Suburbia is nothing but a way of life built on consumption, underpinned by cheap energy. Is it any wonder that suburbia as we know it began in this country, during the time when the US was the world’s oil super producer?
Now however, as energy gets ever more expensive and with the unfolding climate disaster, can we afford to live a life of thoughtless consumption?
Here’s a sketch of a typical Lexington suburban area. Low density, big houses, lots of well manicured landscaping. This is all about consumption. The luxury of consumption. It has become an American birthright – “the American way of life is non-negotiable” as one elected fool once said. (Click for big view)
Nothing here is productive. That was the whole point: the suburban ideal was to be the respite from all things productive. It was a great vision.
But what if? What if the cheap energy that let us create a lifestyle of consumption is coming to an end? What will become of suburbia then?
Well it is happening, brought about by the end of cheap energy due to peak oil and the overwhelming need to do what we can to mitigate climate destruction by using far less fossil fuels. How we adapt to these two facts will be the central points for the rest of our lives. The great transition of our time is moving away from a consumption economy to one based on production. Because of this, everything will change.
The growth economy has ended. Cheap energy powered that. With the end of economic growth, we’ll see the end of debt as well. Without economic growth and debt, our governments will be compelled to scale back enormously. As Crosby Still Nash and Young once sang: “we’re finally on our own.”
But the burbs will still be there – what will become of them? Can they make the transition from consumption to production?
Here’s a sketch – showing the same view as above – of the possibility for Lexington by mid-century. This is the OPTIMISTIC view. (Click for big view)
Instead of an English country landscape, we have an agricultural-industrial landscape. Nearly every square inch is put to some productive use – producing energy, food, value added products. All the ornamental trees are gone, replaced by Hybrid Poplars which can produce fire wood in a little as four years. Gone are lawns, replaced by gardens, barn yards, fish ponds, orchards. People take raw materials and make them into needed items. Some properties become reclamation yards, recycling the waste of suburbia. Houses have become super insulated, and heated by new fire places. Many families are likely to share each house, and tenants are housed in new small dwellings. The government’s ability to maintain such gold-plated infrastructure as wide, little used streets has disappeared. Instead, the paved surfaces are dwindling, with the remainder being put to some productive use. A small market stands on the corner where once grass reigned, where folks can meet, trade, sell, buy. In much later years, as the cityscape evolves, this is likely to become a plaza. Life here will become intensely more local – hyper local – over time.
Essentially, this version of the future means that we have come full circle back to the times when life was about production, not consumption. This vision will be scarey to most people, myself included. Very few of us actually produce anything and it sure seems like I’m too old to start learning. But that doesn’t change the new reality.
The fact is, we only get this future if we have enough virtue and courage to admit that reality. If we don’t, then a future much less optimistic awaits us.
Look around you with a new set of eyes: what is productive in our city? What is wasteful consumption? What productive replacement could there be? How will you fit in?