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The Ruins of the Unsustainable
Alex Steffen, 24 Jan 08

I've been thinking about the fate of declining suburbs, bombed out shrinking old industrial cities and the drying up ghost towns of the high plains, when I came across a journal note mentioning something Bruce Sterling said to me this fall in San Francisco:

"The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier."

Discuss. Or just mull.

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In Europe, there has been quite some discussion about declining fertility rates, to the point of saying "we are going extinct."
So far, only a few sociologists - but at least they - have started to argue that this, too, would provide a new border country, and that the next frontier spirit would probably develop here.
It would seem that the unsustainable would create ruins, and that these would easily lead to new frontier, or Medieval, situations. The question, following that, is what we'd make of it, e.g. whether much of current knowledge and technological possibility could still be kept.
I'd rather like to see the future (also) go towards a frontier spirit like in Firefly (the "space Western" of Joss Whedon's), with a great variety of ways of life... but how to get from here (locked-in system) to there (frontier)?

Posted by: Gerald on 24 Jan 08

This brings to mind Alan Berger's book Drosscapes-- how do we see interstitial spaces left over by strange development patterns as opportunities to insert something restorative?
I think about this a lot, because I live in Oklahoma (low plains, not high), and it has that unsustainable frontier feeling to it. And yet....

Posted by: Jen on 24 Jan 08

Ghost towns litter the western landscape, places where commerce and life flourished. Until the resources ran out or the environment changed to the degree that people could no longer make it in these towns, and the people left. Recently I traveled the length and girth of the lower 48 states. I had lived in the southwest about twelve years ago and stopped in Tucson. The city has grown more in the past ten years than anyone could imagine, where there was desert there are subdivisions. The city has stretched its utilities to theses areas, especially water. Going north I came to Hoover Dam, Lake Meade was a wondrous site, I wondered where the water was. The Lake now at half pool, shores lined with sedimentary deposits, the cliff walls look like the White Cliffs of Dover. Boat docks hang in the air and the largest bridge I have ever seen is in the process of being constructed over the Dam. I had passed thru Phoenix a city of endless development. I traveled north to Los Vegas, another city of endless subdivisions and development. Not a drop of water. Over to Death Valley where newly planted palm trees adorn the 18 hole golf course at Furnace Springs. A woman there assured me that palm trees were fine, because they had an aquifer. I didn’t make to Los Angeles, or southern California. Going home I passed through Salt Lake and on to Montana where the snow packs are lighter and the glaciers are gone and now in the summer months we cannot support stream flows and this threatens our native fisheries. I wondered where the water will come from to support these cities down stream of us. I wondered which one of these places will be the first ghost town of the new age. The seven state compact of the southwest signed an agreement in December to manage the water resources that serve them, a revision from the 1950 agreements they had made. The collective water agreements were for agriculture in the beginning, for crop irrigation. Irrigation for farms and ranches, long gone, replaced by subdivisions and Golf Courses. In the wording it said, if the water level at Lake Meade and Powell drop by twenty more feet, the agreement will put into force emergency water rationing for the 7 southwestern states, I am wondering how they will water the grass on all those golf courses. It will surely be a new frontier in the west.

Posted by: David E on 24 Jan 08

That's true of evolution as well; we mammals evolved because the dinosaurs died out, not in spite of the fact. And before that, aerobic life (including our own mitochondria) evolved because blue-green algae had carelessly polluted the entire planet with a chemical toxic to all life up to that time (oxygen). Talk about screwing up the atmosphere! If there is to be any future life, it must necessarily thrive on today's pollution.

Posted by: Ben S on 25 Jan 08

I think it's another instance of "hating the place" and not the practices.

It is certainly possible to live a green life in the suburbs today. You can build a Passiv Hous, and power your electric car with solar panels. Current tech limits your range, but it is certainly possible. You can tend your fruit trees and telecommute.

You can keep some chickens.

But, a particular form of futurist from the city would still come for you. Why? Because "suburbs must die" is religion at this point.

Posted by: odograph on 25 Jan 08

Imagine suburban lawns torn up and gardens and orchards planted, neighbors joining their yards together to create community gardening spaces.

Imagine the rise of telepresence and virtual environments that let people work at home yet, wearing lightweight VR glasses, be together with fellow workers in virtual environments.

Imagine much of driving to the mall replaced with virtual shopping and van delivery.

Imagine cheap solar panels, extensive use of solar hot water, and replacement of most other forms of building heating with ground geoheat

Imagine small solar-charged electric vehicles that accomplish most needed trips, and extensive car share businesses that deliver larger vehicles when and where they are needed.

Imagine most shopping malls and strips redeveloped as mixed use urban communities.

Imagine auto lanes being shrunk, with large bike, walking and transit corridors added, and small streets being reclaimed for pedestrians and bikes.

Imagine people actually getting to know their neighbors and cooperating with them.

It's easy if you try.

Posted by: Patrick Mazza on 25 Jan 08

Yes you are right, JUST IMAGINE; what the possibilities could be. It isn’t so much about the destruction of the suburbs, it is the unsustainably of the current system. Many developments would not allow solar panels installed on homes under current covenants, but that can be changed. Road systems can be redesigned to make use of public transportation, but people would have to ride the bus in sustainable numbers to make the cost sustainable. We have to act now on new development guidelines and that will require a public and political will, which does not exist yet in most of America. We as consumers would have to demand sustainable change in products that use the most water and energy. The old school way of doing things will have to reach an end, the old system will have to fail to the point that the public understands that it is not sustainable. The pressures on the current system are there right now; look at the financial markets, housing, and water issues. Combined with fuel for transportation and the new threat of balancing food production vs. fuel needs and the demand for sustainable fuel will present even more dire events in the future. The price of corn is higher today that it has been in years. Why, ethanol production. Not to mention the genetic engineered types of corn that is invading the market, not fit for human consumption but just fine for ethanol production. These Franken-plants cross pollinate and infect other strains of corn. Star Link is one type corn and then there is Liberty Link rice that has infected all rice crops in the south central rice belt. These can become monster threats to human kind. Yes it is possible but it will require action on the part of individuals and the price, the personal price is going to be high. Given transportation, the standard car or truck, we seek to not replace the technology with something new we see to retain the standard and discard the idea of wastefulness and want to run the same vehicle on another fuel rather that re-inventing the idea of personal transportation itself. Our grandchildren may live in the dark if we do not act now. On the positive side when one era ends another emerges. In Cuba a study on health revealed that the population of the Island improved after it was cut off from the consumer goods of America and the west. The embargo actually increased life spans. Few cars meant people had to walk, no junk food meant people ate better healthier. Take a closer look at isolated population; take a look at Jarred Diamonds book Collapse. Viva La Future!

Posted by: David E on 25 Jan 08

Yes, it is certainly *possible* to live a green life in the suburbs, but not only do very few do it, it is very difficult to put into practice. Telecommuting is on the rise, but most people still have to show up in the office, and that involves getting into the city. You could keep chickens and goats, but there are laws against it. You could plant vegetables and herbs in your front yard, but the neighbours will complain. And big suburban tract houses are rarely designed for passive solar or the energy efficiency needed to go solar. Try putting up a windmill and there will be a neighbour whose view is blocked.

I think one of the reasons people like Kunstler get excited when bad things happen is they feel that now maybe other people will a) pay attention to the changes coming, and b) get out of the way of possible solutions.

Posted by: Dethe Elza on 25 Jan 08

Imagine a world with only, say, 500 million people, a twelfth of today's population. There would be plenty of space for the non-human part of the world and one-twelfth the garbage, pollution, etc. even if nothing else changed.

Now imagine a world with 9 billion people, 150 percent of today's population. It is so difficult for me to imagine how this many people can possibly live without compromising all that is natural about the earth.

I'm really surprised we don't hear more about overpopulation and its growing impact on every natural system. I just don't see how increasing population is going to be sustainable, long term.

Posted by: TinTex on 25 Jan 08

TinTex, I agree that population control measures are not being discussed anywhere in a meaningful way, except behind closed doors of the establishment.

The last time we had public discussion was during the Nixon/Rockefeller human population task force during the 1970s.

For corporations, which do not see taking care of the natural environment which supports them as a duty, more people = more consumers. Today's world economy demands that everyone be a consumer, and buy more.

I am planning a lawn garden with beehive and chickens for my parent's suburban house. I am also leading some "city repair" in my urban neighborhood.

There is a lot of talk of solar panels. Have any of you ever visited a solar panel factory in China? Do you know how much pollution is caused by the mining of materials for these, and how much pollution is produced through making all these "wonderful" solar panels? I like them in theory but need assurance that this is not another shenanigan to import clean air.

Of course, as humans and animals we will always be using resources, I have no problem with that.

Posted by: Timmy G. on 25 Jan 08

I think the question is whether we choose the worst example to define a thing. Some suburbanites do not garden and drive huge SUVs many miles to work. Some city dwellers eat sushi twice a week (and fly to vacations). Some solar cells are made in China. Etc.

But it's not very "worldchanging" to call out the worst without naming the best. I grew up on a 1/4 acre suburban lot with 12 fruit trees and a serious vegetable garden. My mother canned grape jelly and one grape fine produced enough for me to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day of the school year (I've since branched out in cuisine).

I really wonder about people who rush to make that kind of suburb into a ghost town ...

Posted by: odograph on 26 Jan 08

I want to add "money system", as in "the ruins of the unsustainable money system are the 21st century's frontier."
There is plenty of evidence that the addicts of the Casino Economy are causing ruin to millions with no direct stake in it. In these ruins, hundreds of activists have been quietly working for the last 25 years to experiment with 'complementary' or 'community currencies' and lay the foundations for 21st century money. We have learned a lot from many failures and a few successes about how to improve design and organisation and we are beginning to apply these lessons to create more sustainable systems based on community building, local economic development and sustainable energy use. With more robust systems in place we will fly over the new frontier!

Posted by: John Rogers on 26 Jan 08

Ghost Town is an understatement it really should be Ghost City. When the water is gone in a region, it will be gone. As for population control or over population I think that will change in the future. At current levels and with the current pressures on the global system it is only a matter of time until the next great extinction begins or we realized it started (Aids In Africa?). Include the real possibility of nuclear war in the middle east, India and Pakistan perhaps, or the wide spread collapse sub African continent. Not to mention the displacement of hundreds of millions of people globally, including the United States once the effects of global warming increase. This will cause the outbreak of wars and economic collapse in many parts of the world. Yes I can imagine a world of 500 million or even less. Some researchers suggest that human beings were pushed near extinction during the last great climate shift into numbers of possibly the hundreds. Does the future have to look this way? Frankly no it does not, but having said that it may. As for sub-divisions they are the worst thing that has happened to this country, respectfully the way we built them. We designed un-sustainability into them. We continue to practice out-dated building methods from coast to coast. It is great when people plant gardens instead of grass. I have not had grass in my yards for more than 25 years now; I grow edible plants, herbs and fruit for ground cover. I did this in Arizona and I do it in Montana. In Arizona I used Grapes as sunshade in the summer and when the leaves fell in winter I used the passive solar gain to help heat my home, which by the way had been built in the 1930s. I use many of the same methods now in Montana. But I live in a place where I can walk to the store; my lot is small in a small town. Yet I have millions of acres just as few miles from my home to play in, when ever I want. But new poorly planned development here is threatens everything. Track homes and sub-divisions can be redesigned and zoning can be changed and infill of necessity business infrastructure can happen, and appliances that use less energy can be invented. Paolo Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd-Wright’s who discarded Wright’s ideas of democratic architecture, sub-divisions has been designing sustainable communities for decades check out Arcosanti in Arizona and read some of his other ideas like, mile wide cities, where everything is within one mile of the dweller. Could this be the answer to urban sprawl, re-development of development? BOO there are ghosts out there, are you scared yet, if not you should be.

Posted by: David E on 27 Jan 08

Yes, Imagine ...

Imagine a creating urban renewal as a new for-profit industry in it's own right. Imagine 'Urban Renewal' as a new American industry as a means of transforming through redevelopment. Imagine this new industry as a means of generating massive high-value employment. Imagine America as the world leader. Imagine a truly global American-based corporate enterprise introducing this as a new export industry ... bringing profit in from providing solutions abroad. Imagine America as the leader.

This is a case, I strongly believe, of 'fighting fire with fire'. It has been unscrupulous and short-sighted business that has created so many of the eco/social problems. And, it has been gov't (influenced by the high-finance corporporate/industry lobbying) that has enabled 'business' in the name of 'jobs', tax base, etc.

Well, doesn't it make sense that new business ... with the promise of massive job generation and taxes (and the profit to finance further eco/social lobbying) ... is the way to proceed?

Is there a better way? Indeed, is there another way?

There is no reason why a corporate entity can't be designed and operated to do good work. Difficult, yes. Many challenges, of course. Worthwhile, though, no?

The potential for beneficial transformative change is unprecedented. Who is capable/willing to 'Think Big'? And work towards it? Let's talk. I'm at ecoguy at

Yes, imagine ...

Posted by: David on 28 Jan 08

One of the dreams of industrialism is universality. It's what makes economies of scale work - it is the basic foundational principle of the factory. One size fits all solutions have failed to change the direction of the industrial behemoth, because it is the same mindset that created the problem (so Einstein would say, right?).
We must learn to live *in our place* - simple as that. Suburbs can be green, cities can be... high plains can be. The frontier is not the place, it's learning how to live there.

Posted by: justus on 28 Jan 08



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