There are much more optimistic scenarios. Mega-technological innovations might avoid shortages and increase the speed and availability of connections. If we need power and oil is lacking, we build other sources of power, perhaps huge solar satellites. If we face global warming, we practice geo-engineering (for instance, changing the albedo of the planet and injecting particles into the atmosphere). We intervene to prevent outcomes we do not want. Such efforts would require mammoth investments, vast knowledge of natural systems, and confident technological pride. But they are not impossible.
In this scenario I imagine here that geo-enginering and mega-tech virtuosity have solved climate and energy problems. Patterns of life could remain largely the same though they would be supported by a different technological infrastructure. Of all the scenarios this does the most towards preserving current suburban life.
Thanks for taking the time meet me in this virtual reality park.
It's fine, since I don't have to be at work for another two hours.
Where do you work?
My job is with a company that has an office about 80 miles away, but the people working for the company telecommute from all over the US.
Do you go to the physical office very often?
Mostly I work from home. But when I need to go, the electric busses are nice. Smaller buses come when you call and take you to the larger interchanges.
Do you have a car?
It's electric and it's good for six hundred miles before it needs a recharge.
Where do you get your electric power?
Partly nuclear and partly the solar satellites. I'm not really sure about the precise details, though the power company sends us documents about where they're getting it all.
Is electricity expensive?
There was a time when the bills went way up because the power companies were building the new sources, but now that the investments are in place the rates are not too much more than they used to be.
Does anyone still use oil in your area for transport or for power?
I think there's a gas-fired plant somewhere down the river. For transport, we use mostly electric vehicles with the new batteries. There are still some diesel trucks, but they use biofuel.
So the growing lack of oil hasn't mattered much?
Not really. We have alternative sources in place. Uses that still need petroleum can find it, or they substitute biofuel. There's not much oil-based plastic around, except for stuff that gets reused and remade. Isn't that true in the city?
Mostly. Because they made the big investments thirty years ago, the sources of power changed but the flow stayed the same, then grew.
I remember the launches building the first solar power satellite. Then the space elevator; that was exciting. Now it's become routine, but at first it caught everyone's attention. Once they had enough power satellites in orbit people breathed a sigh of relief.
The solar power farms in the Southwest help too. They've become something of a tourist attraction, which helps the economy down there where the big cities had water problems.
We haven't visited there and probably won't go. Travel for tourism has diminished because virtual reality has become so good. The equivalent of the old travel TV channels have meant that people "visit" many more places but without expending so much energy to do so. One thing I would like to see is the icebergs they tow to San Diego and Los Angeles for fresh water.
At home, what's happened to this suburb? Are there changes in its layout?
No, most of the changes are in infrastructure. The new power grid and broadband are making a big difference in people's lives, but they don't have much visual impact. The kinds of vehicles you see are new but the patterns of travel are not so different.
The last time we talked we were wondering whether the local communities here would have to amalgamate. Is that happening?
Since there's so much Internet shopping, the local town centers that some people thought would develop haven't happened. Most of shopping that went on in the old malls has gone online. Around here some old malls have been rebuilt as schools or community centers surrounded by housing. Aside from those, the pattern of housing hasn't altered. Except that lots of people have moved further out onto larger pieces of land. The pressures that were supposed to drive us towards greater density were handled instead by the technological investments.
So you're still building scattered suburban homes.
If anything, people live farther apart, since the virtual reality connections are so fast and effective. But we're building more carefully. You'd be amazed at how much more efficiently we heat our newer homes in this cold region. It's the picturesque older homes that are expensive to live in compared to the newer houses. So there's quite a business retrofitting old homes so that they look the same but live more efficiently.
So it's still a "wasteful suburban lifestyle"?
Yes, but the supply is great enough. One "green" change is that long-distance business and tourist travel is down. Since we get our power and transportation electricity from large renewable sources, we have cut down our carbon footprint, if one were still worrying about carbon footprints. But climate change has been slowed way down by the big atmospheric and oceanic geo-engineering projects.
Have the new technologies brought changes in how people get together to govern the area?
Many committees meet online, and we have community forums there. But people still like to get together and shout at one other.
Are there fewer townships than before?
We still have the same mix of many small jurisdictions, and we are far enough out that the city doesn't impact us much except when we go there for special events. With the new transportation and power arrangements, our local governments aren't as heavily stressed as they were before. But we do still have many competing local governments with different policies. With the computer communications our local governments could cover a larger area than they did before, but they still have all the traditional athletic and other rivalries and they still fight about measures to bring in jobs and tax revenues. With the change in shopping patterns it's no longer a matter of trying to bring in a mall or big-box store. So it's mostly a question of trying to get new offices and small factories. Local governments are still avoiding cooperation. I wish they would come together, because then there might be more regional traffic management and help for the eternal problem of getting enough money for the schools.
Is it hard to find development that doesn't demand more schools and civic infrastructure? One of the benefits of the old shopping developments was that they brought in tax revenue without much increasing the demand for services in the town.
That's true, but with the Internet so fast and capacious these days there's been a big increase in home and group virtual-reality schooling. This spreads outside any local jurisdiction. So the demand for increased schools doesn't go up as fast when the population grows. Also, as so many people telecommute, bringing in a business enterprise doesn't necessarily increase the population of the local area. You can tax the office without having to pay for lots of new services to those who work in it.
So the investments in energy and climate are making it possible to continue with suburban patterns of living and building.
We've avoided the predicted problems of resources and energy. So the suburbs can continue being what they were and moving in the direction they were moving. The old suburbs look the same; though they are more efficient and the sources that fuel them are different. But you can sense changes on the way. People are living more spread out; they're doing more tele-presence working and meeting. Groups that don't live geographically together are becoming more important in politics and the economy.
So the suburbs are marching on pretty much as before?
They're doing a lot better than a while back, at least in terms of the crises we saw coming. But, they're only doing a bit better at solving the older problems of the ecology and social cohesion. Abundant energy is letting too many folks slide along the old ways. Have there been many changes in the city?
It's similar to here; cheap energy and less worry about climate change have let everything go along with all the old tensions still there. The biggest change, and it is an important one, is that the poorest people are somewhat better off because there's more employment. At least those who are sufficiently educated are doing better as the job market improves.
Is the city peaceful?
The section where I live is fairly exclusive; it's peaceful like always, and our city isn't known for big conflicts. Still, I'd say some of the less exclusive areas of the city are a bit more peaceful than they were when it looked as if there'd be a lot of internal competition for resources. But you, with all this dependence on large technical systems in space and elsewhere, do you feel vulnerable?
We feel less vulnerable than we did when the oil supply and distribution networks were being threatened. The technology is no longer in the hands of unstable governments. The big corporations that run the solar satellites have no desire for instability and no way to make a profit from it. Super-abundant energy may keep conflicts quiet. Some of them are about values and ways of life, not about resources, but having enough resources does allow groups to go their own way.
So the big changes have been in infrastructure and supply, and not yet in the suburban mode of living?
That's right. So far.
In a high tech high energy future what happens to the suburbs? They can flourish but they begin to change. They might well come to resemble the future Frank Lloyd Wright proposed in his 1930s Broadacre City vision. Wright argued that increasing mobility and the availability of resources and electric power outside cities would lead to a spread-out pattern of living with a much lower density than even today's suburbs. Everyone would have several acres of land and could raise food, but also have access to scattered workplaces and markets, plus distant links by phone, radio, car, and air. The vision combined self-sufficiency with mobility and connection. As he put it, "the new city will be nowhere yet everywhere."
In the book and web site Sprawling Places I discuss more details and references on Wright's Broadacre City vision of a suburban future combining self-sufficiency and mobility. In our age, in addition to the technologies Wright knew in 1932, the "continuous fields of presence provided by wireless networks can fundamentally alter patterns of resource availability and space use." (William Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self And The Networked City (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003, p. 147).)
(Continue to Scenarios: Eco-Technology)