8. July 2008 11:47
Over the last couple weeks I've run into several folks who are leaving the city for the suburbs and at the same time I'm reading about permaculture, so it's creating some interesting juxtupositions in my head. This morning on NPR they had a story about a lady in the Chicago suburbs who is going around her neighborhood trying to get people to replace lawn with gardens. Their family also recently installed a wind turbine. I applaud her and I'm thankful that some people are making an effort, but ultimately the whole idea of suburbia isn't sustainable long-term, at least given what we know now.
Suburbs are a uniquely American concept, driven by an apparent excess of space, cheap oil and the drive of consumerism to make life as comfortable, private and lavish as possible. Bigger houses, the greenest lawn, strip malls providing all the comforts of the city, albeit in corporate chain stores and cookie-cutter restaurants. But if we really are hitting peak oil, then the current gas prices aren't some short term problem, but merely the beginning of a new reality. Nobody knows for sure, but to borrow an idea from Pascal, I would rather guess we are running out of oil and be wrong than the opposite. Either way, I win.
Some of the power needs of suburbia could potentially be met with alternative energies like wind and solar, but these will take time to ramp up and many suburbanites find the idea of these things in their neighborhoods rather distasteful. That still doesn't answer the question of trucking in all the goods necessary to keep the local economy running, commuting to where the work is and just needing a car to do anything or go anywhere. In Chicago, there is at least light rail to use to get to the city for work, but only major American cities have this option.
In addition, all those huge lawns are a major environmental issue. In addition to using up land that could be used to grow food closer to urban centers, many of them take massive amounts of water and chemicals because lawns are an immature ecosystem in a constant fight against nature. All the plants that are considered weeds in a lawn are simply nature's attempt to take back the soil and turn it into something usable again, to heal the land. If you instead have a diverse variety of trees, shrubs and plants, particularly perennials and native plants, water is conserved, the soil is renewed with all the green matter naturally and you won't need to use pesticides.
Anyway, it will be interesting to see what the landscape of America looks like in 50 years. I predict massive moves to either cities or more integrated rural living incorporating alternate energies and food production. Suburbia may end up looking like an incredibly stupid experiment in America's history by the time it's all said and done.