I have been reading the Transition Handbook, and as a lifelong city dweller and a trained economic geographer, I am troubled by what I think is a blind spot in the Transition model, one that could cause problems even for small towns that might achieve self-sufficiency if it isn't addressed.
The Transition model is based on a goal of community self-sufficiency in the essentials without fossil fuel inputs. I agree that this will be necessary. I think that small towns in rural areas are well-suited to build this model in place.
However, I don't think that this model, by itself, will be sufficient for cities.
A city like Boston, or any town within Route 128, or places like Worcester, Springfield, Brockton, or Fall River have no hope of self-sufficiency in food. There is just not enough acreage to grow food for the millions of people in these areas. Even if every front and back yard and park and other flat open space were converted to gardens, even if we planted fruit- and nut-bearing trees on all the hill slopes, we just aren't going to be able to grow enough food in these places to feed their people.
Okay, you say, they can buy food from less crowded towns in Central and Western Mass or New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. That is starting to sound a little more viable, but then how will they pay for all that food? What will 3 million city dwellers in the Bay State produce in a post-fossil fuel economy that will convince distant farmers to turn over their hard-earned harvests? I have wrestled with what the people of the Boston area and its satellite cities will produce and come up with some ideas, but not enough to employ or feed our roughly 2-3 million people. Certainly cities will remain transportation hubs for greatly reduced long-distance trade (mainly by sail and riverboat, with valuable items traveling by horse-drawn wagon). They will remain centers for specialized craft production, as they were before the fossil fuel era.
But in the pre-fossil fuel era, these functions supported no more than 10% of the population of any country in cities. The proportion of city dwellers to food producers needs to be something like 10 to 1. It will take something like 10 farmers to generate enough demand for one city worker's goods. There are fewer than 100,000 farmers left in New England, nowhere near enough to support the millions of urbanites in those states.
It seems to me inevitable that, as deepening economic crises beset us and as corporations predicated on cheap fossil fuel go bankrupt, millions of people in Massachusetts alone are going to be out of work. The same will be true all over the United States. The government will be bankrupt and unable to support these people. Even if they learn sustainable trades like shoemaking or green building to try to buy what they can't grow on their inadequate plot in a converted city park, how are they going to compete with the millions of others trying to do the same thing? If every tenth person is making shoes and they are selling them to other people who also don't have enough food to spare, how are they going to supplement their diet?
I don't just want to raise an alarm. I want to propose a solution. If people can't grow enough food to meet their needs where they are, and if they can't earn enough food through urban trades (as most present-day office workers will surely be unable to do), then they will need to move to a place where they can grow enough food to meet their needs.
What I think Transition ignores is a profound inequity in the distribution of useful land. There are huge agrocorporations that own much of the usable farmland in the United States, across the Great Plains, Texas, and Midwest. There are wealthy individuals that own huge spreads or who own agricultural land as an investment.
The flip side of this is that people will need to move to relatively empty farmable areas (Texas and the Midwest) in order to produce enough food to feed the US population. The reason for this is that current US food production depends on massive mechanization and fossil fuel inputs. All of those machines and chemical inputs will need to be replaced by human beings working the land by hand, maybe with the help of a horse or ox, and certainly with the help of animal manure. The only sensible way for that to happen is for the city folk who can no longer earn their bread in cities to move to the land and grow and bake their own bread.
I think that we need to prepare for much (not all) of our population to relocate. We need to push for land reform. We need to push for city and suburban schools to teach young people organic farming skills to prepare them for a farming future.
I'm not saying we shouldn't garden every available square meter of dirt in our cities. I'm not saying we shouldn't introduce local currencies. I'm just saying it's pretty clear to me that that won't be enough.
I love city life. I have lived in cities nearly all my adult life. I just bought a house in the suburbs with a modest yard hoping to grow much of my own food. I think that the suburb where I live just about has a shot at growing enough food for its people. But now I am realizing, what about all the people still in Boston? What about all the people in Brockton (a smaller but still dense city next to my suburb)? They are not just going to sit there and starve. Cities are wonderful, but they cannot feed themselves. People from neighboring cities are going to want some of the food from my suburb, and I really don't blame them, but it won't be enough to feed the suburbanites and the urbanites. Someone is going to have to leave the region and grow food in a place that has more land than people.
Okay, I've said it. What do others think?