James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer, and Chris Martenson live on small plots of land in the rural eastern United States. To a greater or lesser degree they foresee enormous discontinuities in America which involve changes in prosperity, energy use, transportation and food production among other things, and their solution, their personal solution, is more or less to run away and watch the winding down of American society from a safe distance. Their advice to others is to do the same.
The one person I see, the one person I’ve heard, who both sees the same coming discontinuities as the aforementioned important thinkers, but also advocates for changes which can assist almost everyone in our society to better prepare for upheavals in climate, energy, finance, food production is Chuck Marohn with Strongtowns. He advocates a return to more traditional forms of development which demand lower total costs in energy, labor, and materials which could then, potentially, see a society with lower overall economic activity but stability in terms of quality of life.
Of course building NEW traditional style developments takes energy, materials, and labor, and adds to the overall burden of maintaining infrastructure. Retrofitting sprawl to more efficiently use land, resources and infrastructure does the same thing only in terms of intensity and not total area. There is only one way forward which takes advantage of already existing infrastructure and doesn’t expand the breadth of development: the repopulation of decanted pre war cities and towns.
Look at this photo of only a small segment of one street, on one block, in one such city:
There is enough space, enough land, to build dozens of homes, or a handful of apartment buildings, or a combination of the two in order to provide living space for dozens, or even a thousand people. The water and sewer lines already run through it, electrical lines, gas lines, and sidewalks have already been laid and the costs for their construction incurred. Just within 30 miles of my house there are dozens of cities and towns with thousands of such streets. Easily enough to satisfy the demand for living space for a generation or more.
But no one wants to live in these places.
Hadrian built Tivoli because he wanted a place away from the hustle, bustle of Rome. He built it because he could. The empire could afford it. The costs of doing so were clear. He knew them. He made the rational decision to incur those expenses for the pleasure of living life at Tivoli. We have created a system, through subsidies and externalities where the costs of half of our population living at the modern equivalent are spread throughout society regardless of whether a person lives there or not. For a time, and perhaps still, the rational decision is to live in the suburbs given that you pay for it whether you live there or not. The fact is that even collectively we can no longer afford to do so. So many people have decided to live and work in unproductive places that there are no longer enough productive places to subsidize the lack of productivity of the suburbs and ex-urbs. Formerly hidden externalities are becoming more obvious to most observers, and the impact of sprawl on environmental degradation and changes to the climate should be calculated as part of the cost of suburbanization.
The rational response is to remove the impediments which keep people from moving back to established, underpopulated, city and town centers. Yes, there are regulatory and governmental obstacles, and yes, fools such as the well-named Randall O’Toole, a total tool in the colloquial sense, should be debated, but they and he can be completely bypassed and overcome by merely helping people understand why they should want what’s good for them.
I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land, and it is better than this:
Automobile centered development has not delivered on its promises. Tivoli was nice because there were not 50,000 other Tivolis surrounding it. 50,001 Tivolis become a New Rome, without the grace, the public space, and the urbanity, but with the paradox of horrific traffic and painful isolation.
Or its American equivalent:
Are the better choice.
In truth, the only real impediment to repopulating cities is that they are not yet repopulated. Nearly all of the issues of urban America disappear as endemic to them if people return. Poverty will no longer cripple the city if people of means move back to it, “failing schools” lack only the well-prepared students of the prosperous classes, bad behavior will be checked by people whose expectations are higher. I have seen all of this, not in a vision, but in Europe, where people live modern, healthy lives while using only half the energy of Americans.
So how do you, yes you, make a difference?
Abandon abandonment as a strategy. Move to a place that works from a structural standpoint. Make the only marginal difference that matters. Only moving back in will make moving back in attractive enough to get other people to move back in. It has been said that when people ask for solutions to our present predicament what they really mean is: “What can someone ELSE do which will permit me to continue doing what I am doing?” Funny, and by all means, if you want to be a farmer, farm, if you feel a calling to provide some service to rural people, do so, or if your vision of the future is some amalgam of “The Road” and “Mad Max” then by all means buy an arsenal and a storage container, bury them in the ground and wait for Armageddon. If, on the other hand, your outlook is more hopeful than a post rapture Hellscape, contemplate doing what it is pretty clear most of us will have to do sooner or later; move to a more walkable area more easily serviced by transit.
This is the change that will most quickly transition us from our current state to one which more closely approximates sustainability. Frankly, anything else wastes time and resources we don’t have.