Over the last few years I have heard a number of compelling arguments from two opposing viewpoints of the ecological movement. While there are several shades of gray in between (probably where the best solutions are to be found) I want to look at the larger scale implementation of each. It is glaringly obvious to anyone not self deluded that the current standard of living based on petroleum dependence is precarious at best. But what other options are there?
There are two main camps in my experience; (if there are more please let me know) urban density proponents and off the grid proponents who I call islanders. Both concepts have their up sides and flaws. Lets explore some.
Urban density is a collectivist macro scale solution for sustainable living for our growing population. The basic concept is to build up instead of out, and make multi-use buildings the norm. Ideally having high rise buildings capable of thousands of people all within walking distance of a single grocery and transit station would eliminate thousands of cars. A sense of community could be maintained. Centralized distribution of commodities eliminates further petroleum dependence. Imagine a dense city made up of dozens of the type of node described above surrounded by farm land (including solar and wind farms) all serviced by an electric transit system.
Islanders represent an individualistic micro scale solution for sustainable living for those who prefer natural settings. Stewardship of a pocket of land is carefully maintained for agriculture, water resources and energy generation. Independent of any outside influences, the micro-community is free to self direct it course and develop and maintain what ever resources it chooses. Autonomy grants protections from dependence to any form of larger infrastructure the island cannot maintain its self. If one island fails, others are much less likely to feel the impact. Opportunities for barter or economic relations with other islands in the vicinity can still be maintained to add over all stability to the system.
The pitfalls of urban density parallel the flaws of human nature. The more tightly packed a community is, the greater the need for collectivist modes of thought. Some americans would have a very hard time adjusting to such a life style. All of the attendant issues currently faced with urban dwelling would still be present or even amplified; crime, waste, governance, etc. Furthermore, infrastructure dependence is maximized, a natural disaster could impact millions of lives, such as the loss of farmland or water recycling system. Redundancy would have to be overbuilt systemically.
Island living also risks falling prey to the baser instinct of mankind. If one collective fails, refugees or worse pirates could flourish. Furthermore, a small community successfully maintained for several generations could drift to the fringes in cult like form. Once fanaticism of any kind takes root, with no greater system to rely on, those trapped into despotic situations would be no better off than slaves. More over, this is not a solution for earths current population. Millions of small communities would sprawl displacing even more natural habitat. Stewardship would be hard to enforce. Water resources could be exploited without thought for environmental conditions down stream. With a smaller labor pool to draw from, infrastructure development would be slow and costly.