|The end of Suburbia
"If a path to the better there be, it begins with a fool look at the worst" (Thomas Hardy, 1887)
"Nous sommes littéralement coincé dans un cul-de-sac avec un 4X4 en ciment, sans plein " (James Howard Kunstler, 2003)
En noir et blanc
Et en couleur
Dans les banlieues
Dans les banlieues
Les banlieues. Almost as much written about is Madison Avenue. And just as much in need of reflection. Like Madison avenue, la vie dans les banlieues a ses bons moments, et d'autres moins bons.
Découragés? Contrariés? Mais non ! Ils sont heureux d'habiter ici. Il faut du temps à un jeune couple pour réaliser tout ce qui les attend lorsqu'ils achètent une maison. Ou lorsqu'ils ont un enfant. Et lorsqu'ils achètent une maison et ont un enfant.
Ils réalisent à peine qu'ils entrent dans leur période d'achats frénétiques. Et les voilà partis pour un trajet sans fin. C'est un monde d'achats heureux, qui se reflète dans les vitrines des supermarchés de banlieues où ils viennent faire leurs achats.
La vie facile
Le supermarché voit ces jeunes adultes comme des gens dont les maisons ont toujours besoin de s'agrandir. Des gens qui achètent en grande quantité pour tout emporter dans leurs voitures.
C'est un grand marché. Ces jeunes adultes, qui achètent avec la même détermination qui les a mené dans les banlieues, font partie d'une nation qui roule. Living by the automobile. The first young adults in the age of the push button.
Les Américains, en majorité, aiment les banlieues. It has promised space, affordability, convenience, family life and upward mobility. Après un demi-siècle de développement, plus de la moitié de notre population s'y est installé. And as the population of suburban sprawl has exploded, so too, the suburban way of life has become embedded in the American consciousness. Les banlieues, et tout ce qu'elles promettent, sont devenues le rêve américain.
Mais alors que nous entrons dans le 21ème siècle, de sérieuses questions émergent quant à la durabilité de ce mode de vie. Le rêve des banlieues a t il un avenir ?
La fin des banlieues :
L'épuisement du pétrole et la fin du rêve américain
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.
The basic cause of it all is the end of cheap and abundant energy.
Cheap oil is the party that we've been enjoying for the pas hundred and fifty years. And that party is coming to an end. Within our lifetimes we're going to see the end of the age of oil. And the result of that will be the end of the American way of life.
Here, in a typical American suburb, life seems to be carrying on much as it has for the past fifty years. With every passing year, more and more streets like this one replace farmers fields as more and more people come here for their share of the good life.
History however has proven itself indifferent to people's hopes and dreams for a better life. Even the best of intentions have often not been enough to avoid calamity. And suburbia began with the best of intentions.
The dream of the suburbs was the antidote to city life, and in particular the life of the industrial city and the industrial town. And the antidote was going to be "country living for everybody". The suburbs was a way of delivering that to the masses.
The industrial city and the industrial town were really things that had never been seen before. You know, they were new. Human beings didn't have experience with them and with all the terrible things that they produced, so you know the towns and cities of north America grew up in tandem with the industrial processes and were very much products of industrialism.
And what happens pretty early in the process by the mid nineteenth century is that the industrial city becomes a fairly horrible place. There's all this noise and effluents and pollution and stenches, all these terrible by-products of factories, and people don't wanna live around that stuff anymore. And then you get the additional problems of you need armies of workers to toil in these factories which are assuming increasingly immense scale. The quarters that they lived in end in these vast tenement slums.
You know this idea establishes itself, I think, in the collective consciousness of all of us north Americans that the city's not really a very good place to live. And what is the alternative ? Well, there's the city and there's the country. Certainly the first suburbs in the late nineteenth century enabled the better-off upper middle class to get away from these moiling and toiling workers and all their vulgar work of culture of the cities.
In the eighteen seventies and eighteen nineties you get the first template which is the suburb based on the idea of the manor in a park, the estate in a park. And these are subdivisions like Llewellyn Park in New Jersey, and Riverside nine miles outside the Chicago loop, which are basically large Victorian villas deployed in a park-like setting. You know in the beginning there must have been elements of it that were lovely, because the first people who were moving out there were pretty well-off. And they weren't moving to real country side. There were no K-Marts in 1897.
Then in the late nineteenth early twentieth century before World War One, you get something quite different : you get the streetcar suburbs which is based on this idea of the streetcar lines now leaving the city, and these new suburbs which are still fairly civic in their physical design.
There were these stops, and each one of these stops created a beautiful little main street, and smaller higher density housing cottages bungalows nearby, all very walkable in the most traditional sense.
And they are some of the most wonderful neighbourhoods in America. They're just outside the central cities.
Than what happened is in the nineteenth twenties you get the mass motoring democratization of suburbia, and that results in the boom of the nineteenth twenties, largely based on creating these automobile suburbs, and all of their furnishes and accessories. And that project is interrupted by the Great Depression and the Second World War.
No sir, all this can't keep a fellow from putting down his ideas. Something is going to add up here his own air conditioned castle with a deep freeze. Cool for beer, great big long with a bed balcony and home.
The veteran's emergency housing program is launched, to help solve the housing emergency in hundred of cities. The target : 2 700 000 homes and apartments started by the end of 1947.
This is the pay-off to our soldiers who fought in World War Two. You get to come home, you don't have to live in a city anymore, you can live in a brand new home in the suburbs and you're gonna have a life, you can stay at home, and a family, that's the payoff. And that became a packaged American dream, but it's only a post World War Two American dream, it's not the true American dream of "anybody can make it".
Almost overnight, suburbia was born. A half million home sprang up around the country in 1946, nearly a million in 1947, a million in 1948, still more in 1949, 1950.
The empty farmlands, the quiet towns and villages surrounding the cities found themselves in the midst of a roaring housing boom.
You get the real full elaboration of the automobile suburb based on the idea of the cul-de-sac subdivision and that became the template for how we're gonna build things. This is the only part of the world at that time where plumbers and pipe feathers and sheet rock hangers can own their own home. The middle class is gonna go basically, from the winal level clear up to the doctors and the dentists. And everybody will be included.
You'll find a scene like this in nearly every village, town and city throughout the country. In the hopes and dreams of everyone, there's a home they can call their own. Home brings a sense of security to a man. Then to every woman, her home means a setting for gracious living.
And we'll have the living room right in here, and the kitchen, right here, so we can see the children playing in the yard. And we'll have shrubbery right along in here. And, oh darling it's going to be just perfect.
One of the things that happens is that suburbia ends up being a false promise. The post war suburbia is not what it promises to be, it's not country living. It's a cartoon of country living in the cartoon of a house. You know it has none of the real amenities of country life : no connections with real organic systems or other living things (rivers, forest fields, agriculture), none of that. You just get a lawn, which is an industrial produced artefact. So it has none of the amenities of country life and it has none of the amenities of the town. In effect it has all the disadvantages of both. All you really have is a six lane highway.
And so it is, that all of us are interdependent independently on wheels.
The idea is that everybody is gonna live in a country house. And one of the results of that is the American cities and towns are absolutely gutted in the period of 1950's, 1960's and 1970's.
Increasingly, we're seeing large scale demolition as the first steps in building modern cities. Getting needed space on our cities for our structures is the only way to meet the competitive force of growing suburban strength. Often the substance of our urban structures is such as to resist the power of the demolition hammer. From now on we should be seeing much demolition. The first step in making our cities better places to work, better places to live. It will take great effort and real leadership, but as a people we could do it a jobs. And as we see here the rubble of demolition at the feet of Columbus, let us remember that in many ways the continent is still before us.
The American city is decanted into the countryside, and all of its functions soon follow : the shopping, the office, the retail, everything follows.
As growing numbers of north Americans move to the suburbs, one of the challenges facing policy makers was how to get all these people from their homes to their shopping malls to their work places and their schools and back again.
The major American auto manufacturers were powerhouses of industrial might following the Second World War. And they had a plan for the masses. It relied, not surprisingly, on cars as America's future mass transit.
The growth of suburbs has brought another major problem : getting there and back. Without cars, suburbia wouldn't be possible. But once we live in suburbia, even where there are trains and busses serving the suburbs, most people have to depend on cars.
Each year there are more of it. Each year there must be more highways and expressways to take care of them.
Originally, the suburbs were places that developers actually paid for light rail systems and streetcars to got to, in order to maintain the land viable places to live. GM and Firestone and I think Standard Oil were actually convicted of conspiring to destroy the light rail systems across the United States. They literally bought them up and tore them out so they can sell GM busses with Firestone wheels and run with Standard Oil.
Simultaneously you had the federal highway program.
A better highways contest was recently conducted. Purpose ? Arouse nation wide thinking on how to plan and pay for the safe and adequate highways we need. Highway experts wrote essays.
I'm privileged to present the winner of the grand national award : Robert Moses of New York. Robert Moses, New York City construction coordinator, is a world famous highway planner, a man who knows his business. No magic will suddenly produce roads commensurate with cars. The remedies are neither easy nor cheap nor immediately realisable. But the task you have set is not beyond the capacity of the aroused American people.
Will you stop honking Mac, we ain't going nowhere !
You think you got it made. Good job, condo lease paid for, so you got a little home in the suburbs, away from the city smoke, out from the shadows of the factories. Raise a few kids, some flowers and vegetables. The big dream coming true.
There is this specific American dream that got packaged and sold, and subsidized. Highly highly subsidized. So subsidized that to continue it, it is a deep question of whether we can afford to continue that level of subsidy. It isn't sustainable.
The interstate highways have become continuous bans of suburban development. I mean you can go from Maine to Florida on interstate 95 and never see open countryside. It's become a continuous city. And the density of population in those areas is extremely low. It's not economic to build railroads, or even bus lines are uneconomic in these vast areas of sprawl because population density is so low. The only efficient way to travel is by individual automobile. Distances people drive are quite considerable. 50 or 100 miles a day is not unusual for commuters who live in these outer suburban areas. Every county within 50 miles of an interstate highway has shown population growth, and every county outside 50 miles of an interstate highway has declined. This is essentially completely going in the wrong direction.
The suburbs wouldn't exist if it weren't for cheap oil. The US is a car culture, the automobile industry started in the US and really the automobile industry got its start here because we were looking for ways to use that cheap oil. The US was awash in oil in the early twentieth century. In the 1930's they were discovering the stuff so fast oil in Texas was cheaper than drinking water by the carload. Car companies quickly became the engine driving US industry and economic growth. The result of this is that we have created this new system of habitation, where people live miles and miles from where they work, from where they get their food and all the other necessities, based on the idea that they can, and they must open their car at any moment and travel miles and miles. And the only way that works is on the basis of cheap energy.
Now we're stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV with an empty gas tank.
Across North America we arrive in our cars, trucks and SUVs to gas stations like this. We expect to fill our tanks with gas at prices half those of Europe and much of the rest of the world. We expect endless natural gas to heat our homes and we expect endless natural gas to generate the increasing amount of electricity that we consume. Cheap, plentiful and dependable fossil fuels have made our contemporary life possible. Everything, from our trains and buses, our cars and trucks, our heating in the winter months, and cooling in the summer, all are dependant on cheap and reliable fossil fuel energy. And there is no other way of life that uses more of this energy than suburbia. It is cheap and abundant fossil fuels that pave, lubricate and drive the turbo growth of our suburban development.
On and on this way of life expands into farmers fields, meadows and hinterlands, offering up six lanes of the American dream, with no end in sight.
14 août 2003
Tons of listeners telling us that the power is out. It appears the entire city is now under a massive power outrage.
This massive black out is affecting as many as 50 million people at the moment.
What the blackout actually was, it was a whole series of fuzz boxes all tripping as we approached the 100% capacity. And at the heart of the matter, was the fact that we basically had a very mild summer, and on the 14th of august that was the first day all summer that we were approaching 90° temperature at peak, all the way from the eastern shores of lake Michigan to the Atlantic ocean. From Toronto, Montreal, Québec, all the way down to Washington DC Cincinnati Saint Louis. And as we were approaching that, we were clearly getting higher and higher towards the 100% mark because of air conditioning demand. And when are you the most vulnerable ? You're the most vulnerable in peak summer weather between 4 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon, because A) that's when weather tends to be the hottest, and B) that's when you have all three uses of electricity online at the same time : industrial, commercial and residential. So when did the blackout happen ironically ? 4:13.
The question wasn't the event. The question was why did we ever allow ourselves to get so near peak capacity, that it took just a branch or two to end up denying 57 million people light for several days. Every thing in society that we cherish ended when the blackout came. And it that wasn't a fire drill for how important energy actually is, I can't imagine. But you know what. People didn't get it. It wasn't a yellow light, it was a big red light, and I don't think we basically learned to think from it.
Matthew Simmons is the president/CEO of Simmons & Company in Houston, Texas. It's the world's largest energy investment bank. Its clients include the World Bank, Carnegie, Halliburton, Bechtel, I mean he is among the biggest of the big. Matt Simmons was incredibly clear and articulate that "look folks, we've backed ourselves into the corner". We have committed to natural gas fire plants, there's really no alternative. Coal fire plants are very polluting, nuclear is way to expensive, and there's too much opposition. And hydroelectric is all used, so we're stuck with gas. But he said we there's no gonna be any more generating capacity built. Why ? Cause there's nothing to power the plants with. And who he asks would take a 1% return on investment, for a 150 million investment in a power generating station if they know there's nothing to power the plant, no way to generate any revenue from it.
We're coming to rely more and more on natural gas for electricity generation and natural gas is becoming more scarce.
Natural gas is no longer able to be extracted out of the ground at the same colossal rate as it has been to satisfy the enormous hunger and growing demand of North America for natural gas.
Once any one that knows what they're talking about comes to the realization that natural gas supplies are in decline, then immediately you have to jump to the next consequence. We have to grow electricity or we will not grow our economy. Because I don't think there's any serious economist that could argue that our economy could grow by 2 to 3 % per year and keep electricity use flat.
Economic growth is predicated upon more electricity. Electricity is predicated upon hydrocarbon energy. Period. And Matthew Simmons made a very clear statement. He said future growth is not possible. And for a guy with is background to say that was one of the most, that's like the catholic church saying the earth is round before Galileo.
Normal for us is using immense amounts of electricity and oil to transport ourselves around. Normal is living in the suburbs. Normal is consuming like there's no tomorrow. At some point, we will discover that this normal way of life is coming to an end.
The 2003 blackout that denied power to 57 million people has been officially blamed on falling branch and faulty transmission lines. Matthew Simmons believes that deeper causes exist. That North America is reaching the limits of its generating capacity, due to short sighted energy planning and political hubris. The future of electricity generation in America is being committed to a resource now on decline in America : natural gas. If it's conceivable that such gross mismanagement is leading us into an energy crisis, if it is possible that our policy makers and specialists have made such an historic mistake, what other mistakes might they have made ? What have we not been told about the future of oil ?
Most people when they think about oil think of when are we going to run out. And really that's the wrong question to ask. Because oil in the earth is not like oil, gasoline in the gas tank of your car. When your car runs out of gas, then you know there's a problem. But it doesn't run out until you get to the last drops. But with oil in the earth that's a very different situation. We can't just pump oil out of the earth at any arbitrary rate.
All oil production, whether it's in one oil field or one country or the planet as a whole always follows a bell curve. When you drill your first well and the oil is close to the surface you got a gusher, you drill more wells the pressure goes down, the table goes down, but also you're pumping the light sweet oil which has risen to the top. The heavier more expensive oil to refine, hard to get oil is obviously way down deep.
And you have to start pumping in water or carbon dioxide or natural gas if you got some around, and start forcing the oil out, just as is happening in Saudi Arabia. So what you get is this curve. It starts, pulls up quite quickly, get more and more and more out, than reach this peak or plateau.
When you get to about the half way point, the rate that you can extract the resource peak, and after that point, no matter how much effort you put into it, you can't continue extracting the resource at the same rate. The rate of extraction peaks and begins to fall.
We're sort of in the middle right now. We're right at the peak, we're at the point when the world is producing the most oil that it will ever produce, and we're going to enter the ark of decline very shortly if not already, it's a little bit unclear whether of not we actually already entered it.
It's one of these phenomenons that you only can say that yes we are sure when you look back in the rear view mirror and that you say gosh obviously we peaked. But usually by the time it's clear it's so far in the past that you're well into a totally different era.
And once it goes into that decline, it's a permanent kind of decline, it might be a bumpy decline, and then you've got yourself a gap between what you want to use and what the supply is.
Peaking means categorically that you no longer grow.
The effect of crossing over the peak means in essence, that every barrel of oil that your produce from that moment on will be more expensive, it will require more energy to get out of the ground, and be a lesser quality of oil.
The guy that basically is most renowned for peeking the peaking concept was a person named Dr M King Hubbert.
M King Hubbert was probably the most famous and influential geologist of the 20th century. He worked for the US Geological Survey, he worked for oil companies like Shell in their research division.
In 1956 at some industry convention, he made a startling speech and put up a bunch of graphs that basically said that from all of his calculations some time in the early 1970s the United States of America would peak as an oil province, and once we reach that point, it didn't matter how much we drilled, how fast we drill, what the price of oil was, we would basically start into decline.
Très peu de monde le prit au sérieux, malgré le fait qu'il soit universellement respecté. Of course, US oil production did in fact peak in 1970-71, and as a result of that, a few more people started to take him seriously.
If you go back and read the US petroleum history, one of the most incredible argues in my opinion, is that in 1970 Dr Hubbert's reputation was in shambles. And the thing his critics just said in glee and print all the time : remember that old guy that said we will run out of oil in the early 1970's. Look, the United States has never produced more than this year (The year we peaked).
It seemed to take the better part of the decade or more before the oil experts in the United States looked back and said "This is interesting : we clearly peaked".
He went on to predict global oil production peak for the mid 1990's, which probably would have been accurate, had it been for the oil shocks of the 1970's, which drove oil prices so high that they destroyed demand. And as a result of that, oil production actually decreased for the first time in history during the early 1970's. And this had the effect of delaying the global oil production peak for probably 10 or 15 years.