Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Rethinking the Rust Belt

One of the least useful habits of thought fostered by the modern mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that historical change can only move in one direction – the direction in which it seems to be going at the present. Those of us who suggest that today’s industrial societies are headed for a process of decline and fall, not that different from the ones that ended civilizations of the past, run up against this insistence constantly. The truism that time only goes one way gets distorted into the claim that since the last three hundred years have seen a great deal of expansion and technical development, the future must follow the same trajectory.

A hundred years ago, exactly that same logic was applied by people who insisted that war between civilized nations was a thing of the past. Wars between the nations of Europe had, in fact, become steadily less frequent over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and a great many Europeans managed to convince themselves that this process could only continue in the 20th, leading to universal peace. As you may have noticed, they were quite mistaken – a detail that has not prevented the same logic from being deployed with equal enthusiasm more recently.

Consider the chorus of derision that rose up a couple of years ago when James Kunstler, in his book The Long Emergency, warned that piracy would likely revive around the Pacific rim as the industrial age comes to its end. I don’t recall a single reviewer of the book who took that prediction seriously, and a great many of Kunstler’s critics leapt on it with gleeful cries – though one should note that these cries became curiously muted once the recent spate of pirate raids off the coast of Somalia hit the news. Of course Kunstler is quite correct; piracy was already a serious problem in several parts of the world when he wrote, it has become worse since then, and once fuel shortages begin to limit the reach of modern navies and economic crises add to the roster of failed states, it may become a serious factor affecting the future of maritime trade. Only the delusion that piracy belongs to the past, and therefore can’t be part of the future, keeps this ugly reality from being recognized.

It’s impossible to make sense of the present, much less the future, from within the tunnel vision of a view of history that sees the world moving through some fixed sequence of development. When pundits say that contemporary hunter-gatherers are “still in the Stone Age,” or that members of some nonindustrial societies are “living in the Middle Ages,” while only the world’s industrial cultures have “entered the 21st century,” they are talking nonsense. It’s a very popular kind of nonsense; people in the industrial world love to think of themselves as the top rung of history’s ladder, with every other culture as a now-outmoded stage in the ascent to ranch houses and SUVs; but it’s still nonsense.

Biologists studying the evolution of life forms have gradually been forced to discard the notion that evolution has a fixed agenda, and have realized instead that the interplay of genetic diversity and natural selection can move in any direction – simplifying here, adding complexity there, leading one species into a highly specialized niche while another becomes a generalist capable of moving between many ecological roles. Notions that the biosphere as a whole has moved toward greater complexity over Earth’s long history – very nearly the last holdout of the old fantasy of linear evolution – have had to be discarded, because the evidence simply won’t support them; the last fifteen million years, for example, have seen a steady loss of complexity across the Earth’s biosphere as the planetary climate cooled in the run-up to the most recent round of ice ages, and the rich ecosystems of the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs, were far more complex than most of those that have succeeded them.

It’s long past time to apply the same thinking to history, and recognize that forcing human societies onto a linear model of progress serves the purposes of ideology rather than clear thinking. Human societies, like biological species, adapt to make the most of their environments with the inherited resources they have to hand. Sometimes those adaptations move in the direction of greater complexity and some form of technological development, while in other cases they move toward greater simplicity and shed technologies that are no longer useful. Those societies with a long cultural memory can even cycle back and forth between simpler and more complex levels of organization and technology – the long history of imperial China offers an excellent example of just this process at work.

The rise and approaching fall of the industrial age, it may be worth suggesting, may turn into the same process on steroids. In ecological terms, the torrent of fossil fuel energy that created the modern world can be seen as a massive disruption to established patterns of human social ecology. Those patterns stretched like silly putty, or broke apart entirely and were replaced, as a new economy of abundance evolved and expanded. That economy, however, was ultimately a product of ever-expanding supplies of fossil fuels, and once production bumped against the hard ceiling of geological limits, it began to break apart. The economic convulsions of the last few decades mark the crest of the wave, and the beginning of its long retreat.

As that retreat proceeds, the more complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of recent years will likely be among the early casualties, and some of the less complex and resource-intensive technologies and social habits of the recent past may well get fished out of the trash heap and pressed back into service, because they are better suited to the new environment of resource constraints than their more extravagant replacements. This will have sweeping impacts on the new economies that take shape in the wake of the current Great Recession, paralleling the impacts the original shifts had in their time – but in the other direction. Any number of examples could be named, but the ones I want to discuss now are geographical.

The economic and human geography of North America during the 20th century went through sweeping changes with results that are still echoing around us today. Technology played some role in driving those changes, but another factor was at least as powerful: the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing economy, producing goods and services at home, to a tribute economy propped up by the labor and resources of client states overseas. (This is what actually underlies the recent rhetoric about “globalization;” there was similar talk during the heyday of the British Empire, too.) Since most of the real wealth circulating in the American economy of the late 20th century came from overseas, the seaports of the east and west coasts came to dominate the economy, while the old economic heartland of the Midwest turned into a “Rust Belt” of half-empty cities and crumbling smokestacks.

The idea that these same cities might be on the brink of economic revival may seem about as likely as, say, a revival of piracy did to Kunstler’s critics a few years ago. Those who believe in the continuation of business as usual are unlikely to be able to imagine Pittsburgh or Peoria at the crest of the future’s wave; those who believe in the equally improbable scenario of overnight collapse into a dark age or worse can’t imagine an economic revival at all. Still, all history is ultimately local; it’s easy to say, for example, that “Rome’s economy declined in the last two centuries of the Empire,” and as a generalization this is true, but it masks a huge amount of temporal and regional variation, including periods and regions in which the economic climate improved noticeably.

Thus the possibility of a Rust Belt renaissance in the coming decades should not be dismissed out of hand. America’s overseas empire is already coming apart at the seams, as the costs of maintaining it overtake its economic benefits – the common fate of empires throughout history – and rival powers turn our imperial overreach to their advantage. In the foreseeable future, the United States will again have to produce most of the goods and services it uses at home – and as that happens, the regions most likely to profit by it are those inland areas whose central position gives them easier access to markets nationwide, and whose access to the old arteries of waterborne transport will make them much more viable as centers of production and distribution in future where energy will be in short supply.

More generally, the best resource for thinking about the economic map of 2050, say, may just be an economic map of 1880. When railroads and waterways once again become the primary means of transport, the places that were major economic hubs will likely become major hubs again, because they will make the same economic sense in the future that they did when railroads and waterways were last in vogue. The economic map of 2100, in turn, may have more in common with that of 1830 or thereabouts, since continuing depletion of remaining fossil fuel supplies will likely have made railroads uneconomical for most uses, leaving waterborne transport the only cost-effective alternative to local production. Add in the impact of population contraction driven by economic decline and failing public health – essentially the same mix that’s driving a similar contraction in the former Soviet Union – and the parallels may be even more exact.

This way of looking at the future has any number of potential implications, not least for those who hope to weather the current round of economic contraction and social turmoil with some level of grace. My guess is that both these factors will be concentrated in the coastal regions, as the wealth flows generated by the declining import economy give way to economic stagnation and contraction, and in regions such as the Southwest where political borders are increasingly out of step with demographic reality. Isolated regions throughout the West, already marginal at best, are likely to slip into permanent poverty as the tourist economy breaks down and climate shifts already under way make crippling droughts more common. On the other hand, agricultural regions outside the drought belt will likely thrive as the price of food rises, and the old Rust Belt cities – many of which shed half or more of their population over the last fifty years, relieving the population pressure and many of the social problems that made headlines not too many decades ago – may weather the current wave of crises tolerably well.

There will be other waves of crisis further down the road; history reminds us that the downside of a civilization’s history is a very uneven process, and it’s anyone’s guess which areas will be favored by the patterns of change that take shape later in the course of the decline. Suggesting a renaissance in the Rust Belt and the agricultural Midwest also flies in the face of a great many contemporary assumptions, driven as they are by the intellectual fashions of a mostly coastal intelligentsia used to dismissing the inland reaches of this continent as “flyover states.” Still, history seems to take a perverse delight in overturning such assumptions, and those who can get outside the delusion that historical change is a one-way street may find unexpected possibilities opening up before them.


cjryan2000 said...

I would tend to agree with your assessment regarding the geographical shift to the "rust belt" and would suggest that there is still a vestige of the craftsperson entrepreneurial economy left out there that sparked mechanization in the U.S. plus the best farmland in the country stretching from Ohio to Iowa and Minnesota to Missouri. Finally, they have more of the traditional townscape than any part of the country other than the Northeast. A factor that Kunstler believes has "legs".

Chris R.
The Localizer Blog

Joel said...

We may be at something like a mirror point in history, but there are a few sources of asymmetry. One of them is an absence of resources, and another is the natural hysteresis of belief and technology.

The closest thing to a 19th century gold rush may be a 21st century garbage rush. Similarly, I think the religion that has built up around railroads may keep them operating long after they cease to be practical.

The New York Times recently had an interesting article on how supposedly 19th century elements are returning. It dovetails nicely with what you've been saying, but to my mind also seems related to the steampunk subculture.

Dwig said...

John Michael,

A very nice and timely essay, which gives support to my "rule" "Expect to be surprised".

A couple of bits raised my interest, in a somewhat tangential direction to the overall point:

Notions that the biosphere as a whole has moved toward greater complexity over Earth’s long history – very nearly the last holdout of the old fantasy of linear evolution – have had to be discarded, because the evidence simply won’t support them... Thanks for this; it prodded me to some research I'd been thinking of doing for a while now.

Googling for "evolution increasing complexity" got several interesting articles, which I think paint a richer picture of the situation. (It's certainly true that there's no simplistic linear progression that somehow rewards the most complex species around; you're absolutely right there in calling that a fantasy. However, "complexity" is itself a complex notion, with interesting relationships to variety.)

The Wikipedia article Evolution of complexity is a good starting point; I particularly liked the distinction between passive and active trends in complexity. I also liked The Direction of Evolution, expecially for the distinction between structural complexity and functional complexity. (I wouldn't swear to it, but it seems by that definition that viruses are functionally very complex, in their ability (as populations, not individuals) to "cope with a wide variety of environmental perturbations").

So does this apply to human societies, especially in dealing with the emerging crises? Well, to vamp a bit, if you look at a typical American town, you might find that, like organisms that became parasites, it's abandoned the complexity that was once needed to provide for its inhabitants, since they can get the needed support from their environment. With the decline of the environment, however, it becomes necessary to "evolve" new structures (not identical to the old abandoned ones, but certainly informed by them) to regain the needed complexity. It'd be interesting to look at the progress of Transition Towns in that light.

Off the topic: if the concept of complexity in itself interests you, I recommend Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart's book "The Collapse of Chaos", which is kind of a fugue on the parallel themes of simplicity and complexity. (They also show that genetics and evolution are more complex phenomena than typically considered.)

I'm also curious about This is what actually underlies the recent rhetoric about “globalization;” there was similar talk during the heyday of the British Empire, too. Do you have a reference to a description of such talk? It'd be interesting (to me at least) to compare the earlier and more recent incarnations of the theme.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
After reading the first few paragraphs I was thinking that I would have to comment that you should be careful of assuming that ANY direction of historical change, including decline, will continue to move smoothly in one direction, or continues to move at all in one direction. But, reading further, I discovered that you already have that covered.

Great post – as usual.

One area I will disagree over is the comment that “since continuing depletion of remaining fossil fuel supplies will likely have made railroads uneconomical for most uses”. Given reasonably expected improvements in non-fossil energy sources, a quite reasonable expectation that there are some energy sources we have not yet discovered/bothered to use, the availability of some fossil fuel supplies even in 2100 and very great usefulness and popularity of railroads (when trucks and cars are not available) I find it difficult to imagine a future society that does not make great use of them.

Barring, of course, us actually capturing and back-engineering a UFO. :-)

As an example of already known but not used sources of energy, type Roaring Forties into Wikipedia. Notice that they form a maritime superhighway linking Australia, South America and to a lesser extent South Africa.

Along this route fast sailing ships are pretty competitive with oil age motor vessels so it could easily form the basis of a wealthy, Southern Hemisphere trading block quite independent of fossil fuels. Even better, the route is private, a long way from anywhere else and thus easily patrolled and kept clear of interference by the sailing warships of the Southern nations.

Even better, the vast energy in the winds of the Roaring Forties can probably be reasonably easily tapped to supply the Southern part of Australia and South America with grid electricity. Australia would have to use offshore platforms flying huge, powered kites (actually, some designs look more like huge helicopters) but South America could simply use onshore wind farms.

The thing is, the more you look at history, the more you divide it into the history of particular regions, the more complex it becomes.

Incidentally, the future history of the Southern Continents if further complicated by the very great effort China is investing in courting them. If China survives and prospers history could take an interesting turn.

By the way, this is very unlikely to involve Chinese gunboats arriving in Australia as you have previously suggested. Given the existing infiltration of ethnic Chinese into Australia, their acceptance by the Australian community, their general success, the number marrying Angelo Australians, especially in the upper levels of society and the general success of these marriages, Chinese influence in Australia is likely to be far more gradual and gentle.

In fact, to progress at just about the pace the Chinese leadership with its long view of history prefers.

So hey! If about 2050 the Chinese economy is providing a good living to everyone, they have good social services and have made progress on civil rights (all of which the current leadership intends) and The Great Southern Province with its endless supplies of coal and metals votes to join Mother China, I can live with that.

Actually, unless there are significant breakthroughs it preventing ageing I’m very unlikely to have to “live with that”. Kind of gives me a pretty laid back view of future history.

The North Coast said...

Water transportation will become much more important in coming decades, and cities such as Memphis, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh were all established to take advantage of it.

These are all cities that still have considerable built beauty despite their current depopulated and hollowed-out condition, and also have fertile hinterlands and central cores that could revive easily.

Rail transportation will again become extremely relevant. There are dozens of old interurban rights of way between St. Louis and Chicago, for example, that could be rebuilt for passenger or freight service easily.

Chicago's 5400 sq miles of suburban sprawl, most of which was settled in the past 30 years, will have to contract substantially but that will be no loss. There are still cornfields in the middle of some of the newer (25 years or less)suburbs here. The houses in those parts are quickly losing value even now and most of the denizens will either head for small towns further out or will gravitate back to the city.

The smaller midwestern cities that have taken so many losses in the past 60 years, like St. Louis and Detroit, will be repopulated with refugees from their distant suburbs and from places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, as people leave them for places where water won't cost more than gasoline. We are not going to be able to keep these desert cities adequately watered in the decades ahead and life will become quite miserable in those places.

Zach said...


Thanks for another great article. I think you might be right, hard as it might be to see right now, here near Ground Zero of the auto industry's implosion.

It's a nice counterpoint to this article from yesterday's paper, where the rust belt ranks highest on the lists of worst cities to find employment.


Blackbird said...


I think another factor to support your argument is that those who have remained in the 'Rust Belt' are more used to, and resilient towards economic hardships. Should there be a fast economic collapse it is likely that they would weather it better than those who have not suffered.

Also, I would argue that those who remain in one place for a longer time tend to build stronger community relationships. People who stay in one place a long time have more opportunity to connect with one another. For example, if a few families remain then there is ample opportunity for their kids to play together. Even though it is the kids who play together, the adults invariably get to know one another. This must build community on some level. I think many who remain in the 'Rust Belt' probably fall into this category.

In reading yours, Kunstler's, Orlov's, Martensen's and Heinberg's essays and books, a theme that is common to them all is that in order to be resilient to the hardships of de-industrialization or outright collapse, a strong community is helpful. Somewhat ironically, I think that the 'Rust Belt' probably has an advantage over many other areas because of their current economic status, not in spite of it. This is perhaps not unlike how many of the former soviet union were able to make it through their lost decade of the 90s with 'Victory' gardens that never really went out of style with the end of WW2.


hapibeli said...

Read "Ten reasons for eating local", from the article starting on Page 3. You'll download the site's .pdf to do so.
Many of us in British Columbia's Gulf Islands are trying to catch the wave [ pun intended ] of self sufficiency, as it is likely that ferry service, our economic current lifeline, may well be restricted or cut in the coming years. The mainland and Vancouver Island will have priority in any future economic or natural disaster.
Thanks for your sound [ no pun intended, though it worked pretty well!! ]thinking JMG.

hapibeli said...

Please note that my post for "Ten reasons..." is about the April 23rd issue of the Islandtides. The issue that was published online yesterday is NOT the correct issue for the article. I'm sorry for my mixup.

blue sun said...

I picked up on how you said that “the best resource for thinking about the economic map of 2050, say, may just be an economic map of 1880.” This illustrates to me that, although it glosses over many things, you are using a simplified model to garner a rough outline of the future. That model simply assumes symmetry, a reflection about whatever point you consider to be the “peak.” (It’s like Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory that modern society is a wave centered on 1979.) Anyway, you seem to assume a peak around 1970, I would place it around 2000, at the peak of the stock market, but it doesn’t matter exactly where the centerpoint is.

Assuming 2000 is the peak, you can project that society of 2100 will resemble 1900, and 2200 resemble 1800, and so on. I have been thinking a lot lately using this simple model, and I have found a web resource that has really opened my eyes. I recommend it to you and your readers. It is an unpublished book by a UC Davis professor, Richard Cowen, and it delves into the history of fossil fuel energy and natural resources.

As someone with a high-school history education (like most of us), it blew me away! Cowen connects the dots and it all becomes clear. Especially his Coal chapter—he explains that there was a timber crisis in Europe, until coal saved the day. Where was this in my “Western Civilization” textbook?!! One can easily draw the conclusion that as oil and coal supplies dwindle, a timber crisis could once again arise, an unthinkable future to modern Americans. All these assumptions we have about the future, and about the past, are coolly shot down by the “facts on the ground,” one by one. As for the past, he describes “industrial-scale” mining and boomtowns in the Stone Age! How little our species has changed. I could go on and on.........

JMG, you are so well-read you’ve probably seen most of this material, but as a novice student of history, I found this very illuminating. Access it here:

Peter said...

thank you for a most timely post; while I get great value out of every one, this one 'hits home'-I am currently debating a move back to my wife's birth area in Southern Indiana, instead of staying here in 'cultured New England'. Her family has a rich tradition of farming and native 'know-how'. Of course, all she re-calls growing up was the drudgery and parochial mind-set. As I haven't converted her to an awareness of the liklihood of collapse (yet), she thinks I'm crazy. But at some point soon, I can see I've got to cast my lot with one or the other, and you point out so many of the hidden potentialities of the rust belt. Being a river town, Madison, IN may have some life left in it yet. Not to mention the abundant farm land in so. IN. Another entry for the + column...

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Maybe. It's interesting that Detroit, arguably the archetypical Rust Belt city, is depopulating faster than any other American city at the moment. So much so that there's a discussion underway regarding whether the city's land area should be reduced.

I'm not sure what this would mean for its building stock and infrastructure, but it would likely not be good. Witness the fate of the Michigan Central Railroad Station.

Other Rust Belt cities fare better. Madison (where I live) is one of the cradles of successful CSA agriculture. The city and Dane County continue to enjoy relatively low unemployment, though we are not untouched. You appear to be correct in asserting how much things can vary regionally.

guamanian said...

I can see the economic logic of the rebirth of the great lakes in the decline period. In the US particularly there is a lot of potential for urban homesteading and re-occupation of the diminished cities where urban houses (or their shells, anyway) can cost as little as $5000.

If you also consider the 'Lovelock scenario' of extreme global warming a possibility, the great lakes become even more important strategic assets, not only for transportation but as a massive source of water in an increasingly dry continental interior.

However I'm also leery of being uncomfortably close to anything of great value to a declining civilization. Occasionally I look out at the playing field across from my house in a mid-sized Ontario city and can all too easily visualize a biodiesel & steampunk army encamped there as a low-budget rematch of the the war of 1812 is fought out between the city-states of Motown and York, using my vegetable patch as the front lines!

Danby said...

A few months ago, I was going off on a (I thought) well-considered rant about the stupidity of rebuilding New Orleans in the same place. My friend, who is from Plaquemines Parish, stopped me cold. "New Orelans is there for a reason. It wasn't built by mistake."

He explained that NOLA is as far up the Mississippi River as the huge grain ships can go. All the cereal bounty of the Midwest, or rather almost all, has to get to market in the cheapest manner possible, and the cheapest way possible is by water, and the only water route for most of the Corn Belt is through New Orleans. When the crop is selling for a few cents per pound, you can easily double the cost by putting it on a train or in a truck to ship it. Even the grain for the East Coast goes by way of New Orleans

So the choice was to repair the enormous grain handling facilities of the lower river (which were all above sea level) or to dredge the river for a great distance upstream. If the grain business is there, the city and the port that support the grain business have to be there too.

I think JMG is exactly correct. When our domination of the world's financial markets is ended, and that will be soon (look for the second crash this fall), we will no longer be able to extort the labor of Vietnamese workers for a few cents per hour. A few US cents won't be worth as much to a Vietnamese laborer then. When your currency is worthless on the world markets, it's hard to trade it for imports.

gaiasdaughter said...

Peter, if you're considering a move to a more agrarian lifestyle, may I suggest books on permaculture -- it's a way of raising food in concert with nature that eliminates much of the 'drudgery.'

Also -- just wondering what others think -- I know Kunstler expects the suburbs to become ghost towns, but why wouldn't they become the template for new style villages? I can see lawns converted to gardens, garages converted to businesses, and neighborhoods becoming neighborly.

Matt Picio said...

Great post, JMG!

The corollary to this that no one really wants to talk about is the effect this reduction in complexity will have on communication networks, in particular, the Internet. At some point, worldwide communication may
unravel just as the worldwide finance system currently is, which brings about the possibility of Balkanization of networks, or the failure of some of them entirely. While this may be an extended process, it's entirely possible for large segments of a network to be cut off for extended periods
of time. Communities and organizations which wish to maintain cohesiveness in the coming years would do well to examine their current methods of
communication and determine what they should do if those means are

-Matt Picio

Ahavah Gayle said...

I would venture a prediction that piracy will not confine itself to the seas. Smuggling has been a part of land-life since the very first whatever became illegal in some locality somewhere, and it wasn't for nothing that the earliest knights in shining armor were hired to protect shipments of cargo and pilgrims traveling long distances overland. With law enforcement slowly but surely disintegrating in many areas, we will no doubt see raids on semi tractor trailers soon - the merchandise stolen for resale on the black market or by "entrepreneurs" outside the usual chain of distribution. Americans will be shocked by such brazen thievery on land, too.

isochroma said...

"since continuing depletion of remaining fossil fuel supplies will likely have made railroads uneconomical for most uses"

You're assuming railroads use fossil fuels. Europe and Japan's use electricity, and are the world's most efficient.

It is only in backwards America that they are still stuck on diesel. Open your eyes to the world.

Railroads are the most efficient way to move cargo ever devised by Man, and they will be coming back in a big way in the future.

tristan said...


I think a few posters hit around this subject. You had said that the future geography of the US might look like a map from the 1800s. I can see the point but wouldn't it be prudent to overlay a map from the 1930s dust bowl just to be on the safe side? I could see that the combination of global warming and spiking oil and natural gas could lead to massive crop failures across the mid-west. Since all of that soils is not held down by much it wouldn't be hard to see a new dust bowl era. The northern states might still be in a position to manufacture but manufacture what? The biggest value I can see for those water ways is to move food. If the middle states dry up then there won't be much to move. It strikes me that Oregon, Washington, Northern California, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota might become a new bread basket. I suppose transport East could be via the great lakes. Transport West would have to rely on railroads or river.

Way too many factors to predict. But food will be a huge issue in the future. I guess the key is "stay flexible".


Richard said...

Matt Picio's comment reminded me of an article that I had read online just a few days ago at Timesonline UK.

The communications interruptions may be much closer than we think according to that article.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, both good points. Human geographies laid out before the auto assumed its present dominance, in particular, will be a major asset.

Joel, hysteresis can also work in reverse. Mind you, you're certainly right about the garbage rush.

Dwig, if I recall correctly any 19th century British (not American) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica will give you plenty of examples if you look up "Free Trade."

Stephen, I'm less concerned with Chinese gunboats than Indonesian and Malaysian mass migration. Mind you, you may just have the opportunity to choose between them.

North Coast, exactly.

Zach, the real blossoming of the rust belt is still a few years off; in the meantime, yes, it'll be tight.

Blackbird, a very good point.

Hapibeli, yes, you'd best start getting ready to provide your own food. Fortunately the British Columbia coast is a very good place to do so.

Blue Sun, the model of symmetry is more a thought experiment than anything else; of course things will be more complex than that. Thank you for the tip, btw -- I wasn't familiar with Cowen's work.

Peter, keep encouraging her. Indiana's likely to be a good option.

Mauricio, if I wanted to start a lifeboat community, I'd start it in Detroit or Flint -- I could buy an entire block of houses for the cost of a single small home on the west coast, combine the back yards into a community garden, and go from there. For that matter, there are quite a few other towns where that might be a workable option.

Guamanian, well, yes, that sort of thing is going to happen. Dark ages are not peaceful times.

Danby, New Orleans is probably the most strategically important city in North America, as the gateway to the Mississippi-Missouri waterways. I recall an old Poul Anderson science fiction novel, The Winter of the World, set many thousands of years in the future, during the next ice age; the struggle in that novel centered, quite plausibly, on control of the distant descendant of today's Big Easy.

Gaia's Daughter, it depends on whether the suburb in question has decent soil and water supplies. If so, expect small farms to spring up in the next decade or so; if not, reversion to greenbelt is more likely.

Matt, absolutely. I'll probably do a post on that theme very soon.

Ahavah, very good! Yes, brigandage -- especially in rural areas -- is a very common reality once a civilization begins to wind down and public order disintegrates. One irony in current fantasies about lawless urban mobs is that it's much more likely to be the outlying rural areas that become lawless first.

Isochroma, er, where does the electricity to run the rail systems in Europe and Japan come from? From fossil fuels, with some help from nuclear fission -- that is, from nonrenewable resources that are rapidly being depleted. Of course the rails will have a second heyday, but as depletion continues, the economics of any form of mechanical transport will start looking very dubious.

Tristan, unfortunately much of your proposed breadbasket is in the drought zone. Still, you're quite right that flexibility is key.

Richard, many thanks for the tip!

Damien Perrotin said...

You are right to tell that railroads are no panacea. Here in France they are basically powered and everybody knows – well should – that uranium will run short before oil. Besides, our high-speed trains are having more and more problems. They rely heavily upon a high maintenance specific grid system which even now is deteriorating due to lack of funding – also because the company running the railroads is not the same as the company running the trains. Last time I took a high-speed train, I was delayed two hours because of a grid failure and it is a relatively common occurrence.

There is another important point for determining the geography of the future : it is the availability of natural resources. In Europe, a large part of the early industry was built near coal mines – the north of France for instance or the Ruhr – but those mines are now quite depleted. So it is very unlikely that the European rustbelt rises again, whether it be in Lorraine, Silesia or Newcastle.

Seaports, however, have a greater potential as they enable to move goods cheaply and reasonably quickly in a continent where most population centers can be reached through a waterway or another. Of course that may also mean that seaports – or at least some of them – will become the core of the new European power, that is if we don't disintegrate the Arthur's Britain way, in which case all bets are off.

My own city is unlikely to have this destiny. When the nearby marsh will be flooded, it will be cut off from the continent, but there are lot of Breton ports which might profit from the coming decline – the way Venezia did during the last Dark Age.

JP said...

Along the lines of Tristan and others posting, it's important to realize that we can't go back to earlier economies because of depletion of resources, climate change and population increase.

On our journey to where we are now, we have destroyed a lot of the resources that used to sustain us.

Here in Nova Scotia, as an example, compared to the 19th century,(and this is one of the more hopeful places in North America), fish are just about gone (mostly lobster left), moose are rare, trees that once made sailing ships are being cut at 2-1/2" at the small end, much agricultural land that once grew wheat and fruit is grown over with brush or houses, and people with pre-petroleum life-skills just about gone.

The future will have to be different from the past because we're subtracting a whole lot more than oil from the equation.

lagedargent said...

"Neighbourly help in high Pyrenees", an article on BBC News you'll be sad to miss.

Stephen Heyer said...

Damien Perrotin: “You are right to tell that railroads are no panacea. Here in France they are basically powered and everybody knows – well should – that uranium will run short before oil.”

Well… Not exactly…

First off I understand France uses breeder reactors so as to “burn” about all of the uranium, rather than just the uranium-235 (0.711% of the mined uranium).

On the other hand, the system the USA forced on nearly everyone while trying to stop nuclear proliferation is incredibly wasteful. Under it, uranium is mined, the uranium-235 extracted from some (leaving nearly useless but still dangerous depleted uranium) then that uranium-235 is used to enrich other uranium which is then put through reactors once, burning a tiny percentage.

Second, there is actually quite a lot of uranium out there, just not all in the rich ores we are currently mining. In fact, I remember something about the Japanese working out that they could extract it from sea water when depletion of the cheap supplies currently mined make it economical.

That said, uranium reactors are expensive, dangerous, nasty beasts that leave large amounts of long-term radioactive waste and breeder reactors are nastier than most.

If you want to do large scale, centralized production of cheap power check out thorium reactors. Thorium has the advantage of being much more common than uranium and the reactors are inherently safer and when properly set up produce much smaller quantities of much shorter lived radioactive waste, and they are quite old technology.

Damien Perrotin: “Besides, our high-speed trains are having more and more problems. They rely heavily upon a high maintenance specific grid system which even now is deteriorating due to lack of funding…”

But, the really secure, safe solution to all this is not more nuclear reactors, it is Thomas the Tank Engine! Stop building complex, power hungry, difficult to manufacture and maintain monsters.

Instead, build simple, rugged railways that can be entirely manufactured and maintained by railway workshops that even small regional centers can support (as my town did). They can be run on about anything that will burn, low grade coal; wood from plantations; compressed straw; compressed blocks from high-yield fiber plantations; probably even compressed cow dung.

I’ve thought for some time that all those generations of children in England and Australia who grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine would some day be of real use. You see, locked away in the subconscious of the resulting adults is a rather good idea of the workings of a 1950s, small town and port railway system. If things get half as bad as John Greer reckons all those people will have a very good idea of just how relatively easy it is to build and operate such a railway and the enormous improvement in standards of living it can produce.

yooper said...

Hello John, I'd like you to know, that I've been a "fool" for the second time in my life. I'm no longer worried about the "energy crisis" in my lifetime, nor if I had a child in theirs...

Sure, we're about ot embark on great changes, but to think that the die-off would begin in earnest in our lifetimes just isn't feasible, in my opinion. Perhaps 50 years out? Like you once suggested to me, new information is constantly coming about...

For a little over a year,(in conjunction with one of the brightest intellectuals in the country, in my opinion) I've been investigating energy resources and have come to believe, that we are not even close to "overshoot" (even when considering all the different kinds of resource may be out there)... The world population is very likely to continue to expand for a least 50 years out, bar a major world war, astroid hit,etc...

Quite naturally, in doing an (a much broader) inventory of all the resources and how they might mesh in geopolitical circumstances, does have it consequenses.

Perhaps, in thinking that the last 30 years is representive of "an explosion of resource" is not quite correct and we're likely to see this much further out in the future? Much beyond "our lifetimes"? I am almost 50 years old....

Thanks so much, my ol' friend...


Lord of Wealth said...

I think the rust belt is indeed going to have an eventual rebound and I see great opportunities for someone who has the balls to take some chances and invest in these locations.

Take the example of Flint Mi where they are considering consolidation of the city by moving people out of nearly empty non functional neighbourhoods and into less desparate areas. This will increase density and make communities and some businesses viable again, Brillant.

Mean while this allows the bulldozing of the worst areas which can become urban farms, parks, rapid transit corridors. Some areas could be rebuit green, with community sized geo thermal and passive solar houses.

The mid west droughts and eventually the rising seas will send people back to the great lakes, these cities will bloom again.