atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#7257: Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!

Who really needs big cities any longer?

I'm serious: the evolution of truly large cities was driven by industrialization. Industry requires heavy transport, lots of labor, and some kind of reasonably dense power source. When steam powered factories and rail transport, but people walked or rode horses and heavy freight moved via ship, you put your factory near a big city which had a nice big port and a couple of rail yards.

You don't get a New York City or a Los Angeles or a Chicago out in the middle of the prairie, not without there being a sound economic reason for there to be one. I cannot think of a single American city which does not have access to shipping, because really big loads move by ship. Hearken ye to Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in which he says the ship's capacity is 26,000 tons. To move that much iron ore by train would take 260 rail cars. We can do that in a single train, now, thanks to distributed power and other tricks, but even twenty years ago it was flatly impossible for a single train to haul that much cargo. Doing it in two would have been a feat.

But what about now?

It's true that we still need industrial centers. You cannot build a steel mill in a farm town served by a single-track rail line and turn out industrial quantities of steel. Heavy industry requires a lot of transport, both in and out. But what you don't need is a big complex city around that industrial center, or off to one side of it.

In the United States, at least, we have personally-owned vehicles. People think very little of driving 40, 50, 60 miles to get to work each day, thanks to the invention of the limited-access superhighway. They don't need to wait for a train that moves an average of 30 MPH. So if you work a job that requires your physical presence, you can live agreeably far from it. But what if you work in a job that can be done from anywhere in the world that has a fast and robust Internet connection?

The entire "information" sector of our economy, just about, fits that description. Because of the advances in telecommunication just over the last decade, it's possible to build a customer service call center which consists entirely of people working from home. Do people who work in the finance industry need to report to an office in Manhattan every day, or can 90% of their work be done from a home office? What about engineers? Sure, they need to live somewhere within driving distance of the place that builds the machines they design--but do they need to be there every working hour, or can they do much of their work from home? And so it goes, with programmers, documentation specialists, journalists--a hundred separate fields, all of which only do business in offices out of sheer habit.

New York City is turning into a ghost town for two reasons: the local government has made doing business there prohibitively expensive, and technology has enabled most businesses--at least, the ones which are able to continue functioning from a distance--to pull up stakes and go elsewhere. The municipal government's lack of concern for public order have forced too many others to remain closed; you can't turn a profit if there's a riot every month in which you are lucky if your store is merely gutted of inventory, and not burned out to boot.

New York City is one example. Los Angeles. Seattle. Chicago. Where else?

The cities won't vanish. They may become shadows of their former selves, as has happened with Detroit--probably will if something is not done to halt the decline (assuming anything can be done at this point). The cities will hang on because of their essential industries and their transportation hubs. But I just don't see them retaining their perches as economic powerhouses.

* * *

I first encountered the "post-urban" landscape in, of all places, H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy. The only real city on Zarathustra was Mallorysport, boasting a population of seventy thousand out of perhaps a million colonists all told.

Piper's description:
Fifteen years ago, when the Zarathustra Company had sent [Victor Grego, Chartered Zarathustra Company bigwig] here, there had been a cluster of log and prefab huts beside an improvised landing field, almost exactly where this skyscraper now stood. Today, Mallorysport was a city of seventy thousand; in all, the planet had a population of nearly a million, and it was still growing. There were steel mills and chemical plants and reaction plants and machine works. They produced all their own fissionables, and had recently begun to export a little refined plutonium; they had even started producing collapsium shielding.
But later in the book he describes the city as seen from the air as consisting of mostly trees with buildings rising out of them.

From The Project Gutenberg eBook, Little Fuzzy, by Henry Beam Piper and it's a worthy read.

That's a city which has no need of fossil fuels--everything is atomic-powered in one way or another--and which is built around transportation which flies, rather than rolls. It's why the colonial population is spread out--why it can be spread out, yet support all the economic activity mentioned in that paragraph.

And Piper wrote that story when computers were still room-filling machines. If he'd anticipated the desktop computer (let alone the smartphone) what would he have written?

* * *

To be honest, these days, you can put a factory nearly anywhere.

You need good access to power, you need good rail service, and you need employees. Satisfy those three requirements and you can put a car assembly factory in a corn field. Depending on how highly you automate it, you might not even need all that many employees, either. You won't be building the kind of factory they used to, where ore and wood and leather and cloth and various chemicals came in one side, and finished cars came out the other; but as long as the rail cars keep coming loaded with parts made elsewhere, the assembled cars will continue to roll out the other side of the factory.

There are a million things that can be made in a former cornfield, given power, transportation, and people. You don't need to be in, or near, a big city any longer. Some of the places that turn raw materials into the parts you use will have to be...but only some of them.

* * *

Remember how McCormick Place was turned into a temporary hospital? Remember how major cities set up emergency hospitals, like NYC getting the US Navy hospital ship, because oooh we're going to run out of hospital space for all the severe COVID-19 cases?

Remember how we had to shut down the economy for "just two weeks" to "flatten the curve"? Considering the lockdowns have continued for nearly half a year, that curve's got to be damn near perfectly straight now.

The only good thing that could possibly come out of Biden winning the election in November would be how quickly this COVID-19 horseshit would be over afterwards.

* * *

So along with "food insecurity" now China is facing a housing glut and rents are dropping. Reportedly, China's economy is "faltering". Funny how the people who always scream about how China is going to eat our lunch aren't talking much about this issue.

China today is where Japan was thirty, forty years ago. Their economic expansion is built on a lopsided exchange rate; if that changes to reflect the growth of their economy (and it must, less it cause other, bigger problems) then their expansion will slow or stop. Then, 30-year stagnation, like Japan.

* * *

I should go cut the grass. "Should." *sigh*

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