Friday, November 9, 2007

Goodbye Suburbia

In a short piece on Gristmill, Joseph Romm thinks suburbia has a future, and that $280 a barrel oil won't impact the American way of life because we'll all just switch to plug-in hybrid vehicles so the effect on our pocketbooks will remain constant. In stating why Peak Oil won't destroy suburbia, Romm, and some of the online responses to his piece, displays a peculiar Western trait most often evidenced by K-12 textbook authors--the inability to think systemically; to connect the dots; the tendency to reduce complex sets of relationships to a single issue that is presented as independent and autonomous. Scientific reductionism to the rescue.

Peak Oil spells the end of suburbia because suburbia is entirely dependent on oil. Not just for the cars, but for the sprawl, strip malls, cheap and unnecessary goods, and cheap housing built on farmlands, wetlands, and desert ecologies for the worker bees as they flit back and forth to their low-wage no benefit service sector jobs and other shallow distractions from our near total disconnection from anything meaningful.

Thinking that hybrid vehicles present a solution to global warming ignores the fact that about 50% of the greenhouse gas contribution a vehicle makes during its lifetime occurs during the extraction of the resources and manufacturing for that vehicle. Peak Oil won't make only gasoline more expensive, but everything cheap oil makes possible such as the 1500 mile Caesar Salad grown on lands depleted of nutrients, and then packaged in plastics and smothered in creamy processed foodstuffs based on oil.

When the "green revolution" of agribusiness comes to an end, suburbs and the expressways that lead to them are going to have to return to farmland. A growth economy that is dependent on cheap energy will not continue functioning when oil is at $200-$300/barrel, unless money becomes completely valueless (although a good argument, based on international currency trading and derivatives markets, can be made that it already is).

Global warming (actually, catastrophic climate destabilization) isn't just from gasoline powered internal combustion engines. Another major contributor is loss and degradation of natural carbon sinks from sprawl, excessive consumption, and population overshoot. Driving electric cars to the suburbs will only put off the inevitable. Trying to power all the vehicles we assume we need to maintain the charade of affluence and independence with cellulosic agro-fuels will most likely speed up the overall process of the demise of the American lifestyle.

The rise in the price of oil is a reflection of one thing--it is a finite natural resource that is on the downward slope of its depletion curve. This is the point at which it is very important to become aware of and to understand the difference between environmental economics--the greening of orthodox growth economics where technology can substitute for energy--and ecological economics, which looks at the whole system; its interrelationships and carrying capacity; and ways to continue improving once the steady-state of maturity is reached.

I mean, what we're talking about here is the possible end of life as we know it, or in the more optimistic scenarios, merely the collapse of what is known as Western civilization. Who honestly thinks suburbia is going to survive 1) the imminent collapse of a growth economy that is based on cheap and abundant fossil fuels, 2) a two-thirds human population reduction to the sustainable global limit of about 2 billion, and 3) the mass migration of the majority of that population into habitable areas as changes unfold from catastrophic climate destabilization that are on track to occur even if tomorrow we stop all greenhouse gas emissions, razing the rain forests, and polluting our air and water? When you combine the rational, emotional, and spiritual evidence for the shape we and our planet are in, the worship of material consumption, mammonism, and domination isn't a system that's worth protecting and preserving.

It also must be pointed out that neither "greenness" nor quality of life in the built environment is solely a function of density (you may freely substitute market or production efficiences here). While it may be that big cities such as New York have access to a greater number of natural history museums, zoos and aquariums, teaching about nature is not functionally equivalent to being in nature. We've long known this to be qualitatively true, and it can now be shown to be quantitatively so on a number of indicators as well. The economic principle of perfect substitutability doesn't hold any better here than on thinking that technology can substitute for energy. And of course, there are all the studies of the negative physical, mental, and environmental health effects of overcrowding.

The conversation we all need to be having is the best and quickest way to put an alternative in place that improves quality of life and provides expanded opportunities and support to develop one's potential. A system in which we create the quality goods that we need (not manufactured need or throw-away goods), within carrying capacity limitations (not the myth of infinite abundance), and have the time to enjoy and benefit from them (not working two jobs to pay off credit card debt).

The pieces of this alternative already exist, we don't have to wait for a techno-miracle. They include powering down, relocalizing, and overcoming our disconnection from the natural world, each other, and our own inner nature. It involves shifting our mindset from having more to being more. It involves giving up the unfounded assumption that economic growth is necessary for prosperity and that we can consume the entire planet with no ill effects if we call it "green." It involves working with the creative energies of life in building mutually supportive, responsible relationships.

This is the direction we would head if we were to allow our rationality to be fully informed by our emotions and spirit. We could press our intelligence into service and admit that reverse is the proper gear to select when you're going the wrong way down a narrowing path.