J Morris Hicks

J Morris Hicks

Posted May 20, 2011

Published in Green

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Cheap burgers, suburban sprawl and the end of an era

Read More: cheap oil, peak oil, sustainability

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The way we eat and the way we live have a great deal in common -- they're both harmful, inefficient and unsustainable. 

The American dream of a big private yard, a two-car garage, heated pool and cheap burgers is on its final legs. All, of course, are products of the era of cheap oil that began around 1900. In the past 110 years, as humankind learned to exploit this powerful new energy resource, lots of things became affordable for the average person -- and unfortunately many of those things were not very good for us or for the planet.

Because energy was cheap, and seemingly infinite in supply, man has developed some of the most inefficient processes in the history of the world -- particularly the way we eat and live. In a February 1 article in the New York Times, Mark Bittman said this about our good old American diet of meat and dairy at every meal,  ”It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.” The same thing could be said about the way we live.

Yesterday, while flying into Atlanta from Connecticut, I was struck by the 100 continuous miles of suburban sprawl from the moment we crossed over the Georgia state line. From the air, I saw hundreds of developments that looked like this one:

From an energy standpoint, the most wasteful form of housing known to man

Ironically, it was in Atlanta (in 2000) that our wasteful way of living was brought to my attention for the first time -- by Andres Duany, author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. After being introduced to a civic group of about 500 by Charles Brewer (founder of Mindspring), Duany congratulated the Atlanta crowd for having one of the highest standards of living in the world. We all applauded. Then he quickly brought us down to Earth when he said that we also have one of the worst qualities of life in the western world.

Mr. Duany's book

He went on to compare our lifestyle to that of the office worker in Italy who could walk to the market, play with his kids in the park after work, walk to efficient mass transit, buy fresh vegetables and flowers for the dinner table on the way home and walk to an outdoor concert after dinner -- all totally foreign to the Atlanta super commuter who drives 100 miles a day to work from his sprawling neighborhood. A neighborhood where his kids might be able to see a school playground from their house but would have to be driven three miles by their parents to get there.

Like the way we eat, the way we live is harmful, wasteful and unsustainable and will come to an abrupt end when our gasoline prices surge beyond $10 a gallon and never get cheap again. Everyone knows that oil is a finite resource, yet we consume it like it will last forever -- at the current rate of 88 million barrels per day.

In my lecture last week, I said that it would be great if people would change what they eat and the way they live for the right reasons: health, environment, world hunger, energy consumption and animal suffering. But, while they all talk a good game, I have concluded that most humans don't really care about all those things. Oh, they may give a few hundred dollars to worthy charities from time to time, but when it comes to changing the way they live or eat, they're simply not even interested in talking about it.

But we all will eventually be forced to change -- when the era of cheap oil ends. And we may be in the very final stages right now. Sure, we'll have oil for probably another few hundred years, but the days of $2 to $4 gasoline are just about over for us Americans. And then what?

Perhaps you live in one of those houses like the ones above and drive 75 miles a day to work...and five miles to get groceries. With $10 gasoline, what would happen to your neighborhood? Oh, you say, "I could still afford the added expense and would cut back on something else." But, with $10 gasoline, your home is no longer attractive to many would-be buyers. With expensive fuel, people are now thinking smaller, more efficient, denser housing, mass transit, etc. So, if your house is now worth $200k and you owe $170k, what do you think will happen to the value of your home in this scenario?

Once you figure it out, you may want to start thinking about changing the way you live AND the way you eat -- NOW. It will be much easier and less expensive to do it now rather than wait until your home value plunges to near zero. The good news here is that all that sprawl will be gradually converted to organic farms producing healthy vegetables very efficiently and locally -- consuming about 95% less fossil fuel per calorie as compared to meat and dairy calories.

J. Morris Hicks, the "big picture guy"

The great news is that one hundred years from now, our overall quality of life will be better. Don't believe me? Let me ask you a question. Where would you rather spend your vacation, Houston or Paris?

For more reading on this topic:

High gas prices — the silver lining…

What is the future of food? — Take a look at the past.

High gas prices — the silver lining…

Worried about gas prices? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

From the best outdoor coffee shop in Old Naples, Florida (Tony's) – Be well and have a great day…

—J. Morris Hicks…blogging daily at