it’s like that story about the and and the grasshopper

A few days ago, I posted something about Sweden and how it had occurred to me that, in the long run, it might have been better for my family if my ancestors had just stayed there. Sure, thanks to their courage, our family has had a few good generations here in America, but, in the long run, I’m wondering if Sweden might not come out on top. While our country seems content with burying its head in the oily sand, Sweden, is actually taking bold steps toward sustainability. (The Swedish government has stated that they are working toward an oil-free ecomony by 2020. As some of my friends have pointed out, it’s significantly easier to do that in a country of Sweden’s size than it would be here, but I still think it speaks well of their leadership and their ability to both acknowledge reality and plan intelligently… At any rate, with that as a backdrop, I thought that I’d share clips from two stories that I happened across this evening. The first, about Sweden, comes from the MIT Technology Review:

A Swedish environmental engineering company said Monday it has received a 30 million kronor (euro3.2 million; US$3.9 million) order to build the world’s largest biogas plant.

The plant to be built in the city of Goteborg will have a capacity of producing 1,600 cubic meters (56,000 cubic feet) of biogas per hour, said Hans Malm, chief executive of the Lackeby Water company.

Biogas is made from decomposing organic material and can be used as fuel in cars with special biogas engines, which emit a fraction of the carbon dioxide released by diesel engines. In Sweden, the interest in biogas has increased as the price of oil soars. Sales of biogas-powered cars increased by 49 percent in 2005…

Sweden’s first passenger train running solely on biogas, billed as the world’s first, will start scheduled operations later this week. The train, which is fitted with two biogas bus engines, can carry up to 54 passengers and run for about 600 kilometers (400 miles) on a full tank. The top speed is 130 kph (81 mph)…

And now, from America, we have this USA Today story:

Americans continue their march away from congested and costly areas halfway through the decade, settling in more remote counties even if it means longer commutes, according to Census population estimates released Thursday…

It’s not just the decade of the exurbs but the decade of the exurbs of the exurbs,” says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. “People are leaving expensive cores and going as far out as they can to get a big house and a big yard. Suburbia is moving much further out.”

Some of the fastest-growing counties from July 1, 2004, to July 1, 2005, include Caroline and King George counties in Virginia, north of Richmond and south of Washington, and Grundy County, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop.

Cook County, which includes Chicago and older suburbs such as Schaumburg and Arlington Heights, lost more people since 2000 than any other county: 73,000 to 5.3 million. “They’re flowing out of Cook into the fringes,” says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago. “People move out of Chicago and into suburban Cook County and now they’re losing to the outer suburbs.”

Rising gas prices do not seem to have steered Americans away from this outward push. Skyrocketing housing prices in major markets are a major contributor to growth in far-flung areas, Frey says…

Virginia’s King George County, for example, is attracting people who commute 90 miles to Washington. The spillover began along Interstate 95 south of the capital and then moved east toward King George. The county grew 6.7% to 20,637 from 2004 to 2005…

So, I ask you, which country do you think will be more viable in the longterm (when fuel scarcity makes 90-mile commutes impossible), the one investing in biofuel and masstransit, or the one building increasingly larger homes farther and farther from city centers? (And, by the way, I think that Frey’s comment about “skyrocketing housing prices” in cities being responsible for people moving to ever more distant suburbs, is ridiculous. The truth is, there are very affordable homes in cities. What there aren’t, however, are these virgin little castles that a majority of our fellow Americans seem to want. What Fry is really saying isn’t that home prices are too high in cities, but that it would cost a hell of a lot to tear down a historic neighborhood and fill it with the kinds of whitebread, history-free McMansions that today’s American consumers demand.) Sure, maybe it’s not fair to compare Sweden with its 9 million citizens to the US and its 298 million, but I do think that we’re going to start losing our best and brightest citizens to countries, like Sweden, that have at least started to draft a somewhat coherent plan.

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7 Comments

  1. ChelseaL
    Posted March 22, 2006 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Yo. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scandinavian people. I also would very much like “a virgin little castle.” The truth is that not everyone *wants* to live in cities. One reason *is* high housing prices. I can tell you that firsthand. The farther away from the cities you go, the more your money will buy you. And so these “exoburbs” become the new suburbs, eventually offering all the cultural attractions of cities (perhaps in time *becoming* cities). So? If I’m misreading your post, I apologize. But, you know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting clean, safe, affordable places to live, wherever they are.

  2. Ted Glass
    Posted March 22, 2006 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Suburbs won’t function without cheap oil. It’s that simple. The homes are going to be too large to heat, and the distribution of products to the owners of these homes is going to be too costly.

    Of course the people in cities will be fucked too, thanks to the fact that we’ve built on most of what was the farmland that once provided them with food, but that’s a different story.

    Those living in small towns and cities with functional downtown areas, surrounded by farmland, are the best situated to weather this gathering storm.

  3. DM
    Posted March 22, 2006 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I feel compelled to comment…..

    The high cost of houses within cities likely varies dramatically. In Seattle, they are on the high end. The supply does not meet the demand and many people are buying new construction in Snohomish and Island counties to the north, Pierce county to the south, and rural King county. The land is much cheaper in these areas and the price of new construction there is comparable to the price of a 1000 sf post war Boeing bungalow of questionable structural integrity on a 5000 sf lot – the type of home that many people are buying to tear down and build new 3000 sf homes.

    The best reason I can think of for staying in the city is being close to services. I personally like being close to parks, the lakes and sound, libraries, good grocery stores, and used bookstores. Others like short bus rides to work. I have to admit that I am constantly tempted to move to the outskirts. Living 25 feet from a 20,000 vehicle a day road is no fun. And when temperature inversions in an area where most homes are heated by oil and fire wood actually produces chest pain, living on a 5 acre lot in the woods with an hour commute to suppliers, clients, airports, and bookstores seems reasonable. Schools are a big deal for most people too, but I’ll leave that can of worms closed.

    When you consider that Island County’s median home price increased by 50% (!!!) last year, it is pretty clear where the trend is going, Critical Area Ordinances be damned.

    I saw an article in the Washington Post the other day about the sale of forest land for development. It says that “a recent US Forest Service study predicted that more than 44 million acres of private forest land, an area twice the size of Maine, will be sold over the next 25 years. …. The Bush administration also wants to sell off forest land, by auctioning more than 300,000 acres of national forest to fund a rural school program.” The concern is that these forests are more valuable to developers than to forest products companies. A number of organizations are trying to raise funds to purchase sensitive forest areas around watersheds, etc.

    Here is the article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/20/AR2006032001595.html

    As for energy consumption, I agree with you Mark on the point about the size of our appetite for it. However, itt seems as if every engineering solution has an evil twin brother.

    I am curious how many people would buy a smaller house that is well made and energy efficient versus the larger homes? I wonder if anyone has done a study to see how the size of a home weighs out against other considerations, like heating cost, aesthetics, age and quantity of trees, community demographic, school test ratings, distance to services ( medical, school, library, retail, grocery, parks) , air quality, noise, etc. When I look at what is available these days in new construction, it is almost a monoculture of McMansions at the expense of all other factors. The developers are mostly in the business of making houses, not communities, adn they are building mostly eye candy. I am hopeful that there are people out there trying to create a new concept of a “home” for developers to use as a model that is still profitable to them.

    Whenever this topic comes up in conversation with friends, I remember an article I read about urbanites moving to rural areas in Washington. The people that live in the rural area profiled graded their own roads, managed their own public facilities, and performed or went without many of the services that city people take for granted. They paid very little in property tax as a result and their local government was small. They are resentful of tax laws that charge them a fee for vehicle licensing to fix roads and other infrastructure that primarily benefits the city, as well as laws that dictate to them how they can and cannot use their land.

    It seems like the real answer to the energy problem is living a more austere lifestyle. That is not only a bitter pill to swallow for most individuals, but a complete negation of the frenetic economics that is the heart of our political body.

  4. DM
    Posted March 22, 2006 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    On a loosely related note, I have been interested in the way non profit organizations purchase land to protect areas. There is strategy involved that is directly related to the game GO. They purchase with the intent of capturing larger parcels within a perimeter, devaluing the land within by limiting access.

  5. leighton
    Posted March 22, 2006 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Two things:

    1) $400 two bedroom rent / $200,000 actual mansions available in Detroit.

    2 ) Kentucky.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted March 23, 2006 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    If you visit Kentucky, especially the northern part, beware their slick marketing or you might wake up one day a resident.

    To get people to consider “stay”ing in “N. Ky” they have a catchy one-word slogan plastered all over the airport and hotels that really made me think about just settling down right there:

    “Staynky”

  7. Teddy Glass Esq.
    Posted March 23, 2006 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    The Taint speaks the truth.

    http://www.staynky.com/

    Sorry I ever doubted you, DCET.

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