The Coming Golden Age of Great Necessities

anvil at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Many are asking today “is there reason to be optimistic?” My own profession of architecture is lying in smoking ruins, as I wrote recently. And the end is not in sight; we’re likely to endure even further decline until the remaining firms have very few people left within them. The thieves of circumstance, it seems, have stolen our futures. But in the middle of all this gloom, I believe there’s a reasonable chance that we might be on the threshold of a new golden age. Here’s why:

wooden bowl and ladle at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   One would think that we would build the best places and live the best lives when we have the greatest resources, but that assumption is broken on so many examples we can see with our own eyes. Is it possible that when we have it good, we get it wrong, and when we have it bad, we get it right?

   I think that’s often so, and here’s why: as I wrote over a year ago, when times are tough, we can’t afford to be wasteful. Prosperity and wastefulness often go hand-in-hand, as do want and frugality. Usually, these relationships follow the ups and downs of the economy, but nothing really changes structurally. This time, however, the meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession have been so severe that they likely could have caused serious structural changes on their own. But they’re not alone.

drying frame at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   We have two other massive change agents at work in what Jim Kunstler and others call the Great Convergence. One is Peak Oil, which appears to be happening just as 2.5 billion Chinese and Indian citizens are moving into the city, where many of them will need cars. And that’s not even counting many millions in Brazil, Bangladesh, and other nations who are in the middle of the same migration. The third leg of the Great Convergence is the environment, and the growing realization among the great majority of the population that climate change is real, and that it is changing the world we once knew... and that we must take measures to stave off far great consequences.

   So now, many systems are dying, or being irreparably altered, by all this thunderous change. But most are the very things that had to die in order to usher in the golden age. Follow me on this one, as I attempt to tell four two-century-long stories in a couple minutes each... they’re the stories of how we shop, how we work, what we eat, and where we live. Similar stories could be told about other aspects of our life as well.


Shopping

earthenware and barrels at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Before the Industrial Revolution, most things were made by local craftspeople and sold by local merchants. The railroads changed all that by making it easier to sell things further away. This allowed more efficient manufacturers to grow to great size and sell at great distance, putting many local craftspeople out of business. Trucks were introduced later and only amplified the effect.

   These early manufacturers, by today’s standards, made fairly simple stuff. A window manufacturer, for example, might use the exact same knives to make the exact same window components as another window manufacturer; they would just do it more efficiently, and therefore win the business. In effect, they were manufacturing commodities.

   Clever manufacturers began to realize that “getting commoditized,” or making something that someone else could duplicate was a death knell for all except the single most efficient company in the market, which would then drive the others out of business. And so the battle cry became “proprietize!” In other words, build a proprietary product that you could patent and that nobody else could make. If you did so, nobody could undercut you; your biggest challenge was to convince customers to buy your stuff.

keg, axe, lantern, and hammer at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Proprietary products, however, had an unintended consequence. Grocery stores that sold only commodities like black beans, rice, milk, tomatoes, bananas, etc., could be very small. There are several groceries within a couple blocks of my office that are less than 3,000 square feet each. But just as soon as groceries had to stock Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and 60 other proprietary cereals, the stores necessarily ballooned. Today, a 40,000 square foot grocery is considered small in the grocery industry.

   Mega-stores have an unintended consequence as well: they must attract customers from many miles around, rather than just a few blocks, because there aren’t enough customers within just a few blocks to keep them in business unless they’re in a very highly-populated urban setting. So when proprietary products proliferate, the neighborhood store becomes impossible. This condition requires sprawl. Let that sink in a moment: proprietary products can’t survive in neighborhood retail; they can only survive in sprawl, because they can’t get on the very limited shelf-space of the neighborhood stores. When New Urbanist retail expert Seth Harry introduced a similar idea years ago, I resisted it, but Seth was right, for similar reasons as these.

   Today, the likelihood of much higher gas prices due to the convergence of Peak Oil with the industrialization of the world’s most populous countries means that the core driver of big box retail in suburbia may be ending, and in its place, it’s not unreasonable to think we might see a resurgence of local craftspeople and local shops. But without the Great Convergence, local craftspeople and local shops would be nothing but a romantic memory of our culture in most places.


Working

keg and tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Work before the Industrial Revolution was almost always done at home or very near home. The idea of having a job and working for wages didn’t even exist in most places beforehand. But with the advent of the factory came the need for many workers. During most of the 19th century, the majority of these workers couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than right around the factory.

   The years surrounding 1900 saw two major changes to this arrangement: the first modern planners realized that if the “dark satanic mills” were separated from the rest of the town, the people would live healthier lives. This new mandated distance from home to work now meant that you could no longer walk to work. The rise of powerful labor unions during the same era produced higher-wage workers with greater means available for the cost of getting around, and the automobile’s advances in the early years of the 20th century sealed the deal: we would henceforth commute to work.

tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   But work didn’t sit still. Rather, workplaces began moving around madly, abandoning the central city, especially after World War II, for a raft of reasons. As did the workers, especially beginning in with the civil unrest of the 1960’s. And so work and home grew much further apart. Today, the Compulsory Commuting of many Americans tops two hours per day.

   Three things are poised to change this as well: First, the Great Convergence will quickly render many of those commutes unaffordable. Next, the character of work has changed dramatically as most of our factory work has gone off-shore, and there are few factories left. But when the Great Convergence brings jobs back onshore as we become unable to afford to ship stuff all around the world to build a shirt or a shovel, don’t expect it to come back in giant factories. Rather, look for smaller workshops that fit much better into the fabric of a town. Finally, we’ve built some really massive pipes for the internet over the past twenty years. These will allow work to be done from home in quantities we haven’t seen in 200 years. Again, working from home or near home would be only a romantic memory if not for the Great Convergence.


Eating

carrots at Pike Place Market, Seattle

   Once, most food came from very close around, even in major cities. Look at old maps of London, Rome, or Paris, and you’ll see gardens and orchards built tight around the city. Most food was still raised close to home until the advent of refrigerated transport around the end of World War II. Enterprising industrialists realized this meant that the dynamics of industrialization could apply to food as well, and modern agribusiness was born.

   Government cooperated heartily. Earl Butz, head of the Department of Agriculture in the mid-1970’s, harangued farmers with “Get big or get out!” The family farm shortly was swept into history, replaced by farms of a thousand acres or more in many places.

Pike Place Market vegetable & fruit display, Seattle, Washington

   Originally, agribusiness was a mostly a regionalized operation, with fields, processing plants, and customers all located within a few hundred miles of each other in most cases. But the epic battles between migrant farm worker unions and agribusiness a few decades ago prompted a massive move to “export the guilt” to other countries, where entire families can work for a few cents a day in some places in Central and South America and most in the US don’t worry about it one bit. The primary plant agriculture left in the US is grains (corn, wheat, oats, etc.) and soybeans because these can be tended and harvested industrially with huge equipment, rather than hand-tended by an army of agricultural workers, like most vegetables require.

   But this “food that needs passports” had some unintended consequences as well. Sitting in a refrigerated truck for three weeks before getting to market was more than most fruits and vegetables could take, so we had to genetically engineer them to be able to endure the trip. The price we pay in taste and nutrition is substantial. If you doubt that, slice open a locally-raised heirloom tomato and one from the supermarket and see for yourself.

   Today, the Great Convergence is poised to make the entire industrial food chain unworkable, because it depends so heavily on oil. Couple that with the growing local food movement, and it’s entirely possible to imagine much of America living on food raised nearby... a completely unthinkable thing before the Great Convergence.


Living

fireplace at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   The history of the American home is bloated in recent years. We’ve doubled the average size of home since World War II, during which time the average household size has nearly been cut in half. But we have so much excess stuff that won’t fit in houses twice as large inhabited by half as many people that we’ve made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business!

   Not only have our homes grown twice as large, but they’re also much more poorly constructed than they once were. This is because we’ve discarded the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum as humanity’s longest-running cost control device and insisted on building in certain styles, even if we have to do it with vinyl and duct tape!

strainer & pan at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Couple this with the fact that because we moved so much, most homebuyers’ sentiments went something like this: “I’ll only be living here 8 years or less; why should I care if the roof doesn’t last more than 15 years?” By taking this attitude, we’ve condemned each American generation to bear the burden of building their own homes. Doubt that? Talk to your friends. If you talk to 100 friends, unless they’re all very young, you’ll likely find more than 100 new homes built or bought between them. This great burden of insubstantial housing doubtless helped bring on the Meltdown.

   We cannot afford this insanity any longer. We need to build for centuries, not just for a decade or so. We need to be able to hand things down through generations, not just use things up. We also need to be allowed to build very small at the beginning, and grow our buildings over time. Much of the charm of traditional buildings comes from their incremental growth over generations, and the history it embodies. But our ancestors didn’t do this for charm; they did it out of necessity, as home mortgages didn’t exist at the time, so you built what you could afford, and added on later as you needed.

   Fortunately, I firmly believe that if we’re wise, we’ll see the Great Convergence as the motivation we need to build substantially again. Like the ways we shop, work, and eat, this paradigm shift in the ways we build our buildings could not have occurred without the Great Convergence.


The Golden Age

balances at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Massive systems were set up to run the world as we know it: FHA, VA, volume builders, Euclidean zoning, agribusiness and the industrial food chain, payroll deductions, the health care system, and all the other structures of the modern workplace, for example. All of these things produce, as their natural end results, strip centers, shopping malls, sprawl, placeless workplaces, ever--increasing consumption of processed food leading to our ever-increasing obesity and ill health, and bloated houses in suburbia that fall apart more quickly all the time.

   All of these systems are fueled in varying degrees by things put in jeopardy by the Great Convergence. All of these systems had to fail or become irrelevant before we could reach the threshold of an age when people live more simply, sustainably, and happily with the resources available to them, surrounded with great necessities that make us great, rather than being surrounded with the recent overabundance of things that have made us fat and not so smart. I really hope we have the wisdom to land gently and safely into that golden age, rather than crashing into some unimaginable dark age. It’s up to us... what will we choose?


   ~Steve Mouzon


This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Is there a reason to be optimistic?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:


Veronika Miller  @modenus  Modenus Community

Paul Anater  @paul_anater  Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg  @dogwalkblog  DogWalkBlog.com

Becky Shankle  @ecomod  Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson  @bobborson  Life of an Architect

Bonnie Harris  @waxgirl333  Wax Marketing

Nick Lovelady  @cupboards  Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Tamara Dalton  @tammyjdalton  Tamara Dalton Studios

Sean Lintow, Sr.  @SLSconstruction  SLS-Construction.com

Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse's Posterous

Madame Sunday  @ModernSauce  Modern Sauce

Saxon Henry  @saxonhenry  Roaming by Design

Brian Meeks  @ExtremelyAvg  Extremely Average

Denese Bottrell  @Denese_Bottrell  Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green  @chamwashere  Cham Was Here

Betsy De Maio  @egrgirl  Egrgirl's Blog

Steve Kleber  @stevekleber  Marketing Home Products

Allison Bailes III @EnergyVanguard Energy Vanguard Blog

Ami  @beackami  Multifarious Miscellany


I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.


Legacy Comments:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:37 AM

Cindy Frewen Wuellner

   Steve: you made a book here, I think, the outlines of a very good long read. I hope you will write the full blown version. Those are the key points, at least from a built environment story - how we use cities. You’re right, the shape of these buildings are dependent on sprawl; part and parcel. so without cars, they dont work.

   I hope that you are right, a golden age ahead. That is optimism indeed. I really think that suburbs were going to implode regardless of the convergence - which is undeniably sending them off the deep end. Our growth slowed too much. What I wonder is what will we do with them now? They are part of our legacy, what boomers left for the next gens to fix. A sustainable makeover or dismantling?

   Such an important post, thanks for thinking it through.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:47 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Cindy! As for the suburbs, check out the Sprawl Repair Manual by my good friend Galina Tachieva. It's really a landmark book. As for this post, I hadn't thought of making it into a book, but there's really so much potential content lurking in each section that it really could become one... thanks for the idea!


Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:49 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... if you're trying to comment, please copy the comment before clicking Add Comment, and if it doesn't post, please email it to me at steve@mouzon.com and I'll put it up. iWeb is having issues today; Apple is having a product keynote address in less than two hours; I hope this is a harbinger of a new version of iWeb with the features I've been asking them for. iWeb is excellent, but could get better.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 04:27 PM

Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

   Wonderful post, Steve! You've eloquently described the structural changes in how we live, eat, work, and shop that were brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Now that we're going through the Great Recession and the Great Convergence, those changes are being undone. The structure is changing again, which I mentioned in my LetsBlogOff post, and we have a great opportunity before us.

   Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial, I don't believe it's possible for the post-peak oil world to unwind symmetrically. You've pointed out one factor that will make a huge difference, and that's the "really massive pipes for the internet" available to us. Yes, this "series of tubes" that I'm using now has tremendous power to ease our transition into a better future (and I'm not just talking about videos of laughing babies, piles of puppies, and naughty teen threesomes).

   And I'm with you in the optimism department. Anyone who's aware of what's really going on now and the huge changes that are coming has to make a choice - Work for positive change or run and hide. I choose the former and, like you, hope that we can avoid a dark age.


Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:45 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Allison! And I agree... I don't see us going back to exactly like we were in 1750. What future conditions hold isn't clear right now, but it's almost certain it won't be an exact repeat of the past.


Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:38 PM

Hal O'Brien

   I know it's the conventional wisdom of Kunstler, et al., that Peak Oil will result in two things: 1) phenomenally high prices for oil, 2) a corresponding collapse of the global economy.

   The problem is, supply and demand strongly implies you can get one or the other, but not both.  Consider that in 2009 we saw a 5% slackening of demand for oil, but a 50% drop in price.  Oil is very demand sensitive -- which is why OPEC keeps the taps open.  If merely reducing supply could significantly raise the price of oil, OPEC would have done it long ago.

   Kunstler has said we're sleepwalking into the future.  If so, OPEC is sleepwalking right alongside us.  Or, to put it another way, Kunstler and the Peak Oilers keep acting like the 1973 embargo was the defining event, and supply could go away at any time; OPEC keeps acting like the oil glut of the 1980s was the defining event, and demand could go away at any time.

   All that said {ahem}... I very much liked the insight about brand-items causing the physical growth of grocery shops, compared to raw commodities.  Makes me wonder if there isn't already a "no-brand" niche out there that could be served by smaller shops.  {pause}  Which, arguably, Trader Joe's is already doing.


Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:50 PM

Hal O'Brien

   Ms Bailes: "Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial..."

   Only because of widespread ignorance of history. Consider this description from 1919: "The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth ... he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world."

   That's a world notably pre-petroleum, but post-industry. (The writer is Keynes, by the way.) My point is, industrial society existed from the 1830s or so until the gusher at Spindletop in 1901 with no oil at all.  Even after Spindletop, oil didn't become a major force in society until the widespread adoption of the automobile, which didn't take place for decades. Oil could disappear tomorrow, and industrialism would still be with us -- didactic nostalgic moralists to the contrary.


Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks for the really insightful comments, Hal! And please visit often! A few thoughts in response:

   A. Until now, the oil supply side has had the ability to respond to the demand side by ratcheting supply up or down, according to what's going on. Kunstler and the Peak Oilers are saying that once Peak Oil conditions are firmly in control, there won't be the ability to open the taps further. In other words, their predictions are based on future conditions we haven't seen heretofore. Will the economy be slammed so badly that demand drops enough to actually bring prices back down? Who knows? But we shall see...

   B. I personally don't believe that there's any way we'll ever go back to some idyllic past. Somewhat akin to the core idea of the Heaths' Curse of Knowledge, we can't just forget what we already know. Some might say "but wait, what about the Dark Ages?" During the medieval era (which wasn't necessarily all so dark) knowledge was kept by the select few, and passed on through the torturous means of writing everything by hand on paper, making knowledge much more tenuous. Today, an average eighth grader arguably knows more facts about the physical world than almost anyone in medieval times. So knowledge is much more firmly embedded. So even if there is the failure of major systems, I believe knowledge will survive much more intact. So the question we should be asking ourselves today isn't "will we go back?" but "what works best?" That question has always been at the core of the Original Green, and the answers it generates are framed by "We do this because..."


Thursday, December 30, 2010 - 12:39 PM

Anonymous

What you are trying to say is we went from a wealth of poverty to the poverty of wealth. BTW your anvil (18th century is my guess) is a poor example to show as its working edges are all smashed over or chipped out. Show one with sharp clean working edges. We have forgotten so much.

Richard O. Byrne www.richardobyrne.com

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