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About the Author

  • City of the Future is authored by Lakis Polycarpou

    I am a freelance writer who is interested in the intersection of urban planning, architecture, technology, food, economics, energy and environmental issues. For the last several years I have been researching and writing about the implications of global peak oil.

    My work on these topics has been published in Energy Bulletin, Next American City, The Believer Magazine and The Washington Post among other places.

    I am also the Vice President of a new small press and Permaculture design company, KP Press Books/KP Permaculture.

    I can be reached at neapolis@earthlink.net or at lakis@kppressbooks.com

« $100 Oil | Main | Why Everything You Think You Know About Modern Society is Wrong (and Why it Matters When Thinking About Peak Oil) »

January 30, 2008

Comments

It's interesting to me the different perspectives that dreadful boring article of Staniford's has prompted people to reveal. I think that what I've said here - http://greenwithagun.blogspot.com/2008/01/relocalisation.html - about the simple practicalities of it all (eg, if the urban poor are priced out of the food market, are they a) just going to let themselves starve, or b) begin localising their agriculture?) remains true, but your own perspective on the aesthetics of it is also true.

Ours is indeed a very utilitarian society, but a short-sighted one, like the ones implied in so many philosophical dilemmas, the four starving men in the boat with room for just three, and so on.

The new is always good, the old always bad, any movement in any direction is forward movement - "progress" - any who stand in the way of "progress" are evil or at best silly, and so on.

Sad stuff. As you say, even those who question the way the world is don't question these base assumption of New Is Good. It's all rather Brave New World.

I read your essay; what you present seems to be, all-in-all, the most likely outcome for where we’re going. Stuart’s point about the poor urbanites being outbid for fuel did seem to leave a gaping logical hole, as you and others pointed out. When food prices get expensive enough, people will grow gardens, as they always have, whether or not they’re able to supply all of their calorie/grain needs.

It occurred to me after reading the posts on Jeff Vail’s latest installment on this debate—and your essay—that there is a lot misperception and confusion about what reloclazation even means. On the one side, it’s (as you say) a “barefoot hippie’s dream” and on the other a Pol Pot forced march to starvation (a particularly odious comment, in my opinion). Reality will probably play out much as you suggest, with smaller farms, closer to the cities, not necessarily the permaculturalist polyculture dream (though I would like that) but farms with fewer inputs, etc. Unless of course ideological blinders get in the way and we end up doing something very stupid politically, in the name of progress or something else. Which cannot be ruled out.

Thanks for the comment.

Excellent essay.

One could shoot an enormous hole in Mr. Staniford's argument simply by asking in what sense industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and whom precisely benefits from that efficiency? Helena Norberg-Hodge has argued that the Green Revolution had less to do with feeding the world population than with repurposing industrial capacity following World War II. A quick glance at Big Agra's balance sheet (particularly with respect to grain and biofuel subsidies) and the chronic starvation problems in poor nations could lead one to wonder whether she may be on to something.

If any aspect of industrial agriculture could certainly be considered efficient, it would be its rate of topsoil depletion. The jury is still out on whether that's a beneficial efficiency.

Very fine piece. You might be interested in seeing my "Metaphysics of Quality" website - an exploration of the concept pioneered by Robert Pirsig - http://meta-q.blogspot.com/

One of the best things Jim Kunstler ever said - "Ugliness is entropy made visible." This could be the basis for a whole new esthetic.

Mauricio –

The idea that the Green Revolution was less about feeding people than about post-war industrial capacity is fascinating; it plays off this tacit assumption that at some level, all technological innovation is progress, even if we accept that there are “trade-offs” (i.e., okay, industrial agriculture may be promoting cancer, dead-zones in the gulf of Mexico and strip-mine the topsoil, but hey, we’ve all go to eat!). But what if there’s really no trade-off, and we could have done the whole thing with smarter organic etc. (not to mention permaculture, and so forth), and the whole industrial agriculture game is really all just about certain narrow agendas? Something to think about.

Caryl –

You know, I haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance since high-school . . . but I was thinking about it in the context of this subject. Maybe I should pick it up again. I’ll definitely check out your essays.

Thanks for your responses.

Lakis

As a student in a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program this essay makes a lot of sense to me, and definitely fills a void of perspective left by the other 3 mentioned essays on relocalization. I see 'ugliness' in things which are non-functional, not of human scale or disconnected with their surroundings and the inhabitants. I remember the awful view looking down at the bits of forest and thousands of massive farm plots in Ontario transitioning into the seemingly endless tarmac & cement when flying into Toronto, and thought a more mixed arrangement would likely be much more appealing at ground level as well.

Hmmmm....so people who find beauty in modernist architecture are just wrong, in your view? Such buildings, and the larger aesthetic of which they are exemplary, is sterile and soulless and this is a verifiable fact, not merely an opinion or sentiment? Interesting.

What do you do with, say, the Italian futurists? (Or the Jetsons? :)) or social realism, which would seem to synthesize two things (the celebration of individual human labor v. the celebration of industrial progress) which your argument would seem to take to be antithetical?

I agree that the critique of modernist architecture is more controversial than the critique of say, a suburban big-box store. However, I believe that the writings of the “great” modernists themselves betray their own awareness of how soulless their buildings were (Le Corbusier, for instance, saying that buildings were “machines for living”). Is it a coincidence that late modernism was called “Brutalism”? For an interesting perspective on this, check out the debate Christopher Alexander had with Peter Eisenman in the early 1980s:

http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_Eisenman_Debate.htm

Eisenman (who I guess is a “deconstructivist”, whatever that means) talks about deliberately making people uncomfortable in his buildings—that is his desired effect. Whether that is a humane or even sane goal for the built environment—you be the judge.

I think a great deal of “admiration” for modernist and post-modernist monstrosities is more about propaganda and shock. In my experience, people may find such work “interesting”—especially when it is patronizingly “explained” to them. But deep or moving, or comfortable, or human or “alive”? Of course you are free to disagree.

But check out the work of Alexander and Salingaros for more on this (I’m really just repeating what they have said better).

As for social realism—I’m afraid that’s just an Orwellian neologism. That architecture is totalitarian, through and through—calling it “architecture for the people” is as absurd as calling saying the so-called “neo-classical” architecture of the Nazis harkens back to the ancient Greeks. Nothing human-scale about it. Futurism is an interesting case about which I plan to say more at some point, but in general the ideology falls into the same camp.

It is ironic to say the least, that people today defend modernism as just another style which one is free to like or dislike; but when the modernists’ major works were being built, the modernist themselves had nothing but scorn for older architecture and anyone who appreciated it. This attitude was used as justification to destroy many buildings, and in the case of urban planning, whole cities. (Check out the destruction of the original Penn Station in New York). Now the processes and materials and assumptions of modernism are conventional wisdom; but I believe that conventional wisdom in this case is deeply flawed.

Well, you begin to persuade me. I like me a Stanford White urban cathedral as much as the next gal. I am not, perhaps quite as willing to toss modernism out with the bathwater, however. For my larger point is simply this --- there's more than one aesthetic in the world. Your respond to those who sneer at relocalization as merely a nostalgic and aesthetic fetishization of the past by suggesting that the aesthetic conceals a moral value system. But if taste is virtue, what does that make those whose tastes are different? For they do exist...

Of course there are different architectural styles, and wide-ranging aesthetics. But what Alexander and Salingaros argue is that what’s important is the underlying geometry of the built environment. The way Alexander defines this in The Nature of Order goes far beyond classical ideals of “the golden ratio” and so forth. It’s difficult to summarize all of their work, but let’s just say it emphasizes connectedness, strong centers and appropriate levels of scale.

The Nature of Order is filled with examples of buildings and artifacts that Alexander feels have “life”, from a vast range of times and places—from Tibetan monasteries to Nubian doors, to great mosques, to Shaker furniture, to an old Pennsylvania barn in the snow. He includes a very few modern examples—a few early Frank Lloyd Wrights, the Golden Gate Bridge.

However, most modern architecture fails to achieve real life for various reasons, having to do with a modern-day master/plan mass production/bulldozing approach to building which obliterates connectedness and the human scale.

This is not a critique about a particular school of architecture or a particular aesthetic. Le Corbusian/Bauhaus modernism happens to have been very influential and is a good example of what went wrong. But faux-colonial tract houses and McMansion/spawl fail just as spectacularly as modernist icons—for the same reasons.

Certainly in principle organic polycultures could have fed people as well as the Green Revolution; but in practice not. Organic polyculture requires a lot of skill, and stability of land ownership; but there'd never be enough teachers, and with urbanisation, indentured labour and so on in India and Africa, there was no stability of land ownership. Whereas the Green Revolution could happen with no skill or knowledge at all from the farmers, and with ownership changing weekly.

McMansions fail as cultural icons because cultural icons have to last. I don't know about the ones in the US, but here Down Under they've found that each requires "major work" (defined as "costs over $5,000") within three years. If we built no more from today, in a generation they'd all be gone.

Your point would imply that our real limiting factors are social and political (education, land ownership, etc.). That’s quite interesting, and very different from the deterministic view one often hears.

The general shoddiness of all new construction is amazing; it really does seem like we’re building a world with no future.

Nothing is inevitable, events and trends come out of human decisions and conditions. Given human nature and various conditions, some things are more or less likely, but nothing is inevitable.

It was not inevitable that the Green Revolution would feed the world in the 1960s and onwards, while organic polycultures didn't. But given that spraying stuff onto land takes no skill and little effort, while the careful balance of different plants and watching the conditions of the soil takes skill and effort, and given that industrialised farming can be done on a piece of land you hold for just one season, while organic polycultures take years to become very productive - well, it was a lot more likely that GR would prevail than OP.

Some people seem to think the following: "When food prices get high enough people start gardening, causing a mass exodus into the countryside"

Have you heard of rationing? During WWII food was rationed. Some people started gardens but there was no mass exodus into the countryside. In other words, when prices get too high the government steps in and rations food, allowing people to continue living in the cities. "Back to the land" is a romantic fantasy. The security, economies of scale, and other advantages of the city make it a much better place to be post peak-oil than a remote rural location. Just look at how well those rural places fared during the great depression.

Even the Amish go into town to buy things. Show me an example of a fully self-sustaining agricultural community in the USA. As far as I know there aren't any.

Thanks for your comment.

The question of city vs. country is quite complicated for a lot of reasons, and I don’t think anyone can say for certain exactly how it will turn out.

Part of the problem is that we really are living in an unprecedented time. The percentage of the world’s population living in cities is now greater than at any time in history. Even as recently as the Second World War, a much larger percentage of the population was living in rural areas than today. Can current levels of urbanization—much less the trend of rapidly increasing urbanization—be sustained? I doubt it.

As for how rural areas fared compared to urban ones in the Depression, I’ve seen claims made on both sides. Doing further research on this is on my (long) to do list.

However, I would point out that while the coming energy crisis may resemble the Great Depression in the scale of its calamity, there are many ways in which our situation is fundamentally different, at least in the United States. In my limited understanding, the primary problem in the Depression was a scarcity of money, not resources. If the price of food collapses, it stands to reason that farmers will suffer, especially if their land is mortgaged and they must declare bankruptcy. It’s not clear to me that will be the case in a resource scarce time, when the Federal Reserve has the printing presses on full-throttle.

That said, inflation may apply to arable land as well, making escape from the city economically impossible once it really kicks in. It’s just hard to know.

You said that being in a city would be better than being in “a remote rural location”. Depending on your definition of “city” and “remote” I would agree with you.

Lakis

Looks like a Nightmare Before Christmas type of thing.

Now if you look at the history of the skyscraper, which is very short, and you actually look at how these things were serviced, it tells an interesting story. The first great skyscraper city, New York City, was originally basically a coal-based energy economy. And what you had at that time, in the period of let’s say between 1890 and 1920

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