Monday, September 22, 2008

Empty Houses and Toxic Loans

Amid all the commentary on the housing bubble and the banking crisis of 2008, few have asked what kind of houses and communities the real estate boom was helping to create. This is not surprising; the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the threat to the U.S. and world financial system, and the Bush Administration's bailout plan have pushed all such questions into the background.

It is important, however, that we ask them. The consequences of our current crisis will include not just financial disruption, but bricks and mortar—houses and subdivisions built on the assumption that the market would take care of community planning with little oversight from the communities where the homes were being built. The result, in far too many places, was suburban design on steroids. The new "financial instruments" that have now proven so badly flawed financed bigger houses in neighborhoods where two or three cars became a necessity because the nearest stores and services were ten or twenty miles from home.

Many of these houses are now in foreclosure, unsaleable, or abandoned. Most, because of the housing bubble, were priced far beyond the means of ordinary families. In 2003, the New York Times reported that the rise in housing prices had affected mainly communities that were already affluent. By 2008, houses everywhere had been affected to some extent. The market did a good job of making money for developers and hedge fund managers; it did a poor job of providing affordable, sustainable houses in liveable neighborhoods.

What we forgot in the early years of the 21st Century is that, as Adam Smith argued, markets alone do not create a viable society or the good life. Smith, who in his time was known as much for his moral philosophy as for his economics, relied on our moral sentiments to restrain market excesses and protect the common good.

It is impossible to know whether there will eventually be buyers for the houses now in foreclosure, or how long they will sit empty in virtually abandoned neighborhoods. As fuel prices rise and access to public transit becomes an asset, the automobile-centered suburb and the McMansion will surely become less viable. If we are wise, we will learn from this episode and begin once more to invest in real neighborhoods and sustainable housing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Waste of Good Food

For those who missed it, there is an excellent article by Andrew Martin in the May 18 New York Times on how U.S. consumers, supermarkets, and the food distribution system waste food (about 1 pound per day per person). The photo above, which accompanies the article, gives readers a feel for the scale of the waste.

The demand for grain for biofuels, it appears, is only one among many reasons for increases in the cost of food. Food waste, which occurs quite literally at every stage from field to grocery store to plate, is also a major culprit.

Grocery stores discard products because of spoilage or minor cosmetic blemishes. Restaurants throw away what they don’t use. And consumers toss out everything from bananas that have turned brown to last week’s Chinese leftovers. In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten. Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste.

This is an old study, but according to Andrew Martin an update is under way. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded in a study that

Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

The problem for the planet, it appears, is not just what we eat, but what we don't eat.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Smart Cars, Hybrids, and Our Spaceship

For just over a year now, I have been using a Toyota Prius from PhillyCarShare (see my short description) when only a car would do the job—for hauling items too heavy for a hand cart, a long trip to a place with no public transit, and similar tasks.

The Prius is unquestionably a fine piece of engineering. On a 200-mile trip with city and highway driving, it averaged about 45 miles per gallon of fuel. It provides feedback on all its systems, and most of its controls are digital and easy to use. It rides comfortably, accelerates smoothly, and has a sleep mode for the engine that virtually eliminates idling at traffic lights. If the solution to our transportation problems were merely a change of automotive technology, the Prius would be a good candidate for the assignment.

So, to be fair, would the so-called "smart car," a small vehicle which is becoming popular among sport utility vehicle (SUV) owners and others looking for fuel economy now that gasoline in the U.S. is hovering at $4.00/gallon. Automobile makers, even those in the U.S. who previously didn't get it, are rushing to fill the demand for efficiency even as they struggle to sell thousands of unwanted low-mileage SUVs. General Motors, which has been staggering toward bankruptcy for the last nine months or so, is even advertising alternative fuel cars powered by hydrogen, electricity, and hybrid technology similar to that of the Prius.

All of this sounds good, and it cannot hurt if we begin to drive more efficient vehicles. But the problem goes beyond fuel efficiency. The private car has always been the least efficient way to move people from one place to another. Making our cars smaller and more economical will do little to change this. One city bus, for example, can replace 40-50 cars if each car carries one person. If each car has a passenger and a driver, the bus can still replace 20-25 cars. This saves road space, speeds up commuting, and uses less fuel per passenger-mile than even the most efficient car.

The private car has another and more important inefficiency. A high percentage of an automobile's carbon footprint stems from the resources used to manufacture it. Buses and trains also have a built-in footprint, but because they carry passengers more efficiently than a fleet of cars, their total footprint per passenger-mile is lower than a private car.

There is also the question of parking space. One of the major problems with a car is that you have to put it somewhere. Central Philadelphia has over 500 parking facilities, many of them surface lots that break up the urban fabric, complicate water runoff, and turn some areas of the city into treacherous wastelands—literally: empty, deserted areas like parking lots can encourage crimes against persons.

The earth, which is in effect a kind of spaceship, does not have this kind of room to waste. Shared cars, on the PhillyCarShare model, would, if widely used, take up less space than a fleet of cars that outnumbers licensed drivers (as in the United States). There would be fewer of them—one shared car for every 20-30 drivers instead of more than 1 private car per driver. They would come close to the architect Moshe Safdie's concept of the utility car, which would be available for short trips around a city after a traveler or commuter had arrived in the city by train or bus. The Prius or a smart car would make an excellent utility car. It also makes a good shared vehicle.

What these new car models cannot do is transform the world merely by replacing the current car fleet. Replacing all our SUVs with Priuses would save fuel. It would not save the planet.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Good Way to Remember

It is the seventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the places where the attacks took place, in a field in central Pennsylvania, and throughout the country, Americans will remember those who died in the attacks. This is fitting and proper, even for those, like me, who disagree with the strategy and tactics of the military operations, the use of torture on suspects, and the changes in the law that followed the attacks. The dead could have been any of us, and their tragedy is ours.

But it is also important to honor the dead by our actions. To many this means supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the troops caught up in those conflicts. To others, including me, it means something different and more profound. It means changing our way of life to avoid (as much as possible) direct and indirect support for the use of terror as a tactic, wherever it occurs.

We in the West, not just in the United States, depend heavily on oil. Some of the money we spend on oil to fuel our cars, airplanes, and power plants eventually finds its way to terrorist groups and to countries like the Sudan, whose use of terror in Darfur has shocked the world's conscience.

The ability to move freely from place to place is an important component of human liberty and therefore of democracy. Electricity is essential to trade and communication. Our civilization would be much diminished if we did not have these things.

But it is fitting on this day, more than on most, to consider the human and environmental cost of our civilization and resolve to do everything in our power to make that cost smaller—and by so doing, give less indirect support to the use of terror against anyone. We owe this to the memory of the dead, to ourselves, and to future generations.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Broader View of Conservation

The latest post in Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog, Dot Earth, reports on a new manifesto from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a network of conservation groups. The book, Transition to Sustainability: Towards a Humane and Diverse World,

says wildlife groups need to help encourage communities to shift mindsets, not just park boundaries. One goal should be helping to build understanding of the hidden costs of excess consumption, the book says. Another is working to move the world away from energy choices that add to Earth’s accumulating blanket of greenhouse gases. The book crosses boundaries rarely tested by conservation groups, concluding that alleviation of poverty and global equity are vital if remaining areas of intact forests and other species-rich ecosystems are to have a chance.

The book is available free in pdf format. Its central premise is that

In the 1970s, environmentalists feared that the earth was running out of resources. This proved not to be the critical problem. It is true that some resources are getting scarce and expensive to extract – in particular the era of cheap oil appears to be over. But it turns out that the most immediate limit to boundless human aspirations on a finite planet is not a shortage of things to dig up, but a lack of places to put the garbage.

Both Revkin's brief report and the book itself are well worth a look.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Notes from England

Brief notes from three weeks in England. More will follow on one of them.

North and South: The biggest and most entertaining flap during the three weeks I was there came when Policy Exchange, a favorite think-tank of Conservative Party leader David Cameron, published a study declaring that nearly all major cities in the North of England were failures and that the best idea for residents of the North was to move south to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and the like.

There followed a great deal of scurrying by Cameron to disavow the report; a great deal of outrage from residents of Liverpool, Leeds, and other northern cities; and special features in the national press on the many virtues of the North.

To an outsider, even one who visits England regularly, this all seems baffling. The North of England includes the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, two national treasures. One of its "failed" cities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was the European Capital of Culture (ECC) some years ago, and the current ECC is Liverpool, named in the report as a city beyond redemption. How is this failure? And why would anyone want to leave these places and move to crowded, expensive London?

I guess an outsider can't see the problem. To this outsider, the very northern city of Leeds looks like a dynamic place whose spirits are in good order and whose pedestrian precincts are beautiful and very well-used. Liverpool is the place where the Beatles originated. Newcastle, although a work in progress, is worth visiting anytime and must be an exciting place to live.

More on Leeds in the future. It is a city worth a closer look. In the meantime, I think it is fair to say that no great north-south migration is anticipated in England.

A Tale of Two Countries: Shortly after we arrived in York, the national press featured, as its top headline, a prediction on climate change. I have tried to think of the last time this happened in the United States, apart from the specialist press, and came up with nothing. The equivalent headlines in the United States are about gas prices.

This says a lot about both countries, but less than one would hope about England. The United Kingdom is still behind most European Union countries on environmental issues—it is even behind the City of Philadelphia on recycling—and the Labour Government has approved construction of the first new coal-fired electricity plant in a generation. The environment makes headlines, but all may be less well than it seems.

But, and it bears repeating, at least the environment makes headlines in the UK. It would be nice if it did in the U.S. as well.