Cities: August 2010 Archives

Back in the 1990s, companies spent billions correcting the Y2K bug, and many worried that mass chaos would ensue when buggy software failed on 1/1/2000, disrupting banking systems, financial markets, power grids, and food distribution. Many believed the best way to ride out the impending crisis was rural self-sufficiency: enough land to grow your own food, in a defensible location far from rioting city-dwellers.

As it happened, Y2K had no significant effect, beyond boosting income for software engineers and freeze-dried food suppliers. We never got a chance to find out whether the city or country would have fared better in the complete breakdown of Western Civilization.

Dmitri Orlov, who lived through the collapse of the old Soviet Union, believes that the same factors are in place for the collapse of his adopted homeland, the USA:

The theory states that the United States and the Soviet Union will have collapsed for the same reasons, namely: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget, and ballooning foreign debt. I call this particular list of ingredients "The Superpower Collapse Soup." Other factors, such as the inability to provide an acceptable quality of life for its citizens, or a systemically corrupt political system incapable of reform, are certainly not helpful, but they do not automatically lead to collapse, because they do not put the country on a collision course with reality.

That link is to the text of a speech by Orlov, "Social Collapse Best Practices," and it's thought-provoking. (It's also filled with that peculiarly Russian gallows humor.) If our current societal arrangement is a house of cards, how can I prepare now for the transition to a new, more stable, more sustainable arrangement?

In one section, Orlov describes the advantages of overcrowded Soviet cities over sprawling American suburbia for dealing with social collapse:

These all seem like negatives, but consider the flip side of all this: the high population density made this living arrangement quite affordable. With several generations living together, families were on hand to help each other. Grandparents provided day care, freeing up their children's time to do other things. The apartment buildings were always built near public transportation, so they did not have to rely on private cars to get around. Apartment buildings are relatively cheap to heat, and municipal services easy to provide and maintain because of the short runs of pipe and cable.... Also, because it was so difficult to relocate, people generally stayed in one place for generations, and so they tended to know all the people around them. After the economic collapse, there was a large spike in the crime rate, which made it very helpful to be surrounded by people who weren't strangers, and who could keep an eye on things....

But there is no reason at all to think that a suburban single-family house is in any sense a requirement. It is little more than a cultural preference, and a very shortsighted one at that. Most suburban houses are expensive to heat and cool, inaccessible by public transportation, expensive to hook up to public utilities because of the long runs of pipe and cable, and require a great deal of additional public expenditure on road, bridge and highway maintenance, school buses, traffic enforcement, and other nonsense. They often take up what was once valuable agricultural land. They promote a car-centric culture that is destructive of urban environments, causing a proliferation of dead downtowns. Many families that live in suburban houses can no longer afford to live in them, and expect others to bail them out.

As this living arrangement becomes unaffordable for all concerned, it will also become unlivable. Municipalities and public utilities will not have the funds to lavish on sewer, water, electricity, road and bridge repair, and police. Without cheap and plentiful gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil, many suburban dwellings will become both inaccessible and unlivable. The inevitable result will be a mass migration of suburban refugees toward the more survivable, more densely settled towns and cities. The luckier ones will find friends or family to stay with; for the rest, it would be very helpful to improvise some solution.

One obvious answer is to repurpose the ever-plentiful vacant office buildings for residential use. Converting offices to dormitories is quite straightforward. Many of them already have kitchens and bathrooms, plenty of partitions and other furniture, and all they are really missing is beds. Putting in beds is just not that difficult. The new, subsistence economy is unlikely to generate the large surpluses that are necessary for sustaining the current large population of office plankton. The businesses that once occupied these offices are not coming back, so we might as well find new and better uses for them.

Another potential home for suburban refugees: The college campus, once the higher-ed bubble has popped:

College campuses make perfect community centers: there are dormitories for newcomers, fraternities and sororities for the more settled residents, and plenty of grand public buildings that can be put to a variety of uses. A college campus normally contains the usual wasteland of mowed turf that can be repurposed to grow food, or, at the very least, hay, and to graze cattle. Perhaps some enlightened administrators, trustees and faculty members will fall upon this idea once they see admissions flat-lining and endowments dropping to zero, without any need for government involvement. So here we have a ray of hope, don't we.

Self-sufficiency in the countryside sounds plausible, but in the event of a new Dark Ages, people will need to develop new ways to feed, clothe, protect, and move themselves. To do that efficiently requires cooperation, organization, and division of labor, and that means having lots of people at hand with variety of skills and knowledge.

The hopeful note in Orlov's talk is that human beings are resilient, even those who have been beaten down by totalitarianism for eighty years. I'd like to think that the USA, with its long history of voluntary organizations (Burke's "little platoons"), would fare even better than the resilient Russians.

Hat tip to Little Miss Attila for the link to Orlov's talk.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from August 2010.

Cities: July 2010 is the previous archive.

Cities: September 2010 is the next archive.

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