Joel Kotkin is fond of pointing out that you can almost always get a bigger better house at a lower price point in a new suburb on the edge of the metroplex compared to a shoe box apartment downtown.
James Howard Kunstler describes suburbia as, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” and goes on to state categorically that auto-dependent development is, “a living arrangement with no future.”
So how exactly do you square these two radically different interpretations? For me the answer comes from Jorgen Randers whose conclusions can be summed up rather simply: Humans always chose the biggest bang for the buck in the short term regardless of long term consequences. In the short term Kotkin is right. In the long term Kunstler is right. Neither man is likely to live long enough for the long term to effect them directly.
In 1970 Randers, along with three other graduate students at MIT, were asked to gather data and prepare a document that described what the world might be like by the end of the twenty first century. The team asked a series of, “what if” questions and then ran computer models. What if population grew, stabilized, or declined? What if fossil fuels were exhausted or, conversely, what if new energy supplies became abundant? What if technology solved this or that problem? What if pollution got out of hand? They published their results in 1972 and outlined twelve possible trajectories. Six were fairly optimistic. Six were a bit grim.
Forty years later Randers looked back and published a new report describing which scenario has actually played out in reality since 1972. The trajectory that very closely matches recent events has been the “business-as-usual” model which depicts continued steady growth, followed by sharp decline in the not too distant future. Short term benefits will be enjoyed while long term unpleasantness is increasingly guaranteed. 2100 will resemble 1900. That isn’t the Apocalypse. It isn’t The End Of The World. But it isn’t a drive-thru utopia either.
When Kotkin talks about new sources of fuel coming on line and new technology delivering higher efficiencies, he’s absolutely correct – in the short term. Remember, he won’t be around for the diminishing returns segment of the trajectory in a few decades. Kunstler may be correct about a world characterized by less of everything we currently enjoy, but it won’t necessarily seem that way in his lifetime.
A more detailed analysis shows that all twelve of the original 1972 scenarios are actually occurring at the same time, depending on where you happen to be in the world. For example, Scandinavia is currently on track with one of the more optimistic scenarios in which the population gradually declines voluntarily while a high standard of living is maintained and the natural world is largely preserved. Unfortunately, Northern Europe doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The troubles in one part of the world will inevitably spill over to others. Millions of desperate refugees, terrorism, supply chain disruptions, and economic dislocations are already beginning to present themselves.
Yemen is currently experiencing massive overpopulation, exhaustion of oil, water, and agricultural capacity, and the country has fallen to a lawless assemblage of angry unemployed young men with guns. This is the overshoot and collapse model unfolding in the present day.
Pakistan and Egypt are following a similar trajectory at a slower pace. The Arab Spring that sent angry citizens into Tahrir Square in 2011 and overthrew the Mubarak regime coincided with the precise moment when Egypt switched from being a net exporter of oil and grain to a net importer. Once Mubarak was no longer able to subsidize food and fuel for a growing population he was deposed. This is the ongoing heart of the problems in the Arab world (nothing to do with Islam per se) and we will not see the end of trouble until population and resources are brought back in line. The fact that many other parts of the world rely on those same resources complicates matters. War is a highly effective, if terribly inhumane, method of getting things back in balance.
What does this have to do with American suburbia? The low density auto-dependent development pattern will persist for a few more decades. So will hyper dense concentrated city centers. And then both will decline as they become overwhelmed by multiple physical, economic, and political constraints. This doesn’t mean people will live in caves. It simply suggests that people will reorganize themselves around whatever arrangements are in keeping with the external reality of the day. People forty years from now will do exactly what we do today. They’ll seek out the fastest cheapest way to get the best quality life they can afford in the short term, and deeply discount any concerns for the future.
(All photos by the author unless otherwise noted)