Friday, July 28, 2006

The Good Life

Our religious and philosophical traditions, both Eastern and Western, have a lot to say about the good life. Not one of them suggests that to live it we need 200-horsepower cars, big-box discount stores, 20-room mansions on three-acre lots, Olympic-quality swimming pools on our land, and closets and basements and recreation rooms and back yards and attics and garages full of stuff.

For much Eastern tradition, the good life is about enlightenment—about freeing oneself, by powerful spiritual discipline, from the suffering that is the common lot of humanity. This does not necessarily mean a retreat into individual meditation. Eastern spirituality has produced great leaders like Gandhi and the Dahlai Lama whose concern for social justice and human dignity is (or was) clear in everything they did. But there is nothing in Eastern tradition that identifies justice or dignity—and hence the good life—with the accumulation of stuff or driving 100 mph on the open road. The prevailing ideology of economic growth is foreign to Eastern tradition.

In the West, where the prevailing ideology got its start, religion and philosophy are united in speaking against it. The Old Testament prophets emphasized justice and mercy to the poor, and they pointed out that riches could be a barrier, not a bridge, to the good life. Christianity's founder took a similar position, even teaching that riches not only could be but were a barrier to the Kingdom of Heaven. Islam to this day emphasizes concern for the poor, social justice, and spiritual discipline over accumulation of stuff.

Western ethical thinkers sought the good life in qualities as diverse as moderation, self-realization, obedience to conscience, and social justice—among others. Western philosophy even on occasion (as in the teachings of the Stoics) taught a discipline of self-denial that rivaled that of Christian and Buddhist monks. A determined reader might find some support for our prevailing ideology of growth in Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism, but this would be wrong. Bentham was concerned chiefly, though somewhat eccentrically and wrongheadedly, with social justice and reform. Nowhere in Western philosophy do you find support for the notion that virtue and happiness are identical with more and more stuff and faster and faster cars. Philosophers, East and West, seem as certain on this point as their religious counterparts.

How, then, did we come to identify the good life with constant economic growth? The answer is deceptively simple: the ideology of economic growth, with its accompanying economic structure, produced prosperity as no previous ideology or structure had. What it could not do was to control its own excesses. For that, we need to turn to our older and wiser traditions. They do not necessarily tell us to give up all the good things we have, but they point out that happiness does not reside in things alone. Enough food and shelter are preconditions for happiness and the good life—hence the emphasis in our traditions on mitigating or eliminating involuntary poverty. But we attain the good life by living well—by loving our neighbors and our families, being good citizens, and doing our work to the best of our ability—not by getting and spending alone.

In a future where growth will be limited by finite supplies of natural resources, the increased cost for extracting and processing them, and the need to cut greenhouse gases, that is good news. The economy cannot grow forever, but this is not the end of the world or of civilization. It is a new challenge. Our religious and philosophical traditions, if we understand them rightly, can help us to meet it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Changing Separately and Together

I grew up in a tradition, liberal Quakerism, that puts great emphasis on individual action for good causes. Quakers often focus on changes in personal behavior, in part because our own behavior is within our control. The actions of policy makers, governments, corporations, and even other individuals are subject only indirectly to our control or even influence. We can try to persuade policy makers, and we can buy only morally-acceptable products, but in the end, our voice is small and weak compared to the forces arrayed against us. Our example may persuade, and if it does not, at least we did what was available to us.

As on other issues, so, it may seem, with climate change. We may or may not transform the world, but we can transform ourselves. We can choose to insulate our houses, thereby using less fuel to heat and cool them, for example. We can turn off lights. We can drive less or not at all. And so forth.

The problem is that, in this case, individual behavior changes not only won't, but can't, do the job. If everyone who worries about climate change cut his or her greenhouse gas emissions back to 28% of what they are now—a figure that climate scientists say we have to reach by 2050—that would be a small part of the pie because there aren't, as yet, enough people willing to make what they fear would be drastic and crippling changes in lifestyle. Even if there were, our major institutions, like transit, architecture, city planning, food distribution, and other buying and selling, need rethinking and restructuring, or all our individual changes will mean hardship for us without leading to the transformation that is needed.

This does not mean that cutting back is useless. It's important to be cutting back when we are advocating that others cut back and that society change its ways of doing its business. But it does mean that people who, because of their situations, are limited in the amount they can cut back, need not feel guilty if they are doing what they can do and working in other ways toward solutions.

There are any number of people, for example, who have to drive everywhere because of where they live and the inadequacy of our public transit. Taking light rail or the bus isn't an option for these people because neither is available where they are. It would be unfair of me to argue that these people should feel guilty, even though I never drive anywhere. I live in a city where I can get public transit or walk to my destinations. What I can, and do, say is that, on a policy level, we need to invest heavily in the cleanest and most efficient public transit network we can develop, and quickly, and we need to stop building our communities as if everybody can just go on driving everywhere. And if somebody who has no choice but to use a car wants to join in calling for better transit, I think that is a good thing. And I won't suggest—again, because it would be unfair—that people in this situation are somehow failing if they don't renounce driving immediately. They are doing the best they can, and in any case, a decision to renounce driving is not only not possible for them, but does little to change the poor planning and design that caused their dilemma in the first place.

Individual change, that is, has its limitations—especially in dealing with a very large problem like climate change. We can and should change our lives to cut our own individual greenhouse gas emissions. But we also, and simultaneously, need new designs, new technologies, new ideologies. Those who can't change to a completely clean life—and that includes all of us—need not thereby stop working for a sustainable world. We can change separately, and this is both admirable and helpful. But it is even more important that we find ways to change together, as a society.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Transforming a City

Here is a story of hope. A city famous for chaos, traffic, pollution, poorly-maintained public space, bad public services, misery, and squalor transforms itself into a more liveable, happier place because of one mayor's determination and an imaginative redevelopment plan. That city exists, but it is not in the United States, Europe, or the prosperous places of Asia. It is Bogota, Colombia. The full story is in The Tyee, a Vancouver-based news web site.

Bogota's situation looked hopeless, and its transformation may or may not provide a model for other places. Each city is different. But the story is instructive.

The city suffered from extreme class divisions. Rich residents drove everywhere, resulting in heavy automobile traffic. They parked anywhere they wanted, including (illegally) on sidewalks. They fenced in public parks for their own private use. And most development money in Bogota went for highway improvements.

Following his election, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa decided to change all that. He improved public services, removed the fences from the parks, got cars off the sidewalks and off the streets, and created an efficient, high-speed bus system so that everyone could still get to work and other destinations. He built bicycle lanes. His guiding principle was not traditional economic growth, but happiness.

In the United States, the writers of the Declaration of Independence ranked "the pursuit of happiness" with life and liberty as primary human rights. As the nation grew, we forgot that happiness means happiness, not economic growth, and "pursuit of happiness" became "pursuit of a greater Gross Domestic Product." This ideology came to dominate Western economics, and the making and buying of things—not happiness—became the goal of economic policy.

Peñalosa decided to look again at that goal, and realized that his city could never be as rich as, say, New York or London—but it could be happier, and it could have quality of life that actually surpassed that of richer places. His programs haven't achieved all of this, but they have moved Bogota closer to happiness. And happiness, after all, is the real goal, even of growth-centered economics.

The pursuit of happiness, of course, is of little use if human society has no future. Bogota's transformation made the city more happy, and it also made it more sustainable—fewer people in cars, more people on buses, bicycles, and foot. What Peñalosa did in Bogota showed that in order to have a future, we need not destroy our own happiness. That may be the most important lesson we can draw from Bogota.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Not Just a Rich Nations' Problem

Critics of efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions often treat the problem as if the only countries with an interest in global warming were the developed countries. Poor countries, it is argued, have, or should have, other priorities like feeding their populations, controlling disease, and economic development. See, for example, the recent article by John A. Baden, PhD at The argument advanced by Baden, an advocate of pure free-market economics, implies that global warming is a trendy, trivial problem that appeals to celebrities (some mentioned in the article) and frivolous leftists, while the trendy left ignores real problems like hunger and disease.

Quite apart from whether pure free-market economics will (or can) actually help lift poor nations out of their current plight—a debatable proposition—the argument that poor countries have no national interest in global warming is simply false. It is not in the interest of poor countries to experience droughts, crop failures, and other problems which, scientists generally agree, will result from global warming.

The British Environment Minister, Hilary Benn, gave a good summary of the effect of global warming on poor countries in an announcement of a new British initiative on climate change on July 14. The Government of England is controlled by the Labour Party, which does not, to be sure, advocate pure free-market economics. But Benn is likewise not one of the celebrities unfairly stigmatized by Baden's article. His announcement is, in fact, a powerful refutation of the illusion that global warming is only an issue in rich countries. It is not. We are all on this planet together. And our old ideologies—including free-market economics and old-style socialism—will not save us. Only new thinking and concerted effort to change will do that.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Interstate Highways at 50

A week or two ago, the U.S. began celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System. "Celebrating" is perhaps too strong a word for what is actually happening. The observance includes a cross-country trip recreating Dwight Eisenhower's cross-country trip in 1917 that eventually led him to propose the system; a few feature spots on network television; and some newspaper articles, including an opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine.

This is as it should be. The results of the Interstate experiment are mixed. The network is badly in need of repair in many places. And the long-term future of cross-country driving will soon be in question anyway—or should be. The celebration should be muted, if there is to be any at all.

The Interstate system is the single largest public works program in history, dwarfing the Great Wall of China and the many federal projects of the Great Depression. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. Most countries are too small to build roads on this scale, and those that are large enough, like China, have until recently lacked the funds and the will to build an equivalent network. Considered solely as a large-scale construction project, the Interstate System is a remarkable achievement.

Those who celebrate the Interstate point to its role in building commerce, connecting the different regions of the U.S. with each other, providing jobs, and similar benefits. Critics notice that the Interstate system has often destroyed city neighborhoods, facilitated suburban sprawl, and in many places led to larger and larger traffic jams despite incessant expansion of the system. It seems that, with roads as with the Field of Dreams, if you build it they (the cars) will come. And keep on coming, until the road is a slow-moving parking lot.

The conventional solution to traffic jams is to build more roads—which promptly fill up with more cars. It is no accident that in the country with the largest system of roads and highways, including the Interstates, per capita automobile usage is the highest in the world. Or that per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are greater than in most other developed countries.

In the long run, the Interstate Highway System, for all its virtues, may well be seen as a mistake. It is interesting, and rather depressing, to speculate on what the U.S. might have become had it spent the cost of the Interstates improving railroads and developing ways of moving people and generating power that used energy more cleanly and efficiently. We did not do that, and our failure to use our resources wisely in the past will make the future that much more difficult.