March 1, 2008
When oil becomes scarce, our current way of life will become obsolete.
At the moment, the ideas bundled under the rubric of “localism” are regarded as a lifestyle choice, which is to say a fashion statement of environmental concern, practiced by those with the time and means to follow fashions. “Locavores”—who make a point to eat locally—are represented overwhelmingly by college-educated, high-income baby boomers who buy those $6 pint baskets of boutique blue potatoes at the farmers’ market as much to make a statement of principle (and derive moral comfort from doing so) as to eat nutritionally sound, good-tasting food. Meanwhile, the rest of America keeps driving to the ShopRite for tubes of frozen ground round, jugs of Pepsi, and bags of Cheez Doodles made (grown?) God knows where. So the stylishly fit locavores end up looking like stuck-up moralistic snobs while the majority follows the mindless corporate programming du jour like the overstuffed lumbering TV zombies they have become. By the way, locavores also overwhelmingly drive to the farmers’ market (as I have observed in my town), usually in motor vehicles the size of medieval war wagons.
Localism in this sense is very much related to the current craze for styling one’s endeavors as “green.” Thomas Friedman cheerleads for “green” globalism in his New York Times column while Time magazine runs “GreenCast” programs on its Web site, and all kinds of specialists design green cars, green lightbulbs, green toilets, green campuses, and green corporate headquarters (all the better for hawking those Cheez Doodles). Much of this activity can be described, to borrow a locution from public relations, as blowing green smoke up our own collective ass. Such, alas, is the sorry state of our culture nowadays that just pretending to mean well, for most people and institutions, is good enough.
A reality-based view of all this suggests that localism and green economic practices will be taken up more broadly and earnestly only when we don’t have a choice about it and can no longer manage our bad old ways. My serene personal conviction is that we are much closer to reaching that point than most Americans realize. The romance of climate change currently holds the nation’s attention because it’s more like a made-for-Hollywood horror-movie plot. Plus, there are a lot of secret side benefits. Will Connecticut become more like South Carolina? Surely some of the denizens of Fairfield County, Connecticut, wouldn’t think that was such a bad deal. Will the grain belt move 800 miles farther north, into Canada? Very well then; Canada’s our bitch anyway. Will there be more tornadoes in Nebraska? Who cares—God made the place only so movies could be shown on airplanes.
What’s roiling backstage, itching to shove climate change out of the spotlight, is Peak Oil, which is currently understood poorly at best by the public. For one thing, it’s not about running out of oil. It’s about the complex systems we depend on for everyday life in this country becoming unstable and failing, as we enter the slippery slope of global oil depletion—a point that we arguably are already at. By “complex systems” I mean the way we produce our food (oil-reliant agribusiness), the way we do commerce (Wal-Mart et al.), the way we do transportation (extreme car dependency), the way we do finance (Ponzi-style), and so on. The oil markets themselves are just another such complex system—and a year-over-year price hike of about 100 percent for a barrel of oil is certainly a manifestation of instability.
Price hikes are one thing. There is plenty of evidence that the American public can keep sucking up increases a while longer. What will probably bite harder is spot scarcities, when your favorite convenience store hangs a cardboard sign on the pump that says “out of gas.” This is liable to result from a growing export crisis combined with a new oil nationalism—phenomena only recently acknowledged even by experts in the trade. It now appears that exports, in nations with surplus oil to sell, are going down at an even steeper rate than production declines. A country like Saudi Arabia may have produced X percent less oil in 2007 than in 2006, but their exports actually declined X+5 percent. Why? They’re using more of their own oil. The population is growing robustly. The Saudis are building the world’s largest aluminum smelter and many chemical factories. Russia, another big exporter, saw its foreign-car sales jump by 63 percent in 2007. Mexico is depleting so rapidly, and using so much more of its own oil, that it might be out of the export game altogether in three years. The new oil nationalism is prompting countries like Norway and Russia to husband more of their own resources as the awareness hits that they are past peak and might want to keep their own motors humming further into the future. They’re also trending more toward selling oil on the basis of long-term contracts with favored customers rather than just auctioning the stuff off on the futures market.
All of this ought to be bad news for big importers like the U.S.A.—we import roughly 60 percent of all our oil. These days we are not such a favored customer among other nations, in particular those of the Islamic persuasion. And when Mexico stops exporting, we will lose our Number Two source of imports. Imagine that. Few Americans have imagined it so far, which is why we are about to be blindsided by this set of problems.
As they gain traction, we’ll be forced to make very different arrangements for virtually everything that constitutes everyday life in our society. Living much more locally will increasingly be the only choice. We are utterly unprepared. We’ll have to grow food differently, at a smaller scale, closer to home, with fewer oil-and-gas-based “inputs.” It will surely require more human attention. National-chain discount shopping will shut down as its economies of scale dissolve and formulas like the “warehouse on wheels” and just-in-time inventory lose viability. Happy motoring will fade into memory, and the entire suburban equation will wilt along with it. And just about everything else you can name, from centralized high schools to professional sports, will be cruelly affected by problems of scale and energy.
Where architecture and urbanism are concerned, in my view there are several major issues pertaining to local outcomes. One is certainly counterintuitive. Our big cities will contract, not grow. The fortunate ones will densify at their old centers and waterfronts, but overall the trend will be severe shrinkage, really a reversal of the 200-year-long demographic movement of people from farms and small towns to megacities. (Places overburdened with skyscrapers will prove to be exceptionally troubled. The skyscraper is an endangered species that will, like the Baluchitherium of yore, soon go extinct.) In my opinion the overall trend will benefit the smaller cities and towns, but only those that can maintain a relationship with productive farming hinterlands or trade via water. The implications for land-use regulation are obviously huge. Rural land will no longer be valued for suburban development. Those who choose to live in rural places in the decades ahead ought to be prepared to follow rural vocations. The end of suburbia will be the end of urban lifestyles lived in rural (or ruralesque) settings.
I happen to believe that our zoning laws and land-use codes are unreformable. Instead, they will simply be ignored. We’ll return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape by default because we’ll no longer have the choice of doing it twentieth-century style. We’ll discover the hard way that the New Urbanists won that argument. It will just not be called “New” Urbanism anymore because it will no longer stand in opposition to other practical ideologies like suburbanism or Modernism. We’ll just have plain urbanism—and design disciplines to go with it.
Architects ought to prepare for a return to traditional local materials. Modular snap-together panels and frame systems will be increasingly unavailable due to the prohibitive cost of fabrication as well as that of exotic metals such as Frank Gehry’s favorite, titanium. It is hard to say how severe this problem may become—a whole new industry will surely arise dedicated to the disassembly of old structures and salvaging of materials—but, personally, I’d say that we’re headed back to mostly masonry for the best new construction. It will necessarily be regional or local in flavor and will require traditional tectonic methods of assembly—which necessarily implies at least a return to a kind of methodological classicism.
What remains for now is a terrible grandiose inertia among people who really ought to know better: our culture leaders. The cutting edge has become a blunt instrument unsuited to fashioning the patterns of the future. Everything we do from now on will have to be finer in scale, quality, and character. Exercises in irony will no longer be appreciated because there will no longer be a premium paid for declaring ourselves to be ridiculous. The localism of the future will not be a matter of fashion. It will be in the food we eat and the air we breathe—and we’d better start paying attention.
Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: March 2008