Preparing for Peak Oil: Nutty Survivalism or Crucial Equity Issue?

Should community developers and other low-income community advocates be concerned about preparing for life after peak oil?

We all know that the greed of the banking industry is responsible for much of the pain of the current foreclosure crisis, and especially its effects on poor neighborhoods. But as the recent report from CEOs for Cities, Driven to the Brink, points out, there’s another piece to the puzzle: They argue that rising gas prices “pricked” the housing bubble, particularly in those exurban areas that weren’t particularly the happy hunting grounds of predatory lenders, but yet are experiencing massive foreclosures.

So what?, you may ask. How much do we care if speculators and rich folks who bought McMansions in the latest version of white flight suffer a little foreclosure? Don’t advocates for poor city neighborhoods have more important things to worry about? Maybe we do.

But rising gas prices are by most accounts not just a temporary thing this time around. As increasing numbers of economists, environmentalists, investors, and politicians are recognizing, we’re on the downward slope of the curve of world oil production. This is called peak oil. Our sprawling development patterns and energy-intensive infrastructure are not long for this world, whether we like it or not, and life after peak oil, not to mention with climate change, could look pretty different than anything we’re familiar with.

Sooner than the more extreme scenarios, however, will be dramatic effects on the neighborhoods we all work in and care about, though what exactly the patterns will look like is a matter for debate. It seems like initially, at least, rising gas prices will drive people back into the centers, and we may see sudden rises in demand, and the danger of displacement, in even the most marginal urban neighborhoods, but especially those served by public transportation.

In the long run, peak oil curmudgeon/prophet Jim Kunstler predicts that big cities could prove to be unsustainable and small cities and small towns, nearer to sources of food and old-fashioned power, will resurge. (However, for all his insightfulness, Kunstler, it should be noted, was never a fan of big cities, and as often for the wrong reasons as the right ones.

In the second chapter of his book Home from Nowhere he essentially scolds black people for making themselves into an underclass and therefore making cities unpleasant to live in. That’s when I stopped reading.

So it could be instead that Richard Florida’s spiky world will continue to develop, with people flocking to concentrated areas of innovation, and items like these food-producing skyscrapers will keep big cities viable and allow a return of outlying areas to carbon-sink forests.

But either way, really, in any major shift like this, it is poor folks who generally get screwed. Those with the power now will be the ones who continue to have access to oil — and the resulting medicine and fertilizer and plastic, not to mention preferred locations to live — much longer than anyone else. It would seem to behoove those working for equitable, sustainable communities to be paying attention to what’s coming down the pike and starting a conversation about what it would mean to make this transition equitably.

Of course, I know this is a tall order, partly because there’s hardly any conversation nationally about how to make that transition at all. But it could be awfully important.

Groups like Green for All, which is working to connect urban residents with jobs in the green building economy, have part of the answer. Others who are working on urban food production and helping low-income homeowners improve the energy-efficiency of their homes are also in the ballpark. But more ambitious discussions of low-energy, sustainable urban communities, like the work of the Rhizome Collective, still tend to be pretty culturally distant from most low-income, people of color communities, even though their work (which includes things like brownfield remediation) is more relevant to those communities than much of the more wilderness-oriented environmental movement.

What would it take to bridge that gap? How do we turn our attention to the future when today needs all the attention we can give it? Your thoughts?

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. I’ve been wondering how long it’s going to take before someone gets the idea to convert foreclosed suburban and exurban McMansions into small apartments or boarding houses a la NYC brownstones mid-20th century.

  2. As market forces dictate a move away from the “crude” mentality, including oil costs related to construction and shipping, most planning experts in the field agree that moving back to urban centers, or redeveloping smaller town centers, is the most sustainable move for the long-term. While I think Axel-Lute is trying to say the poor people will get screwed because they will be displaced by reverse White Flight, I’m not sure about the notion that people with the oil will have the power. The whole idea in this changing economy is that as new energy technologies blossom, they will be used to mitigate the effects caused by peak oil. While the advent and mainstreaming of those technologies will surely have the current oil barons suddenly donning their green collars, the leaders in these fields are some of the most progressive visionaries, stemming back to the environmental movement (when most folks didn’t care about gas consumption because it was cheap). As such, it’s a good bet that you’ll see far better planning this time around — planning that not only includes cheaper, more efficient, more sustainable resources, but inclusionary policies that won’t necessarily displace the poor, turning today’s so-called McMansions into tenements. Fusing progressive thought into policy is not the norm, of course, and we need to continue to aggressively lobby for inclusionary affordable housing, and affordable green housing as urban centers become more viable alternatives for people who are no longer solvent in today’s oil-based world.


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