Tuesday, April 05, 2011

sustainable cities: feasible transition or oxymoron?

Farmer Scrub | In my presentation on Self Sufficiency, Five Years In, I gave some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the carrying capacity of the city of Portland. If everyone in the city does a better job of feeding themselves and fueling their houses from local resources than we expect to manage on our own site, the city could support about 280,000 people. In this best-case scenario, the current population of 600,000 would have to kick out more than half the people to become sustainable.

Leonard emailed me a question about this, and I wanted to post his question and my reply. This illuminates my philosophy of sustainability and what I think it'll really take to adapt to a post peak oil world in a healthy manner.

Leonard asked: "One bit I wanted to question is your assumption about carrying capacity for Portland: it seems to assume that we would need to produce ALL food within city limits, and couldn't rely on a significant portion of land-extensive staple crops being produced on broadacre polycultural farms in our pretty-well-intact horticultural hinterlands. The future that I've envisioned is one in which intensive vegetable gardening for zone 1-3 crops happens in the city, with zone 3-5 crops coming largely from outside using appropriate (low-embodied energy) means of transport into the city."

My reply follows for the rest of this post:

Good question, and thanks for asking it. In short, my calculations are based on a long term stable, sustainable system. I recognize that in the short term, the city will have to transition from here to there. Your model could make sense as a transition strategy.

However, I think any scenario in which a city depends on the importation of resources perpetuates unsustainability, and a relationship of domination and exploitation, both of the landbase, and of the people working it. That is, it doesn't fulfil the "care for earth" and "care for people" ethics of permaculture. And the "redistribute the surplus" ethic continues as the current mostly one-way, coerced flow of resources into the city.

A lot of my thinking is based on Derrick Jensen's writings. I think his two volume Endgame is the most important reading for modern times; it gives a crucial analysis of the relationship between cities, civilization, and our landbases. Should be required reading for all permaculturists, activists, and anyone else working with the "invisible structures." You can read an excerpt here of Jensen's Endgame, talking about cities.

My first concern is that even with the best intentions, when third parties get between the consumers in the city and the producers outside the city, the loss of direct connection can quickly lead to over-harvesting of resources. The middle men have little reason to foster sustainable harvest, and focus instead on maximum production.

I think this can only be fully averted via direct relationships between buyers and sellers, complete with buyers being fully educated about the impacts of harvests on the landbase, and with visits to the sites of harvest to ensure sustainable operations. Theoretically feasible, but unlikely to actually happen. (And of course, for sustainability, you then have to deal with getting the waste products of the city, such as humanure, back out to the hinterlands.) Fist tap Dale.


nanakwame said...

I understand many things Mr. Jensen stated, the problem I have is: developing of cities, has been a humanizing tradition before industrialization and financial capitalism. Why I debate hard to understand what was from the African migration till the 1500’s. Why we would go back to an agrarian model puzzles me, I have heard and debated this since the 1970’s. Do folks remember the book, where everything was thematic around wheat grass and preparing for self-sufficiency, (this was going on during black liberation btw) which I see as liberal nihilism, cousin to conservative parochialism? I demanded a balance look for myself, and I believe I reached it.
What I think as a romantic realist is stability is an illusion and used by the rich and powerful to enslave folks to economicism. The natural/artificial model for me is that of mobility and opportunity, where the conscious human can move anywhere on the globe w/o xenophobia and exploitation, and have a universal right to work and play anywhere, as long as they remain non-evil (that is becoming quite easy to define w/o religion and politics). For no matter what we think the natural and virtual world of the human mind will remain – for good or bad. I guess my spirit is attached to the wanderer and I understand the working theory that, this nation is going to have to deal with a mobile future and shape it to the advantage of all working families, while neutralizing the zombies (sectors of the rich also) we created, or face a bitter and violent present future.

CNu said...

I understand many things Mr. Jensen stated, the problem I have is: developing of cities, has been a humanizing tradition before industrialization and financial capitalism.

Humanizing tradition?

Only if your concept of "humanizing" entails coercive appropriation of somebody else's labor value and inevitable ecological overshoot required to maintain environmentally unsustainable population densities.

Cities are hierarchical control systems. One is reminded of the history of Tokyo from the time of the shogun..., of Rome, the The City in London, of Wall St., and of that abomination built on imported slave labor in Dubai http://subrealism.blogspot.com/2009/11/dark-side-of-dubai.html

Dale Asberry said...

This article wasn't about or for Derrick Jensen's politics. It's sole purpose was hard, experimental data regarding living off the fruits of the land on a typical city lot.

Your romantic, magical thinking is quickly rendered nonsensical in the face of facts.

CNu said...

Which takes us, at least in principle, to consideration of what transformational changes will need to take place in order to approach something like what was done in Havana. http://sustainablecities.dk/en/city-projects/cases/havana-feeding-the-city-on-urban-agriculture

nanakwame said...

Spare me the condescending BS my friend, when you compare human evolution instead of nostalgia then we talk. Add the evolution of women too btw. You and Doc are not machines as I know and if you are not machines, then as humans our wishes, our irrationalism, our emotive played a part of why we got this far from Formaldehyde. You sound like Huxley worst dream. When you talk about reworking the dreams of city and country, I like. Don't f_k with my intellegence I dispise that about American middle class. I never stated that industrial revolutions was the best thing to the smell of flowers.

Big Don said...

There is plenty of food in the cities...

CNu said...

Olmec, Toltec, Inca, Mayan, Anasazi cities collapsed and died as well - absent any discernable industrial inputs or activities...,

I believe Dale's bottomline assertion and the point he was trying to get across with the article is correct, as stated.

nanakwame said...

Doc: The American Middle Class is confused, even us at times, I will say that I fight for clarity more now than ever before, for I want to be clear on the quips of any emergent dictator. The American Middle Class has been talking this stuff since before the Civil War. Plays and Literature are made on the lost of one kind of life style to another, g_d the library is full of stories; it is also very American. The cutting of the middle man between city and productions has been changing for years (ask unemployed salesmen), what does this have to do with cities. Art as we know where would it be without cities?
I don't care how many cities have collapsed; it proves my point - the safe mobility of conscious and productive folks not what Green Pasture or the best City for the Century. Permanence is a utopian desire, to say the least, talk about magically thinking.
It's the middle class that feels the luxury of being able to have causes.
Orson Scott Card
The middle class, that prisoner of the barbarian 20th century
Sinclair Lewis quotes (American Writer, 1885-1951)
Our movement took a grip on cowardly Marxism and from it extracted the meaning of socialism. It also took from the cowardly middle-class parties their nationalism. Throwing both into the cauldron of our way of life there emerged, as clear as a crystal, the synthesis -- German National Socialism.”
Hermann Goering

Dale Asberry said...

The last thing I would do is be condescending. It implies I have a power relationship over you. My point is clear and to the point: cities cannot produce the food (let alone energy, water, etc.) needed by it's inhabitants. I also reiterate: RTFA. Otherwise, you are talking from conjecture and not fact... magical, romantic, just-so stories. I will rebuke you for that just like I would rebuke a fellow programmer when he has coded a logic error.

I cannot speak for CNu, but I operate primarily in an irrational, machine/animal mode. Take a look at this extensive list of cognitive biases which I have called cognitive failures. I live in that list.

Also, I'm not in the middle class. I come from the lower, impoverished, redneck, Scotch-Irish class and by following the rules of the ruling and administrative classes, my family's (starting with my Mother) income has risen and I can shakily be classified as being in the lower-upper class. Shakily because I currently have the income but not the assets.

Dale Asberry said...

And many more... Easter Island and many other South Pacific Island civilizations, a huge Amazonian civilization, Babylon, Egypt, China, Rome, ......... Jared Diamond's Collapse being the seminal work worthy of in-depth study.

ken said...

For people to finally want to become like Havana, people will have to conclude they have no other choice. It won't be out of want.

brotherbrown said...

My brain goes in two directions: I'm thinking about potable water, and I'm thinking about the chinese model of population control.

Water distribution will be the most important factor as cities 'downsize' to an appropriate population size, yet the Portland example didn't mention it. Suppose Portland send 320,000 of its citizens elsewhere. Wherever they 'go' will have to have a solution for water use as well. It's funny, California just declared its prolonged drought to be over, based on a wet, snowy winter, yet we know a new drought will be declared in 2012 or 2013, because the water level at Hoover Dam in southern Nevada remains at <60% of the 1978 high water mark.

Are we headed toward a "one child" population control society? Is that a rational policy to pursue? I'm sure the religionists among us would have a fit for even brining it up, but I would think it has to be on the table.

ken said...

Permanence is a utopian desire, to say the least, talk about magically thinking.

That's what you call hitting the hammer right on the head of the nail.

CNu said...

Most literate and best educated folk in this hemisphere and ranked 10th worldwide.



I'll take a beautiful and self-sufficient country of poor, cohesive, and highly educated and capable people over a country of gunned-up, illiterate, and unsustainable predatory hogs anytime..., what true Christian wouldn't?

CNu said...


this from the medieval caldron of "no resource scarcity"?

priceless comedy gold....,

CNu said...

Water and water services privatization will be among the first movements in the U.S. toward serious, serious pre-cull livestock management.

As for the population control, that will never come voluntarily in the U.S., but just try and imagine all the sterilizing radiological accidents that can happen in a country sitting on 71,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel?

ken said...

And what resources have we seen its reserves decline globally?

nanakwame said...


It's a waste to chase the pipedream of a magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick and detailed calculations about the future. We can't predict and we can't control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and inner peace. We're part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul

You describe clearly the American Middle Class, that I rejected but returned w/o the mindset, for we are influence more than we know. Don't take me as being hostile to you, just the presumations. We should talk how a consenual community can shape, you raise good point on that one. Anyone who denies the romantic in human life I don't trust

CNu said...

Fresh water in aquifers
Arable topsoil
Old growth timber
Rain forests
Oceanic fish stock
And those are just the renewables for starters

ken said...

And these renewables you are starting with are why everyone needs to start living like they do in Havana? Isn't this article using its justification for a complete upheaval of our lives because of its belief that transportation and fuel for agriculture is soon coming to an end because of its assumptions about oil supply?

I really doubt we would find local yard garden plots will help efficiently use the cities ground water supplies compared to our current way of supplying food to our citizens. And I wonder how this sustainable city handles a local drought. Our society has been successful using the gifts of each part of our climate and making them available to all wherever they live in this country.

CNu said...

And these renewables you are starting with are why everyone needs to start living like they do in Havana? Isn't this article using its justification for a complete upheaval of our lives


Permanence is a utopian desire, to say the least, talk about magically thinking.

Try to stick with the specific facts cited in the article itself to demonstrate/prove that cities (as they are currently configured) are unsustainable ecological monstrosities. Perhaps if you focus, you can manage to refute something specific and factual put forth in the article itself.

That way you won't be left taking "hear no/see no/speak no" refuge in unfounded speculative optimism or irrational claims about the infinitude of finite natural material resources.

Ed Dunn said...

I understand nanakwame point in terms of being highly nostaglic. We cannot apply nostaglic concepts of ancient cultures where most of the villagers were involved in agricultural process to our current society of obese couch potatoes who can barely reach over to grab the remote, much less a farming tool.

CNu said...

I fully expect LOTS of people to die due to their inability to adapt.

nanakwame said...

The First Law of Randomness: There is such a thing as randomness
The Second Law of Randomness: Some events are impossible to predict.
The Third Law of Randomness: Random events behave predictably in aggregate even if they're not predictable individually
Randomness follows its own set of rules — rules that make the behavior of a random process understandable and predictable.
Paradoxically, the unpredictable behavior of random events has given us the predictions that we are most confident in.
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Proofiness


We can say there is a pattern in our history with nature, no disagreement there; and the ozone problem has gotten worst btw. It is what we think we know to be that makes must humble and conscious human laugh at our follies when faced with life’s real events. Adapting is clearly what we have done since our genesis, even in the creation of cities. Marx brilliantly stated we can know the storm is coming, nature determines where it hits.
We need to discuss on your term what classic romanticism is for there is penalty here and in denial.

Dale Asberry said...

The article has NOTHING to do with the middle class or nostalgia. The gentleman scientist maintaining the Farmer Scrub blog has created a highly intensive forest garden and painstakingly logged system inputs and outputs (food, water, sun, animals, "waste") and has concluded that on a typical city lot he can get HALF of the calories and water that his family of two needs to survive.

My issue with your comments is that you haven't RTFA (or especially his presentation linked at the top of the article). You also went off into la-la land about how cities are great and returning to an agrarian society would be bad. The article does not refute that, but it does distinctly acknowledge that when people are disintermediated from food production (and nature in general) all kinds of bad things happen. And remember, he lives in the city and chooses to remain there!

My own conclusion is this: he has significant skills in intensive farming, and, say what if 1% of the population of Portland has similar skills (personally, I'd bet that he's only one of a few dozen). When hinterland food production is no longer able to keep up due to reduced petroleum deliveries (it takes 9 calories of petrol to get 1 calorie of food) what will happen to the other 99% of the residents in Portland? I remain hopeful that the majority will learn how to grow their food but I also keep in mind that I have spent 3 years learning intensive farming practices and am not even remotely skilled enough yet to deal with the simplest of problems I encounter. I also consider that Cuba had decades to adjust to a semi-agrarian society. To be blunt, even if every American started to learn how to grow his own food at this very moment, it would be too late (given hypertiger's timeline) to learn the necessary skills to be proficient enough to not starve.

CNu said...

No Nana.

I don't need to discuss romanticism, randomness, or cornucopian delusions about resource abundance and availability.

You and ken need to discuss the acute extent of urban overshoot in the cities in which you reside and make effective preparations for responding to the harsh disruptions that are coming. Particularly ken who has a wife and young sons to look after.

ken said...

" Perhaps if you focus, you can manage to refute something specific and factual put forth in the article itself. "

You truly aren't this dull,

"My more serious concern is that if a population is dependent on importing resources, it will use whatever means necessary to keep that resource coming, including violence. I wonder, in your scenario, what the incentive is for people outside of the city to provide staple crops for the city dwellers? Right now the incentives are shiny gadgetry (cars, electronic toys, and packaged entertainment, and of course the energy to operate it all) which are made possible by fossil fuels; and the need to pay property taxes, which boils down to the threat of violence. "

We so easily fall into violence because of incentives and third party and property taxes, but yet will have no problem expelling half of a city's population and I would guess telling the others where they are going to live. Then tell them to quit their professions and embrace a new life of first level survival sustainment. All in the name of developing a more stable community. And it will all happen with less coercion than one would apply to make an individual pay property taxes.

And if you happen to have a bad year of crops, for some reason you won't "use whatever means necessary" to feed your hungry family and yourself.

In his little 12mb pdf presentation we were treated to pictures of wood burners various tubs manufactured tubs, racks, windows, cement, houses; all stuff that was manufactured by people living beyond first level survival sustainment. And in an era of incentives and third party, growing grounds for violence.

The article--"The only way I see a society acting in a stable, sustainable relationship with their landbase is when each participant has an intimate understanding of their landbase and the effects of their actions on their community of life. That means everyone participating directly or at most once removed in producing their sustenance."

There is nothing stable about what this man proposes, nor is there anything realistic, and aside from more of his type getting in positions of power there is no compelling reason to voluntarily turn our lives upside down like this.

CNu said...

So long as you have a successful predatory military apparatus keeping the Moloch fed with the oil it on which it absolutely depends, you may have a point.

As soon as you're unable to continue paying for that globe spanning predatory military apparatus, or, heaven forbid, it's crushingly defeated - then you may be looking at a whole other level of survival you better be prepared to embrace.

In the age of broad nuclear weapons proliferation, you may just be looking at disruption of the fundamental infrastructure on which your society depends.

As for his "type" getting into power, I suspect he's far too busy producing tangible crops to bother with the quest for temporal political "power". Why, given the ponerological and magical-thinking pseudo-christians who're already clamoring for chief command of that predatory military apparatus - I think we needn't much concern ourselves with any murderous master permaculturists seizing the cultural reins of power...,

ProfGeo said...

CNu, thanks for your earlier comment excusing O/T-ness of comments. I'm sure your regular regulars make the connections mentally anyway. For this one, my cursory look around seems to have borne fruit via the "s" word.

Richard Florida pointed to this link-ful April 22 item by sustainable guy Kaid Benfield:


Sustainable Cities: What Makes an Urban Area Successful?

And in the comments at the Atlantic, there was linked an interesting response post about "livable and lovable":


can we define "livable and lovable" cities?

ProfGeo said...

I don't think you missed anything. The Atlantic item links out to a Philips Center PDF that talks about food, sort of, at the community level, not the individual level, but self-sufficiency per family seems to be glossed over. Your tale of the ornamental trees is making me feel bad about the recent demise of my own plum tree which is not replaced yet. There's another across the street and it's shared up and down the block (which is a LOT of canned plum sauce, mind you) but that's just one tree. Only a couple of neighbors grow food as you lay it out here. It's supplemental. Neither grows enough to get one family through a year.

CNu said...

Man shoooooot...., if I had your climate hand, I would burn mine. There would be lemon, lime, orange and avocado trees in the yard, and tomatoes, herbs, and every kind of pepper you can imagine just going to seed in every available nook and cranny. (mind you, I'm not talking about those nasty little shriveled up hass avocados either, I'm talkin some of those florida style melon sized joints my sister-in-law has out in the yard)

ProfGeo said...

Just to top off the other readings:


ProfGeo said...

It won't work well. You can add the need for statewide pension reform on top of that. I think pension reform will happen (November ballot comin' up) but it will have grandfathering. Also, as Riordan and Rubalcava do, differentiate between pension and post-retirement health care. They will be dealt with separately, is the informed guess.

CNu said...

Are these actual "fixes", or like the partisan federal budget "dispute", are these merely delaying tactics in the theater of partisan call and response? At the end of the day, aren't some constituencies going to have to be profoundly hurt (sacrificed) in the accomplishment of an actual fix, or, is the only realistic endgame for California's various and sundry fiscal crises, bankruptcy where it's never been seen before?

ProfGeo said...

In one sense, delaying because it's not a total makeover. To get the votes-- just to get a measure on the ballot, let alone pass-- I think the grandfathering I mentioned must be for the pension itself, but health benefits for retirees are deemed negotiable (meaning reducible). New employees won't ever see either the pension or the benefits near the level of their forebears.

I said "in one sense, delaying" because once a measure like this is introduced and especially if it passes, it starts to shift many other things in the budget that I wouldn't try to predict.

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