NO FUTURE FOR MEGAPOLIS

E.F. Schumacher

 

MODERN URBANISATION, as we all know, is a very recent thing. Although the first cities arose some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the kind of metropolis or megalopolis which we now accept as ‘nor­mal’ is a good deal less than a hundred years old.

 

Kingsley Davis, one of the best known students of the subject, said a few years ago: “Clearly the world as a whole is not fully urbanised, but it soon will be.” One may wonder on what he bases this prediction. I suspect it is based on little more than past and current trends. As a statistician, I am never happy with the extrap­olation of trends, unless I can get some understanding of what lies behind the trends themselves, what has made them possible and what keeps them going. Kingsley Davis holds that “urbanised societies, in which a majority of the people live crowded together in towns and cities, represent a new and fundamental step in man’s social evolution”. I do not know whether he means to offer this thought as an explanation of the past hundred years, during which this “new and fundamental step” was taken in so many parts of the world, or as a justification for his assumption that full urbanisation of the world as a whole will soon be implemented. The idea of a new and fundamental step in human social evolution seems to sug­gest something which, once accomplished, will stay for good. But here lies the very question: Why did it happen? What are the forces that have made it happen? What is the material basis of this happening, and is this material basis permanent or perhaps imper­manent? The idea of evolution may be a useful way of describing the past, but rarely serves to explain it, and when it comes to the future its predictive value is more than doubtful.

 

To obtain another view of this astonishing phenomenon — a majority of the people crowding together in towns and cities — we might remind ourselves of the well-known fact that seventy percent of the citizens of the United States, and comparable proportions in other industrial countries, live in cities occupying little over one percent of the total land space. This gives some idea of the degree of concentration. “The large and dense agglomerations comprising the urban population,” says Kingsley Davis, “...exceed in size the communities of any other large animal; they suggest the behaviour of communal insects rather than of mammals.” For mammals to behave like communal insects may be described as a new and fun­damental step in their social evolution, but it is not immediately apparent that it is a step in the right direction.

 

Towns and cities consist of a huge variety of more or less per­manent structures, and that is why it cannot be a waste of time for those responsible for these structures to give some thought to the kind of questions I have raised. What is the relevant ‘time horizon’? Buildings made of stone or concrete are not erected with the idea of early destruction. If they are to stand up at all, their basic struc­ture must be sound, and if they are able to stand up for ten years, there is no reason to believe that they cannot equally well stand up for a hundred years and even a lot more, given a reasonable amount of care and maintenance. If I were an architect, this thought, I suspect, would worry me, even to the point of paraly­sis, which is no doubt a sufficient reason for my not having become an architect. Doctors and surgeons, to give an obvious example, are in an easier position. Their worst mistakes are quickly buried. But the mistakes of architects remain in the fullest evidence for countless generations!

 

All I wish to point out, or rather to recall to mind, is that the relevant ‘time horizon’ for anyone concerned with permanent structures is formidably long. These structures do not merely have to ‘fit’ today; they have to continue to be ‘fitting’ for a very long time. Some civilisations have drawn the conclusion that they could not take it upon themselves to enter, as it were, a commitment for an indefinite, and possibly very long period; so they used only such building materials as were subject to a ‘normal’ rate of decay: wood, bamboo sticks, or even paper. Other civilisations, like medieval Europe, drew the conclusion that buildings, being ‘of the nature of eternity’, could and should not be subjected to the eco­nomic calculus, like other human artifacts: only the best would be good enough; only something worthy of being dedicated to the glory of God would be worthy of the dignity of human beings. And if this aspiration could not be fulfilled in all cases, it was certainly fulfilled with regard to the great majority of prominent buildings.  Our civilisation disposes of building materials of a truly awe-inspiring durability. Some of the bomb shelters built for what was happily thought of as a strictly temporary emergency during the last war, are of such indestructibility that the cost of demolish­ing them is something no one can face: so we leave them standing in all their hideous glory.

 

To return to our starting point: urbanisation in the modern sense is a very recent phenomenon, less than a hundred years old. If it had been possible before, why did it not happen? If it had been impossible before, what was it that made it possible? These, I sug­gest, are the two questions, to which we must turn our attention. I think there is plenty of historical evidence that important cities, Rome, for instance, have tended to grow and grow, until they could grow no further. What was it that stopped their growth? The answer is simple: they could not be provisioned any more. They lived on their surroundings, and as they became bigger they had to be provisioned from ever more extended surroundings; and as dis­tances had to extend, transport could no longer cope. The bottle­neck was transport, and the bottleneck of transport was energy. Human and animal power cannot manage long distances, except for imperishable goods, and even when it does manage them it becomes, at a certain point intolerably expensive.

 

During the nineteenth century, Western society broke through this barrier by learning to exploit nature’s storehouse of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil. Coal led to rail transport, because it is rather crude and heavy and therefore best used in locomotives pulling a large number of coaches or trucks; while oil led to motor transport because it is subtle, easily divisible, of high calorific value per unit of volume as well as per unit of weight, and therefore ideally suited for fast, small-scale, decentralised transport from any point to any other point, provided only there is some kind of a road. The exploitation of fossil fuels was the primary factor, while the flow­ing of technical ingenuity was a secondary factor, because, in a certain sense, the material, in this material world, is the indispens­able basis of the intellectual.

 

The development of large-scale urbanisation, as we have witnessed it over the last hundred years, required the intervention of a further factor: How could people leave the land and crowd together in towns and cities, and still get fed?  The limiting factor on urbanisation is the productivity of agriculture, and the measure of ‘productivity’ in this context is output-per-person rather than output-per-acre. Towns and cities exist on the agricultural surplus of the countryside; pure subsistence farming cannot sustain even the smallest degree of urbanisatjon. How, then, has it been able to sustain the high degree of urbanisation which has occurred during the last hundred years? By an immense improvement of the productivity-per-person in modern agriculture. Fewer and fewer people were required to till the soil, with the result that more and more people could leave the soil and go into cities.

 

Every answer tends to lead to a further question, and our next question must be this: How has this stupendous and historically unparalleled increase of productivity per person in agriculture been achieved?  The most important single factor has been the introduction of new technologies based on fossil fuels. Modern agricultur­al technology, as practised in the United States, in Western Europe, in the areas affected by the ‘green revolution’, and in many other parts of the world, is essentially oil-based. Its tremendous success in raising productivity-per-person was achieved by the introduction of an intensely oil-based technology, intensive mechanisation and, even more importantly, intensive chemicalisation. In terms of physics and chemistry, modern society eats a variety of foodstuffs, but in terms of economics, it eats oil.

 

If the modern type of urbanisation has not been possible before, roughly speaking, the middle of the nineteenth century, what was it that made it possible? The answer is threefold: the exploitation of nature’s storehouse of fossil fuels, the development of a highly efficient transport system, initially coal-based but now primarily oil-based, the development of agricultural technologies which are virtually dependent on oil.

 

Until a few years ago, we took oil for granted. In the autumn of 1967, for instance, the then Minister of Power presented a White Paper to Parliament, entitled ‘Fuel Policy’. Its central message was this: “Subject to overriding considerations of adequacy and securi­ty of supplies, the Government’s basic objective can be summarised as cheap energy. . . What is important is that we should take full advantage of the cheapness and technical merit of nuclear power, North Sea gas, and oil.” The Minister had no real doubts about the adequacy and security of oil supplies and therefore mapped out the further contraction of the British coal industry, the speed of which, however, would have to be controlled so as to avoid undue hardship to coal miners and their communities.  In a sagacious paragraph he dealt with future oil costs. “It is difficult to predict the course of oil prices. There are a number of reasons for expecting them not to increase. The industry is continually searching for ways of cutting costs, as for instance by the use of very large crude oil tankers to reduce freight charges and increase flexibility and security of supply, and the surplus of crude oil seems likely to persist for many years despite the expansion in world demand. Here and elsewhere oil will be up against increasingly strong competition from natural gas and nuclear power. On the evidence available, it seems likely that oil will remain competitive with coal, and that pressure to force up crude oil prices will be held in check by the danger of loss of markets.”

 

These sanguine arguments did not go unchallenged, but no one was willing to listen to the challengers, because the enticing dream of ‘cheap fuel for ever’ kept everybody happy. We now have a very rude awakening. The following official figures makes the point: in 1970, our average monthly crude oil imports amounted to 8.3 mil­lion tons; at an average value per ton of £4.80, these monthly imports cost the country £40 million. In March 1974, our crude oil imports were rather high at 9.6 million tons; the average value per ton was £28.9, and the total bill came to £178 million; compared with four years ago, an increased burden on our balance of pay­ments of nearly £240 million a month.

 

Pressure to force up crude oil prices, we had been told, would be held in check by the danger of loss of markets. Do you think the oil exporting countries are worried about a loss of markets when the export of one ton of crude oil produces for them an amount of money which, only four years ago, required the export of six tons? On the contrary, they would rejoice in the loss of markets, if only they could see it happening. They have been pleading for years that the oil importing countries should reduce their requirements. From their point of view, a loss of markets is the very thing they have been longing for ever since they realised, some ten years ago, that their own proved oil reserves were by no means infinite and would be exhausted in a matter of twenty or thirty years if they ‘maintained their markets’. In ever more insistent tones they have pleaded: “Please mitigate your requirements; if we sell all we have got with­in twenty or thirty years, what is to become of us? We cannot build up an alternative livelihood for our peoples within two or three decades.”

 

On the sixth of October 1973, the outbreak of yet another Arab-Israeli war provided the historical opportunity for the Arabian oil exporting countries to establish a radically new situa­tion as regards crude oil prices. Within a few months, these prices quadrupled, and their fundamental aim, which is to conserve their proven oil reserves to last longer than a mere twenty or thirty years, can now be attained via the so-called price mechanism. We hear nothing more about using oil as a political weapon; what we shall be hearing more and more insistently from now on is this:  “Of course, you can buy all the oil you want, but how are you going to pay for it?” And the truth of the matter is that we cannot pay for the amount of imported oil which our economies have got used to.

 

Whether the crunch will come within three months or three years is hard to predict. But, I suggest, nothing of any real impor­tance hinges on precision in these matters, certainly not for builders, architects, town planners and such like, whose ‘time hori­zon’ is counted in decades, if not centuries. That the days of the cheap-fuel economy are counted, in fact that they are over, there cannot be any reasonable doubt. The sooner we realise and accept this, the better will be our chance of adjusting to the new situation without having to go through a period of unimaginable troubles.

 

The effects of a hundred years of cheapness-and-plenty as regards fossil fuels have been extraordinarily far-reaching. The effects of the coming period of dearness-and-scarcity as regards fossil fuels, not necessarily in all parts of the world, but inescapably in Western Europe, Japan, and many of the so-called developing countries, will be equally far-reaching.

 

The cheapness and plenty of fossil fuels also led to the large-scale production of highly fuel-intensive building materials, such as cement and steel; to building methods characterised by the substitution of fuel-intensive mechanisation for human labour; and to the erection of buildings such as high-rise flats, hotels, and office blocks, which in themselves are, as it were, engines dependent for their functioning on a continuous high rate of fuel consumption.

 

If cheapness-and-plenty, as regards fuel, has produced these effects, what is going to be the effect of dearness-and-scarcity? This is the crucial question. It is a question of such overwhelming mag­nitude that we have to give ourselves a very big push to be prepared to look it in the face. It is much easier to shut one’s eyes and go on dreaming; to divert attention to such questions as: “How do you propose to persuade people to change their life-style?” or: “Are you sure that people want change?”, and to engage in endless debates on possible alterations of the ‘political system’, etc. I am not suggesting that these and similar questions are completely irrelevant, but they are of a secondary nature: in future the tune will be called by fuel supplies, and not primarily by our likes and dislikes. Even if the great majority of people had a strong preference for crowding together in huge cities, the fact remains that high-density living pat­terns can be sustained only by high-density fuels. If the availability of the latter is called into question the possibility of the former is called into question. In other words, far from accepting Kingsley Davis’ prediction that the whole world will soon be ‘fully urbanised’ we have now to consider the possibility that some of the most highly urbanised parts of the world, such as Western Europe and Japan, may have to find ways of achieving some degree of de-urbanisation: because, if high-density fuels become very expensive and hard to obtain, high-density living becomes increasingly unsupportable.

 

The modern system of agriculture is obviously extremely vul­nerable to adverse changes on the oil front. We can see this already today as we witness the virtual collapse of the ‘Green Revolution’ in a number of developing countries. It has been calculated how much oil would be required if the whole world, some 4,000 million people, forgetting any further increases in world population, were to be fed by means of modern agricultural technology. The answer is that on such assumptions all proved oil reserves, as currently known, would be exhausted by agriculture alone within less than thirty years. It would seem to follow that the modern system of agriculture has no long-term future, and that there is a somewhat urgent need for the development of alternative systems, systems much less oil-intensive. The answer one normally obtains to such a proposition is that these alternatives, even if they were possible, would be relatively much more labour-intensive than the modern systems. In other words, the proportion of people working the land would have to rise, which means that the proportion of people living and working in cities would have to fall.

 

It is precisely this possibility, or rather this possible necessity, that ought to engage our most serious attention. If more people are going to be needed in agriculture, it will be necessary to upgrade and redevelop the life of rural communities. This is a very tall order. For more than a century, all the emphasis has been on city-life, and the brain-drain at the expense of the rural areas has been devastatingly severe. To reverse the century-old trend will not be easy, but neither will it be impossible. There are many signs among the young that a push of necessity in this direction might even be welcomed.

 

Turning now to transport, we find a rather similar picture. Cheap and fast transport has made modern urbanisation possible. Mobility is thought of as a very great value, and this value-judg­ment has been sustained by the availability of cheap and plentiful oil. If the forward estimates of so-called transport requirements which underlie, for instance, the Channel Tunnel project are to be taken seriously, we shall need to devote at least two or three times as much oil to transport in twenty years time as we do now. These estimates stem from an historical situation which is now gone and unlikely ever to return. The new situation demands that we should ask ourselves: ‘Why do we seem to need so much transport?’ What is it in our patterns of production, our patterns of consumption, our distribution of population, in short, what is it in our life-style that entails such enormous and ever-increasing transport requirements? After all, the goods we shift about do not become better by being shifted about. Why is it that they appear to become more valuable?

 

Production patterns that give primary emphasis to mechanisa­tion and automation tend to get burdened with very high overhead costs, and it then appears to be ‘economical’ to let the product invade faraway markets, even if the net return on such sales yields less than average revenue: it still helps to ‘spread overheads’. Very large mass-production units obviously entail a very large commit­ment to massive long-distance transport. Economists claim that this enlarges consumers’ choice; but they generally do not mention that it reduces the chance of consumers of choosing locations that are free from intolerable traffic noise and contaminated air.

 

In future, transport planning needs to concern itself with much more than transport: its principal aim will be the reduction of transport requirements, which have grown beyond all reasonable bounds. In other words, it will become increasingly desirable to bring production and consumption much more closely together. The present pattern with cars being produced in Tokyo in order to be used in Coventry, does not seem to be the most rational human ingenuity can devise, and it would assuredly not be improved if the transport of cars from Tokyo to Coventry were made faster or even cheaper by some fantastic technological breakthrough.

 

Not only the pattern of production, but also the pattern of con­sumption will have to change. Already there are reports of signifi­cant numbers of high-rise hotels in Mediterranean holiday resorts being unable to open for the summer season. What is to become of innumerable blocks of high-rise flats, once the remorseless increase in energy costs has worked its way through the system, heaven only knows. Solar energy and wind power can do little to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

 

However, I do not wish to dwell on the future of buildings already erected. What about buildings to be erected in the future? The change in the fuel situation from cheapness-and-plenty to dearness-and-scarcity calls for new types of calculation and new criteria of efficiency. Needless to say, everything calculable in terms of money will have to continue being calculated in money, but most of these money calculations will have to be supplemented and checked against calculations made in terms of fuel units, such as calories. We may not be able to afford things which are expensive in terms of calories, even if they appear to be relatively cheap in terms of money. Here again, I cannot go into detail. At present, there is still a great deal of talk about ‘alternative sources of ener­gy’, and most people imagine that, although fuel may become very much more expensive, there is enough of it somewhere in the world for it never to become scarce. What they fail to realise is that there is not only a money cost of fuel but also a fuel cost of fuel. The Bureau of Mines in the United States has recently begun a study to determine how many calories it takes to produce various types of fuels: what matters is not the gross energy production, but the net energy gain. Professor Odum of the University of Florida says “the biggest lesson to be learned from net-energy thinking is that all the new technologies being developed to attain energy independence are draining present energy supplies and are therefore hastening the day when fossil fuels run out. For example, enriching uranium for light-water reactors consumes, in the form of coal, 60% of the energy released from the nuclear fuel.” Whether any nuclear ener­gy producer is, in fact, a net energy producer at all, is still very much an open question.

 

The life-style of the modern world is characterised by a very high rate of what we might call economic metabolism, that is to say, an enormous throughput of resources to obtain a standard of living which still is, for most people, deplorably low. In a strange and paradoxical way, we have to run faster and faster merely to stand still. Although the economic metabolic rate of the average American is something like fifty times as high as that of the average Indian, and that of the average Western European about thirty times as high, the rich societies of the world are pursuing the struggle for fur­ther metabolic growth with even greater single-mindedness than the poor. Yet such further growth as is being achieved does not seem to lighten the burden of existence but, on the contrary, to increase it. If fuel and material shortages should make further growth impossi­ble or even enforce the reduction of certain activities, people fear that nothing but misery can be in store for them.

 

All this stems from a confusion of thought which takes the metabolic rate for the equivalent of the standard of living. Is our standard of living really determined by the rate at which we man­age to consume, that is to say: to destroy and use up, valuable goods and services? We know families who consume very much and live very badly: both husband and wife have to go out to work; they return from work exhausted and disgruntled and have no strength left in them for anything but watching television; the chil­dren feel neglected and present their parents with endless problems which are as insoluble as they are costly to cope with; expensive holidays fail to undo the damage done during the rest of the year, etcetera. Yet we also know families who consume relatively very little and live rather well. How do they do it? The rate of metabolism, economically speaking, of the former is high; that of the latter is low. Whose is the higher standard of living?

 

A neat little prescription that is often given is: ‘Cycle and re-cycle’. Cycling, of course, is a mode of transportation with a delightfully low rate of economic metabolism. The cyclist’s rate of physiological metabolism is somewhat higher than that of the motorist; but that can save him, or society, a lot of doctor’s bills! Re-cycling, on the other hand, desirable as it often may be, fails to go to the root of the matter. Why tolerate a high rate of waste and then try to cope with the problem by re-cycling? Would it not be more intelligent first of all to try and reduce the rate of waste? The re-cycling problem may then itself become much more manageable.

 

We might do well to distinguish between permanent goods on the one hand and ephemeral goods on the other.  A life-style which puts primary emphasis on the consumption of ephemeral goods and services requires an economic system with a high rate of metabolism and therefore creates innumerable problems of pollu­tion, tends to ruin the environment, and inevitably runs up against severe resource bottlenecks. Now, of course, a certain flow of ephemeral goods, to be destroyed in the act of consumption, is indispensable for human life; but it might be wise to keep this flow at a modest level and to put the main emphasis on the creation of permanent goods, that is to say, lasting improvements of the envi­ronment, excellent tools and equipment, health of soil, plants, ani­mals and people, work opportunities which can be genuinely enjoyed, and even beautiful buildings, villages, and towns, togeth­er with beautiful things to be put into buildings, villages, and towns. Such a life-style would not require an economic system with an unsupportably high rate of metabolism, yet there would be no smell of misery and degradation about it.

 

I believe that great pressures upon human nature will be exerted by the logic of facts which will make our present lifestyle increas­ingly difficult to sustain. We can meet these pressures with calm forethought and give them a creative response. If we do that, why should we despair of the future of our civilisation even if we have to lower our rate of economic metabolism? Why should we refuse to believe that, endowed with so much more scientific knowledge and technical ability than any previous generation, we should be able to build a much more satisfactory life than we have ever known?

 

Vol 5, No 5, Jan-Feb 1975