Friday, April 28, 2006

Scurrying for Cover

Politicians are scurrying for cover throughout the United States. Gas is above $3.00/gallon, and the public is outraged. So we have investigations of price gouging, proposals for tax rebates, requests for Internal Revenue Service records for oil companies—on and on and on.

What no politician will do is tell people the truth: The price of gasoline is getting higher because there is not enough gas to fill the demand. The market is actually doing what the market is supposed to do. Prices are supposed to rise in a period of high demand and short supply.

Outside of official Washington, this is common knowledge. Economists from all parts of the spectrum have been pointing out that the only remedy for high gas prices is to use less gas by driving less, buying fuel-efficient vehicles, inflating tires to the proper pressure, and other short-term economies.

The underlying problem is that higher fuel prices are now structural. Oil is becoming a scarce commodity, even though on the surface there may appear to be a glut. There is only so much oil in the earth. If we use up the supply, we will not be able to buy it, even at double, triple, or ten, or a hundred times current prices. There will be none left. We can postpone this day, and by burning less fossil fuel we may also help to postpone the full effect of global warming. But we cannot prevent it from happening as long as we burn fossil fuels.

What we can't do is go on burning fossil fuels as if the supply were infinite and greenhouse gases did not exist. Changing our ways may be painful, but we really have no choice. Is anybody in Washington going to say this? An interesting question, because you don't get elected in the U.S. by telling people that the cost of their ride is going to go up.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs 1916-2006

Everyone who loves cities and cares about their future will miss the voice and presence of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her approach to cities, which stressed the importance of neighborhoods and argued that population density was one of the virtues of urban life, changed city planning forever. When she first wrote, the conventional wisdom was that cities could be saved by knocking down established neighborhoods and building highways and high-rise buildings in parkland. Few believe that now, largely because of the thinking and writing of one woman who took the trouble to look at cities on the ground and learn how they worked.

We are still learning from her.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gasoline Prices

Karen Street, in A Musing Environment, has posted a thorough discussion of gasoline prices. It is well worth reading.

In the long run, the problem with gas prices is the problem with our oil-based society: The supply of oil is finite, so in the long run we must use less of it—and even then eventually we will run out. This and the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels make the private, oil-based automobile untenable in the long term.

We can only get to the long term by finding alternatives to the private automobile, and not just to cars that run on fossil fuels. If everyone drives a private car, everyone will need space to park, and parking lots destroy natural water runoff, trees and grass that can help to mitigate the effect of greenhouse gases, and the beauty of our world, among other things. So does more and more highway construction. We can't go on this way.

The danger is that politicians will not talk about the real problem, instead focusing on the price of fuel, price gouging, and similar issues. These are real problems—high prices hurt ordinary people, and gouging does happen—but they are not the fundamental difficulty.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Shrinking but Wealthier Cities

Two recent studies bring mixed news about cities in the United States. A census report cited by the Associated Press finds that people are leaving the older cities and moving to the suburbs to find cheaper housing and more space. At the same time, a new study from the University of Virginia concludes that city centers are growing in wealth and value.

The two studies do not contradict each other. City centers are becoming the province of smaller but wealthier families and young people who can afford to live near exciting restaurants, museums, music, and theaters. People with less money cannot afford the cost of housing in the growth areas of cities, so they move out where housing is cheaper.

This rings true for Philadelphia, where downtown (Center City to Philadelphians) is having a condo boom at unheard-of prices, while the outlying neighborhoods are losing people and wealth. Center City is the most exciting place in the region. The neighborhoods are struggling, except those areas that are near the Center City boomtown. The city is losing population and jobs, while paradoxically becoming wealthier, at least in some places.

For the future, the continued move to the suburbs is ominous. It is possible to live in the city without a private car—our family has done it for twenty years. The same cannot be said of the far suburbs, where isolation awaits any family that tries to rely on feet or public transportation. In the long run, we must live closer together to save energy, resources, and, ultimately, the planet. But that is not the trend. The cities are getting wealthier, but they are getting smaller. And the environment, which means all of us, is paying the price.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Avoiding the Obvious

In 1972, the Club of Rome, an ad hoc group of intellectuals, published The Limits to Growth, a short work that challenged conventional ideas about economic growth. Using computer simulations, the Club of Rome economists reached two major conclusions:
  • Exponential growth in population and consumption of resources was not possible for the long run and, if not stopped, would lead to severe economic problems and even collapse; and
  • Collapse could be avoided by altering our use of resources and controlling population growth to create a more sustainable society.

A summary of the report is on the Club of Rome web site. In a finite world, the report's conclusions and its computer analysis seemed, to me at least, both obvious and sensible.

The reaction to the report, however, was both clamorous and enlightening. Critics accused the Club of Rome of doomsaying, bad analysis, insupportable assumptions, and a host of other sins. In fact, the report's central offense was its argument that economic growth on the current model could not continue indefinitely because the resources needed to sustain it would eventually be depleted.

In a world committed to the religion of growth, The Limits to Growth was heresy. That, not statistical or methodological failures, was its real offense. The controversy showed more about the critics than it did about the report. They were growth fundamentalists, and their reaction was more about saving the faith than about seeking the truth.

To an outsider, all this fuss seemed very peculiar. Of course there was only so much oil, iron ore, tin, aluminum, and other vital material in the world. Of course there was only so much arable land. Of course the amount of water was finite. And on and on. Why not begin to plan in the light of these realities? And why did it take so long for the experts to realize that our supplies were limited?

Now we are learning that the Club of Rome was, essentially, right. In the near future, oil supplies will not be able to keep up with demand, and our known reserves may not last out the 21st century. In the United States, we are destroying arable land that we may never replace—thus depleting an essential resource in the name of development. The rain forests of the world, which help to mitigate the effect of greenhouse gases, will be gone entirely by 2030 at the present rate of destruction. The civilization based on growth, which is the only one we in the developed world have ever known, cannot continue indefinitely, and no statistical legerdemain can make our finite world the source of infinite supplies of resources.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Present and the Future

We know that the past affects the present. We can trace the roots of the present, see how it evolved from those roots, and even learn from history—though we often misinterpret the lessons to be found there. What we cannot do is change the past. There are no second chances in history. It is done, and its results are with us whether we will them or not.

What we often do not see is that the future also affects the present. We plan for retirement. We invest in oil futures. We make decisions based on our predictions, and those decisions turn out well or badly depending on how well or badly we predicted, and how wise or foolish our response was.

This is a series of reflections about how the future might be, how it affects us now, and how we can survive. In most ways, it is hard to see a hopeful future, though we must maintain hope somehow. If we do not, the future will surely be as bleak as our worst fears.

How, then, does the future affect our present? Here are some of the ways:
  • Our future is likely to be one of limitations. In a society built on abundance, as is the United States, this is hard to envision. But in fact it is simple common sense. The planet is finite. Supplies of resources are finite. Our population and the demands it makes on resources cannot grow indefinitely. Our response to limitations—which we are already beginning to see in the case of water, and will soon see in the case of oil—will be one factor that determines whether, and how, we will survive.

  • Our destruction of the environment will begin to bite back. Most obviously, we will find our lives changed, and in peril, because of global warming unless we redesign our way of life to mitigate it and prevent it insofar as we can.

  • Our religious, ethical, and ideological systems will come more and more into question. The growing popularity of fundamentalist religion has so far masked the central problem of religion and philosophy: the shaking of their foundations by changes in the world and in our understanding of it. Yet each of us needs a moral and spiritual base. We cannot, and should not, abandon our search for it; but we must make that search in a different world from the one we have known.

We can respond to a perilous future in at least two ways:

  • By protecting ourselves and our families: Even as we look for ways that humanity can survive the future, we have a responsibility to do this. In its extreme form, however, it becomes self-centered and potentially dangerous. At the outer reaches of individual and family survival lies the survivalist mode: shotguns, cellars full of provisions, and paranoia. These reflections reject the survivalist approach.

  • By making changes that will make the future less dangerous for ourselves and for humanity. This is what I call the social design approach, for want of a better term. Social design happens whether we do it consciously or not. For example, the mass migration to the automobile-dependent suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, though not planned, was a design decision by default. One of my goals in these reflections is to look at how our design—whether conscious or unconscious—molds the future even as our prediction of that future molds our design decisions.

Not all of these reflections will deal directly with these issues. But in the end, they will be about a future that is likely to be more challenging than any we have known—one in which past approaches will not work without rethinking.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Meditation on Hope

I begin this series of reflections with a Christmas letter from 2004.

These are dark days. As the Winter Solstice approaches, the sun appears later and disappears earlier. The news is full of wars, genocide, conflict, and environmental ruin. Things fall apart, as William Butler Yeats put it—and it is hard now to believe he was wrong.

Yet December, the darkest time of the year, is when many of us celebrate light and hope. Christians remember the birth of Jesus and the hope of peace and redemption. Jews celebrate the persistence of light against all odds. And there are traditions, going back beyond memory, that celebrate the Solstice itself, the end of growing darkness and the return, however slowly, of the light.

What these traditions have in common is hope. Not certainty, for hope is not about an assured future. Not optimism, for hope is not about cheerfulness or self-assurance. It is the condition that makes the future possible and undergirds authentic confidence. If we lose hope, we lose all. If we keep it, we can create the future, even without guarantees.

So it is well that we celebrate hope, even in dark times like these. At the Solstice, the sun will rise late and set early. The next day will be longer, even if only by a minute; and the day after that longer still. Greater light will come. And hope, wherever we find it, will still be with us.