Can We Stay in the Suburbs?

This is a guest post by Aaron Newton, who is working with coauthor Sharon Astyk on the forthcoming book, A Nation of Farmers. Aaron contributes at Groovy Green; he also blogs at Powering Down. Aaron is a land planner and garden farmer in suburban North Carolina, seeking ways to transform the current course of human land use development in an effort to prepare for the effects of global oil production peak and its outcome on automotive suburban America.

There is little doubt that during that last 60 years we here in America have transformed our manmade landscape in a way that is fundamentally different from any form of human habitation ever known. While many have flocked to this new way of organizing the spaces in which we live, critics have noticed the shortcomings and have loudly pointed them out. It’s been suggested that the development of the suburbs here in the U.S. was a really bad idea. Author James Kunstler describes suburbia as, ‘the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.’ The ability of most citizens to own and cheaply operate an automobile means we’ve had access to a level of mobility never before experienced. The outgrowth of which has been a sprawling pattern of living that changed the rules about how and where we live, work, and play and how we get there and back. We are now more spread out than ever before, mostly getting back and forth from one place to another by driving alone in our cars. This could turn out to be a really bad thing.

As the cost of fueling those cars increases, it’s becoming obvious we’ve foolishly put too many of our eggs into one basket. And as America wakes up to the realities of a changing climate, it’s also painfully obvious that soloing around in a huge fleet of carbon emitters isn’t the most thoughtful way to transport ourselves from one side of suburbia to the other. The question is, as the expansive nature of suburban life becomes too expensive, both economically and ecologically, what will we do with this great ‘misallocation’ of resources?

Will we, as some suggest, simply abandon this experiment? The likelihood of moving everyone out of suburbia and into mixed use, walkable communities is quite remote. Likewise moving everyone from the suburbs out into the countryside and onto farms is unlikely. To be sure many, many people will move. Some people are already choosing to move to places where they can safely walk and bike to meet more of their daily needs. Others are choosing to reruralize, but completely depopulating suburban America is a project we have neither the fiscal resources nor the fossil fuel energy necessary to accomplish. It seems reasonable to assume that lots of people are going to continue to live in the suburban communities we’ve created all over this country during the last 60 years.

Will these places simply devolve into slums with roving bands of thieves stripping building materials and other valuables from abandoned homes and formerly homeless drug addicts burning them down while trying to keep warm? They’ll probably be some of that especially if the housing crisis worseness (and it will) and the government continues to address it largely by bailing out banks. The following is from a recent article in The Atlantic,

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, ‘I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.’

That is to say, this is already a problem. And with more people defaulting on their mortgages and losing their jobs as the economy slumps we’re likely to see this scenario play out repeatedly. But it’s important to take a moment and assess the possibilities presented by the problem. That is, if we’re going to do anything other than whistle while a large number of the communities in this country turn into the slums of the 21st century, we’re going to have to comprehensively address the problem and that means starting with an assessment of not only the disadvantages of suburban America but the advantages we might have in this arrangement of living. Could the problem actually turn out to be the solution?

One of the results of a declining in the availability of oil and other fossil fuel resources will undoubtedly be a rise in the cost of food or even outright shortages of certain types of calories we’ve grown accustom to acquiring quite easily. Lots of people have written about this. It’s seems increasingly obvious that we’re going to have to grow food differently if we have any chance of adapting to a low energy lifestyle with any semblance of grace. Growing food means using land for some sort of agriculture. Exactly what land we use is entirely up to us. It’s worth noting that while David Pimentel et al have suggested that it takes 1.8 acres of land to feed each of us now. That number could be reduced to 1.2 acres per person while still meeting the nutritional needs of the average American. But by 2050 we are likely to have only 0.6 acres person both because of the rise in global population and the loss of land due to desertification, salinization and soil depletion. In the very near future we’re not going to have enough land to feed ourselves in the manner in which we’ve been doing so. Where will more ‘new’ land come from?

The suburbs were born out of an idea that each man could have his own cottage in the forest, his own unmolested paradise outside of the nastys of the industrializing cities and still go to work in those cities each day. (Just how many of the problems we’re facing today are born out of us wanting to both have and eat our cake?) The idea was that a man could still earn a living in the dirty city but return to his pristine piece of land where his wife and children could be free from pollution, crime, brown people, noise and traffic. It never quite worked out that way, which is to say it has, since the beginning, failed to achieve what this experiment set out to accomplish; to say nothing of the negative aspects of this way of developing our countryside. But nevertheless, the end result is that a lot of people live on small amounts of land in communities that aren’t completely paved over with asphalt and concrete. Many of us here in this country have access to land albeit in small amounts. This provides us with the most important resource needed to address the rising cost of food- soil. In other words, the fact that we’ve chopped up much of the existing farmland that once surrounded major metropolitan areas in this country and parceled it out in fairly small sizes to many more people ultimately may or may not prove to have been a really bad idea. But, not only is it the hand we have now been dealt, it might turn out to have been a fairly nifty way of developing and maintaining a moderately democratic land ownership policy here in America. We still have, albeit in another form and with a reduction in the quantity and quality of soil ready for food production, a reasonable amount of land for growing food. Again from the previously mentioned article,

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that's roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

What do you do with a surplus of more than 22 million large lot homes during a period of failing industrial agriculture and rising food costs? You establish new microfarms of course. Those people who do continue to live in the suburbs either because they cannot move or because they don’t want to, could feed themselves by using this land to grow food for themselves and their neighbors. The food could be grown largely free from fossil fuel inputs and would be produced very close to the people who will eventually eat it. This solves two of the really big problems associated with the industrial model of agriculture. It provides a ready land base not for the reinstitution of plantation style farming whereby wealthy landowners who profited from energy descent reintroduce a horrible form of feudalism that enslaves the former paper pushing population of America who are likely to lose their jobs as the American economy continues to decline. No, this land has already been subdivided into manageable parcels that could serve as the basis for a revolution in agriculture.

Mention this idea to an ordinary citizen unaware of the prospects we face in the near future and you’re likely to get a host of responses about how unlikely or unreasonable such a solution might be. It’s likely we haven’t reached the pain threshed necessary to get the real attention of average Americans, but one response certainly will be that we can’t grow very much food by just tearing out our lawns. This of course isn’t true at all.

Several recent studies suggest that small scale, sustainable agriculture is actually more productive per unit of land than industrial farming. We’ve come to think of farming efficiency in terms of human labor, with the adoption of the idea that the fewer people doing it the better. But in terms of what the land can yield, we’re better off farming it intensely on smaller plots of land and the math is there to back up that claim. Yields can be substantial even on such small plots as would be available to the average suburbanite. The Dervaes family of Path to Freedom provides an excellent example of what is possible in our front and backyards. They live on an urban lot of about 1/5th of an acre. They cultivate about 1/10th of an acre or about 4,400 square feet. That’s 67 feet X 67 feet. In other words, that’s not much land and yet they consistently produce more than 6,000 lbs of vegetables annually. The four adults living there eat about 85% of their vegetarian diet from the yard during the summer months and are still able to get more than half of what they eat out of their gardens in the winter. This and they sell some produce to nearby restaurants. It should be noted that they live in southern California where the weather is extremely generous to those who growing food (and have access to water), but Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch point out in Four-Seasons Harvest: Organic Vegetables from You Home Garden All Year Long, even people living in Maine are capable of growing a tremendous amount and variety of nutritional, tasty food regardless of where they live.

And let us not forget all those paper pushers I just hand pink slips to earlier in this post. Our government and a lot of well meaning business-as-usual types are going to put together all sorts of plans to try and reemploy all the people who lose their jobs in the post carbon economy. There is already talk of a kind of ‘Green Works Project Administration’ like the WPA seen during the New Deal era. At one time the WPA was the largest employee base in the country and was designed as a way to build up American infrastructure while reemploying those negatively affected by the Great Depression. Such an effort now could get much needed projects up and run in terms of new forms of energy that aren’t fossil fuel based. To say nothing of conservation and energy efficiency projects such as home insulation that needs to be done on a national scale. But this or any other response that doesn’t include a large measure of self sufficiency for the average American would be missing out on a great opportunity to redemocratize America. It is painfully obvious that we are at our greatest disadvantage when we are in debt to others for the basics we need in order to survive. Growing more of our own food in our own personal gardens, parks, school yards and community gardens is a great way to address this problem while providing for the nutritional shortfall likely to be experienced in the wake of the decline of industrial agriculture.

Luckily the sun is still shining and even those of us who live in heavily wooded neighborhoods have the option of modifying the canopy of those trees to gain access to sunlight. The soil is still under our feet and we can use it going forward to meet more of our food needs. The suburbs also offer a certain amount of impervious surfaces or surfaces that shed water. This is often a problem in many communities. The idea is that if too many roofs tops and too many roadways shed too much water during a rainstorm. The result is a high volume of water after a storm that has to be diverted out of these neighborhoods before rushing into our creeks, streams and rivers. This often leads to flooding and/or substantial amounts of soil runoff, the number one water pollution problem in many communities. I find it annoyingly amusing that while my county has storm water problems to such an extent that we are under EPA mandate to address this problem, we are simultaneously experiencing water restrictions due to the drought in southeastern America. In other words, we have two water problems where I live, too much water and not enough. Is it too simple to suggest that we collect some of what we get where it falls and use it?

The point is that the structures of suburbia- specifically rooftops and roadways- could be used to gather the water we would need to grow food for ourselves. This could be especially important going forward as global climate changes throws weather curveball after curveball at us. The solution is to designing simple, elegant ways to collect this water for use during times between rain storms. 600 gallons of water can be collected from 1,000 square feet of rooftop in just a 1’ rainstorm. Many McMansions are much larger and as such have the capacity to gather much more rain. It’s worth noting that 65% of the water we use in our homes each day goes to irrigation, toilet flushing and laundry. Rainwater could be used to do all three with simple filtration. Doing this could go a long way towards restoring the health of our waterways.

In Garden Agriculture: A revolution in efficient water use, David Holmgren notes that ‘Australian suburbs are no more densely populated than the world’s most densely populated agricultural regions.’ Anecdotal evidence suggests that American suburbs are populated in roughly the same way. This suggests to me that it is at least within the realm of possibility that the suburbs could be transformed in a way that helps us: A) take advantage of new soil for growing food, B) foster a redemocratization of America by offering a reasonable amount of food self sufficiency for families during the coming era of change and volatility and C) capture the rain water necessary to address the deepening water crisis being experienced worldwide. We may find that in a time in which we are unable to build out grand new responses to peak oil and climate change, agriculturally at least, we may not have to. We might do best to just stay put.

Realistic, well-thought article.
I expect the future to be a hybrid of scenarios, some abandonment/squatting, some agricultural redevelopment and architectural re-use (Mcmansions as rooming houses/apartment buildings), some deconstruction and re-use, some burning for fuel, somethings we cannot imagine yet.
As you note, all of these options are already occurring somewhere. Edible landscapes are pretty common in my neighborhood, especially fruit trees. Plums are pretty much self-planting weeds here in Boulder. Food costs will incentivize people to convert their landscaping to something they can eat.
In years past, I have done a bit of deconstruction and a good bit of remodeling/repurposing of buildings. In capitol hill Denver, some buildings have been converted from big single-family dwellings, to apartment buildings, and back to high-end single-family since their construction around 1900.
But decaying, abandoned houses are a common sight in the exurban regions of New York and Indiana, so sometimes deconstructing and resuse is not worth the trouble.
In most of the world, the settlement pattern for agricultural villages is physical connection of houses (from Nepal to France to Mexico,etc., rows of connected houses line streets and footpaths). This provides big savings on heat, plus structural integrity, and community. Interestingly, the back-to-the-land pattern on the Oil Drum seems to be a separate house on 40 acres. Maybe some of the exurban McMansions will form the core of new agricultural villages, with the neighboring houses torn down for construction materials or fuel, and additions forming the familar rural hodgepodge of connected structures.

Edible landscapes are pretty common in my neighborhood, especially fruit trees.

Boulder CO is a remarkable place, but ultimately unrepresentative of the typical US suburban lifestyle. My edible landscape is likely in the category of far-less-than-1% of the yards here in Virginia.

Three factors are going to make it difficult to stay in Suburbia;

1. Subprime mortgages start many recent homeowners off with a major handicap, with too many people simply walking away from their homes; abandoned homes will become hideouts for transients and looters
2. Travel distance, especially for exurban. Biking, carpooling, vanpooling, and bus networks could make suburbia transportation possible, if enough people do that instead of clinging to the one-occupant auto commute.
3. 1/4 acre yards don't support a great deal of food production, especially with a house, garage, driveway taking up a goodly portion of that. If exurban 1-3 acres yards are counted, then they could have the potential to provide a substantial amount of food for the occupants, if the occupants decide to 'farm'.


To remain in suburbs most people will have to abandon the daily trips to the mall and learn to make do with what they have on hand. An average suburban lot may have anywhere from 3000 to 8000 sq. ft. of usable land that could have the majority of lawn removed and brought to plantable condition with little work.

Available fertilizers and water could be supplemented using grey water and human excrement properly composted. Getting people past the idea of using their own waste to feed their crops will be hard to accomplish but hunger is a powerful motivator. Improper composting of human waste may create to many disease outbreaks and have to be outlawed in order to prevent spread of chollera or other pathogens. Sewer treatment plants could begin composting their sludge similar to that of Milwaukee and their "Milorganite" product. Distribution on an as needed basis from the processing facility could supplement the available fertilizers to the area residents.

A typical lot if managed correctly could go a long ways to providing food sources to many of the suburban populations which could free up resources to be used for the inner cities.

I believe many layers of production will be necessary in order to prevent famine from becoming a part of our daily living.

In order to begin the move to sustainable communities many landscape firms could be selling these garden packages to residents beginning now. It is not too early to begin the shift to this and would be a great idea for some politician to seize upon as a "Return to Victory Garden" movement.

What better way to involve the general population in understanding our energy problems?

I hope we begin soon.

An average suburban lot may have anywhere from 3000 to 8000 sq. ft. of usable land that could have the majority of lawn removed and brought to plantable condition with little work.

Have you actually tried this? I've converted quite a bit of my lawn to garden, edible landscaping, and small grains, and it would not be correct to say it took "little work".

Most people will cling to their concept of how a suburban lawn should look, afraid of what the neighbors might think.
I'm all for the return to Victory Gardens, meanwhile Joe Sixpack rides around on his 28hp riding lawnmower and relaxes watching NASCAR truck races. Changing the mindset will be the toughest challenge, especially with climate change denialists and the Yergins of the world telling the Joe Sixpacks that they are on the right track, no worries.

Good "article".

Two problems that stand our are:

1.) The agriculturalization of suburbia will not generate enough revenues for those who don't already own outright, and for other necessities (e.g. heating, cooking, electricity, recreation, etc.).

2.) True enough, a desuburbanization is not likely other than many, many more becoming homeless. There is not enough walkable, urbanist environments to absorb such a migration, the lack of effective demand for the suburban properties and the premium price that walkable urban properties already command will also be prohibitive.

I think the answer may be to retrofit the drivable suburban environments to walkable urbanist ones (where necessities including food are available within walking distance to all), including the very active promotion of tele-commuting (including neighborhood facilities with fax machines, copiers, and tele-video equipment).

My considered opinion is that this can not and will not happen within the dictates of the so-called "free market". In other words, we need a planned economy.

Good luck.

1.) The agriculturalization of suburbia will not generate enough revenues for those who don't already own outright, and for other necessities (e.g. heating, cooking, electricity, recreation, etc.).

Revenues? This idea is not a business idea, it is a survival technique. The point is self-reliance/sustainability. If everyone is growing the food they need, who would they be selling to?

My considered opinion is that this can not and will not happen within the dictates of the so-called "free market". In other words, we need a planned economy.

Because they have worked so well thus far? No, what will work to distribute resources better and create a more democratic ideal is a gold standard, trade-based economy with no central banks and zero usury. When growth is not the end, then free trade can be the means to a sustainable system. As long as money/wealth is created by the charging of interest, you will have an unsustainable economy.

As this applies to food, let people grow and trade what they need. Organizing beyond the community level would be a huge error leading us back to where we are now, or where China and the USSR spent most of the last century.



My point was that without sufficient revenues/income, many if not most suburbanites will not be able to stay in their properties, and those who are working full-time will not be able to be food self-sufficient because of their career pre-occupations. Also, there is more to survival than growing food and I sincerely doubt that many can be self-sufficient (especially in urban and suburban environments)even in this one sphere (food).

Secondly, your knee jerk reaction to the previous failures of socialism does not preclude the idea that we would be better off if we had goals and plans for cooperative endeavors locally, regionally, and inter-regionally. The reason that America has been so successful (thus far) is more related to the rape of a virgin landscape rather than the merits of Capitalism.


Ah, we are using different assumptions, Mike. I am always thinking in terms of where we end up, while you were speaking in terms of the transition period.

I still would think the "Victory Garden" would be used for supplementing the diet while moving to providing the entire diet as collapse gets further along. (I use collapse here not in terms of the end of civilization, but in the sense of breaking down and ending up something very different than it is now - almost certainly more localized, less regulated and possibly with federal governments that are but a shell of what they are now.)

There are people producing enough food in 4-5,000 sq ft. to keep one person fed for a year. Some homes have that much sq. footage! Turing lawns, parks, greenways and parking lots into gardens might provide enough to sustain small communities. I am doubtful this would work in large American cities. LArge cities will have o crate new ways to feed their people, depopulate, or find a way to provide value to the rural areas such that they are willing to provide food for them.


Excellent post Aaron. I have always thought that Kunstler has overly discounted the ability of Suburban neighborhoods to beome much more food/energy independent than they are now. The widespread employment of microfarms and simple improvements to reduce energy could make make Suburbs much more viable in the future. Ofcourse some will degrade to slums, but the potential is surely there. I have a 100 sq foot garden in my saburban home that produces 150 lbs of produce per season (using mostly compost for fertilizer). It could easily be expanded to 20 times that size -- and I would have no problem transitioning my yard from ornamentals to food producers. With respect to energy I have taken steps to reduce my energy use by some 40% with only modest financial investment. I could reduce it much further with modest investment and some life style changes.

So I believe the tools are available to transform much of suburbia towards much higher sustainablity. Just have to hit the point of pain where it becomes desirable, or necessary.

Best wishes for Saburban Microfarms.


I wholeheartedly echo your comments that "I have always thought that Kunstler has overly discounted the ability of Suburban neighborhoods to become much more food/energy independent than they are now." The entire article is a good start to thinking past the dogmatism of Kunstler. One thing I did not see mentioned is the move away from flush toilets to compost toilets, which allow us to use the results to improve the land and do away with a total waste of water (IMHO). Another point to consider is that the suburbs of the last 60 years were not the first time we had "suburbs" with living spaces widely separated from each other: in the "old" West, each family had a homestead and went into town once a month or even once a year (by horse). I prefer the city and a small patch of land as I once had in Denver, but lots of other people could manage from the suburbs, small local villages. Anyway, good article.

The only difference being that the homesteaders weren't commuting to work every day. The idea of suburbs is not that living spaces are widely separated. Instead, it's the idea that a person can live far from work, so that they don't have to wake up in a noisy, dirty city.

Living in New Jersey, suburbs are pretty much the rule. There are various levels of suburbia though. Most of the older developments near the city are pretty crowded. They might sit on 1/10 to 1/4 of an acre. Fortunately, the houses aren't too big, but the yards are still small, and if you happen to be on the wrong side of the street most of the land that could be a garden is shaded. The middle aged developments tend to be sited on larger parsels of land and are farther from city centers. They usually sit on 1/2 to 1 acre of land. Shade still plays a big factor in how much of the property is actually usable, but not as badly as with the older houses unless they happen to have a number of trees. The newer developments go one of two ways depending upon the zoning laws for the town. First, they can be even more crowded than the older developments. The houses almost universally have 1/10 acre plots and a huge footprint for the house. It's not uncommon to have 3500 sq. ft. houses on tiny parsels of land. The other trend is monster houses on 3-5 acres of land.

Barring other factors, the owners of the monster houses might have a chance of growing enough food (minus grains) for a normal sized family. Unfortunatley, one of the first things that developers do when preparing a build site is to bulldoze off all of the top soil and replace it with sod. The other types of suburbia don't stand a chance of growing a reasonable amount of food with the land they have. Limited space and shade from trees and, more importantly, the very house that we're trying to save get in the way.

In the absence of a robust transportation network that can move enormous amounts of food from where its grown to where its eaten, the suburbs (at least in New Jersey) simply won't work. The Green Revolution has allowed us to pave over and build on what used to be very good growing land, and it's going to be very difficult to get it back into use.

What a great article by Prof Goose. Thanks for sharing.

On getting to and from the suburbs in a post peak world, we are going to need a lot more battery electric vehicles. I just turned over 2400 miles on my EV this morning on the way to work.

I am currently working on a 4 wheel BEV and it should be on the road soon. We can not wait for Detroit to solve our transportation problems. They are reacting way to slowly.

The part about growing food on small lots and the comments about rainwater reminded me of this page that I read recently.

This fellow has a really good system for storing rainwater. It appears that it could be used by many people.


Your ZEV Ninja is very cool! From what I read you can do around 10 miles at ~20-50 mph on the battery before recharging. That's pretty good IMHO. In case I missed it, could you post a bit more on charging and range.
I've been skeptical of batteries, EVs but I want to hear more good news on that front.
Thanks for the post.

The Th!nk seems to be the first practical EV car to hit the market:

The first such general consumption electric auto to reach UK motorists will be the Norwegian TH!NK city EV which goes on sale during the last quarter of this year. Revealed at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, the TH!NK city is a two-seater with a top speed of 65 mph, a zero to 30 mph time of just 6.5 seconds and it’ll reach 50 mph in 16 seconds – perfectly respectable ‘round town performance at legal speeds, and it’ll run another 124 miles after an overnight ten hour charge from any domestic power outlet.

the first models are due for release in Noway this spring, which will allow better evaluation.

The Lectric Ninja has done 45 miles on a single charge. This was at moderate speeds around town. If you go top speed of 55 all the time the range will be proportionally less.

I rode the bike to work twice this week. Hopefully the weather will allow more riding soon. This bike was built in about 90 days of spare time. After work I plug it into a solar charge station on the roof of my work shop.

BEV's are available today. You just have to be willing to build your own. This is why the big three will become minor players in the near future as Th!nk and Tesla lead us to the future.

Israel and Denmark will lead also with Project Better Place and USA will play catch up as usual.

Hello all,

Here are my two cents on this. It would be nice to be able to have a transition as so, but in my view the problem underlaying this, is that most people are living in homes that are owned by banks. Therefore if they lose their jobs in the downside of the hubbert's curve, they will be evicted and then be unable to grow their own food (as said in Dimitry Orlov paper). But on the other hand, if the forecloses are bad enough the banks might be incline to let the people stay in place rather than having to manage an oversized inventory.

An other question I have is relevant to the actual square footage needed to grow enough food per person. The houses are bigger but most of the time the lots have not grown in accordance, leaving less free space to grow anything. An to conclude, there is dirt and soil, I mean the guality of soil needed to grow astroturf is not the same needed to grow food. Just having enough space does not garanty in my view the yields that could substain a person for a full year, I here I say nothing of all thoses folks stuck in marshes and deserts without any logical prospect of growing anything. But here, I am no agronomist, just a poor undergraduate student in business administration.

Lets hope the best in anycases.

Many of us here in this country have access to land albeit in small amounts. This provides us with the most important resource needed to address the rising cost of food- soil.

After decades of organic amendments, I've managed to improve my garden soil. The pH is lower by about 1 point, I've increased NO3-N from single to double digits ppm, increased P by nearly an order of magnitude, improved tilth & water holding capacity, and most especially have increased micronutrient content substantially. I've accomplished this without benefit of commercial fertilizers & amendments. But it's been an awful lot of work. Harvesting & hauling the raw materials for making compost is labor intensive. Fortunately I've had two strong sons to help but they are grown now & have their own lives. How many other suburbanites/ semi-rural dwellers have done any of this? I see bagged leaves, lawn clippings, pruning slash, and other compostable materials routinely stacked by the road to be hauled to the landfill. What percentage of people have made the effort to improve their soil? 1%? 5%?

It's a pipe dream to think that people are going to be able to feed themselves on ex-suburban plots of land. The work is hard, the harvest sparse. I can grow all my own produce and eggs, but I'm hardly self-sufficient for staple cereal grains. Very few could even produce what I do on their depauperate soils. If people become forced by circumstance to grow all their own food, tens of millions are going to starve. Starving people become desperate. They will raid the gardens of those who actually can grow some of their own food, and will kill those who try to defend their gardens. Get real.

There is a lot of room on the continuum from "doomer" to "cornucopian".

Plenty of people already garden on suburban and exurban land. As food and transport costs increase, the nature of the suburbs will change, and food growing, remodeling, and repurposing will happen incrementally. Neighborhood stores which did not make economic sense at $1.20 gallon will make more economic sense at $3.50 a gallon,etc. So maybe the day will come when people "will kill those who try to defend their gardens", but people all over the world today live with incomes 10 or 100 times lower than current US average, and they do not kill each other for their gardens. So a future more like the US before 1930 is certainly possible, where almost everybody gardened at least a little, but the majority of food still came from farming rather than gardening.

When I read comments like "Get Real", I think that the scenario of houses surrounded by food gardens is already "real" for half the inhabitants of the planet, while the "killing those who try to defend their gardens" is only real for a tiny and unfortunate minority in Darfur and other desparate places. Does "real" refer to what is actually happening and likely to happen, or does it refer to a specific fantasy or prediction of the future, not buttressed by any evidence?

Does "real" refer to what is actually happening and likely to happen...

I don't know. Does it? Are YOU totally self-sufficient for food and fuel on a suburban plot of land? Or are your objections to my post based on "a specific fantasy or prediction of the future, not buttressed by any evidence?"

I actually am self-sufficient for fuel wood, and for vegetables & eggs. I also provide some fruit for my own needs, and could harvest rabbits, squirrels, quail & feral cats from my property, should I choose to eat meat. I can't provide staple cereal grains for myself, let alone commodities such as citrus, coffee, sugar, etc. Are you even as semi-self-sufficient as I am, in these terms? If not, then you're a hypocrite for criticizing my post. Let's see you do better, then I may think you know what you're talking about.

Where was "self-sufficiency" even proposed?

Converting suburbs to produce more food and be better adapted to a post-peak world does not imply self-sufficiency at all to me. My interest is more in the incremental changes that will occur and those that are already occurring. I have never met a "self-sufficient" human and I do not expect to.

My objection was to the combination of "Get Real" and "killing" to protect their gardens. That scenario is certainly possible, but to my mind is so distant, given the huge margins between current US consumption and actual human requirements, that "real" is the last word that I would choose to describe it.

It depends on how bad the collapse is

If it is relatively mild then some kind of victory garden approach as a supplemental (not primary) food source is entirely likely to occur.

If the collapse and associated anarchy is at all bad, well most collapse, even partial collapse, in history has been hell on farmers. Check out the 30 years war in 17th century Germany as one example.

The key factor in my mind is whether a functioning government survives, one capable of maintaining law and order. If law and order are maintained, then yeah for the gentleman farmer. If law and order fail, then the scavenging mob is the winner.

Another observation, no government is likely to be able to remain functional in the event of true starvation of a substantial portion of it's population.

I agree with TommyVee - this exaggerated "self sufficiency" meme seems almost uniquely North American, maybe add in parts of Australia, Siberia - big continental areas with a migration history where self reliance became more prominent. But in the US, anyway, it's been hyped by the western genre in movies and literature, distorting the western experience almost beyond recognition.

Investing in social capital is the basic game plan for our species, and I don't see why that won't prevail generally as economic contraction intensifies (albeit with some turbulence, I agree).

Reminds me of a "Food Days" Conference that I helped organize in 1976.

We were in Amherst Massachusetts and regarding the local and regional area, we first decided to call the Conference, "Self-Sufficiency".

Then someone said, "That would be ridiculous (remember we were in Massachusetts), why don't we call it "Towards Self-Sufficiency"". Everybuddy agreed, and we went on from there and had a successful conference at least judging by the attendance. Judging by the trends towards more suburban and exurban development since the conference, the ideas presented obviously did not take root. We are still facing myopic development, converting farmlands into lawns, etc.

We need to clarify when talking about moving towards agricultural self-sufficiency in metropolitan regions whether we mean personal or societal self-sufficiency. Moving towards this goal is pertinent to both, particularly in regions with large concentrations of urban and suburban environments.


Sounds like you were concerned about limited resources and a trend in living style that did not fit your world view 32 years ago.

Then you were socializing with like minded folk at community conferences, and now you're doing it here on the net.

Topics like this one (article above) I file as "oracles of the coming doom" beside overpopulation, global cooling, nuclear winter, ozone depletion and global warming.

I've formed the impression (not wanting to push too far here) that you might have spent time moving from one humanity-induced doom oracle to the next.

You're older than I am. I am curious about how your opinions have evolved with time.

The evidence seems to have always implied disaster, but the scenarios seem never to pan out...

The main point of Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" was that many sucessful civilizations eventually failed because they did not foresee impending resource constraints.

The evidence seems to have always implied disaster, but the scenarios seem never to pan out...

I think modern man has very little sense of how short a time 150 years (Ind. Rev.) is, and even less awareness of how short a time 80 - 100 (oil-ominated industry) years is.

Previous collapses have often occurred, depending on how you define the period of collapse, over decades (British Empire) or hundreds of years (Maya, Rome). Some happen "over night" due to strong outside forces. (Inca)

If we are headed for a major collapse, we are just getting started. The industrial age has been but a blink.


I would agree that gardening is a lot harder than it looks. There is also the issue of what kind of jobs can people hold - will there be sufficient transportation to get to them work? WIll jobs be available?

Will jobs be available?

The uncertainty is amazing. My best guess is jobs will mirror the current bipolar inflation/deflation of finances. If you are in a primary value-added job (farmer, food processing, transportation) you will be much better off than service jobs (insurance sales, bankers, etc...).

The spikes of uncertainty will be enormous. These can be modulated somewhat by aggressive leadership; if we have hope, we can endure more uncertainty. It would be nice to see:

  • Universal Services for 18 year olds of 4-6 months. No foreign deployment for conscripts
    • Churn society
    • Strengthen social fabric
    • Distribute crisis organizational skills
    • Teach gardening and defense
  • Organize economic communities with 6 months of disaster rations.
  • De-regulate neighborhoods to allow chickens, goats, etc...
  • Close gas stations on weekends (practice)
  • Encourage cottage industries, feed-in tarrifs
  • 55 mph speed limits (practice)
  • Solar power the communications networks
  • Feed-in Tariffs
  • De-monopolize power generation and transportation
  • Other acts of self-reliance and building economic community

Peak Oil's consequences will be global, but the solution is local; self-reliance.

It might be helpful to have a persistent section of TOD that lists local solutions and links to other resources.

"After decades of organic amendments, I've managed to improve my garden soil."

That's hopelessly pessmistic.
I've managed to improve the productivity of my soil by about three times over four years by reading and learning how to compost well.
The internet has been a HUGE source of information.
This year I made my own terra preta out of burned black toast and compost. We'll see how that works out.

The average person could be TOLD how to improve their soil by a resident expert. And I think the percentage of the population doing backyard farming is much higher than you think. In my immediate neighborhood there are four people growing at least some vegetables. My immediate neighbor who thinks I'm a crazy hippy dude will soon be doing it because his daughter has been influence by my two sons who have told her that vegetables from the store are full of nasty chemicals. She now has asked her grampa who grows his own vegetables to help her make a little vegetable plot.
The meme is spreading.

"After decades of organic amendments, I've managed to improve my garden soil."

That's hopelessly pessmistic.
I've managed to improve the productivity of my soil by about three times over four years by reading and learning how to compost well.

It depends on where you live and what the soil was like to begin with. Here, the pH of unamended soil is about 8.2 and it contains <1% organic matter. Some improvement is made in the first few years by amending with compost & spading in cover crops, but it literally requires decades to turn this "soil" into anything resembling the rich mollisols of the N American Midwest.

Yes, many people garden as a hobby. Doing so provides recreation, modest exercise & improves human nutrition a little bit. But these suburban hobby gardens are a FAR cry from becoming totally food self-sufficient, especially in a scenario where fossil fuel & commercial fertilizer inputs are unavailable. Sans the garden tractor &/or rototiller, many of these hobbyist gardeners wouldn't bother. And without the pickup to haul compostable materials, it would be nigh on impossible to provide sufficient homegrown amendments to improve soil quality significantly. This is especially true in the suburbs, where lots typically were bladed down to subsoil before construction began, and where accessible compostable biomass is a long way off.

Knowledge about how to grow food is readily available, as you state. But growing sufficient food to support a family is HARD WORK. Under a scenario where families are forced by necessity to feed themselves, it's entirely reasonable to assume that others would become likewise motivated by hunger to rip off the fruits of the labors of others. The vision of happy cooperative suburbanites becoming food & fuelwood self-sufficient is unrealistic in the utter extreme. I repeat: Get real.

Here, the pH of unamended soil is about 8.2...

Wow, getting anything to grow on that is a huge victory.

The "Dig for Victory" campaign in Britain during WWII was both realistic and successful:

Between 1939 and 1945 imports of food were halved and the acreage of British land used for food production increased by 80%. It was estimated that over 1.4 million people had allotments by 1945.

More on Dig for Victory on the BBC web site

Interesting article.

Let us hope that the country never faces such extremes again. However, it is now realised that the home population never ate so well as during and after the war. This was thanks to the strict rationing of shop-bought goods and the amount of fresh vegetables that people ate.

There is a simple message for the 21st Century's increasingly obese and under-exercised populations. Take up vegetable gardening, keep chickens and give up the car while you're at it!

"Take up vegetable gardening, keep chickens..."

Beware of combining these two. Chickens are stupid about most things, but they sure as hell know when vegetables are ripe - usually before you do. Free ranging chickens are not really an option where a close-coupled garden is concerned (and by close coupled, I mean within about 1/4 mile). Because they will find your vegetables, and they will peck the crap out of them. Learning this by experience is a real downer.

While future Victory type gardens might help us out there is something to say about economies of scale. Even a small organic farm will beat the productive crap out of any suburban lot. I find it peculiar that people fantasize about self sufficiency by growing food in suburbia--but just about no one can grow enough food in a suburban lot for himself. Also people fantasize about being energy self sufficient so they install solar water heaters and panels even though the EROE(&$)I is terrible. But at the same time I don't see these same people trying to make homemade washing machines or refrigerators. Nor are these people attempting to make homemade computer chips for their homemade computers. I grow a big garden every year--but like everyone I am dependent on the outside world's productive economies of scale for computers, energy and food.

Kudos for the clear post !

ELP requires some critical pathways if you will. Sort of like the major arteries. Bust those and the bottom is the limit. ELP does not mean hide out and grow your own food it means identifying the critical and important trades and ensuring they don't go the way of the nail salon or botox boutique.

In many cases the same people that are advocating gardening dismiss the internet yet we have this huge ignorant populace that needs education.

You cant reject computers/internet and assume some sort of organic nirvana will happen. We have to have both.

"Economies of scale" depend on local conditions, and what kind of food you're talking abotu.

With food-growing, this is what we find,

- small-scale farming has low resource use, but high labour use, and is very productive in yield per area.
- large-scale farming has high resource use, but low labour use, and is moderately productive in yield per area.

So in the Third World resources are expensive and labour is cheap; they have lots of small-scale farming. In the West resources are cheap and labour is expensive; we have lots of large-scale farming.

As fossil fuels and thus other resources become more scarce, their price will rise, making resources expensive, so that small-scale farming becomes relatively more cost effective.

However, I would expect that some kinds of farming will remain large-scale, specifically large monocultures. If you have miles and miles of wheat, then even if fuel is $20 a gallon that combine harvester looks much more effective than a dozen guys out there with scythes. But the fruit orchard or cabbage field, where machinery doesn't operate so well, human labour will become more cost effective at some point.

And of course, if you just can't get the fossil fuels, artificial fertilisers and so on at any price, then many people will have to go back to that.

It's physically possible to grow half a tonne of fruit and vegetables in a year on 30m2/330ft2 of garden beds, or 42mm2/450ft2 with paths; I know this claim of my vegie garden book to be true because I've done a scaled-down version of it on one-third the area, getting a proportionate yield. The full version will entirely feed one person, or provide the complement to grains and legumes for 2-4 people, and take a weekend to set up, and about 90 minutes of work each week. No fancy chemicals or "unique" techniques are needed, it's very old-style. Farm labourers in 17-19th century England used to be lent cottages with gardens to grow all their vegies, and they often weren't much larger than that.

Nonetheless, I think that grain and legume production will remain largely as it is for the foreseeable future. It's the fruit and vegies that'll matter.

About livestock and thus dairy, it's harder to say. Rises in prices of fossil fuels and derivatives are already flowing on to grain prices, and will thus flow on to confined feedlot livestock. As the meat:grain price ratio rises, we can expect people to eat less meat.

More of that in the shape of food to come.

A couple of comments, firstly comparing the position in the UK.
Gardens here are usually small, and so not a lot of food could be grown there, but OTOH quite a few have allotments and already grow substantial amount of their food, but that amounts to a fairly small proportion of the population at present.
We also have the model of what happened in the 2nd World war which would likely be dusted off.
Land for more allotments is limited in cities, but parks etc would probably be converted, and substantial areas could be made available on the fringes of cities, and folk would bike or catch a bus to them.
The land is currently being farmed, so soil fertility issues should not be huge, but productivity would be much greater under high labour input allotment-style cultivation.
Localisation of offices would probably occur, as people in the further out suburbs would find it difficult to get into the city centres to work.
Out-of-town malls would be in trouble, and would likely try providing buses to people in their catchment area to pull them in, but I doubt that strategy would be sustainable.

My other comment is on the assertion that solar residential thermal suffers for poor EROE and I.
I don't see how you figure that.
Some units are fairly expensive, especially in rip-off Britain, but at it's simplest all you are doing is putting a water container on your roof and siphoning the water off after the sun has heated it.
You can even build do-it-yourself rigs.
Even in the UK this can provide over 50% of hot water needs.
In hot areas you have the added benefit that the area under the collector is cooled.
In France even though they have substantial amounts of nuclear power they plan to install over 5 million solar thermal systems in the next few years, and in cost-conscious China they are massively successful.

Duplicate post

I don't disagree that it's hard work but I also don't think we're going to see a sudden collapse to a situation where people have to all of a sudden start trying to feed themselves from the backyard. It will be a gradual burn where the meme will spread.

As for compostable material there is tons of it available.
Newspaper, Nail Clippings, Vaccuum Cleaner dust, Cardboard, Lawn Clippings, Kitchen Scraps etc. Even in a high efficiency situation where people are half starving, there is food waste that makes excellent compost: chicken bones, cartilage, fruit kernels, orange peel, seeds etc etc.
I think you are being way too pessimistic.

I bet most suburban houses have enough compostable material in the basement or garage to provide at least a couple inches without having to go to parks and grab twigs and leaves etc.

Maybe there is more than one way to grow food?

Maybe its not hard work?

Maybe it can be done in a small place?

Here are two videos (15 mins) showing other solutions.

One aspect often neglected is that in times of crisis people suffer most from their loss of status in society.
While theoretically possible to see some suburbs morphed into small garden plots, I wonder how the average white-collar employee may react to a changing paradigm. I don't fear so much an increase in violence, although domestic violence will probably be the first result, but rather an apathetic slide toward depression, and expectations of BAU returning ASAP. Contemporary politicians will push that message as their status is directly threatened by this new model of society.
Soils are not equal everywhere and it may take more than possible to retrofit some areas. Also it takes communities, and not isolated individual families, to organise and do the work.
Besides, what's the physical condition of most people in the US now? Obesity is rampant and being gym-fit is not being farm-fit, to say the least.

Do you mean that being able to tie your shoelaces without sitting down is not the same as picking lettuce for 8 hours?

See my post downthread - not everyone will be growing their own food, those that are good at it and have the time and physical strength will sharecrop all the other land. Thus, all those people will be getting SOME food from their own land, and it would be pretty stupid of them to kill the people that are growing it for them.

Soil quality is a bigger issue, and you are right, it does take time to really build the soil up. As you point out, though, a lot of stuff that can make perfectly good compost or mulch is presently just being thrown away. Throw some poultry, rabbits, goats, and maybe even pigs into the suburban mix and you've got some manure to improve the soil pretty quickly.

I think the thing we need to keep in mind here is that we are unlikely to face a scenario where one minute everyone is able to supply 100% of their food from the grocery store, and the next minute they are going to have to supply 100% of their food from their own gardens. More likely, we are going to see an inexorable financial squeeze on people. It might not even be so much a matter of food prices going up so much as it is of energy and other essentials going up even more, forcing people to economize on their food budgets. The place to begin is with vegies and fruits; having a higher water content than grains, they are more perishable and heavier to transport, so it is going to make more sense to grow those yourself and leave your shrinking food budget increasingly dedicated to buying grains and other stuff that makes less sense (or is impossible) to grow yourself.

Very good post. I agree with you. I support people's efforts to provide food for themselves. Going from 0% to 5% food self-sufficiency is progress. I agree that fossil fuels won't become unavailable overnight. The more that people can do to improve soil quality & grow a portion of their own food the better. I agree that community cooperation is a good thing. My point is that it's stochiometrically impossible for tens of millions of suburbanites to feed themselves lacking fossil fuel & commercial fertilizer inputs. And under a scenario where such inputs are lacking, those who can come the closest to self-sufficiency will only become targets for starving hordes lacking the means for feeding themselves.

In the meanwhile by all means acquire what skills & tools you can. Learn to grow as much food for yourself as you can. But when TS really HTF, it won't matter much how good a gardener you are. As the social order deteriorates we're all fuckered.

Manure stinks and will not be amenable to direct raising and application to urban and suburban plots.

I built a composting bin on my father's suburban property (he and I both had small food garden plots on his largely grass laden holding)about thirty years ago and was composting table scraps as well as grass clippings. I returned from a month-long job in the Bahamas only to find that my father had torn down and thrown out my compost bin.

"Why did you do that", I complained.

"It stank".

To do the organic thing in the urban and suburban settings will take cooperation with property holders in the more rural hinterlands.

Compost, handled right, does not stink. It needs to have enough O2 to keep the process aerobic. If it goes anaerobic, then you get a big mess of slime that does indeed stink. It's easy to fix by just turning the pile every couple of days or getting a composter that allows O2 into the pile.

This is right. If your compost stinks you're doing it wrong.
It's usually a bad mix of greens and browns that causes it to stink but as the above poster states, simply sticking a spade in it to let it aerate every couple of days gives the little critters enough of a boost to be able to eat right up any stink.

Composted humanure and kitchen waste will do more in a short period of time than simply using leaf and grass clipping mulch (which are helpful in their own right). Nitrogen is important, but potash and phosphorus also are needed.

Please read the "Humanure Handbook" to gain a better understanding.

Get real.

I agree in the most part. Inertia will keep people from even trying until the "Really Need To" then it is too late.

It's a loooooong time from the first spring planting, to the first harvest.

From the time people get the idea to "Have a Large Garden" until they actually get enough even to can and put up for winter is not a couple of weeks.

It could be a couple of years. That Killer late frost wipes some out.
Discovering how to deal with insect pests. Time taken to turn a "CHEMLAWN" type sterle "Beautiful" lawn to an productive Organic garden more than a few weeks.

Sit in front of Walmart for a half hour in a so-so part of town and look at the people. I mean REALLY look at the people.

Do you really think the majority are ready for that level of a game?

Sad but true! Americans sense of entitlement will be our undoing.

I've said it before but I'll repeat it: It would take Khmer Rouge style tactics with a radical form of agrarian communism where the whole population had to work in collective farms or forced labor projects to get Americans to start growing food.

It's amazing what public executions, starvation and forced labor will do for motivation!

Yep. It is amazing what trying to do that kind of crap does in a country that is pretty well armed. I would imagine that TPTB would find themselves facing an angry populace out to introduce them to executions, starvations, and forced labor.

After decades of organic amendments, I've managed to improve my garden soil.

You must have been adding amendments with a teaspoon. My spouse and I gardened on an urban 1/3 acre lot in Asheville, NC over a period of 14 years. The 30'x30' garden plot started out as hardpan clay. By the 3rd year, after a couple of pickup loads of manure each year, and sprinkling of rock phosphate, we had what I would call 'good' garden soil with a fair amount of tilth and crawling with earthworms. By the 5th year it was primo.

The main problem I see with lots of suburban dwellers beginning to garden like this is a developing scarcity for organic amendments. People will be scrounging every bit of organic matter available and in many cases there won't be enough to go around.


I've had a really long day mowing in our orchard, cutting firewood and a few other projects and I get grumpy so I shouldn't be posting. But...

The assumption, if I've read the initial post reasonably well, is that people will begin to grow a lot of their own food out of necessity. As I posted down thread, to me this means society is collapsing since few people really want to do this...or they would be doing it already.

You say, "By the 3rd year, after a couple of pickup loads of manure each year, and sprinkling of rock phosphate,..." OK, let's look at this. You've got fuel to drive your pickup truck to a place with organic material and back. My guess is that is likely to be horse manure and bedding but it could be goat (Goat goes for around $35 a pickup in a town south of me.) or some other animal. There is manure because they could also purchase bedding and feed. Pushing the horse thing, if people must produce food of necessity, how many are going to be able to buy feed for their pets...and that's what most horses are these days.

Now on to rock phosphate. Ugh! Again, as I mention down thread, it isn't just P but also K, Ca and trace elements. If people are so strapped that they have to grow their own food, how in the heck can they afford to buy these nutrients? And, I fully agree that there won't be enough organic matter to go around.

This leads me to the end of this rant: Neither Biodynamics nor Permaculture are sustainable. They take nutrient materials from one place and move it to another and call it sustainable. Bullshit. Being grumpy and tired, I'm leaving out why I know this is the case.


Human life isn't sustainable in the long term, eventually we will go extinct. The trick is to make that later rather than sooner. For that matter, life on earth is not sustainable; some day the sun will expand and the oceans boil off and that will be that. In the meantime, life goes on.

Human beings are exceptional in that we have intelligent brains. We've figured out that we can move organic materials from one place to another, put plants in that place, and get more food than we would if we just hunted and gathered whatever sustainable Mother Nature happened to provide. That's why most of us aren't in hunter/gatherer mode any more. When there are no longer any brainy humans around to move organic amendments around to where they are needed, then of course that form of food production will no longer be sustained. Until that point arrives, I think I have more pressing things to worry about.

Leanan has two good links about this subject on Drumbeat today.
From "Out of the Yard and Onto the Fork" in the NY Times...
"During World War I, to save fuel and labor, President Woodrow Wilson had sheep grazing on the White House lawn. His wife, Edith, planted vegetables to inspire the Liberty Garden campaign, in which thousands of students, called “Soldiers of the Soil,” grew their own food in their schools and communities, she said. As the Allied powers began to win, the name Liberty Garden was changed to Victory Garden.
Just after Pearl Harbor, Ms. Hayden-Smith said, another Victory Garden campaign was started. Eleanor Roosevelt grew peas and carrots on the White House lawn, and by the end of the war, Ms. Hayden-Smith said, “Americans were producing 40 percent of the country’s produce” in their gardens."
and from "Feeding the Suburbs"
"What struck me as I read through the articles was the statistic “85% of all farms worldwide are smaller than five acres” (15). "

So this gives some idea of the potential that was realized during 4 years of war and the potential for farming small plots. In Nepal and Latin America, I noticed that highway medians, verges, vacant lots, etc. are used for pasture as a minimum, while in the US we "cultivate" massive acreage of grass that we then burn fuel to mow, irrigate, and fertilize.
I also have improved my soil over decades. Probably composting toilets/outhouses would be the fastest way to build soil quality in former suburbs, and that would not be too hard to arrange...

Excellent Post Proffessor Goose!

There is an excellent article that was in the Atlantic Monthly a couple of months ago titled: "Suburbs - The Next Slum?":

"Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. For instance, luxury single-family homes in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, sell for $375 a square foot. A luxury condo in downtown White Plains, the county’s biggest suburban city, can cost you $750 a square foot. This same pattern can be seen in the suburbs of Detroit, or outside Seattle. People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small."

What is also interesting to point out is that the current crop of urban professionals, raised on 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends', want to live in a hip walkable community where they can hang with their pals. I really can't see anything short of The Killing Fields getting Gen-Xers to rise to the chore of growing food. Try and get your kids to take out the trash for chrissake!

I see a danger in people turning to the central government for answers. Let's not forget that is how we got in the predicament we're in now.

I live in Oceanside CA, a medium sized city in N. San Diego County. About 18 years ago the city rezoned the downtown to high density and established efficient BART-like rail transport, as well as a walkable community. On Thursdays they close off the civic center and have a Farmer's Market and it is packed.

In the last couple of years San Diego's real estate market has taken a nose-dive but one bright spot has been Oceanside. There are dozens of new developments that are growing around the downtown area and being filled as soon as they're available.

The new mantra should be "think local". Politics that should count are your city councils. At least if you have a problem you can actually get face to face with those cheesy parasites. I think looking to Hillary/Obama/McCain for answers is a bleak prospect. IMO the sooner the U.S. governtment collapses the better.

Everyone thinks of agriculture in 2D, and on giant commercial scales it must be. But plants only use the topsoil, and multiple levels of plantings can be stacked and terraced into outdoor racks or in a greenhouse. In fact, in some cases this is advantageous because some crops do better when shaded from the sun during the hottest parts of the day, and the raised terrace boxes can be arranged to block the sun at times.

A much bigger issue is water, especially in the southwest. There is no way someone in suburban Las Vegas or Phoenix is going to be growing anything without lots of water input from elsewhere. Rainwater capture is nowhere near enough for most crops.

As a side note, and I know this is irrelevant when things get really bad, it is illegal to collect rainwater from your roof in Colorado, and I suspect most western states, since they all seem to have used the same water law as a template. Water falling from the sky belongs to someone else. It is also illegal to use well water for anything other than indoor domestic use, unless you have a well permit issued before the mid-70's, or it is a specifically permitted ag well. You can't even legally water a domestic animal or outdoor flower box or garden with well water. A few years ago, there was a crackdown on people with gardens and horses. They were told to buy cisterns and have them filled by a local water hauler, or face fines. It goes without saying that you cannot legally even dip a bucket in a nearby creek to water anything.

I'm gonna get hit for this one but here goes. Regarding Las Vegas or Phoenix maybe just maybe in a Post Peak world and being a huge net energy importer, IT IS A TERRIBLE IDEA TO LIVE IN A DESERT!

I don't disagree in general--there is potential to produce a far higher % of one's needs off 1/4 acre outside Portland than outside Phoenix. However, that doesn't mean that even in Phoenix it isn't possible to provide a significant portion of one's food. Take a look at Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting for theory on how to do this, and a good concrete example of an individual (the author) who raises a very significant amount of food from a 1/4 acre lot in suburban Tucson (admittedly, with 12" of rain, more than Phoenix or LV). If, by growing regionally appropriate foods and intelligent use of rainwater, this is possible in the desert, it is very realistic (though not necessarily easy) in most other locations.

Quick comment on the rainwater harvesting note: it is my understanding that it is expressly legal in some states (e.g. Arizona), and questionably illegal in others. Colorado (probably the most restrictive) is governed by the "prior appropriation" doctrine, the basis of water law in most of the West. That means that when someone downstream has established a claim on water first, they have priority over those upstream in the same watershed. This has the potential to give rise to a claim against an upstream user who "harvests" rainwater because, to the extent that the use of this rainwater is going (eventually) into storm drains, or transpiring through plants it waters, it may not reach the holder of the prior appropriated claim. HOWEVER, to my knowledge (I live in Colorado), no individuals in suburbia have ever been sued on this theory. Lots of people (including myself) direct water from their roof to water fruit trees, or use mulch to retain water in certain places, and I have not heard of any claims against that kind of use. That doesn't mean they wouldn't succeed--but it seems that the cost of bringing them, and the cost of proving that my mulch and fruit trees is actually impacting the water available to a downstream user, outweighs the benefit of bringing such a claim. The only time I've ever heard of this becoming a significant issue was when a fairly large building in downtown Denver wanted to install a green roof, and the degree of transpiration (effectively taking water from a downstream user) became significant enough to cause a problem. I'm not by any means a specialist in water law, this is just my experience from taking a passing interest in this topic in Colorado.

It's also worth noting that prior appropriation originates in common law, and any state legislature can pass a statute expressly authorizing suburban homeowners to harvest and store rainwater.

The last failed attempt to live in the Salt River area of Arizona (Phoenix) resulted in the inhabitants resorting to cannibalism. The area has never been successfully inhabited for very long periods.
As far as for Los Angeles (my birth place), the LA basin can support 100, 000 people with the available water supply, and reasonably intact environment in the San Gabriel Mountains. LA county currently has 8 million people, many that could not identify the end of a shovel. I'm horrified and fascinated every time I venture back to LA, once a area of immense agricultural riches, now a post modern wasteland, something Gibson would find disturbing.

Check out this web-site:

I'm gonna get hit for this one but here goes. Regarding Las Vegas or Phoenix maybe just maybe in a Post Peak world and being a huge net energy importer, IT IS A TERRIBLE IDEA TO LIVE IN A DESERT!

No disagreement, really...but there is one thing that these places have that might be useful - sunlight. Potentially established with combined infrastructure with Alan's rail electrification plans, the deserts could be a source of energy. Best as far as I could tell through solar thermal generation, and distributed through HVDC could provide a large source of energy for the entire country. The population to service these systems would likely be a very minute fraction of the existing population. is illegal to collect rainwater from your roof in Colorado, and I suspect most western states, since they all seem to have used the same water law as a template.

I learned recently that it's illegal to collect rainwater in Durango, CO, & some other municipalities in the US Southwest, but was under the impression that this varied from place to place. If the issue goes back to Western water allocation laws in general, this opens a real can of worms. I just asked a coworker about this & he said that you may be right. I was told that there are ways around the law and that the law is rarely enforced. For instance, while it may be illegal to collect rain in barrels & cisterns, it's not illegal to "harvest" rainwater by means of contoured landscaping, with berms to retard runoff & promote water infiltration. If the law against collecting rainwater in holding tanks isn't currently enforced this doesn't mean that it won't be, as water becomes more scarce. If all this is true, why not take it to its logical conclusion and insist that by allowing plants to transpire water on one's property, one is illegally diverting water belonging to downstream users? I wouldn't be surprised to hear of a court case along these lines, before long.

The situation is a real mess. What constitutes "beneficial use," for instance. I don't regard the irrigation of alfalfa as a beneficial use, since people don't have to eat beef. A carnivore, on the other hand, might not consider my irrigation of Siberian elms (a widely considered "weed" tree) a beneficial use. Yet I heat my home primarily with elm wood, a beneficial use to me indeed. Personally, I would say that the most beneficial thing that can be done with water is to leave it in the stream, where it can support lotic & riparian ecosystems. Doing so, however, can result in the loss of the water right, under the "use it or lose it" policy.

You're right tho; water law becomes irrelevant if things get really bad.

It looks like the State of CO has done a study to evaluate whether allowing rainwater capture is a good idea.

The conclusion: probably, but our arcane and archaic system of water rights prevents it. Basically they suggest that a statutory change be made to allow someone to make a water rights application for the water that falls on their roof. Talk about onerous.

It is unlikely that anyone would be prosecuted for using rainwater from a residential roof, but you could probably be successfully sued under water law. Having been involved just a little bit with water rights in CO, I can tell you it is a really serious business with a lot of money behind it. Water law in CO preceded state law, and water law is woven into everything. Colorado has an entirely separate court system for water disputes, complete with its own laws, judges and lawyers.

This is insanity. How ridiculous has modern life become? How can anyone or any government tell you the water that falls on your land is not yours? They can suck my water from my cold, dead hands, I say.


Meanwhile the state of Texas encourages water capture, provides handbooks discussing the activity, and references vendors who can install cisterns and modify your roof successfully.

Several years ago I was working as a Realtor in Las Vegas and I sold a home to an administrtor at the University. The home was located in a guard gated subdivision and the CC&R's required the maintenance of "live" grass in the front lawn. After he bought the house the first thing this guy did was rip out the lawn and put desert landscape. The Association sent him a demand to restore the grass under his CC&R's. He had his attorney send a dispatch back to the association citing Nevada drought provisions which "supercede" local CC&R's.

Needless to say he won his argument but you have to see it to believe the mindset in Las Vegas. Vegas will be vitually bone dry in 7 years and nothing is being done! You can bet that Steve Wynn will scavenge precious water for his 36 hole private Golf course in North Las Vegas though.

An idea that I keep mentioning: While it is possible that not everyone with idle arable land (formerly known as "lawns") will have the physical strength, time, or ability (tools and/or know-how) to grow their own food, there will be those that have all of those things in abundance. This suggests a golden opportunity for something I call garden sharecropping. People who don't have full time jobs or much money but do have strong bodies, garden tools and know how, and plenty of extra time could propose to their neighbors that they let them raise crops on their neighbor's land, splitting the harvest 50:50. This will provide the neighbor with at least some food at zero cost (an attractive proposition as food becomes ever more expensive), and can turn the gardener from a subsistence gardener into a market gardener, producing a surplus that can be sold or bartered at local grower's markets. I believe that this type of arrangement, once it catches hold, will be the mechanism that quickly brings most residential land into full production.

There was a recent article in the Boulder Daily Camera (too lazy to google it up) which described a guy who is doing exactly this, "sharecropping" neighbor's yards in Boulder's very suburbanoid Table Mesa neighborhood. Owners got a small share of the crops and a respite from landscaping duties. Sounds like the "sharecropper" was making some money, but certainly not getting rich.

This is indeed a fine way to go. For example:

I began a 1 acre mini farm at a school.

My neighbor and made a gate between our yards so I can expand gardening.

Another neighbor has made a vacant lot available for a community garden, perhaps to be used by the 6-12 grade charter school.

A local restaurant owner with 2 acres of land just outside of town is permitting us to grow potatoes on his land, which he hopes to buy for his restaurant.

A local goat dairy wants me to come in after they hay their fields in May and grow vegetables on a 7 acre parcel.

Cost to obtain this land in $? Zero.

This requires social capital, which is a nice form of capital in that if you don't make an ass of yourself it grows as you use it!

I'm with you
I keep bringing THIS up. It's profitable 'nuff said.

on\ The crap spewed by the likes of d-dawg needs to be composted and worked into his neighbors soil, along with all that yard refuse he sees everywhere. Stop thinking like a dog, Pigs are a lot smarter. your visions of being slaughtered for a handful of beets is not one I share and if it comes to pass then I'll just opt out, compost me, don't be lazy dog rotate the compost, or hell let a pig do it. \off

As for a 50/50 split. that would be so much frigin' food the land owner wouldn't be able to keep up.
My vision is a well thought out system, crop rotations, remediation of marginal soils and green manures. A 50/50 split on a green manure crop, anyone?

In my perfect little world this would be a community effort, managed by farmers not government. (Libertarian meets Communist, Dreamer)

I say, let someone SPIN farm your yard and talk your neighbors into it as well. It's the way forward (sideways?)

In my perfect little world this would be a community effort, managed by farmers not government. (Libertarian meets Communist, Dreamer)

This supposed dichotomy between evil brain dead government zombies and plain practical everyday folks is nonsense, and wish I people would stop using it. All human societies (including hunter-gatherer bands) require government in the sense of a set of conventions which govern social and economic interactions within the community. If you have read anything about the Australian aboriginal culture you will know that they traditionally spent an enormous amount of time and emotional energy performing ritual ceremonies which socialized adolescents into the world view of the tribe. Smallness of scale does not in and of itself solve the problems of social organization. None of which is to say that I am opposed to local organization and the building of tightly knit local communities. Quite the contrary. However localization carried to its logical extreme would imply a return to neolithic technology (not every little bio-region will have access to high quality metal ores) and a probable return of illiteracy since paper making, printing, and distribution of books require a fair degree of economic specialization. If we are going to retain some degree of large scale economic relations then we will need a set of social conventions to govern those relations. We need to invent new form of government which can function effectively in a resource limited world rather than demonizing all government as an abstract evil.

isn't that what I just said?

If you have a scenario where a 50:50 split is going to leave the property owner with way too much food (an elderly widow or widower living alone with a huge yard, maybe), there are other arrangements that could be worked out. The sharecroper could buy some of the food back from the owner for resale at the local tailgate market. Or the gardener could sell the surplus on behalf of the owner on consignment. Or more of the land could be dedicated to tree fruits & soft fruits. Or some of the land could be used to produce grains instead of fruit and vegies. Or the land could be used to produce feed or fodder for livestock, with the property owner getting some meat instead of fruit & vegies. There are many possibilities.

I think that the 50:50 ratio is going to prove to be good, though. Anything else starts getting complicated and not conducive for mutual trust. People understand it, and intuitively feel that it is fair. The 50:50 split is time-tested, having worked for centuries.

your visions of being slaughtered for a handful of beets is not one I share and if it comes to pass then I'll just opt out, compost me

Because my vision is not one you share, that makes me wrong & you right, huh? I think that you already have opted out - from reason.

Reason: a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.
I have an eight year old, That's the REASON I grow food.
We monkeys are in a real pickle and it's not clear how the hell we're gonna make it thru. If we don't change the industrial food paradigm (psst: it runs on fossil fuel) then yes you will end up bloody in your garden. Killed by some short sighted dumb-ass who couldn't understand; he'd just bitten the hand that could have feed him, next year.
That's an unreasonable vision of my son's future.

I had a seasonal job once delivering fertilizer to farms.

I found out that the nitrogen source for organic fertilizer was bloodmeal (from slaughterhouses).

I was talking to a farmer about it, and he said, "Yeah, that's what I don't get about these organic people".

They don't know.


A moments thought would get you to the opposite conclusion on who does not know what. I am a commercial"organic" farmer and I can assure you that the farmer you were talking too was dead wrong in his assumption as you were in your accepting his statement. There is far more lack of understanding of the wherwithall of the mechanics of agriculture on the non-organic side than on the organic side.

Allmost all organic farmers are completly aware of the source of bloodmeal. Many continue to use it despite the irony of the situation and many others shift to alternate means. Both approaches are very successful with the farmers who chose not to use the bloodmeal holding "moral" postion over the ones who do. In a sense anyway.

Organic farmers are, in general, far more educated on the issues of inputs and their origins and indeed any other issue related to their approach to farming than most imagine. All their bookshelves are full of this information and most use it as best they can. Not many operate in ignorance.


The blood meal I use is cow rendered, bse anyone?
I know way to much about food (you too?) I'm scared shitless.

I agree with WNC Observer about the possibilities. I do want to add, though that I think Americans tend to consistently overestimate the physical labor required to produce a decent portion of their diet (not their staples crops). I observe this just because the assumption has been that gardening is the province of the young and healthy - and while the sedentary habits of rich world denizens will almost certainly catch up with them, food production on a yard scale is pretty feasible.

For example, my husband's grandparents had a large garden until his grandfather finally had to stop gardening - at 91. At 93, he planted flowers only. My great-aunt told me that she finally gave up the big garden and limited herself to a few dozen tomato plants - at 92.

Pat Meadows, who writes about container gardening is physically disabled and over sixty, and married to a man who is also disabled. The two of them produced nearly a thousand pounds of produce last year in homemade self-watering containers.

Ruth Stout once wrote that she was concerned about enabling people to garden in old age, and "I don't mean from fifty to seventy, I mean from seventy to ninety." It is true that traditional hoe and hand gardening may well be out of the range of many people, but that's a matter of information - given the right techniques, many baby boomers will be able to do some gardening for many years to come.

Again, no arguments about WNC Observers comment, just a note that the range of those who can't garden is probably smaller than we think.

Superb post, Aaron!


Thanks for your comments, Sharon. A couple of notes:

The sooner one gets started amending and building up the soil, the easier it will be to work later. Soil that is rich in organic matter is a pleasure to work, but it doesn't get that way overnight.

Last fall I bought myself a Brazilian azada, a variant of a grub hoe. It has really made digging and tilling very easy, and especially easy on my old back. As people get older and more infirm and less physically fit, they need long-handled hand tools that work well and minimize their need for back-stressing work.

Self-watering containers are great, I'm expanding the number I am using as quickly as I can. They can be home-made, and that's a good way to reuse a variety of plastic containers.

Older people can always hire younger people to help out with the really hard work. I can also see empty-nesters renting out rooms or apartments, with a discount if they help with some of the muscle work.

I just discovered Fukuoka's books a year ago: No-tilling, no weeding. Planting is really hard. Throw the seedballs on the ground. Last year I tried it on a small part of our 30 year old organic garden plot and it worked well enough that I didn't till the soil at all this year. I may turn out to be wrong, but I suspect that the hardest part physically will be mulching and harvesting.

In a crash scenario, it may make sense for people to do all their own farming, as Russian families did during the Soviet collapse. Indeed, it takes only about 100 square yards (that's 60ft by 15 feet for example) to provide enough vegetables for a four-person family (supplemented by grains and meat from another source).

However, there are significant advantages gained by specialization and trade. Even on the most basic level, such as a medieval town, there were farming specialists and specialists in other crafts, your blacksmiths, cobblers, carpenters and so forth, who might have lived in a little urban area (village) nearby. The pattern of civilization has always been farms and urban areas, whether the "urban areas" are a 400 person village or a 1 million person metropolis.

Historically, situations where there were many, many farmers farming very small plots of land were situations of rather dire poverty. This sometimes came about by inheritance laws which mandated subdivision of family landholdings among heirs. The result was that nobody owned enough land to enjoy economies of scale, whereby one family could produce enough food for three families, thus allowing two families to do something besides farming.

One exception to this pattern was the pioneer families of the early American colonies. I think we should appreciate today the extent to which the American Suburban Fantasy (and also its corresponding doomer/survivalist fantasy) of totally independent do-it-all-yourself living is a sort of romanticization or idealization of this exciting pioneer period. The pioneer families, by necessity, were required to be relatively self-sufficient. The urban and commercial framework built up over centuries in Europe did not exist in the wilds of Oregon or Arizona.

Another case of the successful "family farm" is the medieval estate, estancia, plantation, hacienda etc. in which a "family" of aristocrats owned a large area, which was farmed by perhaps 100-400 serfs/peasants/slaves. The larger McMansion type houses today resemble these estates rather closely, and this is an echo of the desire to be the landowning aristocrat with a battalion of peasants busy in the fields. This is mirrored in the continuing mania for lawns, even in very impractical places like Las Vegas, San Diego or Houston. The lawn was not just decorative, it represented the wealth-generating process of the estate (or family farm). If you grow wheat, for example, once you cut the wheat for harvest you have -- a lawn! Wheat is a grass, and growing wheat is grass monoculture. Thus, the care with which wheat was grown and harvested is mirrored today in the desire to have a grass monoculture that is properly trimmed with a mower. Harvesting hay (hay is wild grasses) also produces a lawn, and of course hay is used to feed livestock. During the summer, the livestock, cows and sheep, graze the grasses directly, and the result of this grazing is -- a lawn! Land was agricultural wealth in those days, and the symbol of wealth for literally thousands of years was a properly-maintained lawn, the bigger the better.

We aren't going to make any progress around here until we are ready to give up this independent farmer symbolism. The vast majority of people today are urban workers, and urban workers always worked in urban places. "Urban places" weren't so terrible. "You can't keep a kid on the farm once they've seen Paris," it used to be said. In the U.S., people saw the cesspool of 19th-century Cleveland or Chicago and decided they would rather live on the farm.

In the last 100 years or so, the percentage of people in the US needed to produce our food has fallen from almost 90% to about 2%. The current counter-trend is a tiny dimple in this long term trend. The main difference going forward is that it will be the people of India, China and Africa who learn to produce enough food for all while using fewer and fewer resources per quantity produced. Sure, there will be more densely populated cities as transportation cost encourages us to live close and to use mass transit, but planting individual vegetable gardens will continue to be only a hobby and not a required activity for living. Forty years ago, who would have guessed that India would be a rice exporter? What we have a hard time understanding is how much we don't know. With 5 x 10 to the 30 methanogens on this planet hard at work, converting waste into renewed energy, we have plenty of time to figure out how to be more responsible citizens.

Then you anticipate no level of collapse, but only a relatively manageable economic decline?


The thing is, though, we're going to have to cope with the built environment that we've got, not the built environment that we'd like to have or the built environment that worked better for other people in other times and places. That is the whole point of the article: we've got this massive investment in suburbia, and while it in retrospect was clearly a bad investment, now we're stuck with it and have to try to make the best we can out of it.

"Coping" is probably the best word for it. It is going to be very problematic on so many different levels, and we're probably going to encounter problems that none of us (even Kunstler) have thought of yet. Some suburbs probably will end up as stripped, demolished, burnt-over wastelands. Others will become slums. Some might manage to cope a little better, along the lines suggested by the author. I am under no illusion that any of them will do very well, and neither should anyone else be under such an illusion. The thing is, though, that people won't be doing all that well anywhere in the US. The reality is that we - almost all of us - are going to have to become a lot poorer and live much more frugal, simple lives. The suburbs are not a particularly good place to be making this transition, there are extra disadvantages stacked up against them; no matter, they'll have to try to cope anyway. I

Agree with the above post, and the transition is underway, whether or not people are ready. Just the 50% drop in the dollar has forced many in the US to become poorer and more frugal. Humans are an amazing weed species, adapting to fill many niches, and in travelling I am always impressed by the "Ancient Future" combinations that people come up with, from cell phone repair on street corners, to metal-working over fires, outboards on dugout canoes.
Humans in suburbs will adapt in ways we cannot predict, and suburbs are starting from a history of stupid design decisions that will require lots of extra effort to overcome, but as Alan keeps pointing out much of our current infrastructure was initially created by lots of people with lots of hand tools, goaded by neccessity. In a few years, humans and animals with no power tools built a railroad up 5000 feet and 18 miles of BOulder Canyon.
In Colombia I watched a crew deconstruct a 3 story brick building with hand tools (mostly sledge hammers), they felled the chimney like a big tree, with notches and then pulled it over. In the US the operation would have required heavy equipment. In India, ships are dissassembled with mostly hand labor, so deconstructing and re-using suburban infrastructure is well within our power, but seems unlikely in our current context.

Except maybe we've forgotten how!!!

Suburbia might be a bad investment, but look at the message!

The message is "we can all be little farmers." That is not "reinventing" suburbia, that is the suburban "I'm an independent farmer" fantasy all over again!

What's the real value of a teeny suburban yard-farm? Let me give you an example. This year, I singed up with a local CSA that grows organic vegetables. It's a charming little family-owned farm, and there are about 50 CSA members. Each week, during the summer growing season, I go to the farm (it's 10 miles away) and pick up my share of vegetables, which should be about enough for a family of four.

The cost of this was $320. Thus, the value of the vegetables I might grown in my own garden might be reasonably estimated at about $320. Minus, of course, the cost of planting etc., the implied cost of the land, and the LABOR! Now, labor and cost is fine if it's a hobby. What a worthwhile hobby to grow your own high-quality, natural food. Certainly a much more sensible hobby than maintaining grass monoculture.

I say this as someone who just yesterday planted my own vegetable garden, in addition to my CSA membership. With any luck, I'll have surplus veggies.

That's all well and good, but it does not an economy make. Except in true survival situations, you just aren't going to make an economy out of growing your own $320 of vegetables a year.

I would encourage people to read Teodor Shanin, the founder of peasant economics on the informal economy. The best estimates I've seen suggest that the informal economy supports 3/4 of the world's population, while the formal economy supports only 1/4.

So yes, the informal economy, including subsistence production and barter does an economy make. It just doesn't make rich people.


Sharon, this is a good point. When economies are in decline and money is scarce, people don't just sit on the ground and stare at their navels (well, a few with serious clinical depression might, for a while) - they get busy and get into DIY in a big way - gardens are just the start of it. Economic exchanges are done by barter instead of money (or an even a more informal "I'll do you a favor today, and you'll owe me a favor later"). People buy used instead of new at yard sales, flea markets, auctions, or classified ads (and there is lots to buy, as people try to sell off anything they don't truly need). None of this activity shows up in the official national economic statistics, which is why such statistics are so misleading. Of course, none of this activity gets taxed, which is why governments don't like it and don't encourage it or even acknowledge it and wish it didn't exist.

Well, even before "economies are in decline and money is scarce" there are a lot of activities people do day-to-day which don't show up in the economy.

If a chef makes dinner for a customer and they pay $20 for it, $20 is added to the GDP. If the chef makes dinner for his wife, nothing is added to the GDP. Yet the same productive work has been done.

If five women all staying at home to care for the only children, and if each woman gives her child to the next woman and pays her $10 to care for the child for one day, then $50 is added to the GDP. Whereas if each take turns, one day a week each, to look after all five, so that each may do work out of home four days a week, then nothing is added to the GDP from that exchange. Yet the same productive work has been done.

If I put my clothes in the dryer and use 5kWh of electricity to dry them, it'll cost me $1, and $1 is added to the GDP. Whereas if I hang my washing out on the line, it still dries, but nothing is added to the GDP. Yet the same productive work has been done.

So within the economy there's a constant exchange of goods and services, but we only count them when $ change hands, too. Our ideas of "the economy" thus measure not productive work done, but exchange of cash.

So we don't need an "economic decline" to see the rise of the "informal economy" - it already exists.

For example, Nate Hagens a couple of days ago sarcastically commented that if I didn't like some article, I could ask for a refund of my subscription fee. But our subscription fees at TOD are the thoughtful comments we write, and the guest articles, too (as Nate acknowledged). And most of us resent someone who just strolls in, makes nasty or stupid comments and tries to stir up shit. That is, we appreciate people who make make an honest exchange of effort and ideas, and we denigrate people who take but contribute nothing. Trolls are the thieves of the discussion economy.

During the summer, the livestock, cows and sheep, graze the grasses directly, and the result of this grazing is -- a lawn!

I sometimes set up a temporary fence in a large portion of my yard and let my sheep do my mowing AND fertilizing. Helps especially during Spring lambing season as the pastures aren't quite ready for grazing, we can keep a close eye on ewes going into labor, and a lamb born on a lawn is the easiest for its ewe to clean.

Update: Just set up a temporary fence in the yard this morning. The first photo shows sheep in the front yard, with our English Shepherd looking on. The second shows the sheep in the backyard.

Skyemoor Farm

In assessing the future viability of a suburb, the things you need to look at are: 1. Is the climate such that you can survive without air conditioning. 2. Is there reasonable assurance that most of the current water supply will still be available. 3. Is it flat, former ag land or hilly land selected for a view and privacy. 4. If you are in the west, are you in the wildland interface subject to periodic fire.
Generally, the suburbs built in the 50's and 60's will fare better than the more recent projects.

In general I agree with this post in the sense that suburban gardening makes a lot of sense why not do it ?

A return of local shops with a few of the homes converted also makes sense.

I can also see as streets become less used that secondary roads have their asphalt ripped up and used to maintain the primary roads. These old road beds will probably turn into narrow 1 land tracks or foot paths. The garage spaces and driveways can be reused. Excess housing can be removed. If you think about it every second street with the row of houses on both sides could be removed over time this would get the per house farmable area up close to 0.5 acres assuming 0.25 for tight suburbs. Then removing every other house gets you to 1 acre per house.

Scrapped houses could be reused to build green houses. Excess lumber could be converted to charcoal for biochar soils. You can also extend remodel the saved homes for denser living like apt's using reclaimed lumber.

I'm assuming at some point cheaper solar would become available so PV is a good bet. The old road beds may simply be to compacted to really recover for farming but PV/grassland is a good reuse or raised bed green houses.

So overall it seems that you could recover 25-50% of the investment in suburbia converting it to a different use.

However in general its been my experience that traditional towns seem to be placed on about 20 mile intervals which represents a good day commute walking. So I think the real issue is not that some suburban areas can be recovered its that the majority of these areas probably will not be recovered but abandoned as Kunstler suggests.

Sure in certain areas some of the suburban construction will be repurposed and reused but the misallocation is really at a larger collective level. We don't need but a fraction of our suburbs converted. This gets esp problematic in the larger cities. Especially as you consider the quality of the land. It makes sense for a lot of them to revert back to forest or grassland depending on climate.

So the big picture view suggests that 80% or more of suburbia will be abandoned with maybe 20% repurposed of that 20% lets say only 25% of the original investment is reused. This give 5% of the investment in suburbia not "wasted". So this article is 5% right and Kunstler is 95% right.

This actually probably matches will with population demographics with only 5% of the current suburban population willing/able to make the investment to live in a more village like setting. The other 95% of suburbianites will probably be following job opportunities and trying to learn new skills. At least in the US the current industrial agricultural base is sufficient to ensure that these people in general won't starve if they follow the party line.

Bread and circuses anyone ?

Every generation has conducted its own experiment in social engineering. Sometimes by choice, such as the Mormons’ trek to Utah, the Pilgrims’ perilous sail to Plymouth, etc, and sometimes by necessity, like the migrations following the dust bowl, Andrew Jackson’s thoughtful ‘relocation’ of the five tribes or that little incident in France that forced one of my forefathers to, er, migrate to America. (But enough of that.)

They are always turbulent, dangerous, hard work, with no guarantees ahead of time and no clear sense of a successful conclusion. You could say that we are still working through the outcome of the Jamestown settlement. One thing we can be sure of, the future is uncertain. Best to bring extra underwear.

And Mr. Dog. You’ll eat a feral cat but not a fish? What kind of sauce does one serve with kitty?


And Mr. Dog. You’ll eat a feral cat but not a fish? What kind of sauce does one serve with kitty?

With the exception of the occasional bit of turkey at T'giving or goose for Yule, I don't eat meat. But faced with starvation or kwashiorkor I might not be so fastidious. There are plenty of feral cats down in the riparian bosque. If I was starving I probably would trap & shoot them for food. I've been tempted to live-trap them on behalf of the birds & native rodents, as it is.

You have many good ideas.

How do you suggest that we mobilize the labor and pay for the improvements?


When oil hit $85 I panicked, but in a good way. I now have 4 rain barrels, 4 berry patches, a dozen fruit trees, and a small garden. More trees are on the way, and I expect to have about 15 eventually. My small yeard was jungle of sickly trees, and most neighbors just see me tidying up, not making an orchard. There are a couple nice shade trees out front, but when oil hits $200, that area becomes a raised bed.

Overall, this has not been cheap, but it has probably added value to the house. Many good varieties of trees were bargains and bought locally, but I constantly look for suitable varieties.

This is in no sense self sufficient, but we will be neck deep in fruit 7 months a year. Tree require minimum upkeep and fertilizer.

Now I'm looking at propagation of various plants. I can't persuade people to prepare, but I can give them plants when they start to care.

The idea of retrofitting the suburbs into a sort of semi-agrarian patchwork of communities is the type of visioning-discussion that I think is important for actual responses to peak oil and while I think it’s technically possible, it does face some major obstacles.

rooftops and roadways- could be used to gather the water we would need to grow food for ourselves

I’d agree that rooftops could be relatively easily used to harvest rainwater, but not on roads – which move and capture a significant amount of total rainfall in sprawl areas. Sprawl communities hit the hardest post-peak will be the ones built in the past 20-30 years, as these are usually the furthest out, requiring the most gasoline to keep functional in our current economy. These communities generally are designed with independent or semi-independent storm water retention and discharge. Roadways are the primary conveyance instrument for stormwater and usually the water discharges into retention basins, regional spillways or preserved wetlands – these areas, where most stormwater will be diverted to, and accounting for a significant portion of the total unpaved land, will be difficult if not impossible to farm, as it will flood and erode if planted with crops, especially as climate change further polarizes the weather pattern. So, new subdivision stormwater management infrastructure creates a very sub-par topography to convert sprawl into agricultural regions unless large scale re-grading is done, which will require a lot of energy.

One way to potentially alter this run-off pattern and better capitalize on rainwater for growing food in sprawl is to dig up the roads or cover them with soil (again both would require a lot of energy and may not be worth it.) Careful planning would need to be done or municipal water depts.would be unable to locate and access water/sewer mains and water meters for billing, maintenance and repairs, as this infrastructure is almost completely located under roads.

Another way to capture stormwater in sprawl would be to build retention ponds or underground storage tanks and pump the water out for irrigation – this again would be expensive and energy consuming.

Another barrier to growing food in sprawl are Homeowners Associations. HOA’s shadow-govern a large majority of new subdivisions, especially in the sunbelt where sprawl will be a huge liability post peak. If a severe, prolonged recession/depression occurs quickly, HOA’s probably won’t matter, but then we could have mass-foreclosures and then the whole idea of “democratizing agriculture” crumbles anyway. If a more gradual process unfolds – which I think is all we can hope for – most HOA’s prohibit vegetable gardens and especially livestock, especially in front yards. It’s unclear how difficult it will be to change these rules as angry homeowners resist any change that they may feel results in a further devaluation of their properties, and may just irrationally opt for paying more at the grocery store, until it’s too late. In any case, it usually requires a huge majority consensus to change any HOA rule.

One way to eliminate this barrier would be for a governmental body to pass a law that prohibits HOAs from governing farming. Similar laws were passed recently in Arizona and California to prevent HOA’s from governing photovoltaic panels.

Again, I do think it’s useful to rethink sprawl in a post-peak environment – but more creative solutions are needed to address some of the constraints, and more of the constraints need to be identified.

Most suburbs will not die.

Los Angeles (the classic big sprawl, car centric place) has passed new real estate zoning laws to allow for each suburb to have more self sufficient centers and for the downtown area to have more high density apartments.

allowing some sections of what are currently suburbs to have offices and retail allows more of those who live there to have the option of shorter commutes for work or for shopping.

It also provides financial returns for developers to make the changes.
Since the developers have an interest in a solution that makes them money then I would think that these changes would be the ones that get chosen for the future. Developers make money for dense development.

Improvement and profit by adding and growing into densification.

Not all suburbs will make the transition. If they are not in a growing area where people would buy into densification and developers would make the money or if people are just leaving then those may get abandoned. But many places are growing and successful and will remain that way.

So some kind of subsistent farming choice or new profitable walkable mixed use retail/apartments/offices. Reduction in commutes over time.

discussions around smart sprawl,0,7257352.story

Smart Growth

LA Zoning trends

More on urban planning decisions being made now
Fully contained community debates

there is plenty of work that is against densification and that sparsity is a sign of wealth which could be maintained. Beverly Hills will not be densifying. If you are really wealthy and not just affluent then energy prices are irrelevant.

no one on the urban planning sites are talking about farming up the zoning or pushing that as a plan.

I don't have the source for this at the moment, but Bill Mollison (permaculture founder along with Holmgren) felt suburbia represented a real opportunity for localized food self-sufficiency--it represents some of the most widespread land-ownership in any mode of settlement. Not to minimize the huge problems that it also presents.

One note on establishing suburban food production: tree crops should be considered, as they have many advantages: for well under $100, it is possible to plant a good fruit tree in a very well prepared hole. Even very small suburban plots can often accommodate 10 or more dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit or nut trees. While it may take 5 or more years before a tree produces a sizable crop, a producing tree requires very little time input per calorie compared to a double-dug garden--important for suburbanites who hope to ADD food production to their existing work schedule, rather than become full-time suburban farmers. From apples in the very coldest climates to Mesquite in the harshest deserts, there is very likely to be a highly-productive set of trees for your area. Suburban orchards certainly aren't the singular solution to suburban food supply, but I think they're the single easiest place to start...

All true, but don't underestimate the challenge that plant pathogens and insects present. It can be difficult even for experienced gardeners to actually get a good fruit crop. It will be even more difficult if even simple organic pesticides like lime sulfur spray or bordeaux mixture or pyrethrum or bt or insectidical soap become unavailable.

Holmgren's suburban retrofit ideas in this pdf file.

Holmgren's presentation on suburban retrofits on YouTube.

In the video, he claims the burbs "may be the heartlands of a revitalisation".

See my post upthread about fruit trees.

Also, consider Chinese Chestnut, a disease resistant tree that yields large amounts of edible nuts and is tough enough for strip mine reclamation.

And the elderberry also grows in crap soil but yields a hundred pounds a chicken feed.

Settlers here in the southern Appalachians would let their hogs roam loose in the woods to fatten up on the chesnuts that used to be abundant around here before the blight. I would think that Chinese Chesnuts would be a good source of fodder for hogs.

The elderberries are also a good source of nectar and pollen for honeybees.

Good post, provoking a good discussion. No topic could be more germane.

Certainly there will need to be a transition from what exists now to what is ultimately required and possible. I think the post has relevance there.

But I think that ultimately sprawl has to be mostly undone by concentrating into small towns that go up several floors, that are walkable and bikable, that are surrounded by land and forest with smaller plots close in and larger ones further out. The towns will have to be recycling centers (manure, refuse), and small-scale production (based mostly on grown stuff) centers also.

Anyway, lot's of experimentation and attention to what's already been done will be needed.

The biggest obstacle is of course our present gov't and economic structure. There's little in the way of gigantic profit opportunities in what's ultimately needed. So it's going to be very difficult to even get the experiments going without confronting that little problem.

Yes, I think that small towns have a lot going for them. (I live in one myself.) What we are really talking about here is identifying a pathway for suburbs to evolve into small towns.

Good post, provoking a good discussion. No topic could be more germane.

Agreed. Much more germane & interesting than the typical electrik train/thorium reactor crap spewed by the "gee whiz" techno fetishists on here.

Paul Erlich recently spoke at U.C. Berkeley, and he said no realistic ecologist can find a way for the USA to support more than 150 million people long-term. We import half our food already. Smil is the most optimistic, at 250 million, but surely there'll be an undershoot as 299.5 plus non-farmers try to make a go of it.

As water infrastructure falls apart or the power to purify & delivery water doesn't exist, people will be forced into dry land farming. This will happen even in the Midwest and East during droughts. Dry land agriculture requires a much larger amount of land than intensive gardening, especially where water tables have been depleted of groundwater past where windmills can pull it up.

If the suburban farmer is lucky enough to get a crop, (s)he'll likely lose it to rodents, insects, birds, disease, mold, etc unless the mini-farm is set up with proper storage containers and methods.

Even with good storage, human varmints, such as local armies, mafia, police, neighbors, fleeing city dwellers, etc., will try to pillage stored food, or crops that haven't been harvested yet. For details, read books about calamitous times, i.e. "After the Reich", "A Long Way Gone", "Man & Society in Calamity", "The Little Ice Age", etc -- the history shelves are practically sagging with the weight of books about wars and other hard times.

Never has a society like the USA existed where most of the food is grown far, far away from population centers, mainly inland, with few railroads and waterways available to deliver quickly rotting food to far away cities. As truck transportation falls apart during oil shocks, road infrastructure crumbles, etc, there'll be no way to distribute food.

I hope that suburban communities in areas with the largest parcels of class 1 soils organize to help each other out. It would be nice to have some islands of sanity and democracy that could eventually counter the fascist, feudal wage-slave society likely to exist in most parts of the country after the dieoff.

The problem is, it takes a long time to build up the soil, and even longer to learn how to garden. Since there are not any energy solutions that can work short or long term to replace fossil fuel, it is a shame that so much web space and ink is devoted to techno-fixes, and not enough to starting gardening programs in grade schools, funding of small-scale food storage technology, local railroads that can eventually revert to horse-drawn carriages, etc while we still have energy and full bellies.

Developing these programs after energy shocks, when people are hungry and afraid, and all the scrap metal to rebuild small-scale post-fossil-fuel infrastructure has been sent to China is going to be rather unpleasant.

Alice Friedemann

Well, here's another 'techno-fix' that doesn't need soil and doesn't need loads of water:

The sea is a potentially huge untapped resource for nutrients. We have 200 times more energy hitting the Earth than we currently use and 95% of the ocean that is effectively a dessert (but could be productive). Lets start using it before we talk of 'running out'.


I'm wondering how this would work in a four season climate. Fish seem to survive the winters in the natural world, but will they in an aquaponics pond? Perhaps you'd need a simple passive solar lean to to cover in winters?


Backyard aquaponics relies on heavy inputs of grain, oilseed and fish meal. Worldwide, already about one-third of the wild fish catch goes to fish-farming, and of course grain and oilseeds are commonly farmed with heavy fossil fuel and derivatives inputs.

As currently designed, backyard aquaponics are not sustainable, and indirectly rely on fossil fuels and depleting widl fish stocks.

Of course that does not mean that better designs can't exist or be tried. I'm just speaking of the way it's done now. It's a bit like logging in that way.

Never has a society like the USA existed where most of the food is grown far, far away from population centers, mainly inland, with few railroads and waterways available to deliver quickly rotting food to far away cities. As truck transportation falls apart during oil shocks, road infrastructure crumbles, etc, there'll be no way to distribute food.

Actually, a couple of examples come to mind. Ancient Rome was very much dependent upon a continuous flow of shipments of grain from all parts of their far-flung empire, even as far away as the Black Sea. I'm sure that these shipments ended with the barbarian invasions. The UK was also very dependent upon food shipments from overseas, which is why Germany made such a priority of its U-boat blockade during both wars - they were trying to starve the Brits, and they came close to doing it, too.

In the US we have the advantage that our populations actually could relocate closer to the food supplies if and when it becomes too difficult to transport the food to the people. There probably is too much of a mal-distribution of people away from the most productive agricultural areas. This does not necessarilly mean that city folk need to move on to the farms, but it might mean that people from the most dense urban areas along the coasts are going to have to relocate to smaller communities inland.

As water infrastructure falls apart or the power to purify & delivery water doesn't exist, people will be forced into dry land farming. This will happen even in the Midwest and East during droughts. Dry land agriculture requires a much larger amount of land than intensive gardening, especially where water tables have been depleted of groundwater past where windmills can pull it up.

Which is why the single most important thing that people can learn to do is to mulch their gardens. We have talked a lot about building up the soil, and that is important. However, if you mulch heavily, you will be doing that also, for the mulch does break down and amend the soil eventually. More importantly, though, you will be conserving soil moisture, and minimizing the soil moisture that is robbed by competing weeds.

The whole discussion of foreclosure to me shows a "great need". Banks own the homes, but don't have the resources (or haven't yet structured resources) to protect all the homes in foreclosure - whether from freezing pipes or vandals or squatters.

The whole idea that "homeownership encourages responsible citizens" is turned on its head when citezen's can't afford to keep their home.

Obviously local governments and neighborhoods themselves had better "get active" to protect and save the homes around them in varied states of neglect or abandonment.

I imagine its tricky. The banks "own the homes" and don't want them. The neighborhoods don't own them, but are affected by abandonment. Everyone is busy with their own lives so things can fail before neighbors even realize. Here in Minnesota, if you don't talk to your neighbors, at least in the winter, you can count how many driveways remain unshoveled to guess which houses are not lived in, but you might not even see the broken water pipe damage from the outside!

And finally the idea that housing is "overbuilt" for existing demand is scary. If you live in a neighborhood where 1/2 the houses are abandoned, what do you do? THEN you also have banks willing to sell on the cheap to anyone who will pay, and new owners are people who have credit or money and are trying to become "slumlords" and rent them out without expecting to keep them up on cheap rent.

If a neighborhood "gets fed up" with the state of rental houses, perhaps a collective could be made to buy up such properties and try to make good use of them - whether as rentals, or in the worst case - having home already partially wrecked, perhaps tearing them down?

It's a fun thought - to imagine large lot suburbs could become new gardens, although not necessarily much "real soil". I mean some subdivisions are built on old corn-fields, but others bulldozed flat with 3" of soil added on top of clay, and so who knows what will grow!

It's all overwhelming to imagine to me, but I'm sure it'll all be "local efforts" and those best organized and most inspired will lead by example.

The article suggests that veggies for 30 people for a year can be produced on one acre. Living on pretty mediocre land in mid-eastern France (not such a long growing season) I was exceeding that yield per sq. ft. by at least a factor of 3 using the "French intensive gardening" method. I did need to get a cubic yard of good manure from a neighborhood farmer once every 3 years, and of course I had my own compost heap. Preparation required about 3 weekends of fairly hard work (for a 60+ year old man) each spring, but little attention after that.
Interestingly, 3 smallish towns shared trash collection, with separate collection for leaves and lawn rakings, and maintained a huge community compost heap that residents could access if they didn't make their own. Communal garden plots were very common, with 5-10 individual gardens per acre. Such practises are quite usual in europe. Murray


I live in the departement de l'Ain in eastern France. I'm currently witnessing some worrying trends about people increasingly living in trailers, near culture areas. Most of them hire a place in a local farm for about 200 euros per month and get some electricity and water. Others live in public areas, away from the main roads. Last year theft of vegetables have risen more than 500% for a lot of famers near the Saone river.

Last year I was clearly confronted with the fact that growing vegies can be really difficult when the conditions aren't right. Like most people here most of our vegetables and fruit have been covered by black fungi. The lack of sunlight made it really difficult to grow tomatoes, and most of the above ground green vegetables. Only those growing in covered cultures had good yields. Those growing in the open air had to be treated at least once a week. Local prices soared, reminding every one that reliance on self can be very difficult.

Moreover pollution is a real issue here, the ground water contains a lot of pesticides which brings down the pollinating insects, selects spiders and tics, and even in some places the soil doesn't grow anything without huge amounts of fertilizer.

If are to grow food in these conditions I fear it is going to be much more difficult than what most anticipate.

David Holmgrens video in which he answers the question "What do you see as the future of suburbia":

There's a whole series (over an hour) on this @ YouTube:

-So much for Kunstlers 'Necrotic Suburbs', if we can keep the pumps running we should be OK.



Last Sunday, German TV showed a report from Buffalo. I am reading thehousingbubbleblog regularly, but that report was an eye-opener.

For us us in Europe, the quality of the houses is incredible. How can these houses become run down in such a short time? How could these houses be worth 400.000 US$?

A house in Fillmoore, Buffalo

How old did they say this house was. Looking at the house and the chimney of the one next to it, looks like it should have been built sometime in 1930's no later than 1950's. The house next door looks to have vinyl siding installed in the 1970's - 80's, and the house itself had some 1980's probably work done on the front re-siding etc. in the 1980's as well. Of course I have no idea what the inside looks like but going by size and state of exterior deterioration probably be 100,000 - 180,000 US to restore. Definitely would be looking at possibly demolishing and starting from scratch. The house itself is not worth anything close to 400,000 that would be the value of the land it's on. Where I'm at with relatively low land values the whole thing would probably be on the market for 50,000 US.

You can find the entire video here:,pdztyesvjwu78sij~cm.asp

Click "Video zum Beitrag" on the right.

The voice is in German, of course, but all the houses, 10,000 houses in Buffalo are deserted, look like they need to be demolished.

Even though the houses are not that new, they have been occupied until recently.

Thanks for the link.

Just found the answer to your how it could be worth 400,000$US.


Similar homes types sizes in Buffalo. Probably was 40,000$US

Well, now 40,000 maybe, when 10,000 houses are vacant. In the video, the mayor of Buffalo says that demolishing 57 houses will cost $2m.

Ran it through a translator and read the article accompanying the video(one of these days I will learn at least one more language and not look quite the fool to our Bi-Tri-etc lingual international friends.) Similar things are happening in a number of major cities across the US. Typical Urban decay for a large city in the US, however a couple of things are happening now that are new. First obviously is the scale it used to happen to a few blocks at a time and the city could at least try to keep the decay to a minimum. More importantly the cities themselves had the money to put a temporary bandage either by demolition or renovation on a particular area. Finally when a portion of the city due to neglect, crime etc. would become so bad, Investors could be coaxed in to buy up the neglected properties then level and revitalize the whole area with high end apartments/lofts/condos maybe a convention center and shops. What has changed it seems is no matter how low the prices on the real estate go nobody has any grand projects in the wings that can get investor backing. The ones with the ability to fund see no way of making money off of urban renewal anymore.

Well what stands out to my eyes is how MUCH compostable material I can see right there.

"If the suburban farmer is lucky enough to get a crop, (s)he'll likely lose it to rodents, insects, birds, disease, mold, etc unless the mini-farm is set up with proper storage containers and methods. "

The certainty of the uninformed is amazing. A bit of chicken wire will keep out rabbits. Rose cuttings in their tunnels discourages moles, (they're hemophiliacs), some netting or rags will deter birds, rotation limits disease, mold is rare, a homebrew of macerated garlic/paprika/horseradish in soapy water prevents insects, a saucer of beer attracts slugs which can then be crushed, etc. Why "lucky enough to get a crop"? Gardening is a very simple proposition, not a question of unlikely luck. Some things grow even if you don't want them - try eradicating mint or nettles (which are edible). You must be a city dweller completely out of touch with the land. Believe it or not, if you are not cripplrd you too could be a successful gardener. Don't knock it if you haven't tried it. Murray

I recommend you read the three volume text by Peter Golob, et. al. 2002. "Crop Post-Harvest: Science and Technology. Volume 1 Primciples and Practice. Volume 2 Durables. Volume 3 Perishables." Blackwell Science.

As far as durables, i.e. grains and beans, if rodents, birds, insects, mites, fungi, and mold don’t harm or destroy stored durables, then bacteria, viruses, yeasts, nematodes, anthracnose, blight, blotch, brown rot, canker, scab, dry rot, hyperplasia, hypertrophy, leaf spot, mildew, mould, mosaic virus, rust, smut, vascular disease, wet rot, soft rot, and toxins will try.

One of the amazing aspects of our modern society is that we can store durables for 30 or more years, for reasons explained in the textbooks above.

In the past, grains and beans could usually be stored for just one bad season, two bad years in a row and uh-oh -- read "The Little Ice Age" for details.

Man does not live by mint and nettles alone, especially in the winter.

I've been gardening for many years now, taken John Jeavons mini-farming course in Willits, permaculture classes, etc., and yet I still find new challenges and issues.

Suburbs have/can have mass transit. People can live in the suburbs and get to work without driving their car.

Most suburbs have supermarkets within walking distance of houses. Are trucks only going to deliver food to city supermarkets? That is, will New York City get 1,000's of truck deliveries to its supermarkets, and none will go to some "suburban" supermarket on Long Island?

With the population explosion in this country, suburbs have been turning into cities anyway - that is, they don't have any unused land. It's wall to wall in a lot of them. With the continued population growth expected - even by those who post on this blog saying resources are going to be in decline - whats left of raw suburban land will be used to house millions of immigrants. And that, according to Kuntsler I suppose, will be a good thing.

To get to the problem of converting, partially or wholly, the suburbs to some level of agricultural production, wouldn't you have to show, convincingly, that no large scale feasible government solutions exist -- control over energy use/rationing, manhattan style solar projects, punitive taxes on overconsumption, and what not? When the need was clear, say WWII, did not both US & UK accept extraordinary sacrifices in the name of national survival? Perhaps a relevant question is just what would it take to convince the OECD countries to accept such demanding policies. Gasoline at $50 a gallon?

I think suburbs will do OK with peak oil. The average American car gets 20.7 mpg. When I was in Britain over Christmas I rented a nice diesel powered car with plenty of acceleration that got 33 mpg. You can buy small little diesel powered cars over there that get well over 50 mpg. There is huge scope to downsize American automobiles to better align them with what people actually NEED.

With housing prices being lower, suburban folks have more money to pay for gas than urban dwellers. Many urban centers are sustained by commuters, so it is entirely possible that jobs will move to the suburbs rather than the other way around.

Schrodinger1, with all due respect, you seem to have been deluded by the mainstream.

I'll give you three things on which to chew:

1) The median age of an auto in the US is nine years and climbing. Very few people, even in the 'affluent' suburbs, have the means to turn over their 2.5 cars anytime soon. Which means the average suburbanite is stuck with 20mpg for quite a while.
2) With gas at $3.50 a gallon the wisdom of driving vs. the cost of living near work is rapidly becoming more of an issue. Everyone has an inflection point at which it will make more economic sense to live near work. What will the picture look like when gasoline is $10.00 per US gallon, which it already is in some parts of the world? What about $30.00?
3) What happens when gasoline is not available at any cost, because we have been forced to use only what we can produce within our borders, and what we can produce will only cover military, food production, heavy transport, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and home heating? All of which presumably will take precedence over people driving their car to work.

It is unlikely that there will be large scale movement of jobs to people. For every person advantaged by such a move, there would be one or more disadvantaged.

OK, if there was a sudden drop in gasoline supply (or a sudden rise in price) then you would be right. It takes 15-20 years to replace the car fleet, so there's not much you can do overnight. However, what is expected to happen with peak oil is a gradual decline in supply over many decades.

What happens when gasoline is not available at any cost? Gasification and FT synthesis can produce a liquid hydrocarbon fuel from a wide variety of feedstocks such as coal or biomass. If you use biomass it won't be cheap, but I think it would be affordable if the cars were small and efficient. The other alternative is an electric car. A 20 mile range would be enough to get most people to work, then they could plug it in and charge it for the journey home.

What about exurbs that are a long way from the city? They really could use electrified commuter rail. London has a vast network of rail lines radiating in every direction. They're almost all electrified, and they bring people in from 50 miles away. The fares aren't cheap, but there is little parking in London so people don't have a choice. The San Francisco area has a much smaller but more modern system called BART which goes about 30 miles from the city center.

Schrod: It is my understanding that the "gradual decline" thesis is not accurate, i.e. any material decline will not feel gradual in any way. The current run up in oil prices over the last few years has been caused greatly by the plateauing of global oil supply- any decline has been minor to date. The persons who have been most accurate in predicting oil supply forecast a whole new game starting in the next few years. A 50 mpg car works fine when gas prices double, you are back in the soup when they quadruple. What you need to remember is not only is the American suburbanite bidding against China and Europe, he is also bidding against all the middle and upper class North American urbanites who own cars and drive them 4000 miles a year. How much can they pay for gasoline?

Electric cars require turnover of the fleet. As you are probably aware, the only electric car available in the US at this time is the Tesla, and it is over $100K. In addition, a complete turnover to electric would require a huge increase in the number of power plants, which take time, money and energy to build. None of which we have.

As for electric rail, great. Here in Denver, the FasTracks program was approved by voters in 2004. It will take until 2012 for the first rail line to be up and running. They are already talking about cutting planned elements because the $4.7 Billion approved is nowhere near enough.

Point being, it takes many years and billions upon billions to create a mass transit infrastructure. Meanwhile, what does our society look like? You are assuming at a gradual change. The change is upon us, and we are totally unprepared, and in outright denial. The next 15 years are going to really hurt.

It is feasible to convert small compacts and subcompacts to electric. You don't get much of a savings compared to just buying a new purpose-built NEV like a GEM. On the other hand, though, if gasoline is in double digit territory and there is a three-year waiting list to to buy a GEM, then you might see considerable interest among people in getting their small cars converted to electric. It isn't rocket science, but it isn't a DIY project except for very expereinced amateur mechanics, so there will be employment opportunities there for those who are good with mechanical things.

Let me make it clear that we are talking about NEVs here, with a max speed of maybe 35mph and a max range of maybe 20 miles. I think that is the only type of electric car you are ever going to see in any type of mass-market quantity. Sure, there will be some playthings for rich folks like the Tesla, but you'll be seeing those about as often as one would see a DeLorean back in its day. As far as a true electric replacement for ICE cars, with comparable speed and range - forget it, it isn't going to happen. The batteries will just cost too much. Limited short-range local mobility with NEVs should be possible for quite a few people, though.

I think you are a wee bit too pessimistic about electric vehicles, although they will not have equivalent performance to petrol cars anytime soon at any reasonable cost:
The Th!nk seems to be the first practical EV car ready to hit the market:

The first such general consumption electric auto to reach UK motorists will be the Norwegian TH!NK city EV which goes on sale during the last quarter of this year. Revealed at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, the TH!NK city is a two-seater with a top speed of 65 mph, a zero to 30 mph time of just 6.5 seconds and it’ll reach 50 mph in 16 seconds – perfectly respectable ‘round town performance at legal speeds, and it’ll run another 124 miles after an overnight ten hour charge from any domestic power outlet.

the first models are due for release in Noway this spring.

It will be tough or impossible to replace the whole fleet, but the relatively well-off should be able to buy a fairly adequate low-range substitute - it will be a far cry from a SUV though.

Hopefully they will be able to improve batteries at reasonable cost enough to make a four-seater.

Electric rail is great, and I hope that we can build as much as we possibly can. My fear is that we've already squandered our opportunity and left it too late. As our economy contracts and money and resources become increasingly unavailable, we're going to find it increasingly difficult or impossible to do many of the electrified rail (or any type of rail) projects that we really need. The US appears doomed to end up forever looking enviously upon Europe (and maybe even much of East Asia) for their electrified rail service that we will desperately need but never be able to afford.

We're going to need a new category to describe countries that used to be "first world" but now are no better off, and in some ways worse off, than countries that are "third world".

The Tesla claims 200 mile range. What I have in mind is something with more like a 20 mile range. This would mean a much smaller and cheaper battery and hopefully an affordable car. Of course there is no market for such a car as long as gasoline is still available. It will be a lot better than walking when gasoline disappears.

As far as electrified rail it is true that it can be expensive and take a long time to build. We have a BART extension that we approved ten years ago that won't be ready for at least another ten years. What can happen more quickly is if you have an existing underused freight rail line then you can start diesel hauled commuter trains on that quite quickly. If the service takes off then convert to electric.

I think that government transit agencies tend to be very slow and their projects are often unnecessarily expensive. There is a tendency to turn transit stops into architectural gems when a more basic design would be far cheaper to build.

Conversions work well. La Rochelle in France has converted some tiny Peugeot 106's to run on electric, and hire them out from points where you can pick them up:

In the early 1990s I developed an electric car with a friend.

It was a 4 seater, similar in size to a European small car.

We used ordinary lead acid batteries and a dc electric motor. Indeed any small car can be converted to electric drive - should rising gasoline prices dictate it.

The maximum range was in the order of 40 miles.

In August 1995 we fitted additional batteries drove it 62 miles between central London and Milton Keynes.

The vehicle weighed 2400 lbs, of which 820lbs was batteries. It had a top speed of 85mph.

It was recharged at night using cheap electricity, and could travel between 3 and 4 miles on 1kWh of electricity. This makes it cheap to run, for short trips compared to any gasoline powered vehicle.

This early surviving web page shows it.

Sadly as it was built in pre-internet days, there is very little online information about it.

I know this is going rather off topic but I found the second page from the old site showing some pictures of constructing the electric car.

Four cars were built in total between 1990 and 1998.

Regarding the farming of suburban gardens, I believe it would possibly be a lot of work for poor returns - I am thinking about the "backyard steel" experiment that brought famine to China in the 1950s.

I think it would be better to form a collective, and support a local farmer and a local store, who grows and stores food on your behalf.

"so it is entirely possible that jobs will move to the suburbs rather than the other way around."

Good point. This model we currently have where commercial buildings are all concentrated and houses sprawl ever further outwards from this center spoke of jobs, just doesn't cut it with high transportation costs. Jobs and houses need to be collocated. People like the current model because they can switch jobs and not have to move. I suppose the current model could still work if we built some high speed rail lines that people could use to get into the job hub areas. And then there is telecommuting which should become much more popular. And we may see dormitories built so people can live at work during the week.

Forget the suburbs being a problem, the people who are screwed are the ones who live in some remote town and travel an hour to get to some low-paying job in another remote town. They have no hope of any significant mass transit. I guess you would call that rural living.

I would just like to point out that there are a LOT of garages out in the suburbs and small towns, and those garages could work very well as workshops for all types of trades and crafts and small-scale manufactures. They could also be made to work well as small retail stores, or even small offices. Once the automobiles are permanently idled and the HOAs and local zoning laws have been discarded, that is where a lot of the new economic activity is going to take place. We're going to have to evolve back to a model where people's workplace is at their home, and where most economic activity is on a small-scale self-employment level.

Having spent time in California, that particular model of suburbia is obviously not going to work post peak-oil. Looking around Mountain View / Palo Alto and so on, you have a central "town" which doesn't have much in it -- just a few restaurants and some apartment blocks. Then vast landscapes of widely-spaced houses, and giant Stuff-Marts in the middle of nowhere.

But not all suburban areas are the same. You would hardly call Oerlikon in Zurich anything other than a "suburb". Most people would be commuting into central Zurich for work from there; there are a few restaurants near the station; retail is sort of hundled around there. I can't see why that won't work peak-oil. While a lot of people own a car, most journeys are not by car -- they are by the hydro-powered tram and train network. Peak-oil really wouldn't matter much.

Even in Sydney (one of the world's least dense cities and most sprawled suburban areas) it's not a completely lost cause. My landlord is about to kick us out of the place we've been staying (actually, he offered it to us to buy). But I'd done a bit of pricing -- $16,000 would have put enough solar and wind on the roof to cover our electricity needs twice over, plus bringing it up-to-date with the compulsory water tank that new houses are supposed to have. (It's old enough to be exempt.) Since moving here I hardly drive at all -- the train system is faster than driving, and with a quarterly travel pass it doesn't cost me anything. And this isn't a high-density city area -- this is an old established area where the houses are *big* and the land-block sizes even bigger.

I think the crucial requirements for suburbs to survive are:

  • A decent fossil-fuel-free public transport system.
  • Retail for staples like fruit/vegetables etc. located within (say) 10 minutes (by foot or public transport) of any house.

I can't think of anything else which is absolutely crucial. Am I missing something?

The USA model seems to be a very long way away from either of those. But there are plenty of suburban areas around the world which do have both.

I don't think Palo Alto is a good example. There is a Whole Foods market within about 10 minutes walk of the center of town, and a large shopping center within about 20 minutes walk. There is a also a station for commuter trains to San Francisco, and the journey takes about an hour. The trains could be electrified some day.

That being said I know the kind of suburbs you mean and California has all too many of them. I'm wondering what the most fuel efficient motorized vehicle is. I think there is a small car made by VW that gets over 70 mpg. I don't know much about motorbikes, but i think they may be as good or better. Maybe we'll see a "Mad Max" solution. ;-)

Very interesting article. Vertical farming coupled with the article's suggestions could make for a viable long term solution to our inevitable food crisis. Vertical farms even use water efficiently. Granted vetical farms are a few years away possibly a decade away but what are the alternatives? Vertical farms are worth the investment; its benefits will carry forward for years to come. Check out

Thanks for the article. It seems to me that suburban farming has a lot of potential problems. Chief among them are the average suburbanite's lack of knowledge of how to do it. But as mentioned above, many could do it, and there are other possible creative options such as sharecropping.

I think that turning the suburbs into small farms will not solve the food problem, but it could be an important step in the right direction. One of my favorite themes from this website is the idea of silver BB's rather than silver bullets.

The biggest unknown is what will be the social and political arrangements behind such a system. Will the exurban communities evolve into self-sufficient medieval towns? Would they look like communism or feudalism or something else?

There is also the question of the transition process. It would be very hard for a person to simultaneously maintain a respectable suburban farm and work a 40+ hour office job, together with long commutes. But history has shown that these kinds of questions get sorted out without people like us necessarily working out all the details in advance.

It should also be noted that the unsustainable aspects of the American agricultural system--fossil fuel inputs and imports--will not disappear overnight. Right now we can't really worry much about how we will support 300 million people in an entirely sustainable way; we won't have to do so for a very long time to come. Instead we have to worry about how we will meet our basic needs tomorrow and do so in a way that brings our ecological position into the right direction.

Some people will still have full-time paying jobs, and will have more money than time. Other people will be trying to get by with some combination of part-time jobs and small-scale enterprises, and will have more time than money. The latter will have plenty of opportunities to providing goods and services to the former.

Excellent article, good information. However, I want to offer the idea that if a "powerdown" occurs in a fairly rational manner, the great majority of people will wind up living in dense city or town centers, surrounded by farms belts that contain up to 25% of the population (basing that figure on the writings of Sharon Astyk and Richard Heinberg).

To follow on a few of the comments here, there are a couple of reasons that for the past few thousand years cities have been the center of various civilizations: first, the problem of marauding hordes, or even bands, is a real one -- even medieval peoples lived next to castles or walled cities so that they could run to safety in a pinch. There has to be some control of the means of violence, and cities provide those means.

In the present situation, living in dense town centers or cities is simply more efficient -- an apartment building is more heat efficient than a single family home. But very critically, living in a dense area is obviously a much better solution to the problem of transportation. The writers here seem to assume a certain capability to move around the suburbs -- but unless there is an extensive electricity-based rail system, that won't work, period. And then, perhaps the most important element of cities will not be available -- manufactured goods, including even the most simple metal tools, which require some amount of "high-tech", even in medieval times.

So it would seem to me that, while building gardens in suburbs will be a fine "bridging" solution, a truly sustainable system will be much more "city-like" (I argued this more fully in a post at Grist, "How will we feed ourselves?", which was attended by a fairly vigorous discussion, at least for Grist).

As for the huge expense of building the suburbs, we have to realize that most of that building took place in the 60 years (probably more like 50 years) from the end of World War II (most of the communities in existence before WWII can be fairly easily reverted back to thriving town centers, something that has happened in my new home, Evanston Illinois). If we could build suburbs in 50 years, why can't we deconstruct them and build sustainable town centers and cities in the next 50?

We can and probably will but it will be done in a environment of increasingly expensive energy. What underlies all these discussion is if America is going to be a third world country. No matter how you cut it we will. The third world will descend into what can only be described as a hell hole. The problem is once you get a situation like the third world with large numbers of poor and massive slums democracy like we practice it becomes untenable. So our fragile American society breaks down.

Sure some suburbs will be converted to small farms but only when the prices drop down less than what you would pay for fertile farmland. This entails that the homes are free and the land value is low. At best in my opinion suburban land that needs to be cleared and rehabilitated would go for a few hundred dollars a acre. Otherwise why would I spend money when I can buy better land ?

If I need to be close to town to work better to move in closer.
Sure you have exceptions but I just don't see a general move to intensive farming in suburbia unless the land was effectively free.

memmel -- Most land was originally owned by the government -- and much of it sold by homesteading -- so it seems to me that governments at all levels could buy it all back up (or use emiment domain in some situations), then sell (or lease) it back to farmer coops for basically nothing, with various agricultural services provided (teaching and supporting permaculture/biointensive gardening, not industrial ag). That's assuming that the ideological straightjacket of discounting the use of the government for anything useful is overthrown.

As for being Third World, I think that the structural efficiencies of being in dense city and town centers would lead to a very comfortable lifestyle -- after all, cars and 3000 sq foot residences are what many people want, but nobody actually needs (assuming a dense public transit system, of course).

I think we need to transition from "the tyranny of the bottom line" (i.e. profits as the motivating force of economic activity) to a planned economy in which social goals, including sustainability, becomes the raison d'etre.

It will be very hard to get agreement that this is the way to move forward. Even if we could get such a concensus, there will be much squabbling as to what the goals should be and how to allocate resources to meet the goals. Certainly, those that benefit from the way things are now, will continue to "lobby" for the continuation as business as usual.

Do I really think that we can evolve to a peaceful, sustainable, equitable, towards relocalization, world?

No, but nothing ventured, nothing gained

Petroleum is not going to entirely disappear any time soon. Even the Lower 48 still extracts some oil from the ground every day.

Fuel will certainly have to be re-purposed. I think we will see a fleet of trucks moving food and other necessities to neighborhood distribution points. This will constitute the most essential fuel allocation segment.

Next in the ration hierarchy will come a substantial fleet of buses of various sizes. GPS and cell phone/data technology will be used to route the buses around to pick up people and move them around relatively efficiently, using individually calculated routes for each trip.

As for individual automobiles, I imagine that only public services such as police, emergency medical teams and other government-run functions will use them. People in the suburbs will simply have to stay at home a lot. That might even have some good effects.

We will eat much less. Cutting our consumption of food in half should not be impossible. Both poor and rich will have compulsory ration cards. There will be thriving black markets of various kinds.

The US currently wastes enormous quantities of fuel. I believe we can cut liquid fuel usage by at least 70% without a lot of ongoing chaos and loss of life. Since the US now uses something like 30 million barrel equivalents of crude oil, gas and coal per day, a big reduction, especially in transportation uses, will go a long way toward improving the situation in the near term.

But before these adaptations can even really begin, I suspect many of us will have to endure terrible privations, including violence, starvation and significant levels of death, before individuals, politicians and eventually even media owners (!) wake up.

Life somehow still goes on even in war zones. Conditions will be horrible for years, maybe for generations, but I feel sure humans will find a way to survive, at least in some areas, and even eventually even to thrive again, though in far fewer numbers than we have now. Probably 30 to 75 million people will someday manage to live reasonably stable lives in the territory once known as the US of A.

I vote to bulldoze (or pickaxe) the suburbs into grids (or grid-like) as this is the most successful model. Do you have a pickaxe? They're pretty heavy but useful. So are a lot of other tools. Without real tools sent to the suburbs beforehand for enough people this would take a lot of time and not generate enough critical mass of community support that will be needed. I'd recommend a non-electric based stockpile.

There are no marketplaces in suburbs. Suburbs do not have any human distance destinations. We'll have to take a handfull of homes out and then you can have a local market for your grown goods. Should be lots of fun and provide (suddenly) a purpose rather than endless loops with only one exit. Not so safe versus grids with multiple directions.

Farming isn't going to be so convenient if you have to walk all around your cul-de-sac to move things in and out. Also take advantage of abandoned buildings and dismantle (recycle) them so that you also have local materials. A grid system and the removal of excess would eliminate the fires and instigators I hope.

The article is a bit of a misnomer. Suburbs would be converted anyway and turned into only a memory. Afterwards it will look more like a Transition Town in Europe where a sense of place has practical use rather than a dumbed and drummed Esher painting.

The sooner the better.

With all the post about food I don't think there was one about canned food.I could see most meals could come out of cans meat,veggies,fruit.No need for refrigeration long storage times and ease of transport by rail.As a kid from the 50's most veggies were from a can except in the summer months.What was old is new again.


I read that the average yield per acre of potatoes planted was more than 350 cwt (hundred pound weight). That is 35,000 pounds per acre. Another site showed me a baked potato was 26 calories per ounce or 416 calories per pound. Since you may need 2000 calories for a physically inactive lifestyle, you may need 5 pounds of potato per day. 35,000/5 = 7000 days of nutrition per acre of potatoes successfully harvested. One acre under cultivation might feed 19 people per year if one crop is grown. There are 640 acres per square mile.

My grandparents retired in Florida and had an orange tree and grapefruit tree in their back yard. A fertilized, watered, and pruned mature orange tree grown by a professional fruit grower might produce more than 900 pounds of fruit per year (South Florida). It was easier to get a lower yield.

Saw a lady walking along a bike trail in the spring before the trees leafed out with an armload of wild onions she had pulled up.

here in midwest in community gardens [at least in the past] potatoes were not allowed because they attracted too many bugs!

Real life example: We bought a home with an hour to an hour and 1/2 commute, depending on job location. My wife didn't commute daily for her work, but I did. At least at first, but over the years the rising price of fuel acted as a motivating factor to start my own business to reduce overall transport expense.

The reason this business worked is the advent of the Internet, and Fedex pickup. So people will find many ways to solve the problem of suburbia. Some will now get a high mileage hybrid. Others will abandon their homes due to the cost of commute or higher mortgage interest rates and rent closer to the city. There are many empty homes in our area and I shudder to think of what we would have been forced to do if I was still trying to commute with gas prices now at 4 bucks a gallon here in California.

I think there is too much infrastucture development for suburbia to die off. Instead people, like us, will adapt in one manner or another to use what's already available. You can't build Rome in a day, and you can't leave it in a day either.

I think the threshold of pain is not even close to being high enough to make suburbanites even think about this situation. Those folks are entrenched in their way of life, and they will do anything to keep it rolling. This includes going into whatever debt necessary to maintain the daily commute, delivery pizza/rental video on friday night, strip mall shopping on saturday, etc. Suburbia is completely unaware of what is going on because of the news sources they choose to listen to. There is really only one way to get their attention; the price at the gas pump. What price will finally cause some action? Heck, maybe $7 a gallon, probably more. I have spoken with many, many suburb dwellers, and this is what i find across the board.
Regarding electric cars, i guess i am nuts, but this seems to be the worst solution of all; it helps maintain suburbia in it's present state, which is a failure of an experiment.
The only solution is to abandon the zoning laws and allow suburbs to create businesses and whatever else is necessary to allow self sufficiency, eliminating the commute. Suburbs are full of good people at heart, they should have their own community, a complete community.

The suburban problem is time. Many examples have been given of functional suburban areas
with mass transit. The problem is that in the US, suburban mass transit is not the norm, and it
takes many years to ramp up mass transit options. I gave the example earlier of
the FasTracks program in Denver which is a voter approved light rail system with one
additional heavy rail spur. This is a twelve year effort. Meanwhile, gasoline has risen 27%
and diesel 40% in the past year. If gasoline and diesel continue to rise at say, 30% a year, what
will prices look like in 12 years?

Gasoline is 3.39 on average today. People don't realize the power of compound rises.

If gasoline rises 30% a year, in 12 years gasoline will be $60 a gallon. So all of those areas that do not have a funded plan, right now, are going to be hurting. Even those areas that do have mass transit will be in trouble, because there is probably not enough capacity to meet demand when fuel is $60 a gallon.

And remember, as the price of fuel climbs, so does the price tag on building mass transit options.

Bicycles are a big part of the solution, as are electric vehicles. Electric bicycles are very efficient, and relatively affordable. Even an obese American can go 10 miles each way with electric assist.

Moabite, I agree with much of what you say, except I want to point out that most manufacturing does not require oil -- some manufacturing needs feedstocks, but electricity is the critical energy input, so building things should not be a problem (as long as either coal doesn't run out or, preferably, we go renewable). Even construction equipment can be converted to electrical sources, I believe -- so actually rebuilding the cities and town centers should not be constrained (at least, not by much), by a dwindling supply of oil.

GlobalMakeover, I think you are underestimating the petroleum input into manufacturing and deploying an electric rail system. We certainly can build electrically powered machinery to do nearly anything. However, today we have neither the machinery nor the infrastructure to power it.

Think about what is needed to build a rail line with only electric power. Earthmovers, bulldozers, cranes. Huge amounts of earth and building materials must be moved. Then, you would need some kind of absolutely huge tethered power supply every couple hundred feet at a minimum. The only reasonable way to do this would be to build the electric infrastructure as you build the rail line, and tap it into with the construction equipment at the leading edge of the build. Lots and lots of new technology. This is not going to happen in the span of a couple of years without a huge public investment.

If liquid fuel continues to rise at even half the rate it has in the past year, the costs of building a suburban mass transit infrastructure(or ANY kind of infrastructure) is going to be so prohibitive that taxes and fares will have to skyrocket as well. Our economy is already breaking.

We need a 'moonshot' mentality to solve these problems. Unfortunately, our political system discourages reality based dialog. So we get proposals to burn even more fuel, like McCain's.

Moabite, thanks for the reply. I wrote up the use of petroleum in a post at Grist about "A post-petroleum American Dream", and according to my figures -- which used dollar amounts, not liquid quantity amounts -- the construction industry uses about 2 or 3 percent of the US oil (this is from 1997 figures). Now, if oil is very expensive, that's still a problem, of course. I read somewhere, though, that many of the huge mining machines (I think the reference was to coal mining) use electric motors, not hooked up to the power grid, sorry I don't have a reference. But in any case, in a rationally planned world, there would be enough liquids to power the construction equipment to build a mass transit system -- and that should focus on cities, I would think. For the suburbs, depending on the density, I would think that buses would dominate -- ideally, with overhead wires, but that would be more expensive, of course.

You are right, huge mining machines use electric motors powered by huge onboard diesel generators, just like locomotives use electric motors powered by huge onboard diesel generators.

I think we agree that the future will be difficult for the suburbs and that the desired mitigating changes become more expensive, and therefore more unlikely, by the day.

Googling around I see references to electric mining machinery as opposed to diesel, but can't find anything about construction machinery, which is the big problem we are discussing -- I'll take your word for it. I would assume that building transit infrastructure would get more "bang for the buck" in terms of energy needed in any case, and I quite agree that the faster we rebuild city and town centers, the better.

Rebuilding city and town centers, and I would add retrofitting sprawling residential suburbs with village centers, are great ideas and need to be done.

However, where will the economic incentives come from? The cost and process of acquiring and rebuilding such are ridiculously high and problematic. What developer will do this as a speculative project? Even if these centers happened to get built, what assurances do we have that necessities will be made available in these new centers?

Northampton, MA is a good example. The town center was brought back, but most of the commercial residents are providers of non-essential goods and services. Most people still have to drive to get groceries, hardware, basic clothing needs, and office supplies. None of these are available in the town center.

Although, what you all are discussing concerning energy as a limiting factor in restructuring our communities to be walkable is right on, there are other considerations (as I mentioned above) that we can not rely on the "invisible hand" to deliver.

The reason that you haven't got those essential goods locally is because people can still afford to drive their cars.
With petrol at 2-3 times current prices then local traders can turn a profit and will do so, even if initially it means operating from the back of a garage.

The assurance is in the relative prices of travelling vs paying extra for lower volumes locally.

Evanston, Illinois, which is just to the north of Chicago, has done a remarkable job in transforming its downtown to the point that we can comfortably live without a car (much of that is inertia, since we didn't have one in NYC). There is a Whole Foods a couple minutes walk away -- and a larger supermarket about a mile away, which I walk to once a week (although I seem to be the only one pushing a shopping cart from that far away). The subway (El) and commuter rail are right in the downtown, as is a Barnes and Noble and a good library. In short, plenty of stores and services that are needed in order to live downtown.

The downtown was falling into disrepair, in typical modern fashion, especially because a mall had opened up in Skokie, in the 1960s I believe. But the town government very consciously planned to revive downtown. And maybe the most important key was the building of many high-rise apartment buildings (up to 25 stories, where we live). In fact, its been so successful that a developer wants to stick a 40 story building right in the center of town, to the consternation of many here.

So it is possible to revive town centers. I would say that the single most important thing to have to make a town center livable is a decent supermarket -- that would cut down on most shopping trips.

Ah, DaveMart, you are the eternal optimist!

The notion that supply and demand will solve all problems disregards the fault in the assumption of frictionless change.

In older neighborhoods where the commercial infrastructure is already developed the transition will be less painful, but the notion that folks will open neighborhood shops out of their garages in residential sprawl neighborhoods is an interesting one.

The notion that such adaptation to high gas prices reminds me about the parable of the frog in the cooking pot. A frog can be scalded to death in a slowly heating pot of water because at any given time the increase in temperature is not enough to alarm him and cause him to jump out...

...the notion that folks will open neighborhood shops out of their garages in residential sprawl neighborhoods is an interesting one.

When gas prices get so high that folks start needing to get things within walkin distance then the cost of shipping things to these garage shops will be prohibitive.

Better to plan the transition before it becomes an intractable crisis...

"And like an invisible hand", the great experiment with Capitalism that assumes that as long as we have an ever expanding resource base things will work themselves out, will prove to have been an enormous cataclysmic failure, based on myopic faith and faulty assumptions.

At least that is a specific answer, rather than a vague and slightly disparaging generality about too much optimism for your taste.
In a specific reply: I live in a working-class area in Bristol, England, and can already go to the local pub and buy most things which are on sale in official retail outlets, so I can't conceive that Americans will be so useless that they can't set up similar systems.
As to shipping costs, this is simply inaccurate.
Shipping costs tiny amounts for most items, the expense comes in in the trucks to move things around, and Alan from big Easy has already commented on possibilities to use more rail.
In Europe we are also switching to electric for local delivery.
If you prefer you can simply decide it is more graceful to give in and die, but alternatively you could make use of whatever opportunities the new environment of high petrol price affords.
Amongst those for those who can't move from suburbs with few retail outlets would be retailing from your home.
A delivery van running on electric could be powered by solar panels in most of the States, unlike in Britain.
There are always opportunities if you are willing to put yourself in the way of them.
Since you seem to reject most positive ways of coping out of hand, I have no idea what you mean be 'planning the transition' - writing your last will and testament, presumably! :-)


No, I like your optimism.

I wish I could share it.

I've never been outside the western hemisphere, but my understanding of England is, of course, that much more of the built environment came to be before the automobile. Therefore, older environments such as those in the "old world" will be better able to adapt to the post-automobile world.

Have you ever been to the States? The sprawl, particularly out west where I live now, is ridiculous.

If we act wisely, and cooperatively, we can save fuel for transportation of goods to neighborhoods, heating, cooking, hot water, and electricity.

However, it looks as if we (particularly in the US) are hell-bent to squander these precious natural resources.

I have more than vague generalities. You may want to take a look at the following:

That's an interesting blog, thanks for sharing.
Our urban environment may be better suited to non-car transport, but 60 millions of us on a tiny island with limited solar resources even if that proves practical are likely to have a tougher time of it than in the States.

The massive houses there give great potential to split them up into apartments, and if you can't wind power and solar are both more practical in a less dense environment.

I am not sure if I am optimistic as I have no idea whether adaptions will be successful, but like Alan from Big Easy that is what I focus on rather than the possibility that we may come unstuck.

Perhaps one of the difficulties of dialogue between the Old World and the New is that population densities are still low enough there to make it possible to imagine some sort of survival by localisation and so on with little input from fossil fuels.

I would feel that at the population density and with the resources we have here it would just mean mass starvation, although some of the localists might disagree.

Think about what is needed to build a rail line with only electric power.

Obviously building railways is impossible without the internal combustion engine! Otherwise people would have been building railways in, say, 1830!


I never said internal combustion engines were required to build rail. What I said is that it would be very difficult to build rail today with only electric power. We don't have the infrastructure, and we don't have the equipment. Thus, the cost of diesel is a factor in the cost of building rail. The longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult building infrastructure will be. Do you deny this? Explain.

It might be easier with all those readily available coal powered steam shovels we have lying about....which along with animal power is what built many rail lines. There is evidence of this all over Colorado. In fact, what is thought to be the world's largest steam shovel is mothballed a few miles from my house. The Bucyrus B50:

You just mentioned something that is rarely talked about here, and surprisingly so. That something is steam power, or external combustion engines.

You rightly point out that long before there were internal combustion engines powered by gasoline or diesel, there were steam engines powered by coal or wood. It was these, not ICE engines, that really powered the industrial revolution. ICE engines just took in into overdrive.

There is a lot of coal left; it will peak too, but take a lot longer to run out than will petroleum. After that, there is still wood, a renewable resource (if managed properly), which can be burned directly or made into charcoal. There are very severe limits to the extent that a steam powered industrial infrastructure can be fueled by wood in a sustainable manner. Indeed, it was the depletion of the wood resource that forced England into the coal mines, necessitated the invention of the steam engine (to pump out the mines and haul the coal), and set it on the path of the industrial revolution in the first place. Left only with wood, we will have to pick and choose very carefully which steam-powered equipment we truly need, for we won't be able to fuel very much. But we will be able to fuel some.

Um. The railroads across the midwest weren't built with anything but a bunch of skinny chinese guys with spades and pickaxes. There's no reason that can't be done again. It's also a lot easier to put up a bunch of poles and string wire from it than you think.

Streetcars could be retrofitted pretty easily. Hell you don't even need railtracks - you can put an electric brush on top of an electric bus and run it with normal rubber tires.

Way too much pessimism on here.

Um. The railroads across the midwest weren't built with anything but a bunch of skinny chinese guys with spades and pickaxes. There's no reason that can't be done again. It's also a lot easier to put up a bunch of poles and string wire from it than you think.

Given Haiti and Zimbabwe, I wish that we in North America would make this kind of use of virtually free human labor. It would be a win-win situation. We could give them food, they would live, we would get stuff done. I hate the thought that these impoverished people are considered so worthless that no one can offer them even a living. I understand that the "give everyone a living wage" people feel that everyone needs to be able to rent an apartment with TV, but think that even work camps would be better than the mass death that seems inevitable.

There is a certain amount of unreality in this thread. To wit:

1. Business as usual (BAU) continues and people retain their jobs BUT they, out of necessity, have to personally grow a large portion of their food.

Given the fact that our economy is over 60% consumer driven I find it illogical to assume people will have jobs to go to. In which case, people are going to have to grow almost all their food or barter something with someone who has food. Society has collapsed.

2. It is further assumed that business will have fuel but individuals will not have fuel for small uses such as rototillers.

Anyone who has started gardening with rotten soil knows that a rototiller is a godsend.

3. It is assumed that people will have significant sources of soil-building components.

Anyone who has used compost as a nutrient source knows it takes vast amounts of organic material. As a former certified organic farmer, I know what this means. In reality, people are going to need an outside source of at least P, K and Ca (which no one ever talks about - and let's thrown in trace minerals too). Well, if things are so bad, where are they going to get this stuff.

4. It is assumed that Production Agriculture and vast numbers of home gardens will co-exist.

What is likely to happen in reality is a huge shakeout of commercial growers, both chemical and organic, because they either can't market their crops due to a glut or they will be in the wrong location and be unable to ship them due to fuel shortages. In any event, the end result is likely to be even less food available.

The list goes on but it's time for breakfast.

Forgetting about future scenarios, I would suggest that people who are concerned about home food production, personal energy use and household energy efficiency find a copy of The Integral Urban House - Self-Reliant Living in the City, Farallones Institute, 1979, 494 pages, ISBN 0-87156-213-9. Powells Books often has used copies.


I was hoping that the decline and fall of the American empire would be gradual, with the ‘invasion by barbarians’ stage being comfortably after my lifetime. Unfortunately, the timetable appears to be moving up. Still, one has to decide what one can actually plan for. Since I now know we are not going to get our flying cars or electricity too cheap to meter, I guess we have to expect something else.

I am already seeing one family have their adult children and grandchildren move back in with them so they won’t loose their house. I imagine this will happen more often before people start building rabbit pens. Local colleges and adult ed organizations could be offering victory garden classes. Actually, some here in Connecticut do, but they are not that popular. Yet. There are 4-H clubs that showcase chickens, ducks and larger animals at your local agricultural fair. I like to go through the back sections of the fair each year and think, these may be the people best suited to an energy impoverished world.

Of course, I’ve heard it said that if North America had been colonized from west to east, New England would still be a wilderness. There’s a reason why people left it in droves in Horace Greeley’s time.


I assume that the barbarians will be from nominally government entities with three or four letter names. As the government breaks down, people will find themselves saddled with "guests" from the massively expanded FBI, FDA, CDC, IRS, DOE, EPA, and any of the other 17570 possible TLAs available. Naturally, the constitution will not apply, as these will not be considered "troops". It will take some time to realize that central government has broken down, and that these entities are just independent government organizations (IGO).

The point being, the time to get a government job is now.

Suburbia -- to escape the strife of noise, disturbance, cramp, dirt, crime, of the cities, and the immigrants who made good there, was, and is, a symbol of the old bourgeois idea of ‘segneurie’ - a man in his castle, a family in their country home, a space, ground, spot, solidly planted on the territory, owned, occupied, potentially defended.

On the plantation, the 18th cent. farm, or before, people produced, cooperated for a result, depended on each other, managed the land. Not to make it romantic or rosy .. The lord, the landowner was king, the top boss, as he held the resources in his hand - land and workers. Servants, serfs, were first mainly agri. labor - later blacks or others who cooked and bowed, now Mexicans who clean, garden, maid, siphon the pool, they live elsewhere; who knows...

The individual burb homes, in the ‘country,’ the fresh air, outside the city, with more space, more air, and distance from the bad guys, the indelicate, the socially inferior, the not-our-kind, the violent criminals, and, most important, the centers of production (treated in the top post, I just am burbling my words) - were set up on this seigneur model, but had no function (except for fulfilling the desires of the occupants) and rested on a completely different economic model.

Not sustainable energy-wise, not financially either (even though post-war finance helped to create it with 10% or so down mortgages), since power has shifted away from the land and production to the murky casino of finance. Other points, dealing with effects rather than causes, such as, what is civic participation in the burbs? have been much discussed - the general drift is that individualism and isolation lead to...duh...disconnection.

I was just watching a Utube vid where the Mortgage Guy, whoever he is, predicts the Alt-A mortgages will be ‘next.’ All the hysteria about sub-prime was, it is true, often tinged with prejudice against the poor (or the stupid, which is the same thing in many minds) who dared, or attempted to, join the landowning class, way above their station - maybe the American dream, it was hinted, was not quite for everyone, though it would be peachy cool if it was.

The problem is that the distance - time, management of territory- between the homestead or the seigneurie, the large farm handled by humans plus draft animals (production wise) and the burbs, is now too great. *Much* could be done, as outlined in many posts above (ppl often mention Cuba, rightly), but suburbia was not made to grow food, and cannot do it in any consistent, efficient way, even if the yields hoped for are only 10% of modern, green revol., mechanized, agriculture. (mortgage guy, quite noisy)

Energy Policy Feasco -- Revised,,,Friday, April 18, 2008 Energy can be abuntant and cheap or expensive and limited,,, limited and cheap is not an option,,, VERY FEW people can live with limited amounts of electricity,,,, The environ green movements proposed energy policy in my opinion is impossible to purchase manufacture and install in a timely fashion [ solor panels and windmills ec ] ,,,, Therefore they [we] have no realistic energy policy becouse OIL and NG,, will become unaffordable before these systems can be built, But what they have learned how to do very well is to cause large companys to bow to their will and now little by little our electric utility companys are being forced to raise electricity rates becouse of the legel battles that these groups are very affectively wageing against coal, and atom powered electric utilitys, forcing them to use oil and natural gas, these are cleaner fuels but they are also UNSUSTAINABLE and are going to become more and more expensive AND unavilable, This is a NONE ENERGY POLICY, that is being forced upon us all by a very law savy minority in the USA,,,,,,,,, Our electricity grid is projected to be unable to meet demand,, [ google, duke energy, nc.[a utility company] ] I say to these green environ save the earth groups THANKS well done..... IF I were president congress or senate leaders looking out for the interest of the USA I would ban any environ green movement from interfearing with the energy policy of the USA,,,electricity and oil are critical for our lives and our economy to function.oil is becoming very exspensive,,,, atom power is proven and will give us the time we need to develop and install these new energy systems [ choose those you like ],,, we don't need a minority that answers to no one deciding our countrys energy policy. ,,,Some news,,??? U.S. Will Approve New Nuclear Reactors
The British government has been persuaded by the wind turbine manufacturers to commit a third of its annual renewables subsidy to this uniquely inefficient energy source,
Did those pleading for wind farms really think they could ever substitute for nuclear power;
,,,, The answer to this would be we must ,,power down,, and indeed as our transportation fuel becomes more and more exspensive and supply unsustainable it will happen,, my answer to the environ green movement is,, for tens of millions of homes in the USA,,and around the WORLD,, solar and wind together will not supply the energy needed to keep a home warm on a cold night and most of these people don't have the money or credit to BUY and install YOUR UNWORKABLE energy systems,,, If all I needed was a light in my house a solar panal would suffice with a battery,,,,but we loose,,,,CLEAN CLOTHS,,, HEAT ,,,on a cold night,, a VACCUUM CLEANER,,, AC,,, a REFRIDGERATOR,,, Mandating the widespread use of expensive energy systems has resulted in the highest electricity prices in the world, Denmark, 41 cents per kWh, Germany, 30 cents per kWh,,,, yet they still get most of their electricity from fossil fuel,,,, The operation and maintenance cost for U.S. nuclear plants in 2006 was 2.0 cents per kWh including the fuel assembly cost of 0.5 cents per kWh, of which the uranium cost was 0.19 cents per kWh,,,,. Expensive energy systems will not solve the world’s energy problem because most people cannot afford them.
A concerned US citizen.

If you properly format your post, it might get read.


I had a very hard time reading your post, but I would like to make a comment.

My father, (not my grandfather or great-grandfather or some ancient ancestor) did not live in a permanent dwelling with electricity or running water until he returned from WWII. He is now 88 years old.

Trust me, you don't need a clothes washer, electric heat, a vacuum cleaner, air conditioning, or a refrigerator to live. Really you don't. You may not believe this, but the majority of the world's population today lives without these luxuries.

Thanks for the positive input,,,but I really don't think you realize what is about to happen here in the USA,,,my dad also came home from WW2 to milk cows by lantern light,,the sears catalog was the outhouse t paper I havent forgotten,,But my children are allready desperate they cannot afford heating oil and are currently using electric in one room to stay alive,,,,in maine where the temp goes 25 below 0 F any night thrue jan,,,,without affordable electricity millions will be forced to flee to the south and I can assure you they will not be welcomed when that day arrives,,,so I restate my case electricity is critical for the northern third of the USA,,,,,A concerned citizen.

I am fortunate enough to live in the suburbs, 20 miles to the south of London,which were widely planned in the 1880s - before the age of the automobile and the internal combustion engine.

There is a railway service to London and eleswhere, from a station about half a mile away, that was built in 1845, solely using manual digging and animal labour, with steam locomotives for removing spoil from cuttings and transporting it to form embankments.

My 1905 house is part of a development built between 1880 and 1920. It had the normal services of gaslight and water and sewerage, but no electricity. Heating was by open coal fires, with a fireplace in each room.

The solidly built brick houses were 1000 sqft, which was deemed to be practical for a family of 4, and located on a level plot of 1/10th acre. In previous years I have grown potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans,carrots, onions,and there is an apple tree that last season produced about 800lbs of edible apples.

There is a local shop located 200 yards away, from which I can purchase sufficiently varied foodstuffs, fruit and vegetables to maintain a balanced diet. Although the prices are higher than the supermarket (half mile away), I believe that it is important to support this local business, which is essential for elderly people who cannot make it to the supermarket.

This development was built on the edge of town, and within 400 yards there is good arable land that could be pressed into service for increased food production, should a crisis arise.

In short, this community was born before the age of the car, it has adapted to suit the demands of a society based on private vehicle ownership and cheap oil, but, come a crisis, it could be rapidly returned to its previous lower energy mode of operation.

I have lived in this street for over 7 years, and have joined the local social club, where I serve on the committee. I know several of my neighbours on good terms - all long term residents in the street, and more importantly perhaps, have known their children grow up from youngsters to teenagers, and are thus therefore less likely to commit criminal damage to my property or any other house the street.

There is still a neighbourly sense of community here - and this I think is vitally important, should the street face uncertain times in terms of energy security.

Anyone pondering how society will adapt to economic downturn, could at least read some of the literature and historical notes made during the last great global downturn of the 1930s.

In the US, Steinbeck provides some pretty accurate description of life during the Great Depression.

For my UK perspective, I have a copy of George Orwell's descriptive account of the poverty of northern England in the mid-1930s "The Road to Wigan Pier". A period of economic downturn, mass unemployment and general social unrest with widescale poverty and wretchedness.

Orwell visited coal mining communities in Lancashire, where unemployment was highest and documented the standard of living, diet and economics of the typical mid 1930s family.

In the 1930s, the country still predominately relied on coal for all of its primary energy needs: coal fired steam engines for industrial power and railway locomotives.

Natural gas was not available, with "town gas" manufactured and stored locally in most towns. Petroleum was used to a much lesser extent, for a much smaller vehicle population, as private vehicle ownership was quite rare in the UK until the 1960s - and then only 30%. (We were a poor nation paying for our near bankrupcy in WW2).

Farming in the 1930s was generally non-mechanised, and fraught with inefficiency, still relying on animal power, and traveling contractors who supplied steam traction engines for ploughing, threshing and other mechanically intensive tasks. Small gas or diesel stationary engines for low power tasks were just becoming affordable to the farmer by the 1930s.

Nobody wants to descend to the depths of squalor and deprivation of the depression years, but this could happen, alarmingly quickly if we remain in denial about the problems that the world is now facing.

Food security should be of paramount importance to all nations, and a re-organisation of the agricultural system to support a reduced-meat diet, would be one way of making the resources go further.

We also need to re-introduce a sense of community, and one earlier poster's suggestion of a training period for school leavers in agriculture and social-cohesion, would be one way of achieving this.

For those that are unlikely to achieve academic success, the equivalent of a residential course in agriculture, permaculture, animal husbandry and slaughtering, energy efficiency, basic engineering and manual skills such as construction and home-making (even teaching youngsters how to cook with basic ingredients) would help prepare the next generation for the changing society and shortages that they are likely to face.

There is at least 1 establishment in the UK that offers a "Farm School" for young teenagers who want to follow a career in farming.

In developed countries, it has become very hard, or impossible, or reserved for the rich, to live a ‘low’ energy life style, as some of our parents or grandparents did. You have to join the fray, buy supermarket food, work in a bank (I’m on my local trip here).

Last month, here in Switz. some local inhabitants tried to sue, or influence the State, as they refused to have their cheap housing transformed to give individual toilets to each appartement. They claimed they didn’t want or need such a thing, all was fine as it was. The State pulled out a lot of regulations about hygiene, etc. etc. They haven’t lost yet but they will. A minuscule example.

In Maine, they used to heat with wood, afaik.

I thought many people still heated with wood in Maine, too.

Unfortunately, survival mode generally has nothing to do with thermostats.

A good point was made about people leaving colder climes. I wonder if we'll see an acceleration of the seeming mass migration to the southern tier that we've seen over the past 50 years? I would caution that this mass migration was enabled by electricity. Specifically, air conditioning. Florida in the summer without AC is about as miserable as winter in Maine. Less chance of freezing, but unhealthy people do not do well in the hot, humid Florida climate. Interior Florida was still very much a wilderness backwater until AC enabled people to live there comfortably. Almost all the initial settlement of FL was on the coasts to take advantage of sea breezes. I would also caution that you may think you will save on energy bills by moving somewhere further south, but you may just end up with heat in the winter AND AC in the summer. I certainly spent less on utilities in CO than I did in Florida, before propane went up to six times what it was when I moved to CO.

It is interesting to look at Florida population trends. AC came in to wide use in the 1950's. Florida's population was 2.7 Million in 1950, about the same as Iowa at the time, and smaller than Wisconsin or Alabama. Today, Florida is over 18 Million, Iowa is about 2.9 Million, Wisconsin is 5.5 Million, Alabama 4.6 Million.

Is the water table in Florida too high to dig basements? I think the word "cantina" originally meant a cellar. I imagine massive earth berms with the Mos Eisley theme in the background [yeah, dessert not swamp climate, whatever]. And, given science, picture people taking the extra precaution to make extra use of radiative cooling at night. Does it have to be so bad, if people make extra effort? Could you take notes from Thailand or Cambodia? Or maybe you need to just get used to it?

Seriously, air conditioners just made things easy--aren't there more costly measures that would be reasonably effective?

There are also less costly measures that would be effective, and even money-saving measures. Have a wide porch moderating air circulation through the house, have cool drinks and use a 50W fan instead of a 2,500W airconditioning unit, etc.

But it's not the way people like to do things. "Use lots of energy, spend lots of money, it's the ONLY WAY."

Not sure where the water table would be exactly, but given most of Florida is a no more than a few meters above sea level, I'd think a basement would be a bad idea. The highest point in Florida is something like 300 ft.

Florida does not compare in any way to Thailand because it has four seasons. You need heating in winter as the poster above noted. This is why you might spend more on energy in Florida than in CO. Of course, winters will be getting warmer, but the sea will be rising, so...

Any long-term plan in Florida is likely not the best of choices.


You need heating at 60F? Are Floridians all born on the Sun?

Plight Of The Pollinators

Congress is mulling a bill that will boost industrialize crop production by cutting existing farm conservation programs. The legislation, experts fear, may speed to the demise of Calif. honeybees that have been mysteriously dying.

Growing up in a post WW2 suburb during the 70's, I had a visceral understanding of how an energy challenged future might unfold. My childhood vision of turning suburbia into productive landscape was ridiculed or ignored. In spite of all the familiar Kunstleresque criticisms of suburbia here at the TOD (most of which are spot on), the Permaculture axiom "the problem is the solution" may yet turn out to be right. All suburbs were not created equal and a transition to sustainablity may not be orderly but I believe there is hope. I look forward to seeing these ideas further developed here in the future.

Mr Kunstler has rang the bell if the people are not willing to heed the warning none can blame him,,,, Yes it's true wood heat can be found in maine but the market price has followed oil so theres little saveings unless one owns a wood lot,,,But the bigger trouble I see is that suburban exspansion has taken nearly all the farm land,,,the population is twice what it was during the depression and 90 percent of the food is currently trucked in,,, From MAINE to NH,MASS,CONN,to NYC, theres very little farm land if any within 50 miles of the coast,,, and also if any of you are old enough to remember grains potatoes carrots and other root plants were put up to last the whole year,,,not till next week's visit to the supermarket,, that said one modern farm tractor with a tiller can make a very large garden in very short order and a bulldoser can make a field almost as fast if the environ green earthsavers don't mind,,,, A concerned citizen.

I've been working at growing my own food for ten years. Problem is only got decent quantities in the last four or five years. It is a steep learning curve and your mistakes need a year to correct. Learn about NO-TILL and PERMACULTURE. Skip the multilevel marketing permaculture lessons. Everything you need to know you can get off the internet and in books at your library.

The practical advice I can give is: Start small and follow directions when it comes to planting crops. Forget rototillers and plastic compost bins and gimmicks and stuff you buy. Start a compost heap by piling up a small pile of leaves and veggie clippings in the corner of your yard. My hillside was nothing but grass and a few oak trees 10 years ago. Now it is a multistory layer of plants, hummocked, path crossed, corduroyed bantam jungle in places. You can improve soil by learning about green manures and self sowing plants that build up soil, like clovers. Buy seeds and constantly distribute them, let weeds go to seed and flowers too. Make it a rule to never remove anything organic from your yard except food. Add constantly from any source you can. Paying for soil is like paying for sex, just because you can doesn't mean it's morally acceptable. There is so much free material available.

Where I live in Marin there are lots of Hispanic gardeners with pickup trucks. These guys are a great source of inputs. They have to pay upwards of twenty dollars or more to dump a truckload of green clippings at the local recycling center. They are more than happy to deliver it and in some cases spot it on my heap for free. As long at there are no invasive weeds or sprayed clippings it is all good. The neighbors roll-away green bins are a great source of inputs too. I swap mine full of branches and stuff like ivy clippings I don't want for theirs full of grass clippings and fallen leaves. Obviously they will not be available when TSHTF, but my soil is already so good I already can't grow things like sunflowers or flowers that only grow in poor soil.

Learn about plants that go to seed and or are easy to reproduce. Arugula, for example, will produce more seeds from one or two plants you let mature than you can ever use the next year. The first step is to plant things that take the longest to grow, then the second longest, then third: i.e. First plant fruit trees, then food bearing bushes, then perennial plants, then annual vines that come back each year, then finally annuals. Get as much sun on your garden as you can but also use shade creatively. A stressed out sunburned plant will usually rejuvenate if placed in a semi-shady place. Many plants produce food in semi-shade. If you plant lettuce with lowered light levels you know what happens? It makes bigger, more numerous darker green leaves.

Websites I like are no nonsense and are geared toward serious gardeners.
Here are some:
Plants for a future.

The woodland forest garden.

Grow biointensive.

How to raise your own organic vegetables,
a long comprehensive and ambitious site with sundry and useful links.

West Coast Food Forestry.

Plant ordering sites. I like this two because they have the biggest selection: They are geared toward the West Coast weather. There are nicer small businesses that deserve your support as well but this is serious and no time for social activism--you need to get plants in the ground this year. You'll find the good ones on your own.
Raintree Nursery
One Green World
Advice, plant listings, vendor reviews.
More advice

Here are my garden books. These are all valuable. There are others perhaps as valuable not listed here.

I suggest that you learn about LibraryThing, it's a great way to share information about books and find your intellectual cohort based on the books you share with people.

Good luck and learn about gopher wire.