wrote a post recently titled City, Country, Suburb? It Isn’t Where You Live, but How You Live There.  These have given me much food for thought.  For quite a while, I have been wondering if my [...]

  26. Brenda says:

    Sharon - Your post has provided much food for thought for me and my husband, as we’re in the midst of trying to figure out where we ought to be for the long haul. Right now we’re in the mountains of Southern California. We’ve considered staying put and improving our location by installing a metal roof with water catchment and solar panels, terracing our hillside and planting a garden that we would irrigate with graywater. But those things wouldn’t change that there is no community here (the local “downtown” is a series of outlet stores), no local food, it’s a driving community (biking and walking are nearly impossible), and our water future is sketchy. On the positive side, the climate is nice, and we have two new wood stoves that heat the house with access to a forest for firewood. We’re actively considering a move to coastal Maine, into an old farmhouse on 5 south-sloping acres on a tidal river. We would have to do a lot of upgrading to make the house viable, but we have the resources to do so, and would own the house and the land outright. Also, the property is 2.5 miles from the downtown of a thriving small town, with lots of local food options (though they would be seasonal). We would keep chickens and possibly rabbits and goats, and have a year-round garden (ala The Four-Season Garden). The downside would be staying warm through a long Maine winter. Finally, our last option is to go hunter-gatherer and move the family (me, hubby, and 3 small children) aboard a sailboat. We could be energy independent, as we would convert the boat to an electric engine that is powered by a battery bank via solar and wind. The appeal to this move is the opportunity to spend the formative childhood years adventuring, while following the seasons and acquiring local food as we go.

    Any advice, or thoughts from other readers, is VERY welcome!

  27. Chris Kresser says:

    A little late to the game here… but I’m curious to know why you didn’t include the “small-to-medium size town” living arrangement in your comparison. By this I mean a town of approximately 30,000 - 60,000 people with a dense downtown retail center and housing grid surrounded by a ring of more housing that is connected to the downtown center by public transport and easily accessible by bicycle or foot. This town is itself surrounded by arable farmland the can easily meet the food demands of the town’s resident, and isn’t part of the foodshed of too many other surrounding towns.

    Perhaps you didn’t include this model because it’s not very common in North America anymore. It’s still quite common in Europe, and that’s why I think they’ll fare much better than we will if they aren’t covered in ice. One of the worst consequences of suburbia and exurbia in my opinion is that they completely obliterated the “village model” of life, which I think is the most sustainable model for humanity over the long term.

    Or perhaps you didn’t include it simply because most people will not be able to choose where they live through the coming transition; they’ll be stuck where they are for any variety of economic and social reasons.

    In fact I may be one of those people myself. But if I end up being able to choose, I’ll choose exactly the kind of place I described in first paragraph of my comment. There aren’t many of them left here, but there are a few, and that’s where I want to be when the $@#! hits the fan in a big way. (I should be there already, in other words).

    For now I’m in Oakland, and I go back and forth about how sustainable it is. I read the comment by the person above who think Oakland will weather the transition well, but I have to say I have serious doubts. We raise chickens and grow vegetables in our backyard, and have even considered getting goats. But what happens when folks from two blocks away are very hungry and can’t afford food in the stores? What’s stopping them from helping themselves to our chickens and vegetables and even goats? Politeness? Probably not.

    Oakland isn’t as densely populated as Manhattan, but the farm land surrounding it will have to meet the food needs of the entire, sprawling SF Bay Area of 8 million people. That’s a lot of foodsheds bumping up against one another.

    Water is also a big concern. We’re in a water shortage now and went into water rationing this summer. That could quite easily intensify in the coming years.

    On the other hand, Oakland does have a lot going for it. I can (and do) get everywhere I need to get to by bike, foot or public transport. There are four farmer’s markets during the week within a stone’s throw of my house. The community is quite PO aware and the Oakland City Government has appointed a task force called “Oil Independent Oakland” (with Richard Heinberg, Richard Register, and other serious folks on the Board) to make recommendations for moving towards energy and food independence.

    I’m an acupuncturist and herbalist and I’m beginning to grow and prepare my own medicinal herbs. I purposely chose this career a couple of years ago when I learned about the Three Es and started to think about what kind of profession would be sustainable in an oil-scarce future. Part of the advantage of living in a town or small city with this profession is that I would have access to more potential patients. Everyone needs health care, and they’re simply not going to be getting it from the HMO system for much longer.

    Lots of questions to consider!

  28. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

  29. WNC Observer says:

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    1) If there are people with a need for something and the ability to pay or trade for it, then there will be people willing to take on the effort and risk in transporting it long distances - on their own backs if necessary - to get it from the supplier to the consumer. Think of the silk road, think of the trade in spices from the orient, think of the fur trade, think of sea salt being available deep in the interior of the continent. Even the most remote pioneer settlements in the US, as soon as they had grown into settlements, would have a general store. Various enterprising people would haul in the goods that these stores sold, one way or another. The thing is, though: these goods were not CHEAP. They were very expensive, because that was the only thing that made it worth the while of the person who hauled them there. The consequence: only the most essential necessities would be available, because, being so expensive, that was all that people could afford. Thus, I wouldn’t assume that people in rural areas will find that there is no longer ANYTHING available to buy, and that they’ll have to make EVERYTHING themselves. However, the things available will be few, will be expensive, and will be the most needful things that they cannot practically make themselves. It would be quite wise to no count on having access to anything more than that.

    3) As for the suburbs, we talk about them as an undifferentiated mass, but of course they are all different. There are going to be winners (or at least they come out OK), losers, and suburbs that just muddle through, barely surviving. So much of it will come down to location, location, location. It will be hard to predict with any certainty, but my guess is that most of the eventual winners are already pretty obvious. A small suburb or exurb that already has passenger links with a large city, and also is on a navigable water route, and is not totally engulfed by suburban sprawl but still has some farmland and greenspace surrounding it, and already has a diversified local economy - that type of suburb or exurb is very well positioned, and stands a very good chance of being one of the favored few “winners”. There are not many of these at all, but there are a few. There will be many, many more loser suburbs, unfortunately, where the population and economy declines until the entire community must be abandoned to squatters, looters, and assorted other outlaws. The largest number of suburbs and exurbs, however, are likely to be in the “muddle through, barely surviving” category. Life will not be easy in these, but for those who are hardy, resourseful, adaptive, and hard working enough, life might continue to be possible.

  30. City, Country, Suburb? It’s Not Where You Live but How… | Climate Vine says:

    [...] a book titled: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil: A Nation of Farmers. The below essay, (original here) approaches the age old “country/city” question from a unique perspective, that of [...]

  31. Chandra Vikash says:

    Sharon, Zoning reforms will certainly make the suburbs livable and sustainable again. What about farming skills and willingness. That’s down to very low numbers. This requires major reforms in migration laws to invite well-trained aspirants from third world countries such as India, which also would bring fresh blood and zeal into natural farming - just as the earlier bursts of european, african immigrants did - and as the recent infusion of Indian IT talent has done.

    Though having worked with Indian IT, I admit that many of the companies got overswayed on labor cost savings, got greedy to “save pennies” and began to appropriate jobs which could be better done locally in the US. And actually, were “pound-foolish” with all the backlash and ill will that it created.

    In the new wave of farming collaboration that I propose,even as we start with labor availability and cost advantages of current third world residents, we must in parallel work to institutionalise high value-creating innovation opportunities (tremendous opportunities to transfer best practices) to wipe out the employment deficit, across the countries. This will usher us together to a new era - call it Civilization 2.0, if you like.

    Chandra Vikash

  32. Jim says:

    Chandra !

    What a wonderful reply. My faith in human nature is restored. I guess that you are Indian (I am French) your reponse shows that in the face of adversity the goodness in people comes out. We should see this as an opportunity and a great chance to really live and share, to make the best of what we have. The majority of the people on this planet already (and in the fat west - like our ancestors 3 generations ago) already live in a world with no oil. Recently I spent a month in China in a place with no electricity, and they have a better quality of life than many europeans… If they can do it and smile, and even offer us help like Chandra, nothing can stop us… I often dream of a world without cars and where everybody has a job to do. Even if it is working in the fields… A real life…

    Bon courage mes amis…

  33. Chandra Vikash says:

    Thanks Jim. We’ll get there…where all people do useful work…and have real lives. Right now, many people work to destroy value and lives and are still paid in our complicated world with money that can buy useful things that useful work produces - like suburbia as food farms.

    The paradox is that though ultimately the world may turn out to be much closer to your dreams - much fewer cars and everyone has jobs - it can only be achieved thru’ meaningful global collaboration and a sovereign earth government for a small planet to contain the internecine warfare - overt and many covert - amongst the megalomaniacal “sovereign nation-states”. The dream is to inspire billions of people on this small planet to rise to the occasion. INNOVATION and LIVING by EXAMPLE AND EXPERIMENTATION are the key.

    Other way to reach there is to let the multiple crises play out and just fend for ourselves “locally”, “family” and “individually”, as many others seem to believe in. That may turn out to be lots more painful and even “regressive” - morally and psychologically sapping - in the inter-dependant, inter-connected world that we live in.

  34. City, Country, Suburb? It’s Not Where You Live but How… | The Seed of the Tree of Tomorrow says:

    [...] a book titled: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil: A Nation of Farmers. The below essay, (original here) approaches the age old “country/city” question from a unique perspective, that of [...]

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  37. Transition Times » Article » Why I’m Not Bright Green says:

    [...] strengthening ties between city and rural areas. I even think there’s a case for some of the much maligned suburbs (note, I agree with Jim Kunstler that the suburbs were an awful design project, but I think some of [...]

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