City, Country, Suburb? It's Not Where You Live but How...

This is a guest essay by Sharon Astyk, who posts on The Oil Drum as Jewishfarmer. Sharon recently published a book titled: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil: A Nation of Farmers. The below essay, (original here) approaches the age old "country/city" question from a unique perspective, that of 'adapting in place'. (if you have your own practical/solutions based essay you'd like to submit to the Campfire series please email the editors)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There are suburbs and then there are suburbs. I live in the Northeast in the suburb of a capitol city, it is the "next town" past the suburb that
existed prior to WW2. Many houses were built on half acre even acre lots, in the 40s and 50s, and some even have their original soils. After 60+ years
of lawn mowing even without original soils have restored some portion of that soil, and some even have areas where gardens are or used to grow and the soil is all the better. I'll come back to the soil in a moment.

This suburb has very good mass transit through diesel swilling buses, and the commercial areas of this suburb are concentrated on two large "strips" where
people go back and forth using the mass transit - Especially for the entry level or working poor jobs in retail, office, service, etc verticals.

By contrast there is a "massive" suburb around a small country village 25 further miles out, its original 50ish homes built in the 19th and early
20th century are surrounded by 1000 5 year old
4 bedroom homes on 1/8th or 1/16th acre lots. They have 1/4 inch of soil over clay, no commercial zone, and no mass transit.

The possabilities that you've outlined for the suburbs seem possible if not probable for the former rather than the latter suburb. The former can in fact convert the rather extensive yard into gardens, raise chickens, and if intensively cultivated possible have some excess. For those people/homesites unable to cope with this new world, I could see adjacent lots taken over and shared by those more adaptable. While I think that the eventual loss of sewer infrastructure might even be survivable here, I think the loss of water infrastructure probably is devastating. As you mentioned, I've been to other places in the world where I can see the complete lack of centralized sewage systems and the people are fine. I have even dug outhouses there. What I have not seen is success where there are poor soils and lack of water.

For my "good" suburb, one serious drought (i've seen two in 15 years) with no water infrastructure operating and the suburb probably doesn't work to support itself or create a surplus.

Soil and water are areas to focus on in your positive assessment of suburbia, they will make a huge difference.

Yup, there are suburbs and there are suburbs. There are also cities and there are cities - there's Chicago, surrounded by farmland, with a great lake on its banks, and Las Vegas, well, not. There is country and there is country - there are rolling hillsides of fertile land with lots of people who have been there for decades and steep mountain villages with no chance of agriculture and no real population prior to 1955. All absolutely true. I'm speaking in generalizations by necessity - specificities matter, they just take too much time to fully explicate ;-).


The "good" suburbs are also the most gentrified. Don't expect your doctors and lawyers pulling a half million in combined salary a year to get their hands dirty with victory gardens until half the world's population has already starved to death. $20/gallon gas and $50 loaves of bread aren't going to phase these sorts of people in their 3-storey McMansions. The world will go to hell in a handbasket and these people will be the last to acknowledge it and when they do, they will merely try to buy their way to security, not develop self sufficiency.

Don't expect your doctors and lawyers pulling a half million in combined salary a year to get their hands dirty with victory gardens until half the world's population has already starved to death.

Excellent point. My neighborhood is in an interesting phase. Historically, it has been populated by these kinds of people. They are also the ones running the neighborhood association, and who get freaked out when anyone builds a SHED or fence, let alone a chicken coop or Victory Garden.

Luckily, it is only a neighborhood association, and not a homeowner's association. Their power is quite limited (though they are trying to change that in conjunction with city changes in the zoning code).

Slowly, however, people with different perspectives and values are moving in. There are several of us with chickens, one woman keeps bees, and more and more of us are growing vegetables. I don't think it's a change the old timer's will be able to stop.


Fascinating Sharon. I've read your blog and enjoy your input. I agree with your actions, concerns and conclusions, but not with your logic. Not that I'm faulting your logic or pretend that mine is better. But if you are feeling the trunk and I'm feeling the tail, and we both determine that it's an elephant without consulting the other, it's pretty surely an elephant.

The best place to live is where you will do best. That is where you will be able to personally maximize income while minimizing expenses, systematic and specific risk. Constantly analyze your options and get on with it. Understand the logic of others, but don't get distracted by their choices.

Cold Camel

>practicality will matter a lot

Yes. We, I suppose, live in a kind of suburb, with the Urban Growth Boundary four miles off, and the main city 12 miles -- buggy-able if it came to that, and I've walked here from there once (long story). Our walkscore, though, is 2 (out of 100) and our son's, who lives in town, is 89.

We have one acre and we work at "farming" it, and we're proud of that. He is in an apartment building that has no yards, no decks, no balconies -- but he rides the bus every day to a community food bank "garden" -- 3 acres -- that is quite a bit more "farm" than we have, and works there. We're, I think, prouder of him for his choices than of ourselves, because we have to commute to town using a fairly large amount of personal/transport gasoline, for our jobs -- and we could never afford a $40,000 Volt. His current footprint is much, much smaller than ours.

All that could change, though. What we do have going for us is practical neighbors and, like them, well water, a hand pump, a wood stove, and a shop in the garage where we can fix almost anything. If TSHTF he plans to come here and hunker down with us. So we are somewhat "pre-adapted" suburbanites ... and we have family.

The suggestion that place is irrelevant or that all locations have equal standing for surviving the future is possibly a worthwhile undertaking for high school debate club but it will garner little attention from anyone serious about surviving peak oil.

The entire notion ignores the innate advantages of place throughout the natural world. The living conditions of some currently occupied habitats will become intolerable as the flow of cheap and abundant energy continues to wane. It matters not "what kind of person you are" nor how many words [6007? - yikes!] one can throw at the notion.


nor how many words [6007? - yikes!] one can throw at the notion

Yes, this piece could use some editing.

With all due respect, I think it matters a great deal what kind of person you are. There are many people who've grown up without a lot of basic skills who likely have a VERY steep hill to climb. Some people may be willing to learn, able to try, aware that they have to readjust their expectations, while others have been coddled and emboldened by the comforts of a high energy world, or intellectually starved by the flipside of the same coin, and it'll be anyone's guess whether they will have the resource, the time or the luck to rise to that challenge. Cicero(?) said, "Character is Everything"

I don't believe Sharon said that place is 'Irrelevant'.. you seem to have exaggerated her point.

That 6000+ words is a lot I can't argue with, and I would encourage Sharon and others to at least drop in a few Chapter Headings so we can pick the sections we might just have time to get to..

You of course know I didn't in any way say place is irrelevant. All those words must have gotten confusing ;-).



My hat is off to you,Miss(?)Astyk.

The thing that impresses me the most ;) is that your vision of the future is very simlar to mine,in that times will be tough but not impossible,and that a reasonably decent and dignified if spartan life will still be possible,here in the states at least.

Barring a large scale war,of course.

I am more pessimistic about the future of larger cites,and more pessimistic concerning the pitfalls of localized food production in an urban environment.If a large city has only a limited amount of goods or services to exchange for food brought in from far off farms-such as grain delivered by train- it might be impossible to pay for enough food to make up the shortfall if the local crops fail.

Of course if the local authorities are competent,and the urbanites/surbanites learn fast,there will be reserves-hopefully.

I think the population of places like LA will shrink DRAMATICALLY as the result of people hitting the road after a couple of hopefully temporary power or water failures.

And I think there will be a great deal of real violence during the transition to a lower energy economy.

Most writers don't seem to have a clue regarding the realities of extended families,living at the edge,improvising,cheating,just simply DOING what has to be done.

As I see it you have hit just about every note skillfully and with real insight.

This is the best single article I have seen about what life will probably be like ten or twenty years from now.

"Barring a large scale war,of course."

And there's the rub. The essay is fine, as Astyk usually is, but it seems to ignore the fact that we are in the center of an imploding empire. We could contract mostly consciously as the British empire mostly did. Or we could collapse catastrophically, with many more-and-more desperate attempts to shore up access to oil and other vital commodities.

The later scenario seems to be the one playing out so far. This will require more and more people to serve in the military. It will also fill society with more and more people who have been severely damaged physically and psychologically.

There are many more consequences to living in a collapsing empire than I can get into here (not the least of which will likely be ever increasing taxes and ever decreasing services), but they will be large factor in how things play out.

I think some colleges will survive, but mostly those who quickly adapt to teaching the skills most needed--small scale and urban farming, small engine repair, well as the math and other knowledge needed to acquire such knowledge. Religion is likely to become more important, and so some seminaries (what many modern colleges and universities started as) will likely persist.

Actually, I agree with you about war - I think people tend to discount the possibility of war on American soil (and yes, this a north-american-centric piece, because I write here in north america). This piece doesn't consider that possibility, although I've written about that subject before - but without knowing what kind of war, there's not much I can say about location in case of war.


Thanks for the thoughtful response, Sharon. Hey, you can't cover everything. But I find that many imagining the future leave out considerations of the federal and local government. These may eventually collapse, but in the mean time they are not likely to just let people do whatever they wish. Much of the suffering will and is the result of policies that force people to be homeless even while millions of homes stand empty. Police may well revert to their primary function in a capitalist society--protecting the rights of capital, keeping people from harvesting useful materials from bank-owned properties, driving people off from farming vacant urban and suburban plots because they are owned by banks of others who may want eventually to "develop" it...

This is not to dismiss any of your ideas, just to point out what I'm sure you know--things will be more complicated than we imagine, and much needless suffering will come about because of laws and power structures that will prevent people from making the best use of opportunities.

While I have your attention, I just read "Nation of Farmers" and was very impressed and would like to teach it (I'm a college prof in an English Dept.) But I am concerned about a number of typos throughout the text. Are you planning a new edition soon? May I send you a list of the problem passages?

Sure, although the proofing isn't something I really have too much control over (other than in creating the errors at production, which happens no matter what ;-)), neither is the timing of the next edition - that's up to my publisher. But yes, send it along to Perhaps you can use it as an example of what not to do in the red pen department ;-).

Sharon, former Shakespearean english geek

Hey, I'm teaching RenLit this fall. Any good references you can share on the economics and resource use of the period. Have you published in this area?

Jewish Farmer,

I at least realize that you can't write the whole book and post it here,although some may not.:-)

As I see it,if we are lucky,the winding down of the energy glutton consumer economy just might happen slowly enough to allow us to adapt without so many destitute people that riots and near civil war are the order of the day.

Draconian rationing of gasoline,maybe diesel,a steep graduated consumption tax on electricity,probably rationing or subsidized consumption basic foods,puntive taxes on products not essential from bottled water to cola to potato chips to imported flowers,etc,will be the norm.

And this is only if we wind down slowly,and some alternate employment can be found for the car salesmen,the high dollar divorce/ambulance chaser lawyers,the truck drivers who used to deliver potato chips..............

A war need not touch the US directly with bombs and bullets to send us over the edge.We are already in a situation analogous to that of a bicycle rider who has started down a very steep hill on a gravel path a little beyond his abilities.He may make it to the bottom within crashing but only if he doesn't hit a pot hole or loose stone.Stopping in such a situation is not a possibility,you can only ride out the down slope and hope you make it to the bottom.

A hot fight anywhere in sand country could take out a couple of major pipeline terminals or close a couple of shipping lane bottle necks, sending us over the edge from our current recession/depression into a full blown panic combined with a real right here right now industrial crash.

If such a scenario comes to pass the BEST we can hope for is a long period of martial law and giant refugee camps.

If anybody wants to know why guns and ammo are selling so well these days,one reason is that people who have never owned guns are beginning to understand just how precarious our situation really is.

Any comments as to how all this will affect Canada? With the worlds largest unprotected border, I have become increasingly obsessed with the situation in the US. With such a low population here in Canada, what is to prevent a "spill" of chaos and violence into our country with the US does reach that tipping point?

Nothing much. In fact, it would have happened long ago if Canada wasn't so nice about selling the USA all the resources it wants at a fair price.

Hi oldfarmermac, how is your garden doing?

The reconfiguration of the economic and demographic landscape is already happening. I'm just here to tell you, it works surprisingly well until it doesn't work, and then it is bumpy indeed.

Two relatives moved in with my mother a couple of years ago, showing up separately after a small business collapse and a personal meltdown. They are actually fine even though still mostly broke. One is employed and the other is busy in the domestic economy. I think that the fact that my mother has had various housemates before kept down the drama during the first year, and there was still a lot of drama.

Another relative floated into town with unresolved legal issues and is effectively homeless, couch surfing and working odd jobs. The problems keep getting more serious. Reading about "Yah a bunch of bad stuff will happen to a lot of people" is one thing. Watching it happen to friends and relations is altogether another thing.


Our gardens are fine,Hamster,but we lost our cash crops to late frost and will be deep in the red this year,as far as the farm checkbook is concerned.

Today I hired a local handyman/farm laborer to work a half a day so he can buy some groceries.Fortunately he has no family and one of my cousins is letting him live in a camper with an extension cord and water hose attached to his house,but he has no work for him,as he himself is retired.

People are beginning to double up around here and finding a job is nearly impossible unless you possess a skill that has always been in short supply,and not easy even then.

I have parked one of my two trucks,the larger one, in order to save the insurance and liscense expense,and my small car for the same reason.We are now using my Dad's seldom driven Buick for the occasional trip or errand that can't be taken care of in one of the two small pickup trucks we still use.

But the highway is still crowded.The fast food place are still open,but the lin es are short and the Walmart parking lot is noticeably less crowded than it was a year ago.

The people who would normally be spending enough every month to keep my above mentioned helper in work are hoarding thier cash and have cut back on everything from haircuts to garage cleanings,etc.I feel compelled to do the same.

Whew, oldfarmermac, losing the cash crops is rough. Best of luck hanging in there.

The standard culture is still going strong here as well, but things are changing. craigslist is crowded with tools for sale. A small building contractor could get everything used on line, from truck to skill saw. The "handyman" sign is appearing on the trucks of contractors who would never have been interested in deck repairs before.

I seldom get out in the direction of Walmart, but I was in a Fred Meyer recently and it was understocked in a weird way. There were a few gapping holes in the stockage, but mostly the shelves were filled with all the same size, or model of something, or just a large bulky item in big boxes.

Most of the small farmers around here are dependent on a family member with a day job to cover the cash expenses. As layoffs take hold, there is a real concern that we may actually lose some of the exact people that we will need to feed us in the not to distant future: experienced small market gardeners near population centers. As you are well aware, farming takes years to master. A beginner repurposing the lawn of a starter castle won't be nearly as effective.



Farmers are used to bad years and we are mostly retired and are well able to weather a bad year.
Bad years are nothing new,but such a late frost would bust a beginner more than likely.

I'm keeping an eye out for bargains myself.If somebody must lose his butt on some good stuff that I can stash for later,I am as entitled as the next person.

But if something is cheap and I can see that it is a desperation sale,I haggle not at all.

Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" should be required in any bibliography, without tapping into that this all seems like wishful thinking. And of wishful thinking the religion of Poltical Correctness needs to join things like the 700 Club in the ashbin of history, denouncing unpleasant facts in the name of niceness is certainly an evolutionary maladaptation if there ever was one.

The difficulty people have in changing their expectations of "normal" and especially of "upscale" is an area fertile for change.

For example, building a raised bed (or 12) on lawns, then laying down carpet and mulch to cover the paths addresses several unsustainable practices; monoculture inedible lawns, shallow soil for planting, drainage, grow space, and encourages less use of fossil fuel or electricity for mowing, more local food production etc.

Seattle has managed to make raising chickens in the city trendy, as opposed to declasse. Cities and suburbs with anti-farm animal regulations need to have them challenged, with attention drawn to the widespread loosening of such restrictions elsewhere.

Hanging out the least offensive laundry types- blankets, rugs, towels, onto deck or balcony railings, and onto fences, makes a visual statement to passers-by- it's OK to hang out the wash. Next year I will put out wooden clothes racks on the deck as well. My next-door neighbor already is hanging out rugs and blankets on her deck after only one year of my doing so. Those living in covenanted housing often find simple solar drying of clothes to be tied all too firmly in neighbor's minds with 'there goes the neighborhood'. Make solar drying trendy!

It has been axiomatic since WW2 among landscape designers that food bearing plants never be used in public places; thus the huge numbers of pretty but useless kwanzan cherries, Bradford pears, etc, instead of their equally lovely food bearing cousins. (The rationale is that fruit might attract rodents.) Here is a great opportunity to request food bearing county and city plantings, to request such plantings for private homes too. Hey, landscapers and designers could make a lot of money on these ideas.

Water retaining paving, interspersing paving stones with sand or low growing plants, could cut down on infrastructure needs for storm water, and help recharge the watertable. Capturing rainwater, even with so simple a system as a barrel at the end of a downspout, can make a lot of difference to water use in a garden.

People like to be on board with what other people are doing- what they can see you do, they will copy. Gardens, laundry, LED Christmas lights, all sorts of things. And yes, oddly enough, my last name is Jones.

Many great ideas there. Another one would be to make urban ditches by roads.

Lower the level of at least portions of the boulevard and provide breaks in the curb to let run off from the street fill roadside swales. These could have parts that have deep levels of rough gravel to bring the water deep into the soil for trees. Elsewhere it could be planted with raingarden native plants, many of which have medicinal and culinary uses.

This solves at least three problems at once: boulevard trees not getting enough water, low city water tables, and excess run off into rivers and streams.

Some might not like water from the street coming into what they might think of as their front garden, but it seems better to deal with it in this diffuse way than have it all run at once into the local stream, river or lake.

Very good analysis, and much needed....People in suburbia, particularly, need to be able to see beyond just desperately holding on to the way of life they knew. The more people who are discussing ways to transition beyond the wasteful suburban way of life, the better!! I also agree that Kunstler may be mistaken in his prediction that suburbia will be abandoned.

Once the ball gets rolling and masses of people start to understand that "green land equals wealth" (farm products they can trade) then the whole "cement equals wealth" (shops and offices to pay rents) paradigm falls apart (it has already fallen apart because of peak oil but this fact is not generally recognized yet) and thousands of ugly buiildings are, in my opinion, going to come down, by hand if necessary. Dumping the cement, taking apart the frames, all will be difficult, costly, but I think people will do their best to get access to the wealth land will provide. Of course the metal in the buildings will be attractive too.

Thus I like your point that people will look around for buildings they can take down....

Your point of view needs to become widely current. I hope Obama reads TOD!!

Mrs. Astyk,

Your analysis seems mostly realistic to me with one area of concern for me.

You believe that rural areas will not recieve supplies of fuel and other commodities. I can easily see that happening. My problem is especially in the short term, if rural area do not recieve supplies what makes you think there will be surpluses of food to send to urban areas. I doubt very much most urban centers can produce enough calories to keep body and soul together for anything like current populations. If there are no supplies to purchase in rural areas there is no value to urban money.

Food can be produced in rural areas without fuel but it will require a big increase in the labor force. The last statistic I saw said that the average farmer was in his mid 50s. Physically the average farmer can not go back to the old labor intensive ways of food production. (The good news is that a large percentage of farmers still know how to farm without many of the modern machines.) If the urban and suburban area do not want to starve they will be forced to divert resources to the agriculturally productive rural areas. They can always try the 1920s Soviet approach of force. This resulted in food production problems which lasted to at least the fall of the Soviet system.

Your description of rural areas will probably apply very well to rural areas without good farmland.

As the term Suburb is often a generalization that includes a range of different situations, "Rural" is also one of those Catch-alls.

It seems to me that there are 'outposts' where we have set up homes and towns farther up mountains, out into wastelands, deep into the hot and cold, barren and dry etc.. that will be the 'rural' that gets hit hardest. Fertile land is far less vulnerable than the distant outskirts of Vegas or Anchorage.

Many rural places will simply be much more isolated, so it will probably come down to their total dependence on imports to keep going, but if they still have food and shelter, they might be in the catbird's seat.

SMN, I agree with you, although I also think that for some areas, the reopening of waterways will coincide with major food issues. For example, I live in upstate NY, within unpleasant but viable biking distance of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers - I suspect that it will be possible at some point to bring food to be collected for water hauling. While water transport isn't like to be fuelless, fuel can be supplied at urban centers. The reality is that commerce and trade will not end entirely even if we get poorer, and wealth is likely to be concentrated in the cities, so there will be strong incentives for farmers to get their food to market. Those in more heavily isolated areas may have food, but not much else.

I fully expect fossil fuels to be replaced with human labor (in fact, I just wrote a book about this ;-)), and more compelling analysis than force to be used - for example, hundreds of thousands of people in the Depression were set to work draining malarial swamps - and an awful lot of them died. However, it was work, and money and food were offered as a compensation. I don't think anything as inelegant as force will be used, for the most part.


I'm encouraged to see the emphasis in this post on community. It's clear to me that those who are going to survive what's coming will do so in small communities, not as individuals or as large political entities.

While choosing a location - city/suburb/country - is surely a major consideration, it seems to me that being a part of a reasonably healthy, reasonably competent group of, minimally, a dozen or so households (50-60 people) - more, if you think you can get 'em - firmly committed to the survival of the group will work in any setting. Building such a group, or becoming part of an existing group, is, to my mind, second in priority only to getting your own head and household straight and in order.

Thanks for bringing this subject up.

Connections between communities is also important. That is one reason why the rise of Community Sponsored Agriculture is so important. The more direct connections there are between city and country, the more people will be able to exploit the advantages of each and provide various kinds of support.

Doing things without machines on the farm will require lots of people, but not all the time. If breaks are scheduled for city workers to go out and help plant and harvest at crucial times, this could provide a break from urban living for the urbanites and a ready source of much needed labor for the farmers. This need not be too onerous a burden for either. Getting the labor out to the more remote areas will become more difficult as things unravel, however.

The problem with the Dervaes is they are the ONLY ones in Pasadena doing it. Or at least the only ones in their immediate neighborhood. Since they've been at this even longer than the modern peak oil movement, that doesn't bode well for the adaptability of urbanites.

The problem with the Dervaes is they are the ONLY ones in Pasadena doing it. Or at least the only ones in their immediate neighborhood. Since they've been at this even longer than the modern peak oil movement, that doesn't bode well for the adaptability of urbanites.

They will be a good resource for their neighbors when said neighbors finally buy a clue. I wish I knew somebody like that around here who could mentor me! You're right, though, they've been at it awhile. It's takes some time to get up to speed with this.

Other advantages they have is four adults to work the urban homestead (three of them fairly young - in their twenties, I believe) and most importantly, a long growing season.

No matter how skilled I become, I can never match their production with the growing season we have here in Wisconsin.


Living in a coop in the North SF bay (see Atchison Village in Wikipedia) and luckily having both a large corner lot and a community garden manque in the back, a high water table and a Mediterranean climate, my thoughts move onward and sideways to a couple of emergent problems: what will be the effect of the depopulation on your triune plans, such as roving bands of dangerous and hungry youth, who see old people as useless mouths to feed; political scavenging groups, which we call gangs (think Afghanistan tribality after the Russians left. Women are used as farm animals, men fight for access to land, water and drugs of choice.) What level of defense, and what style - the villagers in the Magnificent Seven? Will there be competition to become efficient in the sense of having a young group with many working hands? Will the internet replace old folks' wisdom? There WILL be internet. Bet on it.

There WILL be internet. Bet on it.

Well, I wouldn't bet the rent or grocery money on it - certainly not if it gets to the point where there are "roving bands of dangerous and hungry youth."

I understand your point about the "roving bands," though. A single household or two doesn't stand much of a chance in such a scenario, no matter what they do - which is why I urge people to find or create a larger group NOW, and beat the rush. If it gets to that, of course a militia based in the community is necessary. (Although, in close proximity to a large population center such as the Bay Area, not sufficient.)

But I'm curious: If you're looking far enough ahead to foresee the possibility of such happening, what are you doing living right smack dab on top of the joint between two continental plates??? My family lived in the Monterey Bay area back before I had a choice in the matter, and I thought it was gorgeous country - but I wouldn't live there now for love nor money. Just curious, that's all ...

Readers should check out Stuart's Staniford's post on The Fallacy of Reversibility if they haven't already. His conclusions are based on a wealth of data, unlike the avalanche of suppositions here. I've never found the Nation of Farmers tearing up McMansions with pry bars scenarios very plausible, not for a good few decades, anyway.

Deliveries of distillates to agricultural users are only 7% of total sales, or about 239 kb/d. Domestic crude production is already 22 times that. When the first signs of petroleum stocks show an irreversible trend down rationing will be imposed, with critical services receiving first priority. This is an aspect of peak oil I'd be very interested in seeing analyzed in greater detail, too.

Hand in hand with rationing politicians will likely call for a redux of Victory Gardens, one imagines. Or give directions for the automakers to retool drastically - buses? golf carts? scooters? Or they might just go into deer in the headlights mode. At any rate I don't believe declines will be so steep that the US will undergo experiences like Cuba did - that would entail a handful of major producing nations going offline overnight, and producing nations like revenue.

Well, it is worth noting that in the examples we have, dramatic falls in oil availability pretty much always lead to food supply issues - Cuba, the Soviet Union, in Tanzania last year when high energy prices cut food deliveries. There is certainly a case to be made that these are not examples on which to model, but they are the ones we actually have. And it is also worth noting that the actual shortfalls of availability were pretty small - Cuba didn't lose half its oil, as some people say, but less than 20%. They had plenty of oil to reallocate to agriculture - but competing priorities made it extremely difficult. Tanzanians had every reason to have subsidies and allocations made to farmers - this was their food supply, but it was hard to do it fast enough. Certainly, if the US were to rely entirely on its oil production, it would be much more than a 20% shock, as we all know.

The 1970s oil shocks, which caused a dramatic rise in poverty and hunger in the US came from less than a 5% dislocation in supplies. Was it "no food available" hunger? Nope - but that's not the norm in most of the world - in most of the world, there's food in the stores, you just can't buy any because you don't have money. In extreme outer areas of the US - for example the rural villages of Alaska, we have already seen the failure of supply trucks and the inability to get adequate food. This is, of course, an outer perimeter, but that's where you would see it.

I agree that wise policy means that we have enough oil to meet basic needs. I'd be thrilled to see wise national policy for allocation - but too many states and jobs and people depend on unwise policies. And as Gail the Actuary has wisely observed "People often say 'of course we'll prioritize oil for health care, because that's the highest need' and then we say 'of course we'll have industrial plastics, because that doesn't take much oil at all'..."

The reality of competing priorities - good ones and bad ones, and the fact that even poor socieities generally have rich people consuming a large chunk of resources - means that it is not impossible that we will reallocate resources wisely, but harder - we're going to want that oil for police protection, as crime rates go up, and for medical care as the population gets older and sicker. We're going to want that oil for transporting politicians around during elections and making movies to make the masses happy. We're going to want that oil for agriculture, and we're going to need some of it after the use in the field to get it to people, and more to make sure that refrigeration and processing get done, because otherwise that food rots, even if the farmer grows it.

During the great Depression, we had agricultural overproduction - and urban underconsumption of food. Farmers were killing their livestock and letting them rot because the price at the slaughterhouse was too low to pay for the animals, while people were digging for meat scraps in the garbage in Chicago. Apples were rotting in the fields because the processors couldn't make money making sauce or transporting them to New York, while people went hungry. It is simply more complex than saying "we've got oil here."


Actually, FF are not the ultimate problem. As I pointed out in my Campfire essay on survival homesteading this past Saturday, fertilizer is the Leibig's minimum of food production. It is easy to replace tractors with people or animals. But, it is impossible to replace phosphorous, for example, with another nutrient.

Therefore, the question remains, "Will the system remain intact enough to still supply necessary nutrients or will the be in short supply or simply unavailable?"


A comment on essay length: Ok, TOD has put up two of mine so I have a little experience. The problem is trying to present the information necessary to inform readers sufficiently so the essay makes sense. Too few and people bitch about unrasied points which requires the author to use the same number of words in a follow-up post that would have been used initially to explain what was meant. Cut Sharon and other authors some slack when it comes to essay length.

Thanks for the kind words on length - I don't worry about it - there are plenty of people out there who write better short pieces than I am, and I'm sure those that love them will read those.

I think that this is certainly an issue, although the logical solution to this is full composting of all human outputs, including all bones and wastes. This obviously would be a major transition, but maybe less of one than a massive die off.


Soylent fertilizer?


I have never had the privilege of a post of my own but I agree absolutely about the length neede to cover even the main points. Although I disagreed with a few points of your last one ,I pointed out that if you had written a book,some things you were criticized for would have been explained satisfactorily.

You might have even included my some of my ideas as second choices or even first choices for some of your readers,depending on the circumstances of that reader,in a longer piece.

And this general subject is so broad and the variables are so many that none of us can make better than an educated guess as to what will come to pass.

My take is that the thing to do is consider every post as an examination of the elephant from a different point by one more blind man or woman and try to make use of all pov's.

I agree with you that there will be a reallocation to critical needs especially big ag and delivery of food. There is enough oil to produce and distribute food for a long time if that is what it is saved for.

Hi Sharon:

I am about half through your "Nation of Farmers", read all your posts here and this excellent feature article. Thank you for all.

One of the things I have been thinking about is the problem of many problems occurring at the same time or in rapid sequence. I see many black swans on the horizon of which peak oil is just one. Economics is taking up a large share of the news and it can implode with amazing swiftness. Warming can get real bad with positive feedbacks; methane etc. Of course wars of various sizes cannot be ruled out. Who knows if this is just a minor flu or a 1917-18 variety that killed millions of pregnant women and young men. Rodney king type things really happened and no one was hungry so they cannot be passed off lightly just because you don't live in LA. Of course if the grid goes down (EMT or something else), there is no money and many, many other instant problems.

IMHO have some food to last for quite a while, a garden to grow some more as best you can, get out of debt, have some cash to last for a while and (what I feel is most important) be aware of most everything going on here on TOD and associated sites. If you try to be aware and realize that things can get bad in a relatively short time, that’s about the best you can do. Have a template sort of plan that if this or that happens, you know at least what direction to turn and then you will have to play it by ear. If you are a 'Todd' person, you have already done all that and more.

A lesson from woodworking: Don’t make big mistakes. Little mistakes are easy fixed after you have been woodworking for a while but if you make two right (or left) sides, you may have to end up with two rockers or desks you don't want or back to the drawing board ….

Again thanks for your work in this area.

Some comments:

  • The article is US-centric, like much of the material at TOD. The whole discussion has little relevance to those living in India, Africa, Asia, even Australia.
  • If living in the first world, here are your priorities about a place to live:
    1. Mild climate (get away from deserts and freezing winters)
    2. Within cycling distance of a rail line
    3. Try to live near close family if possible (blood is thicker .. etc.)
    4. Enough land to grow sufficient vegetables (½ acre or 2000m2 is a good start, coupled with an entrapped water system)
    5. Buy a house that has solar passive design to minimize heating in winter.

A lot of what Sharon says rings true for Australia. Many city folk are moving to higher rainfall areas displacing the long term residents which is a polite way of saying hillbillies. The city folks need the rustics for services such as car repairs, fencing, animal slaughter, firewood gathering and so on. It seems to be an uneasy truce whereas I suspect the suburbs could lose their social cohesion. At night you sometimes hear gunfire coming from separate directions but they are not shooting at you.

Urbanites who lose their jobs or who have their hours cut back may not be able to afford to stay in the city as fuel and food prices climb along with various kinds of property taxes and charges. Perhaps they should get out while they can.

Australia is a net energy exporter. Geothermal, coal, gas and uranium there are few countries in the world as blessed as Australia. It is very simple to convert a diesel motor to run on gas, just a matter of when there is sufficient demand to warrant it. Not a problem to continue farming practices as they have been.

Environmental destruction is another issue. Some farmers are learning to adapt, others will be forced to. Regardless, Australia still produces enough to feed triple it's population. That figure could easily be doubled if there was demand.

Gunfire? Nothing unusual about doing a bit of spotlighting. If you live in Bankstown it may be something else. City folk don't move to truly rural areas and take up farming. They buy hobby farms and live amongst like minded people.

If we want to see what life would be like for us with significantly less oil usage - we don't need to speculate - just look at countries that get by with much less energy than we do. Europeans get by with what - half our energy usage? Quality of life is fine - maybe even better than ours. Businessmen take scooters (Italy) or ride bikes (Amsterdam) into town. We could do it - and, it wouldn't be a major change in life style. Heck - we can't even get most of our people out of SUVs and F-150s. If you believe energy will be really constrained then maybe look at Guatemala. They use 8% of the energy we do, exactly the same % as we get from nuclear. If we lost all imported and domestic oil, all coal, all renewables - all sources except nuclear, we'd be like Guatemala. Guatemala City is 7 million and growing rapidly. Guate is mostly one-story and spread out over miles of countryside. Everyone takes buses. It is a poor country but it works and it is not nearly as grim as Astyk projects for the US. We will always have more energy resources and are very unlikely to descend to their level. What may be different is the introduction of defensive architecture: high walls, glass topped or with razor wire - ubiquitos in South America. (Sort of like what you see in parts of Long Beach now.) Law enforcement deteriorates and the walls go up. Johannesburg may set the record in this category - 20 ft walls with 5-wire electrical on top.

The USA has a great many towns where you don't even need to lock your front door. If crime increases dramatically, these areas will increase in value. Crimewise, the USA is two different countries and this won't likely change any time soon.

The transition from US to Guatemala standard of living would be painful, but I have long felt that any future low-energy US would share many characteristics with existing low-energy economies (as Sharon's article also implies).

The sprawling, one-story design of Guatemala City has much to do with earthquake history and risk, while most other low-energy societies have multi-story building with shared walls as the default, from Pueblo dwellings to European villages to rowhouses throughout Asia. The "security architecture" in Guatemala has much to do with violent history and extreme inequality/wealth maldistribution/corruption. Many examples of more peaceful and more egalitarian low-energy societies exist, but relative peace and equality do tend to correlate (probably an important lesson for the US as we learn to do with less).
A Ron Paul future would almost certainly include the razor wire, private security forces, and glass-topped walls that extreme "free market" societies seem to require (how else can the wealth concentrations that un-modified markets produce be protected?)

I agree with many of the author’s conclusions including:
“In all cases, flexibility, adaptability, self-sufficiency and practicality will matter a lot”.
However, based on this logic, I find it difficult to believe that cities will remain intact given that there is not likely to be anywhere near enough agricultural land available in cities to attain self-sufficiency. Therefore, as you do suggest, city dwellers will have to buy their food from the countryside. So this assumes that firstly, there is transport available to get the food from country to city and secondly, that there is sufficient money available in the city, to buy the food. Are these two conditions likely?
Well, maybe for a while there will be enough fuel for transporting goods to the city but long-term (i.e. sustainably), I doubt it. Then there is the economic issue. I have trouble imagining the city’s economy being able to support the buying of enough food to feed everyone post peak oil.
I would argue that the expansion of resources and energy production since industrialization has driven virtually continuous economic expansion and it has now reached a point where our entire economic system relies on this expansion. Anyone with any sort of debt (and most of us have them) rely on our ability to service this debt (without interruption) into the future and this, in turn, makes us reliant on the economic growth paradigm. However, is continued economic expansion possible when our energy inputs are actually contracting?
As difficult as it is to imagine, the only conclusion I can reach is that people will leave the cities and suburbs in droves until some sort of equilibrium is reached and this equilibrium will be dictated largely by the self-sufficient nature of each local region.

Half the people in the world live in cities.

If the water supply system breaks down, or even becomes intermittent/unreliable/of lower quality.....Well I needn’t go on.

3/5ths of the people living in cities in the world already live in places with broken down water supply systems or intermitten/unreliable/low quality water. What pretty much happens is that lots more people die of disease, water needs take over a lot of daily life, and a majority of people still go on. A stockpile of bleach and sand is not a bad idea.


I would put it a little lower than 3/5th but never mind. Ppl still go on of course. The living, natch. My point was that New Yorkers for ex. and ppl in the US in generally take water for granted. Iraqis and Afghanis, to mention only them, have a different pov. and experience.

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

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

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

Chandra Vikash

There are a few quick, cheap fixes we could do to make the suburbs more livable. Zoning reform is one of them, things like allowing neighborhood shops and allowing owners split a rental unit off their McMansions. Easements at cul de sacs to allow thru traffic of bikes and pedestrians are another. Beyond that, infrastructure gets more expensive.

I'm reading Suburban Nation now, an excellent book on how to design good neighborhoods.

Yes! some other ideas:

Designate a corner house for a neighborhood trading place such as a flea market, farmer's and gardener's market, mail stop, newspaper stop and community bulletin board.

Local churches can also serve some of these functions, and already many have good outreaches to senior citizens in particular.

Bike repair, small engine repair, sewing and shoe repair, butchering and dressing small animals like chickens, knife sharpening, teaching small groups of children (old fashioned dame schools or tutors), gardening as a job, woodcutting, local recycling, teaching homesteading skills, canning and preserving for both family and for sale- all these and many more can infill any area.

There is a kind of hollywood vision of the world we have been taking as reality the last 60 or 70 years- mostly based on the English nobility's great houses- huge lawns (but no sheep or walled kitchen garden), large rooms and no real kitchen, milking house or cold cellar.) We need to pull back to reality- many useful small applications of practical technology and garden craft, full of beauty in their own way.

Likewise in social structure we will not all be the lord or lady of the manor ( or each of us of our own tiny manor.) Losing our energy servants (oil and gas) will mean some of us become subordinate again. This is an unpopular view, but worth thinking about.

The end part of your post is meaningless in the sense that it is trying to preach taste. People like what they like and if they like it enough, they will fight to preserve it even if it serves no other function than to make a fashion statement or act as a sign of social status. This is one of my big problems with Kunstler. He fights an aesthetic argument largely disregarding the fact that a lot of people DO in fact like the suburbs exactly the way they are, as well as SUVs with trucknutz hanging from the trailer hitches, and many other things that are highly inefficient and impractical.

Kunstler has just as much right to his aesthetic preferences as do the guys with trucknutz.

Sure people will (and already are) fight a losing battle for their SUVs and exurban sprawl. But many have already bankrupted themselves in the effort, and many more will follow. Practices that are financially or environmentally unsustainable will eventually halt, by definition.

Those who fight the inevitable the hardest will lose the most, while those who recognize and adapt to the future will outcompete them.

I am willing to bet that SUVs with Trucknutz are not the future (and betting this way with my investments and career has paid well so far).

Sharon writes:

"Many more children will probably be homeschooled, many more children will probably be put to work sooner helping out at home, and the child-centered model will probably disintegrate, replaced by a family-centered model in which children are expected to pitch in, listen and are not treated always like visiting heads of state to be deferred to and offered the best."

I can't wait for the "child-centered model" to break. I'm so tired of all of the "rich" and "successful" families around here who live that way. The kids, in such hyper-materialistic overscheduled families grow up with entirely unrealistic expectations, and haven't a clue of what really matters in life.

Changes like Sharon mentions are why I'm happy about the collapse of life as we know it. It gives us the opportunity to rediscover common sense.


recognizing that your post is most applicable to the US, I still have a question: How do different scenarios of population decline affect your transition scenarios? I know you're writing about personal and family scale transitions, but these are happening in a community and regional context.

But what happens in areas where population declines rapidly due to out migration of 60 or 70 percent?

Round Tripper - Are you imagining urban, suburban or rural areas with massive outmigration? Because I think the answers are different depending on where you are, and of course, there are some examples we can see already. For example, there are plenty of prairie towns in the US (and yes, this is US centric, and never claimed to be otherwise), for example where this has already happened, and the towns are now full of older people, without a lot of infrastructure, dependent on government support (social security, mostly) and in total isolation.

Or you could look at Detroit or Buffalo over the last century (for the latter) and decades (the former) as examples of cities radically dropping in population - what happens is that sometimes whole neighborhoods close up, more often, they spread out. In Detroit, we see the prairie coming back and people starting to farm within the city, in Buffalo, more urban decay, some of which might be reclaimable.

Suburban areas I suspect will be rather like the prairies - outermost exurbs with a few families hanging on in them, maybe owners, maybe squatters, with people gradually ripping out the valuable components.

Predicting how the populations will move is a complex game, and one that varies a lot. I'm guessing climate change will be one of the primary movers over the longer term (several decades) with a "Go East Young Man!" thing, because at least there's water here, and with cities being damaged or destroyed along the coasts, and people leaving for inland (and possibly existing smaller inland cities absorbing lots of the population of coastal cities, creating, say "New Bostons" at Worcester ;-)).

Money and energy issues are harder to predict, I think - John Michael Greer predicts a bonny future for the old industrial cities, so much so he's moving to one. I would tend to say that the best bets on this involve looking at why a place exists in the first place. If it never existed before fossil fuels, or was tiny, ask whether they are necessary to life? Are there central rail lines? Falling water than can power small scale hydro or light industry? Superb soils? Timber? Minerals? Waterways? Connections to larger places or logical connections between city and food producing regions? Not all places will go back to their origins, but, for example, my own region has been settled for nearly 300 years now, and has waterways that make it seem likely, if not certain, to continue to exist.


Great post Sharon, I read your site daily.

In regards to what TRIPPER here had to say, what about, population declines in a major urban area? Take manhattan for example. I lived in NYC a number of years ago, upper west side, and for a population of what, maybe 8 million, there is no way they will be able to produce even 10% of their needs. No way.

""But it is completely possible to imagine even Manhattan or San Francisco or Chicago or Toronto producing quite a lot of its own meat and produce,""

This quote by you, regarding a city like NY, or even Chicago (where I lived on North Ave for a few years) and food sustainablility is a little bit of fantasy world. The only way they could come close to "quite a lot" is to decline in population to about 500,000.

When, (if) the juice goes out in the city, that might happen. When they leave, they will come visit you in upstate NY......

Technozombie, you'll note that I also say that cities of 8 million or so (NY, Tucson/Pheonix, etc...) are unrealistic, but that 1 million are more realistic. So yes, I think it is reasonable to imagine NYC producing a good portion of *meat and produce* (not grains) at a population of 1-2 million. In fact, they could probably produce a tolerable amount of it now. Hong Kong, which is as densely populated as NYC produces nearly 20 % of its meat and more than 10% of its vegetables within the city limits, and that's now. Other similarly enormous and dense cities around the world also produce large chunks of their meats and produce, because they live in the poor world and they *have to*. So it certainly can be done.

It is an awfully long walk from NYC to where I live - I'm not too worried ;-).


I am afraid that there is a strong likelihood that undesired guests might use thier last tank of gas to come calling upon you.

Look on the bright side, free fertilizer delivering itself to your door...


It's funny-until its maybe for real.

I have spent some time thinking about such a scenario,and I can shoot somebody if necessary-for instance if he were attacking my family or making off with (irreplaceable ) food or tools.

But I doubt seriously if I would sleep well for a long long time.

My personal belief is that local militias will spring up fast in areas such as the one where I live. There are plenty of old guys with good eyesight who can stand watch although they are too old to do much real physical work.Some of them have "seen the elephant" in Vietnam and the Middle East and if asked say they will have no problem with actually using a gun again if they percieve a real threat to thier homes and families.

Once gasoline is hard to come by,we will be able to keep the peace by using as much force as necessary.The first few months might be pretty hairy.

Actually I think the odds of things going to this extreme are not very high in out of the way places,and we can probably depend on local law enforcement in most rural areas well away from large cities. Of course we will be paying for a lot of extra deputies by cutting some other services at a time when there are few if any services to cut.

I can see a lot of prison farms in the deep south well stocked with "vagrants" and fat bellied sheriffs drawling "you in a heapa trouble,boy" ala Cool Hand Luke.I expect getting convicted of vagrancy will be as easy as falling off a log,arrest, trial, sentenceing, and delivery to prison might not take a whole day.

But once inside a prison farm ,you should be reasonably sure of getting enough to eat!;-)

PS "Seen the elephant" is a civil war era colloqialism meaning "been in combat".

...cities of 8 million or so (NY, Tucson/Pheonix, etc...)

The population of Tucson is only ~.52 million and that of Phoenix ~1.6 million and falling. Not even close to 8 million with the greater metropolitan areas of both cities combined.

But of course Tucson and Phx have their own scale v.resource problems..

Mexico City and Mumbai are in a bigger fix, it seems.

It looks to me that there is a general assumption that undesired mobs invading rural farms will be formed out of hungry ‘normal’ citizens. I think it will rather be the current mafia’s new market niche. I am sure they will have enough gas and motorized vehicles (at least longer than general public) to extend their control to the food producing countryside.


Your comment reminds me of a little piece by Loius L Amour that he wrote as a preface to as a story.It concerned the myth of a bunch of ouitlaws "treeing" or taking over a western town,and the actual results when it was tried on a couple of occasions.

The citizens in the one he detailed included a bunch of buffalo hunters,some civil war veterans from both sides,a couple of deputies ,and some rednecks anxious just to do some shooting.The results were not so good from the outlaws pov,to say the least.

Rural America is armed to the teeth,and the average male below the Smith and Wesson line is not going to take any crap from anybody,unless he believes they are backed up by the state police and the national gaurd,at least.

I expect this may be true in rural parts of the Old west and in parts of some states in the Northwest.

There will be no mafia as such in rural America but there may be homegrown LOCAL warlords if things get bad enough.

I think that just the constraints of reality would curtail such activity. What would the thieves get? Would they go to a diary farm and haul away a tanker load of milk? Go to a truck garden and get one or two day's harvest of tomatoes and snow peas? Then drive over to several other farms to pillage before returning to the Upper West Side to sell some wilted spinach? I can more imagine them waiting till things had been harvested and going to a warehouse, grain silo or grocery store. than going out on Long Island and digging up potatoes.

Shipping cargo by water is very efficient. A big city on a river or coast will probably be able to import much of its food. Why walk upstate if they can float barges down the Hudson and sell you the food? Kunstler thinks the big weakness of cities is intermittent electricity playing hell with high rise elevators, and really all the big monolithic utilities like water, power and sewage.


To my way of thinking, small towns - both "exurbs" not too far from cities and towns imbedded deep in rural territory - should be considered as a distinct category from both suburbs and "rural". Most of your comments on rural life apply to homesteaders living out in the country, but life in a small town is quite a different story.

Maybe the single biggest advantage of small towns is that they are already intact communities. They have downtowns, they have a variety of local businesses and services, they are not going to have to reinvent and reconfigure themselves to the extent that suburbs will. That really is a huge difference; it is the difference between starting a race at the starting line, versus hundreds of yards back. Given the difficult challenges that we will be facing, that is hugely important.

Small towns are already functioning communities. There are large, well-developed, interconnected social networks, and a great many civic associations and institutions, all of which will be greatly important and useful as they face the difficult times ahead.

Small towns usually are dominated by houses with good sized lots. It is quite feasible to raise a large garden and to have a variety of fruits on a typical small town lot. The zoning is often not as restrictive either, so keeping beehives, chickens (though maybe not roosters), rabbits, and even a milk goat are all in the realm of possibility. Furthermore, most small towns are surrounded by at least some farmland, even exurbs, so there is going to be some locally-grown food brought in and marketed in town. There is also the possibility of buying a small plot of land just outside of town, not to live on but to raise additional food crops (a small orchard, maybe, or potatoes & other root crops, or corn or other grains).

Small towns already have a good variety of small businesses, artisans and tradespeople. However, most have seen this variety decline in the past couple of decades as the big corporations have moved in. This trend is likely to reverse over the next couple of decades, and plenty of new opportunities will open up for full-time or sideline self-employment.

The biggest challenge is in integrating oneself into the community, if one is relocating there. Small towns - and especially rural small towns - can be very difficult for outsiders (or "outlanders") to really integrate into. There are some places where one can live there the rest of one's life and still be thought of as an outsider. More often, though, if one adopts and attidude of humility, friendliness, neighborliness, helpfulness, and generosity, the barriers will usually start to break down and one will find oneself increasingly accepted - after a few years. Thus the most important point: if you see small town life as your best option, you had best relocate NOW, if you haven't already. It does take time to integrate into the new community, and the sooner you get started, the better.

(By the way, if someone is looking for small towns to relocate to, consider ones where there is a small college there. Those will tend to have lots of faculty living there who are not "locals", and the locals will have become used to there being lots of "outsiders" coming into their town. The college may not survive, but it will have already done you the service of easing your integration into the community.)


You mentioned snow plows, and the likely discontinuation of them, in rural areas. Back in the horse days, they never plowed the roads in the wintertime. Instead, as soon as they had a good snow (and after each subsequent snow), they would hitch up a large roller to a team and press down the snow into a hard surface of ice. Then, people could travel by sleigh for the rest of the winter. Winter was when most of the really heavy hauling was done, it was much easier for the horses to move heavier loads, and you avoided the risk of a wheel or axle breaking.

That, btw, is one reason why farmers were in no great rush to get their corn harvested, husked and shelled, and off to market. There was plenty of time all winter to do the harvesting, husking and shelling, and it was easier to haul the grain into town in the winter. That was when most of those buying would be hauling it back to their places, anyway.

Someday we might go back to something along these lines.

They still display those rollers at the Fryeburg Fair.

Here's a picture of one..

Similiarly, the forest was cut and moved to the rivers during the winter. I've timbered in the snows of upstate NY, and I definitely preferred
dragging logs with my limited equipment in the snow than anytime in the summer - (I hate black flies). I have a couple of books on simple "old fashion"
machinery on the shelf, and i've enjoyed a couple of trips to the shaker museum and the adirondack museum in blue mountain lake. In fact, I
found their horse drawn road grader "fascinating" - (it didn't have a diesel engine and it wasn't painted yellow!) While in Swaziland in January
(just north of South Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world), I was
working in a very remote area and had to build a horse drawn road grader to complete the project. So those old things can come back and be useful.

Wonderful article Sharon. You're one of my heroes.

I particularly love the vision you have for how some suburbs can be made productive by incorportaing a network of small agriculture. I fully agree that when push comes to shove, those areas will transition out of necessity and probably thrive if you fast-forward several decades. I would also agree that places like LA, Las Vegas, and Phoenix will be be hell or worse. Their collapse will rock the nation and who knows what that will stir up, anything is possible.

But at the heart of this, is that communities can be built if there is soil, water and a climate that supports agriculture. The old Rustbelt may find a new life as the heartland of plenty once TSHTF.

I still have family back in Southern Illinois and there is plenty of room for more people in the smaller communities there that have been slowly dying. Small agriculture is pretty foreign though as chemicals and big Pharma Agriculture have applied the Walmart model of pushing out all competition.

I think sustainable agriculture is possibly the number one career I would recommend to young people today. Not from a money making perspective of course, but for being satisfied in one's work and a critical part of revitalizing our nation in the coming years. All those exurbs and suburbs will need local experts who can help lead the transition. Despite the internet, most hard earned knowledge, particularly with agriculture and animal husbandry, need to be learned hands-on under guidance of someone with experience.

Keep up the good fight! You're making a difference. Thanks again for the article.


Fortunately, this is possible - even Hong Kong, for example, produces a large portion of its meat and vegetables within the city limits. "End quote"

This is not reasonable. The entirety of Hong Kong is 428 square miles with a population of 7 million. That works out to 1700 sq feet per person total. Even if somehow all the area of Hong Kong was for vegetable and meat production 1700 sq feet per person is a decent size garden but it is only 0.04 acres or so and sustaining 1 person on 1 acre for an entire year is on the optimistic side. I don't see how Hong Kong could supply anything other than a percent or two of it's meat and vegetable production. Unless you consider meat production importing animals, keep them in a pen for a day or two, and then slaughter them.

Most urban areas have little ability to grow their own food. Individual who live in urban areas frequently underestimate how much land a person needs to survive on. Even most suburban areas are far too dense for sustanence farming.

In my opinion the biggest problem most people will face is not how they will get to and from work, but how will they find a job that pays anything. Once people are out of work and homeless how will they feed themselves will be a big issue, not so much where they used to live in the whole urban, suburban, and rural dynamic. Once homeless changing between the three options is rather easy.

In 1981, with a population of 5 million, and 1,060 km2, Hong Kong was using about 10% of its land area to produce 45% of fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city - and no, not imported, as well, of course, as supporting enormous fish farming efforts. See: I. Wade, ''Fertile Cities, " Development Forum, Sept. 1981, p. 7.

By 2000, the population had risen by more than a million people , but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs and 36% of the chickens, as well as farming about 20% of the consumed fish. By that point there was almost no grain production being done, while in the late 70s and early 80s, some of the outer islands were still producing rice. See Luc Mugeot's "For Self-Reliant Cities: Urban Food Production in a Globalizing South."

In Hong Kong the average vegetable plot produces 6 crops per year of Cabbage, and four of root crops. The numbers have declined somewhat from the 1981 levels, as land values in Hong Kong rose. As of 1996, 160,000 tons of food were being recycled from restaurants and private households into pigs and chickens for consumption.

It is hard to get really current figures on urban agriculture in Hong Kong, since development has grown so much, but the FAO, University of Hong Kong and Chinese government numbers are all well above 20% for both meat and produce, so I've tended to call it 20% and above. But there is no doubt that the numbers are much greater than the ones you assume. I think it is easy not to be able to imagine how deeply integrated agriculture is into many cities in the Global South, and how strange its absence really is.



Recycling of unused or spoiled food into chicken and swine feed is a lost opportunity here in the US, and if (when?) things get bad I plan to lead the way by doing more of this. It is amazing how much excess produce is put into trash, not to mention expired food. My wife was doing volunteer work last week at our local shelter and they were throwing out un-opened boxes of rice, pasta and breakfast cereal because the expiration or "best by" date has passed. She was appalled as they were using hours of volunteer time opening all the boxes and bags and putting them into the dumpster. The shelter asked her to haul it away as that would save them work. So she brought home a couple hundred pounds of pasta which will be shared with others and kept for crisis or fed to our chickens. The expired cereal will go to our chickens and will be premium feed. In return I get eggs and damn good fertilizer. We have so many micro-niche opportunities like this in the USA that I believe people will find ways to turn even an abrupt crisis into a softened landing rather than an abrupt halt to life. The Hong Kong statistics speak for themselves. It is possible to do a lot more ourselves locally.

Please don't forget to to mention the tropical climate when you talk about local food production and places like Hong Kong.

If in 1981 10% of its land was used to produce vegetables pigs and chickens. If 1/3 of that produces vegetables that leads to 50 square feet per person in 1981. Today it is probably significantly less. 100% of all rice and grains are imported which probably account for a large percentage of their diet and the significant portion of what is fed to the pigs and chickens. They may be able to produce chickens and pigs but they can't feed them from what they grow. Recycling food is great but where does the food initially come from to recycle? It is a good story that urban areas can be largely self supporting but it just isn't realistic. It doesn't matter where you are tens of square feet of land can't support a person very well.

Food production and distribution will not be an immediate peak oil problem. We transported food by rail with steam locomotives (very thermodynamically inefficiently compared to diesel-electric). But in 1900 it still cost more to move goods 15 miles over (muddy) dirt roads by wagon than it did to move it across the country by rail. Gasoline will become unavailable, either through price or rationing, but there will be enough gasoline and diesel to produce and distribute food. The government will see to that, just like when they took over the railroads during WWI. I am not ruling out the possibility of war/terrorism, etc. causing food shortages and I think having an emergency food supply is important.

The suburbs will have some problems. People will have to carpool and ride busses. Eventually electric streetcar systems will be built just like in the 1890’s.

When living in Atlanta I observed that few people worked downtown. Most people worked in the suburbs but many commuted to the inner suburbs from outer suburbs. This was bacause of taxes, schools and lower real estate costs and newer housing in the exurbs. Also, there were many two career families so at least one usually had a distant commute. Many of these people could move closer to work or take public transportation if available.

Unfortunately the demise of private automobiles and rising costs of all oil based products will severely shrink the economy. People will want land to grow food because they don’t have jobs, not because there is no food. And people without jobs don't have to commute.

Socially and politically we have too much vested interest in the current automobile and petroleum system. This has caused us to postpone making the correct decisions. When we realize that it is too late, we will undertake a crash program.

Cities with good public transit will probably fare better than those without, although the US is far bahind other parts of the world in public transit. I would avoid places like Houston and the Gulf coast petro-chemical corridor that are dependent on the oil industry.

One missing detail in the suburban (or any homesteading) model is debt, something that has been blowing up recently with the housing crisis. Homesteading makes no economic sense if you still have a mortgage to pay but you're unemployed (or underemployed). You'll have a fully stocked pantry but you'll lose the house. I've actually seen some doomers blog about their recent cashflow problems threatening their leveraged doomsteads. And that's not even in the suburbs, per se.

I'd say the only types of people who own their suburban houses lock stock and barrel are the elderly or their adult children who have inherited or will inherit them, and the temptation is great to sell out and use the profit elsewhere. That's certainly the case in my family.

I just don't see the suburbs ever becoming affordable. Not good first-run suburbs at least. As long as that's the case, the only people who will be able to stay there are the elites who will never see the need to pick up a shovel. Everyone else will sell out or get foreclosed on.

I'd say the only types of people who own their suburban houses lock stock and barrel are the elderly or their adult children who have inherited or will inherit them, and the temptation is great to sell out and use the profit elsewhere. That's certainly the case in my family.

I just don't see the suburbs ever becoming affordable. Not good first-run suburbs at least. As long as that's the case, the only people who will be able to stay there are the elites who will never see the need to pick up a shovel. Everyone else will sell out or get foreclosed on.

This is something I've been thinking about. We have no debt other than our mortgage, but it's pretty big and best case scenario will be paid off (early) in ten years. If my husband loses his job (unlikely, at least for awhile, but we're moving into uncharted waters, so who really knows?) all the hard work I've put into our "urban homestead" (improving soil, fruit trees, berry bushes, raised beds) may be lost (to us, anyway).

Meantime, I have noticed a trickle of people from more affluent neighborhoods "downsizing" into our professional middle class neighborhood. If the trend continues, people who don't need to grow food may pick up these houses relatively cheaply while middle class people get pushed out through job loss and inability to pay mortgages that are more than their houses are worth.



A basic principle not always recognozed in the price of residential real estate is that it can never be truly worth very much more than the amount of money that can be borrowed using it as security by someone interested in living there,the money being measured by the monthly payment;

or :worth more than the value of the monthly rental net after expenses,that amount being converted back to PURCHASE PRICE.

Any thing more than the higher of the two is a bubble price and cannot last,except in unusual cases such as a working class nieghborhood going gentry.

If the average citizn in LA can afford a monthly payment of 1000 bucks for instnce,the price of owner occupied houses is limited to what can be borrowed for a thoudsand per month,average.

And if the average renter someplace can afford 2000 per month,and a landlord nets say 1500,the value of a rental cannot truly exceed the amount of money a landlord willl invest for a return of 1500 per month.

Vastly oversimplified of course.

But when payments exceed the ability of owners to make them,prices fall until the NEW owners can make the payments.

The prices of all those houses will fall and rise with the fortunes of the people who actually live in them,over any long run.

If nobody in your town is making any money,the prices MUST decline to match local earnings over a period of time.

Your nieghbor may be foreclosed and lose his house but maybe his prosperous daughter living somewhere else can buy it back for him at half price-assuming he can afford THAT payment.

Great post, Sharon, and a welcome relief to those of us who may not envision a future of 2 tractors, 4 chain saws and an armory worthy of Blackwater, Inc.

A note of caution on extrapolating from Hong Kong as to what may or may not be possible in other cities. The first alarm bell was sounded by oldfarmermac regarding the tropical climate of HK.

Intensive vegetable systems in South China are the product of centuries, if not milennia, of effort, experience and constant refinement of techniques. The soils have been so amended in many areas that it is impossible to define what was the 'parent material.' The 10 crops per year which are achieved in some systems are due to complex systems of multiple cropping, relay intercropping, constant transplanting into established crops, hand pruning to regulate light entry, regimes of fertilization depending on the growth stages of different crops. The result according to a visiting group of foreign ag. experts, "levels of crop pattern complexity that defy rational explanation." (See Harwood in, Vegetable Farming Systems in China, 1981)

These systems are highly labor intensive, 8-10 full time workers per hectare. An additional factor ensuring viability is the relatively low price of labor AND the ability of workers to squat over the intensively maintained growing beds for hours on end.

The list could go on, but an evolution towards these type of complex systems would not occur in 'real time', and may well be derailed for other reasons.

Many of the other comments, following your excellent post, I feel, are worth highlighting. The recycling of McMansions, etc. Figuring out an economic connection between the future of suburbs and the likely scenario of underfunded eldercare would also be worthy of some competent economic planners.

Inorder to help visualize what could be done in NYC, and other 'tall' cities, I would suggest a visit to the Ford Foundation headquarters with its impressive, 'embedded', south facing multi-story internal greenhouse. No frost problems with their 'crops.' Retro-fits on this scale, with waste water treatment incoporated into internal food production and even evapo-transpiration based air-conditioning would put a lot of people to work AND help set the stage for the changes which appear inevitable.

Again, thanks for a thoughtful and thought provoking post.

Great post, Sharon, and a welcome relief to those of us who may not envision a future of 2 tractors, 4 chain saws and an armory worthy of Blackwater, Inc.

Love it!! My sentiments exactly. I haven't even read your whole post yet, but had to respond to your first graph!

Intensive vegetable systems in South China are the product of centuries, if not milennia, of effort, experience and constant refinement of techniques.

This is a major limitation that I think about a lot. I can't tell you how many people look at my garden and can't even identify a common vegetable plant (unless it has fruit on it), let alone understand how to grow it, let alone how to maximize production in a small space. The learning curve will be huge for many people. This, I think, will be more of a challenge than finding space to grow food in a city.


Thanks for the thumbs up.

The agricultural illiteracy you pictured is a huge cultural stumbling block, and not just in the so called developed world.

I write from Costa Rica and my perspective is shaped by 15 years here. The transition from campesino to urbanite is much more recent, but I have seen dozens of examples of people from the city who simply have no clue about country life, from Plant ID's to raising chickens.

AND, there is another whole issue of not just the low wage, but the low status of land work. Here there are even derogatory terms: macheteros--machete wielders, maizeros--corn planters, etc. This is not confined to costa Rica, it is the norm in the global south and has characterized the city-country dichotomy--I would suspect--since someone figured out how to organize things in a hierarchy which permitted some to not get dirty in pursuit of their daily bread.

Hope your learning curve stays on a steep slope. You might enjoy my upcoming Campfire contribution.


Thanks for your comments,I get sort of lonesome sometimes trying to explain that growing a lot of food in a small space is a very difficult thing to do ,and not something that can be counted on by ordinary gardeners any means,especially under less than ideal conditions.

And there are no farmers in this country who have by necessity perfected the techniques,other than in test plots,and test plots don't correlate very well with the real world.

Sometimes I feel as if the average citizen is as proof against the realities of day to day ag as he is against peak oil.

I'm a longtime reader and appreciator of TOD and especially the campfire series-- and I'd say that this is one of the best-thought out and best-written posts yet. Kudos to you, Sharon for getting beyond the 'my place is a better survival den than yours' mentality that seems to seep into many posts. And pay no attention to the word count nuts-- Even the best editor wouldn't cut out much from that piece.

I've lived in suburbs, a rural area, a small town, and a largish city, and agree with your assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of all of the above. Particularly interesting are the comments regarding the suburbs. While you may be right that the suburbs may be able to adapt in place, with arable land somewhere under the turf and sprinkler systems, the mindset of those living in the suburbs will be the greatest obstacle to adaptation. Most suburbanites are far too soft, physicially and mentally, to cope with either the realities of a resource-impoverished urban existence and creating the social connections that it makes necessary or with the hard labor and cultural (entertainment, really) void of rural living.

I no longer do residential landscape design, but when I did, I had several occasions where I had suggested putting a fruit tree in the corner of a suburban yard only to be told (in one way or another) 'no! that's messy!' More common yet was the consulation where (usually) a swaggering suburban dad in office casual duds was interested only in cutting down all the trees within 50 feet of the house-- because the leaves got in the gutters and he had to clean them once a year.

The idea of such people adapting in place is beyond me. I think both the city and countryside will be better off, for the reasons you describe, but also because there is a toughness and preparedness that has come from dealing with lots of little crises of the 20th and early 21st centuries, and a willingness to adapt that just doesn't seem to be there in the suburbs. Add to that the sense of entitlement found in the 'burbs, and once they have exhausted their political power trying to maintain an unmaintainable status quo-- they won't have many options, other than rural serfdom or doubling and tripling up with their city cousins. Physically, I think the suburbs will begin to revert to what they were pre- WWII. An increasingly rural vegetable-raising transition area from city to countryside. With way way fewer people and McMansions.


Very nice article with a balanced view, imo. The issue is, of course, not whether someone can survive in any one kind of location, but how many actually will. I did my own rough calculations for NYC not long ago and decided there was a major depopulation in the offing, as you allude.

One thing not discussed in your article is where will those millions go? The implication of the question is a degree of chaos/anarchy. But to what degree and in what form(s)?


The other point I wonder at is land prices. There are major movements afoot at investor and gov't levels to gobble up arable land. (S. Korea, for example, trying to buy up a huge chunk of, iirc, Madagascar and even one of the regulars here attempting to become a landlord and buying up agricultural land for investments.)

I think the assumption that land will be getting cheaper is, at best, a short-term event due to foreclosures, etc., and most likely a fantasy. IIRC, land prices have been going up by double digits the last few years even as homes (on small lots) have been falling dramatically in price.

In fact, I expect most foreclosed farms to be bought up by those with money. It does occur to me, however, that people such as myself might pool resources to buy an existing farm in good condition as a place to start a homestead/eco-village/whatever.

Again, nice view of what might realistically be the future of each setting.