Imagine Life After Oil Many of the changes headed our way could improve our lives — and that's no secret.scroll down arrow

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton
Images from Byeolsan / Shutterstock


A Coal Miner's Goodbye

Photo by BThaiMan / Shutterstock

Photo by BThaiMan / Shutterstock

When my great-grandfather began his career as an underground coal miner, the United States was averaging 2,000 coal-mining deaths a year. It was a hard and dangerous life, the existence left for Appalachian mountaineers once outside companies had harvested the hardwood forests and swindled everyone’s mineral rights. Families that had once sustained themselves on their own farms became more and more dependent on coal-mining wages.

Nick Mullins

Nick Mullins is a writer, public speaker, and advocate for sustainable living practices. He grew up in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia where he was the fourth generation of his family to work in underground coal mines. Today, he enjoys spending time with his wife and their two children as well as contributing to his blog.

I was raised in a union home in southwestern Virginia and, like most kids of my generation, was encouraged to do well in school to avoid a life in the mines. For a while, it seemed possible. But when the coal markets failed in the early 1990s, my father was laid off, and our family was forced to use what little savings we had just to survive.

Over the coming years, the coal companies closed their large union mining complexes, putting thousands of miners out of work. What remained were small nonunion mines and strip mines that scraped at what was left. In 1998, A&G Coal Company took the top off the ridge behind our home and dumped it into the valley, destroying nearly 400 acres of woodlands and the spring that provided our water.

In an effort to alleviate unemployment following the downturn, local and state leaders negotiated the construction of two Supermax prisons and a variety of call centers, some of which stuck around only as long as the tax breaks lasted. Having no desire to be a prison guard, I spent several years working in one of the more stable call centers.

I received accolades and was promoted to supervisor, but, as with most call center “careers,” there was little hope for advancement or a decent retirement. Coal markets had since rebounded, creating a high demand for coal miners to work in seams once too deep and costly to mine. Out of options and tired of being unable to afford the “best” for my small family, I went to work in the mines, becoming the fourth generation of my family to face the long days beneath our mountain home.

I quit the mines, not entirely sure what I was going to do. I just knew that I could do something different.

When I entered the industry, decades of successful union busting had created a new landscape concerning labor rights and worker solidarity. Companies and local businesses played upon the instant-gratification lifestyle led by young miners, encouraging high levels of debt and creating an extreme dependency on mining wages. Any threat of performance-based layoffs sparked fear and competition among miners already working in a dangerous environment.

Then, in the summer of 2010, my family’s life changed forever. In the course of one night, a fire consumed our home and everything we owned. As we sifted through the remains, we began to reflect and re-evaluate. I realized that the best life I could give my children wasn’t one full of “things,” but was one of clean health and a simpler path to happiness.

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Bringing Young People Back to the City

Click to read through the different ways we're already living regionally.

Friends and family encouraged me to think about life outside the mines, having never wanted to see me there in the first place. I took their advice to heart and eventually left behind a family tradition. I wasn’t entirely sure what we were going to do. I just knew that we could do something different, that we had to for our children’s sake. We left the valley that was home to my family for 10 generations and moved to central Kentucky in search of a healthier place for our children, one without the impacts of mining.

Today, my wife and I attend Berea College, where we’ve been learning to advocate for change in Appalachia and everywhere resource extraction threatens people’s health and happiness. Over the past two years, we’ve traveled the United States and Canada, telling our story and connecting the dots between energy use and the devastation it leaves behind. While I was making high wages in the mines, it seemed as though we could never live without them. Now, we’ve learned how to live with less and to appreciate the simpler things. We learned that we could live without coal.

Nick Mullins

Nick Mullins is a writer, public speaker, and advocate for sustainable living practices. He grew up in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia where he was the fourth generation of his family to work in underground coal mines. Today, he enjoys spending time with his wife and their two children as well as contributing to his blog.

What Leaving Fossil Fuels Behind Can Do for Inequality

Our lifestyle is inextricably linked to fossil fuels. We pay the industry to heat our homes and power our cars. Though driving might be optional where public transit is available, heat is not during harsh winters. We know about the effects on the climate of burning oil, gas, and coal for energy, but we don’t know what turning our backs on them will do to our economy. Some worry that closing our oil refineries and shutting down our mines would throw the market into a dangerous vortex. That doesn’t need to be the case. A successful energy transition could actually benefit the economy and reduce inequality.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is an assistant editor at YES! Magazine. A New York native, she covers inequality, poverty, and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @yessfun.

The economy relies on a number of things, including spending, manufacturing, trade, and personal income. The availability of fossil fuels has largely driven these for 150 years. “[Oil] is the world’s first trillion-dollar industry in terms of annual dollar sales,” environmental author Jack Doyle wrote in 1994. In North Dakota, a major oil- and gas-producing state, an oil boom created the $53.7 billion gross domestic product the state sees today.

But booms often have downsides. When the journal Energy Economics compared six states that produced the vast majority of the West’s crude oil and natural gas, it saw per capita income decrease by as much as $7,000 in counties whose incomes relied most on such development. Also, the crime rates and percentage of adults without a college education increased in those counties. The study offers possible explanations, including an increasing reliance on nonlocal workers and changing wage structures.

The oil and gas industries are the largest industrial sources of volatile organic compound emissions — 2.2 million tons a year. These chemicals cause smog, which can increase the risks of asthma and premature death. The industry also produces cancer-causing pollutants: benzene, ethylbenzene, and n-hexane, which are emitted during the refinement process.

Low-income communities of color disproportionately bear this health burden and are also least likely to have access to health care, including preventive medicine, checkups, and prescription drugs. The inequality of care only widens the income gap by adding more financial pressures to an already stressed group.

What about jobs? Extractive industries currently employ nearly 200,000 Americans and pay some employees as much as $42.90 an hour. These jobs are a valid concern. The U.S. unemployment rate is finally down to about 5 percent. Surely we don’t want all those people put out of work.

That won’t happen if we launch the renewable energy sector in sync. Economists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) have studied this topic since the early 2000s. Their research shows how a transition to renewables can lead to a post-carbon world and a fairer economy.

Robert Pollin, PERI’s co-director, began researching green job opportunities about seven years ago. In 2014, he and a few of his colleagues released Green Growth: A U.S. Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities, which looked at the economic potential of a renewable energy sector if the United States worked toward the emissions-reduction goal that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proposed. This means reducing CO2 emissions by 40 percent over the next 20 years.

According to PERI, a renewable energy transition would be chock-full of jobs — about 2.7 million new ones. Pollin is quick to point out that these jobs wouldn’t require any more public or private investment dollars, as the model the report used looked at moving current fossil-fuel investments toward renewables.

This is just one part of the equation. A transition toward clean energy would also create more new jobs than dirty energy currently does. Comparing the two sectors, Green Growth shows that renewables create an average of 12.6 jobs per $1 million in investment. Oil, coal, and gas, on the other hand, average about 10.6.

The study highlights that a transition should include energy efficiency, too. The labor necessary to retrofit and improve infrastructure would add another 14.6 jobs per $1 million in investment. And coupling the transition with energy efficiency updates would address a concern we see with fossil fuels and renewables: that communities lacking these energy sources would miss out on jobs. Not all communities are rich in sun, wind, or oil, but every U.S. community is poor in efficient infrastructure.

Photo by Gerry Boughan / Shutterstock

Affordable Transit Click the photo to read through the different ways we're already living regionally. Linking affordability with access to transit is just one way.

The transition away from fossil fuels would offer a wide range of jobs, Pollin explained. There will be something for people with and without high school diplomas, those who have partial college educations or college degrees, and some with post-college credentials. This means more engineers, more construction workers, more lawyers, and more truck drivers. Building the green economy requires more people per dollar of expenditure than maintaining the fossil fuel economy, he said.

Labor-intensive employment sectors, like renewables, can decrease inequality by creating employment opportunities for the poor. The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, invests more on machines and tools than hiring employees.

Robin Hahnel, a director of the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, says the job market needs a huge transformation: a program similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of federal programs that created jobs and labor laws during the Great Depression.

As seen with the New Deal, economic success isn’t just about the jobs; it’s about the policies that accompany them, too. An energy transition would help our economy, but it wouldn’t necessarily reduce poverty or inequality. At least not by itself.

That’s where James Boyce, PERI’s director of its Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment, comes in. His economic research focuses on poverty reduction and environmental protection, and has led him to support a cap-and-dividend program. Like cap and trade, this sets an annually decreasing limit to the amount of carbon companies that use carbon-based fuel can emit. It then requires those companies to purchase permits to match their emissions. But, unlike cap and trade, these permits can’t be exchanged if an emitter reaches its limit. The dividends — collected from the sales of the permits — are given back to the people as rebates. Every man, woman, and child.

Critics say that the policy isn’t aggressive enough, that we would still be emitting. They also say cap and dividend doesn’t provide incentives to move toward renewables. To that, Boyce responds: “Cap and dividend would raise the price of oil, coal, and natural gas. As prices go up, households and businesses consume less. The fact of higher prices, and the knowledge that prices will rise further as the cap tightens, is the key incentive that will spur investment in renewables and energy efficiency.”

These higher prices would be offset by the dividends, so people are more likely to accept the idea. These people include politicians. Bipartisan support is critical. “Climate policy is not something you can pass one fine day, and then the problem is solved,” Boyce explains. “We’re going to have to maintain the policy in place for three or four decades during the clean energy transition, and that means it has to be popular, right?”

The idea should be most popular among low-income households. Even though increased energy costs would take a larger portion of their income compared to high-earning households, Boyce’s research shows low-income households ultimately win. The poor consume much less energy than the rich, so once the dividends are distributed, they would see a nearly 15 percent increase in their net incomes. The net incomes of the rich would decrease by 2.4 percent because of their higher energy consumption. This is according to a model Boyce created, where the permits cost $200 per ton of emissions.

Ideas similar to cap and dividend are gaining traction in states like Oregon and on the federal level with bills like the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act of 2015 and the Managed Carbon Price Act of 2014. Alaska already has a dividend program, which pays residents yearly, based on oil extraction in the state.

So — about oil: This is where environmentalists and workers sometimes disagree. What will happen to people already employed by oil and gas? How would a renewable energy transition be more equal if it disproportionately affects the current energy sector?

Any job is important if it is your job.
—Jeremy Brecher, Labor Network for Sustainability co-founder

Well, let’s make it a just transition.

Jeremy Brecher co-founded the Labor Network for Sustainability in 2009 with that transition in mind. He recognized that environmentalists and fossil fuel industry workers could solve climate change and inequality working together, but not if they treated one another as opposition.

“Any job is important if it is your job,” Brecher emphasizes. If fossil fuel employees feel their livelihood is being threatened, they’ll likely “serve as poster children for people who oppose climate protection for other reasons.” They’ll support the renewable energy revolution’s millions of new jobs as long as they get first dibs.

President Barack Obama apparently sees that logic. He included a $55 million plan for declining coal communities in his 2016 budget. The POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Plus Plan invests in workers, communities, and their health. Funding is devoted to increasing job opportunities through training and cleanup of hazardous sites for communities to redevelop.

This is the sort of policy Brecher approves of. However, he would like to see a program go as far as the GI Bill of Rights, with employees eligible for full wages and benefits for at least three years, education and training expenses (including tuition and living) for up to four years, and decent pensions with health care for those ready to retire.

“Those commitments need to be available to coal miners and others who have made incredible sacrifices to their health and well-being in order to produce energy that we have all had our lives based on,” Brecher says.

It’s debatable whether the public or industry should finance those programs, but Brecher still gives credit where it’s due. Justice made it into the national political agenda. That’s something.

That’s what it all boils down to: justice. New jobs mean little if they don’t bring a newfound commitment to justice as well. Sure, our economy would thrive, but if the transition isn’t accompanied by policy to include everyone, we’re back where we started.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is an assistant editor at YES! Magazine. A New York native, she covers inequality, poverty, and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @yessfun.

Just the Facts

YES! infographic author's emissions

How Far Can We Get Without Flying?

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton<br>
			Images from Byeolsan / Shutterstock

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton
Images from Byeolsan / Shutterstock

I’m a climate scientist who doesn’t fly. I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm to humans and to nonhumans, today and far into the future. I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly. Back in 2010, though, I was awash in cognitive dissonance. My awareness of global warming had risen to a fever pitch, but I hadn’t yet made real changes to my daily life. This disconnect made me feel panicked and disempowered.

LPeter Kalmus

Dr. Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. This article draws on material from a forthcoming book about our interconnected ecological predicament. A working draft is available to read at

Then one evening in 2011, I gathered my utility bills and did some Internet research. I looked up the amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by burning a gallon of gasoline and a therm (about 100 cubic feet) of natural gas, I found an estimate for emissions from producing the food for a typical American diet and an estimate for generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity in California, and I averaged the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Environmental Protection Agency estimates for CO2 emissions per mile from flying. With these data, I made a basic pie chart of my personal greenhouse gas emissions for 2010.

This picture came as a surprise. I’d assumed that electricity and driving were my largest sources of emissions. Instead, it turned out that the 50,000 miles I’d flown that year (two international and half a dozen domestic flights, typical for postdocs in the sciences who are expected to attend conferences and meetings) utterly dominated my emissions.

Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you’ve just emitted 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year. Flying first class doubles these numbers.

YES! infographic author's emissions

However, the total climate impact of planes is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone. This is because planes emit mono-nitrogen oxides into the upper troposphere, form contrails, and seed cirrus clouds with aerosols from fuel combustion. These three effects enhance warming in the short term. (Note that the charts in this article exclude these effects.)

Given the high climate impact, why is it that so many environmentalists still choose to fly so much? I know climate activists who fly a hundred thousand miles per year. I know scientists who fly about as much but “just don’t think about it.” I even have a friend who blogged on the importance of bringing reusable water bottles on flights in order to pre-empt the miniature disposable bottles of water the attendants hand out. Although she saved around 0.04 kilograms of CO2 by refusing the disposable bottle, her flight to Asia emitted more than 4,000 kilograms, equivalent to some 100,000 bottles. I suspect that most people simply don’t know the huge impact of their flying — but I also suspect that many of us are addicted to it. We’ve come to see flying as an inalienable right, a benefit of 21st-century living that we take for granted.

YES! graphic

Putting Down Roots

Click to read through the different ways we're already living regionally.

The quantitative estimates of my emissions guided me as I set about resolving the dissonance between my principles and my actions. I began to change my daily life. I began to change myself.

My first change was to start bicycling. I began by biking the 6 miles to work, which turned out to be much more fun than driving (and about as fast). It felt like flying. Those extra few pounds melted off. Statistically speaking, I can expect biking to add a year to my life through reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other moves away from fossil fuels turned out to be satisfying as well. I began growing food, first in the backyard and then in the front, and I discovered that homegrown food tastes far better than anything you can buy. I began composting, an honest and philosophical practice. I tried vegetarianism and found that I prefer it to eating meat; I have more energy, and food somehow tastes better. I began keeping bees and chickens, planting fruit trees, rescuing discarded food, reusing greywater, and helping others in my community do the same.

I stopped taking food, water, air, fuel, electricity, clothing, community, and biodiversity for granted. I became grateful for every moment and more aware of how my thoughts and actions in this moment connect to other moments and to other beings. I began to experience that everyday things are miracles: an avocado, a frame of honeycomb crowded with bees, a conversation with my son. Now, I feel more connected to the world around me, and I see that fossil fuels actually stood in the way of realizing those connections. If you take one idea from this article, let it be this: Life without fossil fuels is fun and satisfying, and this is the best reason to change.

But none of these changes had the quantitative impact of quitting flying. By 2013, my annual emissions had fallen well below the global mean.

YES! infographic author's emissions compared to global mean

I experienced a lot of social pressure to fly, so it took me three years to quit. Not flying for vacations was relatively easy. I live in California, and my wife and I love backpacking. We drive on waste vegetable oil, but even normal cars are better than flying. Four people on a plane produce 10 to 20 times as much CO2 as those same people driving a 25 to 50 mpg car the same distance.

My wife and I drive 2,000 veggie oil miles to Illinois each year to visit our parents. Along the way, we sleep under the stars in the Utah wilderness. This is adventure travel, the opposite of fast travel, and it has deepened my relationship with my parents. After such a journey, I more easily see how precious my time with them is.

Not flying is an ongoing challenge as I progress in my scientific career, but I’m finding that I can thrive by doing good work and making the most of regional conferences and teleconferencing. Not flying does hold back my career to some extent, but I accept this, and I expect the social climate to change as more scientists stop flying.

In today’s world, we’re still socially rewarded for burning fossil fuels. We equate frequent flying with success; we rack up our “miles.” This is backward: Burning fossil fuels does real harm to the biosphere, to our children, and to countless generations — and it should, therefore, be regarded as socially unacceptable.

In the post-carbon future, it’s unlikely that there will be commercial plane travel on today’s scale. Biofuel is currently the only petroleum substitute suitable for commercial flight. In practice, this means waste vegetable oil, but there isn’t enough to go around. In 2010, the world produced 216 million gallons of jet fuel per day but only about half as much vegetable oil, much of which is eaten; leftover oil from fryers is already in high demand. This suggests that even if we were to squander our limited biofuel on planes, only the ultra-rich would be able to afford them.

Instead, chances are that we’ll live nearer to our friends and loved ones, and we won’t be expected to travel so far for work. Those both seem like good things to me.

With the world population approaching 8 billion, my reduction obviously can’t solve global warming. But by changing ourselves in more than merely incremental ways, I believe we contribute to opening social and political space for large-scale change. We tell a new story by changing how we live.

LPeter Kalmus

Dr. Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. This article draws on material from a forthcoming book about our interconnected ecological predicament. A working draft is available to read at

Featured Art

Where Ice MeltsIn southeastern Alaska, we have a lot more to lose than just glaciers

There’s no dispute that Alaska is on the frontline of climate chaos. As the countries lining the Arctic Circle scramble for oil drilling opportunities, Alaska experiences the drama of change at a very real level. Warped weather patterns and irregular thaw-and-freeze cycles are creating new opportunities for invasive species to dominate native biodiversity, according to NASA studies. Photographer Carey Case in southeastern Alaska captures the region’s bold landscapes for the rest of us.

Without Fossil Fuels, A New Population Puzzle

How many people can the Earth support? It’s a question that’s been asked for centuries, generating wildly divergent answers — from less than a billion to more than a trillion. Today, the question arises with new urgency as we contemplate life after oil.

Laurie Mazur

Laurie Mazur is the editor for the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and has written extensively about environment, health, and social justice issues.

Perhaps the best answer comes from Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University, in his aptly titled How Many People Can the Earth Support? It’s an exhaustively researched 532-page book, but his conclusion can be summarized in two words: It depends.

That is, the planet’s capacity to sustain human life depends on how resources are used and distributed and on the values and social structures that shape the way we live.

Take food, for example. The number of mouths we can feed depends on what’s for dinner. If all of the world’s people ate like carnivorous Americans — 1,763 pounds of grain each per year, some eaten directly, but most fed to livestock — then the 2-billion-ton world grain harvest would support only 2.5 billion people. That’s a problem, since there are now 7.4 billion of us. But if we all ate like people in India — a mostly vegetarian diet of just 440 pounds of grain per person each year — then the same harvest would support a population of 10 billion.

Certainly, there is some elasticity in the planet’s carrying capacity; better, fairer resource use could help expand it. But, in a world where fossil fuels were in short supply, that capacity would likely contract.

Again, consider food. In recent decades, food production has more than kept pace with skyrocketing population growth, partly thanks to mechanization and cheap oil. Indeed, modern agriculture is so dependent on fossil fuels that the food we eat is practically “marinated in crude oil,” says environmental activist Bill McKibben. The vast quantity of oil required to maintain Western consumption is at least partially to blame for its leading per capita carbon footprint. Reductions in the oil supply would curtail food production — at least in the short term.

So, how many people can the Earth support? The fact is, we just don’t know.

Shortages of natural gas would also make it harder to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer, which has helped triple crop yields since 1950. Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba told The New York Times that, without nitrogen fertilizer, there would not be enough food for 40 percent of the world’s current (much less future) population.

And that’s without considering climate change, which could dramatically reduce crop yields in many parts of the world at a time when global food production must increase by 70 percent to keep pace with current trajectories of growth and consumption.

So, how many people can the Earth support? The fact is, we just don’t know. But, given the uncertain supply of fossil fuels and the grim realities of climate change, it makes sense to aim for the low end of the United Nations’ population projections — about 9 billion people, rather than 13 billion — by the end of this century.

The good news is that we actually know how to do this. A half-century of experience has shown that the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring that all people can make real choices about childbearing. That means, for example, ensuring access to voluntary family planning services, educating girls, and providing opportunities for women.

We may not know how many people the Earth can support, or what will happen in a world of dwindling fossil fuels and a changing climate. But we do know this: The best means to slow population growth are also important ends in themselves. And together, they can help build a sustainable, equitable future.

Laurie Mazur

Laurie Mazur is the editor for the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and has written extensively about environment, health, and social justice issues.

Retrofitting Suburbia Can Wyandanch, Long Island, show other outside-the-city communities how to innovate their way out of sprawl?

YES! Photos by Stephanie Keith

Wyandanch, Long Island, is building a robust and resilient downtown around its train station. YES! Photos by Stephanie Keith

The suburbs have lost a lot of luster in the past 70 years. What was once hailed as a refreshing alternative to the grittiness of city living has been tugged and pulled and paved into a series of brownfields and vacant parking lots that stretch for miles and miles. Public planners have been predicting “the end of suburbia” for at least a decade now, saying that peak oil will starve out those towns and subdivisions that subsist on sprawl.

Erin Sagen

Erin Sagen is an associate editor at YES! Magazine. She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @erin_sagen.

Saddled with traffic congestion and infrastructural erosion, can suburbia be retrofitted into a sustainable model of development and adapt to a post-oil world?

When they emerged 150 years ago, suburban developments sat on the peripheries of cities like New York and allured the wealthy, who commuted by train to enjoy fresh air and privacy. Suburban train stations brimmed with activity and fed commercial centers around them. But when the automobile rolled off factory floors in the 1910s, it quickly seduced an eager public and transformed suburban downtowns built around the trains. Car ownership exploded, the concept of the suburban downtown disappeared, and Americans designed new communities around driving.

Today, the cost of that so-called freedom is clear: Suburbanites have twice the carbon footprint as city dwellers; they spend more on housing and transportation combined; and they’re more likely to struggle with obesity or die in car crashes. These realities paint a far less rosy picture than the days of early commuters. But today an enthusiastic network of designers, city planners, lawmakers, and longtime locals are envisioning a new era for suburbia.

Transportation, specifically automobile traffic, is the most important reason to retrofit, because it directly impacts public health, affordability, and climate change, says Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture at Georgia Tech and author of Retrofitting Suburbia. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people who drove to work alone increased by 25 million, and, in 2013, highway vehicles used 83.2 percent of total transportation energy, with personal vehicles accounting for 71.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportion Statistics.

Transit helps people walk more, and they spend less money.
—Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture and author of Retrofitting Suburbia

“Development is pushing us farther and farther out, sometimes 10 to 12 miles outside a city. Savings get eaten up,” Dunham-Jones says. “Transit helps people walk more, and they spend less money. But [in the suburbs], those people who can’t commute — who can’t afford rising gas prices and car expenses — are out of luck because there’s limited access to transit.”

Most of this hasn’t eluded city-flocking millennials — almost two-thirds would prefer to live where driving is optional — nor has it eluded more than half the country — 54 percent of adults say it is too far to walk to shopping and entertainment, and 50 percent say that walkability is a top or high priority, according to a 2015 report by the Urban Land Institute.

But people live in the suburbs for many different reasons, despite the negative effects of sprawl. For one, rent is generally cheaper than in increasingly gentrified cities, especially in commercial centers; and two, it’s more spacious and closer to nature.

Because so many people, both young and old, value walkability, communities must invest in smarter, denser infrastructure, Dunham-Jones says. How ironic, then, that the future of suburban development seems to be pointing backward — to the pre-automobile, train-based model.

The birthplace of modern suburbia is Long Island, New York, where the first mass-produced suburb, Levittown, started it all. Twenty minutes away in the town of Babylon lies a hamlet called Wyandanch. Conduct an Internet search, and you’ll come across a pretty bleak scene there — stories of gang violence, poverty (13.4 percent), and unemployment (12.2 percent) run down the screen. But Wyandanch is more than a small, distressed suburb where even a McDonald’s had to shutter. After all, it has a train station.

The train ride from downtown Wyandanch to Manhattan is only 50 minutes long. That is an incredible asset, says former Babylon Township Supervisor Steve Bellone, because it allows lower- and middle-income residents to work in the city but live in the suburbs, thereby financing their communities and bolstering their local economies.

Bellone had worked with community groups, and knew that, despite its boarded-up buildings and deadened parking lots, Wyandanch had a lot to offer. But he knew they couldn’t wait for private investors to swoop in and save the day.

YES! Photo by Stephanie Keith

YES! Photo by Stephanie Keith

“The only way to make this successful is to get the community involved,” says Bellone, whose team partnered with nonprofit Sustainable Long Island to kick off a three-day weekend of meetings and workshops with residents, planners, and local government officials.

After years of losing their younger residents to Brooklyn or Manhattan, dynamic places with walkability and abundant transit, the community concluded that what they needed was an affordable, transit-oriented downtown. The transformation would center around their train station, which required major upgrading. The 19th century septic system begged for some serious attention too. So with a low-interest federal loan and a state grant, in 2011 the community began construction on a 2-mile-long sewer line, with hopes of eventually attracting more investment. The sewer was step one in a plan called “Wyandanch Rising.” The $500 million project is backed by federal funds, state tax credits, grants, and low-cost financing and is expected to enhance the original business district, which dried up years ago.

Today, construction of the new train station is almost finished. Next door, ground has been broken on Wyandanch Village, a pair of five-story mixed-use buildings that will house 177 apartments, from studios to three bedrooms — 123 reserved for lower-income tenants. The ground-floor commercial spaces will be no larger than 5,000 square feet each to discourage big-box stores, according to Sustainable Long Island’s website.

There’s still a long way to go — retrofitting doesn’t fix poverty or gang violence overnight — but there is hope.

“We’ll gain the benefits eventually,” says longtime local Phyllis Henry. She’s lived in Wyandanch for 43 years and has been actively involved with community development for much of that time. “But people are excited. It’s come a long way, it really has. It’s not just developing the brick and mortar, but also the people.”

Bellone says he wants to see a community where innovation doesn’t push people out but lifts them up. Whether Wyandanch can retrofit itself into a model of equitable and sustainable suburban development is uncertain, but one thing is sure: A new era has been born, and driving it is no longer the car but the community. Soon, rather than “the end of suburbia,” planners may be predicting “the end of sprawl.”

Erin Sagen

Erin Sagen is an associate editor at YES! Magazine. She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @erin_sagen.

When I Dream of the Planet in Recovery

YES! Illustration bu Nicole Xu

YES! Illustration by Nicole Xu

In the time after, the buffalo come home. At first only a few, shaking snow off their shoulders as they pass from mountain to plain. Big bulls sweep away snowpack to the soft grass beneath; big cows attend to and protect their young. The young themselves delight, like the young everywhere, in the newness of everything they see, smell, taste, touch, and feel.

Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen is a poet, philosopher, and environmentalist. He is the author of more than 20 books, including most recently The Myth of Human Supremacy.

Wolves follow the buffalo, as do mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, northern pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, and tundra swans. Prairie dogs come home, bringing with them the rain, and bringing with them ferrets, foxes, hawks, eagles, snakes, and badgers. With all of these come meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. With all of these come the tall and short grasses. With these come the prairies.

In the time after, the salmon come home, swimming over broken dams to forests that have never forgotten the feeling of millions of fish turning their rivers black and roiling, filling the rivers so full that sunlight does not reach the bottom of even shallow streams. In the time after, the forests remember a feeling they’ve never forgotten, of embracing these fish that are as much a part of these forests as are cedars and spruce and bobcats and bears.

In the time after, the beavers come home, bringing with them caddisflies and dragonflies, bringing with them ponds and pools and wetlands, bringing home frogs, newts, and fish. Beavers build and build, and restore and restore, working hard to unmake the damage that was done, and to remake forests and rivers and streams and marshes into what they once were, into what they need to be, into what they will be again.

In the time after, plants save the world.

In the time after, the oceans are filled with fish, with forests of kelp and communities of coral. In the time after, the air is full with the steamy breath of whales, and the shores are laden with the hard shells and patient, ageless eyes of sea turtles. Seals haul out on sea ice, and polar bears hunt them.

In the time after, buffalo bring back prairies by being buffalo, and prairies bring back buffalo by being prairies. Salmon bring back forests by being salmon, and forests bring back salmon by being forests. Cell by cell, leaf by leaf, limb by limb, prairie and forest and marsh and ocean by prairie and forest and marsh and ocean; they bring the carbon home, burying it in the ground, holding it in their bodies. They do what they have done before and what they will do again.

The time after is a time of magic. Not the magic of parlor tricks, not the magic of smoke and mirrors, distractions that point one’s attention away from the real action. No, this magic is the real action. This magic is the embodied intelligence of the world and its members. This magic is the rough skin of sharks without which they would not swim so fast, so powerfully. This magic is the long tongues of butterflies and the flowers that welcome them. This magic is the brilliance of fruits and berries that grow to be eaten by those that then distribute their seeds along with the nutrients necessary for new growth. This magic is the work of fungi that join trees and mammals and bacteria to create a forest. This magic is the billions of beings in a handful of soil. This magic is the billions of beings that live inside you, that make it possible for you to live.

In the time before, the world was resilient, beautiful, and strong. It happened through the magic of blood flowing through capillaries, and the magic of tiny seeds turning into giant redwoods, and the magic of long relationships between rivers and mountains, and the magic of complex dances between all members of natural communities. It took life and death, and the gifts of the dead, forfeited to the living, to make the world strong.

In the time after, this is understood.

In the time after, there is sorrow for those who did not make it: passenger pigeons, great auks, dodos, striped rocksnails, Charles Island tortoises, Steller’s sea cows, Darling Downs hopping mice, Guam flying foxes, Saudi gazelle, sea mink, Caspian tigers, quaggas, laughing owls, St. Helena olives, Cape Verde giant skinks, silver trout, Galapagos amaranths.

But in those humans and nonhumans who survive, there is another feeling, emerging from below and beyond and around and through this sorrow. In the time after, those still alive begin to feel something almost none have felt before, something that everything felt long, long ago. What those who come in the time after feel is a sense of realistic optimism, a sense that things will turn out all right, a sense that life, which so desperately wants to continue, will endure, will thrive.

We, living now, in the time before, have choices. We can remember what it is to be animals on this planet and remember and understand what it is to live and die such that our lives and deaths help make the world stronger. We can live and die such that we make possible a time after where life flourishes, where buffalo can come home, and the same for salmon and prairie dogs and prairies and forests and carbon and rivers and mountains.

Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen is a poet, philosopher, and environmentalist. He is the author of more than 20 books, including most recently The Myth of Human Supremacy.

Flash Fiction

By Hand

Photo by Pavlo Burdyak / Shutterstock

Photo by Pavlo Burdyak / Shutterstock

Every morning before the dawn, I awake to the acidic smell of fire and metal. It clings to my skin and hair; it seeps from my pores as I labor. It follows me to bed like an obedient lover and caresses me as I sleep.

In the dark, I dress in rough linen with rough hands. I go out into the rough air that lies heavy with salt. My sinews snap against simple movements as I warm the smelter, my skin still cracking and oozing with fresh burns from yesterday’s work, opening anew against the strain of the day’s demands. Sometimes it is cookware, sometimes some part to a greater machine; always an endless list of demands. It is hard work, but good work.

The city had been born in oil, and the city had died with it, leaving us to work among the remains the monstrous skeletons of the refineries long still and silent. The empty echoing of a world gone.

And still we build.