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Chapter 2. Beyond the Oil Peak: Cities and Suburbs after Peak Oil
Modern cities are a product of the oil age. From the first cities, which apparently took shape in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, until 1900, urbanization was a slow, barely perceptible process. When the last century began, there were only a few cities with a million people. Today there are more than 400 cities that large, and 20 mega-cities have 10 million or more residents. 57
The metabolism of cities depends on concentrating vast amounts of food and materials and then disposing of garbage and human waste. With the limited range and capacity of horse-drawn wagons, it was difficult to create large cities. Trucks running on cheap oil changed all that.
As cities grow ever larger and as nearby landfills reach capacity, garbage must be hauled longer distances to disposal sites. With oil prices rising and available landfills receding ever further from the city, the cost of garbage disposal also rises. At some point, many throwaway products may be priced out of existence.
Urban living costs will likely rise as oil production turns down and oil prices escalate. One of the intriguing questions this raises is whether urbanization will continue APO, after peak oil. Or might the process even be reversed when people seek less oil-dependent lifestyles?
Cities will be hard hit by the coming decline in oil production, but suburbs will be hit even harder. People living in poorly designed suburbs not only depend on importing everything, they are also often isolated geographically from their jobs and shops. They must drive for virtually everything they need. Living in suburban housing developments often means using a car even to get a loaf of bread or a quart of milk.
Suburbs have created a commuter culture, with the daily roundtrip commute taking, on average, close to an hour a day in the United States. While Europe’s cities were largely mature before the onslaught of the automobile, those in the United States, a much younger country, were shaped by the car. While city limits are usually rather clearly defined in Europe, and while Europeans only reluctantly convert productive farmland into housing developments, Americans have few qualms about this because of a frontier mentality and because cropland was long seen as a surplus commodity.
This unsightly, aesthetically incongruous sprawl of suburbs and strip malls is not limited to the United States. It is found in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in China. Flying from Shanghai to Beijing provides a good view of the sprawl of buildings, including homes and factories, that is following the new roads and highways. This is in sharp contrast to the tightly built villages that shaped residential land use for millennia in China.
Shopping malls and huge discount stores, symbolized in the public mind by Wal-Mart, were all subsidized by artificially cheap oil. Isolated by high oil prices, suburbs may prove to be ecologically and economically unsustainable. Thomas Wheeler, editor of the Alternative Press Review, observes that “there will eventually be a great scramble to get out of the suburbs as the world oil crisis deepens and the property values of suburban homes plummet.” 58
57. Population Reference Bureau, “Largest Urban Agglomerations, 1950, 2000, 2015,” Human Population: Fundamentals of Growth—Patterns of World Urbanization (Washington, DC: 2005); U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), The State of the World’s Cities 2004/2005: Globalization and Urban Culture (London: 2004), pp. 24–25; United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects, The 2003 Revision: Data Tables and Highlights (New York: 2004), p. 7; U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Urban Agglomerations 2003, wall chart (New York: March 2004).
58. Thomas Wheeler, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It: A Review of The End of Suburbia—Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream,” Alternative Press Review, 28 July 2004.
Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute