The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, one of the tallest buildings in the world. Wikimedia Commons
The end of cheap energy will be perhaps the central problem of the 21st century global civilization, impacting as it does every aspect of the infrastructure of global life -- how we move people and things around; how we power our technology; how we make stuff. Interconnectivity may make the world smaller, but high technology only gets you so far. After all, you can run all the computers in the world on solar energy, but refining every last scrap of organic matter on Earth into gasoline wouldn't power half the cars we have today. So you're left with the observation that when oil gets scarce, we'd better have another way of getting supplies to the plant that makes the solar panels and food to the people that run the computers, or the whole system grinds to a halt.
Probably in the ugliest way possible.
James Howard Kunstler has been getting attention for the New Urbanists for a while now with titles like The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, the latter of which deals precisely with the consequences of cheap energy being a historical anomaly. I highly recommend either book, but for a shorter version, he gave an excellent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California the other day, available here as text or MP3.
Peak oil is a provocative tautology only because it runs against two centuries of abnormal experience:
Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. ... In 1970, we were producing about 10 million barrels a day. Now we're down to less than five -- and we consume over 20 million barrels a day. We have compensated for that since 1970 by importing oil from other nations. Today we import about two-thirds of all the oil we use. Today, the world is consuming all the oil it can produce. As global production passes its own peak, the world will not be able to compensate for its shortfall by importing oil from other planets.
The oil industry has been dominated by what are called supergiant fields. ... The Burgan field of Kuwait, the Daqing of China, Cantarell of Mexico, and Ghawar of Saudi Arabia. Together in recent decades they were responsible for 14 percent of the world's oil production, and they are now in decline. ...
Both The North Sea and Alaska are now past peak and in depletion. Prudhoe Bay proved to be Alaska's only super giant oil field. ... Now 57 of Norway's 69 oil fields are past peak and the average post-peak decline rates average 17 percent a year. The UK's share of the North Sea has declined to the extent that England is now a net energy importer. ...
Russia, despite current high levels of post-Soviet-era production, peaked in the 1980s ... Iran is past peak. Indonesia, an OPEC member, is so far past peak it became a net oil importer last year. Venezuela is past peak.
As a result, the size of modern things becomes a problem:
The key to all our everyday activities in the future is scale. We will probably have to live more locally than has been the case in recent decades. I think we can state categorically that anything organized on the gigantic scale, whether it is an agricultural system, or a finance system, or a corporation, or a chain of stores, or a school, or a government, is going to run into trouble. ...
Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble -- the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.
Not surprisingly, China is mentioned a number of times in this talk. I'm fascinated by the architectural revolution going on there (here's an interesting gallery examining some of the highlights). Like it or not, China is modernizing and needs to make room for huge new urban populations, and accomodate enormous new demands on its energy resources. So you have two countervailing trends linked by a common aspiration to grandiose scale: on the one hand the cities are being built out along current Western lines, which all the disastrous long-term impacts that will entail (i.e. see above); on the other, the Chinese (unlike, say, America of 50 years ago) are well aware of this reality and are pushing for development along more sustainable lines. It will be interesting to see if the developing world can leapfrog entirely past the age of suburbia.
The desire for enormity of scale is hardly unique to China, of course. Anyplace that wants to emphasize its membership in the global civilization will be tempted to pursue the grand. Huge, after all, is easy to confuse with permanent. Thus the present run-up of supertall buildings throughout the eastern hemisphere. 15 of the 20 tallest skyscrapers are currently on the Pacific Rim, and of those, 12 were built in the last 10 years. Burj Dubai is under construction. Numerous 600+ meter towers are in various stages of planning. Kuwait's Mubarak al-Kabir tower is a particularly striking example, that would rise to over a kilometer in height if it gets built.
Nor is the good old United States immune to the tendancy towards gigantism -- when complete, you'll practically be able to see the Chicago Spire from here! Many of these new projects, you'll notice, intend to bring offices and high-rise residences into proximity as virtual arcologies, part of a conscious effort to increase urban core density and reduce commute distances. While this is a goal Kunstler is actually working to advance, the concern is that doing so by way of these high-tech, vast-scale new buildings isn't really sustainable. However, several of the buildings I've cited here consider low energy and ecological impact as explicit design goals -- more of them will have to reach completion before we can really evaluate how well they do in that respect.