The imperatives of the long emergency will compel us to occupy the landscape differently. The current disposition of sprawling suburbs and hypertrophic mega-cities has passed its “sell-by” date and represents a dreadful liability for continuing the project of civilization. The human habitat must now be reconstructed along traditional lines and at a scale consistent with the resource realities of the future.
By “traditional” I mean compact, walkable villages, towns, and cities in meaningful relation to a rural landscape of conditions that range from farming to wild ecosystems necessary for the healthful functioning of the planet. This proposal runs counter to the fantasies of the techno-narcissists who would prefer to continue the current pattern of extreme car-dependency by other means than fossil fuels. That is no longer an option, though we should expect the social stress developing around these issues to provoke even more delusional thinking.
The imminent failure of the suburbs is already self-evident but don't expect a simple migration from there to the big cities. The mega-cities face a set of difficulties all their own ranging from fiscal disorder to infrastructure sclerosis. They will have to contract substantially, but the process is likely to be messy, since it entails a broad destruction of supposed wealth, breakdowns in governance, the interruption of vital services, and enormous potential for ethnic friction.
The action will shift instead to the smaller cities and towns that are better scaled to the energy and resource realities of the future. In the USA, these places have been depopulated and deactivated for decades. But many of them occupy favorable geographical sites proximate to good farmland, inland waterways, and rail transportation which will be of great value as globalism withers and economies become more regionally focused. Likewise, the rural landscape will have to be inhabited differently as fossil fuel based agri-business yields to a reformation in food production that will surely require more human attention at a finer scale. We will be surprised to see agriculture come back much closer to the center of the economy than has been the case for generations.
The political discussion of these exigencies has not begun. Instead, the zeitgeist aims quixotically at a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. That is exactly why we are bailing out car companies instead of rebuilding the conventional railroad lines that are rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed.
We have much to gain from reforming the way we inhabit the landscape. The experiment of suburbia is a manifest failure with no future and, exciting as the mega-cities are imagined to be, crammed with internet start-ups, artisanal bistros, and supermodels, they are artifacts of the cheap energy age we are now leaving behind. A down-tuning of scale in the composition of the city will not impair the essential quality of civilized life. The great humanist cities of Leonardo daVinci's time functioned very nicely at a fraction of the size of present day London, Milan or Chicago.
Illustration by Fanqiao Wang