Can Cities Become Resilient?

It is natural, and human nature, to look after our immediate needs, and not to plan ahead. Nature looks after the long-term: it genetically instructs living creatures to slow down or speed up birth rates in each community by having each creature’s body chemistry highly sensitive to environmental stress, so that they need not consciously ‘plan’ to have, or not have, more offspring, and so that they instinctively gather food supplies, or hibernate, or migrate, when signals in the environment ‘tell’ them to do so.

Humans, by contrast, respond emotionally and/or rationally, to the point whatever our instincts might once have told us is drowned in the noise of our brain’s conscious emotional and rational messages. We are governed by our software — our brains, not by our hardware, our genes. That software has followed the only model it had available, and as such the manifestations of that software — our cultures and behaviours and priorities — change very slowly and are focused on the satisfaction of our immediate needs. We are abysmal at long-term planning, at thinking ahead. It is simply not in our nature.

As a result, after thirty millennia of increasing urbanization and exploding population, we are now within years, or at most decades, of running out of oil, water, and other natural resources, and of so polluting the air, water and soil with our thoughtless waste products that we are precipitating a period of almost unimaginable, extreme climate and weather changes. And we have, still, at this late date, no coordinated plan for dealing with these crises. We will act, as we always have done, only when these crises are upon us, when what is merely important (and hence never done) becomes urgent.

Nowhere will our lack of preparedness be more catastrophic than in our cities, where 60% of our 6.5 billion humans live on 2% of the planet’s surface area and consume 75% of what humanity in total consumes. Even if that consumption were to stop increasing today, it is still twice what our planet is capable of sustainably producing, even with the best science money can buy. If everyone on the planet were to consume what those in the world’s affluent countries consume per capita, which is what most of those in the struggling nations of the world aspire to, that consumption would be twelve times what our planet could sustainably produce. And even in the affluent countries, that consumption is still increasing.

Virtually all of the planet’s net population growth is now occurring in the sprawling urban areas, so that by the latter part of this century, instead of four billion urban dwellers on 2% of the Earth’s land area with a combined consumption footprint of 27 billion acres, we will have ten billion urban dwellers on 7% of the planet’s land area with a combined consumption footprint of 140 billion acres, ten times what our planet can sustainably produce, even allowing generously for a shift to renewable resources and reduced waste. It is conservatively estimated that hydrocarbon availability by that time will be half what it is today, so that hydrocarbons per urban dweller will be only one-fifth what it is today.

Even at current rates of energy use, that means that 80% of urban energy needs will be met by staggeringly expensive, vulnerable nuclear plants. And nuclear energy, even if it is somehow affordable (it would cost $50T just to build the reactors needed to replace current fossil fuel consumption) cannot replace transportation needs without a transportation infrastructure refit investment that would dwarf even that cost. So any goods (food, water, medicines) that rely on cheap transportation will become massively more expensive, even if we can afford to continue the huge agricultural subsidies in place now.

Life in cities for the huge majority who cannot afford the basic amenities of life — picture the slums of Mumbai or Mexico, only three to four times larger, will be almost unimaginable. And the affluent nations will be just as dramatically affected — with the US economy bankrupt, automobile and even train travel prohibitively expensive, infrastructure crumbling, and prices for food, water, heat and shelter ten times higher while wages stagnate, the only areas that will suffer more than the vertical cores of big cities of affluent nations will be their profligate suburbs, which some predict will be abandoned by their current property owners and will turn into squatter ghettos.

This is hard to imagine, for those of us who have never known a great depression or scarcity. Not only will the future bring a shortage of clean water, it will likely interrupt the availability of distribution systems that depend on hydrocarbon energy (so we may have to get used to going and retrieving water) and it will mean the end of use of irrigation, with huge consequences for agriculture and life in drier areas like the Western US. Most of us don’t even remember the WW2 “victory gardens“, but we’ll have to learn, as they did, how to grow and tend our own crops — which will make life especially difficult for those in Northern climates. And those in more Southern areas will probably have to learn to make do without air conditioning, so that the energy available can be used for more essential purposes.

OK, so this sound grim, and maybe you think I’m being an alarmist. While many warnings of the danger of a depression were ignored during the 1920s, the last century also had its share of false alarms. As I’ve said before, the coming crises are likely to start slowly and could take decades before they start to seriously disrupt our economy. I believe we’re going to see what James Kunstler calls a “Long Emergency” — no sudden and short-lived blips like in the 1990s, but rather a gradually building series of cascading crises that will eventually overpower our civilization’s ability to cope with them.

So what can cities do to avoid such a fate? If it is in our nature not to act until we feel the pain, is there any point in trying to get any substantial changes made in our society before that? Lots has been written about the need to consume less, to commute less, to learn to become less dependent on things we take for granted — oil-based products and services, foods, water, medicines, communications, electric light, but who is going to read it until it starts to happen? When we read about learning to plant urban gardens, buy crank-powered radios, disinfect our own water, keep ourselves warm, stockpile non-perishables, protect ourselves when infrastructure and communication fails in the dark, we cringe with embarrassment at doing such a thing — that’s the stuff that the neo-survivalist wingnuts do, the people who don’t get out enough and over-react to every alarm. We know there will eventually be another influenza epidemic, but who is doing anything about it to prepare and cope with it when it comes?

Our neighbourhood was plunged last weekend into darkness as high winds and blizzard conditions conspired to sever power lines and impede efforts of electrical workers to repair them. For nine hours we sat, and slept fitfully, in the dark, wondering how long the power would be off. Out where we live, there are no gas lines, so most of us rely on electricity for heat as well as light and power. The utter darkness is unsettling, the sense of helplessness complete, and as the cold winds howl outside and rattle your windows, you start to think about what you will do if the inside temperature drops below 50 Fahrenheit, or 40, or freezing, and what might happen if the water pipes freeze and rupture, or if the snowfall is so severe that medical supplies and rescue workers can’t get through.

I can’t help thinking that this is what we’re going to feel as the Long Emergency begins to unfold. First annoyance, then unease, and then, as it becomes apparent that no one was prepared for the crisis to be this bad, or to last this long, panic.

Our cities and their suburbs are inherently rigid, lacking agility and resilience. But as it slowly begins to dawn on us that we are going to need to find a radically different way to live, I sense that it will be too late to make the cities resilient. Just as now there is a massive exodus from the country to the cities, all over the globe, in search of wealth and opportunity, the Long Emergency will launch a massive exodus in the opposite direction, in search of the simple necessities of life.

We had our wake-up call with Katrina. New Orleans will never recover, and because we now realize how vulnerable it is, we won’t even try to put it back together. Already the Bush administration is backing off from promises to fund its recovery, evidently believing it’s just throwing good money after bad. We will likely do the same when we witness that same lack of resiliency of all the world’s cities to economic collapse, the end of oil, and the impacts of climate change. When we have left them behind, the skyscrapers will remain as monuments to our civilization’s denial of its own vulnerability, gravestones to away of living that could never be sustained.

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5 Responses to Can Cities Become Resilient?

  1. adrian says:

    Very thought-provoking post, as always. I think one reason dependence-reducing strategies are seen as kooky is that people see the thinking behind them as hubristic — here’s Captain Me, out here with my personal windmill, garden and nuke shelter, going it alone. In many cases, individual solutions are costly, compared to what society provides, so we do the math and decide to go with the flow. However, events like Katrina undermine the trust many people have that society is able to respond effectively to crises. The equation is changing — though, as you point out, it’s in reaction to imminent crisis, and already too late.

  2. Avi Solomon says:

    The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan is a good example of what needs to be done by cities on a local level to survive the end of cheap oil:

  3. medaille says:

    Avi, I’m halfway through the Kinsale document and I must say that I like it a lot. It’s very broad and discusses all aspects of life and it seems very personable. Whenever you discuss peak oil, there is always the risk that you are going to come across as paranoid or crazy to people who haven’t put much serious thought into it, however they manage to do a very good job in relating it to values that most people have (or at least where I live).From what I’ve read, this could pretty much just be copied in most relatively small communities that have access to enough land to grow food on.It also has a good compilation of links (which I haven’t investigated, but will). I usually struggle in staying connected enough to obtain new sources of information and I’m impressed with the diversity that they have in their links.

  4. To me our modern society seems more fragile than the old ways, which allowed for making one’s own or growing one’s own necessities. Now we rely on trucks, ships, and planes getting somewhere in order to last a few days. Scary.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, all. The Kinsale plan reads like a more localized and detailed version of the Suzuki Report I referred to in my Feb.3 and Feb.12 articles. Each has a timeline, and each relies on a series of top-down, politically mandated actions, along with a general awareness-building, education and encouragement of citizens for individual actions (but no self-organized, bottom-up programs). I believe (1) more will be accomplished by enabling the bottom-up, self-organized, networked programs than the top-down mandates (though both are needed), and (2) cities, as opposed to towns like Kinsale, will be just too big to be resilient enough to manage such a huge adjustment.

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