When we run out of oil New York will be first against the wall
I believe this fairly strongly. Los Angeles, too (but I don’t live there). Taking the bus back and forth from Pennsylvania, I see, just over the other side of New Jersey, how out of touch this city is with its immediate, actually productive areas. Nor can it be sustained by any upstate farming once the lights go out. I’ve subscribed mostly to the position taken by James Kunstler that, while big cities will be excellent sources of scap material and Calvin Klein suits (for anybody reading Hiroki Endo’s Eden), smaller cities match more accurately cities of old, pre-industrially speaking.
Now, via The Oil Drum, and the Energy Bulletin, comes this piece (essay? I can never tell what gets called an essay, in America) on the Archdruid Report, the blog of John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America). His thesis is similar, though spectacularly well-written:
Whether the apocalypse du jour is nuclear war, pandemic disease, racial conflict, Communist takeover, fascist police state takeover, the imminent arrival of Antichrist, or what have you, the accepted way to deal with it is to flee to some isolated location in the mountains and wait for the rubble to stop bouncing.
He started off talking about The Pilgrim Progress.
Too often the lifeboat communities imagined by today’s peak oil writers are simply suburban bedroom communities on steroids, postapocalyptic Levittowns that, like their 1950s equivalents, are meant to allow their residents to maintain a privileged way of life while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket at a comfortable distance.
Imagine, by contrast, a city of between 20,000 and 200,000 people in a mostly agricultural region … In the far more plausible scenario of uneven decline and slow depopulation spread out over many decades, such a city would have immense advantages over a rural lifeboat community. Located within easy reach of surrounding farmland, stocked with raw materials in the form of surplus buildings, cars, and the like, and a large enough work force to allow division of labor and the production of specialty goods, the city could easily import food and other necessities by supplying trade goods to the nearby countryside, the way cities in preindustrial times have always done.
The difference is that big cities like New York and Los Angeles do not really produce anything. When the lights go out – or begin to dim – what is it that these cities have to offer? Culture? What good are actors when there isn’t enough resources to make or watch films? We can’t eat the stuff, or burn it to keep warm in winter. It won’t turn into fresh water.
The smaller cities are, as Greer outlines in this article (and as James Kunstler has detailed several times, though with angrier prose) simply much better-placed to provide trades and manufactured goods required/demanded by rural communities, while being able to live sustainably on the goods their rural neighbours can offer in return. Mega cities, as we are wont to call them, just have too many people, many of whom provide services we will not need.
These same factors make the maintenance of public order much less challenging – the sort of rural brigandage that springs up in the last years of civilizations could make life very difficult for a rural lifeboat community, but a city with a large organized militia centered on its police force and pre-decline National Guard units would be a much tougher nut to crack.
Finally, most small to midsized cities have the cultural and social resources – libraries and colleges, community groups of many kinds, and a lively tradition of local politics, among other things – to maintain some approximation of civilized life even in hard times. In a deindustrializing world, all these things are potent sources of strength. While there will undoubtedly be failures from a variety of causes, all these things make cities among the most viable options for personal and cultural survival as the deindustrial age opens around us.
The article makes two critical assumptions: first, that we do in fact return to a pre-industrial world, i.e. that something new does not come along, or does not come along in a sufficient energy-density; second that cities act, prepare and re-structure themselves in order to meet the new paradigm. Absent either or both of those, and this will never come to bear. Be warned also, it is written somewhat creatively. Broad-brush-wise, there’s no reason why this eventuality should be any less likely than any other though – plus it’s a blog-entry. It is short and worth reading.
With regard to incentives, however: assuming the post-peak decline is steady-ish, rather than abrupt (at which point one can imagine all hell breaking loose), there is a problem. Mega-city inhabitants of sufficient wealth will probably move to the smaller, manageable cities of their choice, as will the ex-urban crowd – but what if this sort of mass migration is too unevenly-spaced? There is the risk that several/many smaller cities will face not being so small, after all – i.e. all their best-laid plans coming undone because of the bloody Middle-Class invasion from elsewhere. I suppose that’s where that locally-autocratic National Guard element will come in handy…