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An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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17 Jan 2006

Hemenway – Urban Versus Rural (slight return).

ActivistI wrote back in November about Toby Hemenway’s article on urban versus rural sustainability which had had such a profound effect on me. You might like to read his follow up article to that one, called **’Cities, peak oil, and sustainability’**, which builds on the previous one, and responds to some of the criticisms the first one has received. For me he hits the nail on the head again. The article appears in the Permaculture Activist, surely the finest publication on the face of the planet. If you don’t subscribe and you are in any way interested in practical solutions and inspired thinking for saving the planet, you are missing out on a great deal. Toby’s new website is ****.

You might like to check out In the Wake where Aric McBay has a go at Hemenway, mostly, in my opinion, on quite picky grounds. McBay’s argument is very much an ‘either/or’ kind of approach, but really, at the end of the day, this is a bigger issue than urban OR rural, at the end of the day its not like we can choose one or the other, surely it is a case of sustainable rural economies supporting and being supported by sustainable cities. We cannot argue that ONLY cities can be sustainable or ONLY rural communities can be sustainable, we either have both or nothing.

What I like about Hemenway’s approach is how he challenges the perceived belief that we should all move to the countryside and all will be fine. Every new issue of the Permaculture Magazine seems to contain a story of someone moving to find their piece of heaven in rural Spain, by implication leaving the rest of us to stew in our own juice. Saturday’s Independent was similarly full of places to invest overseas to get your ‘piece of heaven’.

I really like Hemenway’s honesty about the realities of moving to a rural community, which, although they are of course only his experience and are not universal, still confront a few sacred cows and resonate deeply with my experience. McBay argues that Hemenway is rosy about cities and that cities are not going to be nice places to be post-peak, which is also true. We need energy descent approaches for rural and urban areas, bioregional watershed planning which includes both in a coherent whole. Love him or loathe him, Hemenway has certainly got people talking about the issues.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Tom Atkins
17 Jan 2:37pm

An excellent article indeed Rob. He makes his point much more equitably in the follow-up (no doubt in reposne to the criticisms)!

I still think there’s more room for rural living than Hemenway suggests. Certainly I agree about his view of small farms positioned around and serving urban centres. And within that context here’s the quote from Patrick Whitefield again:

> “The key to implementing Permaculture in the countryside is repopulation. This includes the breaking up of the present large, mechanised farms into small farms, smallholdings, and new hamlets were energy intensive production can be replaced with design intensive and human-attention-intensive production….
> The present cold landscape of wide open, deserted fields and infilled dormitory villages would develop into an intricate landscape, full of diversity, full of people and full of wildlife.
> However, a dispersed settlement pattern like this will not be an ecological improvement if we continue with our present lifestyle. These days all of us, town and country dwellers alike, expect what is essentially an urban lifestyle, in terms of shopping, education, entertainment and so on. Those of us who live in the country get it by unrestrained use of our cars.
> A sustainable rural lifestyle is one in which staying at home all day every day is the norm, not the exception. The weekly visit to town, perhaps five miles away, the child cycling to school, the evening walk over the fields to visit friends – these are about the limits of travel we can expect.
> This kind of lifestyle could be a deeply satisfying one in a thriving, repopulated countryside, but in today’s countryside it can be isolated and lonely. We need a change in planning assumptions to make it possible, but equally we need the change in lifestyle to enable planning assumptions to change.
> What actually happens in dispersed settlements today does not encourage a change in planning assumptions. New rural housing tends to attract commuters rather than home-workers, and they have longer trips to work than if they lived in town. Even where the new inhabitants are home-workers, in practice they make as many car trips as commuters, though at different times of day. Rural workshops are more often let to town-dwellers who can’t find space in town than to local residents. This leads to reverse commuting, and to businesses which are only accessible by car. Not surprisingly some advocates of sustain-ability come down firmly against new dispersed housing in the countryside.
> The way forward is for permaculturists to demonstrate that a sustainable, low-transport life is possible in the countryside now by actually living such a lifestyle. This is the only way to show the planners that not everyone who wants to live in the country is a potential commuter in disguise.”

Producing enough food in a post-carbon world will require a LOT more farmers than we currently have.

Yes, rural life will be less culturally rich than the urban life. But some people prefer that!

The main thing I agree with is that the emphasis in magazines and newspapers on investing in ‘pieces of heaven’ is horrendous.

Graham Strouts
17 Jan 5:56pm

Excellent article and excellent comment, Tom. Hemenway’s article came out at a very apt time for me- just as I was making a move from the “rural idyll” of West Cork to the small town of Kinsale. Leaving a rustic self-built roundhouse with wood-burning range on which I can cook, bake in the oven and which also heats water, as well as my new wind-turbine, set in the beautiful surrounds of the Coomhola Valley is quite a move and a lot to give up. What I lose in terms of the electric heating and cooking in the flat I hope to make up for in reducing driving. A small town like Kinsale could be as good a place as any to be after Peak Oil, set as it is amongst excellent farming land and with a reasonable amount of forestry resources close by.
But I certainly dont think rural life cant be sustainable. I do suspect however that many of the folk like myself who bought “little bits of heaven” at the end of some murkey boren up in the mountains- no matter how beautiful and peaceful- simply will not want to live there if they do not have the freedome to jump in th car and head off to the city whenever they need. I think this is a particular issue for those with kids.
Living in a rural idyll is very nice- but being trapped there, with little or no opportunity to travel, would be a very diferent story for most people.

adam f
18 Jan 9:49pm

Thanks for pointing out Aric McBay’s response. A good exchange I think from two pretty compelling view points.

I’d like to be able to take Toby’s perspective with the same authority he has, that collapse will be relatively well ordered and slow, so don’t jump ship, but in fact I’m much more agnostic on the sudden/slow collapse scenarios.

It seems best not to rely too much on ‘common sense’ and ideas of normality as the rules are changing in a fairly fundamental way and the outcomes are hard to predict. A sharemarket led collapse could be pretty sudden. Although not the extreme die off scenario, still a rapid transition to a great depression. which seems plausible enough. (and an opportunity for local currencies?)

In looking at the Great Depression Catton says, “For reasons we shall examine in a moment, economic hard times hit the farms sooner than they hit the cities, but in the final scope-reducing crunch the farmers turned out to have an advantage sufficient to interrupt a clear trend of urbanization.”

Hemmingway and McBay both seem to agree that suburbia has a fairly short future. I was surprised that Hemmingway doesn’t discuss the potential of retrofitted suburbs as Holmgren promotes.

20 Jan 1:46am

The biggest problem I have with Hemenway’s original article is that he seems inable to admit that he didn’t do his research prior to investing in land and home out in “the sticks”.

Before you make the leap, make sure the community you’re about to invest in is one that you won’t be disappointed with over time.

In our search for rural property, we’ve made 4 separate visits to our place of interest over a period of a year to make sure it will be right for us — we’re making the move in a couple months.

Unfortunately for Hemenway, he forgot to apply one of the key points of Permaculture when choosing a homestead: OBSERVATION — and I think this mistake has soured his look on rural life. Too bad.