Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Letter 2007

In the past few years we have learned a great deal about what divides us. Our politics is bitter and partisan. Our churches, mosques and synagogues are split-sometimes lethally-over issues of doctrine, tradition, and practice. Even our popular culture caters to a fragmented, disunited world.

This is not all bad. We are diverse, and our diversity can strengthen us and make us richer and more interesting. But too often our differences become divisions. We fear the stranger. We shun the neighbor who does not follow our path. We find it hard to imagine that we have anything in common with either.

Hatred and anger-harsh words, border fences, bombings-make for exciting news. But they are not the whole story. The great moral teachers and prophets, from Jesus and Hillel to Mohammed, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, have long shown us a better way. Above all, they have taught us to love our neighbors, whoever they are; to be compassionate toward all, and to strive for a world built on justice and humane values.

It is a vision that dares us to rethink everything. But it is not a false hope. Every day, in large ways and small, people practice compassion. Acting separately, they may seem to change little. But taken together, they counter hatred and fear in surprising and effective ways. At the end of the year, let us celebrate them and look beyond the headlines toward a better world.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

California Cuts Back and Grows

One of the standard arguments against cutting greenhouse gas emissions—cited by opponents ranging from right-wing talk show hosts to the Bush Administration—is that making the necessary changes will damage the U.S. economy. Supporters of change often point to the economic opportunity offered by investment in green technologies and refitting our society for the future to argue that the opposite is true, that a sustainable society can also be prosperous.

Now there is evidence that the opponents of change may be wrong and the supporters right. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in an article on November 14 that since 1990, Californians had cut their per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by nearly ten percent, while their per-capita gross domestic product had continued to grow. Which is to say that Californians cut back and continued to prosper. Because California's population grew during this period, their overall emissions did not drop—but the news is encouraging nonetheless.

In the long run, our growth-based model of prosperity will become unworkable. It could not be otherwise in a world where resources are finite and the environment can no longer absorb the waste we put into it. But the California experience at least gives some hope that by moving to sustainability we will not make ourselves poor.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Greening the City

Cities have a bad reputation. It is in the city that crime rates are high and the streets are dark and forbidding. In modern mythology, the city is the place of Metropolis, Batman, the Godfather gangs, shootouts, drug lords, and the nightmare landscape of Escape from New York. It is a terrible, inhuman place, a place to leave for the clean air and safe surroundings of the countryside.

There is a good deal of irony in all of this. The clean and safe surroundings of the countryside have become the sprawling suburbs of big box stores, acres of parking lots, unwalkable streets, and traffic jams. And the cities have begun to take the lead in promoting a sustainable way of life. Here are three recent examples:

  • At a recent Climate Protection Summit convened by the National Conference of Mayors, one speaker after another described how his or her city was rethinking neighborhood planning, public transit, and shopping—creating mixed-use, livable neighborhoods that are easy to reach and navigate without a car. The consensus was that cities must take the lead in becoming sustainable, if they are to have a future.
  • Many of the most innovative green neighborhood groups are based in cities. A partial listing will be found under "Links—Urban Green Programs" in the right-hand column.
  • New York City, whose residents already use public transit more than most Americans, will soon have a fully hybrid taxi fleet, which will lower the city's greenhouse gas emissions and save money and fuel for cab drivers.
The irony is that cities, for all their bad reputation, have always had the potential to be sustainable in ways that standard American suburbs could never be. And as they become sustainable, they will almost certainly become livable in ways that would surprise the people who fled them for suburbs that are becoming less viable with every increase in the price of gasoline.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A View from the Maine Coast: Heartbreaking Beauty, Uncertain Future

The Maine coast, where we spent a month this summer, is a place of heartbreaking beauty—quiet coves, massive rock formations, silent woods, osprey nests, and hills with views of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Even in fog, it resembles a painting of an ideal world.

A closer look, however, reveals a more troubling picture.

To be fair, Maine is one of the most environmentally conscious of states. Organic milk and produce are easily available and inexpensive. Producers donate part of their profits to environmental causes. State and federal wildlife preserves are filled with waterfowl, small and large mammals, frogs, and freshwater fish. The lobster fishery, though still imperfect, is better managed than it was even ten years ago. Farmed Maine mussels are the envy of the world for taste, cleanliness, and protection of the environment.

All this is true, but twenty-five miles inland, the standard America of highways, parking lots, big box stores, sprawling development, and automobile dependence is taking over. From Winter Harbor, where we stayed, it is a twenty-five mile drive to Ellsworth, the biggest town in the region. There is a bus, but it runs too infrequently to be a practical alternative to driving. Even to get to this part of the Maine coast is difficult without a car. The railroad that used to serve the area is derelict and scheduled to be converted to a hiking trail.

Ellsworth itself is an interesting place. Just outside of town there is a shopping area consisting of two large groups of stores with acres of surface parking and traffic that baffles even experienced local drivers. At one end of the shopping complex is a Home Depot, with attendant parking lot, which is still controversial because of its effect on local hardware dealers. Nearby is a new Wal-Mart (with attendant parking lot) whose effect on local supermarkets is still being debated.

There is no debate about how all this affects traffic and water runoff. Both are worse because of the shopping district and the two new big box stores. The line to enter the Wal-Mart parking lot sometimes extends for a mile. Heavy rains routinely flood the main road from the north into the town.

Downtown Ellsworth remains compact, walkable, and, with larger shops moving to the outskirts of town, full of ideas. It has become a place of restaurants and innovative specialty shops. This is good for local residents and tourists alike, but it comes at a very high cost in traffic and pollution less than a mile from the center of town.

These developments are not the fault of the people of Maine. They know that the state will not retain its magic without measures to protect its environment. But until recently our society also presented them with a single development model: to prosper, a town needed parking, national chain stores, and ample provision for traffic.

This kind of prosperity made Bar Harbor (and Mt. Desert Island where it is located) one of the most polluted towns on the East Coast. A free, low-emissions bus service funded by L.L. Bean has helped to reduce pollution on Mt. Desert and in the main part of Acadia National Park, which is located on the island. But there is no free bus service to Ellsworth—there is not even a regular bus from Boston. And the trains are long gone.

The beauty and calm of coastal Maine is still there, to be sure. But it is an open question how long it will remain if we do not begin to implement more sustainable ways to prosper. There are development models—walkable shopping districts near public transit hubs are one example—that avoid the big box store and the massive parking lot. We must begin to use them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Simple Changes and Common Sense Ideas

It's surprising how simple changes and common sense ideas can move us—more than we might have imagined—toward sustainability. The best-known example is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), which could prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions if it came into widespread use. CFLs have other virtues: they last far longer than conventional incandescent bulbs, and they use far less electricity, thereby saving a lot of money for those who use them.

CFLs are one simple idea, but there are many others. Here are three:

White Roofs: The traditional Philadelphia row house, which usually has party walls with its neighbors on the left and right, is an extremely efficient design for cold weather. With windows and doors only on the front and back and a black asphalt roof, it absorbs and retains heat well, thus saving fuel. In summer, however, the row house's advantage becomes a liability. The roof absorbs heat, as it is designed to do, and the house retains it, as it is designed to do. The house becomes a heat sink.

One obvious remedy for this problem is a white roof, which would reflect heat in summer without making the row house significantly less efficient in winter. Until recently no one seems to have thought of making row house roofs white. Now two cities, Chicago and Philadelphia, are experimenting with the concept. In Philadelphia, a local non-profit group, the Energy Coordinating Agency, has created Smart Energy Solutions, which provides a number of services, including installation of white roofs. The new roof lowers the temperature in the house an average of five degrees—which, for some people in row houses, can mean the difference between life and death. White roofs save on cooling costs, which saves fuel, and make the upper floors of traditional row houses more habitable than the traditional black roof. And by reflecting heat instead of absorbing it, they should help to cut down on the "urban heat island" effect and make cities less hot—if only very slightly—in the summer.

Car Sharing: The private car is the least efficient way to move people. Its manufacture uses huge amounts of raw materials, energy, and fossil fuels, and it would be hard to imagine a more efficient way to generate greenhouse gases than a traffic jam with thousands of car engines idling for half an hour or more.

That said, there are some trips, such as a visit to a garden shop and a return with plants for a home garden, where a small vehicle is most efficient. The problem is that car ownership is highly inefficient and expensive: it is actually cheaper to have no car (thus avoiding depreciation and maintenance costs), take a taxi where only a car will do the job, and use public transit the rest of the time. This is also a more sustainable and efficient way to get around than driving everywhere in a car whose manufacture uses resources and whose upkeep can be prohibitively expensive.

Groups like PhillyCarShare have begun to provide the obvious alternative: shared vehicles that group members rent only for the time they need them. Joining is free, and for those who use cars only occasionally there is no monthly fee. Rental rates are lower for more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. And many pickup points are at local train stops to help members get to their temporary car by public transit. It is a well-thought-out program.

Shared Tools: On our block, there is only one lawn mower. One neighbor owns it, but others on the block are free to use it, provided they return it with its cord. It is a highly efficient electric model which generates no exhaust pollution and, because most block residents use green electricity sources, a relatively small amount of indirect pollution. In all, a simple but good arrangement. By having only one lawn mower on the block, we also keep down the cost in materials and greenhouse gases of manufacturing separate mowers for each household.

This kind of informal arrangement is easy in a densely-populated city where neighbors talk across garden fences. It is more difficult in the spread-out suburbs, but it can be done. Everybody's lawns are well-mowed in our block, and nobody is seriously inconvenienced because if the mower is in use one day, it will be available the next.

Americans, on the whole, don't like sharing. They want their private space, their private tools, and their private cars. But sharing with neighbors, or with other members of groups like PhillyCarShare, makes life easier and more neighborly, not more difficult. Like white roofs, sharing tools and vehicles is a common sense idea that can help to build a sustainable and quite possibly more civilized future.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Ultimate in Something

The City of Santa Monica, CA, has outdone itself. Behold its newest civic treasure—a "fully sustainable," solar powered parking garage. Or so the city's brochure argues:

The six-story, 882-space structure at the Civic Center features photovoltaic roof panels, a storm drain water treatment system, recycled construction materials and energy efficient mechanical systems.

The $29 million structure—which sits near the entrance and exit ramps at the end of the 10 Freeway—also features ground-floor retail, art works on every floor and sweeping city and ocean views.

City officials hope the 290,000-square-foot-garage will become the nation’s first parking structure certified by the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The structure’s photovoltaic panels—which cost $1.5 million—will pay for themselves in 17 years by generating $90,000 a year in electricity,” said Craig Perkins, director of Environmental and Public Works Management for the City.
It's hard to decide whether the city is serious. A parking garage can, apparently, aspire to a green building certificate. But its function is to hold hundreds of parked cars, which encourages driving, which increases the concentration of greenhouse gases. And on and on.

Hard to believe, and even harder to believe that a parking garage could ever meet LEED standards. It probably won't. That would be rather like certifying an AK-47 automatic rifle as safe for children and other living things.

(Thanks to James Howard Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month for picture, inspiration, and text of the city's handout.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Notes on the G8 Failure

The recently-concluded summit of the Group of 8, which was once, but no longer is, a gathering of the world's major economic powers, was strange from nearly any perspective. Only six countries were present at the opening dinner. The Presidents of the United States and Russia got into a dispute about proposed U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The President of the U.S. missed some sessions because of illness, but his government was always there, making agreement on some key matters very difficult.

Most disappointing—former Vice President Al Gore called it a "disgrace"—was the agreement on climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's original proposal, which sought a cut of 50% in carbon emissions from G8 members, disappeared early on because of the Bush Administration's aversion to specific numbers, government regulations, and agreements that might inconvenience U.S. industry. In the end, the group's members agreed to pursue "substantial" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a wording that is far too vague to be effective but was the best available, given U.S. intransigence.

The Bush White House sought to portray the G8 climate agreement as a major step forward, but it is not. Even the original proposal would have been less than needed, but it would at least have placed real requirements on the G8 members. "Substantial reduction" is not 50 percent reduction; it is whatever each government wants it to be. A U.S. Administration which up until recently denied that climate change was an issue at all is unlikely to seek major reductions in carbon emissions.

Reality, however, may catch up with the Bush Administration and the Group of Eight very quickly. On the economic front, the Group of Eight omits the world's fourth largest economy, China, and even a strong G8 declaration might not influence Chinese policy. On the climate front, the evidence is mounting that major change has to happen soon, regardless of the current U.S. government's preferences. States like California, whose economy is among the largest in the world, have already recognized this and begun to take action without waiting for the Federal Government.

The politics of the G8 will, in any case, change with a change in U.S. Administrations. Whether the change will be enough to make a difference is still an open question.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Slipping on Oil

Every now and then we should pause to remember that our heavy dependence on fossil fuels isn't just choking us to death, warming the planet, and threatening the polar bear. It has caused us to make policy decisions and strategic blunders that have made the world less safe and much of the world's population less free. In the search for oil supplies, the West (not just the United States, though as the largest consumer we bear much of the responsibility) has overthrown elected governments, supported totalitarian regimes, and brought chaos to Iraq (and possibly the whole of the Middle East) in the name of building democracy. The cost to us in blood and treasure has been enormous, and for our efforts we have gained a poisoned chalice—a planet at risk and an economy subject to the whims of the oil markets.

The height of our folly was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2007, nearly everyone but a few hard-core supporters recognizes that the war has become a fiasco. What few remember was that the forcible overthrow of Saddam Hussein was an essential component of the neo-conservative program long before the attacks of September 11, 2001 which made an invasion possible as (allegedly) part of the "War on Terror."

In neo-con theory, the overthrow of Saddam would accomplish a lot of good things:
  • It would rid the world of a repugnant dictator;
  • It would establish stable democracy in a major Middle Eastern country;
  • It would neutralize Iraq's military power;
  • It would lead to a wave of democratization throughout the Middle East;
  • It would make Israel more secure; and
  • It would make oil supplies more secure by giving the West another oil-rich ally—thereby also keeping oil prices under control.
Readers who are unsophisticated in neo-conservative thinking may not quite see the connection between invading Iraq and many of these benefits to the world. But whether there was a connection or not—whether the war could, even in theory, have the promised benefits—became irrelevant almost as soon as the first Coalition troops crossed the Iraq border. The actual war, as opposed to the theoretical one, overthrew Saddam Hussein—and that was all. There is no stable democracy in Iraq; the power of Saddam's military turned out to be a myth; democracy has not triumphed throughout the Middle East; Israel is not more secure; and the price of oil has gone up as demand outpaced supply and Iraqi oil failed to come into the marketplace.

Neo-con theory had fallen into a trap common to armchair strategy. It had ignored Napoleon's maxim that strategists must not "form a picture." Putting this in modern terms, it had based its theory on the best-case scenario—welcoming throngs with flowers; a government in exile returning triumphantly; democracy established quickly and peacefully—and not tried to assess what was really likely. A realistic assessment, which the government could have heard from its own State Department, its intelligence professionals, and the many non-government organizations that had worked in Iraq, would have (and did) warn against the whole enterprise.

Central to the Iraq blunder was the quest for oil. Oil was supposed to finance Iraqi reconstruction. Oil from a democratic and pro-Western Iraq was supposed to increase tight supplies and make the West less threatened by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the unpredictability of oil-rich governments like that of Venezuela. A stable and democratic Middle East was, perhaps, desirable in itself; but it was even more important because interruptions in the oil supply would be less likely.

War for oil has always been an illusion. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department used more oil annually than Sweden—and this with no major war in progress. The Iraq War almost certainly used oil faster than working Iraqi oil fields could replace it (and the Iraqi oil fields work sporadically at best). And to this day the oil has not begun flowing to the West or anywhere else.

The way to avoid oil shortages is and has always been to use less oil, which is both simpler and cheaper in blood and treasure than making war. War for oil has, like war for any reason, unintended and often ruinous consequences. Conservation by its nature is far less likely to be destructive than war. It has the added advantage that it does less harm to the environment than modern mechanized warfare. And it does not leave us in a strategic box that we fashioned by our own blunders and now cannot escape.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Small Steps, Large Ideals

In a 1940 essay, The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal, G.H.C. MacGregor argued that Christian pacifism was relevant to our lives, even if in practice we could never achieve its goals. It set a standard of conduct that allowed us to assess our own actions and decisions. Perfect peace, MacGregor suggested, might not come in this world. But we could do our best to move the world toward it and to live in harmony with it. The effort to realize the ideal in practice can in and of itself lead to positive change.

One doesn't have to agree with MacGregor's pacifism to see the importance of his argument, or to see that it applies not just to the ideal of peace, but to other ideals as well.

Consider the ideal of a sustainable world. Many of the measures that could bring about such a world are politically and culturally difficult to achieve in practice. But even small steps toward sustainability are helpful and make it easier to move forward to the larger steps we need. Ten million compact fluorescent light bulbs will not cut greenhouse emissions to safe levels—but they will make a start, and those who use them will discover that caring for the earth is not the impossible and frightening task that it might have appeared. It may even have benefits (in this case, lower electric bills). Steps that appear small may, in fact, be very large indeed if they lead to other steps in the direction of the goal.

Ideals, that is to say, do not become worthless because they are hard to achieve. They become worthless if we give up on them—or if we do not value the small changes that can lead to larger changes.

There are two ways of giving up on an ideal. One is to abandon it entirely by saying that we cannot achieve it. The other is to make the best the enemy of the good—to reject the small steps because they do not achieve the goal all at once.

In building for the future, we must avoid both of these hazards. We will not achieve a perfect world. But we can move the world closer to the ideal if we value small steps and have faith that they matter.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gas Prices—Again

The news yesterday and today was full of rising gas prices. Local news had interviews with drivers who were trying to save a few pennies per gallon. National news had average prices (just over $3.00/gallon) and projections of a rise to around $4.00 by the summer., of all places, had a letter urging supporters to pressure their congress members to do something.

"Something," whether for Moveon or for congress members, appears to be investigating the oil companies for price gouging in the hope that with enough pressure prices will come down without the need for people to use less gas. In the last round of price rises, some in Congress proposed rebates to motorists. All this, as if the problem is the price of gas, not our dependence on cheap fuel supplies.

One sympathizes with the drivers who were interviewed on television. They depend on their cars because many of them live in places where a car is the only way to get anywhere. It's true that they chose their location, but the lack of alternatives to the private car isn't really their fault. To a great extent they are stuck because our society is designed for cheap and abundant fuel and can't adapt quickly to tight supplies and high prices.

This time around there is some good news, at least in the Philadelphia area. The rising price of fuel appears to have led to a rise in the use of public transit. The change is small as yet, but it is encouraging. Some of those suburbanites—whose dependence on the car has been nearly total—have begun to find their way to the train and bus stations. This is heartening. It would be more so if our local transit agency wasn't facing an enormous deficit and proposing big cuts after the summer. And it would be even more so if the government didn't view spending on public transit as an expensive subsidy, while spending on roads is seen as an investment in the future (which it is not).

Still, at least some more people are learning that there are alternatives to driving. That is all to the good, even if the government hasn't yet figured it out.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Dead Space—Third of Three Parts

In the 1950s, at the start of the large-scale migration to the suburbs, few thought of problems like the environment and water runoff. Now they have become crucial, both for the present and for the future. How should we plan and build for the future? And how can we reclaim the acres of dead space that surround us?

Planning for the future is easier to envision. We have to change, and in at least these specific ways:
  • We need to end the practice of building single stores or malls in the center of large surface parking lots. The era of the standalone shopping mall or big box store is coming to an end, whether we like it or not. In a world with limited space and resources, acres of surface parking—one of the characteristics of standalone shopping—will no longer be possible. Nor will they be desirable.
  • We need to connect shopping, work, and living space. Stores and work within walking distance or an easy transit ride of where people live were once the norm. Suburban-style shopping is a historical aberration, brought on by zoning codes that separate living from shopping and working, and by our reliance on cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are no longer cheap, either for consumers or for the environment. And the drive from home to school to store to work to mall and back and around has become increasingly burdensome as traffic has increased. The old-style zoning codes have failed. They need to change so that we can once again walk to work and to the shops.
  • We need to revise building codes to require new homes, stores, and offices to be as sustainable as possible. In the long run, green buildings are cheaper to operate than traditional ones, and they are often more pleasant places to live and work.
  • Planners and the community—not developers alone—must take responsibility for what happens to a neighborhood in the long term. If a mall or housing tract project fails now, responsibility for converting the land to new uses rests with those who own the land. Failure to reuse the land, however, has consequences for the whole community. Ownership of land may be private, but the fate of the land is a legitimate public concern that planners and the community (which should be part of the planning process) must consider when approving development projects.
  • We need to start building in ways that deliberately allow for the needs of wildlife, and that allow more wild species to continue on the land. Preserving wild (or nearly wild) space is vital both for the environment and for the spirit. (Thanks to Marshall Massey for his suggestion in a comment.)
Following these four principles will not end problems with land use, but taken together they provide a more creative approach than the kind of development we now see in our suburbs.

As to the future of our current dead spaces, green rehabilitations like the Forensic Science Center in Philadelphia give some guidance. Sadly, many shopping malls and big box stores are not very good buildings and may not be salvageable. Nearly all of them, however, are located on tracts of land that would provide good mixed-use development. The shopping mall and the big box store provide an abundance of products; mixed-use development can provide an abundance of life. In the long run, we must move away from the mall and the big box and back toward communities and real neighborhoods.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dead Space—Second of Three Parts

For years, the forensics laboratory in Philadelphia was a cramped space in the basement of police headquarters. Now it is located in an award-winning green building that may point toward a future for the abandoned shopping mall and its acres of parking.

The Forensics Science Center began as an abandoned public school building—a solid 1929 structure surrounded by a large parking lot. The building had "good bones," in the words of the lead architect on the project. (A complete list of project participants is available on the American Institute of Architects web site.) The completed building provides a cheerful working environment, uses natural light and climate control in very creative ways, and manages the problem of chemical waste—which is both severe and inevitable in a forensics laboratory—with minimum damage to the environment.

It also reclaims much of the parking lot for natural water runoff.

Traditional parking lots, which are impermeable, interfere with normal water runoff. The old school building parking lot posed a particular challenge because it is close to the Delaware River and had been a major source of water pollution in the neighborhood. Despite the need for parking for police vehicles, the architects managed to cut runoff substantially:
The previously impervious site now includes large areas of vegetated swales and buffer vegetation, improving water catchment by roughly 33%, while still meeting the Center’s demanding parking and servicing requirements. Linear vegetated swales paralleling the parking rows filter stormwater and allow it to evaporate or infiltrate the ground before it enters storm drains. Site plantings are drought-resistant, requiring less watering and maintenance than conventional landscaping. (From the AIA web site.)
Most parking lots are soul-destroying wastelands. The Forensic Science Building's parking lot, with its swaths of green and well-designed plantings, is not.

We can draw a number of lessons from the Forensic Science Building and its parking lot.
  • Many buildings, even long-abandoned ones, can be rehabilitated with smaller carbon footprints. The initial cost is high, but as green rehabilitation becomes standard, it will drop. And by using less fuel, projects like the Forensic Science Building eventually pay for themselves.
  • Parking lots can be less destructive if carefully planned. More important, they can be smaller, and the building less dependent on the private car, if we also learn another lesson of the Forensic Science project:
  • Any green rehabilitation must include good connections to mass transit. Most of the employees at the Forensic Science Building take public transit to work because existing connections to the neighborhood were good. At any time, the majority of the vehicles in the parking lot are police cars and vans transporting evidence, not private cars used by the employees.
  • Well-designed green buildings are pleasant places to work. The combination of large windows (for natural light) and airy rooms makes forensic work, which is often very distressing, easier to bear. Sickness and absenteeism dropped sharply after the laboratory moved to its new quarters.
The Forensic Science project and other green rehabilitation projects provide hope for the future of the dead space that is everywhere in our suburbs and increasingly in our cities. Much of it can be rescued. The question is whether it will be.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dead Space—First of Three Parts

Few places in this world are more sad than a derelict shopping mall. Built to face inward, its outer walls are dead space, often with no windows. Acres of empty parking lot surround it. On a windy day, old paper—flyers advertising sales in the stores, chewing gum wrappers, torn up shopping bags—whirl and flutter like the ghosts of some nightmare past. The doors are locked, usually chained, and any windows that were in the outer walls are boarded up and blank. One or two signs, sometimes with letters missing, mark the now-departed stores that were there. And all is silence.

More and more, in many places in the United States, we are seeing these dead hulks, as developers buy up green land, pave it, build a new mall, and then move on when business disappears or when the next mall down the road attracts all of the old mall's customers. The results are ugly and disheartening, and their larger implications hardly bear thinking about.

Each mall includes the inevitable parking lot, so enormous that finding one's car after shopping is often a major undertaking that wastes half an hour or more. Each parking lot, in its turn, replaced acres of grass, trees, or farmland. Even when it was successful, the mall contributed to problems with water runoff and pollution. Once it has become derelict, it still does—and it is often unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for cleaning up the mess and repairing the damage. Worse, the odds are that the mall has become derelict because another and almost certainly larger mall has superseded it. Thus to the problems created by the mall that is now derelict, we have added the problems created by the new mall that is (for the moment) successful. Both are, in ecological terms, dead space that is helping to destroy our planet.

The results of this kind of development can be dramatic. Forty years ago, Bucks County, just outside of Philadelphia, was the central character in a bucolic diary, Area Code 215: A Private Line in Bucks County, by Walter Teller. The book is a kind of modern Walden, with reflections on nature, farming, gardening, canals, and the neighbors. It is a comforting book to read. People go about their business; each day brings rain, sun, snow, clouds, and all shades of weather. There is no flooding or natural disaster in this book because in those days Bucks County was a kind and gentle environment.

The Bucks County that Teller describes has been gone for at least twenty years, victim of tract house development and mall-style retailing. Much of the farmland is gone and paved over. There are few derelict shopping malls, because Bucks County is prosperous. But there is plenty of dead space—and with it, flooding and natural disasters where before there were none. Some riverside communities now flood annually, although each year the residents hope that this flood will be the last.

It will not. There is too much paving and too little soil to absorb the rain. And in the long run, the busy malls that are the source of most of the problem may become less busy and be succeeded by bigger, gaudier ones. It is a cycle which, if we do not find a way to stop it, means nothing but trouble in the future.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Requiem for the Car Industry

April 3, 2057—The death of the U.S. car industry was drawn-out and excruciating. It need not have been. As early as the year 2000, it was becoming clear that the days of the large private automobile were numbered. Difficulties with fuel supply and environmental constraints had begun to impinge upon the motoring public. Traffic jams, once a minor nuisance for those who lived in cities, had become a daily nightmare for workers and families who could not reach their work, their shopping centers, and their schools without spending hours in their cars moving more slowly than a fast walker or a horse-drawn carriage. U.S. national security had become hostage to a small number of unstable oil-supplying nations, and the might of the U.S. military, as the Iraq War (2003-2010) demonstrated, could not make oil supplies entirely safe. When the U.S. withdrew in disarray from Iraq, driven from the country by the ever-mounting insurgency and popular pressure at home, the oil supply situation reached full crisis point. There was still oil in the ground, but hostile regimes controlled much of the crude that remained.

The American car industry ignored all these danger signals until late in 2007, when its own financial crisis should have forced it to start adapting to the new situation. When Americans needed smaller, more efficient cars, the car industry lobbied against fuel economy standards and invested heavily in large, wasteful sport utility vehicles (SUVs). When state governments, fearing for the survival of their people, tried to set standards for greenhouse gas emissions, the car industry went to federal court to stop them. The states, in their turn, sued to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set and enforce greenhouse emissions standards.

In April, 2007, in Massachusetts et. al. vs. Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could and must regulate greenhouse gases. The end of the large, wasteful private car was in sight, though few noticed this at the time.

Attempts to save the private car were many and desperate. Biomass fuel, once thought to be the savior of the car industry, turned out to be impractical: it was not possible to grow enough plant material to fuel the world's automobile fleet without imperiling food supplies. The hybrid car, which saved fuel and had lower emissions than standard cars, provided no solution. The private car fleet was simply too big, and the effort to fuel it and build roads and parking lots for it threatened the planet even when the fleet became far more efficient than it had been in 1985.

With the widespread adoption of carbon taxes, which forced industry and consumers to pay the full cost of the emissions they generated, and congestion charges, which made central cities liveable again, consumers by the millions simply left their cars at home. They sought and demanded other means of getting around, and no longer thought of replacing their cars. This helped to save the planet, but it meant the end of the car industry as it had been through the 20th Century.

Automobile executives could have found other uses for their factories. There was much scope for innovation and profit in designing and building new and more attractive types of public transit, more efficient taxis for the central cities, and very efficient cars for the few, such as farmers, who would be isolated without transport. Instead, the U.S. car industry floundered while foreign manufacturers, particularly the Japanese companies, adapted and produced luxurious buses, trains, and trolleys that lowered both pollution and stress for commuters.

The last Ford plant closed in 2037. It is now a museum. Only a few now remember the automotive era, and most of their memories are not fond ones. They recall traffic jams, fuel costs, and pollution as they cross the streets of their cities with ease and little risk, or ride comfortably from place to place on a fast, nonpolluting trolley. They marvel that people once drove thirty or forty miles to shop or get to work. Those who did not experience the automotive era can visit it in local museums, where they can see old cars on display and hear recordings of the traffic reports that were routine when going to work involved two hours in a car instead of thirty minutes on a bus, trolley, or train.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Insoluble Problems, Soluble Opportunities

In one episode of Yes, Prime Minister, the British political satire, the Prime Minister tells his cabinet that "every problem is also an opportunity." His Cabinet Secretary, a high-ranking civil servant, then observes that the cabinet must beware of creating "insoluble opportunities."

It is a wonderful exchange, and it tells us a lot about ourselves and the debate over climate change. Mainstream commentators no longer doubt the reality of climate change, but they see only problems in trying to cope with it. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it is argued, would do enormous economic damage, especially cutbacks at the levels recommended by scientists and the United Nations in its latest report. It is fraught with problems, so we cannot do it—or at least not at the recommended levels.

But, as the Prime Minister observed, every problem is an opportunity. Not every problem has a solution, but every problem gives us a chance to think anew about how we work, play, travel, and live our lives. And we may never cut back our emissions as much as we would like, but the effort to do so—to rethink our approaches—can lead us toward a better world even if we are not entirely successful.

Consider the problem of buildings. Buildings are one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. They are also one of the areas where change means opportunity, not privation. Retrofitting old buildings for more sustainability; designing new ones with smaller carbon footprints; even simple actions like installing insulation in old houses—all of these measures involve investment, money, and jobs. They are not insoluble problems, but soluble opportunities.

The central problem with buildings is not the technology. Architects already know how to build more sustainable buildings and refit old ones, and over time they will find better ways to do so. The central problem is with ourselves, and the saga of the Comcast Tower in Philadelphia is a good example.

The Comcast Tower was designed to be the world's tallest green building. Among its features was exclusive use of waterless urinals, a new technology that is known to save tens of thousands of gallons of water over time. The Philadelphia Plumber's Union, which has a great deal of political clout, objected. The objections delayed construction on the building and threatened to undercut its green certification. The problem, according to the plumbers, was that waterless urinals would result in less work for members of the union. They were a problem—not an opportunity.

The plumbers were trapped in old thinking. It is perfectly true that installing waterless urinals takes less time (and is therefore less lucrative) than installing conventional ones. But waterless technology is the future; conventional plumbing is the past. The Plumber's Union failed to see the opportunity to master a new technology which, in the long run, would preserve its members' jobs as new buildings adopted the new urinals and older ones converted to them. If Plumber's Union members would not install the technology of the future, someone else would. Failure to adapt, as in most situations, would mean failure to thrive.

A more sustainable society need not be a society in economic collapse. It could be a better place to live than our current world. But we will not see this, let alone achieve it, if, like the Plumber's Union, we fail to see that every problem is also an opportunity.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Eating for the Planet

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet argued that modern agribusiness practices and the Western meat-centered diet were wasteful and impractical in a world with a growing population. Lappe has since modified some of her dietary theories and begun to emphasize inequities in the food distribution system as a major cause of hunger. But one central assumption of the book still stands—more firmly now than in 1971: Our methods of food production and distribution and our diet preferences have major effects on the environment.

Thirty-five years later, the questions are different. Hunger remains an issue, but we now know that our food production and distribution are major contributors to the increase in greenhouse gases. Livestock—chiefly beef and dairy cattle, but other livestock as well—account for around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative (LEAD). This figure includes the effects of deforestation to raise livestock, transportation, production of feed, and gas created by the animals themselves.

LEAD suggests that better farming methods and better animal feeds could mitigate many of the problems created by livestock. But greenhouse gases from livestock are only part of a larger problem in the developed world: the production and distribution of food itself. In the United States, much of our produce comes from California and Florida, usually by truck, at enormous cost to the environment. Much of it is nourished by artificial fertilizers, produced and transported at enormous cost to the environment.

Some of this would be hard to avoid even in an ideal world. Staple grains will not grow everywhere, for example, and need to be transported somehow from the places where they will grow to the places where they will be eaten. But, even in the era of sprawl, the United States still has a lot of good farmland where livestock could be raised more humanely and less destructively than at present—and where both livestock and produce could be farmed nearer to where consumers live.

Raising livestock and produce more naturally and locally would not only benefit the environment. It would have health and taste benefits as well. Naturally-produced hamburger, for example, is more expensive than the standard McDonald's variety. But it is less likely to give you e coli infection or mad cow disease, and it tastes better than the bland stuff that passes for beef in fast food restaurants. Local produce almost always tastes better than produce from across the country because it is fresher. And it is likely to be more nutritious, again because it is fresher.

It is easy to see that if we ate less meat and more vegetables—as the U.S. government itself has recommended—we and the environment would be healthier. What is not so obvious is that we would also be eating more enjoyably and more traditionally. The great cuisines of the world—French, Chinese, Italian, and hundreds of others—have never centered around 16-ounce servings of beefsteak. They are not vegetarian, but by using fresh ingredients and cooking them with care, they can produce delicious and healthful meals using far less meat than is standard on American tables. Huge servings of meat are not even traditional in the U.S. Many of our classic dishes, like Boston baked beans, were designed to stretch meat when it was a rare and expensive commodity. Some, like macaroni and cheese, contain no meat at all.

Healthy, delicious, and good for the environment—a combination that is hard to beat when talking about food. Those who look for good ingredients and cook them with respect will never miss McDonald's. They may even wonder why they ate there in the first place.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ethanol and Absurdity

One doesn't expect creative policy from a Bush Administration that gave us the Iraq War and the military "surge." But the President's energy proposals, made last night in the State of the Union speech, have reached a new creative low. After all the hoopla about initiatives, his actual proposals were simply recycled nostrums that he has proposed before—albeit with minor differences. Last January we were exhorted to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by switching to more economical vehicles and biofuels. This year we are supposed to reduce our gasoline consumption by twenty percent over the next ten years. We will do this by switching to more economical vehicles and biofuels. This time the government will help by making fuel economy requirements a bit more stringent. And it will itself move toward more economical vehicles and biofuels.

Proposals that made little sense last January make even less sense this year. Even on their face they are inadequate. If we merely cut our gasoline consumption by twenty percent over the next ten years, this will not make us energy-independent because there is not enough oil in U.S. territory to supply what we will still be using. Conservation at this level would barely make a dent in our dependence on foreign oil. And a twenty-percent cut in gasoline consumption will do virtually nothing about climate change. For that, the cuts must be far more stringent, and they must include all fossil fuel usage, not just gasoline usage. Mr. Bush's conservation proposal would make us feel as if we were achieving real economies without actually requiring us to do anything meaningful.

Even the ethanol numbers don't add up. The boom in ethanol is good for corn growers and possibly for the American waistline because corn refined into fuel will not be refined into fructose and added to the food supply. But even a mainstream economist like Robert J. Samuelson argues that we just cannot grow enough biological material—corn, switchgrass, wood chips (wood chips?), whatever—to feed our cars.

I emphasize wood chips above because plans to use them reveal the absurdity of plans for a mass switch to ethanol. At the moment, most wood chips used for biofuels are sawmill waste that we would generate anyway and are recycling. But if we switch to ethanol on a large scale, we may find ourselves needing additional sources of wood chips. As we have done with corn, we may be tempted to create wood to use as chips for fuel.

We can't, of course, create wood. Unlike money, wood chips grow on trees. They don't just appear magically out of nowhere. Trees, even those planted for harvest like Christmas trees, take time to grow. Big old trees, the most abundant source for wood chips, take years, sometimes hundreds of years, to grow. How far will be be prepared to go just to keep our cars running? Are we to strip our old-growth forests just so we can continue to drive everywhere? Substitute trees for food crops so we can do our banking from our cars? And how will cutting down trees to fuel our cars help to reduce global warming?

The answer to the last question is simple: It won't. Using trees to fuel our cars can only increase deforestation. That is a step toward, not away from, global warming.

This is not policymaking at all. It is, like the military surge, an attempt to distract us from the real problem, which in this case is our dependence, not on foreign oil, but on the private car. No one ever got elected by telling the people that they should take the bus or the train—or walk. But somebody must begin to do so. Obviously, Mr. Bush is not that person.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Brief Note: Sustainable South Bronx

To rebuild for the future, we have to start somewhere. An individual can change his or her behavior, and that is all to the good. But individuals by themselves can change little without organizing—to pressure policymakers, to stop ill-considered and harmful developments, and most important, to change our institutions in a positive way.

In cities, the best vehicle for organizing is the neighborhood. People in the neighborhood know each other, they share a common interest in the welfare of the community, and if something is wrong with the environment in their area, they can sometimes literally smell it.

That was the case a few years ago in the South Bronx. It is less so now, thanks to one of the most exciting grassroots environmental efforts in the country: Sustainable South Bronx. Founded by Majora Carter, who grew up in South Bronx when it was, quite literally, New York's dumping ground, this organization has helped reverse the decline of the neighborhood and created hope where before there was the smell of rotting industrial waste. It is a group that more than repays study and a model for similar groups everywhere.