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Society, Suburbanism, Energy, and Sustainability

Brain Droppings — Essay Edition

Traditional Society vs. Modernity: How to Transition from Suburbanism to a More Responsible, Healthier Society  

by: Matthew Hughston Lowder      

Suburbia was initially a fairly innocent attempt to make a bit of money for the few and the powerful, strengthen our economy, keep the unemployment low after World War II when soldiers were looking for jobs, and make life better in America. There was no way of knowing in the 1950s that it would ultimately be self-destructive and tragic. It is best viewed as a short-lived sociological experiment that has not gone quite right, resulting in short-term benefits and long-term destruction (and if not destruction, at least volatile risks). “The living arrangements Americans now think of as normal is bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually… all reasonable indications suggest we will not be able to continue this pattern of living, whether we like suburbia or not…” (Kunstler, p. 17). Like two sides of the same coin, oil can be credited for most problems but also most advancements—socially, technologically, and environmentally. Oil is deeply integrated in more goods and services than people may know or care to think about, and this relatively new and prosperous way of human growth and operation has only been around for about 100 years. But now that we know that peak oil is here or has already passed and that all things that are produced or transported with the aid of oil are going to continue to increase in price, it is time to change in three main ways: condensing from suburban life back into an urban setting, reduce oil dependency and expand renewable options, and rethink how our education philosophies fundamentally operate to keep the young informed as they grow.

            Oil in 1999 was around $10 per barrel (Owen, p. 50), and today (just twelve years later), it has climbed to just over $100 per barrel. This staggering statistic should nudge the United States and other still growing nations to reassess both short and long-term goals and how they will be attained. One of the several ways to reduce the strain on the human race is to change how and where we live on a very basic level. This means a massive restructuring of—or exodus from—suburbia. This will be one of the biggest challenges for citizens comfortable with modern American society, and will possibly take the longest to alter. However, if the public can change their expectations of their lives for the betterment of man, the long-term benefits will outweigh the drawbacks and we may all gain back some of our long lost senses of community and culture. This may also remind us that most of modern man’s existence was, in fact, in the urban style (and for good reason). We will find a new “normal.”

            It is also worth noting that people saw these issues coming just like people saw so many other man-made disasters coming, but the very powerful or influential or intelligent have decided it is too inconvenient or takes too much talking to bring the public up to speed on the facts that they should know. The result is two worlds; the one the public perceives and the one scientists, biologists, and policy makers see. The danger here is that the national conversation is without the public’s voice or not in our favor. And sometimes the enormity of the challenge faced by those in power makes them silence themselves thinking nothing can be done, and twist the facts to gain certain public approval, or withhold evidence for political or monetary gains. There is a lot of ethical grayness here. There are people who do not think that anyone could understand the complicated nature of these big ideas and so they say nothing, and still others who are purposely trying to keep otherwise intelligent people in the dark in regard to certain facts so that profits of whatever sort will continue to rise for some company. The one thing that cannot be ignored any longer, however, is the utter dependence that we “oil junkies” have developed over the past 50 years, and this is the main issue on which to reflect.

            To live in the suburbs without a car is an economic and social death sentence; many people cannot get to work, to school, to the market, to the pharmacist, or to their families, not to mention the time and money and distance all this entails even with a car. Almost nowhere is easily accessible on foot. This “sprawl” has not always been the case. The structure of the urban landscape and its conventions—including housing, proximity of varied institutions, entertainment, environmental impact, and “class” balance—has in every way been more conducive to a more psychologically, spiritually, and economically responsible and fulfilling populace. The average New Yorker for example generates 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. That number is 30 percent below the national average of 24.5 metric tons per capita (Owen, p.2-3). It is not unusual to find skeptical people when one says a place like Manhattan is more “green” than beautifully constructed, cookie-cut, suburban housing developments, often named after the environment or the animals it destroyed or displaced (i.e., Shady Oak Trails, or Blue Bird Hills). This occurs by paving a road and fertilizing thousands of square feet of new pre-packaged grass blankets and pest spray. It is a cleverly constructed attempt at creating peace and outdoor beauty which is, in the end, a produced imitation. And all of the steps it takes to create this sight do more harm than good along the way. Even though these housing developments are often advertised with gorgeous homes nestled in green pictures of nature, they are not actually environmentally friendly when you consider all its components. And the same groups and companies do not hold back when vilifying the cities, which are actually better in almost every sense except perhaps personal comfort regarding lots of square footage of living space. The benefits for the whole, however, outweigh the personal desires of the few. When fellow human ecology author Daniel Lazare was interviewed for David Owen’s book Green Metropolis, he said the following about the intended and unintended national antagonism towards urban life placed by the banks, builders, and the government:

“Green ideology is a rural, agrarian ideology. It seeks to integrate man into nature in a very kind of direct simplistic way—scattering people among the squirrels and the trees and the deer. To me, that seems mistaken, and it doesn’t really understand the proper relationship between man and nature. Cities are much more efficient economically, and also much more benign environmentally because when you concentrate human activities in a confined space you reduce the human footprint… the disruption of nature is much less in Manhattan than it is in the suburbs. In order to surround ourselves with nature, we get in cars and drive long distances, and then we build silly pseudo-green houses in the middle of the woods—which are actually extremely disruptive, and very, very wasteful.” (Owen, p.20-21)

This idea of suburban living being very wasteful repeats in almost every sustainability book, documentary, news program, and newspaper one is likely to read on the subject. By living closer together and having less space, people have no choice but to have this reduction reflected in their lives. They must be mindful and thus all the people making up a city drive less, consume less, and produce less waste.

Urban living also offers a closer proximity to all places people need to get to without having a car. They also require people to interact socially and actually know their neighbors (something not everyone in suburbia goes out of their way to do). The majority of citizens would live very close to the hospitals, schools, foods, and clubs/bars (unlike today where only a minority live so close to these places) and they would not require a car or its gas or its insurance or its parking fee. More money is freed to do other things and improve life in other ways. In addition, living so close to one another in large apartment buildings keeps the heating and cooling cost low since the building is heated like a hive and affects all rooms. In suburbia, this cost of energy per person and per house is radically higher since it is only heating itself—costing more money per inhabitant and allowing more heat/AC to escape the walls into the atmosphere.

Oil dependency cannot be solved overnight, and it is true that the modern urban city, while better in many ways than the suburbs, cannot sustain itself for much longer than the suburbs might because we would still be using oil for so many things: foods, packaging, distribution, housing, printing, public transportation, gadgets, and electronics. Therefore, moving from suburban life back to urban life (which has proved to work well for hundreds of years) will only solve some of the problems and slow down some of the challenges on the horizon. The next step would be to take a look at how we are making our energies, how we use them and how often, and then try to discover new alternative fuels, either renewable or non-renewable, to alleviate the pressure on our oil addiction and provide some relief from the fear of a total collapse of society.

Roughly 80 million Americans are too poor, too old, or too young to drive and thus incapacitated to lead a fulfilling day-to-day life (Duany, p. 115). Teenagers are forcing their parents to spend money on driving lessons and licenses and eventually cars just so they can have any form of social life and have a job which is usually not within walking distance. The dependency on the parents is no longer cut at the traditional age of 18 and this is due to our continued sprawl and youth’s demand for mobility. They cannot leave the nest as early as they once did, and are now burdensome into their early twenties—sometimes longer—whether they are in college or not. This is another reason to reduce our dependence and our necessity of having cars and long stretches of roads to get from place to place. It wastes time and oil, adds pollution to the atmosphere, and can be physically and psychologically draining to the frequent commuter. A closer community of various services and shorter distances helps the citizenry in nearly every way—often equal or less travel time, distance traveled, and stress than the suburban setting. Less energy and waste and pollution is attributed to each person this way, and a public transit in very good form always outweighs the single car rider (though strong public transit is more or less extinct and great challenges await us when we decide to refurbish them.)

Besides cars and oil and the social benefits, there is the next challenge of finding new sources of powerful energies. Electricity comes from coal. Nearly all technology relies on oil at some point. To alleviate some of these strains, further research must be put into not just renewable energy sources, but how we will harvest and store these energies as technology recedes into the past where oil and gas was ample, because the world’s structure of what can be made cheaply and what can be produced at all is going to be slightly, if not substantially, different in 50-100 years time. It takes energy to find and use energy, and humanity needs a lot. Remember: in 1970 a barrel of oil was three dollars, climbing to $60 in 2006 (Leeb, p. 119) and as of April 8th, 2011 is at $117 (OPEC). The other problem is that non-renewable energy sources tend to have huge power capacities, and even combining the efforts of ethanol, crop conversions, natural gas, solar power, wind mills, recycling/burning wastes, and water power technology will not reach the energy demands to match the ability of oil. And oil is almost one hundred percent of the time necessary to build the edifices and technologies to harness and store these other energies! This is a stark reality without an answer yet. And nuclear power, with its history of controversy, is even less likely to get unilateral public backing since the recent events of Japan with Fukushima—casting questions and fears, albeit rational and understandable ones. Technology could probably get humanity out of any bind it is likely to face if there was an infinite supply of energy. There would also be far lower prices for everything, many more jobs, and the globe as a whole would certainly experience less war. But this utopia is not reality. The reality is that a national and possible global paradigm shift is taking place in the mind of humanity that may take decades to develop, but when it does, we will take on the world’s problems like never before with a new set of ideals and a new expectation of what life on earth will be like. We can only hope that we have decades to spare of course, and it begins with changing how we live and reducing our footprint here. That means retracting our sprawl and rebuilding our urban settings.

The American people and their lives are dictated by the cost of energy just like the other 7 billion people on this earth and counting. There are limitations. Our modern civilization was built on oil, and as that goes away, our modern way of life will devolve into something more manageable and less turbo-charged; probably into a world that goes a bit slower and is more human labor intensive. It will be a world where all other activities are second to food production, much like the 19th century (Leeb, p.121). Modern agriculture will feed less, the highways will fall into disrepair, middle class professions and jobs will disappear, and the schools educational systems will likely not have so many grades unless near miraculous energies are found and sustained (Leeb, p.121).

A final point can be made about education in America; an often overlooked and crucial part of the solution. Without an up-and-coming intelligent generation to take over the responsibilities and the continuation of our cultures, everything that the current policy makers are working towards in this country will have been in vain. The public must raise its voice and it better know what it is talking about. When the time comes for a new generation to step up to these challenges, they must hit the ground running and have a proverbial arsenal of statistics, plans, and technologies prepared to ease the transition with as little hunger, lawlessness, uprising, and depression as possible. Earth in Mind by David W. Orr contains several chapters  about the connectivity between society, the environment, and education. Orr warns of not the problems within the educational system as we know it—where there are problems of course—but he studies the problems of education itself. Though it sounds bizarre, once given some details, it is actually quite understandable and frightening. It also further underlines this essential idea of a wide-spread paradigm shift taking hold in the very fabrics of our minds about what we expect from our modern societies and how we approach our change.

 “It is time, I believe, for a… general rethinking of the process and substance of education at all levels, beginning with the admission that much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination, fragments instead of unifies, overemphasizes success and careers, separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical, and unleashes on the world these minds ignorant of their own ignorance.” (Orr, p.17)

And this much is clearly unintentional but needs to be fixed. This has been the unwritten plan of attack, the featured dogma for our 20th century world and America specifically: fight for success, wealth, and consumption. The world is for us to pillage. It worked in its time when we did not know any better, but this subtextual, ingrained mindset must be changed at the fundamental level for people to be able to think outside of their self-imposed boxes today. Assuming, for a moment, that there were no problems with America’s educational system and we had the best schools on the planet (which is not true) the most daunting task to come would not be making sure the schools operate properly and the kids absorbed the appropriate information, it would be a task of gargantuan proportions regarding what they are absorbing pedagogically, philosophically, and structurally. We are taught to be kind and respect authority and enjoy arts, but are also taught to be lookout for ourselves first and capitalize, rarely being told to care of the interests of one’s neighbor. In the end, it is capitalism and dogs eating dogs, though some call it simply healthy competition. Perhaps some educators, board members, and Congress people believe we would be too young to understand such principles before we were 18 or 21 years old, but that had not stopped them in the past when people in power deemed it necessary to indoctrinate the youth and the ignorant with nationalistic sentiments (including the American dream, “Leave it to Beaver” existences, and SUV power that “you need”). There is great power and capabilities in the minds of all people at all ages. Coast-to-coast involvement and the beginning of a national dialogue and outreach are more important than ever. It has begun over the past 30 years, but has been weak, unfocused, and underfunded, however the past decade has shown an increase of public awareness, and that must increase into the future and into the classrooms—fast.

Traditional society will come back in some form since the modern society has passed its prime. The world that waits before us does not have to be as stark or ugly or hopeless as it may appear when given the facts, opinions, or scientific projections of others. The reality is that we would not have made it to where we are today without being an extraordinarily smart or extraordinarily lucky creature. Our reliance on energies for how we live today directly dictates our path, our wars, our advancements, and our abilities to sustain a certain population number. To co-exist within our biosphere, regardless of the concessions that my reduce our current creativities and artistries, we me ultimately evolve into a species which can continue to experience the better sides of life and proliferate with purpose and meaning—and in a new way. A reduction is inevitable in some sense of the word. When it is all said and done, that is the very reason we care about what happens to our future, a future we may not even get to see, because imbedded deep within every single person is the desire to live and live well, not simply survive. And this emotion makes us human. But doing this by any means necessary has proven very dangerous and we must be cautious and considerate if we wish to continue sharing this planet.

“It may surprise you to learn that I didn’t want to write this… Moreover, I hope the premise and everything I forecast turn out to be dead wrong. Everyone including me will be much better off if that is true. The problem is that all the evidence shows I am right.”                                                      

–          Stephen Leeb, PhD in the “Author’s Note” of his book The Coming Economic Collapse

 Works Cited


OPEC statistics. Retrieved April 8th, 2011 from http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/923.htm 

Kunstler, James H. 1996. Home From Nowhere. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York

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

Leeb PhD, Stephen. 2007. The Coming Economic Collapse: How You Can Thrive When Oil Costs $200 a Barrel. Hachette Book Groups USA, New York

Orr, David W. 2004. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Duany, Andres (and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck). 2000. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. North Point Press, New York


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