POSTED: 8 APRIL 2008 - 7:00am HST

Going Local

image above:Illustration, Aaron McConomy at in Metropolis Magazine

by James Howard Kunstler on 19 March 2008 in Metropolis Magazine

At the moment, the ideas bundled under the rubric of “localism” are regarded as a lifestyle choice, which is to say a fashion statement of environmental concern, practiced by those with the time and means for following fashions. “Locavores” who make a point to eat locally are represented overwhelmingly by college-educated, high-income Baby Boomers who buy those $6 pint baskets of boutique blue potatoes at the farmers’ market as much to make a statement of principle (and derive moral comfort from doing so) as to eat nutritionally sound, good tasting food.

Meanwhile, the rest of America keeps driving to the Shop Rite for tubes of frozen ground-round, jugs of Pepsi, and bags of Cheez Doodles made (grown?) God-knows-where. So, the stylishly fit locavores end up looking like stuck-up moralistic snobs while the majority follows the mindless corporate programming du jour like the overstuffed lumbering TV zombies they have become. By the way, locavores also overwhelmingly drive to the farmers’ market, (as I have observed in my town) and usually in motor vehicles the size of medieval war wagons.

Localism, in this sense, is very much related to the current craze for styling one’s endeavors as “green.” Tom Friedman cheerleads for “green” globalism in his New York Times column while Time Magazine runs “Greencast” programs on its website, and all kinds of specialists design green cars, green light bulbs, green toilets, green campuses, and green corporate headquarters (all the better for hawking those Cheez Doodles). Much of this activity can be described, to borrow a locution from public relations, as blowing green smoke up our own collective ass. Such, alas, is the sorry state of our culture nowadays that just pretending to mean well, for most people and institutions, is good enough.

A reality-based view of all this suggests that localism and “green” economic practices will be taken up more broadly and earnestly only when we don’t have a choice about it, and can no longer manage our bad old ways. My personal serene conviction is that we are much closer to reaching that point than most Americans realize. The romance of Climate Change currently holds the nation’s attention because it’s more like a made for Hollywood horror movie plot. Plus, there are a lot of secret side benefits. Will Connecticut become more like South Carolina?

Surely some of the denizens of Fairfield County, CT, wouldn’t think that was such a bad deal. Will the grain belt move 800 miles further north into Canada? Very well, then, Canada’s our bitch, anyway. Will there be more tornadoes in Nebraska? Who cares – God made the place only so they could show movies on airplanes.

What’s roiling backstage, itching to shove climate change out of the spotlight, is Peak Oil, which is currently poorly understood at best by the public. For one thing, it’s not about running out of oil. It’s about the complex systems we depend on for everyday life in this country becoming unstable and failing as we enter the slippery slope of global oil depletion – a point which, arguably, we are already at. By complex systems I mean the way we produce our food (oil-dependent agri-business), the way we do commerce (Wal-Mart, et al), the way we do transportation (extreme car dependency), the way we do finance (Ponzi-style), and so on. The oil markets themselves are just another such complex system – and a year-over-year price hike of about 100 percent for a barrel of oil is certainly a manifestation of instability.

Price hikes are one thing. There is plenty of evidence that the American public can keep sucking up increases a while longer. What will probably bite harder is spot scarcities, when your favorite convenience store hangs a cardboard sign on the pump that says “out of gas.” This is liable to resolve out of a growing export crisis combined with a new oil nationalism – phenomena only recently acknowledged even by experts in the trade. It now appears that exports, in nations with surplus oil to sell, are going down at an even steeper rate than production declines. A country like Saudi Arabia may have produced X percent less oil in 2007 over 2006, but their exports actually declined X+5 percent. Why?
They are using more of their own oil. The population is growing robustly. The Saudis are building the world’s largest aluminum smelter and many chemical factories.

Russia, another big exporter, saw its car sales jump by 50 percent in 2007. Mexico is depleting so rapidly, and using so much more of its own oil, that it might be out of the export game altogether in three years. The new oil nationalism is prompting countries like Norway and Russia to husband more of their own resources as the awareness hits that they are past peak and might want to keep their own motors humming further into the future. They are also trending more toward selling oil on the basis of long-term contracts with favored customers rather than just auctioning the stuff off on the futures market.

All of this ought to be bad news for big importers like the USA – more than half of the oil we use. These days, we are not such a favored customer among other nations, in particular those of the Islamic persuasion. And when Mexico stops exporting we will lose our number two source of imports. Imagine that? Few Americans have imagined it so far, which is why we are about to be blindsided by this set of problems.

As they gain traction we’ll be forced to make very different arrangements for virtually everything that constitutes everyday life in our society. Living much more locally will increasingly be the only choice. We are utterly unprepared. We’ll have to grow food differently, at a smaller scale, closer to home, with fewer oil-and-gas-based “inputs.” It will surely require more human attention. National chain discount shopping will shut down as its economies-of-scale dissolve and formulas like the “warehouse on wheels” and just-in-time inventory lose viability. Happy motoring will fade into memory and the entire suburban equation will wilt along with it. And just about everything else you can name from centralized high schools to professional sports will be cruelly affected by problems of scale and energy.

Where architecture and urbanism are concerned, there are several major issues in my view pertaining to local outcomes. One is certainly counter-intuitive. Our big cities will contract, not grow. The fortunate ones will densify at their old centers and waterfronts, but overall the trend will be severe shrinkage, really a reversal of the 200-year-long demographic movement of people from farms and small towns to mega cities. (Places over-burdened with skyscrapers will prove to be exceptionally troubled. The skyscraper is an endangered species that will, like the Baluchitherium of yore, soon go extinct.) The overall trend will benefit the smaller cities and towns, in my opinion, but only the ones that can maintain a relationship with productive farming hinterlands and/or trade-via-water. The implications for land-use regulation are obviously huge. Rural land will no longer be valued for suburban development. Those who chose to live in rural places in the decades ahead ought to be prepared to follow rural vocations. The end of suburbia will be the end of urban lifestyles lived in rural (or ruralesque) settings.

I happen to believe that our zoning laws and land use codes are un-reformable. Instead, they will simply be ignored. We’ll return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape by default, as it were, because we’ll no longer have the choice of doing it 20th century style. We’ll discover the hard way that the New Urbanists won that argument. It will just not be called “New” Urbanism anymore because it will no longer stand in opposition to other practical ideologies like suburbanism or Modernism. We’ll just have plain urbanism – and design disciplines to go with it.

Architects ought to prepare for a return to traditional local materials. Modular snap-together panels and frame systems will be increasingly unavailable due to the prohibitive cost of fabrication as well as the cost of exotic metals such as Frank Gehry’s favorite, titanium. It is hard to say how severe this problem may become – a whole new industry will surely arise dedicated to the disassembly of old structures and salvaging of materials – but personally I’d say that we’re headed back to mostly masonry for the best new construction. It will necessarily be regional or local in flavor and it will require traditional tectonic methods of assembly – which necessarily implies at least a return to a kind of methodological classicism.

What remains for now is a terrible grandiose inertia among people who really ought to know better: our culture leaders. The cutting edge has become a blunt instrument unsuited to fashioning the patterns of the future. Everything we do from now on will have to be finer in scale, quality, and character. Exercises in irony will no longer be appreciated because there will no longer be a premium paid for declaring ourselves to be ridiculous. The localism of the future will not be a matter of fashion. It will be in the food we eat and the air we breathe, and we’d better start paying attention.

image above: promotional graphices to help rich feel better about building McMansions