Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Dependence Of The Great Urban Centers

 As I mentioned yesterday, one thing that struck me as I made my meandering way across the continental US (or at least half of it) was the fact that outside of The Great Urban Centers, there is a lot of emptiness.  What also struck me is the fact that outside of The Great Urban Centers is where a great many things that supply them are located.

On my drive I passed orchards of fruit and nut trees (Are nut trees also orchards? I have no idea), fields of now picked over grain and cotton as well as some of vegetables still growing, cattle yards and acres of cattle on fields, refuse pits where the detritus (both organic and non-organic, although that is not precisely the meaning of the word) goes to rot, resource generators of forests and water reservoirs, and giant power stations in the middle of nowhere lighting up the night.

The market for these is, of course, not where any of them are located but are The Great Urban Centers and lesser towns.  In fact, one could go one step further and state that The Great Urban Centers are not just the market for such things, they are completely dependent on them.

Yes yes, I know.  It has more or less always been so:  as urban centers increase, so the agriculture and resources that support them get pushed to the periphery and then beyond sight (Even where I grew up, I still have memories of small farms almost within the city limit which have now become subdivisions).   And as these urban centers grow, they become less and less really able to "support" themselves, becoming incredibly reliant on the materials of civilization that are "out there beyond the horizon".

It is a weakness, of course, a very large one.

The Great Urban Centers become incredibly reliant on a supply chain system that 1)  Moves the materials from their originating location to a processing location (Be it oranges to packing plants or electricity to distribution stations); 2) Moves the now processed materials to further processing locations; 3) Moves the "finished products" to the distribution centers; and 4) Moves the "finished products" from the distribution centers to the final point of sale or delivery (your store, door-side delivery, or faucet or plug).   And for all of this intake of resources and materials and energy, the great urban centers only return two things:  waste (which is moved away), and currency which in theory makes it "worth" running the system.

Dependency and the (largely speaking) inability to provide for actual population and operation).  This is not a great combination.

Surely, you say, it has always been this way.  And it has:  the Athenian Empire relied on grain shipments from the Black Sea to feed its population; the Roman Empire did the same with grain from Egypt to feed the population of The Eternal City.  And undoubtedly there was someone just like me at that time, maundering around in his toga, muttering about how the great latifundia of Egypt and Syria and even Italia were putting the Roman civilization at risk.  

Cassandras and Doom Sayers.  We are in every era.

The difficulty, of course, is that once one becomes reliant on a thing, one's policies become dedicated to preserving that reliance.

Athenian policy was dictated by a need to keep the seas open, its coffers filled to support her navy, and above all, to keep the grain flowing.  And Rome's true "collapse" did not come until the great and complex commercial economy which she had brought into being (largely managed her complete domination of the Mediterranean basin and the countries around it) fell apart, and the grain (and taxes) no longer flowed.   Within my own life time it has been energy in the form of petroleum; it will likely become computer chips if things continue as they are.

So dependency, the inability to function long term, and now policy determined not necessarily by what is best but by what is going to sustain the flow of goods.  

As we are experiencing at the moment and almost everywhere, such things have consequences.  The experience of delays caused by waiting for things not yet available or the inability to get those things to us impact everything around us in large ways or small.  And this is still with energy to move the goods available and the resources largely in country.  Imagine if the ability to move items was even further reduced (in case no-one is clear, everything - everything - goes on a truck at some point.  And trucks burn fuel), or if the simple items and energy became unavailable.

The Great Urban Centers, unable to provide for themselves and dependent on the outside for so many things, would simply grind to a halt.

Perhaps the former me, clad in a toga and having overlooked the slow decay of Rome, would simply shake my head and lament that we have learned nothing in all this time.


  1. The Rhyming of History. It is amazing that we have learned so little. And that we elect people that know even less and appear to have no ability to correlate actions and outcomes.

    I remember "you pick it" farms just outside the city limits. When our garden didn't make much, mom took us kids out to pick bushels of black eyed peas, beans and okra. We canned almost all of it after shelling, snapping and washing it. I can't find anything like that now. I figure if I could find 10 acres to cultivate, it would be a money maker.

    Alas, Babylon....

    1. STxAR, I think such places exist outside of the larger urban areas, but even now they are effectively a novelty rather than a going concern or a market for a small group of individuals. For several years we bagged walnuts in the season and took a bag home for the year.

      I had actually just mentioned that book yesterday. Great minds...

  2. Nut trees are planted in orchards like fruit.

    1. HB - Thank you very much! I really did not have a clue.

  3. A lot of folks have made great comparisons between Rome, the greek city states and others, and most run along the same tune as yours.

    I'm just throwing this out there... but: never before has America's industrial might been stronger. The great machine that woke up and went to war against Japan in WW2 - and went half way round the world to give them the business... is orders of magnitude stronger today.

    We live in a bubble of artificial prosperity. In my outhouse study of the old Roman stoics, it was a popular thing for them to walk away from their comfortable homes and positions of luxury and influence - and live on the street and beg for a few days, living in complete and utter poverty. They had all kinds of mental exercises like that.

    I think the coming disruptions and shortages will be short lived. Once enough people get mugged by realities... maybe things will change. Who knows. I have been very wrong about these things before.

    1. Glen, you are just as qualified as I to comment. Good heavens, I am a guy that writes a blog of opinions for enjoyment, not pay.

      That said, I wonder if the current supply chain issues indicate an inherent weakness in the manufacturing sector. In my lifetime, for example, auto plants have seldom shut down except for strikes. The fact that this has happened for multiple auto companies because of an unavailability of parts (chips in this case) seems to me to be an indicator of something. And while I think the comment "If it was made in the US it would not be waiting to be unloaded from a ship" is a little too naive to qualify as an axiom, it does contain a kernel of truth: things that are in shortage from abroad which we may rely on have an additional hurdle to cover that manufactured in continental North America does not.

      In terms of the disruptions and shortages...I have no idea. You and I have both commented that shutting down the economy had all sorts of bad ramifications and restarting it was not the same as just flicking a switch, which has turned out to be the case. The fact that it seems government and industry are saying this could extend to 2023 or beyond is a bit concerning, considering they failed to see it as an issue in the first place.

      You are right, the Stoics did indeed have that practice. Seneca writes of it more than once.

    2. That’s my point, TB. If you are asking “why are we out of computer chips?”, you can bet the tall foreheads at The Big Three are asking it too… and that they will move to deal with it.

      Just as the preppers stockpile and move to protect their stores and lines of supply… our companies will do the same. American corporations haven’t had to think that way since WW2. There will be teething problems as they adjust. The prepper mindset used to be mainstream, way back when… and it will be again - or else! The companies that will survive are the ones that move to secure their own future as the small holds and preppers do, perhaps.

      Maybe some scarcities and shortages will actually be good for us, in the way that poverty vacations were for the stoic?

    3. Glen, I think they are - and are in some cases trying to alleviate the issue; I have heard tell of at least on computer chip plant being built in the US. That said, it is undoubtedly years away from operation.

      And perhaps that is the root of my problem. US Business, at least since the 1990's, has shown itself to be incredibly short sighted. As soon as an emergency leaves, they tend to go back to the status quo - and that, combined with the general guidance of the lowest cost good, has historically seen them revert to the "let us offshore now".

      The other issue - certainly not in this discussion, but a larger consideration - is a skilled, educated workforce willing to do the job.

    4. Well that’s the other thing too, isn’t it? For myself… I dunno if I want to go back to work in the politically correct hell that the modern socialist workplace is becoming. I dunno about how vibrancy and diversity works in your world… but up here it means lunacy. It’s soul crushing… and maybe a humble retirement is better for my soul than a lavish one paid for with my sanity?

      I know all kinds of people dropping out by taking early retirement, or staying home to school their kids, or going off grid to get away from it.

      The politicians are right that there is a re-set coming… but I don’t think it is the one they are hoping for.

    5. Glen - You address a very large side of this equation not dealt with specifically in the question of supply chains and resource management. One could make the argument that, given the new model for how businesses run, that many people are simply going to decide it is not worth the effort - or find businesses that do not require such things.

      It is interesting: for years we have heard the call to forge a new path, often from a sort of anti-capitalism/"hippy" sort of mentality. Now, I wonder if more and more on "the other side" are looking at their lives and finding the same thing.

      It is not promising for the long term, at least for corporate work in the U.S., especially when so much of our GDP is based on a Service economy, which requires people.

      Which, I suppose, brings up the very logical question: what happens if you had an economy and no-one showed up to work?

  4. Well said, TB, and well observed. The World is a scary place, and I find myself going inward more and more, putting out my thoughts and prayers for some resolution from God, and all I get back is that mankind has to learn..... which doesn't seem like happening any time soon!

    1. Vera - Wise minds, much wiser than mine, have commented that history is a spiral that God keeps bringing us back to until we learn from it and move beyond it. We do not, on the whole, manage this well.

  5. So what is our fate? We've been doing this for hundreds of years if not a thousand and things haven't changed. What will cause it to change? Will there be some great collapse of society? I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I also don't know how we could change our fate (whatever it might be) short of everyone going back to our hunter/gatherer days fueled by flint arrow points and dying in our 30's.

    1. Ed, if I knew this I would hopefully be doing something quite different than what I am doing now.

      I would say that things have partially changed in that we moved from autarky to mercantilism to capitalism to whatever we call today's economy - and while things have generally moved upward, they have not consistently done so. There have been a great many bumps in the road - commercially things like the Potato Famine, the Great Depression, the Communist revolutions (and their resulting deaths) all come to mind. As someone once said, one person dying is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.

      What I guess should be done is a version of what Glen is suggesting, securing our own supply lines not only internationally but internally by moving things closer. Not that any of that is likely to happen, of course.

  6. Anonymous3:06 AM

    I've read somewhere in the past about a study that the Firestone company wrote about city populations and decline of services. It appeared that when a city exceeded 100,000, services began to suffer and quality of life in those cities declined.

    I've noticed that occur here. When my wife and I were married, the city we live in was about 60,000 population. Since then, we've nudged past 100,000 (presently 107,000 plus) and like magic, problems began to spring up. Potholes were being filled in a timely manner. Utility work seems to be more often and take longer to be finished. Street traffic becoming more congested, rush hour taking even longer to ease off.

    I iive near a small college campus a few blocks away, so maybe this is due to enrollment. But during the pandemic, on-campus population has declined and those problems mentioned above have only become worse.

    1. Anonymous - It does not surprise me that such a study might have been done, and even perhaps by a tire company (after all, U.S. cities rely heavily on autos). nd it does not surprise me that there is an ideal size of a city, beyond which things decline and the cities become less desirable.

      Oddly enough, Urban planning is a thing, so one wonders why this has not been more publicly addressed. In point of fact, it it often feels like people are being pushed towards cities, making the city populations even greater and less ideal living conditions.

      I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that at 100,000 there is a reasonable balance between those that support the city with their taxes (potholes and utilities) and those that use the services. As you continue to grow, I would imagine those numbers get skewed.

      For service like roads, this should be planned years before they are needed - and incorporate anticipated population growth. In the U.S. (I think), even if the number of houses and businesses was calculated, the growth (and increasingly mandating and encouraged) multi-unit housing means there are far more people and cars on the roads (and using the services like electricity, water, etc.) than could have ever been planned for).

      I would imagine a city with a college population might be even more difficult in that sense, as you have some portion of the city population that uses the services, but does not pay for them through taxes (and I doubt the university fills that gap).

      Somewhere here in the comment archives, Just So once quoted a study using mice stating that they had a population carrying capacity and beyond that capacity, their lives became shorter and they became more aggressive. This information, sadly, has not carried through to urban planning.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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