Scientists on where to be in the 21st century based on sustainability

[Note: Hall & Day recently published a book based on the ideas below. America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st Century Megatrends (book review).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level

Oct 2013. John. W. Day, M. Moerschbaecher, David Pimentel, Charles Hall, A. Yá˜nez-Arancibia. Ecological Engineering.

Five scientists have written a peer-reviewed article about where the best and worst places will be in the future in America based on how sustainable a region is when you take into account climate change, energy reserves, population, sea-level rise, increasingly strong hurricanes, and other factors.  Three of the scientists, John W. Day, David Pimentel, and Charles Hall, are “rock stars” in  ecology.

Below are some excerpts from this 16 page paper that I found of interest (select the title above to see the full original paper).

Best places to be

WhereToBe Day2013 good places greenestThe greener the better — unless there are too many people (circles indicate large cities).  modified from U.S. EPA (2013)

where to be day 2013 best is underperforming now

Move to an Underperforming Region (and away from a Megaregion): Many areas rich in natural resources often have high poverty rates, perhaps due to “the resource curse”, usually applied internationally to countries rich in fossil fuels, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, but financially poor with stratified social classes. We believe this concept can be applied to states. You can see above that most underperforming counties are rural. These are regions that have not kept pace with national trends over the last 3 decades in terms of population, employment, and wages. Note that with the exception of the Great Lakes megaregion, the underperforming regions are outside of the 11 megaregions. These underperforming areas generally have high natural resources and agricultural production.

Worst Places to Be

Worst places to be


Several areas of the U.S. will have compromised sustainability in the 21st century. These include the southern Great Plains, the Southwest, the southern half of California, the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, especially southern Louisiana and Southern Florida, and areas of dense population such as south Florida and the Northeast.

where to be day 2013 not in megaregions


[My comment: You should also consider how long forests will last in your area, people will be burning them to cook and heat their homes with, and eventually make furniture, homes, floors, spoons, and hundreds of other objects as shown in the FoxFire series.  There were 92 million people in 1920, just 29% of the population we have now.  To zero in on the details, see this account of what happened in Vermont]

forest virgin growth 1620 1850 1920





Avoid the large megaregions.

Future Trends

The trends of energy scarcity, climate change, population, and many other factors are likely to reduce the sustainability of the landscape humans depend on, in some places more than others, since materials and energy both limited and distributed unevenly.

Industrial agriculture is very energy intensive: 19% of the total energy use in the U.S.

14% of that is Agricultural production, food processing and packaging, 5% for transportation and preparation.

  • Each American uses 528 gallons/year in oil equivalents to supply their food, or 169 billion gallons for 320 million Americans.
  • About 33% of the energy required to produce 2.5 acres of crops is invested in machine operation.
  • On average, nearly 10 calories of energy are used to make 1 calorie of edible food.
  • Cropland provides 99.7% of the global human food supply (measured in calories) with less than 1% coming from the sea.
  • Global per capita use is      .50 acre for cropland and 1.25 acres of pasture land
  • The U.S. and Europe use 1.25 acres of cropland and 2     acres  of pasture land
  • Crop-land now occupies 17% of the total land area in the U.S., but little additional land is available or even suitable for future agricultural expansion.
  • As the U.S. population increases, climate impacts grow, and energy resources decrease, there will be less cropland area per capita.
  • A significant portion of food produced in the U.S. is irrigated and located in areas where water shortages will increase.

Agricultural land

  • 1950:   1,250,000,000 acres
  • 2000:      943,000,000 acres – down 21.5% from 1950

…………Acres              States (cropland is unequally distributed)

  • 508,000,000    N & S Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico,                         Colorado, Montana, Wyoming
  • 135,700,000    Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri
  •   27,800,000    California (50% of vegetables, fruits, and nuts in USA

Crops need a lot of water.  Some use 265 to to 530 gallons of water per 2.2 pounds of crops produced (dry matter).  Corn needs 10 million liters per hectare, soybeans 6 million L/ha fora yield of 3.0 tons/ha. Wheat requires only about 2.4 million L/ha for a yield of 2.7 t/ha. Under semiarid conditions, yields of non-irrigated crops, such as corn, are low (1.0 t/ha to 2.5 t/ha) even when ample amounts of fertilizer are applied. Approximately 40% of water use in the United States is used solely for irrigation. Reducing irrigation dependence in the U.S. would save significant amounts of energy, but probably require that crop production shift from the dry and arid western regions to the more agriculturally suitable eastern U.S.

Why Cities will be Bad Places to be

The cities most dependent on cheap energy will be the most affected (especially the Southwest and southern great plains)

U.S. population increased steadily from 3.9 million in 1790 to nearly 310 million in 2010 (or almost 8,000% in just 220 years, an exponential growth rate of almost 2%). Life also became progressively more urbanized and by 2010, 259 million people or 83% lived in urban areas compared to 56 million in rural areas.

The maintenance of large urban megaregions requires enormous and continuous inputs of energy and materials. Modern industrial society and modern cities are inherently unsustainable.

Some have argued that large urban areas are more energy efficient than rural areas (Dodman, 2009). But Fragkias (2013) examined the relation between city size and greenhouse gas emissions and found that emissions scale proportionally with urban population size for U.S. cities and that larger cities are not more emissions efficient than smaller ones. In a review of energy and material flows through the world’s 25 largest urban areas, Decker(2000) also concluded that large urban areas are only weakly dependent on their local environment for energy and material inputs but are constrained by their local areas for supplying water and absorbing wastes. Rees  contends that if cities are to be sustainable in the future, they must rebalance production and consumption, abandon growth, and re-localize. The trajectory of megatrends of the 21st century will make this difficult for all large urban regions in the U.S. and impossible for some.

By 2025, it is estimated that 165 million people, or about half the population, will live in 4 megaregions; the Northeast, Great Lakes, Southern California, and San Francisco Bay regions. An additional 45 million will live in south Florida and the Houston-Dallas region. The supply lines that support these megaregions with food, energy, and other materials stretch for long distances across the landscape. Areas dependent on longer, energy intensive supply lines are vulnerable to the rising costs of energy for transportation.

The economies of urban areas, especially the currently most economically successful ones based on the human, financial, and information service sectors, are strongly dependent on the spending of discretionary income, which is predicted to decrease substantially over the 21st century.

Best cities to live in

But many cities have lost population, especially those that were based in the manufacturing sector of the economy during the 20th century. Detroit and Flint, Michigan, are often cited as examples but there are many others. Between 1950 and 2000, St. Louis lost 59% of its population. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland lost more than 45% each. It is possible that many of the rust belt cities that have experienced population decreases will be more sustainable than more “successful” cities in the northeast and other areas. They now have a lower population density and tend to exist in rich agricultural regions. Indeed, abandoned land is being used for food production in a number of depopulating cities.

Worst cities to live in

By contrast, the northeast is the most densely populated region of the country. The population is expected to reach almost 60 million by 2025. The states that make up the region have about 34 million acres of farmland or about 0.2 ha per person. By contrast, it takes about 1.2 ha per capita to provide the food consumed in the U.S. If agriculture becomes more local and less productive as some predict due to increasing energy costs then it will be a challenge to maintain the current food supply to the northeast.

The least sustainable region will likely be the southwestern part of the country from the southern plains to California. Climate change is already impacting this region and it is projected to get hotter and drier. Winter precipitation is predicted to be more rain and less snow. These trends will lead to less water for direct human consumption and for agriculture. This is critical since practically all agriculture in the region is irrigated. The Southwest has the lowest level of ecosystem services of any region in the U.S. California is the most populous state in the nation with most people living in the southern half of the state, the area with highest water stress. The Los Angeles metro area is the second largest in the nation. But population density is low over much of the rest of the region and is concentrated in large urban areas such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. California is one of the most important food producing states in the nation but this will be threatened by water scarcity and increasing energy costs. Much of the region is strongly dependent on tourism and spending discretionary income, especially Las Vegas, so future economic health will likely be compromised in coming decades. Many cities and regions whose economy is dependent on tourism will have compromised sustainability.

Energy scarcity

World oil production peaked in 2005 and has been on a plateau since then.

400 giant fields discovered before 1960 provide 80% of world oil.

Shale oil and gas have very high depletion rates and the production of unconventional reserves such as the Canadian and Venezuelan tar sands are extremely unlikely to be scaled up sufficiently to offset conventional decline rates.

Society depends on the surplus energy provided from the energy extraction sector for the material and energy throughput that allows for economic growth and productivity. As energy becomes more expensive to extract and produce, more money and energy that might otherwise be spent in other sectors of the economy must be spent in the energy sector, decreasing real growth (my comment: that means fewer jobs and increasing poverty)

The transition to a less oil reliant, more sustainable society in the U.S. is many decades away.

Since so much of the economy depends upon the widespread availability of cheap oil for the production and distribution of goods, the onset of peak oil and the decline in net energy available to society has profound implications for overall societal well being (my comment: this is the understatement of the year – what this means is extreme social unrest from hunger and lack of oil or natural gas to heat homes and cook with, etc)

Just as the first half of the oil age consisted of constantly increasing production, the second half of the oil age will consist of a continual rate of depletion that cannot be offset by new discoveries or low EROI alternatives.

Descriptions of regions in the article

  • Most negatively affected areas: Southwest including much of California & Southern Great Plains. All of these regions will be drier with less water at the same time population is growing.
  • decreased fresh water availability: Southern Great Plains, SouthWest (Lake Mead has a 50% chance of drying up within 2 decades)
  • Eastern half of U.S.: abundant natural resources but avoid megaregions
  • Poor soil: southwest
  • Severest climate change impacts: Southwest
  • Driest, hottest, most extreme droughts and floods: Southwest
  • Most tree deaths, super forest fires, loss of species, dust: Southwest
  • Snow melting too fast: West Coast – fewer crops, especially California which grows 1/3 of America’s food
  • Flooding: Mississippi basin due to more intense storms in the future
  • Rising sea level: coastal zones
  • stronger hurricanes: Gulf and Atlantic coasts from warming surface waters of the oceans. Hurricanes are also expected to become more frequent.
  • Hurricane surge: Gulf and Atlantic Coasts with New Orleans the worst threatened
  • Mississippi delta: resources of the river can be used to rebuild and restore the rich natural systems of the area
  • Energy scarcity will affect everyone everywhere
  • Less rain: great plains
  • Ogallala aquifer depletion: great plains (energy scarcity will add to the cost and difficulties of pumping the water up)

Good areas

  • High rainfall and primary production: eastern states
  • High ecosystem services: river valleys and coastal areas
  • Estuaries, swamps, floodplains
  • Warmer, moist climates: higher primary productivity than colder climates

There’s a lot more, I especially liked the attack of the current economic paradigms (i.e. growth forever) on pages 6 – 9.

Also, many of the referenced papers in the article are good reads with important details not covered fully in this paper.

I personally think cities might be good for a few years into the crisis as governments concentrate resources and supply lines where the highest population densities are.  Gas stations out in the rural areas will be the first to close, throwing some places into sudden self-reliancy.  But at some point the whole system snaps like a volcano erupting from oil shocks, rusting oil and gas infrastructure falling apart (especially refineries), natural disasters, black swans like (cyber) warfare, electric grid down for a year or more, nuclear winter from nuclear war anywhere in the world, electromagnetic pulses from solar flares or a nuclear explosion, hunger and consequent social unrest, and other factors in the Decline, Collapse, and “A Fast Crash?” categories.  That will make cities the worst places to be.  Best to move to under-performing areas now since it will take years to become part of another community and learn the necessary skills.

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22 Responses to Scientists on where to be in the 21st century based on sustainability

  1. Paul Glover says:

    My book “Los Angeles: A History of the Future” describes how that city can be rebuilt toward balance with nature during the next 80 years.

    • energyskeptic says:

      You have a lot of good ideas in your book — but you’re 40 years too late. The consensus amongst systems ecologists, the millenium assessment, the authors of “Limits to Growth”, and most people who are “peak oil” aware, realize we’ve gone way past carrying capacity in to “overshoot” by conservatively at least 25%. In 1973 we had a chance to do a U-turn, limit immigration and reduce population to 100 million people –the carrying capacity of the USA without fossil fuels. I hope you make it through the hard times ahead, because you will do have good ideas about how to live a more sustainable lifestyle,

  2. Mark strobel says:

    Wow. Not much I didn’t already know. At least I am prepared for a bunch of idiots (from denver)heading into the mountains, it happens every weekend! Also holidays…
    Once there is no government, I will be collecting my rain water(illegal now)and growing my own food. I am required by law currently to give those Arizona assholes my water?! DO NOT LIVE WHERE THERE IS NO WATER. Duh

    • Colorado Landowner says:


      Residential rainwater collecting is no legal in a vast majority of rural areas of colorado as long as you collect it for reasons which are clearly outline by state law and as long as your house uses a water well or is registered to use a water well.

      Just to fell you in, rainwater collection in many states is not legal. It isn’t just in Colorado and it isn’t just so the people living down in Arizona have water rights from the Colorado.

      There aren’t enough people living in rural areas of the Colorado Rockies to make much of an impact on the water supply flowing through the Colorado river. Yes it rains more in portions of Colorado than it does in “most” areas of Arizona but even Colorado has seen on average much less annual precipitation over the past few years.

      Even Colorado is taking a hit from the changing climate. If the climate continues to progress on the track which it has benlen, then rainwater collection will be the least of your worries. Stop whining about how everything is the fault of everyone living in urban areas of the Front Range and across the desert southwest. You building a home in a natural wilderness area in the mountains has negative effects on the environment too believe it or not.

  3. Mike Stasse says:

    So then……… the rest of the world doesn’t get a look in…….

  4. Alec says:

    Very interesting article with lots of useful data.

    I would double-check the math in the second paragraph of “Why Cities will be Bad Places to be”. I think you mean population has grown 22% per decade, not 35% per year.

    (310/3.9)^(1/22)=1.22; (1.22^22)x(3.9) = 310.

    • Brian says:

      You’re right, except you need 220 years:
      (310/3.9)^(1/220)=1.02 or 2%
      (1.02^220)x(3.9) = 310

      In other words the report is off by a factor or 400! This really demonstrates the affects of exponential growth — even a small percentage increase results in a huge change.

      • Brian says:

        Sorry, now I made an error:
        They’re only off by 35/2 = 17 times.


      • energyskeptic says:

        At the percentage rate calculator, 3.9 million to 310 million is 7849%
        2014 – 1790 = 224 years.
        7848% / 224 years = 35.67% per year

        • Chuck says:

          I’m an energy skeptic too, energyskeptic, but please check your math. When you say “35% per year”, you are claiming it increases 35% every year.

          Let’s run that forwards from 1790. Every year is 1.35 times more population than the previous. So over 224 years, you multiple by 1.35 224 times.

          3900000 * 1.35**224

          Obviously 35% is utterly wrong.

          • energyskeptic says:

            Chuck, arrrgh, you’re right. I should have done a search on “exponential growth calculator”, which I just did, and it is 1.95%, DOH! If we continued to grow at 1.95% per year there’ll be over 24 billion people in 224 years. Oh, but not to worry according to my my friends who aren’t concerned about population — the growth rate has slowed down to .7%. So there’ll only be 565 million people in 2100 (if we can build a high enough fence along the border, and 1.4 billion in 224 years). That’s still 465 million more people than the carrying capacity of the United States without fossil fuels (and 100 million people may be high given the depletion of topsoil and aquifers that couldn’t have been done so quickly without massive tractors and other vehicles that burned fossil fuels in such a short time).

  5. Frank Russell says:

    Indeed! Whatever you do, don’t collect that rain water. Corporate America needs the run-off to wash their waste downriver. Interesting article!

  6. Mujahid says:

    Where can we read the paper?

    • energyskeptic says:

      If you select the title at the top, I’ve uploaded the paper to my website where you can see all of it

  7. Coree says:

    Where can we find similar studies on the rest of the world?

    • energyskeptic says:

      There are footprint and carrying capacity websites dedicated to this topic where you can look up your region and sometimes city. Wherever you go, you’d want to be with people who have similar to yourself — I myself wouldn’t dare to live in the Bible Belt.. I suspect given how much Americans are disliked everywhere I travel, that it might not be good to live outside of the USA in the future for most Americans.

  8. Apneaman says:

    If you are American and you are not the loud overbearing type, you will have a good chance being accepted up here in Canada. There are plenty of Americans here already who are more than content. As long as one was to become part of a community before TSHTF, I do not see any major problems for tolerant people. I live in British Columbia and I believe this province meets much of the criteria mentioned in the article and there are many good people here.
    Appreciate your work Alice.

  9. Frances Stapleton says:

    Why didn’t you include Hawaii and Alaska in this?

    • energyskeptic says:

      This is a review of a longer scientific paper that didn’t include Alaska and Hawaii (the original paper is visible if you click on the title at the top). I didn’t write it…

  10. Pingback: Map Tells Us All Where To Go | Reverse Global Warming

  11. Arkady Sokolov says:

    Hi energysceptic,

    Do you know of any articles or studies like this encompassing the rest of the world? To be honest i’m not sure I want to stay in America for the grand shitshow.