City, Interrupted

Last week I finished up discussing the laws of the jungle – those laws of nature including system dynamics, thermodynamics, and ecological principles which govern both the operations of nature and cities.

For many of my readers it was a long slog through territories of thought and consideration not usually frequented by planners. And that’s a shame, because the laws of the jungle provide important and fundamental insights on how cities work on a constitutive basis.

I showed that there can be no discussion of cities’ relationship to ecological systems without discussing flows of available energy, as the city uses available energy to make its processes possible. Yet conventional thinking in the planning community suggests that cities are free of controlling principles beyond those that are legally, politically, and socially proscribed. The laws of the jungle show this to be untrue. The evidence of history shows us that human culture adapts its attitudes and choices to fit the reality of the energy transformation system and its hierarchy, and that people may attempt to build any type of society they like, but unless their plans take ecology into consideration, they will fail. What can and cannot be done is ultimately determined by energy laws.

I showed how available energy makes complexity possible for the city. Complexity is a system’s ability to maintain and replace flow structure, which itself refers to the social, technological, economic, and physical organization of society in terms of its population, occupations, diversity, institutions, and functions.

The quantity of available energy determines the complexity that can exist and the speed at which processes can function. In other words, complexity is the degree to which a city imposes its own order upon nature: the more available energy, the more imposed order; the less available energy, the less imposed order. With declining energy inputs, the operations of cities become ‘interrupted’, and with the absence of energy inputs, cities would quickly revert back to natural areas.

Additionally, I showed how the laws of the jungle can be used to properly evaluate and comprehend the dimensions of the predicament before us, and how they can provide a framework for sufficiency planning going forward.

Before we start laying out the framework for sufficiency planning in earnest however, this week it’s important to lay out why metastatic cities are so at risk as we enter the Age of Sufficiency. As a reminder, metastatic cities are cities which fail to operate within the limits of the resources and waste sinks available regionally. That definition drags just about every Western city into its wheelhouse, as well as many cities in the developing world that are forfeiting historically durable arrangements of living for  Western levels of consumption, prowess, modernity, and stature.

Unfortunately however, the newest entrants in this exuberant way of life have arrived to the party a bit too late. Today, the extraction of fossil fuels – including coal, oil, and natural gas – has provided us with a spectacular store of available energy which is no longer increasing, but has now reached a plateau and will begin dropping off at a time when demand is expected to increase substantially. These limits to growth will present fantastic challenges to a way of life utterly dependent upon large flows of cheap and easy-to-recover fossil fuels.

But I’m getting ahead of things a bit. Like so many other subjects, the best way to understand the weaknesses of metastatic cities is to start at the beginning to see how we got to where we are.

Over the course of history, humans have always focused on securing necessary available energy, and for most of that history it proved to be a difficult task. In their nascent stages, humans collected vegetables and captured animals that were available regionally for food. Twelve thousand years ago humans arranged for the growth of certain kinds of edible vegetation, and later humans began harnessing wind and water flows to add still more available energy.

Five thousand years ago, humans began selecting and planting edible vegetation in a deliberately intensive fashion. This breakthrough established a much more substantial energy surplus, and a much greater fraction of the populace was able to specialize in tasks that didn’t involve food production. Eventually, humans improved food production processes to such a degree that large and densely organized populations could be supported and the city was born.

By today’s standards, most cities over much of human history were fairly modest enterprises. That’s because the sources of energy that they depended upon provided only a very modest energy surplus. That’s not by accident.

Renewable forms of available energy – sun, wind, and wave power – have very specific properties. For starters, they come in flows, which means they can only be used at the rate they come in at. Second, they’re diffuse and difficult to collect. Third, renewable energy is difficult to store efficiently. Fourth, they have low power. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they possess low energy density.

The size and complexity of these cities were necessarily inhibited by the ecological limits imposed by the regions they inhabited. Regardless of these limitations however, humans managed to construct and establish sufficiently complex, beautiful, and exceedingly liveable cities over the centuries.

These authentic cities provided an atmosphere conducive to the formation of rich cultures and breakthroughs in science, art, and philosophy. “Authentic city” is my term for an ecologically-harmonious way of living within the limits of a given region.

Authentic cities conform to a set of very general, time-tested operating principles. For example, they solve local problems with locationally-appropriate solutions. They consume products and resources in keeping with what can be produced and harvested locally. Their citizens fiercely defend the ecological health of the region from exploitation, as they recognize it as the indisputable source of their livelihood. In short, they enable all citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being, without degrading the natural world or the lives of other people, now or in the future.

These humble, yet sufficiently stimulating arrangements of living flourished for thousands of years across multiple continents. Yet with the discovery of fossil fuels and the advent of fossil fuel-utilizing technologies, this way of life gave way in a historical instant to the metastatic arrangements of living we see today all over the world.

The main differentiating factor between the authentic city and the metastatic city is the source of their available energy. Whereas authentic cities depended upon the modest energy surpluses afforded by renewable sources, metastatic cities increasingly exploited the enormous energy surpluses bestowed by non-renewable resources including natural gas, oil, and coal.

Fossil fuels offered huge advantages over renewable sources which made the decision to exploit them obvious. For one thing, fossil fuels come in stores as opposed to flows. This is important because stores of energy can be utilized at a flexible rate. Second, they comes in solids, liquids, and gases, and are relatively easy to collect. Third, fossil fuels are easy to store and distribute. Fourth, they possess high power content. Lastly, and most importantly, they have much higher energy density than renewable sources. This last point is vital, so I’m going to spend a moment on it.

Energy density is a term used for the amount of energy stored in a space per unit volume. For example, gasoline has high energy density. Think about it: for $4 and change, one gallon can speed you, your friends, and a whole lot of stuff a distance of 25-30 miles. Imagine trying to convince someone to push your car around for 25-30 miles for $4 and see how far you get. Good luck with that!

In fact, gasoline’s energy density is so high that one gallon contains the energy equivalent to three weeks of one human’s non-stop work (at .074 kWH) or roughly one week of non-stop stair climbing (at .148 kWH). 32 gallons of gasoline releases energy equal to the energy content of the food an active human adult would consume in a full year.

When the implications of high energy density are grasped, it becomes clear why Westerners have thoroughly substituted fossil fuel-utilizing technologies for tasks once performed by muscle power, and why those in the developing world seek to do the same.

One result of this massive shift of dependence from renewable to non-renewable resources has left us with a way of life predicated on using extravagant sums of available energy. Another result of this shift is the creation of the predicament we currently face: increasingly numerous and voracious metastatic cities mottling the face of the Earth at the same time the fossil fuel supplies they depend upon are plateauing.

That’s not a great place to be, and so naturally the conversation in planning circles has begun to revolve around substituting in efficient buildings and transportation modes for wasteful and polluting fossil fuel-based buildings and transportation modes.

That’s all well and fine, and I for one support these initiatives to the extent that they recognize that renewable energy and efficiency measures will not provide nearly enough energy to maintain the metastatic way of life to which we’ve become accustomed. The laws of the jungle just won’t allow us to sustain the unsustainable, regardless of how much we want it.

The awkward fact is that renewable sources of energy still have the same limitations today which prevented the Romans from building expressways, skyscrapers, and jet planes thousands of years ago: they simply don’t have the energy density to make it happen, and that’s despite all the technological innovations that occurred over the same stretch of time.

Correspondingly, renewable sources will not be able to maintain our metastatic cities in their current form. Once fossil fuels enter terminal decline and energy descent begins to bite, the daily activities of those in metastatic cities will become ‘interrupted’. And yes, we will switch to renewable energy in response, but it’s not going to resemble anything like the slick promotional sketches promulgated by purveyors of insular planning strategies. That’s not politics talking, that’s the laws of the jungle talking: the energy just isn’t there.

There’s still quite a bit of wiggle room in terms of what energy descent will look like on the ground, and that’s where sufficiency planning best practices come into the picture. The question becomes how we can maintain a sufficiently-high quality of life with many fewer energy inputs.

I’m confident that the transition can occur if for no other reason than knowing that our ancestors lived on modest energy surpluses for millennia. If we’re smart about the transition – and by smart I mean observant of the laws of the jungle – we can make it.

But, alas that is a subject for another week. Before I get to all that, I’m going to show you just how bloated the energy demands are for metastatic arrangements of living. That’s where I’ll pick things up next week.

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