Monday, December 18, 2006

The debate over viable community size in a post-fossil-fuel age

The vast majority of people who become aware of the peak oil issue soon begin to consider the question of what type and size of community they want to be part of beyond peak oil, which communities will be the most sustainable, self-sufficient, self-reliant and survivable in the future. The answer to that question is tremendously variable for a number of factors such as climate but most particularly depending on how far into the future one is thinking. The difference between community survivability at the moment of peak oil and fifty or a hundred years later will be considerable. And if one is considering long term survivability not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren then one has to look well beyond peak oil which is likely to occur sometime in the next one or two decades.

For most people pondering community survivability their thoughts turn to how to make the community in which they live, whether village or city, workable as energy resources decline. This, however, seems for most people to be done without any understanding of a historical perspective. Most ancient communities that we today identify as cities, such as Athens, Rome and others, were generally between 20 and 80 thousand in size, with as much as half the population or more being slaves. The first city larger than a million population, for example, didn't occur until well into the fossil-fuel era and that was in Asia (Beijing, population 1.1 million, 1800). The largest European cities at the time were; London, 861,000; Paris, 547,000; Constantinople (Istanbul); 570,000; and Naples, 430,000. The development of cities in Europe, in fact, largely began only in the late Middle Ages as a means of defending against frequent Norse invasions and sacking of coastal communities. The majority of early European cities were, in fact, walled cities because of the constant battles between competing feudal states that developed following the collapse of the Roman Empire. But even these European cities of the early industrial age were disease-plagued, festering with crime, and becoming seriously polluted from the heavy use of coal for both industrial and domestic needs. The large cities of more than a million population with which we have become so familiar in our lifetime simply did not exist before the fossil-fuel era for the simple reason that they were not sustainable without the availability of a tremendous amount of energy. The few large cities of ancient times were supported through the use of extensive slave labour as a form of energy. It is estimated that the slave population of ancient Athens, for example, actually exceeded the free population.

The obvious question is; are large cities going to be sustainable through the energy downslope and into the post fossil-fuel age? Will large cities be a viable, sustainable community structure a hundred years or more into the future?

Village life, on the other hand, has not been a picture of pastoral bliss. Prior to the industrial revolution village the life of all communities, especially villages, and the majority of people who lived in them largely revolved around agriculture with villagers working the fields that surrounded the village. Most European villages through the middle ages and up until the peasant revolts following the Black Death came into being as part of large feudal estates. In general, the villages were where the fiefs, "villeins" and serfs (realistically one small step above slaves) lived. These serfs were, in effect, indentured to the lord of the estate. They did not and could not own land but were allowed to occupy and work land on and for the estate. They were, in most instances, even restricted by the lord to marrying within the village, the source of a lot of genetic abnormalities by intermarrying within shared blood lines. The serfs paid for their right of land possession and occupancy with labour for the lord of the estate (generally three days a week) and with taxes paid to the lord, often in the form of a specified proportion of what they produced on the land. Their offspring were also beholden to the lord and tied to the same piece of land on which their parents livedtheir lives. After the peasant revolts following the Black Death this form of indenturing largely disappeared and villages for the most part became free villages.

I have focussed on life in communities before the industrial revolution and the serious onset of the fossil-fuel age for a reason. The factors and forces that originally led to the development of communities and stood in the way of them growing beyond a limited size are the same forces that will affect ongoing survivability of communities throughout the world during the global decline of fossil fuel reserves and thereafter. The reality that caused these earlier communities and societies to be largely focused on agriculture and the land on which it was practiced is the same reality that will beset us as the world's fossil-fuel supplies disappear. This is a finite world. The only source of input to this planet is the steady flow of energy that we receive from our sun. Prior to the invention of the windmill and the solar cell, the primary effective means of converting that incoming solar energy into useable form was through plant photosynthesis, the basis of support for all life on this planet. we do have the potential, which they did not before the industrial revolution, of using other forms of energy when our fossil fuel reserves have been depleted. As well as the wind energy and solar energy mentioned above we have nuclear energy, tidal energy, hydro-electricity, geo-thermal energy and the possibility of long-term use of bio-fuels. The long-term potential for continued use of these energy sources, however, depends on the long-term survival of an organized society and viable community structures through which to maintain these energy infrastructures.

All of these alternatives essentially are based on the generation and distribution of electricity. Though electricity is a key part of the ability for our modern world to function, the most important aspect of energy in our world is that of various transportation fuels and other products such as fertilizers and pesticides produced from fossil fuels. The primary underpinning of our transportation has been and continues to be oil. The simple reality is that there is no source of energy that we can turn to that can effectively substitute for the fuels that we derive from oil. Once global oil production peaks and as we begin the slide toward depletion of these global oil reserves the impact on the functionality of our global society will be unquestionably severe. The ability to continue to service large cities and their burgeoning suburbs without the transportation fuels derived from oil will be severely impacted. If food production all occurs outside our cities, as it does for most cities around the world today, then the ability to deliver those foods into a city to feed millions of people and the ability to return waste nutrients to the land on which the food is grown in order to maintain the fertility of that land, will be severely hampered if not impossible. The necessary substitute of human and animal power for the energy derived from fossil fuels in the production of that food will severely impact the ability and the desire of those working the land to put in the vastly greater quantity of effort needed to produce sufficient surplus food to feed the huge populations of large cities. The relationship between cities and rural areas today is largely based on mutual benefit, rural areas producing food surpluses for the city and the city producing goods destined for use in the rural areas. Those relationships are likely to break down as fossil fuel reserves decline.

The changes that took place in Cuba following their loss of access to needed oil and other products in the collapse of the Soviet Union does show that large urban areas can be reoriented to the production of large volumes of their needed food within their boundaries. Whether this could be accomplished in most North American and European cities is questionable. Much of our urban soil is toxic, has been denuded of vitasl topsoil in the construction process, has been bombarded year after year with chemicals, has been leached of vital mineral nutrients through constant irrigation, has been denuded of critical organic nutrients through constant mowing, etc. And even in Cuba, much of the adjustment following the collapse of the Soviet Union involved the relocation of large numbers of people out of cities like Havana into rural areas as a source of labour for food production.

So what size community will be viable as we approach and pass the effective depletion of our fossil fuel reserves? Essentially that will predicated on the ability of each community to produce most, if not all, of its own food through the labour and effort of its own people. I believe the fact that the majority of ancient cities were of the order of 20-80,000, and that the vast majority of ancient communities were villages or agricultural communities, strongly suggests that the smaller communities are going to be the most survivable in a post fossil-fuel age.
It suggests that the primary orientation of any community is going to have to production of the food needed by that community. In northern climates, such as we endure here in Canada, access to some form of energy, like wood from a sustainably managed forest, for home heating is going to be equally critical. I believe networks of smaller communities, possibly with each community also specializing in tradeable goods such as tools and household articles, with these communities centered on a common bio-region, will probably become the predominant societal structure over time.


Anonymous said...

I think the typical village size was between 200-400 people. The typical person can know about 200 people which is about the size an optimal small community.

What about a place like Niagara Falls which can generate all the energy it needs? Once the oil wars are over there will be local conflicts over local energy sources--Buffalo vs Toronto over excess power generated in the Falls. Can a small city like the Falls maintain it's size?

Anonymous said...

Subsistence-based societies tend to be relatively small and compact. Hunting-gathering people often lived in mobile bands of 20 or 30. They usually belonged to a larger tribe or clan that gathered together on a seasonal basis for special events or to take advantage of a concentration of food sources (buffalo, caribou, fish runs, etc), carry out warfare or selecting mates. There is an optimum size for a given community given its primary function. In the case of a subsistence farming or herding based economy, this would probably be about 30 to 50 individuals, although there could be alliances with other communities.

Anonymous said...

For an exceptional book on this subject, I suggest Falling Apart: the rise and fall of urban civilazation, by Elaine Morgan.

Caraka said...

Who's talking about subsistence? The communities I think Richard is talking about are viable, surplus producing entities. We seem to think that art, religion and leisure were not possible prior to the oil age. On the contrary. They flourished. The very same city cum rural symbiosis thrived. This symbiosis just cannot survive peak oil in it's current form. It's the economic shake-down and the effects of global warming that we have to survive, not some throwback to neolithic times. We simply have to re-learn how to live within our means. Fortunately, much of this wisdom is available in living memory. The oil based credit card has reached its limit and its time for humanity to start paying the bill. There will be tears, setbacks and Darwinian cutbacks, like in any household. Our social urges will insure that we ban together in ways that haven't been seen for a couple of centuries.

Anonymous said...

The population of ancient Rome (the city)at its peak was most likely well above one million. Constantinople at its peak had almost one million people.

Anonymous said...

This topic is of keen interest for those of us who have sold our homes, all of our excess stuff, converted it all to transportable, secure wealth, and are now looking for a new place that will have a good chance of surviving.

I think a key issue is looking at the historic carrying capacity of a given area. The LA Basin was 1 person per square mile. Idaho had about maybe 10,000 people before the start of cheap energy. What was your place like?

I have felt for a while that Boise, Idaho, essentially a desert with a river, might be a very bad place. Our valley region has over a half million people and will probably revert to 2 to 3 thousand over the next 100 years. Getting from here to there won't be pretty.

I'm actively researching alternatives.

Boise, ID

Richard Embleton said...

I appreciate all the comments and feedback on this topic. I do not see any form of hunter-gatherer lifestyle as viable in North America following peak oil. There simply is not enough wildlife left in "our" world to sustain a significant number. Over time their numbers will bounce back, but not if we are hunting down and killing what's left as a source of food. I adamantly believe that we must have fully self-reliant communities capable of producing small tradeable surpluses for trading within the local bio-region. Trade beyond that bio-region, IMHO, will, in time, be minimal. A significant factor is that the smaller the community and the more limited its external contacts, the more limited is the gene pool and the availability of mates. And I adamantly disagree with any suggestions that we simply stop having children. That is a quick route to extinction.