Monday, February 11, 2008

Dave Cohen's suburban savanna

People have been moving to the suburbs for decades to escape the supposed afflictions of the city: noise, crime, lack of privacy, air pollution, poor schools, high taxes, traffic congestion and a host of other maladies. In suburbia many of them found relief, that is, until enough people moved out with them and created urban problems all over again. This caused some to move even further out to what are now called the outer ring suburbs.

Though gasoline prices are rising, traffic congestion is increasing, commutes are lengthening, and the supposed advantages of suburban life are diminishing, suburbia continues to attract new adherents even as it maintains its powerful hold on those already living there. Can it be that there is something more basic going on than simply a dislike of the city?

Dave Cohen thinks so. Known for his work on The Oil Drum and now for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas-USA, Cohen believes there is an instinctual basis for our love of suburbia, one that may be hard to break through even as the cheap oil which has made suburbia possible disappears. He plans to do more research and to write about the topic in the future. But, when he mentioned it to me, I couldn't resist asking him a few questions and reporting on his preliminary findings.

We are creatures adapted to moving around, Cohen explains. The anatomically modern humans who appeared 1.7 million years ago on the plains of East Africa were designed for hunting and gathering. In short, they were designed for movement for the purposes of acquiring food and avoiding predators. And, move these early humans did, throughout Africa and much of Asia. They didn't have the technology to live in cold climates or they might have wandered further north as well.

Mobility is a trait so basic to humans "that nobody notices that it's there," he says. "It's totally automatic." Of course, there have been many modes of mobility throughout history, but nothing that could take the average person so far, so fast as the automobile. And, because of modern manufacturing techniques, such as the assembly line, those automobiles became affordable to the masses.

Our instinctive penchant for mobility, according to Cohen, meant that "everybody would drive and everybody did if they could afford it." Long before the arrival of the car, agriculture brought millennia of confinement to small villages, constricted rural landscapes, and urban centers. Then, suddenly, the car made it possible for the great mass of people once again to roam the landscape. As they did, they set about creating what Cohen calls the industrial suburban savanna. So instinctually attractive was this new savanna that "they built it out so the entire culture is structured around the automobile," he said. Only instinct would seem to explain why people would "transform an entire landscape to accommodate personal transportation [such as the car]."

Because this phenomenon is worldwide and not just seen in North America or Europe, Cohen thinks it demands an explanation. "A deep biologically rooted instinct got triggered by the advent of the car," he contends. While he recognizes that there is no way to "prove" his theory and that it therefore falls into the scientific definition of a "just-so story," he thinks the theory is a good point of departure for talking about the love affair the world has had and continues to have with suburbs.

One disadvantage to the automobile version of mobility is that it cuts way down on communication. It's hard to talk with a person in another automobile at 70 miles per hour no matter how close they are to you. At first, we tried to make up for this loss of voices with radios. We have recently tried to make up for it with cellphones. "What you get is the perfectly mindless combination of people driving around and talking on their cellphones," he says. In this case by "mindless" he means "instinctual."

Driving goes beyond simply foraging for food and other necessities. It is now mandatory if one wants to have a social life. We drive to visit people we know and travel sometimes to encounter ones we don't. It is this instinct for sociability that may be one of the keys to challenging the hold that suburbia has on the minds and instincts of so many. For example, many couples who have finished raising their children, so-called empty nesters, are now returning to the city for the enhanced sociability that it offers.

Cohen writes frequently about energy issues and especially about peak oil. He thinks that if the reluctance of people to leave the energy-intensive life of suburbia is instinctually rooted, we will not be able to get them to change their habits or their deployment in the landscape through merely rational appeals. Of course, the survival instinct may come into play if peak oil creates conditions which are desperate enough in suburbia.

But, in the meantime, perhaps the best way to encourage people to settle in more compact communities is to make those communities more richly social. Then, we would be pitting one instinct against another. And, that seems more like a fair fight.


Anonymous said...

Blogger ate my first comment ... this should be similar.

Great piece, and I agree pretty much totally.

I've met a lot of people over the years who like to talk about "American" car culture. I've tried to remind them that e every culture that could afford a car culture developed one. There are charactaristic "people's cars" from around the world.

I don't despise the suburbs because (a) I see them a house with a garden, the "50 foot diet" and (b) I think we have enough tech to give them sustainable mobility today.

If oil were truly expensive or global warming taken seriously then bicycles, electric cars, and telecommuting could come seriously into play.

Returning to mobility and our nature ... people ride bicycles across states (and countries) for fun! What does that say about us?

(And if anyone isn't getting their daily/weekly human-powered mobility ... it might be good for you. It might be what you are built for.)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a good way to get mobility mojo would be to go on periodic peacewalks and other pilgirmages.

miles said...

I'm writing a book about this very subject. Without giving away the punchline, I would observe that while the biological propensity to cover territory is real, walking (and possibly to a small degree riding an animal) is the only mode of movement that we evolved specifically to need/enjoy/require. Vehicular movement and higher speed movement may feed the same reward centers and meet similar needs, but just as refined sugars produced by industrialized agricultural systems far exceed our biological need for sugars, so also mechanized high speed transport enables us to procure the "movement through space" good at a level and quantity that far exceeds are biological need (to say nothing of exceeding the planets capacity to meet that high level of use.)

There is, needless to say, a great deal more that can be said about the subject!

Anonymous said...

Another great piece, Kurt! Thank you.

I think it bears repeating that the struggle between homo automobilicus and homo pedestrianus is a zero-sum game. Because of his demand for ultra-convenient free (or cheap) parking at his every destination, the motorist undermines, destroys, and prevents the formation of compact urban habitat.

NOTE: "green" cars would do NOTHING to ameliorate this.

To paraphrase BillyBoi, "It's the highways and parking, stupid!"

Hans Noeldner

Anonymous said...

NOTE: "green" cars would do NOTHING to ameliorate this.

If "green" cars stay stuck at limited range then they will encourage tighter communities (perhaps mesh-villages forming out of the suburban sprawl).

Anonymous said...

I happened to be surfing (to see if my current self agrees with my past self), and found this May 8, 2006 post by me at TOD:

"every culture that has had the chance to adopt a "people's car" has done so.

and why not? it satisfies the human urge to cover territory while at the same time satisfying the need to conserve body energy.

it's only bad once you notice the non-obvious side effects (pollution, global warming, resource depletion)."

I'm still agreeing with past-me on this one ;-), that's not always the case.