A couple of days in the British Columbia interior have been something of an eye-opener for me.
When you see two distinct cultures, you can parse out what they have in common as well as where they differ.
The rural South and rural BC have many superficial differences. The mostly bad food is different. The peculiar speech patterns are different. The TV is different. The magazines and newspapers are different. But both are areas of recent settlement and the patterns of twenty-first century life are set by the environment of the late twentieth century commercial environment more than the nineteenth century constraints of the natural environment, which amount to more of a decorative motif than a reality.
First of all, though rich people are everywhere, they live in a coccoon of suburban life. The great majority of the people think themselves “independent” and “private”, but their “freedom” and “independence” is actually massively more social, interdependent, and even communal than urban people, who actually are much more private and aloof. The skills needed to survive can more easily be rented in a city. In the country, they have to be borrowed or bartered. The solitary life is actually an endless parade of unhurried negotiations over chickens and goats, firewood and eggs, tires and furnaces. But the illusion of independence and privacy is immensely valued. This is the reverse of the city pattern, alienated and isolated and cherishing an illusion of a vibrant and tight-knit community!
What a strange continent we inhabit!
The problem is this: the city can decarbonize. The city will happily decarbonize; the air will be cleaner and the effete and fussy foods and beverages will taste even better as a result. Our lungs and our consciences will be cleaner.
The countryside developed as an adjunct to the automobile. In many areas there is vanishingly little pre-automotive skill or community to draw upon. People’s closest connections can live more miles away than horse could ride. The urban postcarbon transportation network cannot scale. Our building “real estate” in at the core of our economic structure ties people to the absurdly sprawled infrastructure. People should live in strings of beads, towns spread along roads. Instead they are everywhere, and it is more or less unaffordable to leave your isolated plot unless you can convince a greater fool to move in.
The fact is that decarbonization really is, like it or not, an attack on the already stressed rural lifestyle. The addiction to huge energy expenditures is inscribed in the settlement patterns. Even in places that are sufficiently forested and unpopulated to draw on wood for energy, wood-burning vehicles are hard to come by, and hundreds of miles of driving every week cannot be avoided. Even garbage disposal, in many places, requires a drive of some miles for each rural household on each occasion.
In many parts of the US, the genuine spirit of sharing doesn’t usually cross racial lines, which is a great shame, and only serves to make matters even more delicate, but the spirit of community is genuine and is something cities desperately need to reimport. But that community is dependent on real estate value and therefore on mobility and therefore on energy. North America does not have any idea how to readjust its rural lifestyles. In this matter the US and Canada are alike. I know little about Australia but I’d guess matters are similar there.
The much higher population densities of the northeastern states, like Europe, may be able to find low energy adaptations. I am thoroughly enjoying Vancouver’s bus system this week, which is almost as effective as the Paris Metro in magically transporting a person from anywhere to anywhere in a short enough time as not to matter. Without the absurd pseudo-poverty of Republicanism, Austin, or any US city could easily do as well. Austin would have to double the number of routes and triple the frequency of service; I’d happily abandon my car in a heartbeat if it did. But this cannot be done in Paris, Texas, or rural British Columbia for that matter. The suburbs, contrary to what Bill Kunstler says, will only be somewhat stressed when energy costs what it is worth.
But the North American countryside is in for a lot of pain. It’s important to remember that when considering their hostility to decarbonization.