Role of Wages of the Common Worker in Oil Prices, Collapse

In their book Secular Cycles, Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov point out the important role falling wages of the common workers played in early collapses. I got to thinking that this might be an issue with our current situation as well, including the low level of oil prices.

I explain this in two presentations. The first one is called “Overview of a Networked Economy“. The second one is called, “Economic Growth and Diminishing Returns.”

A couple of (amateurish) slides that need explanation are the following ones:

Standard definition of economic growth

The cloud above my representation of the economy is supposed to represent the cloud of goods and services that the economy makes. Many people would like us to believe that as long as this cloud is growing, everything is fine.

What Peter Turchin discovered is that there is a smaller cloud that really needs to be growing, as well.

This cloud is the after-tax income of the common worker. If this isn’t growing, then it is hard to collect enough taxes. The ultimate downfall comes from government downfall, because of the problems of the common worker.

Wages of Common Worker

The above slide is an attempt to show the after-tax income of common workers as a subset within the GDP cloud. (It probably should be much smaller.)

Common workers are ones who will tend to buy mostly goods and not too many services. In fact, the goods that they buy are not necessarily even high tech goods. If these workers cut back on goods that use a lot of commodities in their production, this cutback could contribute to all of the other pressures we are now seeing toward lower commodity prices, and make it much harder for oil prices to rise again.

If we want common workers to do better, it looks to me like we need an increasing supply of cheap-to-extract oil (low priced would help as well).

To see the full story, you will need to click on the links above.

I will be leaving on March 13 to spend four weeks lecturing and traveling in China. (My family will not be coming along, so I won’t be leaving an empty house here.) Hopefully I will have a chance to write a “regular” post between now and then–the two presentations are from this series. I don’t expect to be able to write posts while I am in China because China does not allow access to the WordPress site where I write my posts.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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332 Responses to Role of Wages of the Common Worker in Oil Prices, Collapse

  1. Pingback: News update | Peak Oil India | Exploring the coming energy crisis and the way forward

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All
    Here is another report on Elaine Ingham’s comments at a different meeting. I think you will find that they are somewhat similar to what I reported. Interestingly, this report also mentions the parallels with gut bacteria…Don Stewart

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All
    Regarding Elaine Ingham’s two talks. To give you a sense of the reception she got. Her talks were sponsored by a small local farm in Mills River, NC. The farm originally intended to have her speak first in an outbuilding on their farm, which would seat 40 people. As it became apparent that many people were going to have to be turned away, another venue was found. When that turned out to be too small, a third venue was located. They packed 180 people in the room…quite a few more than the fire marshal would have approved of, I suspect.

    This may have been the largest meeting ever held in Mills River, NC.

    Don Stewart

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All
    I have just returned from the annual Organic Growers School in Asheville, NC. A few things which may be interesting to some of you.

    The star guest was Elaine Ingham, the soil scientist. Elaine published the relationships in the soil food web in 1985, along with collaborators. That was 30 years ago. When she was invited to go to Washington, DC, to present her results, the reception was frosty. Official Washington was entirely hostile to the notion that soil was anything other than something which holds a plant upright, but also harbors dangerous pathogens which must be fought with industrial chemicals. Elaine recalls that the research in the 1980s was never funded by the USDA or the FDA…it came from the environmental organizations. Elaine reports that there are now some people in the USDA who are interested in biological agriculture, but the top officials remain hostile. Research funding is now dominated by chemical companies.

    Elaine has recently been involved in several interesting projects. One is the landscaping of the G.W. Bush library in Dallas, TX. Apparently, Barbara Bush wanted a Texas prairie constructed amidst all that concrete. Elaine showed the evolution of the landscape over a one year period from a horribly abused industrial construction site to a flourishing prairie. The key elements in the restoration were:
    *Native plants assembled in the patterns of a prairie
    *Restoration of drainage to replace the industrial laser leveling
    *Digging 3000 tons of compost deeply into the soil, with the restoration of the soil horizons.
    The site was never watered, no herbicides or pesticides were used, and no weeding was performed. The site is designed to withstand a hot, dry Texas summer, partly by using the geometric shape of the native grasses to collect dew and drop them in the soil. Elaine had previous experience designing for dew in the southwestern desert.

    For a presidential library with bales of money, access to earth moving equipment, and the knowledge we have accumulated about prairie restoration, it is possible to construct a paradise pretty quickly. The experience shows that it can be done, and raises the question of whether society should use its remaining fossil fuels to rebuild the biological world we are meant to inhabit, or engage in Kunstler’s Happy Motoring as we burn the last drops of oil. For those without bales of money, but more time to let Nature heal, Gail showed examples of restoration projects involving key line plowing and the use of cover crops and other relatively inexpensive methods.

    Elaine began her keynote talk last evening with two provocative statements:

    *If normal levels of soil life are present, addition of inorganic, or even organic fertilizers, do nothing to improve crop production. There are no weeds which require herbicides. Plants are not stressed, thus no need for pesticides or fungicides.

    *The Green Revolution does not work if the soil is really living soil. The green revolution only works on dead dirt.

    All Elaine and the other collaborators did at the Bush Library was restore the living soil. And the results speak for themselves. However, her statements are still controversial in the community that attends events such as the Organic Grower’s School. Several speakers talked about the need to ‘remineralize’ the soil, and there was a lot of discussion about dealing with plant diseases. Elaine flatly states that there is no soil that we are ever going to try to farm or garden in that is incapable of supplying the nutrients, from boron to nitrogen, that plants need. The shortage is not minerals or gasses, but the soil biology which extracts the nutrients from the sand and clay and silt. Tillage, herbicides, and pesticides are the enemies of the soil biology which bring dirt to life as soil. Soil tests are mostly just useless because they measure only the amount of minerals which are already present in the soil in a plant friendly form…they do not measure the much larger reservoir of minerals which can be made available to the plant in response to the release of exudates from the plants to the bacteria and fungi. Yet many of the instructors at the OGS continue to recommend soil tests. My sense is that Elaine made a lot of headway with her story…particularly with the young farmers. She got a standing ovation last evening.

    Her story, of course, is a very dangerous one for Industrial Agriculture, whether it is labeled ‘conventional’ or ‘organic’. Whole industries would be wiped out. Even if Elaine is right, there is still a place for some industrial products. For example, Chuck Marsh, a veteran permaculture practitioner, just returned from 2 months helping farmers in Jamaica. Jamaica, like most Carribean islands, imports almost all its food, and the few farmers are very poor. Chuck reports that the farmers have very few tools, and thus resort to the sorts of destructive practices that can be done without tools, such as burning and herbicides. Just as with the Bush Library, there is plenty of work to be done to restore the soil biology, and fossil fuels and the kind of machinery made by Caterpillar and powerful tractors to pull key line plows deeply through the soil will be very helpful. Should all of this disappear tomorrow, an awful lot of people will starve.

    I don’t wish to debate Elaine’s statements with anyone…I merely point to them, to her success in several landscaping projects, and the strategic implications as we face the decline of fossil fuels.

    Don Stewart

    • Artleads says:

      Very fine story. So we just keep applying food scraps, cardboard/paper, covering it with bushy stuff, maintaining moisture throughout, add horse/cow dung at the end, and we’re ready to plant. That’s the no-effort way anyhow.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “That’s the no-effort way anyhow.”

        I wouldn’t go that far!

        The “no effort” way is to “use soil as a sponge with which to turn petroleum into food,” as Jay Hanson put it. Replacing all those energy slaves isn’t easy.

        Consider also, that some of the resources mentioned (“cardboard/paper”) may not be in big supply in a low-energy future, and that “horse/cow dung” may be in short supply, as well, unless you generate it yourself.

        We have about 8-10 cubic metres (that’s “yards” to Mercans) of our own goat manure this year, and we’re going to see how much we can grow with “minimal inputs.” But conventional organic farming has huge external inputs, all of them at least indirectly based on fossil sunlight.

        • Artleads says:

          Got it. I’m using a lot of industrial detritus, otherwise landfill bound. But I shouldn’t get too pleased about that. It’s still “poison,” and it won’t last.

          I don’t have a lot of land; just about 1/8 acre, and the largest part of flatland is leach field (which I was told not to plant on).

          It’s high desert here, so I cover the growing area with lots of yard clipping stuff (weeds), trying to keep in moisture.

          Creating a sponge out of this downslope lot is my goal. I have a four step terrace that’s the main growing area. One thought I have is to dig a little trench at the foot of the “tread” of each step. Hoping that dew or whatever moisture will sink in there and help keep the whole bed moist. Maybe I could throw some spongy stuff in the trench as well…

          Cognitive dissonance is what I guess you’d call it. I can’t imagine all the stores empty and all the paper and cardboard gone. I guess a world without enough oil to run somewhat like it does now–food in the stores, retail stores, cars–is hard to imagine. I think something else would get us first. People would be rioting and all hell would ensue. Just can’t picture that really soon. It’s even easier to imagine more public transportation, more recycling, gas rationing, better land use than the abrupt stopping of BAU. I see more incentive to actually do some sensible things (since that is more consistent with BAU) rather than having no food on the shelves. I can even picture massive solar and wind farms that do huge ecological harm but maintain some semblance of normal life. But then I’m a dreamer.

        • Artleads says:

          I could see a more dystopian alternative. Some seismic shift, natural or manufactured–a new version of 9/11, or a nuclear accident, etc, for instance–that makes the public accept more restrictions.

          In my state there is legislation pending to take away the right of local communities to block oil and gas operations. The audacity of it is stunning. But if they can pull this off, what other drastic rights curtailment can we expect? The best way to predict the future, I think, is to look at what’s happening now, slightly below the radar.

          More and more protest activity is being restricted via Homeland Security or whatever. It could be a question of how to ratchet up the restriction without the masses (and BAU) being too badly shaken up. And then play it by ear thereafter.

          But I still don’t see BAU coming to an end-whatever the cost for the longer term future–without some (more publicly acceptable) catastrophic disruption from somewhere else happening first.

          • Artleads says:

            “But I still don’t see BAU coming to an end-whatever the cost for the longer term future–without some (more publicly acceptable) catastrophic disruption from somewhere else happening first.”

            Or, instead, a more sensible way to run society catching on.

        • edpell says:

          Mercans, yards, your a loyal subject of her majesty the sovereign of all of the commonwealth. It is the royal system of measure, yards. 😉

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “your [sic] a loyal subject of her majesty”

            No, just a scientist who loathes losing conceptual purity via messing up a simple equation with unit conversions.

            As Einstein stated: “E = (m/2.2) * (c * 1609.344)^2”

            In a Permaculture class I co-taught with an American, he presented a complicated formula for designing a rain-water catchment system, based upon the size of your roof, containing opaque constants. He and the class struggled working through a simple example for some ten minutes or longer.

            I got up and wrote on the blackboard: “V = A * R” or Volume of needed storage (in litres) equals roof Area (in square metres) times Rainfall (in millimetres). You could see the “got it!” lightbulbs going off over every student’s head, and we worked through an example in about 30 seconds.

    • Thanks for the update. One place where it seems like there might be room to disagree is with respect to “*The Green Revolution does not work if the soil is really living soil. The green revolution only works on dead dirt.”

      It seems like at least part of the green revolution was simply irrigating crops. Irrigation can significantly increase yields, at least until salts build up in the soil, damaging the soil. So there is a temporary benefit, of one of the techniques used in the green revolution.

      I am not sure whether all of the minerals are really present in adequate quantities, especially if areas have been farmed with the addition of a couple of minerals, and omitted the others. Mineral content of rocks varies significantly, so it seems like mineral content of soil would as well.

      • Don Stewart says:

        At least one of her talks was videotaped, and I will post a link when it is available. You can check for yourself what she says.

        She has references which show the total mineral content of various soils around the world. Several times she used the phrase ‘a hundred thousand years of minerals’. She shows a very large rectangle labeled ‘total minerals’ and a small subset rectangle labeled ‘measured minerals’. She also frequently uses the phrase ‘the plants are in charge’. The way I understood her, the plants can significantly affect the minerals they get by rewarding different species of microbes with sugars from photosynthesis. The microbes make the specific enzymes which are needed to break the bonds of the minerals the plant needs. Once the minerals are in soluble form, they can either be transferred by fungi or be absorbed directly into roots.

        In addition, when a microbe is eaten, the minerals in its body are mostly released, because the predator cannot use all of them. Since both the microbes and the predators are immediately around the root zone, the plant can pretty easily absorb the minerals.

        Now I will offer a speculation. Why does Nature take so much care with phosphorus recycling? We know that phosphorus is relatively scarce, and Nature must ‘know’ that and take the appropriate action. I suspect it is a question of energy efficiency. A plant uses about half its photosynthetic products in the soil, and about half of what goes into the soil is exuded to feed the microbes. But if an ecosystem is carefully recycling a mineral such as phosphorus, then the plant can be more stingy about feeding the microbes because it won’t need to get as much additional phosphorus from the rocks. If humans are flushing the phosphorus out to sea, then the plant has to work harder to get the phosphorus.

        So its not like there is a free lunch. With excellent recycling, the plant can use more of the photosynthetic products for its own growth.

        The way she talks about the microbes is very similar to the way doctors have begun to talk about gut microbes. In both cases, the newly developed methods of quickly measuring the DNA to help us assess things such as diversity have given us a new insight into what is going on. For example, I heard one doctor who had experienced some stress in his family say that the stress had caused a noticeable change in his gut microbe population.

        Elaine emphasizes the importance of using a wide variety of materials in compost so that the microbial population will be very diverse. If one starts with a diverse population, then Darwin takes care of causing the most appropriate microbes to multiply rapidly….provided humans haven’t done something awful such as create a plow pan which leads to anaerobic soil conditions and poisons helpful microbes.

        You should, of course, exercise caution before assuming that I know what I am talking about.

        Don Stewart
        PS Relative to Jan’s comments about the fossil energy required to do things. Elaine reviewed the sorry history of plowing, showing how the compaction layer has gotten deeper and deeper with new technology. She thinks we have ‘one more chance’ to plow to break up the current plow pan. Then we need to stop plowing so we don’t create another one, even deeper.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Also, relative to irrigation. Elaine says that many plants which we think of as shallow rooted will actually put down very deep roots in the absence of a plow pan and anaerobic layers. I believe she said 15 feet for wheat, and 12 feet for most brassica. With roots that deep, irrigation becomes much less of a factor. So that, for example, irrigation would probably not be necessary in seasonally dry places such as the West coast. She referred to some recent work in very rocky desert in the American Southwest, but didn’t show any pictures. She did show some pictures of pastures dived by a property fence near Melbourne, Australia, which has been suffering from a prolonged drought. The difference between the biologically farmed side and the conventionally farmed side was stunning. No irrigation.

          Don Stewart

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “Elaine says that many plants which we think of as shallow rooted will actually put down very deep roots in the absence of a plow pan and anaerobic layers. I believe she said 15 feet for wheat, and 12 feet for most brassica. With roots that deep, irrigation becomes much less of a factor.”

            We’ve been experimenting with subsurface irrigation, preceded with deep soil ripping (Keyline plough technique). The result? Longer carrots, for one!

            I think rotovating is much worse for pan than ploughing is.

  5. edpell says:

    Yes, in a democracy 51% can vote to rob and enslave 49%. This is why democracy is an unacceptable form of government. The U.S. a constitutional republic. The constitution if it has effective enforcement can proscribe the role of government and limit its thefts. The republic leave the government open to be purchased by the highest bidder, oh well. Of course the supreme court has turned out to be a complete ineffective protector of the constitution, oh well.

    Yes, cultural differences seem to be along north south lines. The EU north hates the EU south just as much as the US north hates the US south. I think all four parties would be happier with a north south split.

  6. VPK says:

    Greece must pay back every Euro owed says head of Union finance stability group
    While Spain’s minister claims Greece needs another bailout and Merkel says she already has enough on her plate as it is…..

    • edpell says:

      Why not roll Greece over for five years at 0.00 percent interest. The ECB saves face, Greece can stay in the EU, it is a win/win.

      • VPK says:

        Don’t think Greece can even ‘afford’ that! LOL
        They really need their own printing press like the Big Boys”

      • Kicks the can down the road for at least a few months, until Greece needs a supplemental loan to add to the 0.0% interest loan.

        • edpell says:

          Gail, you have a wicked (New England expression sense of the word) sense of humor “until Greece needs a supplemental loan”. 😉

  7. edpell says:

    San Paulo a city of 20 million to run out of water in 60 days. EU to lend 1.5 trillion dollars at 0.05% interest rate. Wow.

    • I wonder what San Paulo’s chance is of actually paying the debt back.

      • edpell says:

        Sorry I confused two issues. The two are unrelated. Just both signs of hitting limits.

      • I talked to my mother in Rio de Janeiro on Friday and they are also under lots of stress because the lack of rain.

        Electricity went up 22%. Some locations, 44%, because the lack of water on the on the hydroelectric dams.

        My mother told me that they are planing ‘talking’ in cutting the water for five days to all households. Just two days a week water will run.

        I asked her how her and her friends will make, she said God will take care of them.

        So, I changed the subject.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    To Xabier
    Regarding the tendency of the aristocracy to steal from the peasants. See this from John Michael Greers current blog post:

    ‘Ivan Illich pointed out in Energy and Equity a long time ago the logical fallacy here, which is that using a bread machine or buying from a bakery is only faster if you don’t count the time you have to spend earning the money needed to pay for it, power it, provide it with overpriced prepackaged mixes, repair it, clean it, etc., etc., etc. Illich’s discussion focused on automobiles; he pointed out that if you take the distance traveled by the average American auto in a year, and divide that by the total amount of time spent earning the money to pay for the auto, fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc., plus all the other time eaten up by tending to the auto in various ways, the average American car goes about 3.5 miles an hour: about the same pace, that is, that an ordinary human being can walk.

    If this seems somehow reminiscent of last week’s discussion of externalities, dear reader, it should. The claim that technology saves time and labor only seems to make sense if you ignore a whole series of externalities—in this case, the time you have to put into earning the money to pay for the technology and into coping with whatever requirements, maintenance needs, and side effects the technology has. Have you ever noticed that the more “time-saving technologies” you bring into your life, the less free time you have? This is why—and it’s also why the average medieval peasant worked shorter hours, had more days off, and kept a larger fraction of the value of his labor than you do.’

    Most particularly, the last sentence. I don’t know where JMG gets the support for his statement, but he’s usually careful about such things.

    Two points I would make:
    1. A prepared person living in a low energy world with good tools may be surprisingly well off in many respects.
    2. Most all of us simply can’t compete in 2015 if we try to live that way.

    Take Ivan Illich’s classic calculations on the speed of the automobile. It’s all true, but the fact is that automobiles and highways have made walking largely obsolete because most people don’t live close enough to the places they need to get to, to use walking as their means of transportation. Back when things were decentralized and most of the things you needed were in the neighborhood, walking was feasible. It really isn’t anymore, even in ‘walkable cities’. If you get in line to cross the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey early in the morning, you will be in a huge mass of trucks taking supplies into New York. The fact that, if you live in Midtown, you can walk to everything you need obscures the fossil fuel component.

    Don Stewart

    • richard says:

      I’m reminded of how much work computers do for us. There used to be an entire underclass of engineering assistants doing calculations by hand for designers. All that just quietly evaporated. Another reason that electricity will not go quitely into the night.

    • Artleads says:

      “Back when things were decentralized and most of the things you needed were in the neighborhood, walking was feasible. It really isn’t anymore, even in ‘walkable cities’.”

      Unlike with banking, money and oil, I have a little experience with land use planning, having also spearheaded a “community plan” for a large-ish city neighborhood. And I must question the above statement.

      What walkable cities? Cities are now preeminently NOT walkable. “Circulation” within cities is now done by automobile travel. Streets are constructed to facilitate their speed and smooth cornering. Corners are therefore widened to facilitate autos instead of narrowed to facilitate foot traffic. The list could continue.

      Since circulation is calibrated on auto traffic, it is “logical” to spread development out beyond the reach of pedestrians. Sprawl over former ex-urban farmland is therefore normalized. Things are anything but centralized now. They once WERE centralized–before WWII, much more so.

      Moreover, the likely solution to peak energy and peak sprawl (both mutually reinforcing) would be to make existing citied more dense, and indeed to organize them into walkable pods where all basic needs are met. Walking and public transport between pods would then make sense to enable.

      The following would therefore not be an issue:

      “If you get in line to cross the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey early in the morning, you will be in a huge mass of trucks taking supplies into New York.”

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Artleads
        Here is my point relative to centralized vs decentralized. When I was a child, almost everything we needed was within walking distance. My father never drove a car to work, for example. My mother used to send me to do the shopping when I was 6 years old. I’d call that decentralized. There were little neighborhood centers all over the place.

        If you have a big store, then you have to draw business from a much wider catch basin. That is centralized, by my estimation. Whether the big store is Macy’s on 34th St in Manhattan, or a Wal-Mart Super Store on a highway, they are both to big to be neighborhood stores. Both require deliveries by trucks.

        You could distinguish Manhattan from a big box store on a highway in this sense. In Manhattan, it takes delivery trucks, but much of the store-to-home transport can be accomplished on foot. But in a big box store on a highway, both legs of the transport almost always require fossil fueled transport.

        When he was 10 years old, around 1650, Isaac Newton left the farm where he was growing up to go to a one room school. The school was 8 miles away. He boarded at the house of the pharmacist. I assume that his family boarded him because the roads were so bad that a daily trip of 16 miles was out of the question. That school was very local, in the same way that many rural schools in the US used to be very local. School busses and better roads changed all that, and we got the consolidated schools. Once the schools consolidated, most children could no longer walk to school.

        Don Stewart

        • Artleads says:

          Hi Don,

          Your take on decentralization is one I had not come across, but it propelled me to look online for other views. The following is very much consistent with mine. Unfortunately, one has to pay to read the whole thing.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Artleads
            I don’t want to argue too much about definitions.

            You might like to listen to the first 10 minutes or so of this discussion with Toby Hemenway:

            In the latter part they get into some ‘permaculture culture and politics’, which may not interest you.

            But the first part is Toby discussing his new talk which attempts to outline a way of living in the world which escapes from the restrictions imposed by governments and their corporate vassals. ‘Under the radar’ and ‘not taxable but thriving’ and that sort of thing. We’ll have to wait for Toby’s talk to make its way on to the internet to figure out exactly what he has in mind, but whatever it is will probably be very ‘decentralized’ by my use of the word.

            Toby describes the corporate/ government world as complicated but simple. The biological world and the world of informal human communities such as extended families are truly complex, with lots of interconnections and positive and negative feedbacks leading to homeostasis. I think Toby is proposing the latter.

            Toby is very interested in getting out of the government/ corporate straightjacket. I second that, but I am also interested in figuring out how to thrive in an energy descent world. The two concerns are sort of like a yin and yang symbol…they go together to make a whole.

            Don Stewart

          • Artleads says:

            Thanks for the link. I liked it all, and will try to pass it along.

        • edpell says:

          Don, no need to go that far back, Calvin Coolidge went to school a similar distance from home and was picked up once a week on Friday by his father circa 1880.

          I very much feel this situation. It is a 15 minute drive to get too anything where I live. So, a 2 dollar slice of pizza with a 10 minute walk is a world apart from a 2 dollar slice of pizza with a 15 minute drive in a car that has a significant carrying cost say $40 for that slice of pizza. Of course I need the car for somethings so the incremental cost may be more appropriate. Even so that would be $15 for that $2 slice of pizza. My great grand parents lived in a 100% walkable community circa 1930s. In fact, when my great grand father then in Pennsylvania heard of a good job opening in Massachusetts he walk from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts.

        • richard says:

          I lived here for a while …

          It seems that the penalty you pay for separating vehicles and bicycles is ribbon development. There is no tendency to concentrate, so fewer possibilities to emerge from a dormant state into a city.
          Also I knew some teenagers that walked six miles to school most days, though I do not recall what happened when the weather got really bad.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear richard

            3 miles each way is not bad, if the roads are passable. In 1650, roads in the US were quite miserable in the winter. If you saw the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, you may have noticed that the war stopped in the winter when the roads became impassable. In 1776, the main street in one of the bigger towns in western North Carolina was described as ‘a series of mud holes’. As late as 1930, my mother, who was a school teacher, boarded near the school where she taught rather than travel out from town about 10 miles each way.

            Edo Japan, in contrast, had a very good system of roads compared to the US or, I suspect, England.

            My only point is that if one is trying to predict what the world may look like after oil, then the questions surrounding transportation and the degree of localization which happens as a matter of necessity or societal breakdown become very important. We may very well see the re-emergence of ways of life only us really elderly guys can dimly remember.

            Don Stewart

          • Artleads says:


            That was a most interesting link, although I suspect it would take me a week or more of steady work to get to the significance (for me, at least) of Milton Keynes.


            So, very quickly, not looking up names and so forth. We have Lewis Mumford promoting “garden cities.” I’m not recollecting the reasoning behind much of the movement. Greener, cleaner spaces for living? Leading to what I call decentralized urban spaces, no longer the dense urban hub of old, but something more suburban and spread out in style. But with a coherent plan and careful design.

            Contrast this with the vision of Jane Jacobs (The Life and Death of Great American Cities), which was in opposition to the garden city movement. It celebrated the vibrant neighborhoods of old dense city developments like Manhattan.

            Thesis/anti-thesis, although it gets confusing as to sequence them. The garden movement ended, while the old cities that preceded it labor on absorbing great insults like “urban renewal” projects, freeways since the 1950’s slicing through them (like in San Francisco’s Fillmore district?). Whites move to the suburbs, which are not intentional garden cities. Near-urban farming is lost, commute traffic is normalized, more energy is lost, etc. The city itself has spilled out way beyond its traditional border, annexing more and more county rural land as it does, for low density sprawl that is entirely serviced by automobile traffic. So there is the historic central, pedestrian urban hub, surrounded by a much larger footprint of low density automobile-oriented city–originating in the 1950s and continuing to expand..

            Which is where the synthesis could arise. The oil to fuel the automobile city is running out. The food that depends on the oil to be transported to the city is running out. Thus, a conflation of peak oil, peak habitat loss, peak food, etc., etc., etc.. The money to build major new Milton Keynes-type experiments is gone. Suggesting, if this is even possible, a most economical adaptation of what now exists, rather than new construction of any kind on open land.

            While there is still money enough to support continuing “dysfunctional” sprawl development, I would suggest diverting those development resources to building very sensitive add-ons to the existing mix of historic pedestrian and spread-out automobile city that is now universal. The garden city, so despised by the historic-urbanists like Jacobs could provide a model for the future, bereft auto-sprawl parts of the city, creating pedestrian-friendly pods within it that are linked together by new linear parks and greenways, using what’s there already to the max. Through economic necessity, the garden city and the historic city models would then be harmonized.

          • Artleads says:


            Can you say more about ribbon development? Seems that it hinders dense an cohesive planning?


            • richard says:

              Art, there is not much I can add. From recollection, a early decision was taken to develop the new “city” in the form of a grid with pre-defined residential and industrial areas. The roads already in place were improved to handle more traffic, and cycle paths, paths, and flyovers were added to keep vehicles separate from other traffic. Development was encouraged along north-south routes, because of the attractions of London and Birmingham. I still visit, so my recent experience is limited, but it seems more like an industrialised version of village life instead of a city, with low rise buildings everywhere, but mostly hidden from view. Much of the content of your link applies. The population density does not favour the interconnections necessary for the emergence of a unique identity or specialised personal services. London is close enough to attract night-life, and it would be challenging to enjoy living in Milton Keynes without a car, whereas public transport almost defines city life.
              Hope that helped.

          • Artleads says:

            Hi Richard,

            Thanks for your March 7 reply. I responded to it, but don’t see it posted (or maybe I’m not looking in the right place).

            What you describe sounds like what Don Stewart calls “centralization,” in that there is an overarching development pattern “centered” somewhere other than in any space within the development. It’s all top down, global, technological, corporate, and precludes the local “concentration” required to develop a separate center or “city.” (Don’s “decentralized-away-from-some-anonymous-‘center’-out-of-sight.”) I hope I’m accurate as to Don’s meaning.

            “The roads already in place were improved to handle more traffic, and cycle paths, paths, and flyovers were added to keep vehicles separate from other traffic. ”

            So maybe our American sprawl-periphery cities can more or less reverse this pattern. Like Milton Keynes, they are mostly single-story and spread out linearly. So their existing roads could be narrowed for way safer bike and pedestrian traffic, and way slower and reduced automobile traffic. Since there is little option for concentrated cities within this massive sprawl, some kind of “ribbon” (re)development might not hurt. But as with your example, it’s a case of using what’s there already in a different way?

            Within this redevelopment pattern, places that already have the making of hubs could be made a little more dense, so that basic needs and jobs are near to where folks live. Lots of single-story malls with gigantic parking lots now just sit empty at night, and near-term, could accommodate a second story of residences that use the parking spaces at night.

            I don’t see why there couldn’t be a gradual shift from auto to pedestrian, and to public-transit circulation, meanwhile figuring out how to make those new pods more and more self-sufficient.

            • xabier says:

              The UK government is in the pockets of the ‘developers’ and are intent on throwing away the urban planning rule book to let them build and ‘create growth and employment’, through, ironically, building ‘garden cities’.

              We know very well how awful they will be: the usual low building standards, poor aesthetics, the destruction of agricultural and amenity land, with everyone there commuting to one of the old towns or cities to work. More debt incurred by purchasers of the properties. Further strain on an old sanitary system.

              Oh and run- off from these lovely towns will cause more flooding elsewhere.

              Meanwhile, professional bodies have warned that they UK shouldn’t build any more infrastructure that it can’t possibly hope to maintain…….

    • xabier says:


      I fully agree with you that those who can do so today should prepare to do something – however little – for themselves, because none of the existing structures can be relied upon to operate 100% for very much longer.

      • Artleads says:

        Thanks for the (albeit discouraging) UK reality check. My hope in writing on this subject is that even one person who has some influence will give a push to better planning. It seems to be a more realistic route to go than passivity.

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