How Should We Be Thinking About Urbanization? A Freakonomics Quorum

Urbanization has been climbing steadily of late, with more than half of the world’s population now living in cities. Given the economic, sociological, political, and environmental ramifications, how should we be thinking about this? We gathered a quorum of smart thinkers on this subject — James Howard Kunstler, Edward Glaeser, Robert Bruegmann, Dolores Hayden, and Alan Berube — and posed to them the following questions:

This year marked the first time in human history that more people lived in cities than in rural areas. What problems and opportunities does this present? What effects has it had on our local and global culture? Economy? Health?

Thanks to all of them for participating. I found their answers extremely interesting, ranging from the apocalyptic (Kunstler, natch) to the appreciative (Glaeser). It is not fair that Glaeser is so smart and also writes so well. Consider this beautiful kicker to Glaeser’s piece: “Humans are a social species, and our greatest achievements are all collaborative. Cities are machines for making collaboration easier. Thus, I am delighted that our planet has become increasingly urban.”

I hope you enjoy all of our guests’ comments as much as I did.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere:

Most observers tend to extrapolate current trends and assume that what we see now will continue moving in the same direction — ever-larger cities, etc. I don’t see it that way. The global energy predicament now gathering around us will synergize with climate change to produce a very different outcome.

I think we’ll eventually see a reversal of the 200-year-long cycle of people moving from farms and small towns to big cities. Food production is going to be a big problem when oil-and-gas-based agriculture is no longer possible, and we will have to reestablish a more meaningful relationship between urban places and a more productive agricultural hinterland. (We will have to get much more of our food locally in the decades ahead.)

Our mega-cities will contract substantially. The fortunate ones will densify around their old cores and waterfronts — though sea level rise may affect many harbor cities. This process of contraction is likely to be problematic and disorderly. In America, there is certainly the potential for ethnic conflict.

Categorically, our colossal metroplexes will not be sustainable in a post-oil future — and despite the wishes and yearnings of many people, the truth is that no combination of alternative fuels will permit us to continue living at this scale. Some of our cities will not make it. Phoenix, Tucson, and other Sunbelt cities will dry up and blow away. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. Other mega-cities will have to downscale or face extreme dysfunction.

One thing that almost nobody is paying attention to: the skyscraper will not be a viable building type in our energy-scarce future. Six or seven stories must be the practical limit in a new age when electric supply is not necessarily as reliable as it has been in our time. Cities overburdened with mega-structures will have a severe liability.

The suburbs, for the most part, are toast. They have three possible outcomes in the twenty-first century: as slums, salvage yards, or ruins.

Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government:

A central paradox of the twenty-first century is that declining communication and transportation costs have made cities more vital than ever. In the developing world, cities are the intellectual gateways between the human capital of India and China and the markets of the West. In the developed world, cities have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence over the last 25 years as the density that once made it easier to move hogsheads onto clipper ships now serves to spread knowledge in finance and new technology. Globalization and the death of distance increased the returns for being smart, and you become smart by hanging out with smart people. As such, cities remain important because they create the intellectual connections that forge human capital and spur innovation.

The spread of urbanization is, on net, an enormously beneficial process. People in cities are much more economically productive; urban density has been a wellspring of innovation for many millenia. Cities sometimes have a bad reputation because of their association with problems like poverty, pollution, and disease; but this association does not imply causation.

Cities are full of poor people because cities attract poor people, not because cities make people poor. Millions of the least advantaged come to urban areas not because cities are bad for them, but because cities are good for them. The opportunity to trade and connect offers a brighter future for rural migrants who come to the outskirts of Mumbai. Cities also often have public transit and a social safety net that is not available elsewhere.

There is no doubt that the general process of industrialization and growth adversely impacts the environment, at least initially, but cities shouldn’t be blamed for every smokestack. Cities are not factories. They are the concentration of people at high densities, and that concentration is pretty green. After all, we use a lot less energy when we cluster together in cities than when we spread throughout the country and drive hundreds of miles each day in commuting.

Humans are a social species, and our greatest achievements are all collaborative. Cities are machines for making collaboration easier. Thus, I am delighted that our planet has become increasingly urban.

Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

The headlines tell us that the world is now more urban than rural. Surely this fact ought to have profound consequences that call for new attitudes and public policies. However, as is often the case with profound change, what actually is happening — and how we should view these changes — is extremely murky.

From one point of view, the vast migration of people from the countryside to the city is simply the latest chapter in a story that has played out worldwide over the last several centuries. First in the most affluent nations of the West, and now in the developing world, as more efficient agriculture has reduced the number of people needed in the fields, the rise of new urban economies has drawn them to cities. Every time this push-pull phenomenon has shifted into high gear, whether in London in the Nineteenth century or in Mumbai today, there have been wrenching dislocations followed by attempts on the part of public authorities to stop or slow the process. These efforts have rarely been effective in the long run, and have often backfired because they have tried to control behavior rather than plan for it.

In the long run, however, the policies were probably less important than the eventual result – an equally massive move from the cities back into the countryside. In virtually every affluent nation on earth, the old Nineteenth-century industrial cities have exploded outward, allowing densities to plummet at the core as residents move further and further out into low-density suburbia and a very low-density exurban penumbra around that. The city of Paris today has a third fewer residents than it did a century ago, and the suburban and exurban territory around it leapfrogs more or less from the English Channel to Burgundy. In this process, the very distinction between urban and rural has all but disappeared as citizens in almost every part of affluent societies are able to participate in what is essentially an urban culture.

Of course, this huge outward migration of people has caused problems, just as the migration to the cities did. And public authorities have once again tried to slow or halt the process, now pejoratively called “sprawl,” often with the explicit aim of preserving the distinction between the urban and the rural. This effort is likely to be just as futile as the effort to stop people from moving into the cities, and just as likely to be counterproductive. No one knows what the next chapter of urban history will bring, but if there is any lesson to draw from what has happened to date, it is that abstract ideas about the proper form of settlement, whether urban or rural or hybrids we can’t yet imagine, tend to lag far behind the reality on the ground.

Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale and author of Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000:

I’ll address these questions in terms of our own culture, and leave the global analysis to others. Old divisions between “city” and “countryside” have become misleading in urbanized nations like the U.S. “City” in the U.S. today really means “metropolitan region,” because we are a predominantly suburban nation. After almost two centuries of peripheral urban growth, American suburbs have overwhelmed the centers of cities, creating urban regions largely formed of suburban parts. By 2000, more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined.

Metropolitan areas, including suburbs, are much more ethnically diverse than they used to be. One person living alone (single, widowed, or divorced) represents the predominant household type in suburban areas today. The suburban male breadwinner family with a stay-at-home mom and two children living in a peaceful three-bedroom colonial with a leafy yard predominates only in reruns of old sitcoms.

For years, when urban historians wrote about the “city,” they meant the center, the skyline, downtown. Suburbs were left out of traditional “city biographies” emphasizing economic development, population growth, and the achievements of business leaders. Everyone knew that large suburbs existed and had something to do with the process of urbanization. But most historians thought they were less significant than the city center: spatially, because they were less dense than centers; culturally, because more of their attractions involved nature than architecture; and socially, because their daytime activities involved women and children more than men.

Because of prejudices about density, high culture, and gender, suburbia resisted scrutiny for decades. It evaded both art historical analysis (based on the aesthetic assessment of outstanding buildings), and urban analysis (based on demographic and economic statistics). As a result, many urban historians were surprised that the consistent spatial push for residential development at the very edge of the city finally brought about the dominance of a suburban pattern in the metropolitan landscape as a whole. They were intellectually unprepared for the shift.

In the 1970s and 1980s, architects and urban theorists also largely ignored suburbs, or lambasted them as banal and unlivable areas of tract houses. Artists and writers tended to agree, perhaps because television, films, and advertising often represented American family life in comfortable suburban houses as a mindless consumer world. Synonyms for suburb in those years included “land of mediocrity,” “middle America,” and “silent majority,” as well as terms like outskirts, outposts, borderlands, and periphery.

Today, Americans need to come to terms with the urbanized landscapes we have created. As Harlan Douglas, a perceptive sociologist, defined the urban region composed of suburbs in the 1920s, “It is the city trying to escape the consequences of being a city while still remaining a city. It is urban society trying to eat its cake and keep it, too.”

Since the mid-1930s, the federal government has encouraged green field development on raw land outside of urban centers, usually through tax subsidies rather than direct spending. These incentives account for extended metropolitan expansion promoted by “growth machines” — alliances of bankers, developers, and business leaders profiting from hidden federal subsidies for suburban development. Excessive green field growth lies behind the national energy shortage and the mortgage crisis. Using federal incentives to constantly expand urban peripheries with commercial and residential development has had serious consequences. Reliance on imported oil, pursuit of war in the Middle East, and the credit crunch shaking Wall Street suggest that wise patterns of urban land use are more important to economic well-being than many Americans recognize.

Alan Berube, research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program:

I’m inclined to look at this question from a purely domestic perspective. And from that vantage point, most Americans would probably be stunned to learn that, by the U.N.’s definition (the basis for the more-city-than-rural-dwellers statistic), 81 percent of the U.S. population lives in “cities.” How can that be true in the world’s preeminent suburban nation, where many people still hold a Jeffersonian view of cities (“pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man”)?

The way the U.N. – and most economists – look at it, a city encompasses not just the political geography that lies at the heart of an urban region, but the entire surrounding metropolitan area that functions as an economic whole. So New York isn’t just the five boroughs (population 8.2 million), but the enormous labor market that extends from Rockland County upstate, west to the Poconos, east to Suffolk County, and south to the Jersey Shore (population 18.8 million). What separates us from the world’s developing nations (and many developed ones, too) is that most Americans who live in these “cities” or “urban agglomerations” would describe themselves as living in the suburbs.

But if you live in Westchester County, N.Y.; Cobb County, Ga.; Lake County, Ill.; or Collin County, Tex., would you really have a reason to be there if it weren’t for New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, or Dallas? Even if you don’t work downtown – true of only about one-fifth of Americans today – you might work at a firm that provides goods and services for central-city firms or consumers (think back-office banking operations); use specialized services that concentrate in the city (legal, finance, consulting, temp employment, or retail); or rely on media (say, the New York Times), cultural offerings, and sports teams that remain rooted in the city (with a few glaring exceptions: see here, here, and here).

Regardless, the same economic forces that are attracting people to large urban regions in the developing world apply here in the U.S. (and really always have). Firms and workers derive benefits from co-locating in large metro areas, in that they can each find a better “match” with one another given a greater variety of options. Big urban areas can cost-effectively support critical infrastructure like international airports, passenger and freight rail, and wireless networks. And urban proximity generates spillovers across workers, firms, and universities, embodied in the “network innovation” that powers areas like Silicon Valley (and in the venture capital that is its lifeblood). The result: big places are getting bigger. While the nation’s 100 largest metro areas (containing at least half a million people) contain 65 percent of U.S. population, they have captured 76 percent of its recent population growth. No wonder; as Ed Glaeser has argued, urbanization makes us more productive and, in the end, wealthier.

The jury is out on whether America can openly accept its urban condition (starting the presidential race in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of our least urban states, doesn’t help). But we’re not headed back to the future; despite some predictions, technology has yet to turn us into a nation of mountaintop telecommuters. My colleagues at Brookings and I have argued that in light of this reality, we ought to begin to tackle critical national challenges – on economic growth, education and skills, infrastructure, and the environment – with a keener eye toward the big, complex, messy, metropolitan way in which the majority of Americans (and now, our global counterparts) live their lives.

H W Batt

As transportation costs and site rents are inversely linked, we'd better soon get our incentives right if we're to make better use of space. Right now, the subsidies for motor vehicle use, and the design of the conventional property taxes, exert a centrifugal force fostering sprawl development. One way to easily correct this in cities is to move toward taxing land according to its value. This reverses those tendencies and revitalizes urban cores.
Land use configurations are fairly enduring once imposed. But we had better alter our course soon if we stand any chance of a sustainable future. Land Value Taxation is an easy first step.

W P Gardner

How come no numbers?

If the main story here is about density, how do you define a city, anyway?

For example, I live in a place that is technically a suburb: Berkeley, California. I live in one of the higher-density areas. The area I live in is about the same density as metro New Orleans or Seattle, which are called cities. But it's lower density than San Francisco. (Not by a lot.)

The San Francisco Bay Area has three high-density lumps: San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. The rest is all suburbs (or the bay itself, which is in the middle). What do you call such an agglomeration? A city? When most of the center is water?

Show me some numbers. The words "city", "suburb" and "rural" are becoming useless.

Hans Noeldner

It is unfortunate we use the word "urbanized" to describe profoundly different built spatial environments - i.e. everything from habitats constructed for the species homo automobilicus to habitats constructed for the species homo pedestricanus.

Of course here in the United States the main thrust of our economic activity over the past 60 years has been to undermine, destroy, and prevent the formation of habitat for homo pedestricanus. No surprise, the larger, faster, more powerful species has "won" almost everywhere. The dearth of human life on the streets in virtually every village and small city in the US attests to the lost struggle.

This victory may prove short-lived. Having suffocated millions of acres of bioproductive land beneath the highways and parking lots it needs for the movement and storage of its colossal population, homo automobilicus now intends to appropriate even more land for "food" production (i.e. biofuels). But it is unlikely that homo pedestricanus will suffer this seizure.

Even if homo pedestricanus does not promptly muster the forces to stop the land grab, homo automobilicus will probably collapse all on its own. Why? It has enormously higher energetic requirements than the frugal species homo pedestricanus. The inherent nature of homo automibilicus is to be a carrion feeder, and basic thermodynamic laws make it very unlikely that sustainable energy flows will prove adequate fare.

History will almost certainly prove that petroleum was the largest, most nutritious rotting carcass upon which homo automobilicus ever gorged. Oil alone allowed it to breed to wildly unsustainable numbers, and the end of oil will prove its downfall.

We would hope that this implosion will not prevent homo pedestricanus from flourishing again. Oh, if only the species homo sapiens could discover enlightened self-restraint!


Fla Joe

Oil isn't the only form of energy
Small farms will not be the source food for billions of people. The infrastructure investment that can only be afforded in big cities will distribute food, power, knowledge, etc. to all parts of the globe. Urbanization has been going on for over a millenium in all parts of the world. Kunstler's theories don't work. Expensive energy will reshape the urban fabric - for sure - but not end urbanization.


I agree with another commenter that it is striking and disappointing that only Kunstler and one other Smart Person in passing mentioned how the availability of natural resources effect the prognosis for large cities. I think this shows that most of the Smart People are out of touch with an uncomfortable reality. I'm also surprised by the level of vitriol being dumped on Kunstler. I can see how he perhaps is minimizing the potential of economic maneuvering, industrial innovation and plucky human ingenuity in resolving the long emergency. On the other hand, a lot of the railing against Kunstler sounds like an attempt to bat away a threatening idea not because it's ridiculous and baseless but because it's got a big grain of inconvenient truth in it. Wouldn't we be Smarter People to face rather than shout down the harsh realities of energy availability, and how energy policies based on iniquity instead of intelligence might be undermining those bright cities of the future that we all want? Sure, people can be smart and moral and innovative, but they can also be greedy and willfully blind. I think we need 'apocalyptic' voices like Kunstler in our society.



Suburbs are not sustainable. Cities are. Without cheap oil there will once again be an irresistible economic pressure for people to live in traditional cities, where they can walk from their homes to work, school, shopping, dining and entertainment. Americans will have to become more like Manhattanites. But the "Sunbelt" cities like Phoenix - yes, they will decline and fade away. One cannot live in such a place without vast engineering projects to deliver water, massive amounts of electricity for air conditioning, and oil for their cars since none of them are suited to walking or public transportation. There's no reason for them to exist in the first place, and people in a resource scarce world will no longer be able to go against nature and live in places not suitable for human habitation.


The key for sustainability is urbanization without sprawl. Cities must become dense and vertical, with immediately outlying areas used for agriculture and renewable energy fields.


I agree with all the people who say Kuntsler is a bit off-base. The skyscraper will become more common, with people living, working, and doing all their grocery shopping in the same building. Commuting costs would drop to near zero and there would be massive economies of scale. There would be an enormous waterfall in the central atrium (parrots flying around). If the power got low, the water would fall, turning turbines that transform the gravitational energy into electricity. There would be little ponds every dozen or so stories in which the water would pool, then fall out the bottom through another set of turbines. There would be sophisticated noise cancellation speakers to dull the roar of the falls. The electricity would be used to power, in order: 0) the condos of the rich 1) the central atrium 2) the sweatshops and offices 3) retail stores in the atrium 4) the apartments of the middle class 5) the tenements of the poor. The poor would live in a dark layer sandwiched between a) the condos with outward facing windows and b) the condos facing the central atrium. The poor would have stairwells that only have access to certain levels of the building, for example there would be parkland tiers of the central atrium directly accessible only from the homes of the more affluent. However, all people would be allowed to access certain retail tiers of the atrium.

The water would reach the top of the waterfall by evaporating up solar columns that discreetly line the exterior of the building. Some of this water would be treated sewage from peoples' homes and part of it would be from the terraced hydroponic gardens that circle around the outside of the building. These gardens would rotate to face the sun at its brightest angle, periodically obscuring the windows of the middle class homes. For the most part, people will be at work when their apartment views are blocked so it won't really matter. Additionally, people can program their apartments so that their windows automatically turn into solar panels when no ones using the windows. Rather than turning out the lights, people would turn on the power generator, and this power is automatically sold by the individual into an energy bank that powers the whole building.

Some (predominantly poor or stingy) people would live and work in time shares. One person would be allowed in the apartment for half the day, the other person would be allowed for the other half. At the end of the "house shift", the person has to pack up their things in a safe box, which locks into the wall in the manner of a Murphy bed. Any unpacked items will be destroyed by a robot. As soon as they vacate the premises, fumes destroy any odors or traces of the previous occupant so that the other person can pretend no one else shares the space. The sheets on the bed are connected to reels on each side of the bed, reels in the manner of a seatbelt, which automatically pull the sheets snug. When a person gets out of bed, the sheets are pulled snug in a fashion so that no person can impart their character on the making of the bed. The sole tell-tale for each of these occupants would be seeing the keyhole of the other person's safe box next to their own. The two occupants will never sense each other in anyway and are anonymous to one another, although there will be many movies in which tenants fall in love under these circumstances, and contrive to find out who their secret “house share” is. These people would also be working in time share work environments, as all factories and most offices would be operating 24 hours a day.


David Seaton

Perhaps we will see small, vibrant, cities surrounded by enough agriculture to support them. This is how humanity lived for centuries before fossil fuels became our principal source of energy.

Alternative energy sources cannot maintain our present lifestyle, but I'm sure they'll be able to maintain a very satisfying and human future lifestyle.

I think Kunstler is right about suburban sprawl: energy and water are not going to be wasted in the future and any efficient use of resources would condemn the exburbs to oblivion. The world's jungles and deserts are full of the ruins of such past follies.


JT, aka credentialsplease, etc., we get that you have some kind of personal ax to grind re: Kuntsler. However, aside from the fact that he doesn't attack people by regurgitating wikipedia (saw your fear mongering remark there as well) and apparently didn't let his "credentials" prevent him from a notable career, we should listen to him because he is not afraid to imagine scenarios outside of convenient rationalizations, assumptions or models.
After all, as the case has been made things like 9.11 happened because of a lack of imagination about how destructive forces we failed to understand could become.
As for theater majors and the like, I guess JT would have us dismiss Jane Jacobs because she dabbled in zoology and never got a degree. Fortunately people like Kuntsler don't expect to be taken seriously from just posting on wikipedia.


Why all the navel-gazing at US cities and suburbs on this news story? Why is Mumbai the only international city of mention in these comments?

The story here is the very rapid concentration of people in urban manufacturing areas along the Chinese coast (Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Chongqing, Tsingtao) and, the elephant in the room no-one talks about except National Geographic, Sao Paulo in Brazil. These cities aren't rich like Mumbai (well, except Shanghai), glamorous like Rio De Janiero, or politically or diplomatically important like capitals. They just have millions of people seeking cash wages.


Except for Mr. Kunstler's passage, which it seems to me the editor wisely chose to place first, the contributions of all the other experts are stunningly backward-looking.

I guess because they are all professional academics for whom reputation, rather than truly useful knowledge, is paramount.

One may disagree with various specifics of Mr. Kunstler's prognosis, but these are the big issues we need to be discussing and thinking about now, and cease hiding from our dilemma by obsessing about the minutiae of our present issues.

In a way, we can thank climate change - it has made the oncoming energy crisis more believable and palpable, making it harder and harder to ignor.


I agree the dissent that comes from voices like Mr Kunstler (and thanks for jumping in so quickly JK) are necessary, but nearly all of the peak oil or other limits based societal critics seem to assume an unrealistic stasis in terms of scientific or societal development.

"GM is still selling Hummers, Suburbans, and Tahoes to fools, I mean humans"

The fools were going to toe the line and buy an XC90 for those trips to Whole Foods. Until they found out the Suburban gets better gas mileage (OK, it's the same if you get the V6 Volvo). Believe it or not, some people actually have a use for that type of vehicle. Hopefully gas prices will limit sales to that group.


Stunning in all of these responses is the almost total silence on where the bulk of urbanization will occur in the coming decades, and why: It is not in the US, so why all the disproportionate attention to this country? (Some major cities like Detroit are in fact shrinking, economically and in population size, under de-industrialization.)
The cities that will experience the most rapid growth are the mid-sized (population 500,000-1,000,000) cities of the developing world, most of which have names still completely unknown to most Americans. In fact, the "mega-cities" that get much media attention--like Lagos, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Mexico City, Johannesburg, etc.--are seeing a slow-down in population growth rate. That is not to say they pose immense environmental and political challenges, however. Basically, the cities of the 21st century won't (and already don't) look like the burgeoning industrial capitals of the 19th and 20th centuries. For the first time in modern history, we are seeing urbanization without industrialization in the form of massive rural-to-urban migration in the developing world as large landowners consolidate property through monopoly capital in agricultural industries. Some 200,000 people migrate to cities worlwide each day from the countryside looking for a new livelihood. Systems of physical infrastructure, governance, not to mention labor markets, are unable to cope with this influx of migrants. Rampant urbanization is neither an inevitability nor an accident, but rather a direct consequence of global economic restructuring. Without a discussion of the policies and ideologies embedded in this restructuring we fail to understand what is going on.
While his conclusions are typically dystopian and close off much needed attention to ways everyday people are resisting and coping with these dramatic changes, I highly suggest Mike Davis's recent book "Planet of Slums" as a point of reference for framing this discussion.



Greg said:

"I might agree that living in densely populated areas would be more efficient, but my question is - In a declining energy environment - What will the City dwellers do to convince people from Iowa to send New York City food? I cannot figure out what value New York provides now as it's smart people have only created one credit bubble after another."

That is the question, indeed. Cheap energy has created a huge multifaceted and interdepent global consumer industry based around the frivolous use of resources for basically luxury goods and services. This explains fully the stunning development of industrial society in the last century or two. Forget human ingenuity and science for a moment. Although they certainly are important factors, industrial civilisation wouldn't have even got off the ground without cheap energy.

Take away cheap energy and the whole complex will certainly start to unravel. Cities - being the sublime result of huge and sustained energy surplusses over the last century - will become very hard pressed to maintain their raison d'etre.

I agree with Kunstler that the general public (not just American) is totally unaware of this fundamental problem. When people say, as in the comments above, that "it's merely the end of *cheap* oil", that displays their complete ignorance regarding the crisis right there.

Is the general public being 'kept in the dark' by some design? I doubt it. The difficulty here is that there is no politically acceptable 'solution' to this particular problem of declining energy affordability, which means that anyone reporting on it (like Kunstler) is a doomsayer almost by definition. And unless you can support yourself by selling a few books, like Kunstler apparently can, it is decidedly unwise to become known as a doomsayer.



I think one problem in our individual and collective thinking is that very few things seem amazing today - anything seems possible. For example, how many people think about how truly amazing the power requirements are to lift a commercial airliner? Our society and economy is based on a just-in-time supply chain that is based on long-haul trucking and airline supplies. Our daily lives are based on long commutes in gas powered vehicles. The shear mobility of it all is truly amazing. Yet many people fail to see anything as amazing anymore. It seems people are too busy watching Britney's comeback and HGTV to actually take the time to think about the vast amount of energy required to do the things we do. For better or for worse, Kunstler is not off the mark. He is not spouting political ideology. Things are gonna change folks, and no amount of technology or government band-aids are going to mask the inevitable pains of all this change.



I'm glad to see Peak Oil issues being brought up in the NYT's. While I have great issues with Kunstler's views on race and identity in The Long Emergency, his overall ability to communicate the issues of energy decline has been important for many. If we stop thinking in the angry binaries of "America-hater" vs. "patriot" or "Techno-Panglossian" vs. "Doomsayer", and look at the issues he raises, we will have to come to see our own practical and ethical responsibilities now and in the future.

As petro-energy availability declines, the markets will only ensure that supplies are unequally distributed, for that is the nature of markets. So the poor of the third world are already beginning to starve and enter a new dark age. Food crops and land are being turned into fuel crops for the rich (and we all reading this are rich). They cannot afford bio-fuels, let alone $100/b oil. This process will only accelerate and such human populations will contract through starvation and resource wars.

Markets themselves are based on the monopolistic violence a government exerts to enforce contracts. But as supplier nations grow and no longer wish to contract to supply us with as much petrochemicals, we (the US, Europe, China, etc) will exert our violence through other means-- wars that will make the Iraq conquest look small.

All this violence and death and unequal sharing will happen to make sure that for as long as possible some Americans, at least, will continue to be content and productive. Though not all, certainly not those losing their homes now and joining the growing ranks of the serfdom. "The American way of life is not negotiable," said Dick Cheney after 9/11, and I believe he, an oil-politician, understood the meaning of this comment far more clearly than most of us.

So it may be easier for sometime longer than Kunstler predicts for at least some Americans to pretend there is nothing wrong happening, no Long Emergency. Eventually, however, the very global economy necessary to maintain the technological infrastructure of modern society will shrivel up under growing demand destruction. Energy supplies will decline precipitously while the ability (technological and energetic) to extract more scarce energy from difficult environments will decline. Instead of preparing ourselves by building into a different future, using our remaining resources to make sure our descendants have a manageable rail transportation network, growing topsoil and distributed solar, wind and sustainable hydro power, we will have only ruins that reflect the callous, arrogant, binary thinking that is evident in some of the posts on this forum.

Forget thinking of peak oil predictions as "doom": that word negates the lives of people in the future, as if all they are is what they represent from our vantage points. We are like bad parents who can't see our children for who they are, but only through what our own egos need to project upon them. How will they see us and what will be their own hopes and aspirations? What will we leave for them to do? The political solution is to start now thinking of the 7th generation, and that requires accepting that our continued way of life and "comfort" not only brings sorrow to others in the rest of the world today, but to our own children tomorrow. We in the US aren't the only part of civilization responsible, but at least we can begin to prepare and lead the way. If we can do it, others will follow.



Last post was obviously to long and now well written. Consider the following blurbs which will help your peak oil discussion or denial.

Overall Peak Oil is a long term problem. Peak Oil is a "tip of the fuel iceberg"

After Oil runs out Natural Gas runs out. These account for 60 percent of US energy and GNP.

Coal won't last long. It runs out in 55 years if we try to fill the oil, NG energy gap.

The only long term sustainable resource is breeder reactors that create fuel from nuclear fuel. Without breeders, uranium runs out in 100 years. Then you have only renewable which would be wood, water, wind, solar (with whatever stashes of silicon and solar harvesting equipment is left from the mess.)

There are short term, mid term and long term issues.

Short term are cost and localized problems, due to flooding, disasters, small wars, profiteering, spot shortages. Mid term are depressions and recessions that last 4 to 5 years, and will become increasingly active. These are national or international in scope.

Long term is loss of Peak Fossil fuel energy. We need thousands of breeder reactors to make up the BTU difference.

Consider you average economy car uses 70HP to drive. Your average human expends 1/10th a horsepower riding a bike. Therefore a low end economy car is like having 700 rickshaw drivers. It's only possible short term (while fossil fuel resources are available.)

Wind is a good renewable as is water power. But limits on both those mostly the good sites and having enough equipment causes a problem.

Kunstler's views are toward the long view.

The problem is there are natural traits in mankind to compete as individuals (or even animalistic) and in organized groups, from small tribes to national governments. This competition causes consumption and increased use of resources.

A sustainable energy future, is not sustatinably economically because our entire economy and debt structure is built on expanding use of energy that will not exist in the future. We are living on a huge energy bubble.

The detractors against this Peak Oil theory seem to be the ones giving excuses when you look at the facts, the massive amounts of BTU power requried to sustain modern life simply cannot be maintained.

The questions most ask in the first world (USA and modern economies) is "how can we keep the party going" in other words how can we exploit and use world resources and get most of them for ourselves.

This has been the policy.

Peak Oil is a bigger threat than social Security going under, the auto industry collapse, bank failures, even many wars or dollar collapse. It's much bigger than any of these long term, and may cause many of these smaller disasters. It's a bigger problems because it's certain, it will happen and even the detractors claim it will. They just give a 30 year longer projected date.

Since we didn't respond to the energy crisis of the 70s we will not respond to the current one in a sustainable manner.

To be sustainable is to virtually abandon most of the trappings of civilization. If all is shared equally, meaning not a communistic sharing of resources, but all fall and suffer equally from Peak Oil loss of energy, the bigger users wil fall farther. This means, the west will start living like poorer countries in order to be sustainable.

However as we try to stop that slide into third world everywhere, we'll see things like Food production, military budgets, and the electrical grid be given a priority as other things like "expensive personal transportation" and "heating and cooling your entire house" fall by the wayside.

The only other option is the starving or mass killing via resource wars of most of the population. When Peak Oil advocates analyze and play predictive games about simulating how the future will be, they often end up looking at small eco-sustainable village or farm like living.

Consider it would take 6 acres to grow food for fuel alone for the average american car, we don't have enough land to grow fuel for cars. Cars have to be abandoned. This will happen and must happen, because of mathematical certainty of loss of BTU worldwide output. What will replace it.

The Amish have been living sustainably, but unfortunately all sustainable groups are at the mercy of higher BTU and technology groups. Witnsess history of American Indian or Arabic tribesman of the Middle East for proof.

The results will likely be something like enclosed bicycles or trikes that are perhaps 100lbs or less. For semi-bad weather driving. Using a single battery and having a 500 watt draw. With that the weight to ride ratio would be almost as good as a bicycle and provide a 30 mile range at about 40 MPH and nearly between 300 to 600 MPG. We can only generate perhaps 400 Kilowatts of power from a $5,000 wind generator on a $5,000 tower (skystream). That 400 kilowatts if you have a good site, can provide about 11 gallons worth of gasoline BTU's per month. can't use that for a car, can use it for an electric trike, like a velomobile. This might allow 1/3rd of the power for transportation. The rest of the energy will go to your small living room/sleeping room and other rooms in your future house would be unheated except by natural solar design, thermo gain. In other words we'll live in earth ships with perhaps straw bale walls. This is much like the way most of the poor live now. 60% of the housing is in earth walled houses today. Why? Because it's cheap, doesn't take a lot of energy to create and sustainable.

Instead of cutting down 10 acres of trees, you can use clay and sand and some (5% cement or lime) stabilizer to create compressed earth blocks.

Of course the future ideally would have more independent small eco-farm houses in a not to dense mixture of suburbia and farmland styled life, perhaps with greenspace. However it will be a challenge to avoid green space reservation and expansion by the rich, as that's a strategy that the rich will be doing. They did it in the past, providing a golf course in the middle of condo development projects, only to sell off the golf course once the condos are sold out.

Challenges are Peak oil depletion, GNP debt repayment, loss of economy and ability to move goods, and restraint on competitive nature of man. Developing new technologies sounds interesting, but once the energy is gone you just have the "junk" left over. Whatever we built with cheap energy. That's the dump you get to harvest from. Everything else becomes super difficult.

There is virtually no way to get a single brain around the problem and comprehend the nature of the energy problem. It's so intensly depressing, that many Peak Oil people backed into the belief of the problem while trying to disprove it.

Greg K



The ultimate effect of urbanisation will prove to be the collection of the most critical desities of human and capitol assets within a small area.

In a nuclear world that means when the resource wars begin it is a simple matter to remove the enemies most critical assets.

This will ultimately prove to have devastating results on the human race. Cities were once walled for protection from resource raiders. Now they have in effect concentrateted their assets to removal by an aggresor. The failure to grasp lessons from history will be our undoing...


Kunstler's book The Long Emergency is a must read... The majority of the US population are clueless walking zombies. We are in a world of hurt right now and things are getting worse at every key stroke I make.

How many of you here have a months supply of food, a means to cook it without electricity? How many of you have went to the bank and cashed out yet? Do you believe that there will no be a run on the banks when the dollar continues to drop in value! It has already happened. Google about the teachers in Florida who are worrried about getting their biweekly paycheck.

China and India are after the oil as much as we are. So few people really understand the importance of oil in our lives. It's just not gasoline people! How do you think our crops are fertilized, where do you think electricity comes from? It takes 30 barrels of oil just to make a car.

Go to you tube and watch the End of Suburbia. Anybody down in Florida two years ago when we had the hurricanes one after the other? It was insane just trying to find a gas station that was open let alone have gas. Hostilities were running high at the pump. People were fighting because people were cutting in line.

America has dumbed down... Who here can provide for their family without Walmart or your local grocery store? Do you think the government is going to save you in your time of need? Prepare! No I'm not a lunatic, no I'm not a doomer, but I am a realist! How many of us here have a %^&$%^ plasma TV yet no reserve food? A hundred years, maybe ten years, maybe 5 years, from know who will be looked upon as a lunatic?

Remember it wasn't long ago that we had the Cuban missel crisis. People were building bomb shelters then, and storing food. We had plenty of oil then, but oil is now at the cusp of $100 a barrel, and gold is at $800+ an ounce.

Really, living in the city when a crisis does come, being it oil, terrorist attack, or natural disaster, is the last place I want to be with my family!
Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency, just might wake some of you zombies up!