Archive for the 'adapting in place' Category

Scenario Planning

Sharon August 7th, 2008

One of the things that is helpful when we talk about adaptation strategies is to do some scenario planning - that is, to consider what future we are actually planning for.  And because none of us has crystal balls, and none of us is perfect, it makes the most sense to plan for multiple possible scenarios, and thus to put our energies in the places that get us the most bang for our buck, the most resilience and best possible responses for a range of possible scenarios.  I’m going to list five scenarios that I think are possible, running from the most unlikely to the most likely, and then we can explore this question of what the future is going to look like, not from our single bet, but from the perspective of trying to maximize utility for multiple scenarios.

Now not only do I think we should be planning for multiple scenarios, but I think that different people at different times and places will EXPERIENCE different scenarios.   Some of this may be regional or national - different countries will certainly go different ways, and different regions may as well.  But it is perfectly possible for you and your neighbor to experience totally different realities in a time of collapse - think of the difference in the experience of ordinary Jews vs. ordinary Germans, or Hutu vs. Tutsi.  In the depths of the Depression there were still rich people.  Right now there are hungry people in most of our neighborhoods - the experience of the crisis will vary dramatically.  There will always be people who say “that wasn’t too bad” and those who are living unmitigated hell.  My hope is that part of coming to understand what we’re facing means that none of my readers will allow their neighbors to live in that hell if they can help - that instead of waiting for the collapse of society to be universal, people will recognize that even if they are insulated, they are part of a moment. 

But more practically, I hope people will recognize that there is very limited certainty about how each family or community will experience things.  That is, it isn’t sufficient to look at the world scale and say “this is how it will play out” - because it will play out differently for different people in different circumstances. A single woman living alone with her kids in a neighborhood that experiences a lot of violence, or a member of an ethnic group that gets targetted may well find themselves cursing me for saying Mad Max wouldn’t happen.  It probably won’t on a world scale, but that doesn’t mean no one will feel like they are living in a disaster - at the same time, there will probably be people out there doing great who are cursing me for wasting their time on food storage and preparation ;-).  There will be no one, universal experience, and it is a huge mistake to imagine that there will be.

 Ok, here’s my list - yours may be different.  I’ve named each scenario, a bit tongue in cheek, and discussed why I think them likely/not likely and what parts of them you really might want to think about.

1. “Fluffy bunnies, Utopia and the new Green Economy”  Ok, there are two versions of this.  The first one is the one where we find a magic new technology, implement it rapidly and head on down the street of the perfection of the human race, rolling our eyes at those stupid people who thought peak oil was a problem, and things just get better and better.  This one is straight out impossible - it will not happen and we might as well get over it.

The scenario that is remotely possible is that the some new energy or combination of resources comes along and it turns out that climate sensitivity isn’t quite as acute as it looks like, and we get to grind along, destroying the earth a little more (because even if we had more wind turbines, we’d still be an environmental disaster - we tend to forget this), and then get to defer the crisis for 10-20 years until the disastrous unintended consequences of *that* technology come home to roost, whatever they are - and there will be some - we have never yet had a large scale techno-solution that didn’t create more problems than it generated, and while one is technically possible, I wouldn’t put my money on it in Vegas. 

 IMHO, the problem with this option is that it is a. unlikely and b. immoral - it puts the problem off on our kids.  But it is technically possible, and I include it.   

2. “Zombies with Uzis” -  the next most unlikely possible scenario I can think of is the Mad Max, complete unravelling of society with massive die-off.  I find this unlikely for a host of reasons, which I’ve discussed many times before - among other things, the universal world crisis, in which billions die quite rapidly and everyone who survives retreats to their bunker to fight it out with the zombies.   What is flat-out impossible, barring massive meteor strikes or something is the idea that everyone might have this experience uniformly.  On the other hand, a government that authorizes the zombies (not literally of course) and gives them uzis is not so terribly improbable, I’m afraid.

There are plenty of non-zombie versions of this scenario out there - societies that have descended into violent chaos for a time - often an extended time.  And there are plenty of examples of societies in which targetted groups have this experience for a very long and terrible time.  I think it is foolish to deny the possibility that your world could descend for a time into chaos and violence, or to avoid commonsense preparations for such a scenario - including community organizing, basic self-defence and security measures and political organizing to resist pressures to target victim groups.  What I think is most likely, however, is that these problems will be local, regional or national, but not world-scale.

3. “Wait a Minute, Weren’t Things a Lot Better Once?” - I actually consider this one fairly unlikely, simply because we already seem to have skipped over slow grind.  Had you asked me a few years ago, this probably would have been my most likely scenario, but I think while present trends may not be the best possible predictor of the future, they are probably better than many other tools we use to predict the unpredictable.  And many of those tools - for example Jeffrey Brown’s export-land model - suggest that the rapidity of our decline may be greater than we expected.

This scenario would involve us slowly and steadily getting poorer, having less energy, and getting warmer, and potentially losing political power as well.  Instead of dramatic single events, there would never be one thing that we could point to as “the” moment it all went to hell.  We just woke up one day and realized things were bad, and getting worse. 

I suspect that right now, things feel like a slow grind to many Americans who still don’t see the current situation as one whole problem - the confluence of our fossil fuel crises (too much (climate change) and not enough (depletion)) and our economic crises (in part driven by too much fossil fuels (our insane ideas of endless growth) and not enough (rising prices, housing collapse, etc…)).  But in fact, things are unravelling quite quickly - particularly in the poor world, but in the rich as well.  It all depends on how you look at it, of course, but I think we’ve moved past slow, and there are solid indications that change is accellerating at both the level of depletion, in the climate and in other situations.

4. “Certain Stars Shoot Madly from their Spheres”  I still consider this scenario substantially less likely than #5, but I’ve had to move up “an event of some magnitude occurs and things change fairly rapidly” to 4.   The scenario I’m most concerned about has to do with geopolitics - I can think of several things that could result in a very drastic reduction in energy availability.  Of course, you can go nuts listing all the crappy things that can possibly happen - meteor strike, bird flu, tsunami, currency collapse, megavolcano, the sun goes dark…but the thing is, it isn’t just that lots of things, some more probable than others can happen - we’re creating scenarios in which these things are enabled.  We are working hard at making them more likely with the government we’re stuck with, rapidly accellerating climate change, etc… etc….  Every statistical analysis suggests that disasters of every kind are striking more frequently - because we are enabling them.  And while comparatively few of these disasters affect everywhere at once, I am constantly reminded of the World 3 scenarios run The Limits to Growth team which pointed out that what happens isn’t that X factor causes a problem -what happens is that we run out of the ability to cope with new pressures.  I think it is possible that we are not very far from the ability of the system to cope. 

 It is worth noting that a major event will likely eventually subside into one of the other scenarios, but it is also worth giving this its own arena simply because very rapid changes that then subside into another scenario often mean that broken things don’t get fixed at all - so we imagine “X scenario with Y region still underwater” or “Z scenario, but with a vastly greater rate of depletion.”

 5. “Ordinary Human Poverty- The Great Depression, Plus Climate Change, Plus Peak Oil” - Kunstler has a better name for this of course, but my version doesn’t have asian pirates in it, and in my version, not all southerners are dumber than Jethro Clampett ;-).  Seriously, this is my bet.  And I don’t think I’m in the minority here - I think what we’re facing is a massive, probably worldwide economic depression, a very extended one from which the magic of fossil fuels will not lift us.  I think we are facing using a lot less energy without the money and resources to make that easy on anyone.  We are likely to see large scale unemployment, lots of poverty, people unable to meet very basic needs, and a very mixed level of response - some places doing better than others at helping people, some places essentially on their own, some places becoming very violent or unsafe, some places doing better - rather like the world we live in now, where some places are violent and some aren’t, hunger is increasing, access to basic necessities going down….

This is the scenario I believe in - the one where the grid may or may not go down, but you won’t notice anyway because the power company turned out the lights months ago, when you couldn’t pay, the one where you have two other families in your house, and 11 people sharing the bathroom.  That is, this is the reality for most of the world, and I think it will be our reality. 

Ok, what about y’all?  What are you planning for?


What Do You Plan to Be When You Grow Up…Post Peak?

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Ok, everyone who thinks that your job will still be there in five years raise your hands.  For those of you with your hands up, how sure are you?   How secure are you in a deep, systemic crisis?  70% of the economy survives on consumer spending - what happens if 50% or 80% of that dries up - if really all we’re buying is food and oil, and not that much of that? 

The truth is that the one thing that all of us should be planning for is a job loss - and by this I don’t mean a short term job change, but a job loss in a deep Depression with extended, widespread unemployment - where there is no unemployment insurance anymore and most of your neighbors can’t get work either.  Is this inevitable?  No, merely probable, I think.  But probable enough that we should be prepared for it to happen.

Now I realize this scares the hell out of most of us - and not much less me than you.  My family buys groceries too.  But that’s what happened in the Great Depression, and where more than a few people think we’re headed.  We can all be happy if we don’t go there, but we should be ready for the formal economy to stop feeding and housing us. 

So the question becomes - what are you going to do to keep body and soul together?  What are you going to be when you grow up - how are you going to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head?  As the formal economy begins to tank, we have to look to the informal economy - that is, the economy made up of subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under-the-table work, domestic economics, and self employment in cottage industry.  That doesn’t mean none of us will work in the formal sector, but all of us need to be able to shift as much as we can to the informal economy - to save our precious cash for the house payment and thus provide food and heat by barter or subsistence work. 

If we do have formal sector work, it may be in businesses we set up for ourselves, as more and more employers begin making layoffs.  In many cases, we may want to (even though it is a Pain in the Ass when you are doing too many other things too) start the businesses now - begin doing a bit of extra work on the side in your potential cottage area so that you’ll have a customer base and experience when the time comes.

How do you decide what to do?  Well, it is possible you already have an obvious and marketable skill - either that the work you do now could be done for yourself, or that you have a useful skill set you aren’t using.  Maybe you used to buck trees and can set up a firewood business quickly, or your current skills as a nurse could be applied to a community clinic you set up.  In these cases, the solution may be obvious.

In other cases, it may seem hard to figure out - what will the job market for marketing professionals look like?  What will construction workers do in a housing bust?  Now might be the time to reorient yourself, gently or broadly - instead of building new houses, get in on some retrofits and start learning home reinsulation, instead of corporate marketing consider setting up a business providing something useful - bulk food, water filters, fishing worms and equipment, warm clothes, farm-direct products - or perhaps local marketing help for those products  - to your community.

The one thing I warn against is allowing your enthusiasm for some project to warp your perspective about its future.  I’ve met a number of people who blithely expect to make money marketing high-value organic produce or their exquisite hand knit objects or something like it.  And while there certainly will be markets for some knitted goods and food in the future, the truth is that what we are seeing is rapid economic deflation - money is disappearing.  That means people aren’t buying stuff - and those who have, up to now, been paying extra for quality may not have the spare cash to do so - so while it might make sense early on to rely on high value, high effort products, the idea that enough people will be going out to expensive restaurants to allow them to pay $25 lb for your basil or $40 to give you a fair living wage for knitted socks is unlikely.  The same is true if you do crafty cute stuff with no real use - funky beer mugs and wall hangings are lovely, but they are salable in an affluent society, not a poor one.  

Nor should you be duplicating immediately things we have a lot of - adult clothing, for example, may simply not be bought in many cases, since people have enough in their closets for a lifetime. Eventually making clothes may well be an important project again, but short term and long term may well be different, and we all need to be flexible.   Think *practical* and be adaptable - be able to produce not just a high value product, but an immediately useful one that people might need.

What might people need in the short term?  Food.  Warm blankets. Firewood for heating.  Insulation.  Childcare when both partners are working multiple jobs.  Elder care.  Medicine.  Distractions - theater, gambling, alcohol, sex, dance,  drugs, music, things to make them laugh, newspapers or the electronic equivalent,  cartoons (and yes, even struggling people will find some money for these things).  Shelter. Shoe repair.  Security help.  Toiletries - obvious ones like soap and toothpaste, and things to make them feel attractive - even under the Taliban, women used perfume.  Education - people will still want better for their kids, and training to get new jobs.  Tools. Anything that breaks and wears out easily.  Handymen, plumbers, midwives, doctors, nurses, ministers of every faith, anyone who can fix, mend and repair.  Livestock handlers and dog trainers.  Gardeners and people who can teach how to adapt to low energy life. 

You may need to do more than one of these things - in the short term, the money may be in helping those who can afford it retrofit their homes, for example, while in the long term it might be in growing food.  Or you may find yourself doing several seasonal things - cutting firewood, growing plant starts, building furniture or sewing in the winter, milking spring to fall.  The informal economy is going to require multiple skill sets, rather than the single job we’ve been used to - and our ability to get out of the mindset that says “I have this one job, and that is the only thing I can or should do” may be the thing that defines most how well we do in the coming difficult times.

It is worth thinking what you will do in this new economy - maybe only watch and thank G-d you got to keep your job.  But just in case, it is worth making plans, and perhaps putting a foot into the informal economy, testing its waters and building the beginnings of a new personal economy along with the old.


Figuring Out What You Have

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Ok, the bad news is that we blew our chance for the build out of the perfect world.  I know that we’d all like as much renewable electricity as we want and the new green economy.  Too late - time to get over it.  Some of the elements of this may be available to some of us, but as a whole, odds are we’re going to be stuck with making refinements upon what we did blow an enormous wad of wealth and cheap energy on. 

 The good news, however, is that we’re not totally screwed ;-).  That is, all that cheap energy and wealth bought us some stuff - not the things we’d have chosen if we were planning for this, of course, but still.  There’s a tendency in the PO movement to look at the bad stuff as though we just wasted everything - and we did waste a lot.  But we got stuff - roofs over our head that are crazy too big, but just the right size to house a big tribelet of people you can work with (btw, Bob Waldrop coined “tribelet” and I love it so I’m trying to get it into wider circulation).  Those suburban houses have no retail, but garages big enough to establish it.  Those useless cars make great dehydrators, calf hutches, metal sources, etc…

 The thing about peak oil and climate change is that when you see how much change you need, it is easy to feel *POOR* - and some of us are poor, and a lot of us don’t have enough time or energy or money to make a complete perfect retrofit.    But I don’t think we should forget that most of us, in world terms, in historic terms, are RICH - richer than the kings of old, richer than most of the people in the world who are going to have to make do with far fewer resources and options.

I think adaptation begins with taking a look at what you do have.  It means walking through your place and your life and trying not to see what you don’t have, but what you do - all the stuff you’ve accomplished, the resources you might turn into something else, the people who could help you and will love and support you in crappy times.

This is hard to do if you are in fear mode - or even just rushing around getting stuff done, certain we don’t have enough time - it is so easy to walk around with a list in our heads of everything we haven’t got or done, every limitation, every skill we need and tool we don’t have.  But for this moment, it is time to stop.  To take a look at your world as though you were rich - not in the greedy, selfish sense that we tend to think of it, but in the sense of having sufficiency and more, an abundance that overflows your life. 

Spend a little time in this way of looking - because the truth is that we’ll never be secure enough, never have everything done, never have every skill or every resource.  Our houses could always be better, the people in them more wonderful and useful, the location better.  But scarcity, particularly now, where things haven’t fallen apart yet - is a matter of perception.  There may truly be things you really need.  But just for now, look at what you have.  Make a list.  Write it down - you may need it again someday, if only to remind yourself of where you start from.


Why Adapt In Place? And How?

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Welcome to the first day of my Adapting-In-Place class.  The course will focus on what I think may be the biggest question of all - how do we go on where we are with what we have in this new world?  I’m very excited about doing this class - because while I think there will be many relocations and radical changes, most people are going to make the best of the infrastructure we’ve created over the last years, simply because we have no choice. 

I personally think that there is insufficient time to remake our world dramatically.  Now there are people who would argue with me about this - and they may even have a case.  But I think there are compelling reasons to believe that we may not have enough time to take a world created for cheap energy and transform it into one that can handle expensive energy and replace much of that with renewable power.  The idea that we will be able to make a massive societal retrofit occur rapidly depends in large part on, I think, the idea that the current economic crisis is just an unpleasant coincidence that happens to be occurring just as peak oil and climate change are really hitting us.  This, I think is a radical error in reasoning - in fact, as nearly every serious analyst who really grasps peak oil gets, the economic limitations are part and parcel of our present crisis.  That is, our ability to do new things is going to be more and more constrained over time.

Which means that most of us aren’t going to be living in new urbanist walkable communities or in perfect ecovillages - we’re going to be living where we are.  Some projects will be done - but the idea that we’re going to do a full-scale overhaul of our society seems deeply wrong.  Which means that most of us are going to be limited to what we can accomplish ourselves, using our personal resources, what resources are available through family, friends, community and governments of various levels.  Much of our way of life may have been, as Kunstler refers to suburbia, the greatest-misallocation of resources in history, but is how we allocated the resources - we’ve done this build out, and we’re going to be living with the results.

While the current situation has created mobility for some people - those who have already lost jobs and homes, those who know they are in a situation that can’t possibly improve -on the other hand, for many people, the current situation works to keep them in place.  Nothing is selling in their area - so they can’t sell their house and move to another.  Or they are afraid to change jobs, because the loss of seniority would lead to making them easy targets for layoffs in this economy.  It may not be possible any longer to get back what they owe on their house - but it may still make sense to keep paying the mortgage, because they expect extended family to move in, or because they can grow food on the land.  They may be tied down by elderly or disabled family members who can’t be easily moved, by a shared custody agreement, or by need to access to certain kinds of medical care.  Family - biological or chosen - may tie them to an area, as may familiarity with the climate and region.  We may decide that strong community ties make an imperfect area (and all areas are imperfect) enough to keep us there.  Or we may lack the resources to move.

And staying in place isn’t always the best of a bad lot of options - sometimes it is simply the best option.  There’s been a tendency to rhetorically abandon areas we don’t know what to do with - inner cities, exurbs, suburbia - all of these are dismissed sometimes, as though this will magically vacate them.  The fact is that 300 million people in the US or 60 million in Britain cannot simply all go out to the countryside to their own bunkers, unless we wish to create a new suburbia, with barbed-wire, each bunker lined up in the countryside next to its neighbors ;-).  Nor can we move everyone into cities - there aren’t jobs enough, nor room enough to grow food.  Food alone will mean that the countryside and suburbs (near the city markets, often built on good farmland) will have to be populated - and the cities were usually cities for reasons long before oil - those reasons won’t go away.

More and more, I am advising people to stay put, or at most move to a place fairly near and like the one they live in now.  I don’t think there’s enough time to adapt to new climates and environmental conditions, to retrofit new homes and build communities - now that doesn’t mean some people won’t have to move.  But if you can stay put, I think there are some real advantages for most people - it takes *time* to build community, to build soil, to learn the bus lines, to get into the carpools, to find the cheap produce, to learn about pests and diseases and how to keep cool or warm.  Right now, I think time is in short supply.

That last, I think is the biggest reason I wanted to do this class - because even those who hadn’t planned to face hard times where they are may find themselves stuck there.  And there are a huge number of ways we can adapt and mitigate our situation - but it will be much easier to begin now.


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.


« Prev