425. GOING RURAL FOR PEAK OIL: BAD IDEA
I've often thought that moving to the country is one of dumber things you could do in response to peak oil.
My reasoning for this is simple: people in the country have a massive dependence on cars and gasoline. For example, my brother used to live on a ranch in the extreme boondocks of Idaho (the area was only electrified in the 1980s) and he and his wife had to drive about 100 miles to go to the supermarket. That's an extreme case, but the general principle is very true. The country has incredible sprawl, and you have to drive really long distances to take care of your daily business. Urban dwellers like myself, on the other hand, don't have to drive at all. My supermarket is a 3 minute walk from my front door. It seems obvious to me that country people -- at least those who aren't making good money from serious agriculture or some other business -- are the ones who will get it in the neck first from peak oil.
If you think about it, it's just a straightforward extension of Kunstler's logic. If the suburbs/exurbs are going to die because they're too oil dependent, then surely the rural areas will die even quicker because they are even more oil dependent.
Of course, savvy people/companies who are already making money on farm operations will continue to profit from food production, and will have the earning power to remain in the country. They belong there. Likewise, if you don't have to work or you're wealthy, then moving to a rural area may be a great response to peak oil. I'm not talking about such people. Or, if you can be an extremely self-sufficient subsistence farmer, and perhaps squat on some land, then my critique doesn't apply.
But if you're a working person who needs income to live, support a family, or build up a doomstead, it seems to me that going rural is jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Here's some articles from summer 2008 that spell it out in painful detail:
Rural U.S. Takes Worst Hit as Gas Tops $4 Average
Rural drivers feeling rise in gas prices more than their urban counterparts
High Gas Prices Hit Rural Poor Hardest
Rural Residents Struggle with High Gas Tab
Fuel prices rocket in rural areas
Pops is a rural doomsteader from peakoil.com, and he and I had a little exchange which is relevant this topic:
Pops:Smallpoxgirl -- another peakoil.com doomer -- talks in a similar vein about driving from Seattle to Olympia (60 miles) for a farmer's market.
We'll further diversify our meager income by planting some U-Pick berries on a couple acres and going as whole-hog into market gardening as time allows next year, direct selling grass fed beef and eggs and some value added (jams, jellies) and homemade stuff at the farmers markets and roadside.
Just curious, but how much driving is involved in these businesses? For example, how far would people generally drive for your U-Pick berries? And how far do you and your customers generally drive to a farmers market? Do you keep your beef chilled or frozen? Do you use a generator at the market?
I talked to neighbors who have blueberries they are about to retire from and they said people mainly come from the small town about 5 miles away but some come 40 miles from Springfield or Joplin. They bring their kids and grandkids and a picnic lunch and have a "Farm Experience". With the farmers market people show up with their straw hats and organic cotton shopping bags to be seen by their Green peers. I could make a little money today at the little market on our square but to do any good we'll need to drive to one of the bigger towns — our roadside stand can only make $50 or $100 a week and that's only a few weeks per year.
But these long drives totally negate the purpose of local food:
We have found that if a customer drives a round trip distance of more than four miles in order to purchase their organic vegetables, their carbon emissions are likely to be greater than the emissions from the system of cold storage, packing, transport to a regional hub and final transport to customer's doorstep used by large-scale vegetable box suppliers.SourceAnother study gets the same results:
In the worst scenario, a UK consumer driving six miles to buy Kenyan green beans emits more carbon per bean than flying them from Kenya to the United Kingdom.SourceThe same point can be seen another way. Suppose a family buzzes out to Pops' farm and picks 10 pounds of berries. Driving an average US vehicle, they'll burn 4 gallons of gasoline for a round trip of 80 miles. (Incidentally, that gasoline will weigh about 2.5 times more than the berries purchased.) Now, a commercial aircraft gets roughly 70 miles per gallon per passenger, and a passenger would be roughly equivalent to 20 boxes of berries (each containing 10 pounds). So for 4 gallons, you could send a passenger 280 miles, and a passenger is 20 boxes of berries, so you could send a box of berries about 5600 miles by air. In other words, driving 80 miles by car to buy 10 pounds of berries uses the same amount of fuel as shipping them 5600+ miles by air. And it just gets worse the less you buy. With a 5 pound box, you're talking 11,200 miles -- about half the circumference of the earth. In other words, the only thing more fuel intensive than the 3000 mile salad is the 25 mile farmer's market salad.
Doomers really can't help but grant my point...
I totally agree with you though about the degree to which rural America is dependent on petroleum. People in Montana think nothing of a 100 mile round trip commute or of driving 8 hours round trip to go to the mall. It always impressed me how independent the people where I lived were WRT snow cleanup. It could dump a foot and the next morning everybody would be out with a loader or a snow plow cleaning it all up. In one sense they're very self sufficient, but all that equipment runs off petroleum. Take away the gasoline, and that area would be totally uninhabitable in the winter. To a large extent it's this sort of fake independence. They're more self sufficient in terms of being able to use different technologies and manufactured materials without the aid of a specialist, but they're just as dependent if not more so on the extractive and manufacturing industries in far away places keeping them supplied.Toby Hemenway, a doomer who went rural and then realized after 10 years that it wasn't such a great idea after all:
Our isolation also meant we were burning a lot of gas. A simple drive for groceries was a 40-minute round trip. Fortunately we both worked at home and had no children, so we could go for days without using the car. But the odometer was whirling to higher numbers than it ever had in the city. A couple of families had moved off our hill because they were exhausted by two to four round trips each day down our steep, potholed gravel road to work, school, soccer practice, music lessons, and shopping.More real-world info on how rural areas get mauled by high gas prices:
We cherished our decade-plus in the country, but eventually the realities began to pile up. There wasn’t a local market for the work we did. Community events left us saddened by the gulf between our way of life and theirs. And we were still tethered to the fossil-fuel beast, just by a much longer lifeline of wire, pipe, and pavement. That the beast looked smaller by being farther away no longer fooled us.Source
Soaring gas prices are a double-whammy for many rural residents: They often pay more than people who live in cities and suburbs because of the expense of hauling fuel to their communities, and they must drive greater distances for life's necessities: work, groceries, medical care and, of course, gas.During the last bout of high oil prices, there was some reporting about gas stations closing in rural regions (Fears for rural filling stations, Rural motorists running on empty as pumps close) forcing people to drive long distances for gas. As you would expect, this can turn into a nasty EROEI situation. Here's another report in the same vein...
Meanwhile, incomes typically are lower in rural areas, making increasingly high gas prices an especially urgent concern. Rural households also are more likely to have older, less fuel-efficient vehicles such as pickups, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says. The average age of a vehicle in a rural household: 8.7 years, compared with 7.9 years for an urban vehicle.
Rural residents do more driving, too — an average of 3,100 miles a year more than urban dwellers, the FHWA says.
A May survey by the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), a fuel analysis company, and Wright Express, a company that collects data on credit card transactions, found that people in rural areas spend as much as 16.02% of their monthly family income on gas, while people in urban areas of New York and New Jersey spend as little as 2.05%.Source
When the only gas station in Allen, Neb., closed last summer, a gallon of gas cost $2.56, according to prices posted on two abandoned pumps. Since then, Allen's 411 residents have been driving 11 miles to Wakefield or 28 miles to South Sioux City to fill up.Still more on people getting savaged by high oil prices in the country (from High Gas Prices Threaten to Drain Small Towns' Populations):
Allen's grocery store went out of business last August, forcing people to shop in South Sioux City or 21 miles away in Wayne. Doctors, dentists and other essentials also require a road trip. The nearest movie theater is in Wayne.
"You have to leave town for about everything," says Jerry Schroeder, an insurance agent who has lived in Allen for all of his 57 years.Source
These days, they're also cussing and shaking their heads about the price of that gasoline. People are doing that everywhere, but in small towns such as Leeton, population 619, it's even more of a gut punch because nearly every working adult commutes to jobs elsewhere.Perhaps the worst threat of all is a vicious cycle of depopulation. High gas prices cause commuting to work/the doctor/school/shopping to be too expensive, so people leave the rural towns/counties and move to larger cities. Govt. revenues decline (people fleeing) while govt. costs rise (gas for the cops, school buses, ambulances, inspectors, garbage collection etc.) Then merchants pull out and gas stations pull out, because there isn't enough population to support them. Govt. services get erratic. More people get fed up and leave etc. etc. Next thing you know, your rural "community" isn't there anymore.
These days, there had better be a really good job on the other end of that trip.
Don Campbell's daily commute to Kansas City - about 100 miles each way - costs him roughly $866 a month at $3.90 per gallon. But he's a union iron worker and says he can make the math work.
Most of his neighbors can't. For them and thousands of other small-town residents across the country who drive long distances to jobs that pay little more than minimum wage, the high cost of gas is making that daily commute cost-prohibitive.
So much so that economists predict that over the next few years, the country could see a migration that would greatly reduce the population of Small Town America - resulting in a painful shift away from lifestyle, family roots, traditions and school ties.