29 May 2010, 1:12pm
economy:
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  • Peak Oil and The National Automobile Slum

    James Kustler has made a decent living of calling the end of the world, in particular its peak-oil incarnation. One thing I like about it is he responded with at least some good humour to the wags that keep reminding him that he got y2k wrong and that the world hasn’t ended due to peak oil. Good humour is something I’ve observed to be in short supply among peak oilers.

    I thought I’d revisit some of his work after reading Movevator’s post on the End Of Oil. I disagree with the cheerful thrust of the video protagonist’s argument on that post, which essentially boils down to

    We’re humans. We’re smart. So far in the history of the world we have never come across something that was so big that we couldn’t think our way out of it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely hope he’s right. And I can’t argue with the fact that these statements on their own are correct. However, past performance is not a guide to future performance, of species as well as stocks. The dinosaurs were pretty successful in their way too and look what happened to them.

    One of the items I dredged up was Kunstler on one of his other hobby-horses, the dire straits of US urban design. Brits can take a look at a more local example of the horror at something like Lakeside shopping centre, though it thankfully hasn’t got the associated residential sprawl.

    Something that struck me on holiday in America, particularly the West Coast, was that public urban spaces was designed to accommodate the motor car so completely. Parking is hardly even an issue ad you never seem to pay for it when shopping. The streets are wide enough for people to do U-turns. Try doing that in Britain and you’ll take out ten pedestrians, a lampost and a couple of shop fronts.

    The downside is that everything ends up so far away from everything else. I was in a LA motel selected for its low price rather than ambience, and fancied a beer.

    I asked directions to the nearest place, and was told it was only a short distance by car. Trying to walk that distance, however, was an exercise in frustration because it was the devil’s own job to cross the roads – the streetscape is really not designed for pedestrians, and those pedestrian crossing that there are are designed for the likes of Usain Bolt, not a guy carrying beer.

    Either the average American citizen is a damn sight fitter than I am or the traffic light timing is set by someone who hates pedestrians with a vengeance. I’d typically only get half-way across before the hurry up signal started to hassle me. I learned my lesson and drove everywhere after that.

    Kunstler is not as engaging as Richard Sears on Monevator’s The End of Oil post, but he has his own charm. He gets pumped up on the worthlessness of US surburbia in a post-Peak Oil future in the last few minutes.

    As a European I don’t have his intense dislike of suburbia. Our suburbs are typically mixed-use, which seems rare in new-build America, and I can walk from one end of town to the other in a couple of hours. At home there are three co-op stores, several convenience stores and newsagents, a laundrette and a few odd stores like butchers, hardware and takeways all within a one-mile radius. So he may have a point that the Old World may have an easier time getting around because our cities were designed before the automobile, on a slightly more human scale. Even London shows its history as an agglomeration of almost village-sized units once you get past Hyde Park to the west and Bow to the east, something I wasn’t really able to detect in LA.

    America is starting to move away from an urban / suburban layout towards more mixed use. Part of this is because Americans have tired of the long commutes and bedroom communities. And, part of this is because a lot of the attractive land is already developed and the developers are trying to make money redeveloping in higher density.

    I came over from Moneyvator and enjoyed reading your blog. I live at the beach in California and I feel the same way about living a peaceful life in San Clemente, that you do in Suffolk.

    Great to hear that – there has to be an optimum density somewhere that supports enough shops and places to work without packing people in like sardines. We can have too much of the latter in some parts of England…

     

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