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September 22, 2014

Unreflective pastoralism will kill us all
Posted by Patrick at 09:29 PM * 191 comments

The Guardian is one of the greatest newspapers in the English language, but every so often they publish something that leaves me wondering if all their editors were off in a separate room huffing nitrous oxide and setting fire to the furniture. (Yes, hello, Bruce Baugh.) One such piece is today’s “The meaning of the climate march’s defining photo” by Jonathan Jones.

The “defining photo” in question is an image of this weekend’s (entirely admirable) climate-change protest march, seen from a few stories up looking north on Sixth Avenue. Visible in the near-foreground is the “RADIO CITY” sign at Rockefeller Center. In the background, looking (due to foreshortening) much closer than it actually is, can be seen a chunk of Central Park. From the staggering contrast posed by (1) skyscrapers and (2) trees, Jones conjures up gallons of the Higher Blither:

As climate change protesters filled New York City’s Avenue of the Americas on Sunday, the red lettering of Radio City Music Hall’s vertical sign added its baffled chorus, a muttering bystander perplexed by these people and the crisis about which they speak and sing.

Change? What change? Who’s talking about change? This auditorium built in 1932, with its hydraulic stage that can raise a nativity scene miraculously from nowhere for its Christmas show (I know, I took the backstage tour once), is a survivor from an age long before anyone worried about the climate.

Yes, the 1930s, when nobody worried about climate catastrophes. Very knowledgeable, Jonathan Jones.
All the architecture of the part of Manhattan seen in this photograph—just west of the Rockefeller Center on an avenue crowded with skyscrapers like great silver bricks, regular and strong as the land that made them—dates from America’s golden age of self-confidence, when Manhattan was the city of the Empire State, when—crises of capitalism aside—corporate wealth would just keep growing and the world getting more modern. Manhattan is capital of the modern, as the modern was defined from roughly 1920 to 1970. Yet its reassuringly old-fashioned vision of the new is thrown into startling relief by this photograph of a demonstration against uncontrolled industry, against the irresponsible use of resources, agains modernity as New York has defined it so iconically.
Talking about 1930s architecture as dating from “America’s golden age of self-confidence”, with the qualification “crises of capitalism aside”, is kind of like blithely referring to the first half of the 20th century as “a period of unprecedented world peace” while sneaking in the handwaving phrase “two apocalyptic world wars aside”. But Jones has got a METAPHOR between his teeth, and by god he’s not going to let facts derail him from wringing every last drop of juice from it.
At the top of the avenue, beyond the crowd, floats the green canopy of Central Park. Laid out before the skyscrapers, this is more than an urban lung. It is a time machine, for among its layers of civilized leisure, artful landscaping, fields and playgrounds, this park preserves massive outcrops of rock unchanged since Manhattan was a wilderness. Those rocks are more timely now than Radio City’s faded glamour.

History does not move forward. That is one lesson of the climate crisis. There is no inevitable forward rush of progress, as capitalists and communists both believed when the Avenue of the Americas was paraded by men in metallic-grey suits to the far-off strains of jazz from downtown.

Just as a side note, Jonathan Jones is extremely confused about where jazz happened in New York City. Hint: Lots of places, few of them “downtown”.
The trees in the park are more in tune with the reality the marchers are drawing attention to. They were specific in their facts, those people down there. This was the hottest summer on record. The world is headed for a 4.5C temperature rise. This is a new New York, being born out of the old. Can the city that once proudly symbolized carbon consumption and energy excess—from the Chrysler Building to the Pan-Am Building—become a center of resistance to the destructive forces chewing up the world’s future?
This is complete nonsense. New York City is only a symbol of “carbon consumption and energy excess” in the fevered, metaphor-driven, thought-free world of Jonathan Jones. If the average American had the carbon footprint of the average New Yorker, we’d be in vastly better shape.

(This is leaving aside the fact that Jonathan Jones is displaying a level of insight into New York City and how it works that’s roughly comparable to Americans who think that London is full of characters from Mary Poppins.)

Or perhaps that is too optimistic. For much as the architecture that frames this picture is a blast from the past, a nostalgic memory of booms gone by, it also expresses something deeply attractive, to many people, about the modern dream. Logically, to save the planet, we need to be running for those trees. We need to reject the big brash concrete and steel dreams of the modern metropolis and cultivate simple, more rustic aspirations.
“Logically.” Yeah, about that “logic” thing. In fact, logically, unless your “save the planet” dreams include the deaths of billions of people (which might well happen), the last thing we need to do is reject “the metropolis” in favor of “rustic aspirations.” What purveyors of the Jonathan Jones variety of handwringing pastoralism don’t get, and are very invested in not getting, is that the big, crowded, dirty, dense metropolis, the kind where people can actually live happily without owning a car, is in fact hugely better for the planet than the way most First Worlders live.

The average Vermonter burns 540 gallons of gasoline per year, and the average Manhattanite burns just 90.

8% of Americans don’t own a car. In Manhattan, it’s about 77%.

I’m sure that in his dim, sentimental “trees good, skyscrapers bad” way, Jonathan Jones means well. But if our children and our children’s children really do wind up in a world of apocalyptic climate change, “incompatible with human civilization”, then cliche-ridden, thought-free nonsense like what Jonathan Jones is selling will be a part—a small part, admittedly, but a part—of what gets us there.

And so will those Guardian editors off in the other room inhaling laughing gas. Not a single one of you knew a thing about the history of jazz in New York? Must try harder. Much harder.

Comments on Unreflective pastoralism will kill us all:
#1 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:11 PM:

You know, New Yorkers have come to expect that September will bring a certain amount of blatheration about other people's Imaginary Iconic New York (as opposed to the real working city we live in); but we usually get it around the 11th.

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 11:15 PM:

If I lived in NYC, I wouldn't want to deal with a car. I saw the city 40 years ago, and figured it out then. (Also, I don't want to drive in any downtown area, even if it's a city of 25,000. It's too nerve-wracking for me.)

#3 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 11:17 PM:

I'm pretty happy with the approach to car use that the Amazing Girlfriend and I have, which is that we don't own one, we rent on demand. I owned a car for a couple years between college and grad school (thanks to grandparents who no longer needed two cars, and the fact that I moved to Nashville, where I very much did need a car), and on the whole, I'm happier without owning one. Particularly considering what it cost me to maintain that car (if I remember, it was a couple of ~$1k repair jobs), not just fuel it.

That said, having the ability to rent one for short periods of time for reasonable money is immensely useful (thank you, Zipcar, even if you keep jacking up your rates and for reasons known to no one insist on having a $14/hour rental Cadillac eating one of the three spots closest to our apartment. Seriously, that thing is a mischief waiting to happen.).

#4 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 11:20 PM:

We've also got kind of an amusing division of vehicular labor: If we're going to be going somewhere via highway, my Amazing Girlfriend drives. She's got vastly more experience on CA highways than I do, courtesy of 2.5 years of South Bay to Berkeley commutes during college.

Any non-highway driving, particularly in Berkeley, is my job.

#5 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:10 AM:

Patrick, you should really write this as a letter to the editor.

Except . . .

Americans who think that London is full of characters from Mary Poppins.

NOOOOoooo! If the streets of jolly old London town aren't mobbed by dancing penguins and chimbley sweeps with MockCockney accents, then I don't want to live in this world.

#6 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:09 AM:

The myth of the rural paradise is really destructive, and not least to "rural" communities, because failure to apply urban planning concepts to them is what leaves rural people (who tend to be poor) without access to transportation, medical care, education, fire and safety services, jobs . . . and leaves them stuck with a wasteful an d unhealthy lifestyle. As Patrick says, we'd all be better off if we applied the lessons of urban living to the whole landscape.

#7 ::: Gar Lipow ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:50 AM:

If you want to read a book that tackles the climate crisis without pastoralism, you might try my own work "Solving the Climate Crisis Through Social" change. . Very similar in some ways to Naomi Klein's, "This Changes Everything". I hope this bit of self-promotion is acceptable, given that it is pretty on target for the discussion.



#8 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:12 AM:

I took a class on sustainability when I was in CEGEP, and the professor pointed out that, as the UN defined minimum-square-metres-of-living-space-per-person at the time, the entire planetary population could fit into Nova Scotia. This is even more comfortable when you consider that humans are stackable - I have a ground floor apartment, but there are two others on top of it! I'd argue that it's neither urban nor rural areas that are causing issues, but suburbs. I grew up in a suburban community - which had lots of trees, very nice, on the borders of a provincial park, swish! - in which every single house had a lawn covered in non-native plantlife (as I suspect most suburban houses in the USA also have, except for the ones in and around Kentucky. Where does your lawn grass come from?), which was constantly chemically encouraged to grow and then constantly cut short when it did.

It may be evident at this point that I really don't understand lawns. Either carpet the damn area if you want something uniform and easy for kids to play on, or use native plants and have a bit of a mess. Or plant things you can eat, or that bees like. The amount of water lavished on lawns is ridiculous. I recall reading somewhere (but may be misremembering) that they're the largest crop in North America.

In addition, to get from anywhere in a suburb to anywhere outside of the suburb, at least around here, you really need a car. The area I live in now has decent public transit, but the town I grew up in assumed a certain level of wealth if you lived there and assumed that you had a car. It did focus on sustainable transit, but only in the form of bike-paths, and if you wanted to get anywhere you couldn't get on a bike (so, any store where you could buy clothing, electronics, or new books, or to the English high school two towns over, or to the cinema, or to any non-municipal government office) you either drove or spent upwards of three hours on the World's Most Inefficient Bus.

I don't know if that's representative of suburbs in general, but from reading I've done recently about food deserts, it's not an isolated case. I was fortunate enough to have a car so it wasn't an issue for me, but if I had wanted to take the bus to the grocery store, I could have gotten _there_ with no problem, but it would have taken an hour to get home, with no air conditioning on the bus in the summer and blasting heat in the winter, which would have seriously limited the foods I could have purchased. That's a digression, though.

The point is: unlike in truly rural areas where people drive everywhere but there aren't a lot of people, or urban areas where there are a lot of people but everything is close by/shared transport is practical, suburbs spend a lot of resources on getting to and from places and on non-useful agriculture.

#9 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:39 AM:

In my lifetime, agriculture has gone from roughly a dozen workers per thousand acres to one.

So the English rural village has shifted from something more like Cold Comfort Farm to a dormitory for bank managers, estate agents, and other characters from The Office, and there are, a hundred years after ordinary Englishmen encountered vin blanc with reason to get drunk out of their minds, dinky little wine pumps on the pub bar.

These days, the farm labourers are gardeners, and Harvest Festival is a quaint traditional excuse for flower arranging in the Church, rather than a ceebration of something of vital significance for the whole community.

This rural idyll is no more. It has expired. It has gone to meet it's maker. It's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!

And there is still something nasty in the woodshed. I think this week it's a Muslim immigrant terrorist here to steal out jobs and destroy democracy by something called voting.

#10 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:59 AM:

If you’re populating your farm with the cast of The Office, the something nasty in the woodshed is probably Dwight Schrute’s cousin Mose.

#11 ::: Zander Nyrond ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:05 AM:

I think you're all wrong to some extent. Even you, Dave, and no my mouth isn't full at the moment. :)

I'm not saying Jonathan Jones is the clearest thinker or the best-informed writer about, but he makes a valid central point which none of you have addressed. Indeed, Patrick made it for him:

History does not move forward. That is one lesson of the climate crisis. There is no inevitable forward rush of progress...

Or in other words, we've been aware of the potential for climate catastrophes since the 1930s, and this one is still happening.

You confuse things that are facts of nature with things that are in fact under human control. Why are rural people mostly poor? Why do they lack access to transportation, healthcare and so on? Why do they need to run cars? Because a bunch of people in power have decreed that it should be so, have dismantled, or never erected, the publicly-funded systems that should fill these needs. Conversely, while I have never lived in New York, I don't think it's that people in New York (many of whom, I believe, are also poor) can live without a car, I think it's that they have to. (I discount "happily"--"happily" is what you're used to, and people can get used to anything when there's no choice. Personally, if I thought the entire world could only be saved if it became one huge dirty crime-ridden traffic-choked concrete city, New York or London or Tokyo or whatever, I would kill myself now.)

Unthinking anything will kill us all. We are in this mess because we pretended we were controlling that which we couldn't--nature--and neglected to control that which we could--technology. It wasn't nature that created the Dust Bowl, it was we.

The Progress Bus is heading for the cliff right now because nobody is driving it. If we can get control of it, it will go wherever we want it to go, at a speed with which we're comfortable. We just have to stop bowing down before the Unknown Future like worshippers of a new god, decide that we want to live and do what's necessary. The rural community doesn't have to be either Cold Comfort Farm or a dormitory. It could be something else. The cities, relics of the Industrial Revolution, survive because vast rural areas, industrially farmed, feed them, whereas areas like the suburbs Em describes, or the villages Dave mentions, could perhaps feed themselves and not be food deserts.

I'm not the clearest thinker or the best-informed writer around either, but I don't believe organising the entire land mass of the planet on the grid pattern is the answer. Accepting that the concept of the city is what's truly dead and moving on to something more sustainable and more honest might be, though.

#12 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:25 AM:

For what it's worth, I reckon suburbs could be less food-deserty if there was less effort spent on inedible crops in them. ;) I could rant about The Lawn for hours.

The town I live in now is a more urban suburbian experience, if that makes sense. Rather than being twenty kilometres out of the city, I'm a bridge away from it. It's also a much less wealthy town than the one I grew up in, which did have reason to expect that people had cars given the housing prices there (there are houses in that community which have indoor swimming pools, and there're luxury car dealerships in town). Current town DOES have excellent public transit and grocery stores within walking distance, to the point where I use my car (which is paid off and costs me under a dollar a day to run) mostly to visit the folks. The town where I grew up is well-suited to the people who live there in terms of facilities, and I hear the buses are slightly better now as one of the few good results of a municipal merger/demerger fiasco a few years back.

You're absolutely correct that we do need rural areas, but at current population levels, we also need cities, otherwise we'd lose specialization.. The main issue hereabouts (background: Environmental Studies major at Cegep and university levels; not a professional in the field, though, and several years behind on the literature) is that the best farmland tends to be under the cities, seeing as how that's where people originally settled and where cities naturally developed. Cities and rural areas serve complementary purposes. Suburbs for the purposes of this discussion are mostly inefficient people-storage taking up valuable crop-growing space. I suppose the need for them is psychological - I quite like cities in general, but I know some folks don't*.

I don't know if there're any recent studies of ecological footprint/person comparing cities to suburbs to rural areas (rural areas would need to control for water usage; I don't know if there's a way to separate out "I use this water in my house" from "I use this water to sluice out my dairy cows' barn/water my crops"). I should take a look through JSTOR tomorrow. It'd be interesting.

*Noise is an issue, for sure; but there are train tracks running through my folks' town, and I lived for three years within easy earshot of a working industrial dock once and slept very well. It's not a universal issue.

(Apologies if I'm rambling. I don't usually work the night shift, so I'm not sure how functional and coherent my brain is at the moment. If I've made grave logical or factual errors, by all means call me on them. I'd rather be corrected than be confidently wrong!)

#13 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:00 AM:

Em, #12: Suburbs for the purposes of this discussion are mostly inefficient people-storage taking up valuable crop-growing space.

Also status symbols, and a way to get away from Scary Brown People.

#14 ::: David Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:30 AM:

I have to say that since moving to London, I have not at all missed having a car.

It'd be nice if the bloody Tube ran all night, though.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:36 AM:

Em @12:
I suppose the need for them is psychological - I quite like cities in general, but I know some folks don't

Thanks for this concession.

Lee @13:
Also status symbols, and a way to get away from Scary Brown People.

And that's pretty dismissively reductive, particularly considering how many of those very Scary Brown People would also like to live in suburbs. (Many of them even do!)

I'm not an urbanite, myself. Too much time in big cities makes my skin itch. It's not noise, it's too many people all the damn time. I also rather like living in a place where quite young kids can wander freely with a relatively controlled/limited population they're likely to interact with.

And not all suburbs fit the stereotype of American exurbs. I live in a centuries-old village that's in the process of becoming a suburb of Amsterdam. Our carbon footprint is pretty OK: we own a car, but rarely use it. Our public transport is excellent, and it's a perfectly reasonable bike ride to get to the jobs, shops and transport of the big city. At the same time the community itself is under 10,000 people. I find it pleasant in a way that I don't find even the most peaceful of urban districts.

I hope that suburbs, or suburb-like things, will continue to exist into the future, because they do actually work better with the priorities and needs of a section of the population than other means of living. But whether or not they do, simply demonizing or dismissing those of us who live there for good reasons is...not productive.

#16 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:18 AM:

abi @ #15:

I think there might be a difference between what was once a functional (but separate) village becoming a part of an existing metropolis which has spread out; and the sort of suburban development which is common in Australia, and to a lesser extent the USA, where entire suburbs are basically created en bloc by developers to make money.

A village which grows organically tends to have things situated within easy reach of each other - the village green or town square concept - because the need for a village itself grows out of service provision. There has to be somewhere for people to gather. There has to be somewhere for people to trade, to meet for religious purposes and so on. Villages form out of human needs, the most basic one of which is togetherness.

The suburbs I've grown up with, the dormitory suburbs of Perth and Canberra, have grown out of the needs of capital. They're designed to provide somewhere for meeting the maintenance needs of the human capital of big industry and big commerce. They're not designed on a human scale at all, and they show it in the way they're designed for keeping the various capital units separated. They generally don't have spaces for mass gatherings, or group togetherness unless it's an organised form of togetherness (such as school, shopping centres, organised sports, organised religious activity). There really isn't much public open space at all... what open space there is, is private - like those shopping centres, which are very keen on reminding us all that they're private property.

#17 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:42 AM:

Avram@10, we call Dwight "Gareth" over here.

#18 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:52 AM:

Megpie71 @16:

Then by all means let us discuss the varieties of suburbs, and what in them works, and what does not. I'd point out, for instance, that places may be designed for one purpose, whether it's being an independent community or a pure bedroom space, and grow to be used otherwise. Not all villages are built with greens; they grow over time and at need. A pure bedroom community can become something else with the demolition of a few houses for a park or town square, zoning changes to create a shopping district, the addition of connected footpaths (or paving of informal ones), and a better bus service.

But at the same time, a little less othering and judginess about the people who live in them might make that discussion more interesting and productive.

#19 ::: Robert West ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:29 AM:

One of the things that amazed me when I moved to New York - because I hadn't thought about it - is *heating* efficiency.

I live on the fifth floor of a six story brick building with equivalent height brick buildings on either side of it. We don't open our radiator valves during the winter, because our flat is uncomfortably warm *without them* - because the heat of all of the other dwellings radiates into ours.

#20 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:09 AM:

Zander Nyrond, #11:

Personally, if I thought the entire world could only be saved if it became one huge dirty crime-ridden traffic-choked concrete city, New York or London or Tokyo or whatever, I would kill myself now.

Obviously, nobody has called for any such plan. However, I can't help but notice that you've slipped the "crime-ridden" cliche into the discourse. You might want to brush up on the actual reality of crime in modern NYC.

I don't believe organising the entire land mass of the planet on the grid pattern is the answer. Accepting that the concept of the city is what's truly dead and moving on to something more sustainable and more honest might be, though.

"More honest." Nice othering, there.

#21 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:10 AM:

abi #15: And that's pretty dismissively reductive, particularly considering how many of those very Scary Brown People would also like to live in suburbs. (Many of them even do!)

It's also very much historical truth in America.

I grew up in one of the "sundown towns" (enforced by, literally, the local Mafia) on Long Island, though I didn't know it as such until much later. While I was in high school, there was one black kid at any given time, but not the same kid each year. The predominantly black towns (especially the ones closer to the city) were the "dangerous" neighborhoods, that we got warned about by our parents. The whole Island was thoroughly redlined between the black and white towns.

While I'm not as informed down here in Charlottesville, I do know that the black community here still remembers the demolition of Vinegar Hill. (There was a thriving black community, which happened to be occupying valuable space right next to Downtown....)

And the behavior hasn't changed nearly enough -- the cycle of gentrification and decay in NYC and other cities continues to be quite racially charged. Even my mother cited as one of her reasons for moving down here that her prior town on LI was "going downhill", which turned out to mean, tada, black people moving in. <fume> Basically, if we want to get "everybody" living in cities, one of the big challenges will be convincing them to live next to each other!

The issue ties in closely to the problem of people who can't be satisfied unless someone else is getting screwed: Yes, it's much more efficient to have a city providing various services to everyone... until your local government starts hearing from affluent folks who say, "I don't need day centers/employment assistance/school subsidies/etc., how dare you help those people with my tax money?"

Worse: Those folks are bellwethers for a larger group, who can afford to take their money and move outside that city's tax district. They can get their new housing, because they can cherry-pick a location that's poor enough to jump at new development, or too sparsely populated to resist. Then they can get their new access roads built right back to the original city, because "surely you want the people of $NewDev to be shopping here in the city!"

I have a sense that the pattern has some connection to America's history as a "perpetual frontier", where untill quite recently, there's always been "someplace else to go". In Europe/UK, I'm sure the tensions play out rather differently.

#22 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:17 AM:

Em @8:

The point is: unlike in truly rural areas where people drive everywhere but there aren't a lot of people, or urban areas where there are a lot of people but everything is close by/shared transport is practical, suburbs spend a lot of resources on getting to and from places and on non-useful agriculture.

"Suburb" is a word that covers such a wide variety of conditions as to be nearly meaningless; this doesn't fit with my experience at all. (Please don't no-true-Scotsman this by saying that if an area is dense enough to have shared transit it is not a suburb.) I live in a classic close-in suburb situation near DC - we're about two miles from the DC line in Maryland, with several buses a short walk away that run to the nearest Metro station. I don't use a car on a daily basis, but we have a yard (we've replaced most of the front yard with a vegetable garden and native wildflowers and are far from the only people in our neighborhood to have done the same; our neighbors across the street even have chickens. The back yard is grass for now, since we have a toddler, but we don't water it and certainly don't use chemicals on it.)

Some suburbs are certainly the worst of both worlds, with the rural need to drive everywhere and the urban need to bring in food from outside, but some of them have the urban availability of transit and the rural ability to grow at least some food, and they're all suburbs.

Lee @13:

(Suburbs are) Also status symbols, and a way to get away from Scary Brown People.

You don't actually know what you're talking about. You don't get to pretend to know what the racial makeup of my neighborhood is, or the reasons people have for living where they do.

You're also about five or ten years behind the times on the stereotypes, as wealthy young people move to the city cores in droves, and lower-income families of all descriptions are pushed to - you guessed it - the suburbs.

#23 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:20 AM:

David Harmon @21:

I'm not saying that there isn't, and hasn't been in the past, a racial component to some people's choice to live in the suburbs. What I'm saying is:

a) that doesn't describe everyone who lives in the suburbs, and
b) that doesn't invalidate the fact that there are worthwhile aspects to living in the suburbs, which exist independent of racial issues.

The tax districts issue is, on the other hand, a serious problem with separately incorporated suburbs, one that pretty much everywhere I've read about needs to do a better job of addressing. (It may make me change my views on the current consolidation of Dutch county-equivalents.)

#24 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:29 AM:

Stefan Jones @ 5... I thought that London was either populated by spy-novel characters and/or by Daleks or Cybermen, and that, as Neil W suggested elsewhere, every other building really is a crashed spaceship, which would explain why Madame Vastra's neighbors probably accepted her strange appearance because they too were aliens.

#25 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:30 AM:

Em @ 8... the entire planetary population could fit into Nova Scotia

Is "Stand on Nova Scotia" a sequel to John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar"?

#26 ::: Richard Gadsden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:49 AM:

#14: The Night Tube is coming!

#27 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:52 AM:

David Harmon@21:

Although Canadian suburbs are architecturally similar to USAian suburbs (at least the more northerly ones; my impression is that the further south you go the more the average lot size expands) they are heavily populated by brown-skinned people as well as pale pink skinned people. In some cases these tend towards blocks and in many others these are mixed in together (my daughter's classes are a mix of North European, Mediterranean, East Asian, South Asian, and African descent).

So an exclusionary purpose is a contingent, not essential, part of the development of some suburbs in the US.

That being said, Canada is on average even worse than much of the US for anti-environmental suburban patterns, in part because the heating inefficiencies combine with (on average) colder weather.

And the people who live there really want to hang on to those inefficiencies -- it's precisely that dynamic (applied to the "inner suburbs" of Toronto in Scarborough and Etobicoke) which has provided the support for Mayor Rob Ford.

#28 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:59 AM:

About history, nature, and control - the van American "wilderness untrammeled by man" white people found were no such thing at all, but heavily managed landscapes maintained by human labor to human preferences. Pretending they are not kind that, frex, Yellowstone was always and shall always remain as it is without any human labor or care (like reintroducing and managing wolves, eradicating non native species, burning to clear undergrowth...) is the kind of dangerous thinking that got us down this particular climate change hole.

Xander, I respect you in general, but nature is not too huge to control. It is too complicated to dump random boatloads of crud into and assume it will simply swallow them whole and remain unchanged. If we want a world humans can live in, we have to actively MANAGE THE WHOLE PLANET, including atmosphere and enormous oceans, because we are big enough to change it and change WILL happen. We want it to be change we LIKE, or the maintainance of a state we find acceptable, and so we have to look carefully at what we are doing and the results it produces.

Claiming we can do whatever we like over here as long as we put a fence around a designated "forest" and insist that keeping all humans out of it will preserve it in amber as Perfect Spiritual Nature is idiotic, like a kid who thinks he's hiding under a blanket, but his but and feet are sticking out. And wearing neon socks.

#29 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:08 AM:

I, too, like lorax, live in the suburban part of Maryland about a mile from the DC line. I have a house with a yard that has both grass and non-grass items (including a surprise! infestation of raspberry vines that luckily for them had loads of tasty berries, but I digrass...)

My neighborhood is fairly mixed racially and ethnically, but I have seen other suburbs where the racial and ethnic lines were more clearly drawn -- so there's no One True Suburb anywhere. In fact, I grew up in a town that was pretty solidly non-brown, and saw racism in action as early as third grade (the one brown kid got left behind while his white pals got promoted, which even I could see was BS, but it was small-town 1970s BS.)

I think it's a strong cultural component to this; in the South, where the "races" aren't supposed to mix (as in Baton Rouge, where I once rented a place that actually had a covenant where they could not rent to a non-white person), the differences and the fears led to a pronounced distinction in neighborhoods as well as towns. I think North Carolina suffered from much the same in the early years, as the suburbs of Winston-Salem were white, while the city proper was much more brown. In areas around NYC, though, it's been more mixed up. My old neighborhood used to be Eastern Europeans, Italians, Irish, a smattering of Latinos; once Co-op City opened, the neighborhood changed completely, and continued to do so throughout the 70s, but we'd moved to the country by then. I think I've digressed again.

I think suburbs are full of potential, just like the cities and the farms. I find cities too crowded to live in, although I like living near enough to take advantage of all the things cities tend to have; and I would love to live again in rural areas, although that would make my commute much more difficult in this area (so it might have to wait until I retire).

#30 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:09 AM:

abi #23: Fair enough, but the dynamic is still strong enough that it needs to be considered when talking about development patterns. And there are other facets to the problem: What lorax #22 is describing with wealthy young people move to the city cores in droves, and lower-income families of all descriptions are pushed to - you guessed it - the suburbs, that isn't an exception, it's just expanding the gentrification/decay cycle from the city to the larger "metro area". The black and lower-income people finally got into the suburbs, so the whites and affluent are going back to the city. Of course, this leaves their former suburb impoverished, and less able to cover for the lower population density....

The tax-district issue, yeah, that's a toughie. In America, it's aggravated by our issues regarding "local control", including recent attempts to dismantle the Federal government.

#31 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:13 AM:

I think the Dutch version of density has a lot to recommend it. The overall population density is high, but with lots of local variation, so that in lots of places it's very easy to bike, walk, or take the train from a busy urban centre to quiet farmland and vice versa without passing through the sort of hostile-to-anything-but-cars terrain that I've seen in so many North American suburbs. That seems to accommodate a variety of different lifestyles, and it doesn't have to be the case that "farmers never visit nightclubs" (as they say in Perth).

I wish where I live now could be more like that, but I don't know how realistic it is to hope that Nova Scotia (with a bit more land area than the Netherlands, and about one seventeenth as many people) could manage it (let alone accommodate the entire world's population). The Netherlands has more good farmland, and (therefore?) was already relatively densely settled before the car came along, so more things were already built on a pedestrian scale. On the other hand, it's not as if the Netherlands hasn't put a lot of work into maintaining and improving infrastructure recently, too, especially things like bike paths and railways (and pulling more land out of the sea).

I like living in largish cities. Toronto feels about the right size for me; London or New York might feel a little overwhelming. Halifax is very nice, but feels a bit small. Leiden was also small, but in Leiden I could very easily get to the Hague or Amsterdam or Utrecht, so it didn't feel limiting. Halifax, on the other hand, is the biggest city around. That's not necessarily bad in and of itself, but it's also not all that easy to get to the other, smaller cities in the province. The distances are greater, and the terrain is hillier, so cycling is naturally not going to be as easy, but one could in principle hope for rail. Leiden has ten times as many passenger train departures in an hour as Halifax has in a week.

The car is a great device for ad-hoc trips that involve long distances or unwieldy loads. But I hate the way it's taken over as an assumed default means of transportation for all kinds of trips for which it shouldn't be necessary. There used to be a lot more railways in Nova Scotia. (Lots of them are being turned into hiking/bike trails now, which is much better than letting them go to waste.) So it's not as if the population is too small or too spread out to justify better rail service; it's just that so many people have cars that the demand for it has gone away, leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

#32 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:33 AM:

Ginger @ #29 "I think it's a strong cultural component to this; in the South, where the "races" aren't supposed to mix..."

Trying to confine the racial aspect of patterns of settlement to one part of the US is going to run into the problem of lots of evidence to the contrary.

Just one small anecdote among much data: when my family moved to Griffith, Indiana -- a Chicago suburb -- in the late '60s, my mom was told that any black families looking to locate there were given to understand that in the event of a fire, the volunteer fire company would not respond. How likely a fire might be was presumably left to the imagination.

#33 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:41 AM:

Lee #13: I live in a suburban subdivision where pale people are a distinct minority. I mean, there are several on my street but they're distinctly outnumbered by the African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean people who form the vast majority of the people who live here.

#34 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:42 AM:

If I could, I'd move from Albuquerque to San Francisco, or to Oakland. I feel more energized just walking on the streets. I *like* being lost in crowds.

#35 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:48 AM:

I also think that sometimes moves back to the inner city become an extension of what others were considering the suburbs problem - that is to say, the excessive use of cars.

Here in Winnipeg, there's a whole area by the river being gentrified from too-often-empty warehouses into condos and suitable condo-supports (Hairdressers, day cares, boutiques, restaurants), and to which affluent suburbanites are encouraged to move... except for things like groceries. Which are not a small consideration if you want to encourage people to live downtown in condos in an area which was struggling to accomodate the cars of the people who worked there. Considering how close this whole area is to one of the core public transit sections, this should become a fewer-and-driven-less car haven, and it's not.

#36 ::: Chris Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:49 AM:

Indianapolis has done some great things in terms of enabling people to get around more easily and environmentally soundly. (Which is kind of funny when you consider that the first thing its name brings to mind is gas-guzzling polluting car races. Though come to think of it, that might be part of why they feel the need.)

There's a really great network of bike lanes, bike trails, and so on that goes all through the town, including the Indianapolis Cultural Trail in the downtown area. The downtown has a bikeshare short-ride rental service like New York's, with bike racks all through the downtown area. And it's getting a first-of-its-kind-in-the-US electric car rental service (like they have in France) starting in just a few months, too.

#37 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:39 AM:

Zander Nyroind @ 11: I wish you weren't engaging in an emotion-laden rant. The rural poor need actual advocates.

For myself, I come from a county that is both urban and rural. When I was a teacher, most of my students came from the rural part of the county. When I say that what rural areas need is urban planning concepts, I don't mean that they need to look like cities. I mean they need to have their needs and resources dealt with collectively and rationally. Currently in most rural places in the US, this approach is really spotty. For example: there's no rational water use policy or infrastructure -- once the (mostly corporate, let's not pretend otherwise) farms have drained their wells dry, Uncle Sugar drains the rivers for them at ridiculous rates until he sees the water running out and then nobody's prepared. Meanwhile, farm workers and their families drink foul sludge that has lab-rat levels of pesticides and fertilizers in it because nobody's paying attention to runoff. And the land erodes to dust. I could go on, and list similar problems in every area (power, transporation, housing, air, education, and on and on). And excuse my US-(and actually California-)centric view: it can be even worse in other places.

In many areas, tiny steps towards changing these things. I'm actually proud of agriculture in the Monterey Bay Area where I live, because the people here have made big changes in the last few years. But they were able to do this because of (1)urban science infrastructure and (2) urban-style grassroots organizing on the one hand and urban-style regional governance on the other. There is no way that this rural community could have made this much progress without -- compare them to rural regions that don't have those resources close to hand and you'll see what I mean.

#38 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:40 AM:

Some suburbs are exactly what Lee describes - the fact that there are POCs living in them, mostly upper-middle-class, doesn't change the background, which was that they were for white flight from scary minorities. Some of them are now fairly large cities.
(There were racial covenants in many suburbs, right up to the signing of the Civil Rights Act. And I lived in a town in Texas which, while not officially a 'sundown town', had an unincorporated neighborhood which was historically poor and non-white.)

#39 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:55 AM:

"The hottest summer on record"? What New York was he talking about? The US East Coast had more like an extended spring and early autumn. Our summer apparently took a vacation this year.

Or did London have a particularly hot summer this year and that's what he means?

#40 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:02 PM:

@39 The hottest summer on record is being reported by NOAA and its counterparts. Most of that heat was unusually warm oceans. So--true for everybody and not so many people in particular. The Pacific states (California, Oregon, and Washington) did have a lot of high temperatures which contributed to the drought.

#41 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:34 PM:

I think we're pretty far into the "tastes great!" "less filling!" on suburbs.

I'm fine with acknowledging that there are suburbs with racial problems, both historical and current. But there are also ones that are not, as well as ones that do and don't run to lawns, ones that do and don't have good public transport, and ones that do and don't...well, everything.

Indeed, it turns out that suburbs vary, just as cities and rural landscapes do. We're not going to do a very good job of figuring out how to live in the future if the very mention of any of these modes of living brings out people's inner Judgmental Blanket Condemner.

So enough, already. Acknowledge complexity, and trust that people who have already acknowledged it don't need One. More. Reminder. That. Things. Are. Complex.

(Yes, I am irritated. It feels like any defense of the 'burbs, which are my home, is met with YES BUT SUNDOWN YOU CAN'T LIKE THIS WITHOUT BEING RACIST, and that's not actually making any of us smarter, wiser, or more joyful.)

#42 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:40 PM:

@40, Lady Kay: "The Pacific states (California, Oregon, and Washington) did have a lot of high temperatures which contributed to the drought." I can't speak for Oregon and Washington, but since all our significant rain in California comes in other months, summer temperatures have not much bearing on how much water we have. But I think that the drought, in killing off some of the plant cover, contributes to the surface temperatures.

#43 ::: Clarentine ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:46 PM:

My family unit recently up and sold our suburban property and bought some small acreage in a much more rural portion of a neighboring county. It was noise and overcrowding that drove us out. I hope to hell I never have to live in an actual city. I don’t like knowing every detail of my neighbors’ lives without even knowing their names. (And no, knowing their names would not make that lack of privacy any better.)

I sincerely hope that, should a future come about that sees most of us packed in like bees in our individual, modular cells, I and others like me get to be those who roam and throw our puny selves into hunting up the resources the rest of the group subsist upon. I know (at least one reason) why we constantly seek frontiers. It’s because the conditions we leave behind are intolerable.

#44 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:48 PM:

Because Carrie Vaughn's werewolf Kitty Norville has moved a bit farther out of Denver, is her series now a suburban fantasy?

#45 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 12:52 PM:

I'd like high-density housing to include soundproofing/thermal insulation in all the walls between units. I don't want to hear my neighbor vacuuming, or stomping across the floor, or listening to music. (Having a usable patio/balcony space for each unit is also a good idea.)
It isn't the density, it's the forced sharing.

#46 ::: Chris Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:12 PM:

On a related note, I just ran across this lengthy article about redesigning cities to be mostly or completely car-free. It makes you stop and question some of your assumptions about how "that's just the way cities are." Because, it seems, they don't have to be that way.

#47 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:23 PM:

Some cities are fairly (private) car free already. Even suburban Prague, for the only example I've experienced in any depth, is designed for public transportation. Panelaks (apartments) and detached homes are built around the metro, tram and bus lines: you don't even need a car to go to the big malls and hypermarkets. What I wish my own town would emulate is that you can even take your dog on the publuc transportation, which would eliminate my personal need for a car. Though Prague has a way to go in terms of easy access for people with mobility issues, but that's solvable.

#48 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:47 PM:

one vision of the future city they didn't touch on was the impact of autonomous cars and autonomous vehicles of all sizes. Long-energy-economics-analysis short is that autonomous vehicles can make just about every public transit system obsolete*. This isn't a problem, because we'd get even more transportation flexibility and cleaner and walking/bicycle-friendly future cities**.

* ratios of weight-of-vehicles to weight-of-passengers of trains and buses aren't that great, so the energy use per passenger kilometer can be improved significantly.

** Emergency vehicles would still require certain types of roads, but we wouldn't need roads for buses.

#49 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:33 PM:

Google's cars are much less self-driving than you might think.

Cities don't just need to accommodate emergency vehicles, they also need to accommodate freight-moving vehicles, including people moving all their stuff into and out of their homes occasionally. Oh, yes, and trash removal.

I've assumed that rural poverty might be intractable, just because people are more spread out. Or is it that a fairly poor society does better to have rural people move to cities, but a richer society could do a lot better for the countryside?

In re suburban poverty-- I can believe it's a disaster because the minimum people need to get by is higher. See also Gladiator-At-Law. (Belly Rave was a brilliant choice of name.)

How much of the lack of nearby useful businesses and services in suburbs is a result of zoning?

I have heard of people not being allowed to put vegetable gardens in their front yards because of zoning and/or HOAs.

#50 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:41 PM:

Nancy, I think there's a lot that can be done to alleviate rural poverty. One: pay rural workers a fair, living wage (a while back we calculated it would take a raise of a nickel a basket to raise all the strawberry pickers' wages to a livable level). Two: invest in semi-centralized rural infrastructure and less centralized access to it (big fat bookmobile programs, fully equipped rural hospitals with sattelite clinics, thoroughly subsidized rural public transportation, water systems, wifi, etc).

I am not sorry to point out that many of these measures also increase the sustainability of rural life as well.

#51 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:56 PM:

If a solution to global warming requires that we make people stop wanting the wrong stuff (suburbs, yards, cars) and start wanting the right stuff (big cities, pavement and public parks, public transit), then I do not think we will see a solution to global warming anytime soon. There's nothing more common than seeing someone lament how all those wrongly-wrong people over there want the wrong things, but it's pretty rare that this actually leads to getting them to stop wanting it.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:00 PM:


Yeah, I think as autonomous vehicles become a reality, they'll reshape our cities as radically as human-driven cars have. I think you can see some of that with urbanites using services like Zipcar so they don't need to own a car.


Maybe, but I'll point out that rural poverty in the US generally looks a lot less horrible than it did 100 years ago in the US, so clearly some pretty big improvements are possible.

#53 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:02 PM:

re 51: The problem is that such a solution means taking away those things. When those paying a mortgage or outright owning a plot of land with a house on it are told "you can't have that anymore; only the rentier class (or governments) get to have that," it's a class war that cannot be won in this country.

#54 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:18 PM:

I was thinking about rural poverty in places like China and Brazil.

#55 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:21 PM:

This is a not-that-well-thought-out idea, so maybe I'm all wet. But it seems to me that the desire to live in a city and rely on public transit and walking and biking sort-of requires a reasonably low crime rate and the belief that public services (like public transit, police protection, and public parks) will be managed reasonably well.

The US (and I think a lot of the world) had a huge spike in crime rates about 30 years ago, for reasons I think nobody fully understands. (There are various theories--maybe leaded gasoline exposed lots of kids to lead, maybe abortion removed a lot of future criminals from the population, maybe it was not locking up enough bad people or enforcing nuisance-type laws strictly enough. But I don't think anyone has a really solid explanation.)

Now, what I wonder is this: Right now, there's a big push for getting educated middle-class people to move back into the cities[1]. My guess is that the willingness of people to do this is very sensitive to the crime rate. Urban living in a walkable neighborhood sounds great if it's safe to take the local public transit and to be on the streets where you live. If walking around in your neighborhood after dark is taking a serious risk, I predict that people who have other alternatives are often going to be heading out to the suburbs.

And this makes me suspect that ultimately, if crime rates start pushing up, we will see the same people who are most eager to get lots of middle-class people living in the cities again become supporters of pretty aggressive policing.

[1] Until they have kids, of course, when they either have to spring for private schools, or they move to the suburbs so they get good public schools--at least this is true in the DC and Baltimore area.

#56 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:51 PM:

I want to apologize for my tone last night - I was tired and cranky and not being as careful about phrasing and thinking properly as I would otherwise be. No more posting at four in the morning for me, I think.

#57 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 03:57 PM:

I get the impression that things that get called suburbs are very different beasts in different countries. About the US, I know very little, but I'm seeing lots of people characterizing suburbs as 'places you can't live without a car'.

That doesn't really fit well with my experience of what I'm inclined to call suburbs in the UK: in many large cities, you have networks of public transport that extend a long way out. And France - or at least Paris - is another beast entirely: the 'banlieus' are the areas that have many of the features that people in the anglophone world associate with inner cities, and the idea that you couldn't have good public education in a city like Paris would come as a surprise to many Parisians.

I'm someone who would feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of living somewhere where you needed to drive to be able to get groceries: it's not just that I can't drive myself (I guess I could learn if I needed to) but also that I wouldn't want to live somewhere that effectively excluded people that couldn't. But it's not at all clear that that has to mean - for example - no lawns.

(While we're at it: if we're going to talk about racially segregated areas in the North of the USA, does anyone have a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates' longish piece from earlier this year about redlining in Chicago?)

Albatross @55: It's not clear to me that there's a particularly close association between aggressive policing and low crime rates.It's also not clear that there's a close association between aggressive policing and being able to walk around safely at night: in fact, there's a segment of the population for whom the reverse is true. And that's also segment of the popultation that includes many people who are educated and middle-class.

#58 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:08 PM:

praisegod barebones @ 57

(While we're at it: if we're going to talk about racially segregated areas in the North of the USA, does anyone have a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates' longish piece from earlier this year about redlining in Chicago?)
I think the TNC piece you refer to is his 'A case for reparations.'
#59 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:10 PM:

Howard Bannister @58: Thank you - it is.

#60 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:11 PM:

abi, #15: The American concept of "suburbs" was originally fostered by the auto industry as a status symbol. There's even a model of SUV called the "Suburban"! The idea was, you can afford a car, so you don't have to live in the city where there's public transportation any more -- you can have a place "out in the country" but still convenient to city amenities.

During the first Civil Rights struggle, suburbs got a huge boost from "white flight", especially after Brown v. Board of Education -- and that was most definitely about getting away from Scary Brown People. It was reinforced by practices such as "red-lining", which is now officially illegal but still occurs de facto; if a black couple and a white couple of otherwise-identical credentials go to the same realtor, in many cases they will be shown a very different selection of properties.

We live in what I think of as an "urban suburb", an area that used to be separate from Houston proper but has long since been absorbed into it. There are no zoning laws in Houston, which means you get a much more "patchwork" feel than in most other US cities. There are plenty of brown people living only a few blocks away from us. But AFAIK, there is not a single family of color on any of the streets that are part of our immediate neighborhood. In cities with zoning, the situation gets much worse, because the kind of housing affordable to most families of color is frequently zoned off into its own areas.

My comment was flip and over-broad, and for that I apologize. But that doesn't mean that there wasn't truth in it.

Clarentine, #43: I don’t like knowing every detail of my neighbors’ lives without even knowing their names.

That's not a city thing at all. Small towns are where you get the "everybody knows everybody else's business" paradigm. In a city, people develop the habit of minding their own business. You sort of have to.

#61 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:33 PM:

#57 ::: praisegod barebones:

Suburbs where you didn't need a car to get food might need to have smaller plots.

Minor annoyance: One of the nicest things to do with a lawn is walk on it barefoot, but so far as I know, people in suburbs typically don't do that.

#62 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:46 PM:

Lee @60:

That apology would have gone a lot better without returning to the subject of racism and American suburbs after I'd asked us to draw it to a close. Whether or not you were partly right, you were entirely rude, and you're not doing much better now.

Really, the intense desire to make sure that no good thing can be said about the suburbs (anywhere! even where American racial issues do not apply!) without someone beating the speaker over the head with this same history is creeping me the hell out. What is it that gets under people's skin and makes them act like this? You guys know better, I know you do!

#63 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:46 PM:


Depends on whether or not they have dogs....

#64 ::: Clarentine ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:47 PM:

Lee @60: [[k]nowing every detail of my neighbors’ lives is] not a city thing at all. Small towns are where you get the "everybody knows everybody else's business" paradigm. In a city, people develop the habit of minding their own business. You sort of have to.

PJ Evans @45 has the right of it - it's the forced sharing that wears hard on my nerves. It's hard to mind one's own business when the neighbor is broadcasting their oh-so-personal details to all and sundry. These paradigmatic city people of whom you speak may learn to live with that sort of cacophony, but I am not interested in being forced to acquire that skill.

In rural areas, neighbors may know the business of neighbors, though I think that's a cliche, but it isn't because you overheard them bitching, through a couple of walls, about the TV show they're watching. Or whining at a creditor about reasons for late payments.

#65 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:50 PM:

#15, #60:

OTOH, even before autos became commonplace in the US, street cars and trolleys allowed suburbs -- probably a better definition of suburbs than the far-flung outposts we now think of -- to exist. Denser and closer in to city centers; more walkable and with small retail districts scattered about.

Trolley companies made their own destinations to drum up ridership. Many American cities have amusement parks at what was once the end of a trolley line. The two that I've been to: Kenneywood near Pittsburgh, and Oak Park in Portland. They both have picnic areas, where families, and groups like labor unions, could set up for the day.

If we have a increasingly urbanized future, I hope to hell that visits to the countryside -- whether it is for a long Saturday or for a family summer vacation or summer camp -- are not ruled out.

#66 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 04:51 PM:

Cars: I think that schemes such as Zipcar are a good idea. The problem is partly that these schemes are not yet sufficiently convenient for enough people, nor is the break-even point with cost good enough, versus buying a car. The nearest Zipcar to us is about a mile and a half away. I think there's another, similar scheme in the local area - but again with the nearest car a mile or more distant. Assuming there's one in that spot when we need it. We bought a car with a seven year warranty; we expect to own it for at least 10 years, probably more. If we divide the cost of buying the car over 10 years, and add ongoing costs such as insurance, maintenance and fuel, we're paying about 2K a year for our motoring. Admittedly that would pay for a lot of train journeys or Zipcar hours. But one of the things we use the car for is me transporting some 30 kilos of stuff about four miles every week and staying there for 3-4 hours before returning. That use alone, on Zipcar, would come to about 1.5K a year, as I would need to hire the car for four or five hours at a time.

Additionally, we have a cat. With our own car, we know it's not going to smell of something which would stress her out. We can load the car the night before a long journey and leave it in the garage overnight. If we get back late, we can just leave it and unload the next day if we want to. If family needs us in a hurry, or a neighbour needs to get to the hospital, the car is right there, for immediate use. However, my husband uses the train to get to work, and I use a bicycle for most local journeys. We don't use the car much, but we think the convenience of having it is worth paying for.

We live in the suburbs. We have a garden, in which we grow a small amount of our own food (could do better) and provide some pesticide-free habitat for the native vertebrates and invertebrates. It's also good for my spirit. To quote Aldo Leopold: "There are some who can live without wild things and there are some who cannot. [I am] one of those who cannot.

#67 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:04 PM:

Once upon a time, interurban rail was nearly everywhere in the US. It was common for people in small towns to take the train to the city - and it was like this until the 1940s. That's the kind of local/regional transit that's needed: both trolleys and heavy rail, with cars as extras.
(For me to get to the mall on the bus? I can do it, but it involves either a transfer or a half-mile walk at the mall end. The local bus system isn't designed for shopping of any kind.)

#68 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:29 PM:

Albatross, #51: "If a solution to global warming requires that we make people stop wanting the wrong stuff (suburbs, yards, cars) and start wanting the right stuff (big cities, pavement and public parks, public transit), then I do not think we will see a solution to global warming anytime soon."

Well, my original point was, in part, that it's foolish to insist that everyone abandon cities in favor of vaguely-imagined rural idylls. So, basically, I agree. People are different. They have different wants and needs. And everyone's trying to make the best of a whole lot of incentives pushing them this way and that. Some of those incentives are the residue of poor planning and bad policy. And some of them are very carefully planned, for bad reasons; they're designed into the system so that certain people can take advantage of certain other people.

In the thick of all this, I guess it's not surprising that conversations about this stuff get a little heated--we can all easily feel that our preferences and life choices are being subjected to a kind of hostile interrogation. Speaking for myself, I'm very fond of cities, and I get very tired of the way that, for some people, a phrase like "crime-ridden city" is a single word. But I also know that terms like "suburban" and "rural" cover an enormous diversity of patterns, landscapes, and histories, and that big sweeping generalizations aren't helpful.

#69 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:30 PM:

re 50: Lee, the history is a bit more complicated than that. The Chevy Suburban started out as an early factory-built station wagon, which term indicates the usage of picking people up at the railroad station and driving them back to the estate. Early on they were generally custom bodywork, and they were taxis. If you look at a Suburban up through the fifties, the body style says "car" even though the chassis underneath was a truck (since after all the driveway to the estate could be pretty rough). In the 1960 model year they switched to the modern "pickup with enclosed bed" form, thus joining the other SUVs (which started out as jeeps stretched to station wagons).

The whole station wagon thing went back another half-century, because the original American suburbs, at least, were the estate towns that sprung up along the train lines, the archetype being the Main Line west out of Philly. The automobile was one of the things that made middle class suburbia possible, but the status thing preceded it considerably.

Also, the mid-BaltoWash suburbia around Columbia and environs was driven by employers. NSA obviously wanted to be far away from prying eyes; APL needed land for support facilities. NOL was built closer in but basically on the same principles. The first developments in Howard County arose as bedroom communities for these far-out-of-the-city labs. I don't recall whether there were racial covenants on these lots (I suppose I could ask my father), but it didn't matter: for the most part the potential residents were all white. White flight was irrelevant at the time because nearly everyone was moving in from out of the area.

#70 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:44 PM:

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs.

And technically in a city. (A city older than Philadelphia!)

And according to what some of my coworkers said when looking at the route I walked to get to the local light rail, "the hood".

My point is, I'm in about as urban an environment as one can be in and still be solidly in the US suburbs.

Living here without a car is something I can't imagine - the closest (non-convenience-store) place to buy food is ~ 1.5 miles away on foot, and last time I ducked in there quickly on the way home to pick up some lettuce, I couldn't find any. In fact, I couldn't find any vegetables that weren't frozen peas or carrots. I get better fruit and vegetable selections at the convenience stores. (then again, one of those is a Wawa, so of course they're better)

Now with a car, there are at least three options for groceries that open up within a 10 minute ride, all of them accessible only from busy 4+ lane roads without sidewalks or bike lanes. Two of those options come with truly enormous parking lots because that's the only way things can be built in the US.

I'm aware that the racialized component of suburbia has become a poor subject in this thread, but I find it hard to avoid around here because it stares me in the face: the place accessible with sidewalks? I'm the only white face I've ever seen in there. The other places mostly reflect the local population metrics, (the "city" is ~59% white, ~33% black) with the Acme (Albertson's for people not from Philly) slightly more white in patrons than the Walmart. But if we take a 30 minute drive for the groceries, we're at a place with much better food selection, better paid staff, and slightly cheaper prices (than the Acme). And also, a whiter staff and customer population. (And it's in one of those big-box-store mega mall things, so even more hostile towards transportation modes other than the individual car)

I remember when the Riverline (local light rail connecting Trenton to Camden and points in between) went in a little over a decade ago. Sure, there were concerns about what trains would do to traffic congestion and some issues with historic sites disturbed by the construction, but the objections I remember being voiced most often were racial. Oh, not explicitly racial, but you really don't need much imagination or background knowledge to figure out what "people coming up from Camden" was about. It went through anyway, and people realized eventually that it wasn't a big deal, but that took some doing.

I'm understand the objections to the characterization of suburbia as fundamentally about racial separation, but any conversation about US transportation infrastructure that ignores the huge and powerful role racial considerations play in how transportation in the US plays out is missing most of the story as I see it from here.

#71 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:45 PM:

I do think that if we want to have a conversation about race, American history, real estate, and patterns of suburban and urban development, everyone in the conversation should begin by reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece linked by Howard Bannister in #58.

Because it's impossible to take in the immense and complex tale that Coates tells--tells grippingly--and still believe that the whole business of using real estate covenants to systematically drain the wealth of the hardest-working black Americans, the ones trying the hardest to become part of the American middle class--is something particularly associated with "the suburbs." As opposed to, you know, THE ENTIRE FABRIC OF URBAN AND SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT POLICY IN THIS COUNTRY FOR NEARLY A CENTURY.

In other words, Abi ain't wrong to object to the blithe enjambment by which "suburbs" (all of them! The whole category!) get stuck with the blame for this particular evil. Just because you got away from the soul-deadening suburbs and made your way to the glorious city doesn't get you out from being part of what's gone down. And is still going down.

Personally, what I wanted to talk about was the fact that pastoralism isn't the same thing as a sensible climate plan; that "simpler, more rustic aspirations" aren't going to solve anything unless your plan also involves killing billions of people. Also, that for all their problems and drawbacks, dense cities with good mass transit are a pretty good way of reducing the carbon footprint of millions of people. I am not interested in telling anyone that they have to live in a crowded big city if they don't want to. I am interested in the terrible tale that's central to Coates's piece, but maybe we should have a different thread for it.

#72 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 05:57 PM:

I was in London for WorldCon, and do you know what? Not one person said "shim-shim-sheree" to me! They were just being mean.

Zander 11: Conversely, while I have never lived in New York, I don't think it's that people in New York (many of whom, I believe, are also poor) can live without a car, I think it's that they have to.

Well, wrong. While some people may bemoan the fact that they can't afford to keep a car in NYC, there are plenty who love the fact that lots of great stuff is in walking distance of other great stuff, and that the subway runs all night. In a pinch, there are taxis (but they're slower than the subway in rush hour).

A couple of times when I've considered moving away from NYC-Metro (I live in Hoboken, across the Hudson Estuary from Manhattan, and the train to and fro runs all night too), the fact that I'd need a car in many of those other places was a major factor in keeping me here. It's such a relief for a non-driver like myself to come here, rather than be in Michigan, where I grew up and where cars are made.

I hate visiting Southern California, where many members of my family now live, because I'm completely dependent on others for transportation, because everything (it seems) is two hours' drive from everything else, and there's little public transportation, and what there is is slow and infrequent.

The last time my parents visited me, they were appalled that I didn't make a reservation for the restaurant I wanted to take them to. My father was furious when it turned out to have closed. He was somewhat mollified when I picked a random street, walked down it, and found a Scots-themed "pub" (it wasn't a pub) where he had what he said was the best burger he'd ever eaten.

I love that about New York. You not only don't need a car here, if you're in one you miss all kinds of cool stuff.

This is not to say that your strong preference for where you live is in any way a bad thing (though it's tempting to say you live there because you have no choice, and dismiss your claim to be happy about being forced to own a car—turnabout is fair play, after all). You're just wrong about New York, New Yorkers, and their choices.

#73 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:32 PM:

Where I live now, I'm "forced" to have a car. I am fortunate to live close enough to work to walk, and I could go to a very good grocery on foot if I was willing to limit myself to just a couple bags of groceries and no beverages. But if I want to get out of downtown, the public transit system isn't good, and there's very little in the way of interurban transport.

We have a local ZipCar-like service that is encouraging folks to abandon their daily car, but it's not good for going away for the weekend, that sort of thing.

If I were to move to NYC, I would be "forced" to get rid of my car. There would be no where to park, and it would be a large (and mostly unneeded) expense. I also suspect I'd be more physically fit with the more walking. This would not be a bad thing.

My ex went from a small town where a car was needed to get the 10 miles to work, to Somerville, MA where between foot, bus, train, and subway, he doesn't own a car, and uses ZipCars and rentals for the rare times he makes trips.

BTW, a link to this posting was made on BoingBoing, and the derailler of the conversation there wasn't suburbanism/racism, but rather veganism, and it happened fast.

#74 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:36 PM:

Is there anyone here but me who likes to drive?

#75 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:37 PM:

PNH wrote:

Personally, what I wanted to talk about was the fact that pastoralism isn't the same thing as a sensible climate plan; that "simpler, more rustic aspirations" aren't going to solve anything unless your plan also involves killing billions of people.


In the late 80s the Whole Earth Review ran an essay by J. Baldwin, in which he describes attending a lecture/presentation by a family which GAFIA to a deep-woods homestead. Lots of pictures of wholesome kids, cabin, vegetable garden, livestock. Lots of approving applause for a family who'd gotten away with getting away from the rat race and The System.

The title of the piece comes from what Baldwin asked them when the self congratulation get too much to ignore:

"Where Did You Get Your Axe?"

Point paraphrased: This family were far from pioneers. They hadn't cut the umbilical, they'd simply made it way longer. At the other end was a city, with factories belching fumes as they made the things and offered the services that allowed this family to live with a degree of security and comfort that actually self-sufficient pioneers couldn't dream of.

#76 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:42 PM:

"a lawn covered in non-native plantlife (as I suspect most suburban houses in the USA also have, except for the ones in and around Kentucky. Where does your lawn grass come from?"

Hmmm, good question. I think mine, and yours too, comes from just down the road from my house.

Em (##8 & 12)("I could rant about The Lawn for hours"), I live in the lawn grass seed capital of, I think, the *world*, and it is *not* in Kentucky.

It's actually in Oregon's Willamette Valley. I enjoy good rants, but I like them to be fact-based. Just sayin.

#77 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:51 PM:

Steve C (#74) -- I actually like driving. In fact, I've made my living by driving for most of my life.

But I think that, like parenthood, driving is something that should be done *only* by people who really enjoy it.

And, that said, I am very glad to live where I am within easy walking distance of the main city library, the university and its library, several major grocery stores, one of the country's best coop grocery stores, several theatres, both movie and live, the riverfront, the schools my children attended, and countless other wonderful resources. Walking distance! For me! and I can't even walk very well any more.

#78 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 06:57 PM:

I live right beyond the edge of a "new urbanism" community, Orenco Station. A light rail station surrounded by apartments*, a little downtown with retail-downstairs / condos and offices upstairs buildings, faux-Brownstone townhouses, and a few blocks of single-family homes ringed with duplexes and more townhouses. The retail is mostly boutiques and restaurants, with one upscale grocery.

There's a Big Box complex about 1/2 mile away. Lowes, a sporting goods store, Jo-Anne's, Office Max, and a big and good discount supermarket. I often walk to this strip, a mile down the road, to earn dessert.

Very few people in the area go carless, I suspect. But they *could*.

* Most of these actually weren't there when I moved into the area in 2002. The copses of trees and lawns around the light rail station have been razed and rather big mixed-use buildings are going in.

#79 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:02 PM:

P J Evans #67: We (America) used to have much better intercity and radial transit, both AMTRAK (rail) and Greyhound. Over the last few decades, the rail lines lost their subsidies (they used to be partly-public corporations), so coverage, frequency, and system maintenance have dropped drastically. AIUI, this has largely been due to pressure from trucker's lobbying groups -- that is, the competition for cargo transport.

Meanwhile, the bus lines have been pruning unprofitable routes -- state governments have occasionally raised holy hell over small towns and rural areas getting cut off entirely.

In both cases, the glaring exception is commuter facilities, with schedules optimized for getting people into cities for the start of the workday, out again in the evening, and sometimes not much else.

#80 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:04 PM:

Clearly there's no reason to think that everybody is ever going to be living in all the same environments. That's why I'm harping on the idea that rural environments should be treated with the same kind of deliberate planning that urban environments get. A lot of rural communities don't even take care of their waste products collectively, depending instead on individual septic fields, trash dumps, and so on. That's disaster that's not even waiting to happen: it's already happening. It's poisoning the watersheds, cultivating disease, and enlarging the carbon footprint of rural people. And it's a solvable problem, given some public authority and funds.

#81 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:11 PM:

Xopher wrote @ #72
I was in London for WorldCon, and do you know what? Not one person said "shim-shim-sheree" to me!

Just you wait 'til next time!

They were just being mean.

Hoo, Boy! I'll even bring my chimney brush. (If I can shift a 34-ft Canadian aerial mast across London via rail and Underground, without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow, a chimney brush (and set of rods) will be no trouble at all.)

#82 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:12 PM:

Older #76, thanks! I prefer my rants to be factbased, too. What species of grass is it, generally? I was under the impression that the most used grass was Kentucky bluegrass.

#83 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:21 PM:

In California, it's probably Bermuda grass, which out-competes most other grasses. Annual ryegrass is used as a cover or filler, and bluegrass is pretty much non-existent.

#84 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:31 PM:

Dave Bell @ 9 In my lifetime, agriculture has gone from roughly a dozen workers per thousand acres to one.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden @ 71 Personally, what I wanted to talk about was the fact that pastoralism isn't the same thing as a sensible climate plan; that "simpler, more rustic aspirations" aren't going to solve anything unless your plan also involves killing billions of people.

While Dave Bell lives in the UK, the same can be said for rural America. I grew up on a farm. There used to be four family farms on the section (1 square mile, or 640 acres or 259 hectares or 2.58 square kilometers) where I grew up. At least there was in my parent's heyday, '40's, '50's & '60's era. So Dave's "dozen or so workers" is on the low end of the range I'm used to (high end would be around 25).

These days, one family farms a section's worth or two of land to turn a profit. Because few of these farmable bits are 100% contiguous, modern farming (aka: rural life) is very carbon heavy. I keep reading about young farmers trying to start up via the Pastoral Principal* and low carbon footprints and learn these farms are generally under 20 acres. Most of the new/old farmers can't buy land because urban/suburban/exurban development has either priced them out of the market or mass production farming can out-bid them on a per acre basis.

So, in theory, the Pastoral Principal means relocating the teeming masses to the fringes of developed cities and employing them in labor intensive agriculture. No mass murders necessary. Just old fashioned labor**. In theory. And then there are the sprawling, once well off suburbs of manufacturing cities that are now poor and half empty. (Detroit was the one I read about most recently.) City planners and food desert activists are slowly turning lots abandoned in the housing bust into community gardens - which looks a lot like mid- to late-19th century planned rural/farming communities. So grass roots activism is back-dooring in a bass-ackward kinda way their way into 19th century urban planning ***.

So the pendulum is swinging back again. *wanders off singing "Everything Old is New Again"*

* There are two types of farming now. Large format and small format. Large format farming, aka: commercial farming, provides cheap food for a lot of people. Small format, aka: everything that is not large format, tends to follow the farming practices of the late 19th century. Those farms grow lots of organic and heirloom food and support the 'locavore' movements.

** It takes a lot of manual labor to farm like you're living in the 1800's.

*** In my part of the USA, we average 12 blocks to a linear mile or 144 blocks to a square mile which is 4.444 acres per block. Which is enough to do urban farming and make an OK-ish living if you're doing boutique farming for urban locavores wanting organic food. Just sayin'.

#85 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:32 PM:

Didn't the John Birch Society use to say that public transportation was a conspiracy by the govt to eventually control all our movements?

#86 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:24 PM:

Steve C., #74: If we didn't like to drive, we'd be in pretty bad shape, since we have to travel to make our living! Now, I suppose some of this depends on exactly how you're defining "like to drive". It's not something I do for its own sake, but neither is it something I approach with reluctance (except in bad weather or rush hour). It's just... there. Something I generally have to do in order to do whatever it is I want to do.

Stefan, #75: ISTR that we had a whole thread about that just recently, based around the topic of "where do survivalists get their clothes?"

#87 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:31 PM:

Urban farming is sometimes done under power lines - that's land that's otherwise not often used. (In my area, there are nurseries leasing the ground space, in some areas.)

Family-type farming is low-profit: an uncle who did it said it's the only business where you buy retail and sell wholesale. He had two good years out of ten, before going broke (and he was in west Texas because he couldn't afford to buy in Kansas, where the climate was better). Equipment is extremely expensive: that's why harvesting by combine (or cotton stripper) is generally done by contract crews; they don't do anything but harvest crops, for several months out of the year.
(Deere tractors started around $45000, in 2012. Combines started around $200K. That's the base price.)

#88 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:14 PM:

The thing about rural versus urban sustainability, carbon footprint, etc. is it really, really depends on which rural area and which urban area you're comparing--there's a huge range in both. Particularly rural: whatever the case may be for Vermont's fossil fuel consumption, it is not precisely a median representative of the global rural resident. Subsistence farmers who grow and harvest their own food and fuel have a zero net carbon imprint. And for all Manhattan's glories, at the opposite corner of the ring there sprawls Beijing. (Not to mention NYC's own suburbs.) So if we're talking rural versus urban in China, India, Nigeria, or Brazil--which is a pretty sensible place to discuss it, since that's where large scale rural-urban migration is happening--then the tradeoff looks pretty different than it does in the US.

There's a deeper flaw though, in statements like "The average Vermonter burns 540 gallons of gasoline per year, and the average Manhattanite burns just 90." They are in their own way as fantastical as Jones' rural idyll. Manhattan's side of the ledger doesn't include the gasoline expended in growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting all the necessities of Manhattanite life to that conveniently walkable corner store. For Vermonters (at least those doing that growing), it appears as a debt. It is an ecological, and these days, a moral subsidy agriculturalists provide to cities.

Which goes to show that the very premise of which is better, urban or rural living, is borked from the start. Rural and urban areas need each other, whether for food or for axes. Cities are impossible without rural areas, and it's been thousands of years since rural areas didn't depend on cities. It's not an either/or, it is always necessarily an "and." And isn't that nice? No one has to be forced to live where they don't want to!

#89 ::: duckbunny ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:32 PM:

I'm presently living in the English West Country, and one of the things that really wears me down is the lack of privacy. When I go up to London, there is a moment of blessed relief when I pass through the gates at Waterloo into the Underground, and can be certain that nobody gives a damn about me. They aren't looking at me. I am background noise. What I look like and who I am with and where I go through the public spaces of London are not things that give me a reputation for being weird. That is a city freedom, the freedom to base community on commonality, and the freedom to be absent from communities you don't choose.
There's no such thing as total isolation from your geography, and you are always in a community of those who live on your street and in your block of flats and in your town and on your bus route. But in the little country villages around Yeovil, geography is the only metric available. People will notice you doing your shopping, and your weekend nail varnish will be remembered. You lose the freedom to be invisible.

I really like being able to grow my own food though. My ideal situation is probably a terrace on the outskirts of London, close enough to go into town for the evening if I feel like it, far enough that it's possible to afford the rent, with a bit of garden to dig up for the vegetables and somewhere to park a car. So... suburbia. But erring on the urban side.

#90 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:37 PM:

#88 Heresiarch: "Subsistence farmers who grow and harvest their own food and fuel have a zero net carbon imprint"

Not really. The ideal of the subsistence farmer who grows all their food and fuel and all the ingredients for their other necessities is not one that many people can or ought to match. We actually lived this way at one time: our life expectancy was 45, and nobody had a book to read.

We do have a number of people who think they're living completely self-sufficently, but they aren't.

On another front, I'm a bit annoyed that the conversation keeps going back to some idea that somebody's trying to force somebody else into some kind of lifestyle. Critiquing the pastoral ideal is not rounding you up and force-marching you into tenements.

#91 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 10:38 PM:

heresiarch #88: Subsistence farmers who grow and harvest their own food and fuel have a zero net carbon imprint.

Um, excuse me? I've never heard of any farmers who grow and harvest their own fuel. Last I heard, in industrialized nations, farmers generally use fossil fuels like everyone else, and in rural areas of "developing nations" they tend to use wood... which they get by chopping down the nearby forests. Chopping down trees to cook your food etc. is a hell of a carbon footprint. (There have been projects to distribute more efficient stoves, but I don't know how well they actually penetrated. And then there's travel and shipping -- even in those developing nations, there's a lot of gas-fueled trucks and such. That's not even considering slash-and-burn farming or otherwise clearing farmland.

The thing is, subsistence living is pretty much always inefficient (in fuel, money, and other resources), because you're trying to do without the scale efficiencies that a larger system could give you. Let alone the general costs of poverty, which is the backdrop for most subsistence farming.

#92 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:15 PM:

buttressing Xopher @ 72: I know at least one seriously well-off native NYC-er who has never even learned to drive; he could own and house a serious car even in NYC, but never got the habit. I understand there are a lot of people in NYC in similar circumstances.
      Some people just learn a different pattern of life; in another era I might have also, but I was raised ~6 miles from a trolley-line terminus (Glen Echo, outside DC) -- and the entire system was sucked dry and shut down before I finished elementary school, so I didn't.

Older @ 76: you also live within a couple of hundred miles (SWAG) from an area that may be the world's single largest producer of hops; that doesn't mean that hops, any more than lawn grass, are native to that corner of the US. What varieties of grass seed are shipped from your area?

#93 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:31 PM:

The recent open-thread discussion on energy sources gives support to heresiarch @ 88; since ~0% of electricity comes from oil, gasoline-only measures don't show all of the costs. Does anyone have complete energy and carbon-emission figures for large-city vs rural living? I wouldn't be surprised if rural still came out using more (see: discussion about heat efficiencies of of multi-unit housing), but the balance may be closer.

#94 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:36 PM:

Cadbury 81: I'll even bring my chimney brush.

*blows you a kiss*

#95 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:42 PM:

Large city vs. rural living takes in a diverse range of cities and rural areas. Northeast cities with well-established mass transit are not going to be the same as large cities which had the bulk of their growth after the introduction of the automobile - i.e. LA, Houston, Atlanta, etc. Rural areas in the Midwest will have different energy usage patterns than western states.

#96 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:45 PM:

Heresiarch #88:

I tend to discount transportation costs, especially when people talk about foreign foods and such, because in reality those costs (environmental and otherwise) are really, really, negligible.

Here's an example: At my local grocery store I can buy a 1.5l bottle of Fiji water for $2. That means that in order for the whole supply chain to make a profit getting that bottle of Fiji water from halfway around the world to Ithaca, NY, it has to cost much less than $2 for transportation costs. Even if you assume the entire $2 cost of that bottle of water eventually goes to burning crude oil, that only amounts to 7.89 kg CO2e (Carbon Dioxide equivalent) released into the air.

Compare that to a "locavore" solution: There's a local artesian spring that gets rave reviews. It's public: there's a pipe leading out of the woods to a pull-off/parking area on the side of the road, so people can just fill up their containers with it, as much as they can haul (when I lived in a rural house with no running water, we used to fill up 30-gal barrels from a similar setup). To go to that spring, and back, would take 2 gallons of gas in my car. I would have to get over a gallon of local spring water just to have a lower carbon footprint (per liter of spring water) to beat the worse-case estimate of shipping the water from Fiji!

(Yes, using tap water, or filling a barrel with the local water, etc would change the calculations,)

As surprising as it may sound, long-haul shipping is environmentally sound. One estimate I've seen for shipping 1 l of Fiji water to SF was around 86 g CO2e, or the same CO2e as a fluid ounce of gasoline, or enough gas (at 30mpg) to drive 1200 feet.

#97 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 11:59 PM:

On the transit subthread: I feel like there's the germ of a good idea rolling around my head on the topic of transit availability, livable communities and commute distance, mostly spurred by my Amazing Girlfriend and I contemplating postdocs [1]. It's been suggested to us that looking somewhat geographically further afield from where we'd been intending might be a tenable option, but it's rendered utterly impractical by a lack of viable transit links. Being out here in the Bay Area for a few years, I've noticed - I think - a much greater willingness to do commutes I consider untenably long. My upper limit is something on the order a nominal commute of up to 45 minutes each way, where as my Amazing Girlfriend will tolerate up to a 1.5 hour commute time in each direction.

I'm thinking that the existence of transit connections like the BART to Caltrain link (which a friend used to use to do Berkeley to south bay) is the fundamental linchpin of why long commutes (say an hour or longer) feel like they're more common here than other places I've lived and worked. Whereas, where we're looking for postdocs, there are a bunch of options that are usefully transit-linked, but once you start looking further afield, actual transit accessibility is somewhere between painful [2] and incomprehensibly pointless [3]. Note that postdoc salaries might make one car a tenable prospect if we really decide we need one. We'd rather not, and we're not planning on buying a car after we get our degrees unless we really, really need to.

I think for me, having lived in Boston, Nashville and Berkeley, that what I'm at least looking for in a city is public transit that gets me roughly where I want to be, and a design that permits walking to expand the reach of said transit. This is fundamentally why Nashville really didn't work for me when I lived there - I had a car, so I could drive everywhere I needed to, parking it wasn't an issue [4], but I missed being able to just walk to places I wanted to be. Because the parts of Nashville I frequented were primarily designed for cars, it didn't feel to me like a livable community. More like islands, connected by asphalt, that tolerated pedestrians, and treated cyclists generally abominably [5]. I'm thinking that what I consider a livable community is one where you can walk places you'd like to be, but where there's enough public transit to get you somewhere else interesting / useful / necessary when you need to be.


1: I've got one somewhat-arranged (to the point I'm writing a funding application for it, and posting here is a nice break from reworking said funding proposal); my Amazing Girlfriend is looking for one in the same geographic area. The last few weeks have been lots of discussions over who to contact, who to talk to before contacting people, whether other people would be a good fit, etc. It's been stressful, and discussing commuting distance has very much been a part of that conversation.

2: Painful; Roughly an hour on a commuter rail line that isn't all that heavily scheduled, and/or Amtrak on that same line, which is more expensive but fills in schedule gaps. At least, so says the internet.

3: Incomprehensibly pointless; e.g., the only transit link that doesn't require either owning a car for commuting or longer-than-a-workday multistage transit connections is a private bus line, taking 2.5 hours each way from A to B, and costing $33-45/rt. While this is a viable link between A/B, it's not a commuter option in any way, shape or form that I can think of. Even if someone was suggesting it today. Grumble.

4: I'm inordinately fond of telling people here how cheap garage parking was at Vanderbilt ($21 a month when I was there). This is probably evil of me.

5: I was always astonished that friends of mine biked in Nashville. Even around campus, in the Vandy Bubble. From what I saw, the drivers didn't particularly look out for cyclists, and the prevailing vehicle size made it even more perilous to bike there than in many other cities.

#98 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:27 AM:

Xopher (#72), I think it's really an interesting question to what extent cities "force" residents to live without cars, rather than "allow" us to. People living close together is what makes a place a city. Zander (#11) is thinking of a "huge dirty crime-ridden traffic-choked concrete city," and it's entirely possible to have clean cities with low crime and nice parks. But if the population density is too low, it's not a city.

It's a lot easier to build public transit for people living closer together. So that's certainly a point for "allows." It's also easier to put stores, schools, and restaurants near people who are living close together. If you can't afford a car, or can't drive because of disability, car-based areas make life difficult or impossible. A lot of errands, entertainment, and some kinds of commuting, are possible to do on foot or by public transit in a city just because things are closer together.

But then there's traffic. Where people are spread out, they have space for wide multi-lane roads between the places they might want to go, and plenty of parking lots. In a crowded city, there is limited room to park, so there are all kinds of difficulties finding a space and paying for it. And crowded narrow streets mean a lot of waiting. If somebody decides the parking or traffic jams are too much hassle for them, the city may be "forcing" them not to drive downtown.

#99 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:51 AM:

One of the reasons I don't drive in downtown LA is that some of the streets change from two-way to one-way traffic at intersections. The resulting problems are left as an exercise. (They include people who can't figure out that right-turn-on-arrow-only applies to them.)

#100 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:41 AM:

People who write articles like this also forget that it was the ruralites who sang hallelujah and made mass-market catalogs a going concern, because they wanted the latest labor-saver and who cared what had gone into making it.

I read an essay called "The Sad Irons" years ago that has stuck with me. It's actually part of a longer book--a biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. Here it is, with annotations:

TL;DR: The generation of Texas Hill Country "rustics" that hadn't grown up with electricity looked visibly more beat to hell than the generation that had, at the same age.

#101 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:42 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @ 90 "The ideal of the subsistence farmer who grows all their food and fuel and all the ingredients for their other necessities is not one that many people can or ought to match."

I'm not talking about theoretical subsistence farmers nor ones from long ago, but actual subsistence farmers, right now.

"On another front, I'm a bit annoyed that the conversation keeps going back to some idea that somebody's trying to force somebody else into some kind of lifestyle."

I know! You just mention the existence of a lifestyle, and people assume you are advocating for it.

Dave Harmon @ 91: "--in rural areas of 'developing nations' they tend to use wood... which they get by chopping down the nearby forests. Chopping down trees to cook your food etc. is a hell of a carbon footprint."

Unless you are cultivating those forests on a multi-generational timeline, and burning trees your parents or grandparents planted--in which case, the net carbon impact is zero.

Americans tend to think of forests as a thing that is just there until you chop it down, a la Warcraft. That is not even a realistic portrayal of modern American silviculture, and in most of the world forests have been actively managed as a sustained resource for centuries if not longer. Germany's been engaging in large-scale silviculture since the early 1700s; Japan started actively managing forests around the same time. Forest communities in India managed their land productively for hundreds of years before the Raj. Northern China was substantively deforested almost a thousand years ago: the majority of trees cut down in that region since, for firewood or construction, have been deliberately cultivated.

Population growth and economic demands on forests have thrown the balance out of whack in many places. Nonetheless, the idea that subsistence agriculturalists could sustainably use forest resources is not quite the outrageous suggestion you appear to think it is.

Buddha Buck @ 96: "I tend to discount transportation costs, especially when people talk about foreign foods and such, because in reality those costs (environmental and otherwise) are really, really, negligible."

Yes and no. It's true that long distance transportation costs are such that it can easily be less carbon intensive to buy Chilean produce than driving to a local farm. Still, costs add up. If you used only Fiji water to meet your water needs: ~300 Liters per day * 86 g CO2e * 365 days per year = 9417 Kg CO2e per year. For the sake of comparison, the per capita emissions of the average American is ~ 19800 Kg. Keep in mind that almost everything you eat, wear, etc. is shipped around the world at least once, and the carbon impact of transportation--even if each individual thing is quite cheap to move--proves substantial.

#102 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:42 AM:

Speaking of urbanism, pastoralism, and axes, what’s up with the way that the heavily urban hipster subculture has been reproducing 19th-century rural life, from bizarre fetishizations like fashion axes to serious efforts like actual farming?

#103 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 06:45 AM:

A few 0-dark-30 notes.

1. The world's population is now more urban than rural. This reflects our enormous population, and the efficiency of cities. The reality is, unless vast numbers of people die, the next two centuries will be urban centuries.

2. A huge issue of public transportation and urban life is the widespread sexual harassment of women, and I wonder if these solutions would be more acceptable if they were less threatening for women.

3. Technology has answered many of the old complaints about urban life; cities in high-income countries are no longer dark, dirty, and crime-ridden outside of rich neighborhoods. It may be time time to retire the old complaints.

#104 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 06:49 AM:

heresiarch #101: Population growth and economic demands on forests have thrown the balance out of whack in many places. Nonetheless, the idea that subsistence agriculturalists could sustainably use forest resources is not quite the outrageous suggestion you appear to think it is.

Yes, it's a nice suggestion, it would be really cool if someplace did it. "Population growth and economic demands" are not some temporary blip, they're long-term trends. In the actual places I've been hearing about, the farmers will listen to nice sermons about sustainability, and (if they actually want to engage with you) ask "so, you want to eat tonight's dinner raw?".

Actually changing the situation will require economic, political, and cultural changes that allow people to live more sustainably. Those will not only cost money which needs to come from somewhere, but they will require dealing with people who are making not just their living, but their wealth and status, off the current lifestyle... and who are in practical position to veto any changes. China and India could probably pull that off eventually... after they've got the Western-style toys they've seen and want. Most of Africa, not so much. And America, which is arguably the core of the problem... well, so far, we're not doing such a great job of it. It's much easier to tell other countries what to do than to rein in our own industrial barons....

#105 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 07:36 AM:

Clean city, low crime, nice parks... you mean Tokyo? One of the mega-cities people like Zander are railing against, specifically, by name?

I find it deeply ironic that he specifically mentioned some of the most pleasant cities I know of in his little list. If I could live anywhere in the world without worrying about money, New York, Tokyo, and London would be near the top of the list, and I wouldn't choose to have a car in any of those places. Seattle and Portland are up there too, and while I might choose to have a car if I were there, I wouldn't need to.

Someone saying "Ugh, do we want to end up like TOKYO?" is for me very similar to hearing someone say "Ugh, do we want to have EUROPEAN health care?" Yes. Yes please.

Even Tokyo's suburbs are interesting. They resemble small cities or large, dense towns more than anything else. I lived in Shiraitodai, about 35 minutes from Shinjuku by train. My neighborhood was filled with trees and parks, but I could also walk to a convenience store, 6-7 nice restaurants in various price ranges, and I could bike to a fully-stocked supermarket in less than fifteen minutes. Convenience-style stores are also substantially less food-desert-y in Japan, and there are train stations everywhere.

I wish there were a way to deliberately urban-plan for that: living in little city-suburbs that resemble main street in a medium-sized town, but with a few 8-20 story apartment buildings to provide additional living space. All the advantages of small town living but without the need for a car, and with one of the world's most bustling metropolises and cultural centers a mere half hour away.

When someone calls Tokyo "dirty," I know he has absolutely no interest in reality. Tokyo is nothing if not clean, cleaner than any American small town or suburb where I've ever lived - even exceptionally affluent ones.

I grew up in small town and rural Connecticut, so I can understand the charms of country life. I had an exceptionally idyllic childhood in many ways, exploring forests and caves, climbing trees and swimming in ponds. Rarely having to deal with traffic, but everywhere I wanted to go was 10-25 minutes away by car. Then again, Connecticut is the fourth most population-dense state. I wonder what the difference in footprint is between that sort of "network of towns with interstitial forest and farmland" and somewhere like Vermont.

Of course, parts of Connecticut have what I consider to be one of the nicest setups: you get your rural small town where everything you need is within five miles (though you want a car for the hills and the snow), and you get your train to take you to the big city in about an hour.

Right now, I live about as far away from L.A. in CA as I did from NYC in CT, and it is wretched. Trains run 2-3 times a day instead of 15-25, and at terrible hours, and once you get to the city you really can't get anywhere inside it without a car. You're forced to drive, which means people drink and drive constantly. And the wide open spaces don't mean less traffic, traffic is an awful nightmare more often than not, especially during the times of the week that I want to be out doing things, (friday nights and weekends). It's actually frequently WORSE to try to drive in LA during that time of night than NYC, even with all their eight lane highways. There's actually some interesting new research that suggests building new, bigger capacity roads will never actually fix traffic by itself.

In fact, current urban-planning theory is kind of shaping up like this: in order to have the density that creates the attractive urban cultural mecca many people find incredibly appealing, you're going to have to have more people than ANY car-based system, no matter how huge and expansive, can easily handle. So there are two choices.

1. Build a city where everyone who wants to go everywhere has to sit in traffic, so you have more road capacity which allows a greater number of people to sit in traffic

2. Build a city where drivers probably have to sit in traffic, and then build other infrastructure for those who'd rather use it.

Both have the same result: drivers sit in traffic. Only one is about anyone being "forced" to do something: hint, it's the one without any alternatives.

#106 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 08:15 AM:

I'm afraid you lost me at the first sentence about the Guardian being one of the greatest newspapers in the English language. Which they frequently misspell. Maybe I'm too far gone in cynicism, and I know the idea of a past golden age is wrong, but still, the idea that a columnmist should check their facts is something very alien these days.

On silviculture, I'm pretty sure that it has been practised in England for 7 or 800 years, once they realised they were running out of forest for wood for housing and charcoal etc.

As for the London underground, I think they are moving towards driverless trains (The current high rate of pay for drivers could be seen as a last attempt at squeezing a salary out before they become redundant), which would enable it to run for longer hours. The problem is though that the shutdown is required for maintenance and cleaning. There's a roughly 5 hour period in which teams go through tunnels and stations, cleaning and replacing worn items. If you automate it for 24hr work, you lose that time, so I would assume there are possibilities of material and engineering improvements to reduce the downtime.

#107 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 08:42 AM:

#96 ::: Buddha Buck

Remember to factor in the ax?

Aren't you forgetting the packaging? Where are the plastic bottles made, and how much does transporting/filling them run? Even if they're very light, they're going to take space for shipping, not to mention repeated handling. What happens to the used bottle? Hauled to a recycling plant? Landfill?

Your barrel in your truck is almost infinitely reusable.

I'd be interested in how much the footprints (feetprint?) vary with these additional considerations.

#108 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 10:47 AM:

Carol #107:

Personally, I want to live in a big city without the need for a car and drink (carbonated) tap water. I like the environmental advantage of sharing heat with my neighbors, of taking advantage of the economies of scale in transportation, etc, to cut down on my individual share of ecological harm.

I don't drink Fiji water; I chose it because it seems to me to be one of the worst choices as far as transportation costs could be -- shipping water halfway around the globe in plastic bottles -- and still it isn't much.

To answer your questions, I don't know the exact figures, but the cost to make the plastic resin, form it into bottle blanks in the US, ship the bottle blanks to Fiji, form and fill them (they use an automated pump so that the water goes from aquifer to newly-formed bottle without exposure to air), pack them into boxes, ship them back to the US, and truck them across the country costs less than $2/bottle, including the wages for all the employees involved from the petroleum pump worker to the cashier at my local store.

The reusable 30-gallon barrel is much more efficient, but not as efficient as the 100-year-old network of pipes going from the rain-fed reservoir and water treatment plant 5 miles upstream (and 300 feet higher) to my house.

#109 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 11:17 AM:

re 107: If one presumes that the businesses in question are all making money, then the cost manufacture and transport of the bottles/etc is all subsumed in the final price. This of course neglects the "cost" of using up petroleum.

#110 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:06 PM:

David Harmon @ 104: "In the actual places I've been hearing about, the farmers will listen to nice sermons about sustainability, and (if they actually want to engage with you) ask "so, you want to eat tonight's dinner raw?"."

As populations in developing countries grew in the 1970s and 1980s, many believed there would be a massive wood fuel shortage and that an increasingly desperate population would move into untouched forests, causing massive deforestation. For the most part, these wood fuel shortages never came to pass, and while there was a large amount of deforestation in the tropics, little of it was a direct result of wood fuel use. However, the common belief that wood fuel collection is a major driver of deforestation has persisted, though there is little empirical evidence to back it up (Cooke, Köhlin, and Hyde 2008).

.... Despite empirical evidence that firewood does not drive deforestation on a large scale, many reports from development groups or NGOs still claim that firewood is a major driver of deforestation (Leplay and Thoyer 2011; Yengoh 2008). These reports use few peer reviewed sources, and those that do usually cite references from before the early 1990s. They tend to make sweeping statements like “small scale agriculture and firewood collection are major drivers of deforestation...” [emphasis mine] "The Root of the Problem," Union of Concerned Scientists (pdf)

Ironically, attempts to wean people off firewood invariably involve pushing natural gas or kerosene, substituting something that is at least potentially sustainable with something which is definitively not. The actual drivers of deforestation tend to be: expanding commercial agricultural or pasture land, commercial timber harvesting, and commercial charcoal production (for largely urban consumers). It isn't subsistence use that deforests; it is capitalism.

I continue to be quite baffled that this empirical observation is being interpreted as advocacy. The point, as it has ever been, is that rural versus urban is a useless way of thinking about carbon use.

#111 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:15 PM:

From Jones's article:

"The modern city and its poisons need to become smaller and softer. Yet it is not easy to make our imaginations prefer the green trees to those majestic towers and their dangerous, intoxicating fantasy of freedom from nature."

Two things:

About the trees, as of the 2006 tree census (yes, there is such a thing) New York City contains 5.2 million trees. This works out to 17,000 trees per square mile, or about 0.6 trees per person. Arcadia it ain't, but most people who lives in NYC regularly engage with nature in one form or another.

About the sky-scrapers: while they are the most prominent part of the skyline for any big city, outside of the business districts the average building contains 12 or fewer stories. And outside Manhattan it’s more like 3 or 4 stories. There is also a surprisingly large supply of single family houses. I find it’s easy to lose track of this fact when discussing urbanism with people coming from non-urban experiences. The default vision seems to be one of giant, anonymous glass curtain towers rising above the cloud line when in fact a more urban future looks more like 3-story party wall buildings with ground floor retail. In fact, type “small town USA” into Google Images and, ironically enough, the result is pretty much what we’re talking about.

#112 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:42 PM:

One of the people I commuted with worked for CalTrans. My comment on freeways was 'If you build it, they will fill it' - and he disagreed.

I keep wondering what would happen if the speed limits were lowered about 10MPH on surface streets.

#113 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:50 PM:

One reason to attempt to encourage economically viable substitutes for wood heat in subsistence farming communities: It takes so.much.fricking.time just to find the wood to heat the house and cook the food and wash the clothes. And almost everywhere in the world, it's women's work. If you can lessen this workload even a little, women have more time for less strenuous work that can better their families economically. One project I heard about a while back was using cold frames as slow cookers in subtropical climates. Put your pot of beans or porridge in the cold frame, point it at the sun, close the door, and leave it: that's at least one meal taken care of without having to feed a fire. And unlike more elaborate parabolic solar ovens, you can build one out of junk, if you have the design (and the junk).

#114 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:05 PM:


Transport for London has just announced plans for 24-hour Underground service at weekends.

Station cleaning doesn't seem to be the big problem; the live third-rail mostly affects track/tunnel work. The station platforms would be in the grey area.

#115 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:05 PM:


Transport for London has just announced plans for 24-hour Underground service at weekends.

Station cleaning doesn't seem to be the big problem; the live third-rail mostly affects track/tunnel work. The station platforms would be in the grey area.

#116 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:21 PM:

Avram @ 102 What’s up with the way that the heavily urban hipster subculture has been reproducing 19th-century rural life, from bizarre fetishizations like fashion axes to serious efforts like actual farming?

Off-hand, based on areas of interest displayed... I'd say it started with activism and biological issue awareness. To use your Brooklyn Grange example as a starting off point... They have an apiary. Over the last couple of decades (or more), there has been a quiet panic happening in agricultural and entomology circles. Wild and farmed honey bee colonies are dying off due to a combination of factors. Honey bees are a primary pollinator of food-based crops. You can have all the flowers you want on your food crops, but if they're not pollinated.... you have no food. Entomologists and the US Department of Defense have spent millions of dollars researching a cure. As a result, anyone with a passing interest in farming honey for the health food market is receiving a lot of support from the apiary community - and it's not because people are pushing the health benefits of natural honey. The wild honey bee population is so low there are apiarists who make really good money hauling their hives around commercial groves so we can have things like fruits and nuts and vegetables in our grocery stores. (In the farming community where I grew up in Kansas, we have an apiarist who has hauled his hives to California for the last 20+ years.)

And then there are the dangers of monoculture production. I work at Kansas State University and we have non-stop funding for developing new hybrids of commercial food crops because agribusiness, both large and small, is in an arms race with insects and plant diseases. Most organic farmers that I hear about in the news (the small, boutique farming research is done in our Hays, KS research facility, so I don't get to hear the gossip) deal with this issue by raising heirloom varieties that haven't been in commercial circulation since the late 19th century.

As for the fashion axes fetish... People have their quirks. I suspect this is the hipster version of the coonskin hat from the 1950's era fandom - only for urban farmers and not folk heroes.

David Harmon @ 104 & heresiarch #101: In the actual places I've been hearing about, the farmers will listen to nice sermons about sustainability, and (if they actually want to engage with you) ask "so, you want to eat tonight's dinner raw?". ... Actually changing the situation will require economic, political, and cultural changes that allow people to live more sustainably.

That is so easy to say, mostly because what is sustainable for one person is unsustainable for another.

Farmers, at least the ones I grew up with, were extreme pragmatists. If sustainability* can't be scaled up and integrated with their current practices without eating into the bottom line**, any sustainability push is an automatic no-go. That's the supplier end.

On the demand(er) end, is the cost of the finished product. People like to eat. If large amounts of the local population can't afford food for long periods of time, bad things happen to the government who oversees the food supply chain. It would be really easy to put laws in place requiring sustainability. Adding sustainability to commercialized farming also adds cost to the final product. Politician stay in office because of cheap food and cheap fuels/energy.

* No Till Farming, in particular, is the only sustainable practice that was adopted eagerly and wholesale by farmers. The practice was developed in the 1940's after the dust bowl. Pre-1940 the practice was to treat whole fields the way people treated a small garden***: till, drill, cultivate, harvest, and plow. No Till Farming meant cutting out the: till, cultivate and plow options, which reduced operating costs but didn't impact the overall yields. Simply

** CRP, The Conservation Reserve Program, (aka: paying farmers not to farm) Is no-till taken to the ultimate extreme. The government paid farmers to take tilled land out of production and turn it back into wildlife habitat, grass lands, etc. in a version of early sustainability (a side benefit of this is reducing pesticides and herbicides in the water ways and aquifers). But CRP prices have not kept in line with food production prices. As long as farmers can get more money from CRP than they can from crop production, they leave their ground in CRP. Right now, farmers can get more profit from putting that land back into production. So water quality will be suffering in the near and not so near futures.

***That left the soil soft and powdery in drought conditions. So when the rain stopped coming and the winds didn't... you get what is now called "The Dirty Thirties" and "The Dust Bowl" where notable dust storms were weekly occurrences. In the last 15 years or so, we've received less rainfall than during the 1930's, but we don't have the same issues of wind erosion.

#117 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:22 PM:

#110 heresiarch: hmm. I can easily believe my sources are outdated on that point. Unfortunately I can't discuss it at length because I'm on the train using my iPad, and the new iOS upgrade has badly broken the selection interface.

#118 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:37 PM:

Stefan Jones#5: If the streets of jolly old London town aren't mobbed by dancing penguins and chimbley sweeps with MockCockney accents, then I don't want to live in this world.

A friend born and bred in London said that she loved that film when she was young, but that she was an adult before she realized that Bert was supposed to sound Cockney. He was just a funny man who talked in a funny way.

Victoria@84, P J Evans@87: When I hear about food farming on reclaimed city land or under power lines the first thing I think about is soil contamination. (Under power lines the contamination can be from heavy-duty herbicides used to keep the path clear.) Does anyone know how that's being dealt with in either of those cases?

Xopher Halftongue@72, Leah Miller@105 and others: at some point it just takes some minimum time to get from one place to another in a city, regardless of mode. Higher concentration allows for better public transit, and slows down car and taxi traffic, and also allows things to be closer together so walking or bicycling becomes more efficient. (A friend who moved from London to mid-Wales is fond of pointing out that in both places it seemed to take a minimum of 45 minutes to get anywhere he wanted to go. In theory there were more destinations nearby in London, and where he lives now only a car gets him anywhere quickly, but in practice he found that most of the journeys he actually had to take were still at least 45 minutes.)

#119 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:01 PM:

My understanding is that food farming is done in greenhouses - it's specialty stuff, like herbs.

#120 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:05 PM:

dotless @ #118:

"When I hear about food farming on reclaimed city land or under power lines the first thing I think about is soil contamination. (Under power lines the contamination can be from heavy-duty herbicides used to keep the path clear.) Does anyone know how that's being dealt with in either of those cases?"

One group I know that is farming a former railroad site in Queens is using mycoremediation, that is, planting certain species of mushrooms that absorb heavy metals and other industrial nasties from the soil. Certain types of grasses, weeds, and other plants work, too. I've heard that Mulberries, for instance, secrete a chemical that stimulates a strain of bacteria that degrades PCBs. This kind of approach takes longer, but it is usually cheaper than trucking in new soil and covering or removing the contaminated soil.

#121 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:10 PM:

Jenny Islander @113: using cold frames as slow cookers

Can you say more about this? I quick Google only produces "cold frame" in the context of gardening boxes.

#122 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:13 PM:

Leah Miller@105: the post-war history of Tokyo is something I really want to read about properly if I ever get my Japanese up to scratch; its high level of livability is all the more amazing given that 69 years ago there was pretty much nothing there, just Curtis LeMay's ruins. Building a good city from a standing start is quite an achievement.

(Of course there's the caveat that a lot of what I look at in pictures of Tokyo and admire, I'd probably rail against if I saw it in Birmingham UK or Birmingham, Alabama: kanji and kawaii adverts lend enchantment to concrete.)

Discussions about urban planning tend to make you think of the house and environment that you grew up in as a child, and the one that you want to grow old in. There's a thing that long-term London residents sometimes do—they know it's annoying but they can't resist it. "We bought this place in 1971... guess how much we paid for it. You'll never guess. Go on, guess. ... eight thousand pounds is what we paid for it and everyone told us we'd been ripped off". Thinking about growing old in a city gets mixed up in the UK with the insanity of house prices and the necessity of seeing houses as investments. In an autobiography I read recently, the author bought a house in Notting Hill in the 1950s for five thousand pounds. It's worth about a thousand times that now. London probably works out as quite sustainable, which is good because no government other than a land-expropriating dictatorship could ever afford to give it a green redesign.

#123 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:14 PM:

dotless ı @ 118 & PJ Evans @ 119; I live in a suburb of Chicago. Just down the street, a block-and-a-half away from my house, are high-tension (heavy duty power transmission) lines. Under them, someone farms a small plot of corn, beans, and other crops, in an area about 1/2 a block deep (halfway to the next street, that is) by the width of the easement; I'd say the area was maybe 100 feet x 100 feet, give or take. (Across the street and down the rest of the length of the lines, as far as I can see in both directions, the easement is mown but no crops are planted.)

I have no idea who farms this land, or how they managed to get permission from the power company/the city to do so. Nor do I know whether there are any contamination problems, but since this area is heavily suburban the areas under the lines are, to the best of my knowledge, mown and not poisoned.


#124 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:32 PM:

wood fires are terrible smog producers.

#125 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:45 PM:

wood fires are terrible smog producers.

As anyone who's been to Pennsic can attest. I would like to someday have a house that I can at least partially heat with wood, but I need to do some research into the least smoky way of doing so.

#126 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:47 PM:

Stefan Jones @5, Serge @24 I've lived in three places in (actual real) London and;

1. Because I was 18 at the time was a bit more Mockney than I like to admit (with a sprinkling of Mancunian - this from someone who lived in the Home Counties for the previous 10 years).

2. None of them had a crashed spaceship in the basement. However one of them did have tunnels that lead under the road to a building that had space experiments being built in it. The tunnels also lead to the Albert Hall. Apparently they don't connect any more since they rebuilt the car park underneath.

There's probably something to say about the anonymity of cities making it, if not likely, at least plausible that a lizard woman from the dawn of time and her wife could live discreetly in Victorian London. A friend from London used to have bleached blond hair; no one looked (more than) twice at it there. When we went out to a small town to visit someone there, some of the local kids yelled "nice hair," sarcasticly at him.

#127 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:09 PM:

Neil W @ 126... This reminds me it's almost time for my once-a-year watching of the movie "Quatermass and the Pit". (Someone gave me the original miniseries for my birthday so I should watch that too.)

#128 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:58 PM:

Em (#82) -- Alas, yes, you got me! These grasses (including poa pratensis) are not *native* to anywhere in the US. Oregon's local native grasses are all bunch grasses, if my memory is good here, and unsuitable for lawns. My own personal "lawn" is covered by a fairly wide variety of grasses and other more or less short herbiage, including (mostly, in fact) species not actually suitable for lawns.

It was definitely careless reading on my part.

"Oregon growers produce essentially all of the U.S. production of annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum Lam.), perennial ryegrass (L. perenne L.), bentgrass (Agrostis spp.), and fine fescue (Festuca spp.). Smaller amounts, but significant portions of the USA production of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.), orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.), and tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) are also grown in Oregon." (I like the little note that this crop is well suited to wet soils. Wet soils, we gottem.)

"Since the 1950s and early 1960s, 90% of Kentucky Bluegrass seed in the United States has been produced on specialist farms in Idaho, Oregon and Washington."

#129 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 04:26 PM:

Jenny Islander @113: There is a reason why the most memorable curse in the Old Testament was upon the children of Ham, that they be made "hewers of wood and haulers of water" for the descendants of Shem. Hence the current emphasis on improving water and fuel sources.

John Coyne @120 re soil decontamination: One of these days, I have in mind to write a story about a construction company that specializes not in "greenfield" development (an area that may not exist at all outside of the U.S.), nor "brownfield", but blackfield (rehabilitating severely contaminated sites).

Cassy B @123: Years ago, the block across the street from us was an assortment of Victorian houses, all owned by the same landlord. Nearly every spot of open ground was being intensively farmed (with the landlord's permission) by a young woman who was passionately devoted to growing things. Today, those houses have been demolished and the entire block replaced by Godawful rowhouses. The good news is, the young woman now owns her own farm out in the sticks, and we see her every week at the farmers' market, selling her veggies, chicken and rabbit.

Serge Broom @127: Have you seen The Abominable Snowman? It's of the same period, written by Nigel Kneale, and has two very vivid and memorable "encounter" scenes, in neither of which do we actually see the Yeti.

#130 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 04:43 PM:

John M Burt @ 129... That's the Yeti movie featuring Peter Cushing? I didn't realize that was Kneale's. Yes, it was a very memorable encounter. I'd seen it decades ago and never forgot.

#131 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 05:15 PM:

@Jacque no. 121: I am on the fringes of the migraine swamp, so I'll throw up this link because I'm going to forget all about this in an hour or so:

The exact cooker isn't on this page, but it's a type of solar box cooker. The inventor started life someplace where cold frames are useful, put one on his balcony when he moved to New Mexico, noticed that the interior got really hot, and went, "Saaaay." After getting consistent results from cooking food in it, he designed one that could be made as cheaply as possible and started trying to sell the plans in countries where the solar incidence(?) allows for the same effect.

Basically if your culture relies on slow-cooked food for at least one meal per day, you start it in the morning, leave it, and in the afternoon you have dinner.

#132 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 05:49 PM:

Jenny Islander: Yes, that's exactly what I wanted. Thank you!

#133 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 07:30 PM:

C. Wingate at #109: If one presumes that the businesses in question are all making money, then the cost manufacture and transport of the bottles/etc is all subsumed in the final price. This of course neglects the "cost" of using up petroleum.

That last bit is important. The cost of using up the petroleum and other resources is very real, but if somebody finds a way to get out of paying the full price—whether by outright government subsidies or by somehow shifting the burden of externalities onto other people—then they will neglect the cost when they weigh alternatives, and we wind up with bad decisions. In fact this ties in to our larger discussion. If Americans paid the full cost for gasoline when we fill up at the pump, including the cost of throwing military might around in the Middle East, I can guarantee you a lot of things about our cities, suburbs, and rural areas would be different.

(And no, I'm not advocating to force anyone into any particular lifestyle. I'm just advocating for considering all the factors, not just the ones that currently affect your pocketbook.)

#134 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 11:00 PM:

Victoria @ 116: Sidelong to your main point, zero-till was developed in the 1940s, but didn't take off AFAIK until the 70s; certainly around here (Specifically, Manitoba and North Dakota both) it was considered a novel idea then, though it spread fast from the positive results. What I'd heard of its usage before then sounds like it was primarily South American. Maybe other parts of the US further south that i don't know about?

I wasn't around then, but I kind of know the history because I know one of the people who was chiefly responsible for introducing it. (And who says with pride that the majority of farmers using it today probably haven't even heard of him, and that's how it should be.)

(On the larger topic I am reading with great interest, because to be honest, what is and is not sustainable is an area to which I have more access to popular opinion and rather less to fact, and I had rather watch those with more facts to hand debate.)

#135 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 11:18 PM:

'External costs' is how I hear that described: the stuff that no one thinks about.

#136 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 11:29 PM:

Costs may be real, but until they're quantifiable, they aren't given much credence.

#137 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 07:02 AM:

David, @14: apparently chunks of the Tube will start running all night in 2015 -- at least on Friday and Saturday nights, on some lines: see this BBC report on the forthcoming night tube service.

(Parenthetically: the New York subway can run 24x7 because it was built with 3-4 tracks per line; the London Tube has to shut down because it was built with 2 tracks. With extra tracks you can still run trains while some track segments are down for maintenance and cleaning, but with only two tracks you're stuck -- the entire thing needs to be shut down for maintenance every night. Why? The version I heard is that New York's granite bedrock made tunnelling prohibitively expensive, so the subway is mostly of shallow cut-and-cover construction -- trenches dug down to bedrock, then covered over. But London rests on clay, chalk and sand, so they dug the tube lines very deep indeed in some places, and the cost of adding extra lines is, well, not cheap.)

#138 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 07:37 AM:

Tying back a fair hop to the "suburbs as vast tracts of housing but (almost) no services", when Sweden ran its "Million Programme"[1], one of the core concepts of the planners was called the "ABC" model, an initialism for "Arbete, Bostad, Centrum", or, in English, "Work, Home/Dwelling, Centre", where each suburb had mixed zoning with spaces for work, housing, and services. To quote Wikipedia, "One of the main aims behind the planning of these residential areas was to create 'good democratic citizens'. The means of achieving this were to build at high quality with a good range of services including schools, nurseries, churches, public spaces, libraries, and meeting places for different groups of households."

[1]: A public housing programme to build a million new dwellings over a 10-year period -- with a lot of failings, but those aren't germane to my point here.

#139 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 09:46 AM:

John Coyne #120: Can you give links on the mycoremediation? It's a side plot for one of my volumes in Dream's Library, and if there's already tech it would at least minimize a divine intervention...

#140 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 10:38 AM:

Carrie S. @125:

Look into Vermont Soap Stoves -- they're very efficient, and gorgeous to look at too. If our household budget ever allows I am going to install one here.

This is the one I want: Fireview

#141 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 11:01 AM:

Lori Coulson (140): That link comes up 404 for me.

#142 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 11:23 AM:

dotless ı @ 118 When I hear about food farming on reclaimed city land or under power lines the first thing I think about is soil contamination. (Under power lines the contamination can be from heavy-duty herbicides used to keep the path clear.) Does anyone know how that's being dealt with in either of those cases?

No. That kind of detail is handled on a case-by-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The options range from digging out all the contaminated soil and replacing it with "clean" topsoil, or do what John Coyne described in 120 and waiting X-number of years. There's a whole industry built around soil remediation.

Carrie S. @ 125 I need to do some research into the least smoky way of doing so.

I grew up in house heated by wood stoves. Use dry, well seasoned wood. The harder the wood the better. This means buying (or cutting if you have access to woods and can do your own work) wood that's been dead for a year, cut up into usable lengths, and allowed to cure under cover for another year. (Or a live tree chopped up and left to cure for 2 years) Wet wood is smoky wood. Dry wood burns hotter and is smokeless.

#143 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 11:41 AM:

Lori Coulson @ 140: Those stoves look amazing.

#144 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 12:31 PM:

Lenora Rose @ 134 Sidelong to your main point, zero-till was developed in the 1940s, but didn't take off AFAIK until the 70s; certainly around here (Specifically, Manitoba and North Dakota both) it was considered a novel idea then, though it spread fast from the positive results. What I'd heard of its usage before then sounds like it was primarily South American. Maybe other parts of the US further south that i don't know about?

The no-till "revolution" started in the 1960s and early 70's in Kansas. That's pretty much in line with a rapid, wholesale conversion in farming practices. 30 years may sound like a lot of time, but it was a light speed conversion when you take into account the variables. In addition to being a farmer, Dad was a John Deere mechanic for a time so he had hands-on training with the new science as it was being deployed.

So assuming a start date of 1940.
1) 5-10 years worth of research in controlled conditions testing to make sure "composting field trash in place" works. This would be done at research universities around the country. (1945-1950)

2) 5-10 more years for universities to work with equipment producing companies (John Deere, Case, Ford, International Harvester, etc.) to create the kind of seed drills that will work in un-tilled ground. (1950 - 1960)

3) 5-10 more years to deploy new machines via local dealerships. Dealerships work with the research universities to educate forward thinking farmers about the new farming practices via targeted outreach. (1955 - 1970)

4) Wait for pre-no-till equipment to break down past cost-efficient repairs while farmers gossip about yields and expenses using the new farming practices. (1956 - today)

As far as I know, all the current large scale farming equipment sold is no-till only and has been for a while*. The latest in farming technology is targeted and tailored chemical deployment via GPS technology. It's been available at the dealership level for about 15 years. It's on step #3 and not getting nearly as much traction as no-till farming did. (This from my brother, the John Deere shop supervisor.) Shorts is computer-adverse enough that I'd know if he had to start dealing with software/firmware issue instead of mechanical-engineering-type hardware. The farmers I know tend not to be bleeding-edge technogeeks.

One measure of success about how well a change in practices is going is the demand for change-specific equipment from equipment dealers. GPS controlled farm equipment is just not selling.

* Once John Deere flooded the no-till market, they started developing a line of riding lawn mowers. Some of these have attachment for Serious Vegetable Gardeners as well as People Who Want To Do More Than Just Mow Lawns. They created the Gators (aka: Golf-Cart-Sized Pickup Trucks That Aren't Called Trucks). These are much beloved by small format farmers and grounds keepers. Gators started out as your basic 4-wheel ATV's with a built-in cargo bed. Now, they're road compliant vehicles (as long as you don't need to go over 35 mph) that can seat up to 4 -- plus the cargo bed.

#145 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 12:34 PM:

Whenever fuel use for food prep. comes up I find it amazing that more is not being done to encourage the use of hot boxes (aka hay boxes) in more regions. They allow slow cooking (with zero risk of overcooking) and keeping water hot overnight for a fraction of the energy costs* needed otherwise (and meaning that women don't need to get up an hour earlier than the men to get the water heated).

*Put food/water in e.g. cast iron casserole dish. Heat to boiling. Remove from heat and place in insulated container (can literally be a box full of hay, but more efficient versions are available - we use one I made from a couple of old polystyrene boxes). Leave for a few/several hours: food is cooked and still hot or water is still warm.

#146 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 01:14 PM:

Mary Aileen, #141: Try this one.

#147 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 02:02 PM:

Lee (146): Thanks, that worked. That is a seriously cool-looking stove.

Erm, that is, an extremely nifty-looking stove that looks like it would be quite warm.

#148 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 06:29 PM:

Those are lovely stoves.

#149 ::: Em made a mistake! ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 09:00 PM:

Ack! Wrong thread! ABORT ABORT. (Can comment 149 be deleted, please? I had two tabs open and went horribly wrong.)

#150 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 07:24 AM:

This paper, just released, seems relevant to this discussion:

Goods Prices and Availability in Cities

A precis of the abstract is that once you take variations in availability into account, food gets cheaper with increased city size.

I've only read the abstract, as I don't have access to the journal it was published in, so I can't really comment on anything but that.

#151 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 10:47 AM:

guthrie @106
On silviculture, I'm pretty sure that it has been practised in England for 7 or 800 years, once they realised they were running out of forest for wood for housing and charcoal etc.

The evidence from the Sweet Track is that coppice management was in place in England in the Neolithic in 3,900 BC. I don't have the specific references from Oliver Rackham, but I think pollen evidence also suggests that the majority of woodland cover was already cleared certainly before the Roman invasion, and I suspect the Bronze Age. You certainly don't spend the time and effort building things like Stonehenge and Avebury unless you have the luxury of a relatively large population with plenty of spare time: that requires quite extensive agriculture.

England has a relatively low level of forestation for a European country (I think about 10% - haven't checked), and what there is has been carefully managed for thousands of years. The main destroyer of woodland, by far, is of course agriculture. Contrary to popular opinion things like the iron industry and shipbuilding were great protectors of woodland, as they gave it a greater value: that is one of the reasons why pre-industrial iron working centres (The Weald, the Forest of Dean) remain the most heavily wooded areas of England.

#152 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 01:49 PM:

(cross-posting for visibility)

Lee, I apologize for characterizing your comment as calling me a racist. I still have problems with it, and how you dealt with its aftermath, but I do know you didn't mean it that way.

#153 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:56 PM:

I thought this article from NPR, about making cities 'greener' (in the sense of more environmentally sustainable, rather than in the literal sense of increasing the number of trees), was relevant to the discussion.

#154 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 03:12 PM:

"If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect the inside?"

- Dr. Sheldon Cooper


#155 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 08:45 AM:

David Harmon @ 139:

Three general links Ion mycoremediation I’d suggest are here:

1) A general overview from a group of devoted mycophiles:

2) A homemade video by a gardener on Youtube:


3) An academic article that goes into more detail about the biology of the process:

#156 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 05:00 PM:

Random thought of the day: Mycoremediation is, like Pinterest, one of those words I have to regularly read about thrice to parse correctly. In this case my brain wants badly for it to be "my core mediation", which sounds like a term for the distilled philosophical pinnings behind what our moderators do.

(Pinterest to me always looks like a combination of Pinter and interest, and thus should focus on playwrights.)

#157 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2014, 12:23 AM:

My daughter just did a course on mycoremediation.

#158 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2014, 04:18 PM:

#155 John Coyne: thanks! I'll probably have to wait till I get home to read those properly.

#159 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2014, 05:18 PM:

James Harvey #151 - thank's, that is interesting to know.
THe 10% figure is, I am pretty sure, now many decades out of date. Last figure I vaguely recall was getting very close to 20%, thanks to all the woodland planting in the last 30 years, for instance the new Nottingham Forest.

The WEald and Downland iron works of course needed lots of charcoal and they quickly found that they neede coppices, with about 2,500 acres needed to supply a blast furnace in the 15 year coppicing cycle in the 16th century. But they were worried about running out of wood nonetheless, partly because it was needed in so many different things.

#160 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2014, 06:28 PM:

Does anyone here know about small patches of what USians would consider to be true old-growth forest that are extant in the British Isles, but not necessarily listed as such? Supposedly they are found in rural valleys so steep-sided and narrow that nobody has felt the need to go to the trouble of cutting them down. I can't find a reference.

#161 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 04:59 AM:

abi, #152: Apology accepted, and I will apologize in turn both for the original, overly-simplistic comment and for some of my own responses. Being offline for a few days has been beneficial.

#162 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 06:12 AM:


The trend is as you describe, but your hopes on the quantum seem optimistic: see this Telegraph article from 2010 citing UN research: broadly I think its stats (for UK, not England) are:

Domesday: 15%
1918: less than 5%
2010: 11.8% (22% growth since 1995 is quoted: which would put the 1995 figure at 9.7%)
European Average 44%

I'm afraid we remain a very unwooded country! :(

Jenny Islander@160
I don't think there is any argument for any woodland in the UK being Old Growth: everything here is managed. The closest we come is the definition of Ancient Woodland which is woodland known to exist before 1600. These are woods which will tend to have reached a stability of succession versus management, and which show the most biodiversity. Some of them, though show signs of having been cleared in the dim and distant past (e.g. Roman or other remains in them).

In essence, a great deal of the British landscape has been managed since the Neolithic, and shaped by man before that. It is not a "wild" landscape. (Which is ultimately the joy I always found in working in the best bits of it: they preserve a continuity of relationship between man and landscape, and give me some sense of an aboriginal link with the land.)

#163 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 11:09 AM:

Following up on the keeping-power-lines-clear subthread: on one of my rafting trips on the Kennebec River (Maine), I saw people harvesting wild blueberries from the scrub under the power lines that came out from the dam that mediated our rafting. There were woods on both sides of the line, so \something/ was keeping the growth down -- but I doubt it was herbicides; I don't know what kind of mowing would leave the ground-level blueberries -- maybe once a year as soon as the snow melts?
      Or do the blueberries outcompete everything else? (Wikipedia mentions "blueberry barrens".) If so, that would only work for certain soils and weather conditions....

Charlie Stross @ 137: answers a question I had for guthrie, but leaves another: is tunneling still expensive with modern tech? I've seen pictures (on the BBC website) of one monster tunnel going under London; will that machinery dig its own grave (as I understand the Chunnel gear did), or can it be reused?

Victoria @ 142: dry wood can be smokeless if burned properly; the simple fireplaces I've seen don't manage even with well-seasoned wood. How complicated does a stove have to be to get an adequate draft?
@ 144: fascinating frontline data (and a reminder that tech, no matter how pretty, fails if it isn't adopted -- getting to which requires skills beyond engineering). I wonder whether the GPS equipment will do better with a new generation; do farmers' children use smartphones? (McCaffrey had a fun story about the daughter of farmers wanting to get into animal husbandry; the tech used for crops sounded plausible to me, but I know squat about modern ]industrial[ farming.)

James Harvey @ 151: there's a ~tourism site north of Glasgow where lake-country ore was shipped for smelting before the large coal mines came in. Was that at a time when iron production had to ramp up more than the traditional forests could support? Or was it easier than shipping south to the Forest of Dean?

#164 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 11:16 AM:

CHip@163 I have no knowlege of the iron industry in pre-indsutrial Scotland: would love to know more...

#165 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 11:55 AM:

CHip @ 163: Based on the farmers and farmer-kin in my family and friends, I would say that you can safely assume computers and smartphones, especially in the youngest generations, unless you're talking about the Amish.

They're a bit technologically conservative when it comes to implementing new tech in their livelihood, and you certainly get a few of the tech-wobbly kind - whom I also see among older urban friends and kin - who can do basic e-mail and internet and scrabble games online, but not much else, but they're not exactly universal technophobes.

#166 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 12:18 PM:

CHip @163 -- I suspect that chainsaws are keeping down the woods. The power companies out here are pretty aggressive about taking down anything that's tall enough to interfere with their lines.

As for wood stoves, we heat with wood for the bulk of the winter heat load. Current EPA certified stoves are somewhat complicated, but I think the draft issue is mainly one of distance, flue diameter, and temperature differential. Once you get a plug of warm air moving up our flue, it will keep going with a decent draft. If the flue is leaky, or too large, or there's a temperature inversion, the draft sucks. We've found that 30 seconds with a hair dryer is important if we're starting a fire and the stove hasn't been used in more than 24 hours.

Modern stoves are air flow limited, and once they're going, they circulate the exhaust gasses around through the body of the stove to promote heat transfer to the interior environment, rather than send the heat out. When we have to open the door, there's a roar of draft as we go from air flow limited to not limited.

#167 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 01:18 PM:

CHip @ 163 & Lenora Rose @ 165:

Bruce Sterling tweeted an interesting piece by Rem Koolhaas last week that speaks to tech & agriculture. A relevant excerpt:

Husbandry of the land is now a digital practice. For example the tractor, which revolutionised the farm in the 19th century, has become a computerised work station. It is a series of devices and sensors that create a seamless, yet detached digital interface between the driver and the earth.

The countryside in terms of how we work is becoming very similar to the city. The farmer is like us – a flex worker, operating on a laptop from any possible location.

#168 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 02:41 PM:

CHip @ 163: is tunneling still expensive with modern tech?

The short answer is No. With modern equipment a tunnel can be drilled quickly, inexpensively and not least safely.

The long answer is It Depends. There are so many variables - what's the rock like, what's above it, what kind of safety rules apply for the usage. (The rules for road tunnels in Europe have been tightened up quite a bit in the last couple of decades...)

#169 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 04:14 PM:

re 162: For comparison's sake, Maryland has about 42% forest cover.

#170 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 05:42 PM:

CHip @ 163I wonder whether the GPS equipment will do better with a new generation; do farmers' children use smartphones?

Oh, yes, current farmers' children are very tech savvy and love their smart phones as much as dedicated urbanite youth. Here's a sample of what they do with tech in their free time. Their parents are also tech savvy and have run the numbers about cost-to-implement vs return-on-investment.

Here's the short answer as to why GPS farming is not taking off. The economies of scale makes it too expensive to implement and maintain. GPS farming is not the same as GPS driving using turn-by-turn navigation, even though the technology is easily translatable. The cost of creating and maintaining the databases that GPS driving uses is shared by everyone with a car who has a GPS enabled device. The cost of creating and maintaining a farming database is shared by no one except the person who commissioned it. That kind of software/database development and management costs around $500,000 up front plus annual fees for maintenance. Farming is just like any other industry, all the profits come out of a very narrow margin. It's a very risky way to live because a short run of bad luck (2-3 years) will eat all of your savings plus your profits for the next several years.

And there's the time-sensitive nature of farming vs manhours needed to update/maintain data.

#171 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 04:09 AM:

C. Wingate@169: Thanks, that's intersting. In other words very similar to the European average, where they have A Lot More Land. The British isles are very crowded, and this has severely affected the level of forest cover for a very long time. Ireland is particularly bad.

#172 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 04:15 AM:

I remember when GPS assistance first appeared. You could map where in a field the good and bad yields were, and use position data to modify fertiliser application. Unfortunately, you needed more data to know why the yield was bad. Was it every year? Would increasing fertiliser rate on that patch pay off? And how much extra did it cost to get precise emough GPS locations? Civilian GPS was limited to 100m precision until 2000. Even the 20m precision is a bit vague, and I remember seeing some huge jumps in recorded position. They were, at least, pretty obvious.

The net effect seemed to be one of removing the need for expensive skilled workers who knew the land. We Bells were not that old a farming family, but I knew the Hobdens. And how many of today's owners and managers would want to ask advice of a worker?

#173 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 08:59 AM:

CHip @ 163

In Virginia/Tennessee, the mowing that leaves berries is every several years (every 5-10 years); the big powerline-type mowers can mow trees as thick as your arm fairly easily[1], and backed up a man with a chainsaw can easily go over something that's been left alone for 10 years.

1) They have semi-exposed blades covered by chains; imagine a giant lawnmower with the front deck cut off. There are also brush hogs, which are basically hammer mills; here's a video. And you can mount a brush hog on an excavator--this is handy in mountainous areas; here's a video of one of those.

#174 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 09:16 AM:

Satellite controlled precision tractors are well established, if still expensive. The price has dropped considerably in the last decade. They range from giant industrial size ones to fairly modest size ones like this one here.. They aren't actually out there completely driverless, but the operator doesn't have to be driving all the time. Much less fatiguing, which is a plus for older farmers. Also, pretty cool, a plus for younger farmers.

#175 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 09:17 AM:

Satellite controlled precision tractors are well established, if still expensive. The price has dropped considerably in the last decade. They range from giant industrial size ones to fairly modest size ones like this one here.. They aren't actually out there completely driverless, but the operator doesn't have to be driving all the time. Much less fatiguing, which is a plus for older farmers. Also, pretty cool, a plus for younger farmers.

#176 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 10:09 AM:

I must find that tractor beam.

#177 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 11:42 AM:

Serge @#176

This one?

#178 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 07:02 PM:
Oh, yes, current farmers' children are very tech savvy and love their smart phones as much as dedicated urbanite youth. [...] The cost of creating and maintaining a farming database is shared by no one except the person who commissioned it. That kind of software/database development and management costs around $500,000 up front plus annual fees for maintenance.

The first should fix the latter in time. Databases/GIS are tedious, but they're now open source and with only a few users they no longer need constant priestly attendance. The GPS'd equipment is going to be able to do the data entry. And *analyzing* how the nutrient flows are doing takes up farmers' time anyway. Well, unless nutrients and topsoil are so cheap that `pour it on and plow it often' is always the economic answer. I don't think they'll stay so cheap.

#179 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 08:16 PM:

John Coyne #155: At first glance of those links, they seem to be focused on dealing with organic contaminants, including both sewage and industrial organics. Still wondering about heavy metals -- I've heard of plants being used for those, but wonder how deep those can reach.

#180 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 08:19 PM:

For all the talk about farmers and tech here, what I actually see when I drive past the fields around here -- "around here" being the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys, where a large proportion of the greenstuffs and fruit comes from for the US -- what I actually see is workers bent over, doing everything by hand and by their own observation: old-fashioned tractors: irrigation by pipe and wheel: and the workers getting by with one or two porta-potties for a field. And many of the workers still living in barracks and shanties, with inadequate sanitation and amenities.

Tech is irregularly applied and it is applied the least where it would improve the conditions of the workers in the field.

#181 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 08:28 PM:

Or tractors pulling trailers with workers and a small conveyor belt.

It's much easier to automate things like wheat, corn and cotton, where they don't have to run multiple passes to harvest.

#182 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 01:56 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer #180: And then there's the child labor and slave-like conditions for migrant workers....

#183 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 03:50 PM:

David Harmon @ 179: Certain plants are known as "hyperaccumulators," which have very high tolerances to metals and actually absorb metal molecules from the soil and store them in plant tissue. A good list of hyperaccumulators and the metals they hyperaccumulate can be found here:

As to depth, you are limited to root depth, which doesn't really help you with very deep contamination. You can probably reach deeper with microbial remediation, which can also be used in contaminated bodies of water. One well-known heavy-metal eating microbe is a genetically engineered form of the extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans:

#184 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 05:31 PM:

Chip #163 - you're htinking of Bonawe, which used ore mined from the Lakes district or nearby - must have been more economic to ship it to Argyll than all the way round Wales, Cornwall etc, to what was by the 18th century probably not such a wooded area as compared to back in the 16th. Also they could probably rent the land and plant and maintain the forestry cheaper there than what was probably more expensive land in the south of England.

Then the use of coke was invented and Bonawe survived a surprisingly long time, but succumbed eventually.

Luce #180- one of the things which comes up again and again is the need for foreign workers to pick our crops in our fields (our being UK), because British workers can't keep up with the work, being too slow/ workshy/ not hard enough. Unfortunately there's a dangerously large number of people who see that sort of thing and think, why aren't people willing to work at backbreaking work, live in a caravan for months at a time and earn minimum wage? I hate such people, but they love the evil Tory party.

#185 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2014, 10:40 AM:

John Coyne #183: Thanks!

#186 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2014, 01:10 AM:

Technically, yes, I suppose the average Manhattanite burns only that much gasoline. I'd suggest that the important question might be more like "how much petrofuel are individuals in the two areas responsible for the use of?". I'd guess that the Vermonters might be equal or superior in morality to big-city dwellers in that. (& I notice a recent indication that the largest city in Vermont now operates _entirely_ on renewable-energy power sources.)

#187 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 12:08 PM:

James Harvey @ 171: guthrie @ 183 has the name; the site is I haven't dug deeply into either the site or the pamphlet from our files, but they agree that the iron (and the builders, judging by architectural details) came from Cumbria. (And now I'm groping for the title of the film involving Cumbrian copper miners tunneling to New Zealand during the plague.) Skimming the pamphlet brings up a detail enforcing your point on location: a large fraction of traditional charcoal (i.e., not the glued-together briquets used in U.S. cookouts) tends to become useless powder when shipped a distance. The pamphlet also estimates that Bonawe needed 10,000 acres of deciduous woodland to provide a renewable supply of charcoal to match the recorded iron production. Bonawe isn't anywhere near the oldest foundry; it's just the one that lasted late and got preserved.

all: fascinating comments on farming -- especially the economic points. I wonder how many non-corporate farms will be left in another generation, when corporations can take risks on setup costs that most individuals can't risk? Civic-minded local banks could help here -- but most of them are also gone.

#188 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 03:35 PM:

CHip @187.

You are thinking of The Navigator, directed by Vincent Ward.

J Homes.

#189 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 06:35 PM:

Don Fitch #186: I'd suggest that the important question might be more like "how much petrofuel are individuals in the two areas responsible for the use of?". I'd guess that the Vermonters might be equal or superior in morality to big-city dwellers in that.

I wouldn't bet on that. Besides individual travel costs as discussed above, the city-dwellers have considerable economies of scale for other things (shipping, distribution, public facilities and services, medical care, etc.), and that's going to do wonders for their per capita numbers.

#190 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2014, 02:35 PM:

CHip @ 187 I wonder how many non-corporate farms will be left in another generation, when corporations can take risks on setup costs that most individuals can't risk?

The answer to that depends on what is being farmed by which method and by whom on any given piece of land. It's not unusual for farmers to get together, pool their money and buy large parcels of land on a public auction and split it up based on an agreement reached before hand. Some (family) farming communities also manage sales/auctions so commercial concerns are kept out. The last two big land sales up home were negotiated affairs, not an actual auction where an unknown bidder from outside the community could win.

It's entirely possible for young farmers wanting to start out to obtain land and equipment, but they need to invest a lot of personal sweat equity before the money/property exchange is ever talked about. Non corporate farmers that are not after getting the best price per acre on a public sale tend to invest in people with a good work ethic or strong community ties, preferably both.

That's leaving out the land owners who lease farmland to farmers for either a percentage of the profits or a deal that works in a way that's similar to renting an apartment (AKA: share cropping vs cash rent).

#191 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 11:20 AM:

J Homes: TFTR. I thought that was the title but for some reason only found Flight of the Navigator in IMDB.

Victoria: an interesting trend I hadn't known of -- neither individual nor corporate but cooperative. I wonder whether corporations try to make such organization difficult (as it would reduce their chances of getting control) -- and how they would do so; shouting "Communism!" wouldn't make much of an impression on people who already have some understanding of interdependence.

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