Suburban Renewal and Icky Things

By Richard Rhames

“The suburban transformation that began in 1946, as GIs returned home, took almost a half century to complete, as first people, then retail, then jobs moved out of cities and into new subdivisions, malls, and office parks ...” — “The Next Slum?” The Atlantic, March 2008

It’s hard for an advertiser-sponsored media or political class to acknowledge—let alone grapple with—structural problems. The corporate “people” who prosper from the present system insist on keeping the perspective light and self-congratulatory. In a land as bereft of democracy potential as this, it’s probably just as well. Policy changes that might offend the powerful minority are strictly “off the table.” So buckle up, grab a cup-a-somethin’ and enjoy the ride. Big Papi’s in the dugout. Angelina’s reproduced. Life is good.

Still, there are these nagging issues that might seem worthy of attention. Take food, for instance. As Wendell Berry once observed, the only reason people don’t know there’s a crisis in agriculture is that they don’t know anything about farming. At the 19th century’s close, roughly one quarter of America’s farmland was used to grow grain and forage for the draft horses that powered food production. But soon gas and distillate burning tractors replaced those animals. That feedbag acreage, now tilled by ICE (internal combustion engine) machines, provided food in abundance and below the cost of its production to an urban and suburban population who knew little and cared less about where the stuff came from.

Equine manure, once returned to the farmer’s land with its nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was replaced by synthetic fertilizer. In 1909 the Haber/Bosch process pioneered a way to use fossil fuels to grab atmospheric nitrogen and put it in a bag or box car. Plants need nitrogen in rather massive quantities. Historically, farmers had used animal manures and crop rotations to get nitrogen into their soils. But, freed of their animals and their need for clover hay plantings, America’s rich topsoil could be burned up, mined out, and eroded away through decades of continuous corn and cash cropping.

If yields went down a bit the experts advised increasing the fertilizer. As long as petroleum was abundant and cheap and the Haber/Bosch plants ran smoothly this seemed to work fine. But now, in a time when oil production has already (or will soon) peak and petro prices turn steadily upward, industrial agriculture’s utter addiction to fossil carbon energy is beginning to show—as yet only in prices demanded. Eaters aren’t thrilled.

Sadly, apparently oil production isn’t the only thing that’s peaking. Phosphate deposits in the US are mostly concentrated in a few states like Florida, and have been heavily mined over the last 100 years. Research indicates US production peaked in about 1988 (see “Peak Phosphorus,”?by Patrick Déry, Energy Bulletin, 8/07), and is likely in decline.

In 1999 Philip Abelson told Science readers, “Growing crops remove ... [phosphate] and other nutrients from the soil ... Most of the world’s farms do not have or do not receive adequate amounts of phosphate. Feeding the world’s increasing population will accelerate the rate of depletion of phosphate reserves. ... [Since] resources are limited, and phosphate is being dissipated ... [f]uture generations ultimately will face problems in obtaining enough to exist.”

The US Geological Survey notes, “There are no substitutes for phosphorous in agriculture.” Happily, since the nutrient can be recycled in age-old ways through animal and human manures, urine and long crop rotations, some fraction of mankind may yet muddle through. But we may have to lose our cultural aversion to poop and pee.

The long crop rotations, traditionally necessary to “rest” and “build” soil quality and nutrient levels between cash crops, may also present problems since so much former farmland—millions of acres—have been perhaps terminally converted to “higher and better” uses like suburban developments and sprawl malls.

On this front, it would seem that the orgy of city-emptying, suicidal suburbanizing may be slowing somewhat, possibly fatally wounded by the escalating cost of commuting. As these new economic realities dawn, Christopher Leinberger’s recent Atlantic piece chronicled the “fundamental changes” which may “turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.”

Leinberger writes, “today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that that are lovely and affluent today, may become ... slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.”

“Many Americans,” he observes, have become “disillusioned with the sprawl and the stupor that sometimes characterize suburban life. These days when Hollywood wants to portray soullessness, despair, or moral decay it often looks to the suburbs—as The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives attest—for inspiration.”

Yes, cheap subsidized gas, and decades of profligate public policy have brought us to a dead end; a societal cul-de-sac. We’ve apparently squandered our grandchildren’s’ birthright and triggered a species-threatening climate change so that farmland could be carved up and paved over, only to discover that we may soon need every acre to grow food.

The hammerhead crowd of “planners,” bank “securitizers,” mall merchants, the strandboard and real estate lobby, the petro-pushers and the foreign legion have all done well financially as the bonfire raged. But now the fuel’s running out.

It might soon be rational, as pricey gas, tanking house sales, and other societal needs press forward, to mandate the sprawl-scape converted back to agriculture or, as Leinberger suggests, “bulldozed and reforested or turned into parks. But”, he cautions, “these sorts of transformations are likely to be rare. ... Once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild.” Likely they must fall on their own, “their thin wooden frames ... too flimsy to hold the houses up.”

Such matters are too troubling to think about at present and real buzz-killers for those who matter. Buzz matters now. It may be all we have left.

That, and scorned poop.

Richard Rhames is a farmer near Biddeford, Maine. This originally appeared in the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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