Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios

Please join me today, on my 60th birthday, in welcoming Karl North as our first guest post at kulturCritic. Karl obviously thinks more systematically than I do about the future.  He has also developed an interesting way of thinking about possible scenarios that may play-out as we move through the long energy descent we have already embarked upon.  I first heard the concept “carrying capacity” of the earth when I was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines back in the early 1980’s.  I have subsequently come to appreciate the full force of this concept as we have overshot that carrying capacity long ago.  And Karl is not shy about criticizing those “eco-cities movement’s [whose] current urban redesigns are characteristically overly complex and overly expensive, and are therefore aimed, like much organically grown food and most present ecovillages, at a gentrified market that will not survive the energy descent.” kC


by Karl North

The vulnerability of cities and suburbs in the post-petroleum era has been the object of much debate because their present organization makes their operation so energy-intensive. The debate heretofore has tended to swing between two extremes. One claims that these forms of social organization on the land are so unsustainable that their populations will be forced to abandon them gradually as the energy descent progresses.[i] James Kunstler, a well-known critic of the kind of cities and suburbs that have emerged in recent decades, puts it bluntly:

The whole suburban project I think can be summarized pretty succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future.[ii]

The other extreme entertains dreams of massive programs of public transportation to save suburbia. It also relies heavily on technologies like high-rise agriculture and on the efficiencies of population density to save cities. This is the vision of the eco-cities movement.

Neither of these scenarios makes much sense. The abandonment thesis ignores the immense accumulated wealth of the built environment in metropolitan areas, which is not likely to be left to fall apart, but will more likely support a certain level of human population if salvaged for other uses than it was originally designed for.[iii] It is conceivable that modern society will be reduced to energy inputs available in 1800, before much use of fossil fuels. But that would not mean a simple return to what life was like in those times, due in part to the bonanza of accessible raw materials that the present built environment represents (a good thing), and in part to two hundred years of accumulated damage to the planetary resource base (not so good) that was unimaginable in 1800.

On the other hand, the claim that technological improvement can keep cities and suburbs functioning in the current ways at current population levels fails for many reasons. First, it perpetuates the above-mentioned accumulation of damage to necessary ecosystemic functions, damage that is intrinsic to “technological improvements,” damage that is already causing exponential growth in the operating costs of metropoles. Then there are the two reasons that the technological savior argument always has failed: there is a limit to the efficiencies that can be delivered by technology, and every technological advance requires an increase in complexity in the socio-economic system, with a resulting increase in consumption of energy and other raw materials in an era of increasing resource scarcity.[iv]

Moreover, as genres of social organization and human landscapes, modern cities and suburbs are among the most energy consumptive imaginable because their continued existence relies on a broader agro-industrial base. Most calculations of the energy budgets of metropolitan areas far underestimate because they fail to account for the energy embodied in their construction and maintenance, which includes the vast and often distant agricultural and industrial plant, transport, and communication systems necessary to keep them running. This diagram suggests the scope of the support system required just to keep a metropolitan population in food.

Of course cities have existed ever since the advent of agricultural systems capable of providing the surplus necessary for their growth. But after a period of expansion, often spanning centuries, they have usually destroyed enough of their resource base to cause them to decline. In the last two centuries, cities have grown markedly in size and consumption of resources. But this unprecedented level of urban expansion is entirely reliant on access to fossil energy and other nonrenewable resources that are now becoming permanently more scarce.

The main weakness of the eco-cities movement is its failure to squarely face the increasing scarcity in energy and other resources and seriously consider its implications in the energy descent. Green or new urbanists claim that cities like New York are sustainable because their population density allows a smaller per capita ecological footprint than suburbs.[v] The clustering of populations that the ecocities movement advocates does conserve energy in key areas like building heating and human transport.  This clustering will be essential in the energy descent at every scale of human community if we hope to avoid not only the energy costs of most present building configurations and their reliance on a distance economy, but also their misuse of agriculturally valuable land.

But heating and human transport are only one part of the energy cost of operating cities. The green urbanist scenario that compares present cities favorably to present suburbs fails to consider the more comprehensive assessment of many energy descent analysts that no dominant configuration of land use and built environment in the US today, urban, suburban, or rural is sustainable without fossil fuels. The embodied energy in cities in particular involves upstream energy and material flows along many long production chains, and it requires constant renewal due to entropy (depreciation). Hence embodied energy in cities is commonly three times as high as operational energies like heating and daily human transport.[vi]

As a result, the eco-cities movement’s current urban redesigns are characteristically overly complex and overly expensive, and are therefore aimed, like much organically grown food and most present ecovillages, at a gentrified market that will not survive the energy descent. This is not meant to criticize these efforts, but simply to point out that they reflect the economic and cultural choices of a society that has enjoyed cheap energy.

In addition to narrow thinking about the massive inflows of energy and other natural resources that today sustain metropolitan areas, the ecocities movement rarely considers more fundamental questions about urban populations posed by energy descent. In a world where the energy from oil has permitted a tripling of the population and, in rich countries, an average per capita ecological footprint (a measure of resource consumption) so large that it could support 30 African peasants, what is the true carrying capacity? How is the disparity in footprint justified when it reduces the supportable global population? And what is the largest sustainable city when urban population densities are on the order of 67,000 people per square mile[vii], and the transportation cost of provisioning such densities from ever-more-distant locations increases with city size beyond the declining energy capacity of the planet?

A More Likely Scenario

A third scenario that I will explore here as more likely than the two considered above envisions a major transformation of both urban and suburban land and resource use to make cities and suburbs habitable in the coming low energy era, although necessarily supporting a much lower population level than they do today. As in all ecosystems, the carrying capacity of these areas will contract to fit the available energy, which sooner or later will be mostly solar.

Carrying capacity (CC) is an essential concept for thinking in scenarios about a future in which access to key resources is declining. Carrying capacity is not just a population level. It is first the level of sustainable resource consumption (SRC) that a particular landscape or resource base can support, which in turn determines the mix of population level (P) and per capita resource consumption (RC/P) or material standard of living. Thus  the equation for carrying capacity is CC = SRC = P x RC/P, which makes clear that CC in terms of the actual number of people it will support depends on the level of individual consumption.

This understanding of carrying capacity imposes a concern with the nature of present resource consumption. The modern industrial society that urban areas epitomize now relies 80-90% on nonrenewable resources. A society that must return to a resource use rate that rarely uses nonrenewables except as recycled salvage will need to rely mainly on low-input agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry for food and fiber, and similar low-input technologies using renewable and salvageable materials in other areas of production. Hence the inevitability of a return to a relatively low-technology solar energy economy is likely to reduce populations in large metropolitan areas to 10-20% of their current levels.[viii] Dispersal from city centers to hinterlands will account for much of the decline. In the end this will be a salutary outcome because it will contribute manpower to the increasingly labor-intensive farming systems that will replace industrial agriculture.

How will employment and therefore population shrink in metropolitan areas? The relative concentration of wealth in metropolitan areas has spawned an urban economy that depends heavily on discretionary spending beyond essentials. This part of the economy will tend to shrink first as the energy to support the modern economy becomes scarce.

Also, many people who live in cities and their suburban bedroom communities work in an economy that is parasitic: instead of creating value it simply transfers wealth from one group to another. Much employment in the so-called FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate) falls in this category, which also includes much government, advertising, litigation, and lobbying activity – economic sectors that have arisen to exploit our society’s failure to find better ways to perform essential functions. Jobs in this parasitic economy can be expected to disappear early in the energy descent. Many urban clerks in cubicles, data gathering to feed the wealth transfer game, will need to convert to skills that provide life’s basic necessities – food, shelter, basic tools, and services, and for many that will mean leaving the city for farms.

In reality, much of the present urban population will be needed on farms. According to energy descent scientist Richard Heinberg, the de-industrialized agriculture that replaces the current energy-intensive form of food production in the US will require fifty million farmers instead of the present two million.[ix] Indeed, there is a growing new farmer movement across the US, served by organizations like Groundswell here in Tompkins County.

The challenge of envisioning a plausible conversion of metropolitan corridors like Bos-Wash to landscapes that are livable sans fossil fuel is to think beyond current models of development or even redevelopment schemes requiring levels of capital investment that a post-petroleum economy cannot afford. The expensive visions of both the green urbanist movement and the nodal cluster suburbanists run aground on this obstacle. Awareness comes slowly because thinking about the upkeep of these structures in the energy descent is often counterintuitive:

Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most “innovative” by today’s standards—the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems—will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new “green buildings.”[x]

An additional hurdle is the current resistance of the denizens of these landscapes to using them differently, but eventually that resistance will melt away as necessity becomes the mother of adaptation.

Throughout their history, metropolitan areas have been centers that have concentrated wealth and power drawn from exploited peripheries. Early in the energy descent they can be expected to use this accumulated advantage to allocate resources disproportionately to themselves and thereby prolong consumption levels and material living standards even as they decline in society as a whole. The maintenance of centralized control that this requires may hinge on something as simple as the ability of security forces, police and military, to fuel their operations on renewables like biodiesel.

Later in the energy descent, however, much of the fuel-intensive economic activity and centralized, hierarchical organization that is the raison d’être of cities and their umbilically connected suburbs will become unaffordable, and the related employment and population will evaporate. The long term budgetary agony of central governing administrations, now well under way, is an early indicator of economic contraction to come. Then human activity will return to a focus on the basic necessities of food and shelter, and economies in these places as elsewhere will self-reorganize around the provision of farming, food systems, and housing that work with minimal fossil fuel. My aim here is to summarize how I think this is likely to happen. The key element in my scenario is the liberation of the built environment and its rearrangement for other uses, a change made possible by the contracting economy and population of metropolitan areas that I have described as inevitable over time in the energy descent. Finally, I will suggest how this scenario might play out in Ithaca, NY and its hinterland, and by extension, in other small cities and towns.

The Post-Petroleum Metropole

Cities located on waterways will remain centers of some distant trade as they have for centuries. On the downside, rising water levels could eventually reduce habitable areas in seaport cities.  But for a while as cities and suburbs shrink and depopulate, urban activity will center on salvage of the built environment. As many parts of the built environment are abandoned, we can expect their materials and land to be reclaimed for structures and spaces for growing food and for makeovers of housing and other structures to the level of energy efficiency required by the new economy. Because the return to a solar energy economy will support only a limited population, most land and buildings will stand empty and provide a broad inventory of materials or, once cleared, space for gardens. It is hard to imagine conversion of places like the canyons of south Manhattan to either appropriate housing or food production, so some city zones may remain abandoned except for salvage activities. At the end of Apartheid in South Africa, for example, white businesses left the high-rise section of Johannesburg. The squatters who replaced them could not afford the energy needed to maintain the buildings, and they gradually fell apart.[xi] As urban areas everywhere experience a similar drop in energy use, urbanites will  abandon energy-intensive structures. Hence a degree of decentralization will occur as urban areas devolve into compact, semi-self-sufficient neighborhood communities separated by empty salvage-yard commons.

The same process will occur in the suburbs, where abandoned residential and commercial structures will serve as stores of materials for low-cost conversion of residential housing for the remaining population. Land to farm will be plentiful, but a main problem will be to end the inefficiencies of suburban sprawl and reconfigure this landscape into the kind of demographically dense agrarian villages that have proved sustainable for centuries. The affordable solution will be to move salvaged building materials or whole abandoned structures into clusters at these central locations. This will recreate at low energy cost the nodal demographic topography that historically has been chosen as the most efficient mode of spatial organization of rural communities the world over.[xii] Thus in the long reach of history the extravagance we call suburbia will prove to be a temporary phenomenon.

Once the suburban topography is reformed into economically efficient agrarian communities, some of these villages have the potential to create a thriving trade in surplus food production with the nearest city nodes, which in turn have a surplus of salvage inventory for which they can exchange materials, and products handcrafted from them, and exchange seasonal labor as well. In other words, city and suburb will convert to symbiotic economies that bear some similarity to what they were before the oil age. In the New York metropolitan area for example, New Jersey (the Garden State!), Long Island, coastal Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley—the city’s former breadbaskets – will regain that function. As the distance economy that cities once depended on becomes too costly, the ability of the near suburbs to convert from bedroom communities to beehives of food production may well determine the size of the population that can remain in the city.

Solarized Housing

In cool climates like the Northeast US, people will be forced to rebuild housing to maximize solar heat and minimize biomass burning, as biomass will regain its traditional role as the key strategic resource and will experience renewed demand for many uses. Here again the expensive models of residential energy efficiency popular today in the green building movement are impediments to visioning.  For most of the population the only conversion option will be to use scavenged materials and hand labor, both of which will be plentiful, and in fact all that is necessary to build highly effective passive solar systems for heating both living spaces and water.

To solarize a residence or other building that needs to be heated for all-season use, urbanites will raze city structures that block it from full southern exposure and will use their insulation, glass, masonry and plumbing hardware to convert it to reliance mostly on the sun for heat and hot water.  Widespread conversion will occur when the massive city and suburban built environment inventory becomes available for salvage,because this type of solarization requires no expensive technology or skills beyond elementary carpentry and plumbing. Enough business buildings to support the shrunken economy will be converted in the same way. Gradually buildings made of wood, with their short turnover time of a few decades, will give way to more durable masonry salvaged from unusable structures. The masonry will perform the added function of furnishing the thermal mass to store solar energy required by passive solar heating systems.

Food Production Systems

Like most current alternative architectural models, most organic agriculture grew in the age of cheap oil and takes for granted many of its luxuries. Food production everywhere will eventually adapt much more closely to farming in nature’s image. Like natural ecosystems, farms will have to be largely self-sufficient in inputs, including a lot of human and animal labor and relatively simple machines and tools.

City food production will reach limits, making city populations dependent on the development of farming in the hinterlands that had been suburbs. Once most empty urban spaces are used for farming, space will be a limiting factor on urban growing because demolition and removal of buildings in the energy descent will be very labor intensive. Another limiting factor will be lack of space to “grow” fertility either as green manure or manure from pastured livestock. This need for fertilizer could motivate a return to transport within the metropole using animals fed from fields outside cities, animals like those whose manure supported urban food production until well into the industrial era. In many metropolitan locations, efficient steel-on-steel rail transportation systems work as well with animal power as with energy derived from fossil fuels, just as they did for decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. An effective policy would prioritize remaining fossil energy for the reconstruction of the rails and the rolling stock, and run the latter on animal power.

A distinct advantage of farming in cities and suburbs will be the many existing structures that can be converted to solar greenhouses to furnish the heat to perform and enhance essential services in the new food system: intensive all-season growing, vermicomposting, food conservation by solar drying, and even solar cooking. Husbandry of small livestock like poultry and rabbits also will benefit from solar greenhousing. Like the solarized human housing described above, these structures will be low-cost conversions that require little skill beyond an understanding of passive solar concepts.

[i] Kunstler, James Howard. 1994. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

[ii] Kunstler. James Howard in The End of Suburbia. 2004.

[iii] Vail, Jeff. “Resilient Suburbia”. 2010.

[iv] Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[v] Owen, David. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. Riverhead Books, 2009.

[vii] Owen, David. Op. cit.

[viii] Odum, Howard T. and Elizabeth C. Odum. A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies (University Press of Colorado, 2001), page 174. Written by pioneers in the application of systems ecology and energetics to problems of society.

[ix] Heinberg, Richard. 2006. “Fifty Million Farmers”. Energy Bulletin, November 17, 2006.

[x] Kunstler, James. “Back to the Future: A roadmap for tomorrow’s cities”. Orion Magazine, July/August, 2011.

[xi] Kunstler, James Howard. Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012

[xii] Vail, Jeff. “Envisioning a Hamlet Economy: Topology of Sustainability and Fulfilled Ontogeny”, 2009.

57 Responses to Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios

  1. Ivy Mike says:

    “Fifty Million Farmers” I’m just waiting to be able to buy the indentures of college students from the banks as hawked in the back of Ag Trader rags. Agrarianism is necessarily a slave society, whether those energy slaves are coal, oil, or the sweat of thy brow.

    Which is why I turned my farmland from farm into pasture, and hopefully some day into a silvo-pasture, or as I prefer to characterize it: the lush Oak Savannah the Indians created with fire as their happy hunting grounds.

    My neighbors’ soil is so farmed-out, that without oil and energy intensive inputs, productivity will fall 97%. Nobody will be able to scratch a living with a hoe. It will revert to scrub and grasslands, and being unproductive and untaxable and unownable, I’ll cut my electric fence, let my semi-wild animals roam, and go nomadic pastoral.

    Then the fun begins raiding city-slickers. The Return of the Barbarian! I suppose the East Coast will have to build another Great Wall of China—ostensibly to repel raiders—to keep their agrarian slaves from escaping from the farm drudgery and joining my merry band of misfits.*

    * Richard Manning (2005) Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. North Point Press. p. 44.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Love the dark humor, IM… although maybe you are serious about the “merry band of misfits.”

      • Malthus says:

        Count me in IV. Its funny how farming is still looked at for salvation, the very farming that got us into this position in the first place. Merry band of misfits brings to mind the merry pranksters with a viking bent. Viking being a Norse word for pirate. As I have said in the past. it is time to attack the forts. And most of the forts are mental.

    • derekthered says:

      “Maybe I could be like Robin Hood
      Like an outlaw dressed all in green
      Someone said what’s he gonna turn out like
      And someone else said never mind”
      Deep Purple – No One Came – from the album “Fireball”

      we see it happening already with the gangsta’s on the streets, whether it’s Compton or Manhattan, the same feral outlook on life, i’ve got mine, sucka!!!!!!!

    • Karl North says:

      Ivy Mike is right about our species having damaged much of the planet with the way we farm. But having tried to design more sustainable ways during thirty years of sheep farming in New York, I can suggest proven methods to build soil in his worn out pastures, with proper use of his livestock as the main tool, and silvo-pastoralism as part of the system. Gearing up to teach undergrad ecological agriculture in my retirement from farming, my search of the pre-fossil fuel agricultural record also revealed a few “points of light”, as the elder Bush used to say. The Aztec chinampas that fed a city more populated that Paris in the 1500s when Cortez discovered it, the fish/duck/rice systems of the Asian Pacific rim, some of the subsistence agriculture of early colonial New England, all used animals and wetlands as part of an effective integrated system.

      • Ivy Mike says:

        design more sustainable ways during thirty years of sheep farming

        I’m with you Karl, and appreciate your efforts. I’m doing much the same thing here on my farm. But I’m also skeptical that we can go backwards towards a Kunstler-esque world. If we can, it certainly won’t be better for people who wish to be “autonomous and sovereign” as our egalitarian Non-State paleolithic ancestors. Even F. H. King, author of Farmers of Forty Centuries, while admiring the technically important sustainability of some kinds of Oriental agriculture, admitted that it took brutal Oriental despotism to maintain it.

        “Agriculture creates government.” ~Richard Manning, Against the Grain, p. 73

      • malthus says:

        “The Aztec chinampas that fed a city more populated that Paris in the 1500s when Cortez discovered it,” that’s an interesting observation Karl. The Aztecs were also defeated from within their empire than what Cortez could do. He could not have defeated them if the conquered tribes and nearby enemies had not joined him. The Aztecs were a divided nation as we are today. It doesn’t take much for an empire to topple with the right conditions.

  2. rosie says:

    What about weapons and violence in your scenario? What about diseases, radioactive pollution, and most importantly how does climate chaos fit into your scenarios? When I think of the near future (5-20 years?) and try to imagine some of the changes we can expect I try to take these factors into account.

    • Karl North says:

      Jesus, Rosie, I didn’t want to scare readers away before they got half way through my piece! But yes, I suspect the ills you point to are part of our future.

      • mossenalbizu says:


        Thank you for a very interesting piece. I think your demolition of the wishful-thinking scenarios is most effective.

        My own perspective on an agricultural, low-energy future is that I come from an old European landowning family (the first generation to be truly city-bred), not grand but persistent, and I feel inclined to point out that our family history shows that there wasn’t a century when our feet weren’t on the necks of the peasants – some of whom were living in caves until the mid-2oth c (Northern Spain) – and our hands on the hilts of our swords to stop others from taking the land! Of course, this was partly to stop other landowners and the robbers known as kings from taking and raping our peasants: it saved them some pain and, when the Arabs were about, real enslavement. There will certainly be violence to dominate the new environment: agriculturalists are eminently exploitable, unlike hunters. Most future transition scenarios seem to edit out the violence: having said that, it didn’t get everyone, and renewal followed (to land us in the current mess, of course.)

        Now, when our Roman urban centre collapsed in the 5thc AD, ( before which there are archaeological signs of civil disturbance, arson and violence over a very long period) this old peasant and lord agriculture just continued much as before, with new masters perhaps, no longer a big city to supply for a time, but really no huge changes until the 19thc, down to the ancient form of cart (Roman) with solid wheels and some primitive but effective agricultural tools: but in our transition to a new low-energy agriculture, there is almost nothing of that kind established as yet, and the rural environment seems hugely degraded compared to 2,000 years ago. There is the question of time scales in making a transition to something so utterly different I can’t see the transition being made, on a large scale, particularly given the state of denial we are in….

        • Karl North says:

          mossenalbizu: Thanks for an interesting take on the fate of peasants in Northern Spain. Maybe because Moorish control of that area was intermittent, the “Arab enslavement” you say was the fate of peasants there did not apply in the South, as the following snip from


          “Land Ownership versus European Serfdom
          Moorish Agriculture revolutionized previous epoch-administrations: i.e. Roman or Gothic which had functioned with vast estates. The Arabs disapproved of slavery.

          “The Arabs prioritized that al-Andalusi lands, be divided into small plots – to be managed independently. Peasants were thus encouraged to work their own land with care and pride to a point of excellence. People were able to buy and sell their properties.

          “Those small farms were tilled zealously, planted with as many seasonal crops as possible and irrigated punctiliously. Taxes were not excessive and small plot land-owners reaped benefits from their hard work.

          “Benefits of Public Education on Moorish Agriculture
          Able to read: farmers studied in local Agriculture Schools. Studies were of extensive al-Andalusi research treatises on agriculture and meteorology. They learned, in-depth, how plant-saps progessed and rested. New systems of grafting evolved and were utilised. They learned how to protect crops ecologicially from plagues.”

      • Disaffected says:


        Excellent piece! And Sandy, I like the direction you’re going here as well. And oh by the way, happy Six-Oh old man! I hope to join you there in five years time (well, I think I do anyway).

        And now for the voice of SUNSHINE!

        But Karl, I’ve gotta second Rosie’s comment here as well, and maybe raise it a few BIG chips on top of that. What I consistently (dare I say it, almost universally) see in such otherwise well thought out and researched futurist scenarios is the steadfast refusal to address population contraction and its (in my view) enormous impact on all such scenarios. I understand (but certainly don’t agree with) the idea of not wanting to scare away prospective readers; but in the end, I simply don’t think that argument holds any water, in that readers who are scared of facing our immediate future based on the obvious implications of our current behaviors are best labeled “mainstream,” and in that case are almost certainly not receptive to your message in the first place.

        Secondly, and even more importantly, is that in my opinion catastrophic involuntary population reduction/collapse is almost certainly the primary issue to be discussed in the first place! Technical issues aside, the primary issue to be faced by humanity at this point in human history is that we have 7B+ (projected to be 9B by 2050) humans inhabiting an ecosphere that was meant to accommodate a fraction of that, all vitally dependent on technologies that are themselves all vitally dependent on underlying cheap fossil fuel energy supplies that will all too soon become financially unavailable, and then simply unavailable altogether not too long after that.

        All that said, I liked your piece – as far as it went. I’m old school – retired enlisted military and all that BS – and as such, am always a little mistrustful of strictly “academic takes” on things. In the end, it’s the facts on the ground that always matter, and the facts on the ground when the shit hits the fan this time around ain’t gonna be at all pretty.


  3. derekthered says:

    “Throughout their history, metropolitan areas have been centers that have concentrated wealth and power drawn from exploited peripheries. Early in the energy descent they can be expected to use this accumulated advantage to allocate resources disproportionately to themselves and thereby prolong consumption levels and material living standards even as they decline in society as a whole.”

    indeed, as our model, the Roman Empire. this is the fact of contemporary society, the so-called Red States produce the goods which keep the Blue States functioning. sorry to get political when commenting upon such an excellent essay, but i couldn’t help noticing the parallel to the popular meme about red states getting more back in tax dollars than they put into the kitty in DC.

    “Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most “innovative” by today’s standards—the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems—will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new “green buildings.”

    these monstrosities we call buildings are more akin to machines than what most people call buildings, you can’t get to the top floors w/o elevators, unless you are planning a trek, maybe in the future people will brag “I climbed the Chrysler Tower”!!! sort of like “conquering” Everest.

    so, the takeaway is start collecting junk, don’t throw away that rusty old cast iron skillet, little bit of charcoal, nice hot fire from salvaged timber, that’s a sword right there, or a plowshare. my money is on the sword.

    • Karl North says:

      I think collecting junk will be the next growth industry (see the gangster salvage business in Kunstler’s World Made By Hand). As I could not afford better, I built my farm with salvaged stuff and the junk man was my best friend.

      • Ivy Mike says:

        collecting junk…salvaged stuff

        It wasn’t so long ago, you had to do that to survive. My grandpa collected stuff to fix other stuff, and was a creative “fixer-upper” guy.

        Now I’m carrying his tradition again. After he died, I got his welding tanks, buckets of lead, anvil, vise, clamps…you get the idea. It gives me great pleasure to go out to my barn and use his equipment and remember the good times I had with him fixing all kinds of things.

        And I’ll be heading to the junkyard soon again, to pick up some scrap steel to make a bed frame with a 3″ slab of curly maple big enough to make a headboard and footboard. I just don’t buy crap from town anymore. It’s junk, a rip-off, and I can make it stronger and cheaper.

  4. Karl North says:

    Ivy Mike: I agree that, from the perspective of history, the prospects of agrarian pastoral/horticultural communities remaining “autonomous and sovereign” are poor.

    • Disaffected says:

      Agreed. One of the great shortcomings of the typical Kunstler/Archdruid projections IMO. As well as their unwillingness to address human strife during the fall.

  5. John Bollig says:

    Just what the doctor ordered… I live on the great plains where there are some alternatives to fossil fuels. Solar is an option but the real fun is in wind power. In some areas of the great plains, wind power is a viable post industrial energy source. With modest imputs, solar and wind farming can complement each other. While not on the same scale as large metro areas, small rural areas in the plains states with low population densities should be able to sustain themselves. In some areas of central Kansas and Nebraska for example, open range cattle make sense and in other areas such as the missouri river valley and platte river valley, some population density may be possible to sustain due to the combination of solar, wind and biomass as well as local water powered mills and grinders. wheat will grow in the plains states east of the high plains of eastern colorado and sugar beets will again be a major source of sugar in the platte river valley. naturally, yields will be less than that of industrial agribusiness and some crops will have to be abandoned, such as irrigated corn and livestock factory farms. Low population densities of 1500 to 2000 per county is sustainable in most of the great plains states. Regional hubs such as Wichita and Omaha will be downsized to less than 10,000 each in population and will act as educational, religious and cultural hubs that service the surrounding 300 – 400 mile areas to the west. The wetlands within this region will be integrated into a web of local grain production. Rivers will be still used to ship grain to the regional centers in exchange for luxury goods and some small scale industry. The burbs are toast and the only rational way out is depopulation and disease.

    • Disaffected says:

      Hey John. I’m from Omaha originally. Haven’t been back for 2 or 3 years now, but rest assured, it’s grown WAY beyond it’s usefulness (now largely a FIRE sector stooge), never mind “carrying capacity.” Gonna be a whole lot of hungry “yuppies” (I realize that term’s dated) with no place to go and nothing to do in the MO River Valley as the shit hits the fan. Thankfully, most will go back to where they came from (NY, TX, and CA) before they die. The mid-west has enough problems of its own.

      • Disaffected says:

        But hate to add, the slope back down ain’t gonna be NEARLY as smooth as you paint it. LOTS more friction than that.

  6. Mike Sosebee says:

    I appreciate the inventiveness of people and societies to adapt to change however climate chaos, over-population and chemical poisoning preclude successful adaptation of any scale. I certainly hold out hope that small groups might hang on in small decentralized bands (for a time at least). However we now understand that there is a delay of some 30 odd years before the real effects of CO-2 drives up the temperature and kicks off the dreaded “feedback loops” which are well documented and are occurring in the present.

    “a 2 degree centigrade change automatically leads to 4 degrees C which is the final nail in the coffin of the human experience.” Guy McPherson

    • Disaffected says:


      My understanding is that the delays are even much longer than that (50-100), but whatever; point taken. And that’s before we take into account the arctic methane hydrate releases, which are MUCH more potent (~7X) still.

      Bottom line:

      My fellow humans (especially the rich American capitalist variety) are evidently hardwired toward “sunny optimism” in perpetuity, especially when you tell them they can magically do whatever in the fuck they want to do “forever and ever Amen” (the “Amen” part evidently being VITALLY important!). UNFORTUNATELY, at this late date we’re now finding out from the CREATOR in REAL that all of that previous bullshit was… well… simply put… BULLSHIT!

      In other words, if even half of what we think is true based on current projections (and so far, all current projections are MORE THAN HALF short of the mark of current observations), then we’re indeed IN A WORLD OF SHIT!

      How do we get out of such a predicament? Don’t know. But one thing we can ALL say for certain is that it CERTAINLY won’t be by burying our heads in the sand as to the underlying problem.

      Nice video.


      • Disaffected says:

        Unfortunately, this might be the answer to my question above. It’s probably time that the more intelligent among us start considering this at least:

        Yes folks, it DOES happen to individuals EVERY DAY, and it DOES HAPPEN to ENTIRE CULTURES on a regular historical basis. Might be time to face up to the fact that it’s ENTIRELY LIKELY that it could happen to OUR CULTURE AS WELL someday soon. And it VERY WELL MIGHT BE SIMPLY UNAVOIDABLE at this point.

        In short, it’s time for GROWN UPS TO BE GROWN UPS again.


        • Mike Sosebee says:

          I love that scene from a “Perfect Storm. It says it all.

          We’re trained from childhood to believe in the “Little Engine that could” or the frog drowning in the vat of milk who kept kicking long enough to turn the milk to butter and he crawled out.

          What I propose is a De-programming clinic for the tragically hopeful, an antidote to the “Me Generation” and Tony Robbins propaganda:

          “Let us free you from the burden of your personal optimism.” “Be less.” “Slackers unite!” “College? Why bother.” “Save a life. Don’t reproduce.” “Surrender or be dragged.”

          “I think we are just insects, we live a bit and then die and that’s the lot. There’s no mercy in things. There’s not even a Great Beyond. There’s nothing.”
          ― John Fowles, The Collector

          “The point is there ain’t no point.”
          ― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

          • kulturcritic says:

            I prefer Fowles, The Magus.

          • Disaffected says:

            I agree Mike and well put. Sorry all for my liberal use of ALL CAPS above. I do get a bit “enthusiastic” after a beer or too, don’t I?

            That said, that scene from Perfect Storm might be my favorite all time. Almost everyone that sees that sees despair, hopelessness, and grief. Whereas I see realism, optimism, and triumphalism in the face of the inevitable. I see humans that have made a fateful decision in the face of enormous odds (deciding to sail into the face of what turns out to be the perfect storm based on local socio/economic based decisions) who are now faced with the inevitable real world consequences of their actions.

            In spite of that, they persevere to the very end, continuing to double down on their bets all along the way, even as their circumstances literally SCREAM (apologies) for them to reverse course. But in the end, the inevitable is the inevitable. They turn out to be nothing more than names invoked in a service and engraved on a plaque, and a story in a book or movie. Heroes in their final hour? Undeniably. Fools for putting themselves in that predicament in the first place? Absolutely. But then again, ain’t we all in the end?

            And No Country for Old Men? Don’t get me started! GREAT movie!

          • Disaffected says:

            And just to expound on that point further; we in the human NOW have somehow imagined ourselves to be exceptional/invulnerable over and above all who have lived before, even above and beyond all the first world American capitalist exceptionalist bullshit we’ve already apparently embraced. And I can’t help but wonder whether or not it’s not all this Hollywood techno myth-making we embrace on a daily basis, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s good, but most times it’s bad. The myth of human technology as our “savior” is, IMO, just COMPLETELY mistaken.

  7. kulturcritic says:

    Folks – I am waiting for the next lucky poster!!

  8. Karl North says:

    “catastrophic involuntary population reduction/collapse is almost certainly the primary issue to be discussed in the first place!”

    DA, I think we agree on the basics (I estimated a likely urban\suburban population decline to 10% of current) and only disagree on what to emphasize in a piece. I wanted to get people thinking about how survival (for a time) might take place. I understated the population decline, reducing it to a number, because I did not want to distract them with a lot of estimates of pain and suffering. But yes, die-off is part of the picture – maybe you should put your military perspective to work and write the next guest post about that scenario! By the way, there is now a wealth of post-petroleum fiction that showcases the grisly aspects.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Excellent suggestion Karl. I second the motion. DA we are waiting for your post. LOL

    • Disaffected says:

      Thanks Karl. I know I can be a pain in the ass most of the time and I apologize. Just got back from Naked Capitalism where I got into a minor shitting match with some over there over some comments today. I’m torn as to going into “the voice” mode again, as I know it’s never received well and the technical aspects of it are always daunting. Although I realize the long term technical specifics are not really all that important when you’re trying to paint the big picture, I also realize that that’s what detractors will ALWAYS inevitably focus on (and thus my ENORMOUS respect for bloggers like Sandy and you who stick their necks out there to be chopped off on a regular basis). In the end, like many a burgeoning writer, I have yet to “find my voice” on a consistent basis. As you probably well know, it’s TOUGH taking that first dive into the deep end of the pool.

  9. bmiller says:

    Thanks for the post, a lot of food for thought. And I was glad to discover your blog through this post. We have a group of farmers that get together every two months to discuss some piece relevant to the impacts of peak resources and climate change on farming, gardening and community. I think I’ll forward this on for discussion.
    In your comments with one reader you reference reclamation of pastures. This is such a good and critical point as many assume that land remains permanently degraded. There are many low energy means of sustaining and renewing land for production (nasty word in this crowd) that it remains an important part of the discussion regardless of the eventual carrying capacity on this planet.
    As a matter of strictly idle speculation how much of a standard suburban home is salvageable. I seem to recall somewhere that sheetrock had lime in it?
    Finally, it was nice to see how many farming and agrarian types are engaged in this discussion.

  10. John Bollig says:

    On our way out….what should we be doing? Should we be having a party or should
    We be trying to protect the vulnerable people who are going to be the first to suffer. This discussion is is gut wrenching. If you’re right about the further development of history,many people are going to be roadkill. Is there any hope of survival?

    • Frank Kling says:

      I would suggest stop perseverating on the survival of the human species and instead endeavor to prevent the collapse of the Earth’s life support system. Human beings will be one of the last species to reach extinction. After all, we are too self-important to allow such a travesty…ha-ha. However, the complete extinction of mankind is assured if we continue to decimate the planet’s living systems. I am amazed at how many people seem to simply overlook this minor point.

      Me believe that near-term human extinction is all but certain as a consequence of our total annihilation of the environment (i.e., habitat destruction, deforestation, present mass extinction crises, pollution, and of course climate change).

      Read this brutally honest summation:

  11. Karl North says:

    The prospect of the decline of industrial civilization is gut wrenching at times, even if one has expected it for quite a while. I see it as an interesting challenge, and don’t see much point in worrying about survival. The existentialist approach to life developed in Europe in response to a similar shift in awareness. After the insanity and massive loss of live of WWI, the idea that Western Civilization represented the pinnacle of human progress seemed absurd. The response of writers like Camus and Sartre was that how one acts defines who one is, and can maintain personal integrity and self-respect even if one’s actions may turn out to be useless in a world that is absurd.

    For me, self-definition involves working toward a degree of self-sufficiency for myself, family and neighbors, and having fun at it. Read Kunstler’s World Made By Hand. It is one of the more instructive post-petroleum novels in its accounts of constructive responses in the midst of a world fallen apart.

    • John Bollig says:


      My reading of the history of declining civilizations holds that a civilization may withdraw from lesser spread from the outside to the center. Rome did the same thing with a split into two empires. As ..the west crumbles, we may see a rump state develop.This rump state may withdraw from areas where they have lesser extraction ability.What I see is a bunch of walled city states near waterways and on river ways.

  12. Karl North says:

    Agreed. Balkanization is already happening: Catalonia trying to secede from Spain, for example. Imperial governments, to their ultimate peril, have been breaking up states when they stir up latent ethno-religious conflicts to destroy regimes they don’t like: Yugoslavia, Irak, Afghanistan, Libya, now spilling over into Mali and other West African nations. One would think that large countries like the US that have central governments would want to avoid creating such examples. Secessionist movements exist already in several US states; while currently weak, they are likely to grow stronger in time. I explore such scenarios in more detail at

  13. Frank Kling says:

    Thanks for implementing the guest post forum. This was a terrific idea for which I thank you, and thanks as well to Mr. North.

  14. derekthered says:

    just jumped over to your site and read “Invisible Ships and Boiling Frogs:
    The end of industrial affluence”

    Click to access Invisible-Ships-and-Boiling-Frogs-blog.pdf

    i must say that is a very succinct overview of our present situation, a fine bit of writing, i’m jealous.

  15. mercywave says:

    Don’t drive a car. Ask for a ride. That is what I do. Coop with others doing the same thing. Not for everyone with a schedule that can’t afford this. I have to get along with the people I am riding with. oh shit…. You get a sense of the world around yoy! HH

  16. mercywave says:

    People who work the land should never quote people who are theorist. They know the land. They know the land….

  17. Tom says:

    I have an objection to projecting any wisdom into commercial Hollywood movies. I don’t expect wisdom to accidentally sneak into money producing illusions. Art is something else, no matter how many gold trophies they give each other. As David Smith (sculptor) once said: Art is the rough stuff that comes from tough minds that got that way fighting for survival. In the past few years I have noticed major newspaper articles interpreting major events in the light of television shows and movies, as if the media was prophetic (reflections of reflections). For lack of living experience, journalists and editors are now using illusion as a reality baseline.
    There have been some good comments about agriculture having been accompanied by various forms of forced labor historically. The American Yeoman farmer is one counter example, although coming from a short piece of history.

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