Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Peak Oil: City Survivability

It is probable that one's view of what type of community will be survivable on the other side of peak oil is heavily influenced by that in which they were raised. It is important for you to know, therefore, that I was raised in a small town with a population of about 1,300 with the nearest "significant" community of over 30,000 about thirty miles away and the nearest large city over 100 miles away. I freely admit that my views are biased toward that as the most survivable of post-peak community arrangements but I do not concede that it is rooted solely in my upbringing. It is a bias based on considerable thought, research and in-depth reasoning.

An obvious key to post-peak community survivability is that the further we go beyond peak oil the greater the compromises that have to be made in the usage, allocation and marketing of what oil remains and is available on the world market. It is a reasonable question, in fact, as to whether an "oil market" will or even can persist beyond peak oil. The primary role of marketing, after all, is to create and maintain demand for a product, to ensure that the marketplace absorbs the surpluses that the producers turn out. But the Texas Railroad Commission which controlled world oil prices while the U.S. was the world's primary producer and exporter of oil lost control of the market pricing for oil when the U.S. passed peak. Similarly it looks as though OPEC is losing control of the market price as they seem to have collectively arrived at Peak Oil as well. At the moment, in fact, there seems to be a multilateral tug-of-war to see who is going to control oil prices in the future. In a world of no oil surpluses, however, the greatest need will be to stifle demand, not encourage it. If the massive machinery of the marketing industry can be turned toward stifling demand and developing new, rational consumer expectations it may still have a vital role to play. The likelihood is slim, however, that the oil marketing juggernaut can or will go through such a major turnaround.

You will have to forgive me if the following is repetitious to you but it is a point I am passionate about making. Peak oil is not just about the oil, not about liquid fuels! There are over 300,000 products in everyday usage around the world that are wholly or partially made from or derived from oil and natural gas. Not only does our society run on oil - including, very importantly, our production of food - but it is largely built from oil and built and maintained by the energy derived from oil. Whether we are yet approaching, at, or already past peak oil is irrelevant and the ongoing discussion of "when" is a needless and dangerous diversion. The uncertainty as to when does not in any way mean there is uncertainty about "if". Peak Oil will happen! What is important is that knowing we are approaching the limits of our oil production capacity we should be working to reduce our dependence as quickly as possible while we still have the oil-energy to fuel the required transition away from that dependence. Instead we continue to increase our dependence. As many as 14,000 new products per year are brought on the market which are wholly or partially made from oil or its derivatives. The result is that the closer we get to peak oil the more critical becomes our dependence on that oil and the greater the price we will pay after that peak. There are two lines in a poem of mine that keep haunting me as I see this unfold;
When you've come to the end of the line
And the living hurts more the shorter the time..........

Those lines were written about the physical trials of aging but the deeper I have explored the full implications of peak oil the more applicable they have seemed to me to that issue.

It should be obvious, but seems not to be to many including our political leaders, that cities are not now, have never been nor are they capable of becoming self-sufficient in a fossil fuel deprived world. The heavy concentration of population in cities relies critically on resources from outside the city for its survival. There is generally insufficient arable land within a city to grow the food that the city's population needs. The hard goods required by the city are made of metals and other resources that must come from outside of that city. The goods that the city produces are invariably greater than the citizens of the city can absorb and require markets outside of that city to absorb them. The physical distances within a city, especially modern cities, require some energy-dependent system to move the population about from place to place. And the other factor within a city that keeps cities energy dependent is the vertical development. Cities, especially modern cities where over half the people live in apartments, are built up as well as out. That vertical development requires energy to overcome gravity, a simple reality that is too easy to gloss over in an energy-rich world.

Regardless of the size of the city, thousands of tons of materials flow into and out of the city every day. Even with a drastically downscaled lifestyle hundreds of tons of materials, most importantly food, are going to have to flow into and out of the city everyday if the inhabitants of that city are to survive. Without fossil-energy transportation reliance is going to have to be on other forms of transportation, e.g. rail, water, animal-drawn transport, human-drawn transport, etc. As we are starting to see with oil-producing countries holding back reserves to use in their own futures, however, when there is a future conflict in rural areas surrounding cities of degrading their own resources of soil and water to produce food for the city or preserving those resources for their own future needs the obvious human decision is to hold back supply in order to preserve resources for future use.

The vertical infrastructure of cities will become a serious post-peak liability rather than an asset. A twenty-five storey apartment building without benefit of water raised by pumps, electricity for heating and lighting, and without elevators to move people and goods up and down will not be functional when the energy to do all of those things runs out. Anything higher than three or four floors up simply will not be workable over the long term except for the extremely fit. The most consistent argument in favour of the city as a post-peak community model are based on the efficiencies achieved by concentrating population in a smaller area. But when that density is based on vertical development and that population relies on resources from outside of that city the energy required to achieve those efficiencies of density negate the benefits in an increasingly energy-deprived world.

The increasingly common sealed apartment buildings dependent on mechanized air filtration and conditioning, for example, will be particularly ill-suited for the post peak era, regardless of vertical size. In these buildings windows cannot be opened in order to manage air flow, especially for cooling in the heat of summer. The concurrence of peak oil and global warming do not bode well in this regard.

The other major component of the city's vertical infrastructure, of course, is the office building. In the city center office towers of fifty stories and more are increasingly common. These are almost always sealed buildings and totally dependent on elevators for movement of people and goods.

The average city of one million occupies an area of 500-1,000 square miles. That is an equivalent of 320,000-640,000 acres (640 acres per square mile). Assuming that all of that city space were turned to the production of food (no buildings, roads or other infrastructure) that would mean .32-.64 of an acre per person for food production. The estimates of how much arable land per person is necessary for survival vary from a low of .5 in warm climates where multiple crops per year can be taken from the land to 5 acres or higher in cooler climates limited to one crop per year because of the short growing season. The reality is that over half the space in a city is taken up with buildings and other infrastructure which would mean less than .16-.32 acres per person for food production within the city. Clearly, therefore, even with the most efficient food production techniques possible without fossil fuels means that only a small fraction of the food needed by the inhabitants of a modern city could be produced within the confines of that city.

When any species or group exceeds its carrying capacity within the territory it occupies a number of things may happen to bring population and carrying capacity back in balance. I say its carrying capacity because multiple species may share a common territory when those multiple species do not compete with each other for food or other resources. As long as they do not compete for common resources they can continue to share the territory in relative harmony and balance.

But when the carrying capacity of a region is exceeded by one or more species or groups within that region various scenarios unfold. The members of the group may fight amongst themselves for ever-dwindling resources until they achieve some sort of equilibrium with carrying capacity, a battle that will recur regularly as the population continually rises above carrying capacity. If there is unoccupied territory on the periphery of the region the group may expand into this territory thus temporarily increasing their carrying capacity until an increasing population again exceeds that expanded carrying capacity. The group can go to war or battle with groups in adjacent territories and, if successful, increase their carrying capacity by acquisition of their neighbour's land. The group may recognize the limits and develop a new relationship with the environment of their region such that they can live sustainably within the region's carrying capacity. The group may try to simply carry on business as usual and pay the price as nature reduces their numbers down to the carrying capacity. Regardless of which scenario plays out there will have to be a rebalancing of population and carrying capacity. If the region in question is a city it is not difficult to imagine the various scenarios.

When the region in question is a city, of course, the possible scenarios are the same Cities do not exist in a vacuum. They are invariably surrounded by territories that are occupied by other groups, or are pushed up against natural boundaries such as a coast line, mountains, lakes or similar limits. There is no unoccupied territory on the periphery of the modern city into which it can expand. In fact there is essentially no unoccupied hospitable land left anywhere on earth in which a human population could establish themselves sustainably. Under the present system expansion of a city is accomplished through economic development, surrounding farm land bought up and developed with new suburbs of the city. In time, however, these cities begin to run into each other, the rural land between them all gobbled up. But that form of city expansion is a function of the current, growth-oriented economic system which is unlikely to survive, at least in its present form, much beyond peak oil.

It is difficult to live in our modern, highly-advanced society with our advanced technology, high employment, widespread social safety nets and our unprecedented size and power of the middle class, and comprehend a not too distant future where the most important key to our individual survivability will be, simply, food. But that is the future we are racing toward and the gate-keeper is peak oil. Whether you have money or not or whether that money does or does not have any value will matter very little if you cannot get food. I remember many years ago reading a newspaper story about a man found starved to death in his apartment. There were tens of thousands of dollars stashed in the man's apartment. As food becomes increasingly scarce on the other side of peak oil that may be a scenario played out over and over again with people who have done nothing to prepare because they believed that money would always get them what they needed. Ain't necessarily so.

Just as there is insufficient land within most cities to produce the food needed by the city's population, there is considerable debate whether the planet has sufficient carrying capacity to support the massive global human population that now exceeds 6.6 billion. The global push for biofuels as global crude oil reserves are pushed to the limit to try to keep up with global demand has brought the issue of food and carrying capacity into sharp relief. While energy companies are running ads with messages like "I want to grow my fuel, not pump it" critics the world over, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, are warning that biofuels are creating a dangerous situation that might quickly lead to a massive humanitarian disaster where tens of millions could die of starvation either because their is insufficient food globally or because the poorest of the poor can no longer afford what food is available. The idealist in me believes that access to food must not become the province of wealthy western people and nations alone. With the green revolution we promised the world's poor that they could be fed. The obligation to live up to that commitment must not disappear simply because we need to use their land to produce fuel for our SUVs.

A simply reality that we also too easily ignore in our modern world is that the arable land and the production of food does not exist where the populations that most need that food exist. Our ability to feed 6.6 billion people is heavily dependent on a few small areas of the planet where the soil, chemistry and technology has allowed us to produce food surpluses that can be shipped all over the planet to where the people are that need them. The chemistry, technology and energy through which we produce those surpluses and the energy required to distribute those surpluses all around the globe are already going into an inexorable decline. Peak food is several years behind us and global food production which is already in decline will continue to worsen dramatically over the coming years. Thus far the available global food calories per person have not declined to the level that we are seeing dramatic increases in deaths by starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. But we are definitely at a tipping point and over the next decade the impact of having passed through that tipping point will become headline news on a daily basis, provided the media are not kept from publishing hard truths as they all too often are today.

Cities will definitely not be immune from the approaching energy, food and freshwater crises. The impact on them may be initially disguised, a process that may be underway now. Throughout history politicians and power brokers have lavished their attention and whatever money they could extract from the populace through taxes on the cities. It is very likely, based on what we see in the daily news, that cities will continue to be the objects of their affection. The further that goes, however, the more blatant it becomes, the greater the disparity to what financial and political attention is being spent on the rural community, the greater grows the likelihood that the rural areas and the agricultural community are going to cease being willing partners in maintaining the artificial sustainability of the cities. This has happened many times through history but never at a time when what the rural community has has been so critical to the ongoing survivability of the cities. The balance of power in the equation is very definitely going to be shifting in favour of the agricultural community as peak oil lags further and further behind us. It is unreasonable to draw too many parallels to history in this. Never in a our history, after all, have we headed into an age where every form of energy society uses is going to go into serious and irreversible decline over the course of a single lifetime.

4 comments:

Steve said...

I have lived in Baltimore, Maryland for over eighteen years. I completely agree that Peak Oil will necessitate major shifts in how we live.

However, I'd like to point out that Baltimore -- just as an example -- had a population of over half a million people in 1900. The first large-scale, production-line manufacturing of affordable automobiles was in 1902, and Henry Ford didn't start his assembly lines until 1914.

So it's clearly not impossible for cities to survive into the period after Peak Oil. In 1900, Baltimore had to procure its food and water and other goods, for instance -- without recourse to the internal combustion engine. Families were raised, business was conducted, etc.

It may be that a city lifestyle may be closer to Baltimore in 1900 than Baltimore in 2008. I can't say.

It may be easy to brush off this observation and I am not disputing the challenges that cities face, but my simple point is that the cities can survive. We did it before. We can do it again.

Richard Embleton said...

Steve;
There is a vast difference between Baltimore (or any western city) in 1900 and Baltimore today headed into a post-peak-oil world.
Baltimore of 1900 had evolved slowly to become what it was. It wasn't suddenly thrust into its situation by a loss of something on which it had long depended, like the energy on which Baltimore runs today. That evolution had been as an integral part of the land in which it was centered, the land that produced the food which the residents of the city needed.
The majority of people within the city would have been in the habit of growing much of the food they ate in their own backyards, frontyards and wherever else it could be grown.
Baltimore of 1900 did not have the vast amount of vertical infrastructure it has today, a vertical infrastructure which will be increasingly dangerous as it deteriorates in the future.
The city did not then have the extensive infrastructure of bridges, tunnels, overpasses, high tech port facilities, underground urban infrastructure for telephones, electricity, cable, natural gas, etc. that exists today and is supported by huge expenditures of energy.
The people of Baltimore in 1900, compared to today, were physically fit, accustomed to labor much more than now, accustomed to walking, accustomed to physically doing what had to be done. They were in the situation they were in looking forward, not thrust into it with a sense of entitlement of to something much easier and richer and better.
The people of 1900 were much more accustomed to doing for themselves, making and mending their own clothes, making and mending their own furniture, their houses and much more.
The environment of 1900 was one in which the ratio of horses to people was close than one-to-one rather than one-to-fifty or one-to-one-hundred as it is today. It will take decades to breed enough horses and other livestock to bring the ratios back to the needed level.
In 1900 the majority of people in Baltimore and other western cities heated with wood and coal. People were only then becoming exposed to natural gas for lighting (I believe Baltimore was one of the earlier cities to install natural gas street lights) and heating. More importantly, the industries that produced the stoves and furnaces and other heaters and cookers that used the wood and coal were alredy well established. Today none of them do and reversion back to wood and coal, if there were enough wood and coal to do so, would have to see that industry re-emerge and gear up to produce them.
I could go on and on. Believe me, as I said at the outset of the article, I have put a lot of effort and a lot of thought into this issue. I have long ago lost any comfort I once had with telling myself that cities existed in the past and would still exist and thrive into the future. It is the relatively sudden transition from our high-tech modern world to a low/no-energy, low-tech future that will be the undoing of our cities.
Richard Embleton

Anonymous said...

A couple of points that may be relevant to your article on City Survivability - Cities have a far lower per capita energy use than rural or suburban areas - in fact recent studies of Chicago and LA show that the creation of CO2 is far higher (up to 5x) per capita in the suburbs and exurbs than in the city. Also, the costs of providing hard services on a per capita basis increases with distance - a cost borne by the general pool (tax or service) or considered an externality and therefore not charged at all.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis but a liquid fuels problem. Electricity is not going to be as big of an issue in the short term (though it will hit later). The skyrocketing costs of liquid fuels will be greatest in the suburb/exurb areas where the low density and high per capita usage will make it uneconomical eventually or once fuel rationing is implemented (as I'm sure it will be). Agricultural uses will get fuel but the rural non-farmer resident may not.

I do agree that current city sizes are problematic so reducing the overall size (and population) while increasing the density as Japan did in the 1700's will be necessary to allow food production to relocalize. A European model of small towns, cities, etc. with hard limits surrounded by farmland makes more long term sense but is not our current model.

I am not anti-rural but have issues with the rural dreamers. I grew up in "the country" and helped milk cows/fed pigs/etc. when I stayed at/visited friends houses. Many of these people still live in "the country" but none are farmers - the farm size required to be economical today is much greater than 30 years ago. I would not be surprised that the future for the non-agricultural rural inhabitants will be one of energy shortage since they require much more of it to sustain their lifestyle.

Finally - cities (first started in Mesopotamia I think) were brought about by agricultural surpluses but they allowed the start of real civilization - the ability to divide tasks and specialize is what allowed humanity to have metal tools, textile mills, electricity, etc., etc.

Richard Embleton said...

A couple of points that may be relevant to your article on City Survivability - Cities have a far lower per capita energy use than rural or suburban areas - in fact recent studies of Chicago and LA show that the creation of CO2 is far higher (up to 5x) per capita in the suburbs and exurbs than in the city. Also, the costs of providing hard services on a per capita basis increases with distance - a cost borne by the general pool (tax or service) or considered an externality and therefore not charged at all.
...Firstly the statistics you are referring to are irrelevant for the world we are headed into post peak. The energy use in suburbs and exurbs are higher than in the core because the whole societal structure is geared such that the employment is in the core and the living arrangements are outside with everyone commuting to their jobs. Of course their energy use is higher, for that and a lot of other reasons. But that is part of a centrist argument that I am not willing to get into a debate over...

Peak oil is not an energy crisis but a liquid fuels problem. Electricity is not going to be as big of an issue in the short term (though it will hit later). The skyrocketing costs of liquid fuels will be greatest in the suburb/exurb areas where the low density and high per capita usage will make it uneconomical eventually or once fuel rationing is implemented (as I'm sure it will be). Agricultural uses will get fuel but the rural non-farmer resident may not.
...Peak oil is absolutely an energy crisis. Do your homework. Electricity and the grid are dependent on a massive rolling stock for maintenance, and more. I agree. Once fuel rationing is implemented it will be used to try to force - sorry, I meant "encourage" - people into the core where they can more easilly be controlled....

I do agree that current city sizes are problematic so reducing the overall size (and population) while increasing the density as Japan did in the 1700's will be necessary to allow food production to relocalize. A European model of small towns, cities, etc. with hard limits surrounded by farmland makes more long term sense but is not our current model.
...And that is our problem. Our model came out of the post-WWII period and was built on the mushrooming of suburbs and the commute. You can't overlay the European model or the Japanese model on that. It's going to take a different approach....

I am not anti-rural but have issues with the rural dreamers. I grew up in "the country" and helped milk cows/fed pigs/etc. when I stayed at/visited friends houses. Many of these people still live in "the country" but none are farmers - the farm size required to be economical today is much greater than 30 years ago. I would not be surprised that the future for the non-agricultural rural inhabitants will be one of energy shortage since they require much more of it to sustain their lifestyle.
...I trust you are not suggesting I am a "rural dreamer". I grew up in the country, worked as a farmhand. My Grandmother's house was an original log cabin as I was growing up. I used my first indoor toilet at school when I was ten. Yes, unfortunately I left that behind and made my way in the city. Farm size needs to be much bigger today because farming is not farming today. It is mechanized chemical food production. Your last comment referes to what I define as the "nouveau rural", ex urbanites who want to convert the country to city living, complete with air conditioning, climate control, big-screen TVs and pools. They have skewed the rural statistics badly. Go deeper rural, further away from the Golden Horseshoe. You'll find that the model changes considerably....
Finally - cities (first started in Mesopotamia I think) were brought about by agricultural surpluses but they allowed the start of real civilization - the ability to divide tasks and specialize is what allowed humanity to have metal tools, textile mills, electricity, etc., etc.
...Historically cities were far smaller than what we today define as a city, on the scale of large towns or small cities like Belleville or Peterborough. Task specialization is possible on the scale of a town. It doesn't take cities to accomplish that, unless of course you are trying to maintain an industrial society....
Richard