Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Sprawl is the word.

Sprawl is associated directly with the development, improvement, diffusion, and direct sales and use of the personal automobile and its concomitant (and enabling) growth of the petroleum resource and industry.

According to James Howard Kunstler , "sprawl was an emergent, self-organizing system made possible only by lavish and exorbitant supplies of cheap fossil fuels". Kunstler estimates that 80% of everything ever built in the United States has been built according to the sprawl pattern.

You astutely note that 1950 seems to be an approximate turning point for a form of more entropic, less dense, (more automobile oriented) sprawl. Continuing improvements in fossil fuel exploration science and technology, drilling and refining, and applications technologies had the United States awash in fossil fuel oil by WWII and after. The perceived endless domestic supply of approximately 1950 combined with a worldwide expansion in discoveries and production led Eisenhower to implement import quotas in the late 1950s.

A byproduct of the crude oil refining process is asphalt. As the oil industry grew along with the automobile industry in the early 1900s, so did the distribution network of fuels, filling and service stations, and the economic impetus to pave, pave, pave. A definite turning point in the sprawl/automobile culture was the National Highway Act of 1950, which imposed Federal gasoline fees to finance the Federal Interstate Highway system.

Ironically, about this time, a petroleum geologist named M. King Hubbert was mapping the history of exploration, discovery, and production in the lower 48 states and discovered a pattern which led him to predict that the production of domestic oil would peak in the early 1970s. He was mostly scoffed at, ridiculed, and ignored until his predictions came true in the 1970s. Petroleum Geologists, worldwide, have accepted Hubbert's methodology and applied it to worldwide oil (and natural gas) resources and have almost consensually concluded that worldwide oil and gas production has peaked about 2005 or at the very latest 2015. Most known, exploitable reserve fields, worldwide, are already past their peak production capabilities.

"Between 1948 and 1972, consumption in the U.S. grew from 5.8 to 16.4 million barrels per day. While significant, this three-fold increase was greatly surpassed by societies in other parts of the world: Western Europe's use of petroleum grew sixteen-fold and Japan's 137-fold. This global increase in fuel consumption was tied to the automobile; worldwide automobile ownership rose from 18.9 million in 1949 to 161 million in 1972. The United State's contribution to this growth was significant—an increase from 45 million to 119 million in little more than two decades."

With regards to automobile-centric sprawl, I echo Kunstler warning as I quote him: "all the existing stuff built according to the pattern of sprawl ... will drastically lose its usefulness and its relative "market" value. What's more, the discontinuities to come in the global energy picture will pose challenges so severe to industrial society that we will be lucky to salvage anything resembling civilized life altogether."

That is why, I strongly recommend that we do everything within our human capabilities to educate, advocate, and implement a concerted rebuilding plan committed to reducing automobile usage by 80% in the next 20 to 40 years and begin implementing such a fossil fuel demand side management program and economic supply side reallocation plan almost immediately, if we are to have any hope, whatsoever, of avoiding the greatest extinction of life, particularly the human sort in the next 50 to 100 years.

Mike Morin
Eugene, OR


  1. Alexander DurnanJuly 5, 2009 at 10:18 PM

    I have been reading your contributions to the Ecosocialist International Network forum. Thank you for those contributions. I will be subscribing to your blog now. Good article on Sprawl, my pet issue.
    I reject the words "development" or "growth" that have been fed to us my the media for years. Call it what it is: sprawl. Thanks.

    Good ideas too. I have my own visions of land reclamation projects of the future. I'll get it all down in print someday. Basically every structure built after 1950 needs to be re-evaluated as to its eco-socio usefulness.
    Regards from Delaware.

  2. I use the term ecological economic redevelopment.

    I don't look at it as the structures that need to be re-evaluated, although there are probably many energy efficiency an energy retrofits that can be done (if that's what you mean), I look at the pattern, the layout of the developments and the lack of village centers for walkable access to necessities and for community.