A Resilient Suburbia? 3: Weighing the Potential for Self-Sufficiency

A backyard garden in Oregon

Over the past two weeks, I have examined the challenges facing suburbia in a post-peak world. I’ve argued (in Part 1) that financial reality will prevent us from building an alternative to suburbia, and (in Part 2) that the superficial transportation issues facing suburbia are better viewed as a much broader economic threat posed by peak oil that equally threatens urban and suburban living. In this post, I’ll look at some of the unique advantages of our present suburban arrangement—is it possible that suburbia not only won’t be abandoned post-peak, but that peak oil will act as a catalyst for the adaptation of suburbia into a flourishing, vibrant built environment? I think it’s possible, but that it will be challenging. In this post I’ll explore this possibility—both the potential, and the challenges—of creating A Resilient Suburbia.

Specifically, this post will look at the potential of suburbia to produce some degree of self-sufficiency in food, water, and energy. At one extreme, if suburbia can sustainably produce 100% of the food, water, and energy, then the prospects are excellent for a resilient suburbia.

While true self-sufficiency may be theoretically possible, I don’t think this goal is realistic. Some degree of self-sufficiency, however, is possible. While the majority of this post will address the potential, and challenges, of attaining different degrees of self-sufficiency, there are two additional issues that must be addressed.

First is the degree of self-sufficiency relative to urban settlement. Suburbia is (in virtually all instances) a more energy intensive form of civilization than urban settlement. If, however, after adding the potential resource production of suburbia into the equation, suburbia has the potential to be less net-energy intensive than urban settlement (which, in almost all circumstances, has a lower potential for resource production), then suburbia would be, on balance, more sustainable than urban settlement.

Second, a point which I will raise now but leave unaddressed until next week’s post, is the function of economic coordination. Urban settlement, by its very nature, sits atop a large pyramid of control and dependency--in isolation it is less energy intensive, but it depends on a vast hinterland, the energy requirements of which are often ignored in calculating the sustainability of urban living. Suburbia, in contrast, has the potential to evolve into a flatter, more inclusive mode of civilizaiton (it certainly isn't there now!). Traditionally, urban areas, by virtue of their geographic density, best serve the critical function of coordinating economic activity in a hierarchal fashion. While this function—its costs, benefits, and alternatives—must be considered in weighing the sustainability of different modes of the built environment, I’ll ask that we focus discussion on the first topic for this week’s post.

1. Food:

How much of its own food can suburbia produce? In America, the average suburban lot size is approximately 12,000 square feet. That’s about a quarter-acre. At an average of 2.56 people per household, and a rough average of 10,000 feet per lot not covered by structures, that’s just under 4,000 square feet of yard per person. Of course, this ignores the potential for parks and other open spaces in suburbia to be converted to food-production. It is also an average figure—some neighborhoods will have far less space, others far more. Despite these sources of variability, it is a good jumping-off point. Is 4,000 square feet enough to provide for a person? There are three requirements: calories, nutrition, and the variety and selection necessary to support culture and quality of life. In addition, there are four limiting factors to food production in a given area: sunlight, water, labor, and soil/nutrients. In the interest of space, I’ll only address three of these: calories, nutrition, and soil/nutrients—please feel free to discuss the other requirements and constraints in comments.

Can 4,000 square feet produce enough calories to feed one person? At 26 calories per ounce and roughly 8,000 pounds of potatoes harvested from 4,000 square feet (based on intermediate yields from John Jeavons “How to Grow More Vegetables,” p. 92), that’s 3.3 million calories, or 9,000 calories per day. This is, of course, completely unsustainable, insufficiently nutritious, etc. But it does answer the question—it is possible to grow enough calories on 4,000 square feet per person. The real limiting factors are nutrition and soil, discussed below:

Can 4,000 square feet produce enough nutrients to feed one person while simultaneously sustaining and improving the soil? One issue is that topsoil has been scraped away from more recent suburban developments. How effectively can we re-build soil, and how long does it take? John Jeavons has addressed this question in depth (summarized at p. 28-29 of “Grow More Vegetables”). He concludes that 4,000 square feet is roughly enough to feed one person a complete, nutritious diet, while simultaneously improving soil quality. His method involves 60% (by area) focus on growing soil-improving crops (high carbon content food crops for eventual compost), 30% mixed high-calorie root crops, and 10% mixed vegetables.

I’m sure Jeavons’ is one of many possible ways to approach the problem. One alternative is forest-gardening, depending largely on fruit and nut production from long-lived trees coupled with understory vegetable and root crops. Another, more high-tech route is hydroponics. While I anticipate a lively discussion on these points, I’ll cut my presentation short, closing this point on a simple thought: Jeavons (a practicing expert in the area) argues that 4,000 square feet is realistic. My mother (admittedly, a Master Gardener) is doing exactly this in her roughly 5,000 square foot home garden. I don’t claim it will be easy. I don’t even argue that suburbia can consistently provide 100% of its food production. But I do argue that suburbia can realistically provide around 50% of its food, can act as a localized buffer against disruptions, and can provide a high percentage of vitamins, minerals, flavor, and culturally-important foods.

Critically, while attaining self-sufficiency on suburban lots may not be easy, it is certainly more practical to obtain a significant degree of food self-sufficiency in suburbia than it is in urban settings. This isn’t to say that urban areas shouldn’t explore gardening possibilities—it is simply to point out that suburbia’s food-production potential is an asset when compared to urban settlement. Whether or not its food-production advantage outweighs its transportation disadvantage is not clear—but more on this later.

2. Water:

In the next century, water will be one of the most critical, and scarce, resources for many parts of the world. Even in those areas where there water supplies are plentiful, there is a significant energy requirement to build, maintain, and operate the infrastructure required to gather, store, transport, and purify water. How realistic is it for suburbia to provide its own water, both for domestic use and for suburban gardening?

Many people will initially object to the potential for suburban water self-sufficiency on the grounds that rainfall is erratic, and that some areas of the country are quite arid. While it isn’t the Atacama Desert, skeptics should read Brad Lancaster’s excellent guest-post on rainwater harvesting in Tucson, Arizona (average 12” of rainfall per year). For several years now, Lancaster has been using simple rainwater harvesting techniques at his modest suburban Tucson residence to harvest sufficient rainwater for both domestic needs and to sustain an impressively productive garden. The average suburban home has a roof area of roughly 2000 square feet (garage roofs and overhangs count here, but not on home square footage). In Tucson, with 12” of rain per year, that catches as much as 14,000 gallons per year (or 40 gallons per day)—more than enough for frugal domestic usage by one family, though certainly not enough for several hot baths, a backyard pool, and multiple loads of laundry daily. In wetter climes—say, Ohio with 37.77 inches per year on average--the potential is even more clear.

Two concerns for rainwater harvesting are droughts and purification. Lancaster’s article, and his several books on the topic, address both in depth. Bottom line: storage and purification are relatively simple, cheap, and require little energy, though the solutions are by no means fool-proof. In perhaps one of the greatest differences between suburbia and urban areas, suburbia has the clear potential to be water self-sufficient, whereas dense urban areas do not.

3. Energy:

What about the potential for suburbia to produce its own energy—for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, and transportation? While suburban homes tend to use more energy than urban homes—for all of these requirements, with the possible exception of cooking—does their potential to produce energy compensate for this?

Let’s start again with the average roof area of a suburban home: about 2,000 square feet, or roughly 780 square feet per person. Solar photovoltaics have the potential to produce roughly 180 Watts per 15 square feet, or 12 Watts per square foot (one sample spec sheet - .pdf). That works out to about 24 KW per house, or about 9 KW per person. Cut that by two-thirds to confine placement to properly oriented sections of the roof, and the average suburban home can install roughly 8 KW of photovoltaic panels (or 3 KW per person). What percentage of a home’s energy needs would that provide? First, it’s important to note that 1 KW of installed capacity doesn’t equal 1KW-Hour of production for every hour of sunlight—it provides significantly less, depending on location and weather. Based on a very informal survey of conservation-aware households, a WAG is that 20 KW-Hours per day, per household is realistic (probably conservative) for suburban electricity usage with some focus on conservation. Using the rough metric of 1300 KWh per year from 1 KW installed capacity, our hypothetical suburban household would require 5.6 KW of solar capacity. In other words, there’s plenty of roof space in suburbia to meet suburbia’s electricity demand. Two important caveats: 1) such a system won’t provide power when suburbanites currently use it (a net-metering system paired with other forms of generation would be necessary), and 2) while some households use electricity for home heating, water heating, and cooking, in many areas and homes it simply isn’t realistic to heat a home with 5.6 KW of installed solar power only.

While I’ve been focusing on photovoltaics (actually one of my less-favored forms of renewable energy) because they’re readily available and easily understood, I think that solar hot water, passive solar heating, and increasing insulation and on-demand ventilation are actually more promising means for suburbia to generate its own power. By combining passive solar hot-water and air heating with sufficient thermal mass and improved insulation and sealing, it is possible to provide nearly all energy requirements for the vast majority of suburban homes using only that home’s roof space. Urban homes often lack one of the key features of suburbia: plentify solar access. The vast majority of suburban roofs have excellent solar access--though some tree-pruning may be required. Even moderately dense apartment blocks (not to mention high-rise residential) does not have the necessary insolation to power itself through in a distributed fashion. In the interest of space, I’ll leave discussions of home geothermal and heat pumps (promising), home wind-power (less promising), and home wood-lots (less promising) for another day.

While these kinds of retrofits cost money, by improving the viability of suburban homes they don’t face the same kind of financial Catch-22 addressed in the first post in this series (whereby it isn’t possibly to finance alternatives to suburbia because credit markets are tied to the value of suburbia that is destroyed by the creation an alternative).

Additionally, it isn't realistic at present to think that we'll be able to put enough solar panels on our roofs to charge the batteries on the twin electric-Escalades sitting in our garage for the daily commute to work. I increasingly believe that suburbia can be resilient and sustainable, but not as a mere "Star-Trek" version of the present. Rather, by minimizing our travel requirements at the outset, and then transitioning to high-efficiency vehicles, ridesharing, bicycles, and especially electrified rail for remaining journeys, suburbia can adjust to a radically lower transportation energy-budget.


Suburbia has a significant potential to provide its own food, water, and energy. It won’t be as simple as snapping our fingers. And it likely won’t be possible for suburbia to consistently produce 100% of its needs. But I think one thing is quite clear: the potential increase in suburbia’s self-sufficiency is significantly greater than the potential for urban areas to increase their self-sufficiency in food, water, and energy. We can argue the degree to which this is the case, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone seriously disputes the issue generally. If we accept that suburbia has greater potential for self-sufficiency, and if we accept that suburbia requires more energy for transportation and transportation infrastructure in its current manifestation, then the big question is this: does suburbia’s advantage in potential self-sufficiency outweigh its disadvantage in transportation? It's quite easy to toss out an unsupported opinion on the answer--I won't attempt to do so, and I'll caution that anyone who does, without empirically and irrefutably answering the potential for suburban self-sufficiency, is just guessing. The answer partially turns on the degree to which suburbia can convert itself away from a commuter model and toward a knowledge-based, distributed production model. It also, as I’ll discuss next week, turns on the value of distributed ownership and self-sufficiency as a force in determining the political structure and evolution of civilizations.

You've described my house; passive solar, 2kW PV (8.1 kWhr yesterday), edible landscape with modest garden (20'x80'), rainwater capture, etc.

The challenges:
- Cultural inertia: who's going to be the first on their block to have a survivalist landscaping?
- Cutting down the first ornamental/shade tree.
- Learning gardening and horticulture
- Learning how to pick tree stock for wide range of fruiting dates
- Having enough seed and tree stock to go around
- Being convinced that food storage is needed

Once we do enter the Great Depression 2.0, a lot of the cultural inertia will disappear. Witness the change in attitudes on spending in the last 2-3 months, already. It is now "in" to be frugal, according to several articles I've seen and many people I've talked to.

Learning how to do all these things is the biggest challenge. Our generation is very ill prepared for this. Still, given how we coped back in the Great Depression, and in WWII, it is my belief that humans are more resilient than given credit for.

I understand what you are saying, though the changes we've seen have taken us back to 2004 levels of consumption, which is not a major lifestyle change, nor do I suspect most people are making much in the way of changes. Given the way oil prices have come down, along with food prices, the momentum has shifted somewhat, though with more people out of work, demand is likely to stay down, and more people will be starting "Victory Gardens".

Let's add a few more thoughts on the challenges:

- Overcoming cultural inertia: who's going to be the first on their block to have a survivalist landscaping?
- Cutting down the first ornamental/shade tree.
- Learning gardening and horticulture
- Learning how to pick tree stock for wide range of fruiting dates
- Having enough seed and tree stock to go around
- Being convinced that food storage is needed (and actually doing it)
- Being convinced to practice humanure management (and actually performing it)

- Having money to make even a modest change in energy efficiency
- Having money to produce even a modest amount of energy
- Difficulties renovating to effective passive solar (though solar window boxes can help)
- Enough solar hot water heaters and installers to go around
- Enough PV to go around
- Transportation to and from work, school, grocery/pharmacy, shopping, etc

The theoretically higher energy balance of suburbia must be viewed in light of the logistical problems its implementation would be held back by. Unless there were a massive Apollo-like effort to incentivize and greatly accelerate production, then all the positives you mentioned would not be attainable for at least a few decades.

One other energy input to add is solar cooking.

This seems a bit incoherent.

A scenario where there is enough energy so that having "Transportation to and from work, school, grocery/pharmacy, shopping, etc" isn't nearly pointless, seems like it should at least vaguely resemble Business-As-Usual-lite. Many people would be up to their eyeballs full-time, more or less as they are now. Not that this is even new: in bygone times, the town blacksmith, tanner, baker, or shopkeeper, was not necessarily also a farmer. The number of hours in a day is more rigidly finite than even the oil supply.

So maybe I lost the memo, but is there some newfangled Great Time Piñata In The Sky that people who are already up to their eyeballs can whack on for great gouts of spare time and energy in which to add on a whole new occupation involving "gardening and horticulture", "how to pick tree stock for wide range of fruiting dates", and your endless list of other laborious stuff to be dredged up from the dead past? What would be the need? What would even be the desire, given that in the scenario, one's time might well be spent far more fruitfully at the "work" one is being "transported to and from"? Haven't people been trading since long before Roman times?

And let's not forget that your illustration seems to show a scene from the very early 20th century. In those days, the population as a whole was far younger, and therefore far more able to cope with hard physical labor, than it is now.

Oh, and why are those guys in the picture wearing suits? I don't recall ever seeing any evidence that people wore suits to do farm work.

Re. time....

The average U.S. household has a TV on for 8 hours per day, with each person consuming ca. 3 hours.

Re. suits...

Good question. Could it be that they knew a photographer was showing up and since that was such a big deal in those days they wore their Sunday best?

I have seen a family picture of my grandfather fishing in his Sunday suit with an apron on. That was the norm back in the early part of the 1900's.

This reminds me of an incident happend in Romania this summer: there were some catastrophic floods in one remote area and the President decided to go see the disaster scene.
Of course media was all over the place, direct TV coverage and whatnot. As he descended from the helicopter wearing action outfit (e.g. rain jacket and rubber boots, the local mayor came and greeted him. The only thing was, well, the mayor was wearing suit...
The President verbally slammed the poor guy, in front of all those TV cameras and sent him back home to change to a more appropriate outfit (at least in his vision).
The trick here is that for that mayor, in that godforsaken village, the arrival of the President was once-in-a-life-time event and he decided to honor it by wearing his best suit.
Obviously, this was not fully appreciated by the "guest"...

Just as it is happening now (and it is uncertain when it will end), a PO decline will create more and more unemployment. I believe to cling to hopes that life will go on just like it has with a 4-8% oil decline is completely unrealistic.

People have lots of time now to do other things: Nielsen Media Research said Monday the average American watches 142 hours of TV in a month, which is close to 5 hours per day. A little fresh air and exercise in those 5 hours would drastically lower the obesity rate.

in bygone times, the town blacksmith, tanner, baker, or shopkeeper, was not necessarily also a farmer.

It depended on how prosperous or bleak the times were, so I don't think you can make a blanket statement. And it all depends on how high the unemployment rate is; the Great Depression saw unemployment rates of 25%. In 1943, "some 20 million victory gardens produced more than 40 percent of the vegetables grown for that year's fresh consumption".[1]

And let's not forget that your illustration seems to show a scene from the very early 20th century. In those days, the population as a whole was far younger, and therefore far more able to cope with hard physical labor, than it is now.

During the war, the young men were off fighting.

Oh, and why are those guys in the picture wearing suits? I don't recall ever seeing any evidence that people wore suits to do farm work.

Seems those were the blacksmith, tanner, baker, or shopkeeper wanting to look good for the rare picture-taking event.

Not all 5 hours can be worked in the field. First of all, many of those hours are after dark, which limits how much can be accomplished, but more importantly, many of those hours aren't exclusive: They are watching TV, and eating dinner and things like that...

(Not that that changes your point, there are more than enough hours that people are sitting on the couch watching TV during the day for them to farm a little bit of land.)

I believe to cling to hopes that life will go on just like it has with a 4-8% oil decline is completely unrealistic. Aside from this being simply a belief, if a plausible one, it seems a bit of a straw-man. If life is indeed no longer going on "just like it is [now]", but is nonetheless sufficiently close that "transportation to and from work, school, grocery/pharmacy, shopping, etc" is at issue, then all this hard labor seems a rather superfluous waste that might be better spent on, say, more productive adaptations to less oil. OTOH if things are allowed to go so far that all this hard labor is truly unavoidable, then such transportation seems unlikely to be a huge issue, as we will be in a doom scenario such as 'cjwirth' harps on ad nauseam, with little or no "work, school, grocery/pharmacy, shopping, etc" to be transported to. That's what I see as incoherence in the list of points.

...in bygone times, the town blacksmith, tanner, baker, or shopkeeper, was not necessarily also a farmer. That's rather hedged, not a terribly blanket statement. However, and for example, IIRC, at the historic site of Bethabara in North Carolina, I was told that about 1/3 of the working-age population was engaged in occupations other than farming, circa 1800. I was quite astounded since that was quite inconsistent with what I was taught in school, namely that the percentage of farmers back then was in the high 90s, but there it is. I suspect that what I was taught, and what I sometimes read here, owes a little something to a synthetic romantic mythology, some of it propounded by people riding philosophical hobby horses about matters such as "the simple life" - and seeing nothing at all odd about riding them over some of the most complex machines ever built - Web servers!

During the war, the young men were off fighting. Yes. And somewhat older men were farming, but with great assistance from priority fuel rations and some assistance from younger men with agricultural draft exemptions. And in either war, the currently tremendous population of frail people in middle and old age simply did not yet exist. Back then, they were still carried off in great numbers by infectious disease or its treatment - penicillin was not yet in wide use and the sulfa drugs had nasty side effects and serious issues with effectiveness - something which was often still greatly aggravated by heat or cold. For good and sufficient reasons, "flu" derives from "influenza di freddo", and likewise, a good deal of European poetry [scroll down to "In Winter"] and literature muses on the terrors of deadly winter.

A little fresh air and exercise... Another straw man, perhaps. We're not discussing raising a few luxury vegetables of negligible caloric value as a hobby - which is what, if the truth be told, even many of the victory gardeners were up to. We're discussing a great deal of time-consuming back-breaking work, not just "a little fresh air" (hard labor to be done by people who in at least a good many cases are plopping down in front of the TV in the evening and pretending to watch through half-closed eyes because they're knackered out.) So I still think that as a prescription, it's rather less suited to the population of 2008 than it might have been to the youthful population of the early 20th century.

...wanting to look good for the rare picture-taking event. LOL.

You seem to need to go through a lot of gyrations and false dichotomies in order to give us the impression that having a garden is nigh-on impossible for most people. And you seem to imply that those who were not farmers a long time ago did not have gardens, though provide nothing to back such an assertion.

We're discussing a great deal of time-consuming back-breaking work, not just "a little fresh air" (hard labor to be done by people who in at least a good many cases are plopping down in front of the TV in the evening and pretending to watch through half-closed eyes because they're knackered out.)

Gardening and horticulture doesn't have to be back breaking work, it depends upon how you approach it and how much you tackle. I don't think you've done much gardening yourself, but perhaps you could inform us otherwise (and the type of garden, if you have one). Those with mulched raised beds, for example, would be able to tell you that endless heavy weeding is not a given with gardening. Nor would those who use the Fukuoka method, among others. Growing nut trees requires little in the way of heavy work, and with a smart selection of cultivars, 97% of that comes at harvest time.

Those people who spend the day behind a desk and behind a wheel would be invigorated with some physical activity, instead of just vegetating in front of the boob tube. Note that the 1918 flu pandemic attacked those between 12 and 40 the hardest, leaving a much higher percentage of the very young and the elderly. And it's not like all of the people living now are old and useless; I had an aunt who gardened well into her 80s until passing just recently.

My great-grandmother gardened into her 90's. Not a couple of petunias, but actually growing food.

The one third of the working population not farming were men. The women and children were tending the gardens where they had the land to do so.

My grandfather was a sheriff who tended a large garden. You are making claims about things you know not; the cultural inertia mentioned above shows through clearly in your words.

in bygone times, the town blacksmith, tanner, baker, or shopkeeper, was not necessarily also a farmer.

Already I've heard of some people in the UK basically going from house to house, offering to grow a garden in the back in return for a share of the produce. This has been working out quite nicely. It gives a job to someone who might otherwise be unemployed. It lets some specialization of work occur (the gardener does gardening all day, so becomes very good at it, while the homeowner specializes in something else). Both of them benefit, and make use of a resource (the land) that would otherwise lie fallow.

You see? Humans are a lot more resilient than some give us credit for. The main thing we need to avoid is a sudden collapse, something that I see as less likely than some doomers suggest. If we are smart, we can navigate a more gradual path of energy descent, allowing for these things to arise sometimes spontaneously, sometimes in a planned way, without massive amounts of social chaos and death.

Many people in the early 19th century had multiple jobs. My grandfather was a wheat farmer in Minnesota, and also built and repaired houses. He was a fine carpenter. My parents lived through the Great Depression right after being married in 1933. They sustained themselves raising chickens for meat and eggs, and had a 1/2 acre vegetable garden for themselves. I was taught how to garden at an early age. I was born in 1940, and by 1943, I was removing rocks from the garden and stacking them for removal in a wheelbarrow. I planted alongside my parents for as long as they had a garden, which was about when my mother went to work in 1952. Ah, inflation was already beginning to make it necessary for two in a household to work. I have gardened every year of my life, and enjoy producing about 25% of my vegetables. Anyone can learn to do it, and it improves your health, and people that garden (per info from my doctor)live longer. Next year I will grow much more, as I am seeing hyper-inflation in grocery prices. I don't know why people don't think they can work full time and garden. I did it all my life. At the end of the season, you either freeze or can your produce, and enjoy it through the winter. I do not use pesticides, and can be sure that what I eat will not poison me, and will not have e-coli bacteria. My suggestion is to start with a small veggie patch, that you feel is manageable, and I guarantee you will want to increase its size each year. There are good books out there on managing your garden, and proper use of compost and compost tea, and rotating your crops and how to encourage pollinating insects, and discourage destructive insects. Have fun with this for heaven's sake. It will become a necessity in the future.

Hi Timberdoodle,

I wonder if you would comment on the difficulty many have mentioned here of the topsoil having been removed from many of the more recent suburbs, and their just having a bit of grass on top of a thin layer of soil over rubble?

This is obviously not a good situation, but just how daunting would it be?
Would raised beds be the answer? How would you approach things?

It depends how you're starting out.

If you're starting out broke and with nothing, then the lack of topsoil is a real problem. But this is unlikely.

If you're starting out with an income and buying food, and a bit of lawn and a tree or two somewhere close by, then the combination of kitchen and garden waste will make good compost, which can be used to enrich the soil. You're using your income and effort to import fertility.

Also, the soil on these suburban lots is not usually over rubble or stone. Often it's over sand or clay. This makes things a lot easier. Good black loamy soil that you see in all the gardening tv shows and magazines is made up of clay, sand and organic matter. So if you have one you can add the other two.

This can be done in a month with a lot of money and labour, or done over 2-4 years if you're just using the waste from kitchen and garden.

So maybe I lost the memo, but is there some newfangled Great Time Piñata In The Sky that people who are already up to their eyeballs can whack on for great gouts of spare time and energy...

Here, let me give you the part of the memo you missed. *MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE UNEMPLOYED* ok, now go back to your BAU life.

Maybe I'm stuck in a BAU mindset, but being unemployed or underemployed doesn't pay the bills. Unless you plan to live rent-free with still-employed family members or to squat in your home until you're kicked out, I don't see how it'll work. Maybe there's some way to distribute vacant home and vacant lots to millions of employed to put them all to work, but I don't know how myself.

You say you don't know, but don't assume that means no one else will find a way. We mentioned one way already several times. People without jobs could offer their time as gardeners to others who still have jobs, in return for a share of the produce. I would presume people that still had jobs might also be a bit hard up, so they would welcome the extra food in return for... a piece of their lawn that wasn't doing anything. The person doing the gardening would then be "self-employed" and get a cut as well.

I know people will find a way, but there are a few big unknowns to me: how the relative pay scales of various professions get rejuggled and how that relates to the cost of housing. Obviously with hyperinflation, a $500,000 mortgage suddenly becomes *very* affordable. With deflation, we'll get lots of vacant properties and homeless people. Maybe we'll get more flexible about squatting. The value of someone's time spent gardening would very much depend on how hard up people are for food.

Q:"How will everyone find the time?"

A: "Everyone" won't. More likely, those with a lot more time than money/land will get into small-scale "garden sharecropping", and offer to raise a garden on their too-busy neighbor's land in exchange for half the produce (which could then be sold at neighborhood markets to other too-busy neighbors). This is a niche that in all likelihood WILL be available and common in every community. We've already seen some postings in Drumbeats over the past few months of several different variations on this theme starting up.

For those holding down more typical 40-50 hr/wk jobs, that leaves lots of time on evenings (more daylight in the evenings during growing season) and weekends for gardening.

As for that "back breaking work", the really back breaking part is in the initial ground prep. There will be people that can be hired to help with that if need be, or there still will be fuel for rotary cultivators for quite a while yet. Once a good garden bed has been established and plenty of organic matter incorporated, the work isn't all that back breaking at all. Hint: use plenty of mulch, that will keep the weeds down a lot, sparing you a lot of that "back breaking weeding". Another hint: invest in an "azada" (or grub hoe) and a broadfork to do most of your annual soil prep - much less "back breaking". Yet another hint: if bending over/kneeling is really difficult, consider gardening in raised beds or containers.

there still will be fuel for rotary cultivators for quite a while yet.

There will be electricity and solid fuel for gasogenes even if liquids are hard to find.

Why are people tagging this downwards, instead of replying and refuting the claims, which paraphrase as:

- If people have trouble paying for food, they will be more receptive to growing it.
- Anecdotally many people are trying to cut back on spending
- Learning is the biggest challenge (This is possibly the least defensible claim)
- The current generation is not well prepared
- A belief statement, with examples, that humans are commonly underestimated. I agree with this claim, because they are underestimated, both in the low expectations we have of ourselves and each other, and in the portrayal of the average person on TV.

Would any of the down-clickers care to comment?

"If people have trouble paying for food, they will be more receptive to growing it."

I'm not sure why you would want or expect people to refute this. If peopel are hungry, I'm guessing they will do whatever it takes to get food. The first response will be theft but grocers will tire of this pretty quickly and either shut the doors or restrict entry with armed guards and dogs (the dogs couldbe vulnerable after a while too). Abandonment of certain markets by the big grocery chains will be next, leaving people with a lot less choice. Eventually, growing your own becomes one of the few choices left to you.

I agree that that the current generation is ill prepared but so what. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. People are adapting and adjsuting every day. They may not be making huge changes but incrementally moving towards wahtever tehy see as important in life. When energy decline becomes an undeniable reality, people will adjust mcuh faster. Business as usual could be redefined very rapidly when circumstances change.

I keep my ax sharp and busy. Winter is tree chopping time! People aren't paying much attention and the trees have no leaves. Tell the neighbors that the tree you just dropped was full of termites. In the spring, replace it with an apple/cherry/pear/plum appropriate for your climate and be prepared for complements when it blooms in the spring.

This month you should mooch your neighbors curbside leaf piles, mow them to shreds, cart them home, and compost or bury thick layers with some manure.

You raise some excellent points. One comment: the potential shortage of seed and tree stock (as well as locally-adapted expertise) represents a great home business opportunity with a very bright future...

I've had half a mind to start raising various rootstocks and do my own grafting from cuttings from many of my trees.

It's actually not that hard to do. I successfully did this with several different types of citrus and mango trees as a high school project (I lived in the tropics back then).

Like almost anything, though, you can't just do it haphazardly. Research what rootstocks do well in your local climate (and perhaps a zone south of you, in case global warming shifts the zones northward). Especially pay attention to the soil types predominant in the area. Then research the types of fruits that will work well with your rootstocks. Doing the graft successfully takes a bit of practice, but with care even a beginner can have greater than 50% success rate.

That sounds like a good project to start, oh, say, right about now?

Orchardists often buy rootstocks to then graft. A more reliable way post-peak would be to have one's own rootstock growing as a tree, and then propagating cuttings from it. Then grafting on cuttings from properly matched scions to the propagated rootstocks to reduce disease and insect damage.

I'm sorry but that secret is out. Here in Oregon we witnesses a 42% increase in vegetable plant sales this spring 42%!!!!!
Retail nurseries were going outside their normal suppliers to get enough plants. Other categories of plant sales were down but notably trees and shrubs.
Given the robotic transplanting equipment that the larger nurseries have it doesn't make sense to grow vegetable starts - buy seed and wait a little longer.
Trees- grafted or not these take awhile. I would think they are in demand.
Best D

"it doesn't make sense to grow vegetable starts"
Generally I have found that nursery starts are not available for the kinds and varieties that I have found most suitable for food sustainability.

I look for heirloom varieties because they reproduce from seed. I don't know if we are in a plant-snobish area but many varieties of everything is avalable.

As far as starting plants to sell commercially the robotic transplanters are hard to compete with. I hear numbers like 30,000 plants an hour, reducing 24 person crews on 3 - 8 hour shifts to 11 person crews on 2 shifts.

It is interesting as I have tried many different varieties of fruit trees. The most productive apple has been gravenstein which also thrives without the constant spraying that the other ones seem to need here. I'm drawn to the logical conclusion that if needs constant life support with sprays then I don't need it. Same goes for vegetables. Who has the time let alone all the hassle and expense of chemical applications. It is scary to see all the beautiful apples in the supermarket and wonder how much stuff has been applied to them.

A quick couple of points.

Square feet (or acres) is a wholly inadequate measure of potential food productivity. A personal anecdote:

For part of my schooling I was apartment manager for a small (14 unit) apartment complex (free rent :-). The yard barely grew weeds so I decided to plant a shade/nut tree between semesters. An old timer told me that these apartments were once a cotton field.

After digging/prying for days I found that there was a 2.5' deep rock fill on top of that cotton field !

Waste land. Although I brought in sand and humus and made a "pot" in the 4.5' diameter hole I had dug. The tree is still there at 1332 Lamar Square, Austin Texas.

It is common practice to bury construction debris on-site. Whereever that is buried is also waste land.

One cannot "improve" subsoil (or rock or gravel) to topsoil in many/most cases.

Every subdivision and even every lot has different soil, but I think that your "50% goal" is widely optimistic, especially considering the aptitude of the population and social cohesion.

suburbia has the clear potential to be water self-sufficient, whereas dense urban areas do not.

The fresh water resources of New York City, Chicago and New Orleans, etc. EXCEED that of just about every suburb.

I think that solar hot water, passive solar heating, and increasing insulation and on-demand ventilation are actually more promising means for suburbia to generate its own power

All apply equally well to Urban populations. Solar will be easier, a larger unit that shares hot water with several users (thus averaging out demand). In all but Manhattan densities, there is enough solar insolation for hot water (and if clad to the sides of building, even in Manhattan).

The best renewables are hydroelectric, wind and geothermal and cities will make better use of these (more efficient) and have better access (fewer ft of wire to maintain/capita).

Overall, you are forcing a square peg into a round hole. Yes, it CAN be done with enough effort, but I doubt that it is generally (some specific exceptions) worth it.

Best Hopes for a Dramatically Shrunken Suburbia,


suburbia has the clear potential to be water self-sufficient, whereas dense urban areas do not.

The fresh water resources of New York City, Chicago and New Orleans, etc. EXCEED that of just about every suburb.

Not every urban center sits athwart such a large river or lake as these do.

Even given the Hudson River, New York still currently brings in huge amounts of water from upstate reservoirs, which I assume would no longer be available during energy descent, once the countryside gets serious about trying to sustain itself.

A few companies of National Guard are all that would be needed to guard the water intakes/dams for the three water tunnels to NYC. From the intakes it is just gravity to the 5th floor in NYC.

And water is unlikely to be a scarce commodity in Upstate NY post-Peak Oil. Enough rainfall to go around (it is not Owens Valley, California).

Most cities DO sit astride bodies of water. Las Vegas and Phoenix are Suburban aberrations.

Best Hopes for City Water (except Phoenix & Las Vegas).


That brings up an interesting question I see begged all the time, but I seldom see anyone go into detail.

Namely, it's often assumed that, while places like suburbia and perhaps society as a whole are rapidly deteriorating, and people everywhere are facing fear and hardship, that nevertheless at the same time the banking system, law enforcement, the national guard as you say (whose own families are presumably among the beleaguered) remain fully intact, disciplined, well-oiled (literally), and what have you.

I'm not saying that's impossible, but I do find it hard to envision. For example, although I don't know the details, I recall hearing that in the aftermath of Katrina many police and guardsmen quickly left their posts because their concern for their families overrode their "professionalism". And that was just for what everybody knew was a temporary disruption, not a chronic unravelling.

I've read elsewhere that in situations of incipient social collapse, military and police discipline can be expected to hold up for 4-5 days.

Oh well, I guess that was mostly off-topic, but it's something which only seems to be discussed on the most doomeristic sites, which tend to have a preset paranoid mentality and assume the worst. I don't recall seeing a discussion of police and military discipline where there's not some totalitarian master plan, but where oppressive orders are being issued ad hoc, while everything's falling apart.

Then again, maybe this is one of the issues Jeff intends to touch on in part 4.

It is a worry. Slow transition is certainly to be preferred to fast collapse; at the very least, that provides time for civilians in a community to band together and organize a more informal system of collective defense (a.k.a. "militias"). Small rural towns also have an edge over urban and suburban areas, because more neighbors know other neighbors and informal networks for mutual cooperation already tend to exist, forming a basis to extend cooperation into other areas.

because more neighbors know other neighbors and informal networks for mutual cooperation already tend to exist, forming a basis to extend cooperation into other areas

Last Monday evening was the 50th birthday for a neighbor that has a reputation as a good guy. Four local musicians made a pick-up band (actually pretty good !), everyone brought too much food and just barely enough beer and wine (down to just Heineken by 10:30 PM). Hot toddys and hot tea as the evening got colder. Great time, quite friendly. Some mutual aid going on as well (surplus furniture).

Best Hopes for Community,


As my grower friends keep harping on "It's ALL about soil chemistry"

And as my 12 year old daughter keeps telling me there is a big difference between dirt and soil.

Starting with basic back yard dirt, I can not believe how much we have had to bring in to make it into healthy soil.

>Starting with basic back yard dirt, I can not believe how much we have had to bring in to make it into healthy soil.

Many forklift pallet loads and half a big dump truck for my small yard!

I started a productive backyard garden in my 1960's suburban neighborhood by just tilling the sod under and planting seeds. Imagine that isn't possible in the newer exurbs another 15 miles out from me.

The land once was a farm and the healthy topsoil is still there. Once in a while I'll run across an old coke bottle or some rusty nails but nothing like a full scale construction debris field.

Best hopes for the post peak suvival of the older inner-ring suburbs like mine.

I've given up completely on my urban topsoil - a bit goes off site at every council collection, sub-soil is sand and thats coming out for use in concrete later. I make soil from these components and have my own raised bed system that rapidly turns into jungle:

Palm Peat, Cow Manure, Sheep Manure, Composted Chicken Manure, Vegetable Compost(produced on site ), Pea Straw (fines), Blood & Bone and slow release I-NPKT (yes - to start with I'm pumping inorganic fertilizer in BIG TIME to get a reservoir established)

I'll add some more detail and photos of what I'm doing later in this post (If thats OK). Have to go and register a heap of firearms right now.

Gardening is suburbia is a struggle. It takes a lot of time and back breaking work. Production is small, as Alan has pointed out, most built environments are surrounded by depleted, rocky or nutrient- free soils. Some soils are contaminated.

Also, balanced agriculture (which is the topic) requires livestock. Livestock requires a lot of tending. Even a dog to keep the deer at bay; what do you feed your dog? You can raise chickens, but 100 chickens a year are hard to live with and hard to take care of. Mules, cows, horses, goats and other animals are even harder.

Suburbia is more than just tract housing, it is commercial 'strips' and the auto infrastructure.

A good use for suburbia is wind farms. A 5 megawatt turbine in a Home Depot parking lot would be the best use of the lot and some 'commercial zones' can hold ten or fifteen turbines. The turbines would also be where the demand lies, so it wouldn't be necessary to build a massive grid. Yes, the wind blows in suburbia.

Solar panels on box store roofs is already happening, as has been noted here.

Re- doing the auto pipelines is the issue that will make or break suburbia, in my opinion. Suburbia can and will coalesce. Some parts will be abandoned and will become farms. Some areas will become small or mid- sized towns. Those areas with water or rail transport will succeed and even becomes new cities.

The best outcome for suburbia would be for it to turn into something like Tuscany. It took a few thousand years for Italy to become what it is today. This process will take some time.

Most of humanity survives on small tracts of land with a few chickens (not a hundred). Go to any remote village in Asia or Africa to see what subsidence farming is.
Don't forget that chickens and ducks tend to breed, so you don't need hundred of them.

Most of these villages are made of a cluster of houses, with small fields/rice paddies around. Chickens, ducks, pigs and buffaloes are free to roam around the fields and rice paddies. Chickens and ducks eat mostly insects and worms, with a few spilt grains, and buffaloes eat the grass growing on the sides of the fields. Buffaloes also provide power for plowing. Most animals don't need much tending if you leave them roam around.

But of course, it requires a major change in diet, meat is only seldom eaten. That said, free range animals taste way better than anything sold in supermarkets.

I think it would be much better to go for a village cluster with fields rather than suburbia with vegetable gardens in back yards. For the same overall densities, it's a much better use of land.

I would agree that the "world village" from the ancient towns of Europe, to the South America and Asia and pretty much everywhere else has a cluster of attached buildings surrounded by gardens, fields, and pasture. The simple heating, structural, and maintenance advantages of shared walls mean that the US style of repetitive, isolated buildings is an aberration, most likely a consequence of super-cheap energy for heating and overall wealth.
If suburbs do evolve into sustainable systems, there is really no need to stick to the individual house with an individual driveway, an individual garage, on an individual lot. The layout of isolated houses leads to much more shading and much less efficient agriculture on tiny scraps of land, compared to the single-building villages of the Pueblo indians or Nepali peasants.
But I believe that suburban agriculture and remodeling/reconstruction/redesign will evolve with the times. Back in my days as a carpenter, we converted big old Capitol Hill houses in Denver from single-family to apartments, adding square footage as we went. A friend of mine bought two crappy houses and converted them into 5 rowhouses. So the physical form of suburbia is quite transient. Many of these neighborhoods appeared in a decade or two and could have a radically different form in another couple of decades.
I agree with PaulS that suburbanites will not be converted into dirt farmers short of societal collapse, but I know plenty of people who get a substantial amount of food off suburban lots. We make many pounds of apple-sauce, eat lots of peaches/plums/cherries, and enjoy our little garden on a small lot a short walk from the center of a city of 100,000 without any pretensions of self-sufficiency. In Boulder, edible landscaping is booming, not because people are poor and hungry, but because people get pleasure growing and eating their own food and they are sick of looking at, watering, and maintaining and watering lawns. As Kunstler noted, lawns in the US are a very strange and expensive cultural vestige of English country estates, exported completely out of context and converted into a near-requirement in many communities.

I think this is an accurate vision of what will happen. Gradually, over the next several decades if not longer, suburbia will evolve into a more clustered built-environment, it will move from a gradual increase of edible landscaping (esp. fruit & nut trees) to clusters of homes surrounded by larger-scale farming, all contained within what we currently see as "suburbia." The exact shape this will take will be driven by climate, terrain, the ability of land ownership laws to adapt to a changing environment, etc. I don't think the population density of suburbia will change much, though I do think the outward appearance will evolve to be just as different 100 years from today as today is different from 100 years ago...

For what it's worth, I think the "global village" analogy is spot on. There is a potential to increase QUALITY of life while moving past peak and toward the global village model--I've always liked the Tuscan hill town variant, but there are superb, regionally-adapted versions elsewhere to look to for inspiration as well...

The simple heating, structural, and maintenance advantages of shared walls mean that the US style of repetitive, isolated buildings is an aberration, most likely a consequence of super-cheap energy for heating and overall wealth.

The US rural settlement pattern predated abundant super-cheap energy by centuries ... it is a consequence of the system of pioneer land speculation that was a major foundation of colonial and early US economies ... sweat-equity investment in clearing and developing a plot of land for the capital gains led to farms as free-standing enterprises, eventually leading to the growth of small villages and hamlets where surrounding farmers sold their produce and bought their supplies.

But of course, once social institutions emerge, then they are reproduced by established patterns of behavior and entrenched rationalizations, so that the conditions that permitted the growth of sprawl suburbia, it had an inside track as a pattern of development.

Working along with the social institutions would point to helping along the establishment of suburban villages that suburbanites turn to for local services and products and from which they can access a broader transportation grid. In those suburban villages, stacked townhouse condominiums ... garden condos below and patio condos above ... allow for quasi-independent residential housing without sacrificing viable urban densities in the village blocks.

For part of my schooling I was apartment manager for a small (14 unit) apartment complex (free rent :-). The yard barely grew weeds so I decided to plant a shade/nut tree between semesters. An old timer told me that these apartments were once a cotton field.

After digging/prying for days I found that there was a 2.5' deep rock fill on top of that cotton field !

Waste land. Although I brought in sand and humus and made a "pot" in the 4.5' diameter hole I had dug. The tree is still there at 1332 Lamar Square, Austin Texas.

Interesting story. I live about 15 miles due north of that location. My house is on the Balcones Escarpment, a 250MYO coral reef. The builders of this house bulldozed the juniper and scrub oak from the lot, and put about 4 inches of trucked-in topsoil down when they were done with the house. That washed away in a rainstorm before the grass was put in, so they trucked in another batch. I have a small 8' by 20' garden on one side of the house, for which another six or eight inches of topsoil was trucked in. Dig anywhere in the yard and you strike limestone after moving a shovel or two of dirt.

I don't suppose it will last forever, being such a thin layer of topsoil...

From what I remember of Jeavons, the ground he started with was some of the worst waste land imaginable. Good growing soil can be created just about anywhere, given enough time, effort, and soil amendment.

You are probably thinking of his garden in Palo Alto (the barren hills above) rather than Willits.

Economic Activity in Suburbia ?

Suppose Suburbia can produce half of the food and half of the energy it needs, what will induce "others' to send them the rest, along with the rest of the necessities and luxuries of life ?

I asked that in the older, walkable rail suburbs around Boston and found that all seemed to have some local industry (connected by rail). Long gone stove foundry, cordage, cloth & yarn manufacturing, canning, pipe tobacco packaging from vague memory were some of the local suburban industries. Rail in supplies, and rail out semi-finished or finished products before WW II.

The diverse workforce required by any industrial plant were all within walking or bicycling distance generally.

Rail suburbs all sent some fraction of their work force into Boston each day (once by rail) and they brought back money to sustain the local economy.

Suburban commuting by car will diminish post-Peak Oil. Walking to the local factory seems impossible (to me) in modern Suburbia for several obvious and subtle reasons.

The glued together modern Suburban housing will need constant and major repairs in a couple of decades.

So how will Suburbia support it's residents ?


So how will Suburbia support it's residents ?

By making things that other people would need...

... and transporting them either by human power...

or horse power

But seriously, you raise a good point. What were people producing and selling in the Great Depression?

I don't know about the Great Depression, but during WWII, I've heard figures of up to 40% of our food was produced in Victory Gardens...

What constitutes a "Victory Garden" - could smalltime farmers devoted a few acres and call it a Victory Garden? Although I'd be happy to be proved wrong, but also remember that this was really before the suburbs so most victory gardens probably were from small farms. Considering that cities were too high density to add much besides rooftop/balcony gardens (I'm making an assumption here), I'm honestly not sure how comparible it is.

Also remember, US involvement in the War was only about 3.5 years - not really enough time to hit the nutrient depletion issue. I bet there was only 2 real years of heavy use of Victory Gardens.

What were people producing and selling in the Great Depression?

From my understanding, during the Great Depression, New Orleans was still a port (less than half the ships), food manufacturing was a mainstay, higher education, expanding oil & gas production (center for supporting that), oil refining, distribution center, ship & barge repair, music recording, light manufacturing (farm implements, bedding, sheet metal work) and was still a popular tourist destination (much diminished).

Best Hopes for Economic Activity,


Many present day suburbs have population densities similar to many cities 80 years ago - for example, I've seen some fascinating studies of Baltimore, which still had a good bit of open and untended land, wooded areas, etc.., and farms within city limits during the Depression. My grandmother lived her whole life in a small mill city, Waterbury CT, which despite its dense urban identity had large chunks of open land, both grassy and wooded. During the Depression she used to go collect kindling and firewood in one such parcel, across the road from their urban home, and to vegetables from a man who grew most of his crops in terraced rows along the hillside. Now, the woods are all gone (some stood into my childhood, thankfully), and the farm has a mall on it. Grandma's two acre house was bulldozed (too small) and now there are four houses on that lot. She lived very much in the city, with the train running past the back of her yard, but that urban life was very different than most urban lives today.

I think it is worth remembering that our generalizations about suburb, country and urban areas, and our references to the past often conceal that fact that there are considerable differences between them.

For example, many current suburbs have the same population densities that small cities and large manufacturing towns of a century ago have - the design is imperfect, of course, but the actual populations per square mile are pretty similar. It is true that the infrastructure for suburban economies is partly absent, but anyone who has ever seen the Amish move into a neighborhood has some sense how quickly one can adapt infrastructure to a new model.

As mentioned, some urban areas have lost or seen damaged many of their local natural resources and the agrarian land they depended upon - while others have seen densities drop. Rural areas have seen industrial agriculture's emphasis on monocropping and maximizing acreage destroy the kitchen gardens and the henhouses that used to accompany grain farming, and seen a large influx of "city folk" who have brought urban and suburban standards to zoning and agricultural policy.

There are other examples (and I may write an essay on this subject at some point), but I think it is a little too easy to conflate cities or rural or suburban areas of the past with those of the present.


Population growth does change things. Presumably obviously for the worse and yet it is implicitly endorsed by just about anyone. Peak Oilers, Environmentalists, Global Warmers, the Shriners, the League of Women Voters, AIPAC, The Downtown Moline Bingo Association, the NRA and just about every other group under the sun are right there marching with greedy businessmen, politicians and developers in full support, whether explicit or implicit - for immigration into the US. China got to something like a billion people before deciding enough was enough. At this point I haven't heard the people advocating immigration ever give a figure for when they feel enough would be enough. So right now we are stuck with infinite (and increasing) immigration and population growth. India watch out, we don't see a limit just like you, so here we come!

A large partof the problem is the cultural sensitivity that some of the Politically Correct have on discussing this subject. Countries like teh US, Canada Australia and New Zealand have been developed on a culture of immigration having been an economic driver over the past 500 years. We are only now just waking up to the costs which this generation is having to pay for the greed of past generations, who looked only to the short term gains and ignored long term cost. But arguing against immigration certifies you as a racist by the thought police. Population control is critical to sustainability of the human habitat but culturally hard to even get the discussion going.We will either do it ourselves or the Earth will do it for us and Mother Nature will be quite brutal when she decides to act.

We can have relatively few people consuming lots and lots, or relatively large numbers consume not much.

It is not clear that the first is inherently superior to the second.

Considering global warming, we need to be at 15% or less of current emissions by 2050 to avoid more than 2C warming. The US and Australia with 5% of the population create 25% of emissions; India with 17% of the population creates 5% of emissions.

That is, Australia and the US alone could ruin the world; India alone could not. Even three Indias could not. But which country has the bigger population? Naturally, we in Australia and the US like to think that population is the problem.

It's not. It's how much we consume. Population - it's not how big it is, it's what you do with it.

Most of us in the West can halve our consumption of energy and resources tomorrow, without causing us any suffering, and in fact overall improving our lives. With some effort and the right infrastructure, we can reduce our consumption by a factor of ten.

I do not think we can humanely reduce population by half or a factor of ten overnight.

If concerned about immigration, consider that most migration is from poorer to richer countries. Solution? Make the poor countries rich. And countries with high birth rates all have illiterate impoverished women with little or no political power. Solution? Educate the women and help make them prosperous and politically strong.

For some reason, we are not comfortable with the idea of making Third World countries richer, and their women literate, well-off and politically strong.

After all, why do you want to restrict immigration to the developed West? Because the poor migrants will then consume more? So, what are they to do instead? Perhaps you want them to develop their own country instead? Well then the effect on the Earth is the same. The only reason their staying at home would be different to moving is if their country stays poor.

So the only way stopping immigration will help plateau global consumption is if we keep Third World countries poor. "Don't come here, and if you stay at home, stay poor." Not exactly a just foreign policy, I think.

This is why the comments about the evils of high population are so often shied away from. That is because it's not about genuine concern for the environment or humanity's future, it's about a wealthy elite trying to protect its position. "Bugger off foreigners, this is my pie, you can't have a piece."

This is where ecological economic often uses the I=PAT formulation ...

Impact equals Population times Acquisition times Technology ...

Number of people, times
Consumption per capita of goods and services, times
Resources required under current technology for each unit of consumption

India and China have very low AT (impact per capita), and if their development project advances, improvements in T are likely to be offset and more by increase in A ... so reducing P is the only substantial line of progress.

The US first and foremost, and after that the EU and Australia and NZ and after that Japan, have substantially smaller P, but much, much higher A. Reducing consumption or substantially increasing resource efficiency for each unit of consumption, are the main lines of advance.

Far more critical than whether or not some millions of undocumented migrants arrive in the US and start consuming at US standards of living ... US level AT ... is whether the hundreds of millions of migrants, documented and otherwise, and descendents of migrants, documented and otherwise, and of original residents, begin to live at an impact per capita that can be sustained.

What you don't state is that each new migrant, legal or otherwise, makes the problem more difficult by increasing the investments required in housing, employment, and all the other things unrelated to improving efficiency and reducing impact.  Eliminating the migration to high-consuming countries is essential to getting a handle on the problem.

Population growth and immigration are two separate issues. Every additional mouth on the planet impacts carrying capacity no matter on which side of the imaginary lines we draw on the earth.
Certainly almost every environmentalist worthy of the name recognizes the need to curtail population growth, as do most concerned about climate change.
Personally I would rather devote resources to providing family planning services to everyone who desires them than building a 3000 mile long wall which will only stimulate wall-climbing activity.

Investments in birth control and development assistance will reduce the forces driving immigration.
Humans are an inherently nomadic species (that's how all of us got where we are right now) and draconian immigration enforcement is just screaming into the wind, putting fingers in a leaky dike while a tidal wave of humans struggling to meet their basic washes overhead.

Population growth and immigration are two separate issues. Every additional mouth on the planet impacts carrying capacity no matter on which side of the imaginary lines we draw on the earth.

Your statement ignores the fact that when people move from undeveloped countries to developed countries they consume far more resources.

In addition, countries can only control their own population. For a particular country practicing immigration - immigration and population growth are exactly the same in what they control. The UN is far from being able to set population requirements so we are left with countries controlling themselves.

Certainly almost every environmentalist worthy of the name recognizes the need to curtail population growth, as do most concerned about climate change.

They recognize the need but don't have the cajones to suggest a means to get there. The Sierra Club, per a poster here, thinks US population should stabilize. And yet they don't express any opinion on how to get there. Their silence on the how makes you shudder at what they might be thinking should be done.

Personally I would rather devote resources to providing family planning services to everyone who desires them than building a 3000 mile long wall which will only stimulate wall-climbing activity.

Illegal immigrations is only half of the immigration problem. But I agree they don't need a wall unless they are worried about terrorists. All they need is severe penalties for employing illegals, which are then enforced. The fact that they choose not to do that just reflects the fact that the rich and powerful love illegal immigration. Cheaper and more compliant nannies, butlers, cooks, gardeners for their household staff and cheaper workers for their businesses, ranches and farms. Not to mention a steady flood of illegals depresses wages for all workers.

Investments in birth control and development assistance will reduce the forces driving immigration.
Humans are an inherently nomadic species (that's how all of us got where we are right now) and draconian immigration enforcement is just screaming into the wind, putting fingers in a leaky dike while a tidal wave of humans struggling to meet their basic washes overhead.

That's one of the pro-illegal immigration (or as they would put it pro-undocumented immigration) standbys - you can't stop it. But if you saw 10 business people a night coupled with 10 private citizens a night being lead off in handcuffs for hiring illegals on the nightly news across the country, it would only take a few months for it all to stop. People love saving money by hiring illegals, but they don't want to be counting that money in prison.

Sharon, you are right about the transformation of both cities and suburbs. If anything is typical of America it is the continuous churning of land. Where I live was a 19th century suburb of Chicago, so far removed from it that someone cut down trees and created a toll road between the two. Now only a difference in street lights marks the border.

But the industry formerly typical of urban areas has left this town. The open areas typical of less dense suburbs is long gone - nothing goes up without something else coming down to make room for it.

In the argument about sustainability of urban vs suburban areas, what attracts my attention is the ease with which my fellow residents can walk to everything. This town of 80,000 doesn't have a single resident that it more than half a mile from the basic distribution points for food, fuel, public transport. And speaking of transport, rail is available to all.

In any crisis of supply it is not only the growing of one's own food but also the ability to get the supplies necessary to do so. To have people spread out with sufficient land for growing things for themselves means at the same time they must go farther to get what they need to support their effort. So it seems to me the best compromise is urban living and rural food production. A relatively few large agricultural operations easily serviced with rail suppliers and a dense urban living area where the produce is efficiently distributed.

This is what the U.S. was like before WWII and the imperative was the cost savings attained by doing so. Everything being cheap has caused this to be lost. We should consider what folks did in the past as a guide to the future. The were driven to what they did by economics, not by automobile!

The folk in the larger cities did not commute out to grow their own produce.
I live in Bristol, which is a city of 500,000 people housed very compactly by American standards.
The conurbation around it amounts to 1 million people or so.

The area needed to grow food for them is of course far larger, and it would be wholly impractical for them to commute to such a large dispersed area, even if they had present transport facilities.

If things go down the tubes, and they seem likely to, then what will be done is exactly that same as the solution used in WW2, when landgirls went and lodged in the countryside.
You need your agricultural workforce close to the crops, and that also makes feeding them easier.

Small towns can more easily combine industry and agriculture, and workers would not usually have so far to go, although if the town is in, for instance, an area with poor soils only suitable for sheep grazing then they would be SOL.

The prospects for American suburbia seem brighter than for British cities.

If urban residents will be able to get enough food and energy from outside sources (utilities, farms in rural areas, etc.), then suburban residents should be able to get 50% of their needs from the same sources.

Suburbia may not be optimal, but it is what we have to work with for now. All we have to do is make it work enough to survive and figure out what new direction we want to move in. If suburbia starts falling apart in 30-50 years, that should be enough time for alternative arrangements.

As I posted in the story on cars vs. renewable energy, we'll need some cars to make suburbia survivable. They may not be the gas-guzzling monsters of today... they may be scooters, NEVs, converted existing small cars, etc. But that's not saying we'll continue to need cars forever. It takes a generation to redo the whole infrastructure on such a massive scale, but eventually if suburbia is unsustainable, it will be replaced or gradually abandoned.

The alternative pushed by doomers seems to be sudden mass collapse, chaos and probably, die-off. I see this as within the realm of possibility, but not inevitable by any stretch.

then suburban residents should be able to get 50% of their needs from the same sources

Why ?

Cities produce much more than twice what Suburbs do. And cities are better suited for new start-up factories post-Peak Oil.

Suburbs produce very little today.


You're missing the point I was making, which is not about what they produce, but about where they get supplies and basic needs. Obviously the urban landscape cannot produce very much food at all. So if the urban areas can get food (from farms miles away), then the suburban areas can too... plus, they can grow some of it for themselves, more so than urban areas.

I know suburbia as currently structured is a "massively wasteful and disperse use of our resources"... but the fact that it is so spread out, the source of many of the potential problems after Peak Oil, is also a source of possibilities. It can compensate by producing a lot more (food and energy) for itself than the urban areas can. And what it cannot produce, can be supplemented by whatever it can get from the same outside sources as the urban areas are using.

Suburbs have to produce something for others to ship them food and other goods. What ?

I can feed New Orleans off of grocery stores served by rail spurs if need be. (My neighborhood corner store, Zara's, is 7 blocks from Brown's Dairy and Liedenheimer Bakery). Distributing food in an urban context is MUCH easier than Suburbia.

Best Hopes for Free Range Squab,


Suburbs have to produce something for others to ship them food and other goods. What ?

Suburbs can produce the same things cities can. And they in fact do. What do cities produce these days in their giant office buildings? What is New York City manufacturing and shipping elsewhere? Where do Honda and Toyota locate their auto plants when they come here - in some lightly populated suburb or do they go to downtown Chicago and bid on vacant lots? Where does Intel do its US manufacturing, in a suburb of Portland/Phoenix or in the city? Where does Microsoft have its headquarters - Seattle, or in a suburb of Seattle - Redmond. Is Google in San Francisco or San Jose, or are they in the suburb of Mountain View?

The office work of the high rise office buildings of cities is the work best done from home telecommuting. And that could be from a log cabin in the woods. Of course if they start with people working remotely the CEOs will try and send it to India.

Actually suburbs cannot produce everything cities can. Medical care and ports come immediately come to mind.

Industrial sites require a diverse workforce. Suburbs are noted for their conformity/uniformity in social class and often race. Any large employer has to draw from a wide area if they locate in the suburbs.

And the "green field" siting was done in an age of cheap oil (and even then Intel located within walking distance of a light rail line).


Alan you really are missing the point. The idea is that it is better to keep as many people in the suburbs as reasonable, instead of having streams of refugees running around. The post is a look at how this might be achieved.

I realise that not all suburbs are created equal, and perhaps US subrubs are different from Australia's, but neither ports, high-tech medical care or large employers are necessary to keep people in these areas. All we need is a standard of living that's demonstrably better than that of a refugee.

The discussion is an overview, looking at whether or not this minimum baseline can be provided, and you haven't really explained how it can't. Certainly I'm confident that if I were to put all the land to use, I could feed my five with my block, even if I didn't enjoy it much.

If you do things in a systematic fashion though, and organise with neighbours, you can properly facilitate some livestock rotation and allow for 'second tier' agricultural resources like leather, cheese, honey/wax, cut flowers abd alcohol to be produced by a group of, say, ten households, which could be used for trade.

I don't mean to try and get all idealistic and romantic about this and imply that it's all poetry and smiles, but I think from an engineering/systems POV this can be achieved.

Suburbia was born of Gov't subsidies and gov't programs (and racism).

I oppose any effort to save Suburbia, to give it more from the rest of society, let nature take it's course (and some fraction of Suburbia will survive in some form "on it's own", I have spoken several time of Boston rail suburbs).

Instead, the focus should be on the 30% of Americans that want to live in Transit Orientated Development, but only 1% or 2% do. We still have the resources to move in that direction, and we should !

Best Hopes,


First of all, ideological opposition to suburbia is not sufficient grounds for predicting its inevitable and sudden demise.

Second, we're not necessarily trying to "save" suburbia. We're suggesting we may just have to make do with it for now because there aren't alternatives that can be brought into existence with the snap of a finger.

I oppose subsidies to preserve Suburbia, on practical and ideological grounds.

And I have predicted neither the sudden or complete demise of Suburbia. At least twenty years for the situation to evolve, probably more.


Can you make a list of the subsidies suburbs receive and the list cities receive?

And if cities are so efficient, why is New York City, one of the oldest cities in America, the largest city in America, and a city that has probably the largest amount of commercial tax revenue per capita (many many workers commute to the city) still have to charge something I don't think any other municipality in the USA does - a city income tax.

Pittsburgh PA has a city income tax as well. But regardless, a tax or not doesn't say anything about efficiency, although the average American doesn't know that.

We pay taxes to support things like fire departments. Many of the first fire departments in the US were setup by insurance companies. The reason that the insurance companies set up fire departments was because it was cheaper in large cities to setup and run the fire departments to put out building fires before they completely destroyed the buildings and only have to replace part of the building, than to replace the buildings completely. It also kept the fires from spreading, which helped limit their losses as well. The reason the city took them over, and we now pay taxes to support it, is because people didn't like them only fighting the fires of their customers, and just containing the ones of their non-customers. (They'd show up to house fires, and spray down the neighbors houses who were covered, but let the uncovered ones burn to the ground. Giving away services isn't a good way to get more people to buy insurance next time.)

In many rural areas, there is no fire department, or they are staffed by volunteers, so if your house catches fire, they are slower to respond because they lack the same amount of training and they aren't hanging out at the firehouse waiting for a call, they have to stop whatever they normally do, go get the engine, and their clothing, and then go to the fire (no offense to volunteer fire departments, they try, but like most things in life, professionals tend to be better.) And the insurance companies know this, and you'll pay more for insurance in areas with volunteer fire departments, (and even more if there is no fire department,) because of it.

Now, not having to pay for the staff of the fire department means that your taxes are lower, but since you pay a lot more for insurance, you actually have less money available at the end of the year. And so for the same service, (your house restored after a fire,) the one that involves paying more in taxes is actually the better deal, in areas that have enough density to support professional fire departments in the first place.

Pittsburgh PA has a city income tax as well. But regardless, a tax or not doesn't say anything about efficiency, although the average American doesn't know that.

It wouldn't say something about efficiency if there was a clear correlation between the tax and extra services. Or if you could say that even counting the tax New York City residents get way more services than other cities. But I don't see where New York City has extra services that other cities without income taxes don't have. Maybe I am not hearing about them. But for an extra tax I would expect to see a lot of free things or extra services for residents. It does have an underground subway system the likes of which few cities, if any, have in America. But the subway system goes back a century. It's fully depreciated bought and paid for. Just operation and maintenance now. I don't see where there should be a huge cost to a New York resident for that subway system compared to a resident of some other city which is just now building or has recently built some other train/trolley mass transit system.

The fact that they have an income tax doesn't say anything by itself. If they raised property taxes, or sales taxes, one could assume that they could make the same revenue that they get from the income tax. They don't, for one reason or another. But to say that New York is less efficient than San Fransisco, just based on the fact that New York has an income tax and San Fransisco has a local sales tax doesn't prove anything at all. You need to look at total revenue collected compared to the services provided.

And while the subway is already dug, the maintenance on it isn't exactly cheap either.

The fact that they have an income tax doesn't say anything by itself. If they raised property taxes, or sales taxes, one could assume that they could make the same revenue that they get from the income tax. They don't, for one reason or another. But to say that New York is less efficient than San Fransisco, just based on the fact that New York has an income tax and San Fransisco has a local sales tax doesn't prove anything at all. You need to look at total revenue collected compared to the services provided.

It is possibly, although it seems unlikely, that New York City chose to have lower property tax rates than other cities, and make up for it with a almost unique income tax. Do you have any figures to go along with your speculation? Looking at this web page has me baffled. Their property tax rate can't be this high can it? The high percentages are also increasing at an alarming rate over the years.


"It is possibly, although it seems unlikely, that New York City chose to have lower property tax rates than other cities, and make up for it with a almost unique income tax."

It isn't unique. I've lived in Portland OR, and Pittsburgh PA for my entire adult life. The city of Pittsburgh has an income tax, and while the city of Portland doesn't have an income tax, the county that Portland is in had an income tax until a few years ago, (when the money was made up with a raise in business tax rates) and the transit district, (which is most of 3 counties) has a local income tax...

However, looking it up, San Fransisco does have an income tax, (but it is charged to the employers, so most people don't know it exists,) and Philadelphia has the highest local tax rate at a flat 3.98%, (higher than the highest NYC bracket)

"Do you have any figures to go along with your speculation?"

You can find thousands of web pages that says that one city/state has higher taxes than another. Very little of it is objective, most of it is produced by people trying to lower taxes in their area, either by cutting services that they don't like, or just because they have little understanding of what services are actually in the area, and the value they provide. And people tend to get distracted by the headline numbers, where as all the little fees add up too. (For instance, in Oregon it costs $54 to renew a car license for two years, in Washington State it costs $43.75 to renew it for one year. The difference, between those, to the average driver, works out to 3.5 cents/gallon, but everyone call tell you the gas tax rate, and very few can tell you the registration fees.) Finding good data on services available, and the relative value of those services is considerable harder, and also of questionable reliability.

Their property tax rate can't be this high can it?

Again, you have to look at all the details. For instance, the property tax "rate" in Oregon is very high, but because of the way the value of my house, (and every pre-1993 house in the state,) is calculated, I only paid $1047 last year, even though my house is worth $200k or so on the market right now...

It isn't unique. I've lived in Portland OR, and Pittsburgh PA

Speaking of Pittsburgh, I am surprised to see them as finalists for the MagLev train the government has put up for bid. They are competing with a Washington D.C to Baltimore route. As a co-worker said, "Gee, I wonder which one has a better chance - Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh, or Baltimore to Washington, D.C...."

The cities provide the jobs, and the infrastructure to support them, but the suburbs get most of the tax revenue.

A second effect that is fading is that the suburbs had new infrastructure (often built with federal aid) and that infrastructure is just now getting old enough to need significant replacement.

New Orleans rebuilds streets on a 110 year cycle, and has a number of projects "in progress". Our suburbs are not there yet.


The cities provide the jobs, and the infrastructure to support them, but the suburbs get most of the tax revenue.

What are the details of your claimed scanario? How does money go from the cities to the suburbs?

A second effect that is fading is that the suburbs had new infrastructure (often built with federal aid) and that infrastructure is just now getting old enough to need significant replacement.

Why would the federal government only give aid to suburbs and not cities?

And keeping water out after the big methane burp?

Well you know, I think your perspective might be a little skewed. I live with a volunteer fire dept. Ambulance service as well. I do radio stuff, so I volunteer for that for both. We had a house burn down last month, young couple just starting out. 2 injured fighting the flames. Damn propane tanks. Everyone got out. Helped by the crew that showed up. This weekend we will put the roof on the new house. and the kids can move back in, in time for Xmas. Just a bunch of unprofessional firefighters. Yeah we skipped training this month, had to build a house.

BTW I'll match my fire insurance against yours anyday. I don't have any. Don't need it.

Don in Maine

Cities provide the jobs and the infrastructure requires to support those jobs, but the taxes are largely collected in the suburbs.

Highways. City streets are maintained by property taxes in most states, but the fuel burned on them goes to support state and federal highways which are of little value to cities (Vancouver does quite well with 2 million people and NO freeways). Suburbia could not have developed if the rural roads of 1950 has been left "as is" (as they should have been).

Prior federal subsides for new schools, sewers, water systems, etc.

Early VA loans could be be issued for existing homes in established cities, only for new suburban development.

"White Flight" was driven by gov't policies supporting integration,

And more.


Cities provide the jobs and the infrastructure requires to support those jobs, but the taxes are largely collected in the suburbs.

If the cities provide the jobs, then that would mean they are collecting commercial property taxes, which everyone always claims are more desirable than residential. And, if the people live in the suburbs and work in the city then the suburbs take the major hit of public school education, not the cities.

Highways. City streets are maintained by property taxes in most states, but the fuel burned on them goes to support state and federal highways which are of little value to cities (Vancouver does quite well with 2 million people and NO freeways). Suburbia could not have developed if the rural roads of 1950 has been left "as is" (as they should have been).

I agree with this one. The benefits of the freeway system go more to surburanites who can use the local sections for commuting.

Prior federal subsides for new schools, sewers, water systems, etc.

The federal government only subsidizes schools, sewers and water systems in suburbs and not in cities?

Early VA loans could be be issued for existing homes in established cities, only for new suburban development.

So I think you are saying the VA was encouraging new home building - new versus existing - not that the VA would not loan to new houses in cities.

"White Flight" was driven by gov't policies supporting integration,

There was a lot of "white flight" that was related to immigration, but it's not an example of more subsidies going to suburbs over cities.

The sales tax revenue is the "best one" from a cost to revenue basis. Malls (strip and giant) attract most of the Suburban sales tax dollars. Downtowns, the traditional sales tax source in cities, were utterly destroyed by the highways.

The benefits of the freeways go almost exclusively to the Suburbanites (I almost never use one and would love to see I-10 dynamited and carted away. It would help the city).

The Bronx (among others) was utterly destroyed by the freeways of Robert Moses. Manhattan saved itself by stopping his plans there.

Hundreds or thousands of city neighborhoods were completely gutted by freeways (Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, a thriving commercial center for African-Americans was destroyed by I-10).

The federal gov't only subsidized NEW schools (I do not think replacement schools qualified, but unsure of that point). Since cities did not have growing number of children, it was of no benefit. (Kind of like the $25 billion to retool auto plants; only applies to those 20+ years old. No Japanese need apply).

Early post-WW II VA loans required specific characteristics (sidewalk width, offset, fire hydrant spacing, etc.) specifically designed to prevent loans for in-fill development. Only new suburbs need apply.

Integration orders did not cross city boundaries. So those living just inside a city would have their kids bussed across town. Those a quarter mile away in a Suburb did not.

Also an added cost for city school districts that suburbs avoided.

Hopes that Clarifies my point.


I once asked an older real estate agent why an older sub-division had sidewalks on the front section of the sub-division but not the back. He said that the VA changed it's requirement for sidewalks after the first half was developed and before the second half was developed.

Best Hopes for Sidewalks,


I do not mean to give offense but when I think of susidies Federal money spent on levies and water pumping around New Orleans comes to mind.

In a post peak oil world subsidies to anywhere may be rare and hard to come by. Some parts of suburbia may be able to change and survive and some urban areas are likely to fade away. I wonder about US cities on the Gulf Coast if air conditioning becomes unavailable.


The ideological favoritism of one form of residential arrangement over another is a very subjective one. Here is an alternative scenario:

1. Many city dwellers live in concrete hi-rise boxes that, depending on direction of the windows, might roast one to death in summer or freeze one to death in winter -and starve one to death in both. Loss of sewer and water would be equally life threatening there. It is more difficult to adapt to loss of public services in a service-dependent city. It is possible that the city could be the worst place to be when everything falls apart.

2. While many suburban houses have similar poor design for weather, those with basements at least have a chance to stay cool in summer; those with south windows can at least attempt passive solar heating in winter; those with surrounding private and common land at least have a chance to attempt a garden or a livestock pasture. Those with garages will attempt to create a shopfront similar to 'mixed use' cityscapes. There is space to bury/dispose of human waste.

2. Expansion of rail will not happen due to lack of capital. Not. Gonna. Happen. Therefore, both city and suburban dwellers will revert to pre industrial modes of transport: walking, sail, drawn carriage, possibly bikes [if the roads don't rip up the tires].

3. Yes car-dependent suburbia will be decimated. Many suburban homes -and likewise city ones- will first be emptied due to foreclosures. They will be cannibalized for parts or accidentally burned down by squatters. Therefore only very stable neighborhoods will have a chance to build a community- those whose mortgages are paid off already or close to it. If they are in suburbia and are near a waterway, they can get supplies to run businesses and sell goods elsewhere and they will become new small townships.

4. Subsidies will be all gone for both city and suburban areas. Say goodbye to levys, to public sewer systems, public water supplies, public transportation etc. They will go the same way as the federal highway system. Large hospitals will be dreadful places without modern pharma, plastics, hi-tech diagnostics and the aforementioned public water/sewer.

5. Contrary to your assertion, many suburban neighborhoods have not remained racially homogenous, especially in the last ten years. And many city neighborhoods are not integrated yet. Racial makeup depends on a lot of factors and cannot be stereotyped solely by the urban/suburban dichotomy.

urbangardener, if we don't have enough capital to do as you say, there will be massive die-off. There is plenty of capital right now, but much of it is going to "defense", to the extremely wealthy, subsidies, corporate profits, etc. If you had the extreme need for capital that you're suggesting, I think those things would go before everyone starved to death...at least I hope so

Actually suburbs cannot produce everything cities can. Medical care and ports come immediately come to mind.

There is plenty of medical care in the suburbs. In fact, that's where you are most likely to find a doctor living - in the nicest most expensive suburb. I don't see a port as a product of a city. They don't produce ports. And there is plenty of riverbank that goes by suburbs.

Industrial sites require a diverse workforce. Suburbs are noted for their conformity/uniformity in social class and often race. Any large employer has to draw from a wide area if they locate in the suburbs.

Actually, the industrial sites of Silicon Valley developed in an agricultural land. Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, AMD and other high tech and areospace companies all started out in the orchards of a valley that was known as "Valley of the Hearts Delight"


where cannerys were the main employer. And this started in the 1950's, a decade before Teddy Kennedy got immigration going again so don't claim it's because of all the foreigners. Slowly but surely the citizens of the area allowed their governments to destroy the orchards and farms and replace them with houses in most areas and commercial buildings near the bay. If you go there now it is hard to categorize it - it is not really a city - mostly housing developments are seen from the sky, and yet there isn't a single plot of unused land anywhere.

And the "green field" siting was done in an age of cheap oil (and even then Intel located within walking distance of a light rail line).

What is "green field" siting? Intel didn't move to Portland, but to a suburb. They didn't move to Phoenix, but to a suburb. Intel made its move to Hillsboro Oregon in the late 1970's. The light rail to Hillsboro started operation in 1998.

Besides MDs, medical care requires RNs, LPNs, pharmacists, X-ray and MRI technicians, orderlys, laundry services, medical equipment repair persons, accountants and bookkeepers, administrators and more.

Today, this diverse set of people (from different classes/economic strata) commute long distances to support hospitals in Suburbia, and I see no viable model to avoid that in the future.

Your point about Intel is correct, but that decision was made pre-Peak Oil, when oil costs were unimportant.


Suburbs are noted for their conformity/uniformity in social class and often race.

Saying that you need multiple races to succeed is a racist statement. It implies that the races are unequal. And that also applies to saying that a diverse racial workforce is better than a homogenous one. It also implies a difference in capabilities between the races.

Conformity is something that management looks for in its workforce. Uniformity makes communication much easier in a workforce. Japan has a ton of conformity and uniformity and it has allowed an overpopulated island to do quite well industrially.

The demographics for MDs. LPNs and orderlys are quite different. A fact. Fortunately, new graduates are more diverse than in prior generations.


Assuming that's true and remains true going forward, it doesn't mean they can't all live near a hospital. Every major hospital in the Denver area has very economically diverse neighborhood within easy commute (certainly < 3 miles) that can, and currently does house everyone from doctors to orderlys. My neighborhood suburban hospital (Sky Ridge Medical Center) is at the extreme edge of metropolitan denver--I know for a fact that there are plenty of both very inexpensive ($600/mo) and very expensive ($3 million+) homes within walking distance (< 1 mile).

I think this is an attempt to hang on to a theory that you like for aesthetic reasons. I agree with your aesthetic 100%, I just don't think it's realistic for all the people currently living in suburbia (especially for the reasons that I outlined in parts 1 and 2). I think that increased rail transport, a gradual re-zoning, and a gradual clustering of existing suburbia can live in perfect harmony with other sections of our economy focusing on new urbanism and others focusing on home gardening, decentralized working, etc.

Modern developers strive for uniformity in class (and often age) in their new subdivisions. This appeals to one of the primary drives for Suburbia (the primary one IMHO), the desire to escape "the Other" (racism is part but not the entirety of this desire).

So one starts with uniformity, aided by zoning, deed covenants and homeowner associations.

Will social entropy erode this over time ?

Yes, I agree that it will. But the rate of change and the residual stratification will be handicaps to adaptation.

Perhaps we do agree on what will remain of inhabited Suburbia. I used the model of the pre-WW II "rail suburbs" of Boston. What you are postulating sounds a lot like those suburbs.

Best Hopes,


Modern developers strive for uniformity in class (and often age) in their new subdivisions.

There is no difference between a suburban subdivision and a city high-rise condominium. Each is designed to have units of a similar price range with a similar clientel. Donald Trump doesn't put up Trump Tower Condo IV and design if for postal workers and CEOs.

The demographics for MDs. LPNs and orderlys are quite different. A fact. Fortunately, new graduates are more diverse than in prior generations.

That's an equity or equal opportunity issue (and any person trying to get into the medical profession in the US now has to compete with a massive amount of doctors and nurses coming in from foreign countries). You were originally implying that homogenity of a workforce caused it to be inferior in abilities.

No, I said that large employers (medium and most small ones as well) needed a diverse work force.


No, I said that large employers (medium and most small ones as well) needed a diverse work force.

Employers do not have to fill all or even any of their positions from the local workforce. They can and do hire people from around the country who then relocate to that area. Aided by their friends in government and business who have instituted infinite immigration and infinite off-shoring and protected both by convincing he masses that they are sacred cows - employers face few staffing problems regardless of where they locate their headquarters or plant - be it suburb, city or countryside. Always remember - we do not take in 2 million extra people each year in order to make conditions better for workers.

Medical care... let's not exaggerate, it's often provided in suburbs. What maybe has to be provided in cities is mostly the sort of exotic ultra-expensive 'care' where a million bucks buys you an extra month or two as a vegetable electronically strapped to a bed. Under economic/energetic conditions where suburbs were being abandoned wholesale and wrenching changes were being made to occupational patterns and living arrangements, that sort of 'care' would be solely the province of the super-rich, off the radar screen for the rest of us.

ports... do not employ very many people and do not require cities except strictly as a matter of inertial tradition. Even in NOLA, only a few thousand work at port jobs, no need whatsoever for the former city of 400,000 in order to support them.

Industrial sites require a diverse workforce. Oh, please, this reads like yet more politically-correct poppycock from one or another of a bazillion professional whiners in academia. Thousands of well-functioning industrial sites in European countries and in Japan (as well as many functioning universities, for crying out loud) utterly lack anything that we in the USA would acknowledge to be 'meaningful' diversity of class and race.

Suburbs vary a lot - many are quite diverse. And the suburbs as a whole are not uniform in social class - in fact, more poor people in the US now live in suburbs than in cities.

It is true that urbanism will be required for most major ports, but medical care can be and is provided in rural, suburban and urban places all over the US. In fact, even adjusted for income, American poor suburbanites now have better access to health care than most urban poor who may live near major hospitals they can't get into.

By preference, I prefer rural and urban areas and life to suburban ones. But I don't allow that to blind me to the reality - many of the suburbs today are a lot more like the small cities of the past than they have been, and economic infrastructure will come, simply by virtue of a concentration of population.


"Medical care and ports"
That sophisticated medical care available in the cities will be available for those such as one finds on TOD, not generally. Make a realistic survey of our present medical system then extrapolate that to the situations of stress likely to come up.
Ports will remain important but what size population will they support?

Cities produce much more than twice what Suburbs do.

Define production. Where I live approx 70% of the workforce is employed in the suburbs. Somewhere I read a statistic that nationally it's around 60%. Either case, most people are employed in the suburbs, and why I see a future for the suburbs situated in nodes around major employers. Previously I used the Pullman example outside of Chicago.

Right or wrong, employers over the past 50 years have located their manufacturing infastructure in the suburbs. I'd rather not discuss why, but the fact is plain. This infastructure simply cannot be moved overnight. Much of the heavy manufacturing already has acess via rail spur so I especially see post peak viability there. While population is not as dense, there are people living near these areas that can commute on foot or bicycle. Worst case, people will work the jobs available to them in their suburb. I know I would.

Right now I work "in the city" at a desk job that likely will not survive a peak oil collapse. I look around the glass towers downtown and see similar desk jobs that "produce" nothing. This place is going to be a ghost town post peak. The riverfront has been sold off to developers for condos and botique shops selling nothing of real value. The only major employer I can think of that "builds" something in the city is an auto assembly plant, which is already scheduled to close.

No doubt there are many assets the core cities have but adaptation for a post peak world is not a given. US infastructure is so misaligned that I wouldn't predict any location has a difinitive advantage post peak.

There's a podcast on the Sc. American website titled Earth 3.0, which may interest
some. They talk about vertical farming using skyscrapers. They talk about many of
issues discussed here.

It seems a mistake to look for complete and comprehensive answers. Instead of such a sweeping solution it seems likely that a lot of partial and incomplete solutions will produce a variety of outcomes.

You yourself promote part of the answer, as rail will likely be used to transport a lot of goods for distance.
In turn this will greatly reduce wear on roads, in most areas save perhaps those where frost is the biggest problem.

For travel then the problem would be for many more a case of getting to the nearest rail station rather then undertaking the whole journey.

Both walking for those nearby or bicycling would give each rail station a large catchment area and population cache even at suburban densities.
My father when I was a child used to bike to work around 7 miles each way.

In less clement climates some sort of electric golf-cart having protection from the weather can be built well within present battery technology at a reasonable cost.

It would also be relatively easy to build some of the offices and factories in suburbia, but a lot harder to work out how you would convert the vast glass towers in many city centres to other, energy efficient, use.

At least in the UK many town houses were built recently to no higher standards than in the country, so why their maintenance should be held to be a relatively slight problem is puzzling.

According to your estimates many houses in suburbia would also be abandoned, which frees materials to patch up other houses.
The large suburban house is also relatively easy to split up, so the cost of any repairs could be borne by two families, not one.

It is much more difficult for me to imagine that the finance will be found to carry out the engineering to re-build cities like New Orleans when they are hit by hurricanes or flooding than that piecemeal efforts to retain some large parts of suburbia will be unsuccessful.

1) Havana Cuba, which is far more dense than the average US city, grows much of it's food in it's boundaries. They have advantages of a year round growing season, but urban areas will do quite well on the food front.

2) The same technology could be used in urban areas, and with the exception of Tucson, the limitation isn't rainfall or surface area to capture it, but places to store the water. (Underground parking garages seem like a perfect place.)

3) 5.6 kW of solar panels runs $50+k before subsidies, (and we can't afford to subsidize solar panels for all the suburban houses in the country in the first place, so we might as well ignore the value of those subsidies.) Tearing down suburban housing and putting people in more efficient housing, and then putting solar panels on that housing is probably cheaper than putting solar panels on existing housing...

As to point 1) I've seen The Power of Community too, it's a great message. It still doesn't negate the fact that suburbia has more land area to cultivate.

As to point 3), in both cases you still have to put up the solar panels. The cost is coming down and will come down even further. Currently Nanosolar is producing thin-film panels for 30 cents per watt-- as opposed to $3 per watt for traditional PVs. (See http://www.celsias.com/article/nanosolars-breakthrough-technology-solar-...). They are selling for over $1 per watt and their new production plant in Germany, one of the largest in the world, was back-ordered 18 months into the future last time I checked. So the problem isn't that PVs will never be affordable; the problem is a lack of enough production facilities to pump them out as fast as we will need them.

If I were dictator of the world, I'd have 1/2 of all auto factories retooled ASAP to produce wind turbines and thin-film solar panels. We can get along without buying so many new cars for a few years... heck, it's already happening. People aren't buying at anything near the clip of the last few years.

The whole point isn't that we can "save" suburbia forever. The point is that it has the potential to be more resilient than some claim, and will have to be made to work for the short- to medium-term future.

Yet installed, the costs are around $9/watt for small system. Cheaper panels is only part of the battle, bigger systems (i.e. one system for several households,) lowers the cost of things like inverters.

And thin film can't be installed on asphalt roofs in the first place, which is what most of suburbia has...

How come thin-film solar doesn't work on asphalt, on raised frames if needs be?

Raised frames work great, but they add to the costs. That is my point. If you design the roof from the beginning to work with solar panels, it is quite a bit cheaper. And so when you are talking $50k to add solar panels to suburban houses, you have to wonder if it might be cheaper to tear it down and rebuilt, (or at least, put a metal roof on the houses in the first place, because I don't know where you are going to get new asphalt shingles in 40 years.)


"(or at least, put a metal roof on the houses in the first place, because I don't know where you are going to get new asphalt shingles in 40 years.)"

I know in fact that some suppliers of PV units are very clear that they can not be installed on metal roofs. They do not say why but perhaps it is because of the danger of shorting out and electrocuting installers, repairers, etc.



There are thin-film panels specifically designed to be installed on raised-seam metal roofs.  The panels are plastic-encapsulated and backed with adhesive, and they are just unrolled onto the roofing and stuck into place.

IIRC there are also PV racks with clips available to attach to the seams on raised-seam roofs.

I love it how the doomers rant on about how nothing... (NOTHING) can replace oil, and how everything else has a negative C-EROEI (by the way, I thought EROEI was supposed to be complete already? Why do we need a C in front? What next? Total-C-EROEI?). When examples are given of feasible technologies, the objection raised is based on the energy required for the aluminum frame. Come on, aren't we a bit more ingenious than that? I can make a WOOD frame that would work just as well.

You're still quoting the price for existing silicon-crystal PVs.

I don't know why thin film can't be installed on asphalt roofs. Perhaps you mean, not directly on top? But most PVs are put in frames and suspended above the roof anyhow.

1) One important thing to remember: much of suburbia is overbuilt, so in the case of economic downfall there will be a lot of empty single family homes that can be cannibalized. You already see this in areas hit heavily by the downturn. I don't know about other areas in the country, but I have friends that would going to by a gutted/condemned/forclosed house and bulldoze it to make a garden. And the city of Minneapolis has bugetary plans to bulldoze a number of homes this year (50?). So with the idea that the dynamics of suburbia change like this, it may be more plausible. With this bulldozing in mind - it actually mitigates many of your downsides to "suburbia".

Although, much of this would require the surplus population to combine into smaller spaces, to go elsewhere ... or off to war.

2) Townhomes (where I live) - I share 3 walls, and my open side is south facing with a about 500 sqft. yard. Heating bills never exceed $100 (without doing anything fancy) - in the Twin Cities that's not bad. I use daylighting (passive solar), and cover the windows with plastic. I think I can do better. And I know I can do better when it comes to power consumption. My TV takes 150-200 Watts, where as my laptop takes 15 Watts at idle, and 35 Watts at max output, dry clothes outside, dimmer lighting, - it's really easy for me to lower much or my usage.

3) About food nutrients - I've thought about this - there is no good way to test the soil like a pro farmer (unless the testing methods can be made quite simple and done locally). Thus I promote food sharing at farmers markets, this should help issues where you are unsure of nutrient content (so many people don't understand this importance). For example Gardening when it counts author Steve Solomon constantly makes offhanded remarks about other people doing organic farming and having children that are malnourished (teeth aren't coming in correctly). Are there any 2nd Gen organic farmers out there that have information to add?

4) Transportation - I can bike to work, but I'm a definite minority. And rail doesn't help a lot of people in Twin Cities (although I'm all for it) because the people _and_ the businesses are speckled all over the place. In this case the reverse seems the best - build rail where it's _easiest_ and let the people come to you. Here's to hoping for the Corridor light rail between the cities.

5) The exoburbs - where people have gigantic houses on 5 acre lots is another story. My main goal to live through this is light-industrial. But this requires some functioning cities (with enough human critical mass) for light industrial applications (aluminum smelting and other various furnace) to make tools (even organic farmers need tools, and there is modern technology that allows for much more efficient tool making than the ol' blacksmith). I think this will be quite doable, and is what I'm most curious about. As Leanan and others seem to think - that there is no way to avoid going back to be Amish in 50 years - I wholeheartedly disagree. Even if production is severly reduced we'll still have production for some time. I point to projects such as this: RepRap that keep such possiblities alive. Without making this post to long, I'll conclude as saying that to have any sort of Techno-amish society - where we're Amish with computers and cellphones - this is what we need. I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me here, but communication and storage of already aquired knowledge is probably more important that feeding everyone.

Sorry for the long post...

Ahhh, yes. The typical mindset of the overpaid, underworked, government employee. Why in the world would a city government Bulldoze anything, let alone a house? Are they complete idiots up in the great white North? Hope not.

Take it apart, don't take it to the Landfill. Nothing should ever go to a landfill,,,nothing. Even the most modern structures built today can be dismanteled and almost completely recycled. My first job during grade school back in the early 60's, was demolition of old houses. We did it by hand. Huge amount of usable lumber, wire, steel and aluminum. I know "what about the asbestos"? It has to be removed one way or the other, before demolition, even if it is run over by a Dozer. EPA and all that......

We gotta stop the waste.....we waste soooo much in this country.

The foundation may be the toughest part to dismantle. But maybe it doesn't have to be dismantled. Perhaps you can use it for drying stuff in the sun, as they do in the streets in many places all over the world. (Hold on a second, there are already plenty of streets in suburbia-- so scratch that.) Maybe a storage shed, etc. could be built on a corner of it. It could be used as a catchment area for collecting rain. If there's a basement, use it as a root cellar.

I used the term "bulldoze" loosely - meaning removal - not necessarily with a bulldozer. I'm not sure what the city does specifically, I'm sure they remove anything left of value, but they do probably literally bulldoze it. I'd like to think they could dismantle it to some degree, and remove anything hazardous, and just collapse what's left into the basement (which most houses seem to have). Bulldozing actually costs a lot of money too, so you think the city would be open to ideas. I'm sure when the financial situation gets worse, they will be.

But however you wreck it is a minor point - the fact is once it's over, no one lives there, it's not being heated, not using electricity, not being maintained; and now you can grow more stuff, although it may take some time to fix up the soil.

However it's accomplished, I'm thinking that if there is true collapse - this is what's going to happen - half (just throwing up a number) the houses, twice the human density, same land area. Many city will be Detroit in a few years - areas so long abandoned they've become green spaces.

1) One important thing to remember: much of suburbia is overbuilt, so in the case of economic downfall there will be a lot of empty single family homes that can be cannibalized. You already see this in areas hit heavily by the downturn. I don't know about other areas in the country, but I have friends that would going to by a gutted/condemned/forclosed house and bulldoze it to make a garden. And the city of Minneapolis has bugetary plans to bulldoze a number of homes this year (50?). So with the idea that the dynamics of suburbia change like this, it may be more plausible. With this bulldozing in mind - it actually mitigates many of your downsides to "suburbia".

You made no mention of immigration. It brings us 2 million new inhabitants each year, many of whom have not yet started or finished giving birth. Anything that is overbuilt now will not be so in a short period of time. Even without counting immigrant births, in 20 years we will have 40 million more people in the country at current rates (illegal immigration can only be estimated). Save your houses, they will shortly be in short supply.

This is something I'm very curious about. Supposedly when the downturn first start in '07, not many jobs were lost - officially. But there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that the first jobs lost were construction jobs - immigrant construction jobs. Not to mention all the mexican landscapers for the McMansions. On top of that, in times of serious recessions you can bet there will be a lot of anti-immigration heat at the political level. None of that "they do the jobs we don't do" - I'm sure there are a lot of US citizens that will be in line for some pretty lousy jobs - pushing out the immigrants again.

Needless to say, most immigrants (probably half of that 2 million you came up with) Mexican Immigration to the US (says 57%) are from Mexico. There is evidence that the flow may slow, stop, or even reverse (it's happened before, with a lot more European immigrants returning to the old world back in the late 19th century).

And I'm also guessing that most Mexicans come here for economic reasons. Although, if the Mexican economy continues to fall (40% Pesa to Dollar devaluation?) maybe immigration will increase. This may be a race to the bottom

Long story short: look for increase nativism, and thus much heavier immigration standards and enforcement. I'd be happier with this because I want to compete with as few people as possible for my food. Remember, the resource war starts at home.

Who knows, maybe Mexico will collapse and we'll have 10 million new Mexicans per year.

I've heard similar arguments claiming that in a prolonged downturn US citizens will increasingly take the "lesser" jobs that immigrants now fill. In a depression like scenario I think this hypothesis is right. Illegal immigration will probably not be tolerated near to the extent it is now. If we have private millitias forming in border states now I don't want to imagine what it'll be like when those millitia members are in competition for the same jobs. Given the troubles Mexico will be having I'm quite happy to be far away from the southern border.

I've heard similar arguments claiming that in a prolonged downturn US citizens will increasingly take the "lesser" jobs that immigrants now fill. In a depression like scenario I think this hypothesis is right. Illegal immigration will probably not be tolerated near to the extent it is now. If we have private millitias forming in border states now I don't want to imagine what it'll be like when those millitia members are in competition for the same jobs. Given the troubles Mexico will be having I'm quite happy to be far away from the southern border.

In the Great Depression immigration was stopped. With 25% unemployment, politicians and businessmen pontificating to the masses about how great and necessary immigration is just doesn't fly. Hopefully in the future we will see another awakening from the masses and places like this board as oil gets scarcer and scarcer.

This is something I'm very curious about. Supposedly when the downturn first start in '07, not many jobs were lost - officially. But there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that the first jobs lost were construction jobs - immigrant construction jobs.

News of illegals or legal immigrants returning always seems to get blown out of proportion. It's as if deep down people really do want it to stop despite all their romantization and rationalizations. But before anyone talks about a stoppage or outflow, they need to go to Mexico or India or China or the Phillipines or Somali or Vietnam and decide if they would rather live in the US or those countries.

Not to mention all the mexican landscapers for the McMansions.

Illegal aliens do landscaping at large houses, medium size houses, small houses, large businesses, medium size businesses, small businesss, large government sites, medium size government sites and small government sites.

On top of that, in times of serious recessions you can bet there will be a lot of anti-immigration heat at the political level. None of that "they do the jobs we don't do" - I'm sure there are a lot of US citizens that will be in line for some pretty lousy jobs - pushing out the immigrants again.

If the masses let the greedy business people and politicians shove immigration down their throats in a depression, they deserve all the misery they get. If they let clueless business people and politicians shove immigration down their throats at a time of impending decline of a precious resource, they deserve all the misery they get.

Needless to say, most immigrants (probably half of that 2 million you came up with) Mexican Immigration to the US (says 57%) are from Mexico. There is evidence that the flow may slow, stop, or even reverse (it's happened before, with a lot more European immigrants returning to the old world back in the late 19th century).

Estimates of illegal immigration have now risen to 1 million and most of those are from Mexico. Before you talk about the flow stopping or reversing I think a car trip through Mexico is in order.

And I'm also guessing that most Mexicans come here for economic reasons. Although, if the Mexican economy continues to fall (40% Pesa to Dollar devaluation?) maybe immigration will increase. This may be a race to the bottom.

The Mexican government gets something like 60% of its revenue from its oil company. Mexican oil production has peaked. Mexico has a high birth rate. You do the math.

Long story short: look for increase nativism, and thus much heavier immigration standards and enforcement. I'd be happier with this because I want to compete with as few people as possible for my food. Remember, the resource war starts at home.

It's a testament to the skills of the indoctrinators that you only sheepishly or reluctantly or half-heartedly or conflictedly come out for _less_ immigration.

Who knows, maybe Mexico will collapse and we'll have 10 million new Mexicans per year.

All 100 million could come. The only way they can stay is if a majority of the people want them. That's the case now. Hopefully the masses will become enlightened at some point, regardless of what the elite feed them. But even the elite need to get a clue - in a time of oil decline the wage suppression effect of immigration and the demand it puts on new business and construction that they covet will be more than made up for by the extra havoc it wreaks from the extra resource consumption.

Growing vegetables in the future will be very challenging.

Peak Oil is now. Alternative energies will not even begin to fill the gap of declining oil supplies. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The Energy Watch Group (funded by the German Parliament) concludes in a current report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."


We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

Last June, I took a trip to Albany to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches solar energy at a major university, and who had served in the Peace Corps.

He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.

We talked for hours about survival in the northeast after the last power blackout.

It looks "challenging."

Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass and thus make "new batteries" after they conk out (my idea :). But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.

Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be a major effort and very time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. Most horses will be eaten for food. No one is making wagons these days locally.

Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep one or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can't get more, because there is no transportation on the highways.

Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.

Food must be grown in with a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that used to be in a 1890 Sears catalog is no longer available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil -- transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles etc. Seed and hardware that used to be available at the local hardware store will be no more.

Then there is clothing which is now manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, MA for years, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. After the last power blackout, those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around for wool or much leather for making garments. Eventually down coats and comforters wear out, as do blankets. Keeping warm will be a major problem.

Potable water is another problem, and sanitation also. When waste water treatment systems fail, raw sewage effluent will flow into rivers, and those using river downstream will die from intestinal and infectious diseases. This and exposure will account for most deaths.

And there will be no modern pharmacies or hospitals.

After auto and air transport end (which could be next week if there is some "untoward activity" in the Middle East), there will be no way of getting here, or from here to there. Bus and train reservations will be backed up for years. You know the old Maine laugh, "can you get there from here?" Well this time the answer will be no you can't. I keep reading in the newspapers that some of the folks over there in the Middle East are tired of others getting most of that oil, and that they are trying to shut down the flow of oil to us (:

Wasn't it that guy Murphy who said that if something can go wrong it will.

When the music stops (that is when air and automobile transportation ends) where you are is important, because that is pretty much where you will stay.

Cliff Wirth

When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away.

Railroads already carry many of those items. And offroad trucks (bigger than USA 18 wheelers) are in use in Australia.

You will note that there is a not a road next to every rural high voltage line today.



Where have you been on TOD for the last few weeks?

After the last blackout, and when oil is very, very expensive, there will be no transportation and no electric power, without which diesel trains won't run, and how will workers get to the jobs when the gas stations are closed???

The power grid is dependent on huge transformers, cable, huge pylons, all of which are transported by trucks on the highways, after some train/ship transport.

Try to face the Peak Oil with reality, not dreams and last minute Rube Goldberg fixes that have no chance of working. Try to get a grip on reality.... on what is going to happen in reality, instead of what you want to happen.

CJ, I don't think you realize the capabilities of railroads for heavy lifting. Before the age of highways and trucks back in the 1800's all the heavy transportation was done by rail. As an example, Fort Casey in Washington was totally built using railroads: the digging, the concrete work, the gun emplacements and the guns themselves. They just ran a spur over where the wanted something. Before there were highways or logging trucks, logging was done by railroads. On the midwest plains, grain was harvested by steam and hauled to market the same way. Building most of the old dams depended on railroads to haul the concrete. Almost all mining involved railroads.

Steam railroads could be easily resurrected and spur lines laid almost overnight to anywhere there was a need. Trucks are a phenomenon of the 20th century and need oil to survive. Steam (or electric) railroads do not.


Wake up! We are in a Peak Oil economy. That was yesterday, not today. Peak Oil means no capital or energy for railroad construction. Now all resources will go to just keeping things going as they are -- including public works for highways that will never be used!!!

Railroads currently have a pathetically puny network/coverage.

Railroad lines are currently maxed out with heavy cargo, coal, and such.

Do you see any railroad construction even planned?

Get a grip!!!

Railroads currently have a pathetically puny network/coverage.

About 180,000 miles.

Railroad lines are currently maxed out with heavy cargo, coal, and such.

Only a few lines, and these lines are being expanded.

Do you see any railroad construction even planned?

BNSF just finished double tracking LA-Chicago

UP is double tracking LA-El Paso.

CP just bought DME and will massively upgrade it, Chicago to Wyoming

CSX applied for gov't aid to build a grade separated 3 track from DC to Miami (4 track DC-Richmond) with one track for 110 mph operation.

Best Hopes for Realistic Planning,


"There's more than 5.7 million miles of paved highway in the USA. The public road mileage per "Our Nation's Highways" by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) --

The vast majority (75.2 percent) of the Nation�s roadways are under the jurisdiction of local governments (town, city, county). Only 4.3 percent are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government which includes roads in national forests and parks and on military and Indian reservations. The rest of the roadways (representing 20.5 percent of the total 3,933,985 miles and including the entire Interstate System) are controlled and maintained by the State governments."


Get a grip, yourself.

I live near a historic rail line, over 130 years old. They just finished upgrading everything, and the rail line is nowhere near carrying its full capacity. I.e. it could carry a lot more. But that's not even the point.

If they could put up new rail lines 150 years ago with horses and steam engines, spanning the continent, and then eventually linking nearly every state, why can't we do something as simple as re-opening lines that have been closed, and upgrading the tracks?

The first flaw in doomer thinking is an inability to believe in human resiliency. We aren't seeing the kind of changes we need to see... yet. But once the crisis truly hits (we've only yet seen the first ripples), our society will be energized, as it was during WWII, and focus all resources on finding a transition away from oil. Success is not guaranteed, but we don't give ourselves enough credit if we think there's no possible transition at all.

The second flaw is assuming that oil and energy production will truly just "fall off a cliff" at some point. That's not going to be happening. We had a ramp-up in production over a century, and we will have a decline on the other side that's AT LEAST a decade long, if not two or three. I know about ELM, I know about EROEI, and so on. I know you argue that once the marginal energy cost of producing a barrel of oil is a barrel of oil, that production will stop. So it will. But, that won't happen everywhere all at once. There are many fields that will continue to show positive EROEI even as others go negative. So, oil will be a scarce resource that we will have to invest wisely. It won't suddenly disappear, throwing our society into total collapse and cause us to eat our young.

See my comment above.

Many of the fields you mention are in deep water, and after the last power blackout, those fields will sit there idle with no one able to get to them by air. A lot of recoverable oil will stay in the ground.

You talk like "we" can buy the oil like we always have. That was yesterday, today and tomorrow are different days.

Getting oil by means of military force will have less success as time goes on also.

I don't think any transition will be that quick. What is happening now in the economy is a barometer of how quickly - or slowly - the current situation will change. Believe me, for a lot of people things are changing too fast.

Plus, there is always a 'wild card' that we cannot predict. Unlimited fusion power created in a coke bottle using turpentine and table salt, a biogene that 'eats' carbon in the air, a simple way to desalinate seawater using turpentine and table salt. We can predict to some extent the rate of decline in certain resources, but transformative inventions and the impact of their application is impossible to measure. If someone builds a time machine (with turpentine and table salt) it will be the end of the world.

I'm going to invest in turpentine stocks ...

If something like this takes place, the entire argument set against suburbia will have to be recast. America will roll in money, greasy hamburgers and giant cars again and people will complain about 'peak turpentine'.

I doubt that we'll "solve" our problems, but we will "cope" with them. BAU, no. Adaptation & survival, hopefully.

Instead of some unrealistic hypothetical, I have examined how a western industrial democracy adapts to a seven year, 100% oil embargo. Hint: it CAN be done, starvation and social breakdown can be avoided.

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,



You are probably referring to WWII Switzerland. And yes, they did do it, so it can be done. To be fair, though, they did have some advantages. Theirs was a small country of mostly small towns, with a very strong tradition of exceptional participatory democracy. Most importantly, they had an exceptional degree of national unity, probably mainly due to their tradition of universal military service. ("Switzerland doesn't HAVE an army, Switzerland IS an army.") In short, they were able to get their act together very quickly, and get the right things done that needed to be done in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, the USA is very far from this. If there is one thing that our political system has proven itself incapable of doing, it is getting its act together, knowing what needs to be done, and getting it done quickly.

We may somehow manage to survive anyway. I'm afraid, however, that we're going to have a much harder time of it than Switzerland did.

Yes, our culture is a house of cards, and if there were a serious collapse and the economy as we know it did not recover, we would be back to living like the natives did, except there would be lots of unusual repurposing of existing items and hand tools of all kinds would be worth their weight in gold.

You can make a real good wood stove out of dirt, or stone, or clay, or whatever you have around, like dead SUV's. I have done it. I am sitting here nice and cosy with one now- made out of junk steel. Am thinking about making a better one out of clay, which is available right out my window by the megaton.

And, don't forget, you can use your hands, you don't need a forklift or a backhoe. Think of the pyramids

And also don't forget, if you want to see how people can get along on less energy, all you have to go to any one of the ever so many places where they are doing it, right now, and see what they are doing-- anywhere on the globe, including the arctic. Or, right here, back in time.

Getting 4 or 5 cords of wood and keeping it dry, and keeping a roof over head, and making clothes, they will be the really fun things :(

It's not that hard, been doing it for the last 25 years. It still leaves you many hours of the day to experience joy. Pet the cat, take the dog to the woods, go outside and let the sun feed you vitamin d, it calms you. Throw a log on the fire. Watch the dog, settle by the woodstove, just relaxed, letting the heat pour over him. Snoring. We have much to learn of pleasure, a new electronic toy, have to have it. Look at the dog, it has food and heat and is happy. It will defend me to it's death. I'm not worried at all.

Don in Maine

I'm old enough to be one of those kids who begged my dad to buy a chain saw so we could give up the crosscut saw. If we lose the ability to run or maintain chain saws, getting out a winter's supply of wood is now 20 times more labor intensive. And that does not include the transportation from the woodlot to the house. If gas powered transportation equipment is not available, hopefully someone in town will have a team of horses they will rent out by the day.

This is one of the examples that troubles me the most. A chain saw has certain minimum requirements, anyone that is missing renders it useless. You need gasoline, 2 cycle oil, chains, bar oil, spark plugs, and files. A lack of certain items, like gasoline, render it useless immediately. Others, like replacement spark plugs, render it useless after so many hours of use. You could go one to include things like the engine wearing out, but that's not my point.

So many of the labor saving machines we use today have multiple failure points. A lack of one operating requirement renders it useless no matter how many of the others you have available. We will be moving towards a much more labor intensive society if we can't stay ahead of the curve of peak oil. I suspect many readers have seen the TV show "How It's Made." Well, at least those who have TV's:) When you look at the complexity of the machines required for manufacturing anything, and the raw materials required, it becomes obvious how fragile manufacturing is.

Then consider the vast number of simpler replacement tools we will need when the complex tool is no longer available. For example, shovels if rototillers are a goner. A single person with a rototiller can literally turn over hundreds of new gardens each year. However, it will take hundreds of shovels to replace that one rototiller. A shovel can be lent out, but it will only turn over a couple of gardens (depending on their size) each day. By the time we lose the ability to run rototillers, will we have built the manufacturing capability to make the million metal ends of shovels we will need? Or will blacksmiths be making them one at a time?

Imagine having to pay for the blacksmith's labor to make the shovel end and then the labor of someone else to make the shovel handle and attach it. You are looking at roughly two hours of labor for just a shovel. That's assuming the blacksmith has the equipment and raw materials needed and so does the handle maker. Then you have the real backbreaking labor to use that shovel to turn over your new garden. Of course you then need a metal rake. Two more labor hours to build a rake and more backbreaking labor for you until finally your garden is ready for planting.

If we are lucky, perhaps the same person who has a team of horses has a horse drawn harrow to make the job of turning over your garden easier. If so, the horses won't be just around the corner, you will be paying for substantial travel time to and from your garden. Travel time means while horses are more efficient than shovels, they are still can't turn over in a day more gardens than perhaps 5 times what a single shovel can do. Manufacturing a horse drawn harrow is incredibly complex compared to making a shovel. Will we have the manufacturing in place ahead of time to make the various horse drawn implements required to plow the fields and harvest the crops of corn, hay and grains? We lost the ability to borrow money almost overnight. How quickly might we lose the use of complex machines and be without the means of replacing them with a huge number of simpler, but incredibly less efficient, equivalents?

As soon as Lowes or Home Depot goes belly up then the dreams of gardening with tools will disappear for many suburbanites. When they can't buy the seeds..same scenario. Nothing to plant.

Last spring seed potatoes were scarce,at least in my area and they couldn't get anymore once the meager supply they had ran out. Same with onion sets. Then later seed packets were harder to find.

Lots of tomato plants though.

It won't take much of an infrastructure hit for a massive run on all the above and when depleted? Well if you do not make spring planting then you may have nothing to store up for the coming winter.

Sitting in suburbia in a freezing house with no water will not be pleasant. I suspect many will just give up and either resort to stealing or immigrating southwards.

I see so many scenarios that will doom suburbia that unless its a very very slow shutdown their will be no hope for it.

People will be savages. The strong and those who will use violence will survive for a while. Protecting what little one has hoarded will mean constant vigilance.

Sorry but our current society doesn't strike me as a loving,caring one. Would that it were different but its simply not.


Airdale - Just a short comment regarding your first comments. Saving your own seed is very easy for many vegetables. You don't need a friendly neighbourhood super store to provide you with seeds. We routinely save our own potatoes for eating and the smaller ones (about 5-7 cm long) for seed. BTW we also do potatoes for selling. It is easy to save tomato seeds provided the varieties are kept at least 3 meters apart (to prevent cross pollination) and the same goes for sweet and hot peppers and squash but the later must be kept a long way apart to prevent crossbreeding (we do this routinely for all). Biannual vegetables are more of a problem but are doable too. For the biannuals different friends could save seed of one species to share with others thus spreading the labour.

Another general comment for certain TOD commenters.

I sense utter panic coming from several posters. It does no good to freak out. Be calm and research solutions for you, your family, friends and neighbors. Man is resilient and resourceful. People need to take the attitude that peak oil is a reality and that they are going to find ways to endure. A panic mentality is non-productive and is in fact destructive. You (plural) will find ways to survive peacefully. Remember the saying: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going".

Be positive and be tough.

Pick up a copy of "THE ROAD" before you leave.

And don't come down here to Florida, you speak english.......they will eat you.

If we lose the ability to run or maintain chain saws, getting out a winter's supply of wood is now 20 times more labor intensive.

I've got an electric chain saw.  My sharpener is electric, too.  The cost to maintain this thing is near-zero.

A chain saw has certain minimum requirements, anyone that is missing renders it useless. You need gasoline, 2 cycle oil, chains, bar oil, spark plugs, and files. A lack of certain items, like gasoline, render it useless immediately. Others, like replacement spark plugs, render it useless after so many hours of use.

Far from my chain saw being useless without gasoline, gasoline is useless to it.  Ditto spark plugs.  It will eventually need brushes for the motor, but these are small items which can command a high price because of the value.  Its needs are simple:

  • Electric power.  This can be supplied by a generator fuelled by a gasogene (burning the same wood being cut) or a string of 12-volt batteries.  The same engine or batteries could power the vehicle to get the equipment in, and equipment and wood out.
  • Chain lube.  In a pinch, I'm sure castor oil will do; this can be grown locally.

In short, the system can run on very few inputs other than wood itself.  Wood is the limiting factor.

The same or similar argument applies against your other assertions; electric rototillers work just fine, and folks have even electrified small tractors and powered them with PV panels.

It makes you wonder why we didn't go extinct years ago. . .

We did.

You just didn't know it at the time.

I like this - a positive spin on things.
I'll add my own gardening experience.
Yes suburbia is done by scraping off the soil, and putting crap back. My own home was built on farm land - and it's now about a foot of clay crap on top of sand, rocky crap.

Sure you can get things to grow - but nothing like what we find at the market.
We've recently brought in a truckload of mushroom compost to see what that does at the community garden we run (clay soil that goes hard as rock - often blocking germinating seeds unless there is enough rain to keep the soil from crusting). At home we've brought in manure and it's really helped. The Manitoba Maple "weed" trees that grow are shading things and I've cut down the part on my property - but those weeds keep growing. They're shading my fruit trees.

More seriously - in a modern home there is no cool space - nowhere to store food. The garage is so cold fig trees die, the house too warm. Trying to store our potatoes, onions, squash is very difficult. Carrots we can leave in the ground .. and they end up tasting better. The only solution for a high tech home is a high tech storage for harvested food.
I keep thinking of storing grains in the garage - I just need to make a rodent - and bug - proof container. Then at least some things don't take up fridge space. Some talk of smaller fridges as being the European way - but here (Canada) a small fridge doesn't really use less energy than a large one.

We have succeeded in getting one neighbour to take out non-edible trees, which they recently planted, but they are nearly as wacky as us. Hell, they (family of 4) make do without a car!
We do some seed keeping, and some ethic groups do that too - but not the vast majority of people.

I'm also not a big believer in having edible trees. Squirrels, birds and other animals will always strip my pear/apricot/plum/apple/fig/peach trees unless the entire tree is netted or kept in an enclosure (yes I've seen that done). Squirrels last year, destroyed what squash crop the squash vine borers didn't destroy. Once those furry rodents discovered that there were seeds in squash they destroyed our crop, and neighbours, within hours.

I'll argue that much can be done because it will have to be. Doubling up people in houses will be the first step. We have homes on our street with 3 generations in a home. We have homes with only one person. We have homes with cars sitting idle most of the time - but they will not consider car sharing - yet.

Squirrels taste pretty good and are a source of protein. The neighbors won't hear a pellet gun:)

LOL - they don't hear slings either

My parents' families supplemented their diets with all kinds of hunting during the depression. Squirrels and rabbits and partridge and... all made it into the pot at one time or another.

When times are tight and money has to be stretched it only makes sense to augment the necessities with what you can scrounge or grow or hunt.

Those "gourmet" vegetables which provide little calories do provide vitamines and minerals and the benefit of dietary diversity which itself combats nutritional deficiency. Growing them in your backyard to supplement your purchases of more energy-dense food makes sense to me.

Jeff - thank you for the post - it encouraged me to do some 'out of the box' thinking - and I don't even live in a suburb ;-D


Brunswick Stew! Yum!


It's very common practice for Italians in the area where I live to convert their whole backyard into a vege patch. Greeks and Yugoslavs also love their gardens.

There's a series on TV done Vasili Kaniadis called Vasilli's Garden where he goes into their backyards and talks to them about all the techniques they use for gardening and also many of the home preserving methods etc. It's very useful for anybody interested in the subject. Also very funny, Vasili is a comedian who loves his gardens. He's quite famous now, a bit of a TV personality. Anybody interested must watch his shows, he just loves to share information. Maresi!



I love that show. At the end of each program the home gardeners have to dance Zorba the Greek while Vasili plays the accordian. TV is better than print at showing what is possible.

Interesting post ... par for the course of this series.

I do have a couple of issues with some of your assumptions/conclusions though.

In America, the average suburban lot size is approximately 12,000 square feet. That’s about a quarter-acre. At an average of 2.56 people per household, and a rough average of 10,000 feet per lot not covered by structures, that’s just under 4,000 square feet of yard per person.

This seems optimistic to me. I'm not sure whether the 2.56 number accurately reflects suburban populations, but let's assume it does.

I think allowing only 2000 square feet of unusable space is optimistic. I don't know what the average suburban home size is in sq. ft., but a 2000 sf home generally has a footprint ranging from 1000-2400sf (depending on style, garage, etc.). A quick list of things that might make areas not easily plantable:

- driveways, walks, paths, shade trees (need to balance gain from planting vs. loss of summer cooling, etc.)
- topography (many suburbs in the northeast are cut into hills, many lots may also have some partial wetland coverage, etc.)
- water tanks (serious water storage takes space)
- septic systems (many suburbs do not have town/city sewer and, generally, it is not recommended to plant edibles over or downgrade from septic... this can substantially limit available lot area)
- shade (depending on the orientation houses, including neighbors', may throw shadows that could negatively affect yields)

I suspect this list is not exhaustive. Purely on gut reaction, I would guess that the actual easily plantable area of the average lot might be more on the order of 40% +/-, or 4800sf (as opposed to the 83% that you are using). This would provide essentially 1 of your growing "lots" for 2.56 people. I'm not sure that this is as sustainable as you depict.

Again, we're talking averages here. There will be many communities whose design will allow the type of production you describe and more. I'm just not sure that it is average.

In perhaps one of the greatest differences between suburbia and urban areas, suburbia has the clear potential to be water self-sufficient, whereas dense urban areas do not.

I have a bit of trouble with this one too. Most significant urban areas (cities and large towns, even many smaller towns) are (or originally were) located on good freshwater sources. This is why they are where they are. Yes, there are some newer cities and towns that are not co-located with water. Mainly these are newer cities built in 20th century using cheap energy to pump water from deep underground or from distant sources. These places may become untenable, depending on the energy situation that develops. However, these places represent a relatively small proportion of urban areas. Granted, many urban areas that are located on water will need to extensively clean their water sources before they are particularly helpful, but water sources they will likely have.

You have some points which appear valid. To the extent to which they are true though, they provide something of their own solution, as houses would be abandoned leading to more area being available for agriculture.
In one very over-simplified projection, if 50% of people gave up on their houses and moved in with the remainder, thus reducing housing costs and heating bills, then you would have large additional areas available where 100% of the abandoned area, minus the septic area, could be used.

There are also very large areas of land in suburbia which are not used, such as central reservations on roads, and if there are indeed not nearly as many cars, vast parking lots.

Good points. These assume that legal ownership issues have been resolved in some way.

If there is a total breakdown of the entire legal/financial/political system, then I suppose the abandoned properties would be available on a "claim" basis (that is, he who stakes a claim and can defend the claim, keeps the claim).

If the financial/political/legal system is still functioning in any way, banks are unlikely to simply allow for the dismantling and farming of their bank-owned properties. They will be hoping to recoup losses with eventual sales, perhaps combining contiguous foreclosed/abandoned parcels and selling for agricultural use. If the legal system is operating, the law would be on their side and the authorities would, in theory, keep people off their property.

Over time, I suppose national governments could (and, perhaps, would) do something like nationalize all abandoned/foreclosed properties with the intent of making them available for community use.

However, in the stages prior to serious suburban collapse, no such glut of land is likely to be available. It's unlikely that these issues would/could be addressed beforehand.

Similarly, prior to imminent collapse, many local governments would probably balk at the idea of plowing under their town common and other park spaces. Eventually, the citizens could certainly decide that these spaces would be more useful as community/cooperative farms/gardens than parks. Assuming that the public land is suitable for planting in other respects, I think this is a likely scenario for many communities. However, unless the community is sparsely populated with significant public land, it's difficult to know the extent to which it is actually able to feed the populace.

A couple other thoughts...

It can be exceedingly hard to know where a septic field is without access to plans. On some lots it is obvious. On many, it would be a total guess (without substantial excavation). If you are doing that much excavation, you might as well just remove the system (if it is your property, and if money is still usable, and if goods are still available, one might replace one's toilets with composting versions ... probably a good plan if feasible).

Tearing up parking lots (and other construction) and reconditioning the soil to grow anything would be an extraordinarily difficult proposition without machinery or, at least, draft animals and substantial labor. People and animals doing this work would need to eat in the mean time.

Still, I think that you are right that, as suburbia depopulated to find a new population equilibrium, there would be some opportunities to obtain access to additional growing spaces. A big issue is what is the nature and time frame of the transition, and how would it affect the availability of any such land?

Interesting line of discussion.

The problem the banks have is that their vacant properties are not defendable. As times get tough any vacant houses will be rapidly stripped, and as things go downhill I would expect this to become more overt, with not just the copper etc taken but the lumber and the house effectively demolished.

Where this is not the case the propensity of such properties to be taken over by crack addicts etc will surely lead residents to rapidly realise that their best course of action is simply to set fire to any vacant house to prevent a squat.

Under those conditions then the subsequent use of the land for farming may then be informal or backed by a simple city ordinance, waiving land taxes for the owners of such vacant lots as long as it was used for agriculture.

I would doubt a direct move to bring in the large quantities of soil needed to transform parking lots, but a lot of substitution could take place.

For instance, school playing fields would be relatively easily adapted, and some of the parking lots might be substitute games courts.

In others, raised bed agriculture might cover part of the free space.

If not properly regulated, then sceptic tanks would probably be ignored, and would represent a health hazard, but some places might get that needed regulation and administration.

One of the biggest differences between my view and that of some others is that I would expect a very varied response in different places.

For instance, in many areas of Michigan large numbers of people seem likely to be thrown out of work by the collapse of the car industry.
I would expect some kind of amnesty so that most will stay in their houses, and they would then have the problem of trying to get by on almost nothing, but would live in an area with adequate rainfall and agricultural potential.

In the far more densely populated cities of Britain in the War, large amounts of produce was grown, by improvisation and making do.

Some of the parking lots might become the area used by wind turbines, which would be inconvenient in such close proximity to habitation, but it seems likely that much worse things will have to be put up with.

Some areas, particularly those in the dry South, may indeed experience the absolute withering of suburbia.

Many good points... I agree that, historically, cities were cited with a water source. I also agree that many modern cities have signficantly outgrown that water source--Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, even Atlanta. Consider, for a moment, the opposing suggestion to my series--that we re-urbanize and increase density. This will only exacerbate the water situation of cities.

My more significant point, however, and one I won't really delve into until part 4, is that there is a significant difference between a city that's water self-sufficient as a whole and a person, family, or neighborhood that's water self-sufficient. Urbanites water self-sufficy stands (in most locations) comletely dependent on functioning civic services, tax base, infrastructure mainenance, rule of law, etc. A suburban homeowner's ability to catch his family's water needs off his roof is not.

Or, put another way: cities are water self-sufficient just like America is energy self-sufficient--both are able to produce, import, and disseminate sufficient supplies to meet demand at present. The same is true for food, economy, etc. We can always make supply meet demand (it has a natural way of working out like that). The process of achieving equillibrium, however, is not always "kind." The real issue is that of DEPENDENCY. What power relationship must one enter into to satisfy hir dependencies?

Jeff, NYC is water independent, period. The US is 2/3rds dependent on foreign oil. NYC grabbed control of watersheds over 100 years ago, and they've been pretty careful to keep it so pure that they still don't need to filter or add any chemicals (Giuliani almost screwed it up by not buying land near the lakes, but he finally did the right thing). Some cities will do just fine -- I live near Chicago, with something like 10% of the world's freshwater in the Great Lakes. I mean, if necessary, much of the urban population could resettle near the Great Lakes (and if global warming gets bad, that will probably happen anyway).

As Kunstler points out, Phoenix and Las Vegas won't make it (I don't know about LA or Atlanta either). So before you make sweeping statements about cities, please be sure to separate the water-independent ones from the ones that are not sustainable.

There's still a big difference between a city that's water independent and the water independence of its individual residents. 1. NYC is only water independent to the extent that the rule of law ocntinues in New York state sufficient to enforce its property rights (something I see as likely). 2. Individual residents of Manhattan are dependent on a functioning city government and budget for their water--likely for some time to come, but you can say the exact same thing about Phoenix and Las Vegas. Admittedly, NYC has cheap water access, but believe it or not Phoenix is well positioned with the Salt River Project to provide its water needs (similar story with LA and LV). I do agree with Kunstler that Phoenix and Las Vegas will see tremendous upheaval. However, I think both Phoenix and Las Vegas have great potential, albeit in a VERY changed mode of civilization. Between the Salt River Project and rainwater collection, for example, Phoenix has a greater potential to be food self-sufficient than does NYC in my opnion. The reason why NYC is better situated overall isn't due to these factors, but due to its natural situs on a nexus of trade/commerce routes (both physical and intellectual). Los Angeles enjoys many of the same kinds of benefits that NYC does in this regard (and has equally bought up plenty of water rights, but also has far better potential for food self-sufficiency than does NYC), and seems to have great potential to transition effectively.

I need to offer this caveat to what I'm saying: I'm NOT saying that these (or any) cities or suburbs will survive in their present state, with their present mode and levels of consumption. What I AM saying is that there is the lattice-structure in place for these locales to adapt, if they take the necessary actions, in to very sustainable, high-quality-of-life areas. Do I think it's very likely that they'll take these "necessary actions"? No. I do, however, think that pockets will do so, and that our effort is well spent in such endeavors...

One datum - Phoenix (per local paper when I was visiting) uses 20% of it's electricity to pump water. For a city with air conditioning (not particularly well insulated) in 120+ F heat, sprawl SFR McMansions and strip malls everywhere, that is remarkable !

It was unclear if waste water treatment was included.

NYC gets free energy water up to the 5th or 6th floor. Not much gov't functioning required (fix water main breaks as they occur and ???)

Salt River has that name for a reason. Desalinization is part of the deal (vague on that point). If desalinization is a "sustainable" source of water post-Peak Oil, then LA has no worries.


Having worked for the Bureau of Reclamation from 2004 - 2008 (just left a few months ago), I am quite familiar with the Salt River Project (built and still closely connected to Reclamation). The name results from what happens to the river long after Phoenix's water supply is tapped. Just outside Phoenix are several large reservoirs (Horse Mesa, Mormon Flat, Roosevelt) that are well fed by the mountains outside Phoenix (much wetter than the arid plain below). There is no desalinization involved in the SRP system (that's mostly near Yuma and the All American Canal, where the Colorado "flows" into Mexico). This system requires no more maintenance and upkeep than NYC's, and because it collects in a lower silt basin than does the Colorado, it's dams will function properly for hundreds of years without significant de-silting. It's also worth pointing out that the SRP is a major hydropower producer--significantly more than used to pump water. Given the ability of the SRP to support vast expanses of lawn and golf-courses in Phoenix and its surrounds, I think the area is actually quite well positioned for gardening (and rainwater collection also remains a viable supplement).

Don't get me wrong, there are serious problems for Phoenix--it WILL NOT continue in its current style of Hummers and golf resorts, but I think it has great potential to continue and adapt to become a very sustainable, life-affirming region. The marvels of the Mesquite tree alone strongly support this (native and highly disease resistant, produces high yields of protein and carbohydrate rich seed pods on the absolute worst soils Arizona has to offer, extremely drought tolerant).

The Central Arizona Project (required to meet the water needs of Phoenix & Tuscon) pump Colorado River water hundreds of feet (985' ?) uphill and across 336 miles.


Hardly sustainable.

Without CAP, how many people can the Salt River Project sustain around Phoenix after, say, a seven year drought ?


To quote Brad Udall (related to ...)

Central Arizona Project uses 400 megawatts every minute every second of the day. That’s enough for 400k homes of average load or 40k peak loads because in part, their pumping water 300 miles and 3,000 vertical feet to get it down to Tucson.

pdf warning

The Central Arizona Project is a supplement that is useful in meeting the current desire of Phoenix and Tucson residents to have green lawns all year round. You're doing nothing but setting up and knocking down a straw-man when you suggest that these lawsn are "hardly sustainable." I don't claim that they are, and by focusing on this current extravagant water use you're being a bit disingenuous in addressing my argument.

The simple fact is that, at present, more than 50% of Phoenix's water supply is provided by the Salt River Project (gravity fed, not pumped from hundreds of miles away), and that more than 60% of the Phoenix water supply is used on landscaping. The watershed for the Salt River Project is entering its second decade of drought, and yet still provides more water than all non-landscape consumption in Phoenix, so, to answer your question, the SRP can supply all the non-landscape water needs of all Phoenix residents after seven years of drought. As Brad Lancaster has shown in his guest post on the topic, it is very realistic to turn existing, water-hogging landscaping into native, drought-tolerant, food producing landscape that survives on solely rainwater.

I think that's highly sustainable, and it's a great example for the potential sustainability of our existing suburban structure because if you can produce sustainability in Phoenix of all places, where can't you? No doubt Phoenix will have to change in order to become sustainable--big changes. They'll need to convert lawns and golf courses to native food forests based around mesquite and rainwater catchment. They'll need to dramatically reduce their single-car/single-driver mode of daily commuting to distant jobs. But, while these are big changes, there's nothing impossible about them. Likewise, New Orleans will need to fund its own levee projects instead of relying on the national subsidy of the USACE if it is ever to be considered "sustainable." That's a tall order, but I'm sure we'll both agree that it's a problem that can be solved...

I am a bit surprised by your statistics, although I do not doubt them.

It follows that there will be no water for lawns, there will be no water for crops. On a recent Christmas trip to Phoenix, they had an inch of rain in the last 10 months. Hard to raise a crop on that.

I admit to being repelled by deserts and only visit Phoenix out of family obligation. Other than being aware that Arizona is major pecan grower (I was shocked), I know nothing about desert agriculture.

Will people chose to live on a diet very heavy in mesquite beans (I nibbled a boiled one in Austin, did not repeat the experiment) and prickly pear cactus and whatever else grows in the desert ? The Native Americans (their irrigation canals are still in use in Phoenix) did not, AFAIK, live on mesquite & cactus, but squash, corn, beans and melons.

My own guess is that, with irrigated agriculture of traditional plus imported European & Asian crops, Southern Arizona (Yuma, Phoenix, Tuscon) can support 1 million people, and importing food after crop failure years# (1 in 3 ?). Not sure that I can support that guess though.


PS: The CAP was a $4.7 billion federal subsidy for Suburban sprawl. Plus prior Bureau of Reclamation subsidies.

# Crop failures were so common in S. Arizona that the Pima Indians evolved an extraordinary metabolism that gives them world leading levels of obesity and diabetes today. Few Americans would chose to live under those "evolutionary pressures", i.e. periodic famines much more frequent than in, say, China.

Some excellent points, and I second your sentiment that the massive irrigation projects (led largely by Reclamation, at least in the arid West) have set up some of the greatest problems that the Western US will face--had this region been forced to develop without massively subsidized, centralized water projects, it may have taken a far more sustainable form.

My only quibble is with the evolutionary point on the Pima Indians (and the Tohono O'Odham, which have a similar issue): the most recent research on this that I've read suggests that their insulin-production systems weren't shaped by crop failure, but rather by the extremely low glycemic index and high levels of soluable fiber found in their traditional diet based around the mesquite pod (which, by the way, makes excellent pancakes, muffins, beer, etc... nibbling on the plain pod is an exercise perhaps best left to purists like Gary Paul Nabham). Essentially, they never developed the kind of insulin response necessary to deal with high glycemic index processed foods found in "modern" diets because they've eaten such low GI index foods for so many generations.

To the contrary, even the evidence surrounding the collapse of the Chacoan civilization has less to do with drought and crop failure than the inability of desert environments to support redistributive, complex societies that tend to expand to the limits of their ecosystems. I think this is actually one of the strenghts of a future desert society--the potential, if structured correctly (and I think suburbia may provide a good lattice point for this start), to develop a society that doesn't accrete hierarchy, and therefore doesn't succumb to the "problem of growth."

Other than that, I think we may be dealing more (or as much) with battling aesthetics than ideologies. I've found vernacular desert culture highly seductive--ever since visiting the berber villages in the High Atlas, traveling to various parts of the Middle East (and Spain and Sicily), sailing the Sea of Cortez, and living briefly in Tucson, I think the desert is a landscape of unmatched beauty (and potential for equally unmatched ugly human development!). When done correctly, human interaction with the desert can be an amazing thing in my eyes, but I'll admit that it isn't for everyone... If you want to be converted about the desert (or, if you just need a recommendation of where to stay when you're forced to visit), try:

- The Loews Ventana Canyon hotel (Tucson)
- The Arizona Inn (Tucson)
- The Hacienda del Sol (Tucson)

Jeff, I'm glad you brought up the issue of controlling the means of violence, because that is one of the main reasons cities have thrived in the historical period. Of course cities used to have walls, so that when marauding bands or invaders arrived, the peasants/farmers could be safe inside the city walls. But it's just easier, obviously, to protect a smaller space than it is to protect a larger space. As a died-in-the-wool urbanite, I feel much safer on a crowded city street than in a suburb.

So cities are much more efficient in terms of protecting its citizens, and this would be one of the reasons that recentralization would take place -- it is safer in the company of more people. The "slumification" that seems to be going on in some suburbs, where the boarded up foreclosed properties attract criminals, is an early indication of this.

I think that if suburbs turned into proper towns, with a dense/mixed use center, then the means of violence would be much more easily controlled.

The main problems seem to be the capital requirement and reluctant social change. For solar PV I'd work on $6 a watt and even that may be too low if there are no subsidies in the future. Absent groundwater a moulded plastic rainwater tank of say 50 KL or 13,000 US gall maybe $2000 and a 400w water pump maybe $400. It will take up a lot of space in a quarter acre (.1ha) block. Note that battery packs will be needed to run that water pump and home appliances at night. A 3 kwh system might cost $1,000 plus connections and inverters. You're looking at up to $55,000 per house. Finding this money will be tough with double digit unemployment.

If we're using humanure we might as well have methane digesters in the corner of every community garden. That will create fuel gas as well as compost. Some poor bugger will have to carry humanure by wheelbarrow through the streets and load it into the digester along with plant prunings. The daily wage will be a small sack of produce.

For the former SUV driving white collar worker this might not seem like progress. Moreover I doubt if solar PV will ever get cheap enough so I think these suburbs will stay grid connected to coal and nuke power until those fuels run out. It's hard to envision the utility bills being paid in sacks of pumpkins and potatoes delivered by bicycle. Suddenly a command economy with food, water and energy rationing looks like the easier approach. Either way something resembling Cuba seems like the end result.

First solar is a public company with audited accounts.
It's costs are already below $1.29/watt:

That would not include ancillary costs, of course, but steady progress is being made, and not just with the rare-earth cells that First Solar produces.

Suburbia is also an ideal location for what seems to me to be the lowest cost way of doing solar, municipal plants of 2-10MW:

Erection on the ground for ease of installation and maintenance, together with the lack of a need to transmit the power long distances, or even step it down, would lead to the lowest solar costs.

In many areas of the US wind turbines could also supplement this.

Similarly, I am wondering if your costings for the collection of run-off water could not be greatly reduced by carrying them out on a rather greater scale, but still well below city-level.

A water tank for, say, ten houses would use far less materials per person, and most of the work would be digging the hole.
In addition, in some places, particularly Sweden, underground water storage is used to store heat for the winter, although that is admittedly mainly for blocks of flats, so the practicalities of this are uncertain.

I think most people miss the real problem with suburbia. Its not the houses its the people. The question should be what are these suburban homeowners going to do to make a living ?

If food prices are so high that they have to grow gardens to survive then I question if suburbanites can afford the transportation costs of living in suburbia. If we still have cubicle farms for the suburbanites regardless of where they are located then we don't need the gardens and the point of the article is mute.

Needless to say the this is one of the stupidest set of posts I've seen on the oildrum. The basic set of assumptions are however very amusing.

However the fact that people actually believe this claptrap is not.

It seems a shame that you should somewhat devalue your many informative posts with such a condescending and ill-advised comment.
If you wish to argue against the thesis of the article, by all means do so, but without the gross characterisations you have made.

If you think back to your own history, I am sure that you will be aware that, just like all the rest of us, you have frequently been widely mistaken, and if none occurs to you you have only to ask your wife, who will doubtless refresh your memory.

You have your set of reasoning which leads you to think that suburbia will vanish, but in spite of your own satisfaction with your own conclusions perhaps you can allow others to differ.

In particular, your assertions about the transport costs of living in suburbia seem eminently falsifiable with rather different assumptions, and without entertaining present levels of car use.

My god man if people are worried about how many potatoes grow on an acre of land they are not worried about telecommuting or making the EV payment.

The US produces twice as much food as it consumes thousands of acres of land are fallow or devoted to grazing land. Explain to me how we can have a failure of industrial agriculture and have anything close to modern suburbia exist. The premise that we somehow keep our society running yet have to grow our own food on small plots makes no sense.

People may choose to do so and suburban vegetable gardens are actually quite popular but its a choice not a forced decision. I hope people choose to grow gardens and use EV's and thermal solar and PV and wind but if we can do this we do it because we choose to do so.

My own argument agianst suburbia is based on economics. If transportation is expensive then the natural movement will be towards the city center not out of it. This natural migration would ensure that we would see falling housing prices in suburbia and thus taxes etc. The tax base would move inward and with the the good schools. This is simply the exact reverse of what happened when the city cores where depopulated and people moved into suburbia. Arguments such as our investment make no sense since we threw away 100's of years of buildings in a few decades during the urban sprawl.

I think Jeff is a smart guy most of his posts I agree with but if the underlying premise is false then its wrong. In the case of suburbia the basic arguments used to justify its continued existence are simply wrong. To be honest I don't quite understand why people have a problem with change. Within the lifetimes of most of the older readers of the oildrum we have seen dramatic changes take place and we will in the future. Houses, Cities, and even entire regions will be abandoned populations will move or they won't. Maybe EV's coupled with expansion of renewable energy and maybe expansion of nuclear is all we need to solve our problems. But if thats the case then we don't have a food problem we have a much smaller problem of powering our fleet of cars.

I however see peak oil is one important force driving our entire society towards collapse. It ensures that the longer we ignore it the less and more stark our choices become. BAU approaches tend to interact poorly with declining energy. But in the big picture the real problem is population growth not resources thats whats really driving us to the brink. Its what underlies all of our problems we are running out of oil because to many people used to much. Its six billion people running out of oil not 300 million.

I'm not worried about growing potatoes in my back yard. Personally I am looking for either a small town in a rich agricultural region or a house on several acres of land both are sustainable. And next either choice would also be near a large port city preferably seaport or next navigable river.

If its a house with acreage then it should be less than five miles from a town with a rail to the city. Traditional suburbia is of zero interest to me and to be honest all I see is it will cause problems for the city since so many suburban houses will need to be cleared to make room for closer intensive farming.

I've actually been doing a lot of thinking on how you could recycle the materials in suburban houses to use them in building up the cities. I think that if enough cheap labor exists it would be profitable to recycle the materials in a house.

I'd definitely be interested in a discussion on how a suburban house can profitably be dismantled and the land converted to farmland. If I ever buy in suburbia it will be by the acre and I will not pay more than 500 and acre for suburban wasteland.

Right now I'm thinking that you can take several suburban houses and recycle the materials to make green houses. The excess wood can be used to make char for soils. The asphalt in the shingles and roads can be recycled etc.

I've not seen any really good uses for recycled concrete that does not simply covert it to crushed gravel. And most approaches can't use reinforced concrete. I'm thinking that it could be reused to create raised beds.

Thats the type of discussion you should have about suburbia if we do have serious problems if we don't then we should be discussing the power requirements needed for everyone to plug-in there EV at home since I doubt most suburban electric systems could handle the load.

Whats not going to happen is suburbia going to survive and yet we need grow our own food.
The premise of the argument is false. Either we have a slight solvable problem with transportation fuels or we have a serious set of civilization ending problems with peak oil playing a prominent role. We don't need to solve the problem of how many potatoes to grow in our backyards.

I feel that your opposition to suburbia somewhat colours your judgements on the likeliest outcomes.

In addition, looking at the big picture confounds a lot of people in very different circumstances who are likely to consequently react differently.

In some areas suburbia will surely contract.

But in others it does not make a lot of sense to amalgamate the people who live in suburbia and have the primary problem of commuting to jobs which they still have and those who may be unemployed or retired, and have to survive on very little money.

For those type of people, then trying to grow more of their own food makes eminent sense, whilst keeping the roof they have over their heads makes even more.
Some people have paid for their houses, and some sort of conversion to rentalism seems perhaps likely for many others.

For other people, who have jobs but find it difficult to get to them, you grossly exaggerate the cost of providing transport with low oil use.
Sure it would be expensive if present standards of comfort and convenience were maintained, but both will be sacrificed, and the overall standard of living would still be higher than giving up the house.

For instance, many will be able to get around with some variant of this:

Covered versions, trikes etc can be built fairly cheaply using present technology.

It will look nothing like the current model of suburbia, but just as in any other time of severe shortage then rather than scrapping everything the primary adaption is likely to be patching up and making do with what is around, and where it is.

For instance, the large houses in suburbia would be rather easy to improve the insulation for - all sorts of bodges are possible if you can sacrifice floor area.
Insulation made out of virtually anything can be added to the interiors, with shredded denim being one currently used.

We are likely to move away from the current model of very large scale solutions, as the money will not be there, so small solutions come to the fore.

Many will indeed give up and move to rent in the city, particularly in the US with it's weird non-recourse mortgages, but many won't, and they will adapt by the usual processes people use in tough times of adapting what is to hand.

You're still arguing against a straw man, at least as I see it.

For the (probably tenth) time, the goal isn't to "save" suburbia or make it continue with "business as usual lite" or "green technotopia". It's just acknowledging the fact (go back to Part 1 of the series) that we can't snap our fingers and make suburbia go away and replace it with nice, small, dense communities. Since that is the case, what will become of the parts of suburbia that will have to continue to be inhabited (as opposed to having a flood of refugees everywhere, as someone else pointed out)?

You are right in saying there will be a migration. But just as the migration outwards, it won't (can't) happen overnight. Some suburban communities may die and wither altogether, or turn into crime-ridden slums. Others will likely band together, pool their resources, be innovative and creative, and somehow find a way to make do for the time being.

It won't be a matter of being too worried about the potatoes to pay the EV payment, either. Growing vegetables won't necessarily be a matter of life-and-death survival for most people. It will be a way to supplement their food source, and for some, a way to make a living. Some people's jobs may consist of going from house to house and cultivating the owners' plots for them, in return for a portion of the crops.

Your dichotomy of either a "slight solvable problem with transportation fuels" or a "serious set of civilization-ending problems" is false. There's a whole scale of possibilities in between, that doomers don't seem to acknowledge. If renewable energy comes through in a big enough way, there will be a much pruned-down but still technological lifestyle. If it doesn't come through, then some of the die-off scenarios become more likely. However, I think the time scale of the whole thing will be such that people will find a way to migrate and make a living somewhere.

Even assuming we have total collapse (which I don't accept as inevitable), it won't necessarily be as sudden as many make it sound. The Mayan empire didn't just suddenly collapse. It may look like sudden from the perspective of over a thousand years past, but I've read that the whole process actually took at least a generation.

Folks, I think you're both right. Suburbia as it is (and especially the tract housing kind seen in California) isn't sustainable in that there's too little land to grow much, and it's too far away from a town center or train to use public transport. I had a coworker in Santa Clara who drove from Tracy every day - what is that, 90 miles each way - to afford a tiny house on a 3500sf lot. That isn't going to work out. But out here in New England it's a bit different. What we call suburbs are more like overgrown small towns, each with a town center (there are two within 2 miles of our house) and lot sizes between 1/2 acre and 2 acres, plenty big for a 20x80 garden if you're willing to cut down a few trees. There's plenty of municipal land that could become community farms. Quite a few towns are served by rail and have old mills and foundries with nearby hydro possibilities.

But your point is right, the issue is not the land, not the houses (though maybe their foundations) but the people. What do you do with them?

I guess it depends on what kind of decline we really have. If it's slow (let's say under 5% annually) it will be just like every other recession we've had. You know the old saw, "The recession isn't so bad, it's just that it came on the heel of such 'hahd' times...". Until the last wave of immigrants, speak of them as you may, we've had a slow population decline for the last 40 years or so. Entire industries have come and gone. But we seem to manage.

If it's a fast crash, I don't know what to say. Are the suburbanites just going to leave their houses and walk to the city? I don't think so. If there's no food or heat, maybe. We're a hardy bunch, but the elite few who want fresh strawberries for Thanksgiving and Gucci handbags to carry their Yorkies from the Escalade, well, I guess they'll be in for a bit of a shock...

All in all, this is about the first post I've seen to consider what will happen in the suburbs. Since I live there (at least by some standards) I spend a lot of time considering thinking about this. Let's not drop it because it doesn't fit one's ideology.

BTW A question for Alan. Can't we use rail to ship some foods long distance? What did we do before 18-wheelers? Must be some trains somewhere.


My opinion is simple either the future is effectively BAU and its a simple matter of moving to EV's and probably a lot more rail but NG powered trucks work well. But no matter what more rail and better more electric rail is the right answer regardless of the scenario you pick.

The problem is this assumption that somehow everything pretty much works like it does now but we have to grow our own food. That makes no sense. How can we have a food crisis yet have BAU ? At least in the US we are so far away from having a food crisis its not even on the horizon. We can ship plenty of food by even our existing rail and I'm sure if needed food shipments and farming would get priority access to diesel. We could easily meet our food growing and transport needs with biodiesel. The premise that sustainable suburbia is needed is simply wrong we don't need the land at least in the US thats why we paved it over in the first place. We have ample farmland and room to sprawl.

Britain is a bit iffy but thats a different issue and it has far less sprawl then the US. Europe obviously has access to more food resources and I can't see why Britain would be isolated. Africa could also readily act is a far bigger source of agricultural products for Europe. South America still has room to spread to provide food for the world etc.

Now this is absolute quantities of food and some areas in Asia certainly have problems if we do have problems with food its not because we can't grow enough for the wealthy regions its because of transportation issues. I can readily see social unrest in Southern California resulting in food transportation issues which would themselves lead to further social unrest. Same for New York for that matter a few riots in these Mega Cities could easily spiral out of control. I'm not exactly and advocate of cities actually. I think that the smaller cities say less than 1 million in rich agricultural areas should do ok. How much less is tough to gauge small towns surrounded by fields are fairly naturally capable of localization as you move up its really very dependent on the city its people etc.

Now moving out into the burbs it really depends some of them will relocalize and become effectively small towns most however are simply sprawl and won't survive. Also for that matter its tough to suggest that New England village/suburbia will survive while say Atlanta sprawl dies. This is because Americans are highly mobile for one region to see its housing stock lose all value while having other regions escape long term seems tough to consider and maintain a functional country. I'd suggest that this sort of universal fragmentation in property values is a lot different from localized declines like whats happening in Detroit. But then this argument of partial survival leads into the formation of enclaves which is quit different from survival of suburbia.

At the end of the day long term survival of suburbia i.e greater than 20 years in a form even close to what we have today seems unlikely regardless of how we change. By this I mean your traditional suburban house on a quarter acre or less thats 10 miles or more from the city center and not near a rail line.

Political/Social conditions and very local issues will determine probably on a house by house basis which houses make it and which don't. You can actually see the results of this in our older buildings from the 1800's only a fraction of them have actually survived till now. I'd guess less then 10% of the housing built in the 1800's is actually standing now. You have the sames sorts of stats throughout the succeeding decades. How much of the housing stock from say 1950 is still standing right now ?

I'm only 40 but my childhood neighborhood which at one time was a nice suburb at the edge of the city has become a bit of a suburban ghetto.

But I'd suggest this is not about being able to grow food in your little quarter acre plot. If your worried about food security then you need to look at places with more land or the other option is of course a small town in the middle of an agricultural region. The small town case works simply because its a safe bet that the town will not starve if surrounded by fields one way or another the local farmers and the local townies will come to and agreement to ensure that they get food.

Food issues because of transport issues are very valid but the easiest way to solve this is store 1-2 years worth of food. You could plant a garden but this would be more to simply hide your real food store and distract potential raiders from your cache. But yet again if your in this situation where food is scarce your really dependent on the relationships between you and your neighbors. Micro gardens again don't seem to be the solution.

And last but not least its instructive to look at how people moved during famines in Africa most streamed in out of the countryside and into the larger towns because of banditry.

"the power requirements needed for everyone to plug-in there EV at home since I doubt most suburban electric systems could handle the load."
A PHEV like the Chevy Volt requires 8kWh to recharge, 5hours on a standard 110v outlet. A larger EV(16-24kWh) would still draw less than a cloths dryer or oven on a standard 220v circuit. Of course many daily trips will be less than 40 miles so will not need to be fully re-charged.

Just out of interest I wonder what you can do in a small town or rural lot that you cannot do in suburbs, except work as a peasant farm laborer? If you want that why not go to any third world country.

Jeffvail's second post on this topic showed that transportation costs are relatively low IF the vehicle is fuel efficient. Even lower if just driving to nearest rail station. Distances to work, hospitals, schools, shops are much less in suburbs than in rural regions.

Its not 6Billion people using too much oil, its 300 Million in US(and a few other countries) using >25%. Just improving US vehicle fuel economy from 25mpg to 45mpg( the 2012 EU target), could really slow down post-peak decline. Lots of other easy reductions in FF use are available in countries that use 20 boe per capita.

You should check out the wiring in modern homes its crap. I'm pretty sure if everyone ran their dryer at the same time in my area it would pop the circuits.

Trust me I run air compressors on household circuits and no way are they designed to run much more then whats on them now. The way they have the circuits set up is a joke esp for the garage. I'm in California so maybe this is just the state building codes but there is only one circuit in my house that can run the dryer and fridge and another for the AC the rest of them are useless.

And now to the second half which is more important. Imagine a world filled with six billion people where America on of the wealthiest nations on earth is forced to significantly cut its energy use. Say in half. I'd suggest such a world will be facing a lot of other serious problems. Show me how it reduces to what your suggesting. My opinion is like are not peak oil is a global problem and issues resulting from it will effect everyone. If you have read my
posts I have suggested that this will result in the formation of enclaves of varying technical levels. I'd not hazard to guess exactly how these would be structured however I'd hope some would remain high-tech and some of these might even keep suburban housing who knows. I'd say that if I'm right and enclaves do form then the overriding factor will be how defensible they would be or how much defenses they need. Its really a military problem at that point.

Next assuming your right and things are not that bad i.e it really is just a transportation fuel issue not a global crisis then all I see is that the vector of migration points inward instead of outward which results in suburbia decaying as tax revenue moved back into the cities. This is a simple issue of following the money. As I said its a simple reversal of the original migration into suburbia with effectively exactly the same effects. Values will drop buildings will decay crime will increase etc. Suburban blight replaces decaying inner city cores. If its simply a transportation cost issue people will naturally migrate towards the center. I have a hard time visualizing how we can have the problem of expensive transportation but yet keep people moving out into the suburbs. The allure if you will is gone property values are falling and the most expensive areas would naturally move from the city center outwards. I can't imagine my children interested in living in suburbia my oldest is six. By the time he's old enough I'd suspect he will either want to live in the trendy city core where everything is close a village or be a farmer I really can't see my kids opting for suburban living. At the minimum you would have a social backlash agianst suburbia from the next generation.
Your going to have a hard time selling them your suburban house.

And just looking at it this way highlights that if people do move back into the cities they quickly realize that its actually a nice way to live denser European cities are lively fun places.

I am not sure where all the people abandoning suburban houses are going to go? Into a nursing home?
Your daughter may choose to live in a urban core or a small village, but I am sure she won't want to be a farmer.Growing a small vegie garden can be fun, weeding a sugar beet or cotton field 8 hours a day is just hard work. Just look at any rural agriculture town a good distance from any urban center, almost all of the young women leave as soon as possible. The boys are a little slower to learn, but they eventually follow the girls.

In Australian cities rent demand is too high for a house to be left vacant. We don't have suburban blight. As the population ages suburban densities will continue to decline, and a lower proportion of the population will need to commute. Most who drive private vehicles all the way to work, do so out of choice, convenience, not necessity. As Jeffvail showed suburbs can be fairly resilient, more so if they can reduce food, water and energy costs.

In Australian cities rent demand is too high for a house to be left vacant.

The Housing Commission house on the block adjoing mine was vacant for over eight months. And this is five minutes walk to a major shopping centre, ten minutes drive to the sunday markets, 20 minutes walk to a train station.

There is the wiring in the house, and then the wiring in the neighborhood. If the wiring in your house can't handle you running the dryer in the first place, then it doesn't matter what your neighbors do. If the wiring in your house can run the dryer normally, then if your neighbors run their dryers at the same time, that might cause problems for the neighborhood, and the voltage might sag (brownout) or the neighborhood could trip off, (blackout,) but it has nothing to do with the wires in your house being crap or not. You could have the best wired house in the state, and if the voltage coming into the house is too low, or no power is coming in at all, then you will have that same problem at the outlets.

Wiring in most homes is pretty bad. 20 amp is usually only reserved for the kitchen. All other household outlets are usually only 15 amp, of which a good vacuum cleaner + a hair dryer will trip. Electric dryers, ranges, water heaters, A/C need to be on their own separate circuit and shouldn't be tripping the breakers. If so, you have wiring problems in your home.

Older homes, i.e. "in the city" are typically much worse when it comes to wiring, if they haven't been upgraded. (I've rewired some 1940's built homes and wondered why they haven't burnt down.) These older homes also have poor insulation, single pane windows and dated inefficient furnace/appliances. Kunstler argues that suburbia is glued together, which has some basis of truth to it, but pre-WWII homes have their drawbacks as well. Thankfully vacant exurban homes can be stripped and used to upgrade older housing stock.

I have a hard time visualizing how we can have the problem of expensive transportation but yet keep people moving out into the suburbs.

Memmel, this is your whole argument in a nutshell, and it is a false argument. As one of your sympathisers pointed out above, light rail can be constructed very quickly, given the will and sufficient motivation. So here's a prediction for you: long before people abandon their suburban homes, complete with food-rich gardens, to move to high density inner city hell-holes, government will move heaven and earth to snake multiple light rail lines out, fan-like, to all suburbs. End of debate. Suburbia will never go away.

Sounds like you don't know much about light rail.

I'll give you a hint since I do ride a lot of the trains in England and Europe.
It does not work that way. Try one train stop for a town of 50k.
They do have a few what you would consider suburban stops but the trains seldom stop at them I think 2-4 times a day or about every two hours.

I actually rode the rail from Irvine to LA when I worked there. Irvine is like 100k in population and it would need a lot more trains if it was to replace road traffic. Not to mention for some reason the Irvine stop is well out of the city center in and Office park. No way could they handle the number of cars at the train station if everyone drove to the train station.

This means you would need extensive trolley service cars simply don't work and reasonably cheap taxis.

In Europe of course you walk or ride a bike. Sometimes taking a taxi.
But its a lot denser.

I've been all over a good bit of the world and I've never actually seen anyplace that had suburbia like we do here and good public transport.

Maybe Vancouver or another Canadian city ?

If its possible then I'd think somewhere it the world there is and example of a suburban sprawl city with excellent public transport. Australia ?

Sydney does not look good.


I'd say suburban sprawl and the car are wedded till death do us part.

But yet again if we want to talk about suburbia we should really talk about real issues like this not growing tomatoes in your backyards.

See my posts on MegaCities its not only suburbia that has a dim future.

Sydney does not look good.

Sydney is a hole. We should fence it off from the rest of the country, and cede Bondi to the Kiwis.

Excellent comments...

But in the big picture the real problem is population growth not resources thats whats really driving us to the brink. Its what underlies all of our problems we are running out of oil because to many people used to much. Its six billion people running out of oil not 300 million.

Ah, the elephant in the room. Population is the key. Let's ignore, for the moment, the 6 billion or so people who do not live in North America. In a world without oil and low on energy in general, they will not be arriving on these shores in serious numbers.

Still, that leaves 300+ million in the US, plus 30+ million in Canada, plus many millions more to the south. Still, let's ignore the immigration issue (besides, our neighbors north and south may actually be better prepared for an agricultural society than we are ... immigration may be more of their problem than ours). Can the US arable land feed 300 million? I've seen reasoned arguments that say yes, with major restructuring and government action. I'm not entirely convinced. But let's say yes for the moment.

In the US, I believe that we recently reached the point where more than half the population lives outside of cities. So, let's say roughly half the population lives in suburbia. The cities cannot take in 150 million homeless. There won't be jobs. Or housing. The jobs in a post-industrial society will be heavily (at least 50%, probably 75%) agricultural in nature. The majority of arable land is not a commutable train ride away from major cities, even if there were train tracks in place, which there largely aren't anymore since most produce moves by road.

150 million people are not going to go quietly into the good night. And, frankly, I don't really want them (us, since I am currently one of them), roaming around, angry, hungry and quite possibly armed. At night or during the day! That has the makings for a serious nightmare scenario that nobody wants to see if it can be avoided.

So, what do you do with all these suburbanites? Can they be moved? Can some of them stay? How many? What changes would be required? What population level might be tenable? How many could be moved? How do you move them, or at least many of them, to places where they can be productive?

Maybe a voluntary government homesteading program that will move them to farming homesteads created by breaking up large industrial farms into smaller units? Of course, most suburbanites don't know one end of a plow from the other, so any such program would require substantial training. So, probably you are moving them into some kind of interim situation for training in educational (but functioning) farming communities, and then on to final homesteads.

Would such a voluntary program garner sufficient interest to reduce excess numbers in suburbia (and, for that matter, in urban areas)? If not, what then? Institute a "national farm draft"? "Congratulations Mr. Smith! You and your family have just won an all-expense paid enrollment in the National Homesteaders Program. Pack you bags. Leave the gun. Take the canoli." How would that go over?

Maybe it would go over okay if the alternative prospects for suburbia are as dim as you suggest. If the area is dying on the vine, completely untenable, without access to jobs or food, I suspect people might well think Green Acres is the place to be.

Short of massive relocation, by government plan, you have to do something with a lot of people who, without serious logistical changes, are going to be in very serious trouble. The number of people is staggering. Unless the collapse is so swift and so complete that nobody can do anything, then I think society needs to figure out a plan to appropriately populate (or depopulate, as is likely the case) suburbia in a manner that does not result in 150 million people who have nothing. People with nothing have nothing to lose. That many people with nothing to lose would be, shall we say, bad.

To me, the essence of this discussion is not suburbia good or bad. Clearly, suburbia was, at best, shall we say, a short-sighted planning policy. The bigger question is, in an increasingly post-industrial, low-energy society, what can be done to address the portions of our population (suburban and urban) living in increasingly untenable situations. As it relates specifically to suburbia, I certainly understand that many think that suburbia is untenable and that, somehow, everyone there must move, accept a slum existence, or perish. I agree that, in its current incarnation, suburbia seems to have little going for it. However, before I accept the premise that it must be abandoned en masse, I think there is value in discussing whether the abandonment of suburbia is really the only viable solution. Are there measures that might allow a modified suburbia to support a smaller portion of the population? Are there modifications that could allow the suburbs to remain somewhat viable for a longer period, allowing a more reasonable transition to a post-industrial age? Jeff's series seems to me to be a worthwhile element of that thought process.

Just one man's opinion. :-)


What do you see as the "claptrap" flawed assumptions?

Is one of them the idea that there might be even a slim possibility that society won't crash and burn inevitably, drastically, suddenly and irreparably? The idea that there might be a path of "energy descent" that doesn't involve mass starvation and collapse, and which continues to make use of many existing structures until suitable replacements can be made?

Here is a link to a real live experiment in suburbia thats occured over about 100 years.


Plenty of solid upstanding suburban structures in this region. LA is pretty much sprawling suburb outside of a pretty small downtown region.

I'd be happy to take to one end of a few of these neighborhoods full of structures that we must save and see if you walk out the other end.

I think quite of few of them have gardens in the backyards but I'll admit I've never looked.

The map zooms in to a high degree of detail. The number of 1/4 acre lots is pretty rare.

Of course we aren't going to let a real metropolitan area with 17 million people interfere with our dream of growing potatoes in suburbia.

Do the math an a real city and while your at it I'd love to know where your going to get the water from.

Show me a post peak solution that would work for LA and I'll be happy to change my tune. Atlanta also while your at it.

And last but not least while we are in dream world our little suburban utopia's never have droughts or late freezes etc. Growing conditions are always perfect and of course we won't have any bugs to worry about.

LA is barely functional now I can't even imagine what this city will be like if conditions became stressful.

This discussion is a great one, and not easy to resolve. For more background see the book "Superbia" http://www.energybulletin.net/node/13853

and the work of Richard Register: http://www.ecocitybuilders.org/

Even on today's Drumbeat a relevant article is given: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2008/11/we-must-plan...

where it is noted that scientists can't agree whether people should go more high tech and high density or more low tech and low density to be sustainable.

A good overview of one extreme, "re-ruralization" is given by Folke Gunther http://www.holon.se/folke/lectures/Ruralisation.shtml

Jeff is a fan of decentralization and Alan Drake is a fan of smart urbanism and the efficiency of rail. The trade offs are so difficult to sort out and it is probably site specific which ones are more important.

Do the advantages of density--mostly being within city transportation efficiencies, ease of commerce, and provision of services per capita-- outweigh the disadvantages of being dependent on distant, dispersed sources of food and other resources, and the need to deal with concentrated wastes?

What about cities surrounded by suburbs? Is this a DOUBLY bad arrangement because the cities are now even further from life support services and the suburbs non-competitive commercially?

From some personal experience of living in a small town lot.

My family of 4 (sometimes 5-6) uses ca. 5 kwh per day of electricity and gets by on 1.5 kw installed capacity for all net electrical needs at ca. 40 degrees latitude in northern California (ca. 9-10 kwh per day in summer and ca. 2 kwh day in winter). We are grid dependent though. We also heat with about 1.5 cords of hardwood per year. We have 120 sq ft of solar thermal panels for water heating that are totally heat sufficient for about 8 months of the year, and provide a great preheat for the other 4 months. We use about 4 Therms of natural gas per month for water heating in winter. We use our wood stove and solar ovens, but still cook with gas too, about 2 Therms per month. Our lot is ca. 10,000 sq ft and about 1500 are in vegetable gardens, about half of which produce food each year. Another 2000 sq ft is in fruit trees and berries. We have a small greywater system for irrigation of vegetables and fruits. A small greenhouse for starts is on site too. We keep bees and 6 hens. The house is well insulated but old, 1903. No air conditioning is used but opening and closing windows and using fans.

Given all the potential uses of space--greenhouse, wood storage, greywater, home thermoregulating shade/fruit trees, paths, etc.--we have maxed out our cultivated space and are only up to ca. 4000 sq ft including fruits and vegetables. I would say only about 10% of our family food needs are met in our yard, but most of the fruit trees are still young.

Jason, your ¼ acre is too small to grow food for 4-6 people, but you should be getting more than 10%. You must be just starting out.

Thanks for another excellent article on a Resilient Suburbia.
We know that the vast majority of people in US and the developed world prefer to live in suburbia, in a pre-peak(oil) world. Suburbia has most of the advantages of rural living but with better access to jobs and services. Your post has demonstrated that suburban environments can have some degree of self-sufficiency in food, water and energy. I don't see these as major advantages in a post-peak oil or even post FF world. Renewable and nuclear energy are best generated in the best locations as electricity can be and is transported over vast distances. Food and water production and distribution only use a small fraction of oil, and much of this can be replaced by non-FF electricity.
For the growing proportion of the population that is retired, little daily commuting is required so suburban locations will continue to be preferred, providing they can afford a suburban house. Reducing food, water and energy purchases will help to keep suburban living affordable. Ditto for unemployed.
For households that need outside employment, the immediate problem is the availability and cost of liquid fuels. You demonstrated that the cost can be greatly reduced by using more fuel efficient vehicles, car pooling and car sharing. Longer term solutions( better mass-transit, private electric vehicles or a combination of both) seem achievable.
The major problems are going to be the first 5-10years post-peak oil, if oil production decline is very rapid and most people still have jobs requiring commuting, and developing economies continue to use a higher proportion of oil production. The best outcome would be a long mild recession, with the auto companies forced(by both government and market forces), to produce smaller numbers of very fuel efficient vehicles.

Transition Suburbia

The question that seems to be posed by this series is, "Can suburbia become sustainable in a low-energy environment?" The implied foil this is held up to seems to be urbanism, especially large-scale urbanism.

To me, these seem like the wrong questions. History has a lot to teach us, if we will only listen. For most of human history neither suburbs nor large-scale urbanism existed. In the last few thousand years, large-scale urbanism has occasionally arisen in a few places and been sustained for a few hundred years (e.g. Rome), usually at the expense of massive exploitation of rural lands and people. Suburbia in the form discussed in these postings, on the other hand, has existed at all only since about 1945. The lesson of history seems to be that large-scale urbanism is possible, though exceptional, in a low-energy environment, whereas suburbia is not.

Thus, to me the question should not be whether suburbia (or large-scale urbanism) can be made sustainable, as the answer already seems to be "not usually," and even if they were I doubt either one of them would be the most efficient living adaptation for a low-energy world. Remember it's not just what is possible, but also how it stacks up against the alternatives, that needs to be considered if the goal is to predict how people will live in the oil-depleted future. Even if something is strictly possible, it will still never be done if there are better alternatives available.

What history seems to tell us is that despite the 12,000 square foot lot sizes, suburbia is still too dense to be a viable living arrangement without fossil fuel subsidies. It needs to de-densify to the level of rural farms, at which point it is no longer suburbia. Attempts to keep suburbia alive are really attempts to cushion the negative impact of a cratering energy supply by allowing a more graceful transition to a new living arrangement than just having everyone starve to death immediately. However, suburbia is not the "climax vegetation" of any part of our future landscape.

Urbanism is also (even more) too dense to be self-sufficient, but it has other benefits to bring to the bargaining table that suburbia lacks. When there is enough agricultural surplus to enable supporting a segment of the population in activities other than food production, it is handy to have these people conveniently located in a single small area, so the rural farmers can make a single, occasional trip in to town to meet all their other needs, rather than have to take the pony on a cross-country vision quest for half the year to visit the blacksmith, tanner, cooper, wheelwright, banker, general store, etc., as they would if these were all spread out in suburban-style centerless sprawl. Also, cultural opportunities -- the things that make "civilization" worth pursuing at all -- are possible in towns and villages, but not in suburbia, if you can only get around by horse and on foot. This is another bargaining chip urbanism on the small scale brings to the table. People want a chance to do more than labor, eat, and sleep once in a while. Small-scale urbanism can provide this in a low-energy environment, so people will pursue urbanism at some level if they can afford it. Suburbia, on the other hand, offers absolutely nothing without the minivan.

In the low-energy future that is coming to get us, we will have rural farming. We will have towns and villages. Occasionally when some jerk or another centralizes enough brute-force power over a big enough hierarchy of others to forcibly exploit large areas of land and rural people at the blade of the sword, we will have large-scale urbanism in a few scattered locations. But we will not have suburbia. Like a new plague that kills its victims too quickly for its own good, it will have burned through its possible hosts in less than one hundred years and may never rise again on this earth for all eternity to come.

Utopia in Decay

Kevin Cherkauer

Your hypothesis depends on your projected 'low energy future'.
We are actually running out of oil, not energy, and for many years coal will continue to provide much of the power, whilst both thin-film solar and high burn nuclear technologies are at an advanced enough stage that it is clear that they can be done technically, although the financial environment is certainly challenging.

Actually, as Sharon has posted, many cities in the past were populated at similar densities to suburbia, so it is also incorrect to talk as though this is a living density unprecedented in human history.

"Suburbia in the form discussed in these postings, on the other hand, has existed at all only since about 1945".

If you define suburbia as single family separated houses on at least 5,000 sq ft of land, you will find most cities and towns started building such houses prior to 1900. Many suburbs started as smaller towns that merged together. It was fast transport both rail, bus and private vehicles that made suburbs possible. Their is no reason to believe that we will be in a "low-energy environment" in a post-peak( oil or FF) world. Its not even certain that energy will be more expensive, with the exception of liquid fuels for air travel.

In the last few thousand years, large-scale urbanism has occasionally arisen in a few places and been sustained for a few hundred years (e.g. Rome), usually at the expense of massive exploitation of rural lands and people. Suburbia in the form discussed in these postings, on the other hand, has existed at all only since about 1945. The lesson of history seems to be that large-scale urbanism is possible, though exceptional, in a low-energy environment, whereas suburbia is not.

There are plenty of examples of cities that have existed for more than a few hundred years (Rome is over 3 millenia-old {founded 10th century BC, inhabited today}, Constantinople/Istanbul{600BC-today},etc.). Cities are an ancient and durable form of human organization which existed long before fossil fuels and will likely exist long after fossil fuels. From Mayan cities in the jungle, to Incan cities in the Andes, to ancient Greek democracies and Hindu theocracies like Bhaktapur, cities have existed under many forms of government, including but by no means limited to "jerks" with who centralize "brute-force power". The many practical advantages of cities (in addition to the ones you list) ensure their continued existence.
In contrast, the US suburb is a specific development pattern that occurred as a result of temporarily cheap gas and government policy. Absent those forces, suburbia will evolve to some new form. I expect the physical and social form of the suburbs to mutate into some new form we cannot currently predict, but would not recognize as suburbia at all.

There are plenty of examples of cities that have existed for more than a few hundred years (Rome is over 3 millenia-old {founded 10th century BC, inhabited today}, Constantinople/Istanbul{600BC-today},etc.). Cities are an ancient and durable form of human organization which existed long before fossil fuels and will likely exist long after fossil fuels. From Mayan cities in the jungle, to Incan cities in the Andes, to ancient Greek democracies and Hindu theocracies like Bhaktapur, cities have existed under many forms of government, including but by no means limited to "jerks" with who centralize "brute-force power".

By "large-scale urbanism" I was mainly referring to cities with a million or more inhabitants. These were few and far between pre-industrialism, and they will again be few and far between once the fossil fuels are gone. Most of the "big cities" of the ancient world had 50,000 or fewer inhabitants. There were a few exceptions, such as Rome, but very few. The ones with a million-plus generally required military force to exist at all, because they had to force large numbers of distant peasants to give up a good portion of their labor and produce to support the good life for the city dwellers.

Utopia in Decay

Kevin Cherkauer

For this thread lets assume most of the posters suggesting a move to the city are talking about dense urban areas of less that 1 million people and eventually without widespread urban sprawl around them . This would also include rail linked villages of say less than 30k within 30 minutes of the main city center.

Some of these villages could be recentralized suburban fragments original small town not engulfed yet etc.

Now cities greater than 1 million have there own set of potentially serious post peak problems. For the US I'd suggest that Chicago is probably the most sustainable large city maybe also Huston. New York is worthy of serious debate.
LA well you can simply use the link I provided in my other posts and its fairly easy to see its toast along probably with Phoenix. Needles to say the survival of the Mega Cities and their surrounding urban sprawl is questionable. But whats really interesting and relevant to this thread is that most of the suburban sprawl that supposedly salvageable rings MegaCities that have very questionable post peak viability.


With 80% of Americans living in urban areas its probably true that 50% are living within the suburban/urban ring of one of our major i.e > 1 million people cities. As I said the viability of these is questionable and needs to be approached on a city per city basis. Next of course if some are probably not viable i.e LA with 17 million in the region then your dealing with some very large migrations of a lot of people out of at least a few crumbling megacities.

But this again leads to the formation or enclaves and I'd suggest that if these enclaves keep suburban structures or not really is not all that important. If any of the MegaCities turn out to not be viable thats a far larger issue then growing potatoes in your suburban garden.

Maybe Jeff Vail can rethink what he is trying to do with this series of posts.
Lets start with the viability of the MegaCities and their suburban rings.

The hellhole called LA being one of my favorites. If a reasonable case for the survival of LA and its literally 100's of miles of suburban sprawl can be made then we can look at suburban gardening. If not then ...

I can of course look out my window and tell you real fast that LA ain't gonna make it post peak but not everyone resides in the paradise of Southern Cali.
However the rest of the US better get ready for a influx of former Southern CA city dwellers :)

And yes I'm moving to Oregon this summer :)

You seem to be saying its OK to have a compact urban center with less than 1million and numerous villages or towns up to 30 km from the center, BUT not if those villages or towns merge together to become the city suburbs.
Why do 50 suburban houses on a street half way between two villages become non-viable when the streets on either side closer to village one or village two are viable?? Is it the extra 100-200 meters travel distance, or the absence of 200-400 meters of open farmland ?.

An electric vehicle is going to use 0.25kWh to travel one mile, so surely even an extra mile to a village center or train station is not going to increase energy use in any meaningful way, even if electricity becomes X10 as expensive as today, that's still only an extra 25cents or 50cents per day.

Why do you think that a post peak oil ( or even peak FF) world will be a low energy world? Whats going to stop wind or solar energy capacity from increasing by 20-30% per year for the next 20 years? Certainly not the high EROI, or the availability of steel, fiber-glass, copper. Very little oil is used to manufacture or transport wind turbines. Good wind and solar sites in US can provide much more electrical energy than all the FF energy consumed in US.
Just demonstrate what will be the limitation.

See my post up thread better I'd rather have the advocates of suburban public transportation post functional example anywhere in the world.

Speedy reliable public transport is expensive trains need to run close to capacity as much as possible to be even reasonably profitable.

I highly suspect trying to slap public transport on top of a living situation that was not designed for it is not going to work out as and efficient solution.

You might do it but your travel times are going to be horrible it really only works well if the destinations are located close together.

How far a part are your train stations how often do you have to run the trains whats the cost etc etc.

I gave you and example of my own personal experiences using rail from a far flung suburb to my job I left out the two bus transfers to get to the office and the fact it took 1.5-2hours for the trip vs 1 hour by car. Sometimes up to five hours using public transport. And I left out that I had my Farther-In-Law take me to the station at 6:30 in the morning because there was no parking available at the train station the 5:30 AM crowd used every single space.

Been there done that would not wish it on my worst enemy.

Now hanging out in a small town outside London walking to the train that shows up every 15 min thats and express to London. Then off in the tube.
Works like a charm (except when the muck it up )

I suspect you have never even tried to use the existing public transport in suburbia you don't have to be a engineer to figure out what works and what does not and a small amount of math is all thats needed to figure out you have to run trains on 15 min schedules to get functional public transport same with buses for that matter.

I'm sorry but the pro suburbia crowds plans are half baked micro arguments with no coherency and no support.

You leave out obvious answers such as trolley cars and buses and promote EV's since that the suburban way.

I'm sure Alan would be happy to fill you in on the old trolley car suburbs that did function with public transport systems.

I actually don't know the density required to get trolley car service at 10-15 min intervals but I suspect its still higher then suburbia.

What is obvious is that the fans of suburbia are uniquely ignorant about public transportation and how it works.

Go do your homework Alan spent a lot of time studying this he knows what he is talking about. I've used public transport in a lot of major cities and even smaller towns in Asia and Europe and the US so I'm pretty good at it as a rider and I can do math.

I'll even give you a hint you might get trolley stops to work but its going to be iffy 15 min for the trolley and 15 min for the train puts you 30 min of wait time at each end assuming 1 train and on trolley. Thats 1 hour waiting to commute or two hours each way. And one more change and you get into the dreaded two hours of waiting make your trip time 1 hour each way and your out to 4 hour commute times. That my friend is a miserable life I've lived it.

The EV to the train has the parking problem and you still have to commute at your destination. And the train can't make a lot of stops. And of course this implies recentralization of business back to a city core since you don't have a car on the other end of the journey.

Hopefully I've explained enough to convince you I do understand the problem.
I'm certain you don't.

And I'm sorry for being harsh but your both ignorant and wrong.
You can fix the ignorance problem and certainly a chance exists for a innovative solution once you understand the problem given that its a fairly simple physics problem I doubt it. But I'm certainly open to informed well thought out opinions from people that understand the problem.

It seems a real shame that you cannot try to make your points without throwing around accusations of ignorance to those who disagree with you.
Perhaps it indicates a degree of emotional attachment which is clouding your judgement.

In fact, in spite of the fact that you caught a train in London at one time, you do not seem to have any very extensive knowledge of transport and it's history.

The main reason, in England, for instance, for the fact that few trains stop at the smaller halts is because most people travel by car.

If car travel decreases then the number of stops the trains make will increase.

Of course it is completely true that lower population densities make public transport more difficult.

However, you seem to focus exclusively on arguments to support your case, rather than anything which might falsify it.
For instance, your critique of using EV to get to train stops was that the parking lots would need to be vast.
Many will very successfully travel there by walking or by bike, including EV bikes.
See the arrangements for their storage being made in Montreal, as well as countless European cities.

A lot of people would just be dropped off at the station, whilst the vehicle continues to another destination.

Your basic argument is correct, that suburbs would tend to either adapt or die, and so under conditions of more inconvenient transport those that remained would change many of their characteristics towards those of small towns, over a period of time, with the usage altering and efforts being made to infill with places of work involving less travel, as it became less convenient.

Speaking of inconvenience, you contrast the inconvenience of travel in less dense population centres with more, but apparently not with moving out of your house and renting in a slum.

Just as in the last oil-induced slump, many will likely go into lodgings during the week, but retain their suburban house.

You also seek to dismiss any efforts to grow food in the suburbs by declaring that transport would be impossible if that was actually needed.
This completely disregards variation in the population.
If a family is retired or unemployed, then they likely might make efforts to grow a portion of their own food.
That is not to say everyone in suburbia will do so.

Since many of your arguments are so thinly based, then please debate more respectfully.

The bus I use a lot to commute to work (but the bike ride through the rice fields is much nicer so usually I ignore the smelly bus) comes every 30 minutes. It also goes downtown on its way to the univ. I can time my arrival at the bus stop so I don't have to wait. On the way home there are no direct buses from uni. to my neighborhood in the afternoon so have to change downtown. The bus again from the city center to my neighborhood runs every 30 min. But I can always save up errands (buying cat food, socks, a head of cabbage) which I time perfectly so I return to the bus stop (it's next to the shops) just in time to catch the bus. The 15 minute rule you've outlined is really too rigid. It all depends on how you make use of the waiting time. I would wait much longer for a bus even if I just had to sit at the bus stop if I had a good book to read.

I grew up in a suburb, in CT. You could see the farmer's fields from the previous era outlined in stone walls in the woods on people's properties. The soil was very poor. The climate was cold. I'm sure it was a hard life, New England farming. Even if they try it there again, digging up their driveways and the Merrit Parkway they will find the same conditions. But of course, heaven compared to Las Vegas of course.

But if you can get a climate that is more favorable, warmer, with more rain, then growing things is a total pleasure and digging up a patch of driveway will seem like a minor obstacle. Even if you need to shrink your house by chopping a piece off in order to get more land, it's worth it. Even a little patch of land can bring a lot if it's cultivated intensively and in a sustainable way.

At work, I recently had a chance to talk to six people; one from Uzbekistan, one from Kyrghistan (sp?), two from Myanmar, one from China and one from Japan. We talked about the percentage of farmers compared to whole pop. in their home countries. In almost all (except for Japan) it was about 60-70% farmers. Japan was about 10% (professional, but up to 30% -40% if you include hobbyists). Isn't the case for the USA about 1-2%?? (Professional that is) Almost all the people (only not the one from Japan) said the farmers didn't only use tractors but also horses and oxen for working the land.

For many people the suburban way of life has been a delicious fantastic dream, the endpoint of economic evolution, the goal, as it were. The US managed to attain it for a huge number of people. By making farmers few and far between! But farmers will have to make a comeback and they'll have to do it where there is rain and good soil, same as always. It is possible to clear developed land and reuse it for food production. I'm sure that is what will happen, but slowly in the USA. All over the world people are using far fewer FF inputs and living very decent lives--lives that won't be upended by the withdrawal of oil. Of course I don't include Japan in that category--it will be drastically changed. But waiting for the bus 30 minutes here is not a problem here, at least. :)

You are not being harsh, you are just not answering the question " why will a post FF world be a low energy world?"
You have given a very good illustration of why most cities cannot move 100% of the population by mass-transport. The suburban rail system of Sydney has train stations within 2km of suburbs build before 1960 with a few exceptions. In the past most people walked to stations now a higher proportion drive and park and an even higher proportion drive to their destination. This is not the issue, this is what we have now, at peak oil. The issue is what will people do in 20 years time when no oil is available?
You are proposing that people will abandon their homes in the suburbs. Apart from the unavailability of accommodation in city cores and the need to travel to suburbs for employment, isn't it more likely that people will:
1) walk up to 2km to train stations ( where available)or continue to drive to nearest train station even if that requires parking 1km from station and walking the rest
2) drive up to 100km per day in an EV( 50 km each way) with re-charging at place of work.
In 20 years time we would expect 50% of population to be working and if 50% of those are in suburbs(25%total) and 50% of those have to drive because of distance to rail or bus, that's 12.5% of population driving say an average of 60km a day. At 0.16kWh/km this would require about 8kWh or an average of 1kWh for the entire population. Since US and Australians consume about 30kWh per day, this would be an increase of 3% in electricity consumption. Another way of looking at it is that those unlucky EV commuters would have to pay $1-1.5 a day extra electricity. To protect a $300,000-1,000,000 suburban investment even spending $20,000 more for an EV than an ICE vehicle seems a good trade-off especially since ICE vehicles will not have any fuel.

At today's costs for steel and labor that extra 8kWh/day is going to require about 1000watts extra wind capacity at a price of $3,000 a kW so a $3,000 investment($400 per capita). So are you saying that people will abandon suburban homes because they either won't walk a few km or society will not make an additional $400/capita investment in wind energy so that they can continue to drive( and suffer traffic jams)??

As I said, if their is some other major limitation why suburban dwellers will not be able to continue using a mix of mass-transit and or EV transport please tell me what it is!

Look a functioning suburbia requires basically Business as Usual. This concept of suburbia somehow surviving by partially providing food does not make a lot of sense. I can't see that being the problem. If its BAU then I really don't see the problem with using EV's they will be expensive to some extent but they would work.

So if we don't have problems then I can't see any real reason for big changes in suburbia. The only thing at this level that seems sensible is that the overall direction of migration would probably tend towards the inner core not outward expansion.

Now the next case if if there are problems then what ?
I'd suggest that ports and rail are important along with agriculture and manufacturing i.e the basic economy. Two of the three important industries are generally located in urban areas or the inner suburbs. The economic ramifications for suburbia are huge under these conditions. How do you make your mortgage payment ? How do you heat your home how do you make your car payment etc etc. What are the job skills of most suburbanites ? This biggest problem suburbia would have is maintaining the valuations of the homes.

Next I don't disagree that food would become important in this scenario but this suggests that real agricultural land and larger exurban/rural farm would become valuable. To some extent the land under suburbia in certain place becomes more valuable then the structures. This series of post makes a whole lot of assumptions almost all are very shaky but taking them as true simply results in we need EV's i.e thats the only problem that has to be solved.

We could speculate on how the demographics would change over the future but it would be a slow process and not all that relevant to all but the youngest people alive now.

Bottom line is growing a garden in your backyard is not solving any real problems. If its actually needed then suburbia along with everyone will be facing other much harder problems if its not then a simple introduction of EV's is sufficient.

Underlying this of course is the simple fact that our modern society has gotten so complex and intertwined it basically either functions or it does not.

Stable partial failure such that food from a backyard garden is needed yet everything else functions reasonably well is simply a fantasy. These are non-problems. This has nothing to do with growing a garden being a good thing just its simply not the primary problem you would need to solve. If your having food shortages would you have water, sewer, electricity heat etc etc. Money ?

I'd suggest that if water and electric supplies became erratic then suburban homes are not a good place to be.

You only have to visit a 3rd world country to see that societies can continue to function with erratic services. Jeffvail's point was that if electricity and water supplies become erratic suburbs are good places to live because you can collect rainwater, generate some electricity and if you have an EV have a back-up supply if power is interrupted as occurs once or twice a day in many countries. In the Soviet Union collapse, vegetable gardens helped many get through temporary food shortages.
I am not sure why you think totally replacing FF with nuclear or renewable energy is BAU, or why you think any advanced industrial society would not be able to devote a few % of their resources and manufacturing capacity to build up nuclear and renewable energy over the next 30-50 years. The US could manage a very high living standard on its present nuclear and renewable energy, way in excess of the energy used by most nations.

If you thesis is society is going to totally collapse and therefore be unable to invest in renewable energy, then lets examine what we could do with 3,000 kWh per person per year that comes from nuclear and renewable sources, rather than the 11,000 kWh available today. That's about 24 kWh per household per day, enough to keep the fridge, lights, charge the EV and keep a very well insulated (high Canadian or EU standards) home warm, but not enough for running cloths dryers, plasma TV's, A/C, Christmas lights, electric ovens etc .

Even in the 1930's depression, 70% of the US working population was employed, and a lot of renewable energy infrastructure was built, so surely some additional wind and solar energy capacity will be built in the next 20 years. In the last year US house prices have declined 11% not 90%, and more than 60% of the entire population is working, with 6% unemployed not 30%unemployed.

I don't think using statistics for today to talk about tomorrow is a good move. And btw its now 8% unemployment not 6%. Given you then go on to use the Soviet Union collapse as and example and I'd suggest you also look at Argentina I'd argue that the economy in both places broke down almost completely so during the collapse phase when growing your own food is and issue you would be looking at high unemployment rates approaching 25% or more problems with industrial production etc.

Given the underlying problem is intrinsic and global this time not a financial collapse of a single nation but and even thats effecting the world one would argue that restarting industrialization would be difficult.

No one comments at all on the fact that most of the suburban housing rings mega cities which themselves would have serious problems. The assumption of 1/4 a acre for yards is a poor one and the soil quality is highly variable on average most suburban yards would need significant work to make the soil decent.

Assumptions are made about rainfall patterns that are not true for most of the country. The desert cities in particular but cities like Denver and Salt Lack city could easily have water problems.

I don't see that suburbia in the general sense is all that survivable its very much a case by case basis.
Areas where suburban houses happen to have large yards on good soil and with the correct growing conditions may be ok but its not a universal. And even here it really depends on the yard many suburban houses are built on rocky hillsides for the view. These concepts do nothing to address the problems of Phoenix for example or the social ramifications of the entire population of Phoenix heading out of the desert.

And last but not least whats being presented is micro-farming if this is the route you think you need to take to survive the ups and downs of peak oil then it makes far more sense to focus on procuring several acres of land in a good location. In your Russian example the wealthier Russians had small Dacha's in the country side. These exurbs became the food source. However Soviet Russia had problem with its food supply.

This is a good link.


But understand neither Argentina or the USS has the sprawling suburbs that the US has.
I'd not take there experiences in true rural countryside and try and assume that the match with suburban sprawl.

And last but not least the assumption is that the suburbs will be better than the cities. If you read the Argentine article then the conclusion for me is Suburbs have all the problems of both the country side and the city. You get the worst of both worlds. It would be effectively impossible to protect your garden and say chickens from being raided plus all the service issues of the city.

My best guess is that if times actually got bad enough that a suburban garden was important then what we would see is thugs moving through suburbia looting. I'd have to guess that the fire department might not be fully functional esp if there was a water outage this would mean large devastating fires could readily develop burning down large sections of suburbia. This used to happen in the 1800's.


Of course discussing issues such as the potential for suburbia burning to the ground if we have problems interferes with with the intent of these feel good articles.

And would I live in suburbia ?

Would I live in the city ?

The best place to be under theses conditions is a real small town surrounded by fields or a farmstead.
The town can and will take over enough fields to feed itself.

If I had to live in suburbia then I'd live next to the golf course or other "green space".
Same for that matter if I lived in a small town I'd not buy less than 1/2 acre even in a small town.
Generally 1 acre lots are fairly readily available in these small towns so its not a huge issue.
At the moment people with large lots still are drinking cool aid and claim they are subdivable.
So they are overpriced I think this will come to a end this summer and prices will drop. The same is true of course for small acreage everyone still thinks they have the land for the next subdivision. But prices are starting to fall esp as subdivision developers are starting to unload lots.

If I actually owned a suburban house and read the oildrum I would have put a foresale sign on it the moment I figured out what was up. The best thing you could do with a suburban home would be to have sold it years ago and moved to the country.

if their is some other major limitation why suburban dwellers will not be able to continue using a mix of mass-transit and or EV transport please tell me what it is!

As noted earlier in this thread, Suburbia has about twice the electrical use/capita, many more square meters of road to maintain/capita (asphalt is just diesel that needs a bit of upgrading), more meters of electrical wire, water & sewer lines (that require pumping energy).

Services, from mail to plumbers require much more energy/oil to deliver.

As Suburbia starts to empty, the burden of supporting an aging infrastructure will increase on each of those that stay.


There is a another option between car pooling and public transportation. The private transportation industry can provide mini-bus shuttles in areas and during times of day as required.

I can operate an 18 passenger mini-bus at a good profit for $1.85 per mile (gas at $2.30/gal). A 50 mile round trip run between a suburb and downtown locations would require me to make $92.50. If you expect the mini-bus to average a 50% load factor, that's a one way fare of $5.14 for up to 25 mile ride. At that price point you can use flat rate pricing regardless of where you are picked up and dropped of on the route. If you double the price of fuel that only adds $14.00 in operating expense for the 50 mile trip.

This pricing allows a run to make up to 4 scheduled stops in the suburb and 4 stops downtown. The incremental expense to add an additional stop is just a few dollars, but you do need to be aware of how quickly those extra stops increase the commute time. These numbers can vary based on traffic conditions, but they are reasonably accurate.

True, on a fuel cost per passenger mile, this is nowhere near what trains can achieve. But remember, this is a supplement to trains so the commute system can work for the majority of people. You need to combine their expenses to get a true overall sense of fuel cost per passenger mile for the system.

You are balancing price and frequency. If you want higher frequency (convenience), the price goes up as load factors go down. Add in flex time hours at work and the system can become even more efficient. You need to spread out the peak travel hours in order to improve utilization of equipment. Trains and mini-buses are not cheap.

You can do even better than you indicate if you combine mini-buses with modern cell-phones and computers in a tightly integrated way:

It works best at high densities, but even without that it could still do far better than what we normally associate with public transport.

What history seems to tell us is that despite the 12,000 square foot lot sizes, suburbia is still too dense to be a viable living arrangement without fossil fuel subsidies.

However, if parts of suburbia can densify, then other parts can de-density.

And surely nobody would seriously suggest that energy "requirements" under our current energy gluttony bears any close connection to actual energy requirements. Swap out cars for bikes, e-bikes and electric carts to a stop within 10 miles on an electrified transport grid, build stacked townhouse residences and commercial/retail/professional within a half mile of the stop and retrofit existing oversized suburban housing to two and three unit housing, focus on truck gardening close to the village and staple agriculture both in the local hinterland and in the farming areas through which the rail runs ... a development track to cutting the ecological footprint per capita in the US to below the 4.7 hectares per capita biocapacity is not a Herculean undertaking.

It would be a massive change from the current track, but not exploring totally new ground by any stretch of the imagination.

The water part of the equation is not as straightforward as simply the average amount of rainfall per year. Gardening requires water at the right time and in the right amounts. To capture enough water to compensate for periods of relatively little rain that allows enough for the garden and domestic use will require a substantial storage container on the order of a thousand gallons. Certainly doable with advance planning and resources, but how many people will accomplish this in time?

Another concern, and one I'm not at all familiar with, is garden pests and disease. A high density of suburban gardens, all growing the same items, would seem to be at a high risk of some types of crop failure from time to time. I know pesticides is not anyones favorite word, but without them how will crop yields be affected? Yes, I know their are some organic solutions, but the density of the gardens and the increased variety of plants will change and limit their effectiveness.

As a reader pointed out earlier, food storage is problematic. Mason jars and pressure cookers will be like gold. Growing enough calories on an annual basis will only work if they can be available at the right amount throughout the year.

Perhaps the biggest problem will be theft. And gardening on the scale of providing the majority of food required for an individual is labor intensive, needs annual seeds, and requires substantial knowledge. There will be a percentage of people that lack one or more of those requirements. I think we can assume that those who can successfully garden will be supporting one person for every one person in their own household, whether they like it or not.

I don't bring up these points to be pessimistic. I'm just saying there are a ton of unanticipated problems that will radically affect how well suburban gardening will meet everyones needs. We know the best case scenario. There won't be any pleasant surprises. We simply don't know where we will really end up when all the unknowns are factored in.

"Another concern, and one I'm not at all familiar with, is garden pests and disease. A high density of suburban gardens, all growing the same items, would seem to be at a high risk of some types of crop failure from time to time. I know pesticides is not anyones favorite word, but without them how will crop yields be affected? Yes, I know their are some organic solutions, but the density of the gardens and the increased variety of plants will change and limit their effectiveness."

It is industrial agriculture's practice of monocropping that created the pest and disease problems in the first place. Diverse crops grown in a healthy, diverse ecosystem do not require pesticides. Mother Nature keeps the pests in balance all on her own. For every pest, there is something else (probably many something elses) that feeds on that pest, keeping its population in check. When suburbia converts to thousands of small-scale farms, we just need to avoid making the same mistake twice. (Not that humanity has much proven ability to learn from past mistakes....)

Utopia in Decay

Kevin Cherkauer

Rotation is also needed.

My father goes to extraordinary lengths not to grow tomatoes on the same ground for a 6 year rotation. Plant viruses are his concern.

Also, two sets of stakes (odd & even years), clear dead vegetation, etc.

Difficult on many Suburban lots.


Alan If I was a school teacher I would get every student to write an essay on vindictiveness.
I would especially demand they iterate the poison that vindictiveness creates.
I think it is THE most abhorrent, damaging and exclusive human trait.

The person who continually down-rates you has a problem me thinks.

But if three or four suburban lots are pooled, not nearly so difficult ... which gets back to the idea of suburban share-cropping, where instead of one landowner and a large number of share-croppers, you have one share-cropper with the expertise, and multiple landowners receiving a share of the crop in return for use of the land.

Good post.
It looks like a suburban population density can be sustainable in food. You use 2.56 people on a quarter acre or
6500 people per square mile which is actually quite high for a suburb. In WW2 victory gardens provided 40% of vegetables consumed.

Our agriculture is much more productive per acre today so we certainly could produce far more then 50% of our food on suburban land.
Another advantage of suburban grown local food would be a reduction in transport energy
The problem with the urban solution is problem of FAR, the floor area ratio of floor area to site. Any area where the FAR is over 2 is too crowded.
Americans at 56 m^2 per person don't live as concentrated as Japanese do at 18 m^2 per person. This suggests that solutions like packing people into multistory housing and shuttling them about in mass transit won't work with Americans.
High rise housing is very expensive to build $75/SF vs $50/ SF for low rise and maintain and is only justified by the high price of land.

The mass transit rideship in US is about 10% except in superdense NewYork City where it is 30%.
The per capita VMT in US cities is only slightly less than suburbs--for example the model city of Portland the VMT/person is 7200 miles per year/person compared to the national VMT average of 9000 miles per year per person.
By comparison the VMT in Japan is ~3000 miles per year per person. It is interesting to note that a city like Tokyo is so densely populated that mass transit is necessary just to keep air quality tolerable.

The question is can suburbia survive then?

As I have stated in the past. I was born in the country and raised on a farm/farms in the country back in the 30s and 40s.

I lived in the suburbs as a teenager and then during some of my married life. I tried to grow gardens there.

In the 70's as I moved around with my company I then decided to always live on a farm. I did. A couple of them. Then I brought my last farm and live here now. I have gardened on it ever since as well as farmed it. Over 100 acres of it.

Now having said all this I would point to Solomon's "Gardening When It Counts" book as answering the very question of can someone make enough food in a suburban garden. He gives plot sizes,nutrients and all of that. He has already done the work and made the calculations.

So its (his opinions and research) likely not very possible due to many many factors that most suburbanites and now many farmers are simply not aware of and do not have the capacity to utilize even if they did and were aware.

The land without I-NPK is not going to make it and even if that were available it still depeletes and destroyed the soil. One must revert then back to what was actually practiced back in the very early 1900s.
Massive use of manures,composting,cover crops,fallowing,moving the garden spot as insect infestations and soil diseases reduce the same used plot...and the list goes on and on and on.

Also there must be a governing body, working utilities, like water and sewer. Tools available,manure available...well its just not something that can happen in suburbia..Not enough room,not an infrastructure that supports it,etc.

There are many excellent very old sources of exactly how this was done but they are out of print and the writers were snubbed and in many cases driven and forced out of academia and shunned by the upcoming power of the new movements. Its all recorded history.

Look at the biblography of the Ebook that Solomon contributed to the Gutenberg Project. It is replete with many examples of what I cite.

That old technology was long ago pooh poohed vigorously. Rodale is a sterling example. Howard and so on.

I am afraid that it will be doomed. Too much concrete and too much blacktop for too far too many people.

In N. St. Louis County the Florrisant Valley was some of the very best and richest soil in that area. I lived there for 20 some years and watched farms destroyed so crackerboxs could be erected. All the land was junked out. It was a shame. Its gone and won't return.

Other areas of superb farmland gone now and not to come back.

The work is hard but beneficial. The land must be friable and it must not be depleted. Where will the ingredients needed to create a viable soil come from? No manure and no free debris. Also the simple technology to improve the soil is long ago lost and destroyed by the huge conglomerates.

I had a family and now they are scattered but one thing they will NEVER do it return to this farm and work the ground. They would prefer to die in place first. Besides they surely do NOT have the skills nor the attitude nor the desire. It is totally wiped out and they lived with me on the various farms up til about 18 yrs ago. They NEVER joined me in the garden or in the fields.

IMO it just isn't in the cards. Were we back in the 60's or maybe even the 70's many young people were crying out for 'back to the land'. Not the same now. If it were that time frame we might have a chance. Even then the hippies gave up once they seen the necessary work.

Airdale...the books are still there if they can be found,the research is in those books but well everything else is down the rabbit hole.

One final point to add. Without farm animals that produce manure I don't think improvements to maintain the soil will be there. I believe it was Howard who did a on the scene study in India called Indore (composing?)that with the aid of draft oxen and the supply of means of maintaining the soil he would not have been able to make it work. This was for the time when they had no I-NPK and masses of people to grow foodstuffs for. His work was superb in the methodology of this. Its all recorded. Its for sure that suburbanites would not go down in those compost pits and fork over the night soil,animal manure and other debris. I think those women who go to farm auctions and buy up all the 'country trivia' would prefer to die first before actually getting their hands dirty. I just returned from one of those auctions. It was near a college town. I laughed, I cried, I watched in amazement at their antics. I came away knowning that a farm painting was as close as those types would ever get to the reality of a real farm.

So without those animals, mules,horses,cattle,sheep and chickens? It won't get too far. Can't.

Editted for one last point. As the net breaks down, and it surely must , and those old,old books in the libraries molder away then all that previous experience and studies in those books with cease to exist and then we will have a very very hard time relearning what took many many long years to achieve ,study and author. Long gone..so when I find some I put them on my laptop and on thumb drives and/or burn onto CDs.

With a solar panel I think I can keep my laptops running and perhaps print a lot off as well. I have reams of this survival data already archived. Have been doing it for maybe 3 years or longer. I even have very old books I have rescued in farm auctions that depict such arcane subjects as "animal husbandry"....lots of them.And even some the US government printing office produced before the demise of the past technology as it being dismissed as worthless and outdated. The land grant collegs and universities have been partially to blame for todays nonsense via their extension agents,programs and literature.

I think it's not so much a matter of having farm animals to poop and pee on the land, as it is avoiding the carrying-off of NPK to the city to be flushed down the sewer, and then into the river and the sea. When we can close that open cycle, the land will start to recover.

Airdale, your insistence on compost and manures show that you really need to read some of Masanobu Fukuoka's books. He was successful without all that shit (I use the word advisedly). His books are available free online.

Mamba, I don't think that Fukuoka's other book was called, 'How to Grow Hair on a Billiard Ball' any more than he was talking about the dirt and stone piles, that Suburb lots often consist of, when he talks of his excellent agricultural methods.

Airdale, good stuff!

On my quarter acre I have brought in two twelve yard truck loads of cow manure as well as another half load of chicken manure and spent the past 8 years allowing the property to reach a point where natural process are working, don't have infestations of things like at first ... now everything eats everything else! I hope now, to be doing things without additional imports, to keep the fertility I am now experiencing, such as under planting with clover.

Have you noticed when looking around flea markets that there are few solid tools of the old variety and most of the goods for sale are plastic junk.

Yes Ignatz..the tools are junk. The seeds are not too viable. The transplants are prone to diseases and virii. This is the money interest of the companies that supply us the plantings. Again Solomon stresses this.

The Japanese guy? Talking about 'straw' then? I read some of his stuff.

Its not my background. I think he is still into compost but maybe a different paradigm.

Raising gardens for 40 years gives you a perspective that those here on TOD with a postage stamp sized intensive garden in their backyard are not aware of and won't be either.

BTW Solomon warns that intensive practive is not very wise. He tried it and wrote three books on it but went extensive afterwards.
For many good reasons.


Extensive is great Airdale, but my neighbours would complain I think as they are into grass, the wrong kind - lawns!:)

No way one can really grow all one needs, sustainably, on a quarter acre, (as well I have a few ducks but I have to bring in feed for them and I wouldn't even suggest a goat or cow) but if one can offset their total needs by a good percentage it's a start. I'll try to get hold of the Soloman book you mention, thanks.

I used Johnny's Seeds this last year and got very good results. They are a seed grower, you likely have heard of, that grows for commercial operations but sells the same seeds in smaller packets. That means that they test and state the rate the germination of the seeds they sell . Lots and lots of open pollinated and extensive organic list to chose from.

It is not that overwhelming--
I grew almost all the vegetables consumed in a year for 2 people in less than 100 square feet. I live in Marin, and can grow year around (I currently have chard, kale, broccoli, onions, mustard greens, collard greens and even some very late tomatoes.
I supplemented this with fruit (plums, apples and pears) from abandoned farms. I also collect mushrooms and surf fish.
I don't know if this model will work as the desperate proletariat also starts foraging, but at the moment, most cannot identify a edible mushroom, and have a phobia against harvesting them.
I dry most of the fruit for future use, and dry veggies for winter soups and stews.

Glad your safe in Marin of course you have people south of you that have problems like this.


Rainy season floodwaters from the streets of Los Angeles are particularly toxic and have created pollution problems along the beaches following heavy storms.

I'll be sure to tell them about your garden and mushrooms when they head up your way.

I just spent a week in Laguna Beach among the blissfully ignorant, but the view was great.
Even the bewildered herd at this point knows something is wrong, but the story and myth that forms their reality is a little off.
I collected a full pack of oyster mushrooms today, so the invading barbarians better hurry.

An adult human averages 100 watts of food power. Photosynthetic efficiency is at most 10% (we're assuming optimal algae growth here). Temperate climate insolation averages around 100 watts/m^2. So, assuming you can grow algae optimally and consume algae's total caloric content with 100% efficiency, you need 10m^2 per person.

Adjust from this lower bounds on land area to reality.

BoingBoing pointed to this today:

War Vegetable Gardening and the Home Storage of Vegetables

There is a link to the free PDF scan of the book in the upper right panel.

Good book. Just add war.

Or add financial crisis, PO, etc

Some observations about the suburbs and agriculture.

Much of the best land in the nation, and for many nations, including China, is permanently buried under suburban shopping malls, housing projects, streets, and highways. Manual irrigation and natural fertilizer are not practiced.

Most areas depend on diesel/electric power irrigation from aquifers that are now yielding less water. Most areas now experience droughts, and global warming will make droughts worse in the future for most of the US and Europe (see this website, learn to use it, don't go to the country, rather work the left side and click to focus on an area: http://globalis.gvu.unu.edu/. You can find precipitation changes for any area in the world to 2050 and 2100. Most areas will get less rain :(

We get 2 meters of rain a year here where I live/tropical farm at 4,000 feet altitude, with no droughts. Drought occurrences are not given on Globalis, you have to research that elsewhere), and according to Globalis, where I am we will get more rain as time goes on :). Central America sounds great, except there are bad droughts that cut back on agricultural production for some years every so often.

Even if folks had all of the farm stuff in a 1890 Sears catalog and knew how to use it, most would/will die off fast, within a year after the last power blackout. The suburbs don't provide the soil, rain, fertilizer, and irrigation to sustain many people.

A good friend reminds me that a diet of veggies doesn't provide sufficient calories. You need grain, potatoes, and fruit for calories. You can grow your own fruit and potatoes, but wheat is a real challenge.

In most cold areas, people will not be able to cut and move firewood easily and will spend an enormous amount of time at that task alone.

Making clothes with no cotton/synthetic fabric will be a challenge also.

It looks like tough sledding, and most folks won't make it. A lot more could, but very few are preparing for the reality of Peak Oil.

Peter Goodchild writes much about the reality of Peak Oil:



Cliff Wirth

You raise excellent points. There will be great difficulties.

The problem lies in assuming it will all happen at once. It won't. We'll have a tough time of it, but I think the process will take long enough for us to adjust.

Give me a good strong EMP high enough above the continental USA, and I can see the scenario you paint, happening. But oil declining over the span of several decades? No.

Jeff, your analysis here seems to depend almost entirely on lot size and roof size -- not much else that is specific to suburbia. So all that you are really talking about is land and roofs. But what makes suburbia suburbia are the particulars.

The key one is dispersal, lack of density and concentration. That's why cars are required and bikes and walking are rare. That's why malls have displaced neighborood shops. That's why travel to work requires a car. That's why even buses are ineffective. That's why facilities are not readily shared, e.g. laundries, neighbor reading rooms, pocket parks, etc.

It is also what permits and encourages extravagance -- huge boxes consuming huge amounts of junk. It is why you have isolation, fragmentation, disempowerment.

The suburbs need to contract, densify, go up a few floors, consolidate land into pieces of various sizes to be worked by the community in some cases, or returned to forest as parks. One suburb might contract into several villages, each dense, each walkable, each somewhat self-sufficient to some extent in basics. Public transport between villages now become practical. The overall consumption of material resources is but a fraction of the dispersed model. Each of these small towns has the potential to build community and joint responsibility for its own well-being as well as collaborating with neighboring villages. That sense of community may well fulfil some of the needs that mindless consumption currently pretends to.

I live in Jersey City (37 years), right next to Manhattan. I have no illusions about the long term sustainability of NY or even Jersey City as presently constituted. What do we produce that will be of real value in a world with far less energy? What need for a so many paper pushers? I have no illusions about that.

I'm with Kunstler (mostly) on the suburbs. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. My adult years have all been in the city. Neither is ultimately sustainable.

Good points, Dave. As I'm reading this, I see that you're "downrated" to "-1" (that may change, as I'm about to hit the up button). I can't really figure that out--just my two cents, but I don't think posts should be downrated because someone disagrees with you, especially as you simply lay out your opinions in a non confrontational manner.

Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head with the problem of the suburbs--they're full of suburbanites who aren't comfortable with even imagining the kinds of changes that peak oil will bring over the long term. I think the same thing is largely true of cities. Suburbia will, in my opinion, be quite sustainable, but it will not be the same experience that current suburbanites expect and want (the same, I think, can be said of cities in the future). Personally, while I recognize the dangers presented by peak oil, I'm encouraged by the *potential* opportunities to reconnect to a more authentic, higher-quality life. Some people will laugh at that (and I'll be interested to see if it results in this commend being down-rated!), but so be it.

As for roof size and lot size--good points. I did largely focus on that in this post, but you're right that the real issue is the people inside the boxes. I think the size and uniform distribution of those boxes in suburbia presents a uniquely promising lattice structure upon which to build something new--I get the impression (probably my fault) that people think I'm suggesting that we try to maintain what we currnently have. Not so. I also agree that the longer term suburb will probably evolve into a more clustered environment. It won't look like Tuscan hill towns or Cotswald villages, but I think it has the potential to caputre a similar spirit. Maybe I'm just delerious and trying to avoid drafting an answer...

I had no idea what that number with the arrows meant!

I think that you have a very well thought out argument as to how suburban homes could be self-sufficient. In general we need to start finding alternatives to our daily norms, replacing oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources with more efficient, low cost and better alternatives. Shifting from a completely dependent society to one that can self produce 50% or more of its basic needs is a very good alternative. It certainly wont be an easy transition, many people will struggle with it. The end result is well worth the hardships required to make the transition. One obvious but simple effect is an improvement to the environment. By switching to a more self-proficient suburban living area we can help cut down the amount of waste that is sent out every week.

Jeff, good one. Glad to have you here. Stirred the pot for sure, Chuckle. The responses are all over the map. I live in a town incorporated in 1787. The town has 44 people per square mile. 412 houses.
The deer and turkey population is higher than the human population. Catbird seat. I can stand back and sit and watch from here as it all goes to hell. The original cart paths got widened a bit, and paved but they can go back to cart paths just fine. I can't go to the general store without running into someone who could just as well be called a master gardener. In reality they are builders, painters, cnas, plumbers, storekeepers, not many farmers or those that call themselves farmers. Farming just seems like it's part of life, feed the chickens before you go to work. Water them when you get home. I guess the rest of you are online while we're all doing that.

I think density has much to do with everything. Traveling to Mass to see my father is a case in point.
Even after 4 hours of driving south to get to Portland, the city proper is surrounded by open land and forest. 495 and there are still tracks of woods and farmland, but everything is closer. a hour more on and everything is sitting right on top of each other. My fathers place is exactly halfway between Boston, Mass and Providence Rhode Island. There, the houses are so close, you have to keep the windows closed in summer or you will be listening to your neighbors TV, or cell phone call. Windows all have the blinds down because you can see right into the next house. These people are obviously not going to make it. Water, you can't actually drink, and sewage are are city controlled and shaky. I stayed with him a week when my mother died and we lost water pressure 3 times, I see "at risk" in terms of density. Now, that density might just change as these areas become unlivable, and then actually swing back to a point where they can support people, just not as many.

And just a word, Alan, I support you. Just maybe not so strident on NO. I can tell when you heart opens. I understand, but grant that others may think differently. NO just came in as the highest crime rate in the country. I'm glad you like it there, and I'm the same way, I would not give up my turkeys pecking at the windows for food if the those damn black helicopters started firing. I'd actually fire back.


Don in Maine

Completely different way to put it but I think we are both saying that the MegaCities and their suburban rings are not viable.

You bring up Portland Maine.

Its a good example of a viable urban center.


Good port surrounded for the most part by significant agriculture and other natural resources etc. Suburban sprawl seems to be controlled and town centers
are possible in the suburban areas. I'd have to guess the lots are generally large in the suburban areas. Don't know Googling does not show extensive suburban sprawl.

This is a city that could readily transition post peak and a lot of the general suburban solutions that are in my opinion not general would actually work in Portland Maine.

Its only problem is it has Mass below it :)

"Its only problem is it has Mass below it :)"
Ahemm, ahhh.. just rumor of course, but I hear there might be plans to somewhat disable that big bridge on the new hampshire maine border.... Chuckle

Don in Maine


Sounds like you have a pretty nice situation!

In the end, I don't see my vision and Alan's vision as being mutually exclusive. If we only had 100 million Americans, and 1 or 2 billion on earth, the I'd likely be advocating for a re-ruralization. While I personally agree with what I take to be your sense of appreciation for the simpler things, for rural life, I don't know how easily Americans will adapt. That's one reason for my focus on improving the suburbs--thinking about our situation pragmatically, we aren't going to address the problem as a society in time to really pick our future vision, but the more extant, sustainable suburban homes that exist to serve as "atomized lifeboats" or examples to neighbhors, the better chance we may have of avoiding a true crisis...

Yup Jeff, as I said before "catbird seat" doing this reply on backup power as we have a big blow in maine tonite. I'm a product of the last big recession. Married, just got out of school, electronics, kid on the way.
I lived in Mass, and just as I graduated Rte 128, "High Tech Row" imploded. Job interviews were few and far between, and when I did get one I was competing with engineers with 15 years experience who had just gotten laid off. 20 or 30 of them. Pumped a lot of gas. Realized I'd listened to the standard pitch and was SOL. I also realized no one was going to help me, it was up to me to turn this around. So I took my life in my own hands. Bought and paid for property, more gas pumping and dish washing. Put enough by to put in a foundation for a small house, south slope full sized windows on the south side as well as a full sized door, capped it, and moved my family , now wife and 2 boys, into a hole in the ground with a hand pump. I do chuckle a lot now, men they are now and I listen to them talk to their young ladies about why there is a 2X4 in the outhouse, or about pig rodeos. They don't seem the worse for wear at all.

Never looked back.

Keep up the good work here Jeff.

Don in Maine

My biggest problem for back yard growing has been the amount of sunlight available.
At the moment I only have room for a container roof garden because I am living on a boat. I only get half a days full sunlight because of a large false acacia tree growing in the garden. I cannot cut this tree down without council permission.
In my previous house which had a south facing garden (Northern hemisphere) I also did not get a full days sunlight due to trees, fences and neighbours houses.
If suburbia is going to suport itself through gardening it will have to be a community effort, on a local and council level, with a lot of restructuring and a loss of privacy many will not want I think.

Growing your own food?

Current auction prices in the Netherlands:
- 100 kg of wheat: 12 euro
- 100 kg of onions: 4.50 euro
- 100 kg of potatoes: 7.50 euro

excl VAT & if you buy it directly from the farm.

If you spend 100 euro, you are set for a year. That's about $130.

The economics of growing your own food are about as sane as the economics of a hydrogen car.

I wonder how you keep the hungry folks from taking your hard earned harvest or mean folks from just trashing your efforts for fun or extortion? I think these effort presumes folks will behave themselves. If things get that tough I don't think they will. Nice idea, but if things are that bad your efforts may be more productive stealing from others. Hungry people might not act too humanly. Just a thought.

The economics of growing your own food are about as sane as the economics of a hydrogen car.

Do you attend these auctions and purchase your food directly from farmers? Many in the city have poor access to farms in the US as they are so far away. Once you add in gas and mileage depreciation, some trips end up saving nothing.

I live in a semi-rural area, so can easily buy from farmers, though they don't sell at wholesale prices unless you are buying wholesale volume. For example, I did purchase 100lb of wheat this year for $8.50/bushel. Small amounts of tomatoes are another matter entirely, as they are closer to store prices (though still much better tasting). So I grow those items that make the most sense for me to grow, though I am experimenting with millet, quinoa, etc.

I wouldn't compare home gardening to a hydrogen car; growing things can be easy, if one learns from others. Hydrogen cars don't sprout from the ground, and are orders of magnitude different in price.

Current auction prices in the Netherlands:
- 100 kg of wheat: 12 euro
- 100 kg of onions: 4.50 euro
- 100 kg of potatoes: 7.50 euro

The ability to feed your family when the hugely complex system supporting global food markets ceases to function: Priceless.

The ability to feed your family when the hugely complex system supporting global food markets ceases to function: Priceless.

Skipping a few math and econ classes in high school, getting scared into sci-fi on the internet and living your life in fear as a result: Priceless

I think rather than "Priceless," you meant to say that your economic theory ignores the externality values of self-sufficiency, decentralization, and simplicity. You generally need to get beyond high school economics to discuss non-internalized externalities in any detail.

It appears instead that you buy hook, line, and sinker the standard economic mantra of economy of scale and economy of place without considering the trade-offs necessary to achieve those economies. A good example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If that's the sci-fi world you choose to live in (where everything functions according to classical economic theory with no concern for unaccounted-for externalities--some of us call that "Star Trek"), I wish you luck...

One thing you have to concede about his point: there are huge disincentives for growing your own food.

The smartest thing to do is get your yard and the best nutrient levels, and and top soil if you can, then when TSHTF start growing your food. Just grow enough food now so that you know you can grow food. That's _exactly_ what I'm doing.

I agree.. I'd add to that it's worth considering planting fruit or nut trees now (and timber/fuelwood trees if you have a lot of space), especially if you're planning to plant a tree of some sort anyway.

it's worth considering planting fruit or nut trees now

Absolutely, carefully considering disease-resistance cultivars and their requirements for pollination, soil, climate, and water, primarily.

Presumably you are unaware that many in the US are already dependent on food banks to eat, so it is hardly science fiction.
The whole of society does not go into a very difficult food situation simultaneously, but increasing segments of it do as times get hard.

Here in the UK it is certainly conceivable that the economy will crash, just as Iceland's has.
Under those circumstances and with industrial agriculture dependent on many inputs, including imported ones such as oil and fertiliser at a time when foreign currency may be in short supply, then some concern for keeping 60 million people fed one way or another is perhaps wise.

The economics of growing your own food are about as sane as the economics of a hydrogen car.

Except that a hydrogen car costs $100,000 if you can buy one at all, while a packet of squash seeds sells for 50 cents. My guess is that about 50% of the current world population grows some of their own food (even if its' just an apple tree in the back yard) while essentially nobody drives a hydrogen car.
I think some people are talking about self-sufficiency, which makes no sense on a suburban lot (or anywhere else), and others are talking about supplementing purchased food where it makes practical sense (which is not the same as economic sense for everybody). My apple and peach trees in the backyard are beautiful to look at when blossoming or bearing fruit. Peaches cost $1.99/lb (pesticide treated price, organic is higher) at the store and I get 200 + lbs/year organic with basically no labor input except picking them (which is easier than going to the store and back). In the years my peach trees do not bear due to late froste,etc., I don't go hungry.
But I think the economics of my peach trees are excellent, especially compared to a money/time sink like lawn.
Same with herbs, which cost $10/lb at the store and grow like weeds.

Great topic, unfortunately it is a busy day today - wish I had more time to read all comments and dialogue with everyone. Instead, just a few random thoughts:

1) There is a continuum from dense urban neighborhoods (predominantly multi-family residences) to less dense urban neighborhoods (predominantly single-family residences) to suburbs to exurbs to rural small towns to villages to hamlets to rural homesteads. Much of what is being discussed here could pretty much apply to everything except the two extremes along this continuum (dense urban neighborhoods and rural homesteads). In other words, what we should pretty much talking about here are communities of single-family residences. It is this broader generalization to which I will address my remaining comments.

2) Jeff's is right that single-family residences do have a lot of mostly-untapped potential to produce considerable quantities of food, water, and energy - potential that is presently pretty much going to waste. We can quibble about exact quantities of percentages of "self-sufficiency, but the general point is valid.

3) It is probable, however, that most inhabitants of single-family residences are going to find it pretty hard to achieve "100% self sufficiency" in food production. This might be theoretically possible for many, but there are many practical obstacles for most (which several of you have already mentioned). I am not sure that "100% self sufficiency" is either a necessary or desirable goal for those living in any sort of community (as opposed to a rural homestead), even were it to be theoretically possible. People do have limited time, and there is an opportunity cost implied in devoting time to household food production vs. other possible productive activities. There are also economies of scale that can be achieved by larger-scale production of many foodstuffs by specialists. It seems to me to make more sense for residents of single-family household communities to focus on simply making the best productive use of whatever land they have available, and also making the best use of the limited time that they have available; they should then be prepared to depend upon others to supply what they cannot produce for themselves.

4) This, in turn, leads us to questions with regard to where those sources of supply for non-home-grown food are located. It seems to me that the degree of "self-sufficiency" of individual households is far less critical of an issue than is the degree of "self-sufficiency" of entire communities. Assuming the inevitability of fossil fuels rising in cost and gradually becoming scarce or unavailable at any price, the long-term survival of any community of single-family households is going to be dependent upon their ability to establish reasonably local sources of supply of whatever foodstuffs may be needed net of whatever individual households can produce. There is no single solution to this problem - each community is going to have to work out the right answer for itself. For example, a community located along a navigable river can afford to have the farmlands supplying its grains and other foodstuffs located quite some distance upstream, for the energy or financial cost of shipping bulk goods by water is inherently quite low. Other communities might need to their supplying farmlands located very close by. The production of perishable goods like dairy products generally need to be located close to consumers than does the production of goods like grains, which can be stored for a long time and transported economically for longer distances.

A big challenge, of course, is that the farther a community is toward the urban side of the continuum, less actual or potential farmland there is nearby, and the farther the foodstuffs that cannot be produced by individual households must be transported. This is why, given the changing realities of transport costs and possibilities, that rural small towns, villages, and hamlets are generally more advantageously positioned wrt food security than are suburbs and urban neighborhoods.

What I believe that this suggests is that, sooner or later, and in one way or another, exurbs, suburbs, and especially urban neighborhoods are going to have to come up with some way of bringing the existing green space (parkalnds, golf courses, etc.) within or adjacent to their civic boundaries into agricultural production, and of converting expanses of what will become vacant land (abandoned reseidential areas, vacant shopping districts, empty institutional buildings, etc.) into agricultural land. This latter task will not be easy, as it will require not just clearance of existing improvements, but also of reclaiming the land. There has already been much discussion upthread of the challenges that homeowners face in making the typical residential lawn productive; that is a piece of cake compared to what we are talking about here. Nonetheless, it must be done, and communities that wish to survive long-term must find ways to make it happen.

5) As for water, we all know about rain barrels and greywater systems. These will gradually work their way into the mainstream, until they become as common in the future as indoor plumbing is today. While this will be helpful, it will not replace the need for municipal water systems. There is more awareness now of the need for total watershed management to retard stormwater runoff and conserve groundwater resources. Sustaining, maintaining, and improving municipal water systems is a critical priority - it is one of our very few "must do" tasks.

6) As for energy, while we all like solar, I'm afraid that there are more insurmountable obstacles to its widespread deployment than Jeff has anticipated. For example, the percentage of residential roofs that are oriented on an east-west axis are unlikely to exceed 50%, and may well be considerably less than that. Others have noted that even houses with a south facing roof might have the roof broken up with dormers, etc. Many roofs are also shaded by large trees. It is not completely obvious to me that the shade trees must go for the sake of the solar panels; it wasn't that many decades ago that honeowners were being advised and encouraged to plant shade trees in order to minimize their need for air conditioning.

7) There are a number of energy solutions that lie in-between small-scale household energy production on the one hand, and large-scale, high-tech energy production on the other. For example, communities have large expanses of commercial, institutional, and industrial rooftops, all of which might be suitable for solar panel deployment. (Most of these roofs are flat, unlike single-family residences, and are also less likely to be shaded by trees, thus making placement of solar panels less of a problem.) Parking lots and other paved areas which cannot feasibly be reclaimed for agriculture are also good candidates for placement of solar panels. An article I posted on the Nov 24th Drumbeat mentioned a town in Spain that had started placing solar panels in municipal cemetaries. All of these community based solar panels can feed into the community grid, helping to make up whatever can't be supplied by household rooftops.

Wind power is most feasibly and economically deployed as a community-wide rather than individual household project. In addition to the greater efficiencies that can be obtained from larger-scale wind towers, any hazards associated with mechanical failure can be minimized by locating these away from residential districts. The agricultural lands mentioned above might be ideal locations for the co-location of wind towers.

One project that many communities should serious consider is to eventually move to district heating. There are some efficiencies that can be realized by running a larger-scale heating plant and delivering hot water or steam to nearby homes rather than having each home heated by its own furnace. Such district heating plants could be fired with wood or other biomass, or with biogas (methane) generated from agricultural & municipal waste. Any biogas that the community can generate above and beyond what it requires for its district heating plants could be made available to households for cooking or water heating (supplemental to whatever solar water heating they might have).

What I am talking about is not cheap, but is an order of magnitude less expensive than are the huge, high-tech, regional energy generation megaprojects that are frequently discussed here. They may be about the best that a declining economy can hope to finance.

All I have time for right now.

I live in the "railway town", outside London that Memmel describes in his post. However I have very little desire or need to travel into London by train. On average I do it about once a year, usually to have a night out at the theatre.

This town started to grow in the 1840s with the coming of the railway, and my house was built, on what was the outskirts, in 1907. I'm half a mile from the station and the town centre and that was probably the limit that most commuting folks were prepared to walk in the morning.

The area I live in was once orchards, and was sold for development in the 1880s. Most of the houses in my street are about 1000 - 1500 sq ft were built between 1880 and 1920, and are on 1/10th acre plots.

My back yard is 19' wide by 180' long aligned east-west. Tall hedges between my neighbours prevent it receiving much sun, so vegetable growing has been limited to a few potatoes, broad beans etc.

We have however a traditional corner-shop within 200 yards, which can supply perfectly adequate provisions, although the range is limited and the prices somewhat higher that the supermarket. There is also a farm shop 2 miles away, which sells produce from 25 local farms and is open 365 days of the year!


If we come to a deepening crisis, which begins to affect normal suburban lifestyles - I will form a collective with my neighbours, and actively invest in, and support the two stores described above.

Walking to the corner shop for a pint of milk or a newspaper provides a much needed break and exercise away from the PC keyboard. It's an opportunity to meet neighbours, and a break to the lack of social interaction that comes from working from home.

The two mile trek or bike ride to the farmshop is a great way of getting out of a lunchtime, and can be done without encountering any major roads. I'm considering investing in an electric tricycle, similar to those I saw in southern China this summer, as a means of extending my foraging range and load carrying capacity. Electric trikes (or bikes) use less than 10Wh per mile, compared to about 250Wh for a full sized EV, and solar pV recharging is a viable proposition, even in England.

Replacing supermarket food with locally grown produce still appears viable in this region. Certain dietary changes might be needed, but perhaps a little less meat and more fresh vegetables, legumes and fruit would be beneficial.

Supermarkets specialise in cheap food, globally sourced, but in a crisis their supply chain will breakdown, and prices rise. Perhaps it's better to spend a little extra on locally produced food now - so that a forced change in the economics of food production does not come as too much of a shock?

In essence, I'm attempting to return to some of the economic values, practised in this household 100 years ago. What percentages of income were spent on food and fuel back then? What is it like living through winter using the same number of BTUs per week that are contained in a hundredweight sack of coal? These are the "blow-softening" hardships that we should gain practice in now, in preparation for a possible future power-down.

I have returned to partial wood-fired heating, as back-up to natural gas, and I am working towards grid independence with a biomass fuelled generator. It's a real lesson in energy density, when you substitute the grid and gas main for firewood, and you realise the tonnage of wood needed to support even modest western domestic energy requirements.

I realise the limitations of my property and my skillset for producing my own food - so I will not even attempt it. However, there is a long way that we all can go to support those who know about food growing, processing and distribution.

Rather than "every man for himself" look to see who in your neighbourhood already has the right skills and contacts and support them. In exchange, you may have skills that you can trade.


The two mile trek or bike ride to the farmshop is a great way of getting out of a lunchtime, and can be done without encountering any major roads. I'm considering investing in an electric tricycle, similar to those I saw in southern China this summer, as a means of extending my foraging range and load carrying capacity.

Now take it to the next level.  Consider either supporting an electric-trike delivery service from the farm shop, or even starting one yourself.

Fantastic post !

The one problem I have with the smaller villages and hamlets is although they are secure in food they are insecure in the myriad of industrial products needed to maintain our existing infrastructure. Most have no manufacturing base at all.
Spare parts are probably a bigger issue longer term then food. And of course we have yet to show that food security will even be and issue.

Just using what I just said suggests that society would break down from lack of spare parts before food security became a issue.

Next I think its clear that longer term your 100% right in what your suggesting i.e assuming things hold together the move is to villages and dense small urban areas < 100k with farmland close to the cities. But it will take a long time to get there.

One other solution however that does work is simply to assume that substitution of EV's are sufficient along with Wind/Solar to maintain something very close to our current lifestyle. I'd suggest that if this is viable then our current agricultural process are viable and any shift to a village/small city/agri type solution would proceed slowly based more on changes in the social and financial systems. I.e we would go that way because we want to not have to. However a successful switch to personal EV's makes me wonder if we would ever make the social change. Its a bit of a catch 22 if we don't have to do it we probably won't if we are forced to do it the probability is that the system would collapse before a new version is created.

Partial collapse scenarios where we need to grow food in the suburbs yet have ample electric supplies and the ability to manufacture PV panels seem to be contrived feel good scenarios.

Your post seems spot on, Memmel.

As a proponent of EV's who has been following the technology fairly closely I think it is fair to say that they will not offer BAU, nor anything close to it, at least until the time-frame of 2020-25.
Certainly organisations like Toyota and Mitsubishi who are at the forefront of the technology do not expect to be producing very large numbers until that sort of time.

What they can do, together with their variants such as electric bikes, is offer a very fair, and much more clever system for getting about well enough, without being stuck in endless traffic jams or driving 5 miles for a pint of milk.

In this field as in much else France leads the way.
They have a multiplicity of schemes, which include the provision of several thousand cars which you can just pick up and go with in Paris.
In the more densely populated areas modern technologies can meet taxis to provide nearly the convenience of your own car much cheaper than a bus:

You are of course likely correct in your argument that a lot of things will be easier at higher densities than suburbs, but in the short run it should be possible to fudge things pretty well to keep most people from homelessness or slum-dwelling.

Shouldn't the comparison of suburb vs urban be made on a per-acre basis? For instance, if an urban area packs 1 million people into a 5-square mile area, and a suburban area packs 1 million people into a 50-square mile area, then shouldn't the comparison credit the urban area as having 45 square miles to do whatever is needed to grow food, provide energy, provide water, etc? It just seems that the assertion that suburbs could be more self-sufficient than urban areas is silly and irrelevant since it ignores the fact that the urban arrangement would leave enormous amounts of land free to be used in a highly efficient manner and who cares about the degree of self-sufficiency of the areas where people actually live? What will matter is overall efficiency and productive capacity.

Excellent points, and precisely what I'll be addressing in Part 4: the decentralized ownership structure of suburbia is a key to its future resiliency, and it's something that is destroyed if we "urbanize" inhabitants into a small fraction of suburbia and then use the remaining land for centrlalized production.

Thanks for the thoughtful article. My wife and I have embarked on a suburban ecovillage project that includes growing our own food, sharing tools and resources, work trade, co-op meat purchases, housemates, luring like-minded people to our community, etc. We're also both board members of our local neighborhood association.

In late 2006 we sold both our homes in California (talk about timing!) and were lucky to purchase a .4 acre "permaculture oasis" in Eugene Oregon. The list of food items we grow is extensive. My wife is a certified permaculturalist, master food preserver, and master gardener, and we work with the local permaculture guild to spread the knowledge.

We're located about 4 miles from downtown in "suburbia". It's somewhat of a joke compared the suburbs we were used to in California. The original subdivision had lots all sized .3/.4 acres. Unfortunately many have been divided into two lots, being zoned R2.

We've added 1.5kw of solar voltaic and solar hot water heating to the house. Currently we have two roommates sharing our 2,000 sq foot home, which is extremely well insulated. Our primary heat source is burning wood in our Revere fireplace insert and stove. Getting wood is not a problem, the city makes available log sections cut to fit wood stoves whenever it cuts down a tree, for free. Last year we rented a log splitter and in less than a day split 2 cords. In the summer we don't need any air conditioning.

Anyway, I feel pretty confident about the near term future. Our neighbors are curious and supportive, and we don't panic them with too much information or ideology. Mostly we just share our produce and eggs, and that wins a lot of respect.

Live in a village near Cambridge (UK). The garden is quite small, perhaps 1000ft square. Early this year I removed most of the ornamental trees and shrubs and put a variety of fruit trees in including apple, pear, plum, peach and hazel. Also kiwi, blueberry, and grape vines. Also cultivated beds and grew a range of vegetables. Have recently taken over a allotment plot about 10 minutes walk away.

trying to make best use of free fertiliser inputs. free horse manure, seaweed from diving trips, shredded paper from work, urine for liquid fertiliser, coffee grounds as slug repellant.

Locally free food aplenty. Blackberries, apples, mushrooms, sloes, hazels. Visits to allotment usually involve taking the airgun and perhaps one trip in 3 yields a wood pigeon. Considering trying squirrel if I really go survivalista! Locally I might do a bit of bunny bashing if I can get permission from the farmer.

On the energy side I have an extremely well insulated house. I have a large solar water heating system and as such have reduced my annual gas consumption to around 8000kwh. Electricity is about 3500.

Next years projects include:

Wood burning stove. One advantage I have is that most houses in the village do not have chimneys so waste wood is aplenty

Thinking about poultry for the garden especially if I get a full size allotment plot (my neighbour is waning)and can grow the feed. Also use slugs as good protein supplement.

Water recovery system: I am in the process of obtaining 2 IBC's which will hold 2000 litres. I reckon the roof takes about 40,000 litres annually

Electric back up. I have recently obtained 4 ex telecom exchange batteries (440ah) which will be an emergency back up for basic lighting / low powered PC. I have considered the option of buying PV but reckon the money is better spent on additional batteries. If supplies become intermittant blackouts likely in the winter when PV of little use. In the UK the people sinking their life savings into PV are a little niave - sure they will have loads of electricity in June.....

I too am in Eugene (North-East). Do you happen to know how to get on the city's list for wood delivery? Or is it a matter of finding the crew and asking for wood?

Thanks, sarbo

A few points, maybe I'm getting into this too late and I'll try again in Jeff's next post, but here goes:

1) Jeff should compare a self-sufficient suburbia with a self-sufficient city region. I've tried that partially, talking about energy here, and agriculture here.

The interesting transportation statistic is this: NYC uses about 1.8 billion kilowatt hours annually to power the subway. So multiply that a few times, to increase subway usage or electrify the buses so that you don't need cars for 8 million people, and you can see that if everybody lived in a city with subway/light rail, you would need maybe 10% of the current electrical generating capacity of the country in order to achieve personal transportation. Or do your own scenario. The point is, transportation in a dense city is orders of magnitude more efficient than in a suburb.

The agricultural point I tried to make -- using Jevons, as does Jeff -- is that you could put a farm belt around a city that would feed the city and the farmers, even if, as per Sharon Astyk, 20% of the population were farmers. That's because NYC stuffs 8 million people in about 300 square miles, so even if you devoted something like 6 times that area to farming, it would still surround the city in a pretty convenient way.

Second -- Jeff has completely disregarded manufacturing. You can't have a society without manufacturing. You could also put a belt around a city for manufacturing, and if you had a national freight rail network a la Alan Drake, you would have a sustainable and efficient system for trading and producing manufactured goods. Won't work in sprawl, especially if,

Third -- there's no oil. I don't know if you want to assume this, but that's where we're headed, so the attempts to cost out a transportation system with oil doesn't necessarily make sense. So this leads to the question of EV's. There's an interesting article in today's Washington Post about this, but suffice it to say that today, we have EV's that can go about 40 mph with a 40 mile range. Now workee for sprawl.

Fourth, cities have arisen throughout history because they are more efficient, and one of the efficiencies has to do with the control of violence. When society is not very stable, it's good to have a place to head when the barbarians are seen over the hill. I'm not sure how well suburbs will do if they have to carry a big police force, as they do now. Also, urban housing is more efficient in terms of heating/cooling because you don't have as much roof space per person

Fifth, manufacturing tends to have its natural home within cities, as jane jacobs fans might be aware, because the small distances give an advantage to city manufacturers in terms of supply and innovation. If transportation is expensive, manufacturing complexes will go to the cities, which is where the jobs will be.

Finally, I don't know that anybody mentioned the idea of "infilling", that is, trying to turn a suburb into a proper town by putting a town center into the middle of it somewhere. Frankly, I think that's the only thing that can save suburbia, because then you could have a wheel-and-spoke situation: the ev gets you to town, where there are some jobs/stores, and you can get into the city via rail. Going from suburb to suburb will not be practical.

Hi globalmakeover,
Your link to energy has made a few errors on electricity consumption in EV transport. The Chevy Volt has a range of 40miles( 60km) using 8kWh( 50% of the 16kWh battery capacity), giving 0.13kWh/km not 0.4kWh/km.
Since 40 miles is the average daily trip(20miles each way) why is not this a practical transport solution, 40mph means about 30mins each way.

Not much manufacturing industry is in high rise offices in center of cities, most is in suburbs or on outskirts of cities, so even if everyone lived in city core, most would have to travel some distance to manufacturing. Service jobs are where people work or shop or live, and as most jobs are service jobs they are in suburbs.

Electricity consumption in US and Australia is about 11,000 kWh per capita, assuming 50% of the people who work drive 40miles a day that's a per capita consumption of 2kWh/day or 500 kWh /year, about 5% of annual electricity consumption. Surely, just replacing electrical appliances and lights with higher efficiency over the next 20 years is going to give more than a 5% saving.

There are good reasons for using more mass-transit( traffic jams, less use of vehicles saves money) and reducing ICE use now will save oil for future use such as air travel, but the claim that the electricity grid would be unable to support the replacement of all ICE with EV is not supported by crude back of envelope calculations.

Neil1947, thanks for the comment. The figures I've seen for electric vehicles are usually in the 1/3 to 1/4 kwh per mile range, so 1/8th sounds a little low. In any case, the problem is that suburbs right now are not usually constructed in such a way that if you drive a reasonable distance (say, even 20 miles), you'll get to an efficient rail system that will take you anywhere you want to go, which means you won't have to go further than 40 miles. Since they're not built that way -- and your Walmarts, etc aren't built with transit in mind -- people want to be able to go hundreds of miles on one "charge".

Most jobs, to my understanding, are still in the cities -- although major parts of cities would probably be better characterized as suburban. For instance, Houston keeps swallowing up its suburbs, so much of Houston (or LA) is really suburban.

But people don't generally live near where they work. I happen to live a 2-minute walk from my job, in a town where I don't need a car (downtown Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago), so you don't have to be in NYC to be in a walkable community with no commute. But since people buy their houses, and houses are rarely near commercial areas, then a commute is all but assured.

Which brings us to manufacturing. Historically, much manufacturing has and could again occur "in town", although central districts are becoming much too expensive now. But I think the key here is the transit system. If you have a very efficient grid, and you have a manufacturing belt around the city, then it would be easy to commute to a factory.

Better yet, however, would be to have carless cities, which would make transport even more efficient within them, and would make manufacturing more practical (you would still need small trucks). Cars are ridiculously inefficient, right now energy-wise with ICEs but also inherently space-wise, and the space used for parking is another factor. You realize that every parked car is a waste of capital. Any factory that sidelined its equipment the way we sideline most of our transportation equipment each day would go bankrupt -- and funny, that's what's happening!

So the moral of the story, I think, is that we need to understand at a deeper level why cities always have been, and I believe, always will be the most efficient way for humans to live. As for suburbs, either transportation will be cheap enough for cars and trucks to survive in mass quantity, or they will have to centralize into towns connected to cities, or they will die.

On the one hand the post indicates that we need to grow our own food, presumably because highway transport is gone.

But yet all of the necessities for suburban agriculture, as well as heating, and clothes seem to be coming in on the highways???

I was chatting with my neighbor up the street here in small town Mexico who is a TOD reader from the U.S. too, and we noted that the veggie harvest from one year has to last a family through until the next fall harvest, and that you could root cellar store potatoes and carrots and hang/dry winter squash, but you will need a lot. Eating dry squash and taters day after day, yikes! Time to get a bunch of apple trees planted.

Any way you look at it, a lot of veggies and stuff will have to be stored to last approximately one year until the next harvest. I cannot even hazard a guess as to the amount of land you need.

Let's see 3,000 calories a day X 365 days = 1,0950,000 calories of vegetables, lots of a lot of carrots, potatoes, apples and veggies.

A potato has about 100 calories, so that's 30 potatoes a day X 365 days = 11,000 potatoes for one person. That's a lot of taters.

Shh. Be quiet your disturbing the deluded.

This is a feel good thread. Somehow we are supposed to have enough problems that everyone has to grow a garden in suburban paradise but yet they also get the rest of the food they need.

The only real value is it proved of my theories about why mankind is so messed up.

The Irish managed to eat mostly potatoes until the blight started decimating their crop. It only takes 1570 square feet of biointensive soil to produce a years supply of potatoes. You would probably want to throw is some cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, etc... If you don't have good soil potatoes grow in about anything so you might have to increase the square footage but you would have enough to eat. It has been done before and it will be done again en masse. Hopefully, we will have more diversity than the Irish.

I have enough clothes to last forty years. Hopefully, by then I can use my neighbors yard for some sheep.

Hey Goghgoner,

The potato blights will come and go and small populations will rise and fall, much like before the industrial age.

Hoarding some clothes is a good idea. But like your neighbors yard, there will prolly be plenty of spare clothes around, you just have to get them before ......................

Food - the optimistic yields suggested are for someone spending a lot of time in the garden, and someone with a lot of skill and knowledge. Even supposing everyone tried to get the skill and knowledge, it would still take some years to build it up. I have turned muddy patches of lawn and weeds built on cleared-away topsoil into productive garden, but it takes about 2-4 years and involves importing a lot of fertility (in my case, composting kitchen and garden waste). The skills take a similar time to develop, but I was interested, a less interested person would take longer.

It's better to assume that everyone will be just very ordinary gardeners, not putting a lot of hours in to learn about it. And with that, 4,000 sq ft or 370 m2 is still not bad. However, when you factor in that you need pathways and storage space you only get 3,000 sq ft. Add in that some people will have garden areas which face away from the sun, or high buildings and fences blocking out light, that some areas get extreme heat or frost, and the potential yield drops a lot.

In practice, what you find is that an ordinary-skilled family making some but not strenuous efforts can supply much of their nutrition from their own suburban yards, but not all their calories and protein. The bread and pasta and potatoes and rice will be bought at a shop, having been grown in the conventional high fossil fuel input way; but the oranges and tomatoes and carrots and basil and parsnips and so on can be grown at home.

It's worth remembering that the "quarter acre block" was specifically chosen by government planners as a size which would allow a family to grow a lot of their own food - but to grow the expensive stuff. Grains and tubers are usually cheap, it's the other fruit and vegies and herbs that can get pricey.

Water - I agree we can be self-sufficient in this. In my home state here in Australia, we have water problems. Domestic use averages, the government tells us, at 165lt/day, and we're being asked to get the average down to 155lt/day. That's not difficult for my own household, since we're already at 138lt/day total for and average of 2.8 people, or 49lt/day each.

Obviously have no swimming pool, and for cleaning your driveway and house, try a broom. Wash dishes by hand in a full and hot sink; if it's yellow let it mellow if it's brown flush it down; put in a water-saving showerhead and have 4 minute showers; do laundry only when the machine is full and then put on the lowest water setting; plug bath, shower and laundry sink and use the greywater for the garden; and so on.

Our roof on our two bedroom unit has an area of 110m2 - about half the size of the average suburban "quarter acre block" home. Annual rainfall used to be 750mm, but over the past several years it's been 496mm. That's still 54,560lt falling on our roof each year. Now, some of the rain is in amounts of less than a millimetre, so it won't flow. And when you have rainwater tanks, you need a "first flush" diverter - since the first few litres will have leaves and mud and so on. So you're looking at about 90% of what falls ending up useable.

So for a unit, the water is going to be just enough for frugal users even in relatively dry areas. With a house's extra roof space the water will be plenty.

However, while in principle I think everyone should have rainwater tanks, in practice it's not easy to do, because they're expensive.

Energy:- 20kWh/day is pretty generous. This must assume electric hot water heating, electric cooking, constant use of airconditiong or heating, etc. Realistically, what do you need for a comfortable life? I'd say about 7.5kWh/day.

Hot water - only needs to be as hot as you can bear on skin without any cold added. For a 135lt tank (all that's needed with 3x 4 minute showers daily), that's 4kWh/day.

Cooking - about half an hour a day with one element on average, that's 1kWh/day.

Refrigeration - we don't need ice machines and the like. A modern inexpensive refrigerator should be able to manage 1kWh/day.

Lighting - assuming the family has some communal activities, at most 2x 12W CFL on for five hours daily each, or 2x12x5 = 0.12kWh.

Entertainment - ignoring playing board games and the like, it seems reasonable to assume 2 hours a day each of TV (300W), computer (200W) and stereo (200W). This is 1.4kW.

Heating and cooling - these vary a lot, so I won't attempt to guess. I would however suggest that we use them a lot more than is really needed. Consider that the share of US households with central airconditioning rose from 27% in 1981 to 55% in 2005 [source, EIA]. What happened to that extra 28% in those 24 years? Where are the songs of their suffering, the ballads of their pain before aircon? Could it be that in many cases, aircon is not a necessity but a luxury?

In any case, for a normal 3 person household in a temperate area we ought to be able to achieve 7.5kWh/day.

In general, I am not a big advocate of solar panels on everyone's home. While it's a good idea in principle, in practice it's very expensive. I prefer to advocate solutions which anyone can try whatever their income, and whatever their level of skill. If some solutions like making raised garden beds might cost you some money at first, others like using less electricity or private transport will save you money, so that in the end you should come out ahead financially.

I am not so comfortable suggesting people shell out the better part of a year's wages for some solar panels. That to me does not seem a reasonable request. But if everyone were to reduce consumption, that would reduce the load on existing generation, allowing time to improve efficiency and infrastructure, and replace the fossil fuel generation with renewables.

Hi Jeff,

Excellent article! It clearly points out the potential for a sustainable food/energy cultural revolution.

Apart from pointing to other well known examples, it is also worth pointing out that even London has 60% 'green space'. Of course not all cities are like London, but it is an example that while some local biodiversity might suffer, if done in a permaculture type approach, miracles can happen.

Couple these efforts with the new science of
the Soil Food Web, along with the extinguishing of scatophobia preventing the proper recycling of nutrients, and no dig techniques, a radical new approach of increased sustainability begins to emerge.

And for all those doubting Thomases and stick in the muds, please explain how I have managed to supply myself with ample fresh salad and veg for the last six months for a few hours a week spent in the garden (some of which spent at night slug hunting!) Its not self sufficiency and doesn't claim to be, but it sure as hell has cut my food miles down!

The obsessive focus on calories and the desire for high protein intake from meat sources obfuscates the actual lack of fresh high fibre vegetables in most peoples diets.

Of course there is a need for grains - but considering that over a third of global grain production goes into livestock, with this figure rising to over two-thirds of local production in the developing world, it is obvious where a large proportion of it currently goes.

As for changing humankinds resistance to change - well there's a conundrum if ever there was one...