Last week I talked about energy density and energy surpluses and how these factors dictate the arrangements of living that a given society can create.
Throughout history, humans have sought to increase energy surpluses, and nothing has fit the bill quite as well as fossil fuels. Traditionally, cities operated on modest energy surpluses provided by renewable sources of energy. However, during the Industrial Revolution technological developments unlocked huge energy surpluses embodied in non-renewable resources.
Since then, the process of replacing authentic ways of life based on sun, wind, and wave power collected regionally with a metastatic way of life based on natural gas, coal, and oil collected globally has been constant, mercurial, and sweeping.
It’s worth repeating that this transition to non-renewable resources was a no-brainer. Fossil fuels offered far more short-terms benefits than renewable sources, particularly with regard to energy density. In short, fossil fuels provided the Western world with a monumental energy surplus which it utilized to construct a massive industrial economy, and later, a tremendous number of energy-hungry metastatic cities.
Today all planners worth their salt see the folly in so whole-heartedly adopting an arrangement of living so beholden to and utterly dependent upon sources of energy which are clearly becoming increasingly expensive, difficult to recover, and scarce. It’s truly a tenuous predicament.
Most of those same planners also believe that metastatic cities can be reformed through efficiency measures and renewable energy production schemes. I’m much less sanguine on the prospect for the simple reason that the energy density of renewable sources is much too low to sustain arrangements of living designed to require massive and constant supplies of energy.
For the record I do believe metastatic cities will be converting to renewable energy sources in the not-to-distant future. However, I’m not sure it will be in the form that many subscribers to the insular planning paradigm expect.
But this week I’m not going to talk about the nuances of renewable energy or efficiency measures. Instead, I’m going to drill down a little further and elucidate the extent to which our metastatic cities are irredeemably energy-hungry – and by extension, hooked on fossil fuels.
One of the issues I always seem to run into when discussing urban sustainability issues with other planners is that they seem to discount the significance of the predicament metastatic cities face. Eventually it occurred to me that many well-meaning peers of mine are simply not conversant in physical and natural laws – or, as I like to call them – the laws of the jungle. These laws, which include the operational principles of dynamic dissipative systems, ecology, and thermodynamics describe how cities operate on a fundamental level.
However, physical and natural laws are not taught as part of conventional planning programs. Nor do they enter into the decision-making processes within government. They aren’t considered in land use decision-making processes by local land use boards, and so on. For all intents and purposes, planning decisions are informed by political, commercial and social actors.
I suppose this ignorance of physical and natural laws wouldn’t be a problem if energy was plentiful and ecological limits were a ways off. But as things stand now that’s simply not the case. The gap between how systems and ecological science tell us cities work and how insular planning policies assume cities work is widening.
It’s not my intention to levy detailed criticism upon insular planning strategies in this post. For now I’ll simply contend that many of these strategies start from flawed premises, and so can’t help but lead to flawed conclusions: garbage in, garbage out.
So, it’s not altogether surprising that planners discount the gravity of metastastic cities’ dilemma: they lack the interdisciplinary perspective which makes a clear understanding of the big picture possible.
Examining metastatic cities’ energy requirements will go a long way toward sharpening that big picture perspective. Much like we humans consume food so that our bodies may function, cities too require energy inputs to function. If a person consumes more calories than they burn, they gain weight. If they consume fewer calories than they burn, they lose weight. If they chronically eat fewer calories than they burn, they become frail.
This metabolism analogy carries over to cities as well, because human bodies and cities are both dynamic dissipative systems. As I discussed earlier, all dynamic dissipative systems require energy inputs, and the complexity of metastatic cities is wholly dependent upon the large inputs of energy they require to function. Quite simply, the metastatic city can be thought of as an enormous furnace which burns fossil fuels. And without the input of fossil fuels and the vast energy surplus they provide, metastatic cities would devolve into a state of frailty.
The metastatic city is comprised of social, technological, physical, and economic flow structures which consume energy over the course of daily operations. These actions include everything from the shipment of consumer goods via tractor trailer to making coffee in the morning, and everything in between. In short, every activity performed in the city requires energy inputs; no energy inputs, no functions.
Adding up all the diverse ways that metastatic cities consume energy is an excessively arduous task. A proxy for determining the energy requirements of metastatic cities can be obtained by multiplying the average American’s energy consumption by the population of the city in question. By coming at the problem from this other direction we can begin to conceive of the metastatic city’s metabolism in rough terms.
For instance, within a hunting and gathering way of life, humans require about 3,000 calories per day to perform daily activities. That arrangement of living provides very little in the way of energy surplus; that’s why these societies literally live on a hand to mouth basis.
In contrast, the average American requires 214 million calories per day to perform his daily activities. The extravagance of this metastatic arrangement of living is only possible with the massive energy surplus fossil fuels provide.
So just how big is the energy subsidy that fossil fuels provide? Well, it takes approximately 1,000 square feet of soil to produce enough food to feed one person 3,000 calories per day for the whole year. To supply 214 million calories per day per person for a whole year it would take approximately 86,500 square feet of soil!
If you applied these figures to the population of the Washington, DC metropolitan statistical area (MSA), you would find this one city would require 16,620 square miles of soil to supply its citizens with this sort of energy consumption if provided in strictly renewable terms. That would be problematic as the Washington, DC MSA contains only 5,564 square miles total. In other words, the area of soil needed to support a metastatic arrangement of living is three times the total area of the region.
Of course, the Washington region contains very little farmland. The amount of additional farmland that would be required to yield equivalent available energy content to what is being obtained from fossil fuel is called ghost acreage. This ghost acreage that supports Washington, DC obviously doesn’t exist; it’s an abstract concept which embodies the city’s high level of dependence on fossil fuel inputs.
There are other ways we can consider the unsustainability of the metastatic way of life – not in abstract terms like calories but in the much more tangible terms of human labor and sweat. For example, every moment of every day there are countless machines running on energy supplied by fossil fuel in metastatic cities: either directly as in automobiles or indirectly through the city’s infrastructure, including coal-fired supplies of electricity. Those machines are essentially performing tasks that would otherwise have to be performed by human or draft animal muscle power one way or another.
These fossil fuel-powered machines have effectively replaced human labor in today’s metastatic city thereby freeing up millions of man hours to accomplish other tasks. It’s as if each of us has a personal army working behind the scenes to keep our ice cubes cold, lights blazing, clothes clean, and so on. If we denominated the average metastatic city’s total energy consumption into terms measured in labor and sweat, we would find 140 “energy slaves” working for each of us behind the scenes, 24 hours a day, nonstop. The term energy slave is a metaphor by which the value of fossil fuel energy is measured in terms of its human muscle-power equivalent.
Next I’ll explore the scale of our energy surplus from a strictly metabolic perspective. The average American man stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 170 pounds. To support his body’s functions, he must ingest 2,500 calories per day. If he lives in a metastatic city, that same man requires 214 million to accomplish his daily activities. If that man’s full energy demands were reflected in his body size alone, he would be as large as a 60 ton sperm whale. In this way, citizens of metastatic cities have effectively morphed into giants roaming the landscape, voraciously consuming enormous amounts of energy to support a colossal lifestyle.
The term “Homo colossus” was coined by William Catton. He reserved it for modern human beings who are equipped with technology which grants them enormous power, greatly increases their per capita resource demands, and environmental impact.
And what else can you call a city inhabited by legions of Homo Colossus but Colossusopolis? The fact that the Earth currently supports so many metastatic cities is incredible; it’s perhaps more incredible to assume the Earth will be able to support 2 billion more metastatic city dwellers by mid-century.
Perhaps I lack imagination, but it’s impossible for me to square up this tremendous (and growing) scale of resource consumption with the limitations of a finite planet in light of environment change and the ongoing expiration of easily-available and cheap fossil fuel supplies.
It’s reasons like this why I’m so down on policies that attempt to work backward from the status quo. Insular planning policies urging efficiency and renewable energy will prove inadequate to dealing with the full menu of challenges laid out before us. It’s a bummer, but there will be no comfy transition to a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, affluent, and ‘green’ Metastatic cities. The world simply cannot continue to support colossal extravagance.
The fact is that nature will compel us to transition to a less energy and resource intensive arrangement of living one way or another. And it will not come without sacrifices.
It’s high time we got serious about planning adequately for the predicament we face. First however, I’m going to take the next couple of posts to scrutinize insular planning policies under the harsh light of physical and natural laws. In so doing I hope to comprehensively identify, clarify, and expound upon what I believe to be their pernicious flaws. Only then can I set about proposing sufficiency planning guidelines that align with the scale of the predicament before us.