Comment 41530

By zippo (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 09:49:43

Ryan: I'd agree that a typical NYC resident uses less gasoline to get to work than most North Americans, but I'm not sure that it follows that increased percentages of us living in large / high density urban settings is a way forward in an increasingly energy constrained world.

I think that factors other than fuel efficiency have been predominant in determining the scale up of large cities in the age of fossil fuels, and while I'm not sure of course, it seems to me that these may well "unwind" as energy becomes more expensive and less available. Specifically I'm thinking about questions of economic surplus and specialization of labor.

For example let's consider agriculture. Prior to the widespread use of the tractor about 20% of the workforce were agricultural. Fossil fuels were in large part responsible for dropping that value to it's current level of about 2% of the workforce. If post-fossil fuel farming resembles pre-fossil fuel farming a much larger percentage of the population is going to be living a "rural" (not suburban) lifestyle than is presently the case. Indeed it seems to me may be higher than in the past, since the damage done to the land by a century of industrial agriculture, and the challenges created by climate change are likely to make fossil fuel free farming a more difficult, and thus more labor intensive, task than it was 100 years ago.

Large cities tend to be islands of advanced and / or highly specialized workers. You are much more likely to find a pediatric oncologist, a astrophysicist, or a food stylist in Toronto than say, for instance, in Sioux Lookout. They also tend to be centers of government and administration, and of parasitic activities such as the FIRE sector(finance, insurance, and real estate), essentially a form of casino which is now in the united states responsible for about 40% of all "profit" in the economy. All of this activity is dependent on an economy that is producing large surplus above subsistence levels.

Such levels of surplus it seems to me are in large part due to the low cost and high availability of fossil fuels. As that goes away we move down the gradient of what is possible, from pediatric oncologist to surgeon to doctor to "healer" (herbalist/midwife) and as these things go the reason for being of big cities goes with them.

At $400 per barrel about 1/6 of all global economic activity would be devoted to the production of oil. Such a world looks a lot different than what is in place today.

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