It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rural North America

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.


Paul Daniel Ash said...

I had no idea that such a thing as "wood-burning vehicles" existed, so I asked the almighty Google:

No foolin'.

Pangolin said...

As Paul pointed out fuel can be had in rural areas if people are willing to convert to wood gasifiers. These will eat more or less any dry carbohydrate and turnkey kits are available.

The bottleneck is asphalt. It's simply too expensive for rural areas to afford to repair and maintain the paving they have. The alternative is dirt and gravel roads and travel on such roads is significantly slowed and more often halted entirely in bad weather.

This can mean that what was formerly a two-hour round trip to get supplies can stretch to four-hours or more with significantly more wear on drivers, passengers and equipment. This time and energy tax on communication and supply is going to heavily tax rural areas and is already causing significant resentment.

An interesting fact is that the 19th century response to bad roads was a rapid expansion of interurban light rail. A rail-bed and track is significantly cheaper, faster, and easier to maintain than a road carrying the same tonnage of traffic.

byron smith said...

Thanks - a very helpful perspective. It was these realities in rural Australia which lead to the exclusion of petrol "forever" from the government's proposed plan to put a price on carbon. It was no coincidence that two of the key independent MPs required by the minority government to pass the legislation are from rural areas.

Michael Tobis said...

It occurs to me to add that this is why the "transition town" strategy from the UK cannot be transported to the US. The goals may be universal but the strategies do not work for the geography of post-automotive settlement.

There are no Totnes towns west of the Potomac, or not enough of them to matter anyway.

Dan Satterfield said...

Very good point Michael. The change of the downtown area from an empty wasteland after dark to a vibrant core of shopping and housing is already beginning. A good case can be made that cities will be the winners and rural areas/suburbs will be the losers in a decarbonised economy.

How will they cope? A big question considering they have no choice.

Pangolin said...

I actually think that small hamlets will become more viable rather than less as the ability to travel long distances rapidly declines. There used to be a hamlet or village every ten miles or so in the U.S. in any country with better than 15 inches rain a year.

These towns died as automobile reliability increased and roads were improved and people could drive to larger urban areas for entertainment, groceries and supplies. Squeeze down the available transportation radius and abandoned town sites might see a revival.

Here's an example of small towns of Sonoma County California an area I'm familiar with. At one time there were seven named hamlets in the 27.4 miles from Petaluma landing to Bodega Bay. At least five of those had post offices.

Something will be lost but other things will gain.

Rental Mobil 911 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Pella said...

A few years back I was doing a lot of road cycling in rural areas west of Ottawa, and it gave me plenty of time to ponder how dependent the rural lifestyle is on the automobile and fossil fuels. Many of these "homesteads" have several cars +/or large pick-up trucks, huge lawns for which a riding lawnmower is de riguer, an ATV +/ dirt bikes for the kiddies to play with, snowmobiles, and probably a few other categories of gas-consuming machines I can't think of. The inhabitants seem to have an animus against urban types using their roads to exercise on... often I'd get unwanted attention by yahoos in trucks trying to run me off the road and yelling insults. There are signs in the field installed by on particular tea-partyish group complaining about the interference of government on their freedoms ( although they don't complain about all the subsidies needed to maintain their lifestyle ). It seems to me most of these people have nothing to do with agriculture and this is just a lifestyle choice that didn't actually exist a few decades ago.
Personally, I wouldn't mourn the disappearance of this pattern of settlement.

Tom said...

I assume you'll join in the general celebration of the massive flight to the cities going on throughout the world, a trend that will have 80% of the population living in cities covering 3% of its surface by mid-century.

Steve L said...

When I was growing up in Edmonton I learned that our city had nearly the same amount of area as Montreal. Ridiculous for such a small population. In the years since then I think Calgary must have become worse than Edmonton -- totally built for the car. Here in Vancouver, now, I think we're doing a pretty good job. But every year houses on the North Shore seem to creep up the mountain, and instead of refurbishing a railroad up to Whistler we spent millions widening a highway for the Olympics. The suburbs and rural areas are obviously going to have a difficult time adjusting, but these cities have a very long way to go.
[Welcome to Vancouver MT]

Hank Roberts said...

> cannot be done

Until some renewable clean storage comes close to the energy density of gasoline.

The problem, as of about now:

Can be done, must be done, will be done.

at which see:

"Li-air batteries are a promising opportunity in the long term. “If we succeed in developing this technology, we are facing the ultimate break-through for electric cars, because in practice, the energy density of Li-air batteries will be comparable to that of petrol and diesel, if you take into account that a combustion engine only has an efficiency of around 30 per cent,” says Tejs Vegge, senior scientist in the Materials Research Division. If batteries with an energy density this great become a reality, one could easily imagine electrically powered trucks."

"Source: Lithium – Air Battery: Promise and Challenges, G. Girishkumar, B. McCloskey, A.C. Luntz, S. Swanson and W. Wilcke, IBM Research, published in J.Phys.Chem.Lett.2010,1,2193-2203."

Hank Roberts said...

> asphalt ... too expensive

Just one bike path installed so far, but perhaps promising. Info there on asphalt availability and prices and why there's a market developing for a replacement material for roads.

Hank Roberts said...

PS, a bit from that site:

"... fast pyrolysis ... types of biomass are quickly heated without oxygen. The process produces a liquid bio-oil ... plus a solid product called biochar ....

... fast pyrolysis facility at Iowa State'... research was supported by the Iowa Energy Center and the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Pangolin said...

Re: Bioasphalt......."The bike trail Bioasphalt contains 3% Avello pyrolysis oil and 97% crude petroleum. These proportions were mainly due to the small size of the pilot plant. “It took two weeks to produce the 600 pounds (272 kilograms) of bio-oil we needed,” says Williams. “If we had wanted to use 25%, it would have taken two to three months with our pilot plant."_source

I'm a big advocate of biochar mostly for the beneficial effects on soil and the ability to sequester atmospheric carbon but...... bioasphalt is vaporware at this point. Three percent is a rounding error in asphalt production.

Dean said...

All true, but I would add that rural areas have been heavily subsidized by wealthier cities as well in the last century.

Many people who live in rural areas now want and expect most of the conveniences of city life: plowed roads, post offices, water, etc. These areas may well revert to people who, as in most of the 19th century, lived without conveniences or access to services. People of a true settler culture - far fewer than are there now.

EliRabett said...

Think REA and RFD

GRLCowan said...

Hank Roberts found an energy density page that entertainingly counts energy in watts, volume in cubic litres, and then in the URL changes "watt" to "watter".

But the graphic looks right. Storing chemical energy, when you don't use the atmosphere to store the oxidant, almost inevitably takes more space than liquid hydrocarbon does when the atmosphere is so used.

Obviously, using it so is a good option. Build nuclear gasoline plants that split water, release the oxygen, and react the hydrogen with CO2, converting some of it back to water, and the rest to gasoline.

One exotic chemical possibility exists -- but will not be put into practice -- that beats gasoline's fuel-only compactness by a few percent: beryllium plus lithium perchlorate.

Aside from the obvious reason, there doesn't seem to be an energy-efficient way to reload the oxygen back onto the chlorine.