Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Letter 2008

This is a time of paradox in our lives. For all of us, in the United States and around the globe, it is a season of hope—for change and for a better day to come. The recent election, though not the ultimate victory over our tragic past, has moved us many steps closer to the beloved kingdom that, each in his or her own way, we all seek.

Yet this is also a time of near-despair. Our livelihoods and ways of living are under threat, not only from economic collapse, but also from the prospect that our planet itself, the underpinning of our very existence, may break down. We are living with hope. And we are also living with despair.

This is the paradox of our time. Yet the tension between opposites—between hope and despair, joy and sadness, even good and evil—can be a creative force in our lives and in the world. That is why this is also a time of great possibility. As individuals, as a nation, and as a global people, we can still create our future. Fear tells us we must find new ways to live with each other and with the earth; hope tells us that we can.

We have already begun. This year, let us celebrate that fact and draw strength for the future from it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Follow-Up Note

Just over two years ago, I posted a three-part series on a proposal to build a ten-story parking lot (instead of the originally proposed condominium) in the heart of Philadelphia's downtown. The series can be found at "Design for What," Part I; Part II; and Part III.

In the intervening two years, the developer has found enough tenants to justify building the full condominium, and the building's exterior is nearly complete. While this outcome does little to address other issues discussed in the post, such as creating jobs in the city and the proliferation of parking lots, it is at least better than a parking garage, however "beautiful" (the developer's term when making the proposal).

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Suggestions for Rebuilding

President-elect Obama's economic recovery program includes a great deal of funding for infrastructure repair and green development. Herewith a few suggestions for infrastructure repair that would also be green development—and good strategy as well.

Rebuild the Railroads: The United States was once the leader in developing railroads. Now, as its rail system has been allowed to decay, it has fallen far behind other developed countries and some, like China, that are still emerging. Environmentally and strategically this makes no sense. Rail transport is the most efficient way to move freight, far more efficient than trucking goods or flying them. With better track and rolling stock, freight hauling by rail would be competitive with trucking—as it has to be if we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions and become less dependent on imported fuel.

Make Passenger Rail Competitive: For those seeking alternatives to driving or flying, passenger rail is frequently not an option. Trains are infrequent, sometimes more costly, and often much slower than they could be with improved track and rolling stock. As with freight, rail is the most efficient way to move passengers. It makes little sense to continue policies that encourage air travel, or even driving, when investing in passenger rail—even subsidizing it—would save fuel and cut emissions.

Connect the Dots: Fuel prices, although temporarily in retreat, will not remain low indefinitely. The supply of oil for making gasoline is finite, and the cost of extracting it will go up, not down, in the future. Over time, this will doom the U.S. suburbs to—depending on who is talking—decline or collapse. The suburbs may be, as James Howard Kunstler maintains, the worst misallocation of funds in recent memory; but they are there, and people live in them. The best way to make them viable again is to connect them with rapid, efficient public transport—light rail for preference, or low-emission buses.

Create Walkability: Walkable neighborhoods are in vogue for good reason. They are the future, if we are to have one. In the long term, it would make sense to give businesses incentives to build stores within walking distance (or easy public transport distance) of the dots which the infrastructure package has just connected. This would make it easier for us to lower our dependence on the private car, and hence lower emissions and dependence on imported fuel.

All of these items would cost money—as would other components of any stimulus package worth doing. But unlike simply repairing roads and bridges, however much they need repair, these suggestions would build for a future of high fuel prices and environmental constraints. That, after all, is the future that we face.

Further Thoughts

Coordinate Electric Cars and Public Transport: Commentator Lorcan suggests that roads should be made electric-car ready so that rail passengers could take the train to a depot or station, then pick up an electric car for the trip to their final destination. This imaginative suggestion echos Israeli architect and planner Moshe Safdie's concept of the utility car, which would be available for short trips at transit points like train stations. His book, The City After the Automobile, repays study. By making roads electric-car ready, I assume Lorcan means adding electric car battery-charging stations at intervals on the roads—also a fine suggestion.

The larger issue here is whether we can coordinate our transportation system to encourage users to take the most efficient transport mode for their journey. A future post will address this question.

Mountaintop Removal: Lorcan also argues for abandoning the notion of "clean coal" as a dead end and ending mountaintop removal. Both are important points. For a discussion of mountaintop removal, see "The Price of Coal" on this blog.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Alison Arieff on Water Management

Alison Arieff's latest By Design column gives a good summary of possible solutions to the problem of water. Well worth reading.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bailing Out Futility

As anyone who follows the news knows, the United States automobile industry is in trouble. Sales are down, particularly among sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which appeared to save the industry for a few years and are now killing it. So the Big Three, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, are seeking a government loan. Ford claims that it has enough cash to keep going, but supports the bailout because a General Motors bankruptcy, which is the most likely, would devastate the industry, threaten the livelihood of auto parts makers, and worsen an already grim economic situation.

There is no doubt that a sudden collapse of the auto industry would be ruinous for auto workers, parts suppliers, and the general economy—though perhaps less so for top management at the Big Three, who arrived in Washington separately in private jets and would no doubt escape the wreckage with very fat wallets, as did the CEOs of Hewlett-Packard, Lehman Brothers, and various hedge funds before them. The major question, which Congress is right to ask, is whether a bailout would merely reward bad management without changing a badly-flawed industry very much, if at all.

The auto industry's problem has little to do with costly union contracts and pensions, although these are favorite scapegoats among conservative commentators. A thriving, far-seeing, and innovative industry could pay the contracts and pensions and still make money. But an industry which has tried to thrive by fighting fuel economy requirements and basing its future on SUVs and pickup trucks is neither far-seeing nor innovative. The car companies have used more ingenuity in blocking and trying to avoid fuel economy legislation than they have in adapting to a world with limited and expensive fuel supplies.

It is as simple as this: Oil, which fuels the automobile fleet, is becoming harder to extract and will be more expensive in the long term. Americans are driving less, and many who were interviewed by news agencies intend to drive less in the future even if the price of gasoline comes down because they know the price drop will be temporary. Fuel economy, not size or power, is the new standard for judging cars.

Climate change also factors into buying decisions for many Americans. This reinforces the need for fuel economy and will make low-carbon cars, if they come on the market, very popular.

On fuel economy and low emissions, American car makers have done little or nothing. They did not, for example, develop hybrid technology. They fought gas mileage regulations. They concentrated on building and selling SUVs, which, because they are built around a truck chassis, are technically trucks and not subject to the same requirements as passenger cars. Now General Motors has discovered hybrids, electric cars, and hydrogen-powered vehicles. But they made little or no effort to do so in the past twenty years.

There is a larger problem, not yet discussed, that will become urgent in the long run: The private car as a major people-mover is beginning to see the end of its days. It is simply too expensive and inefficient to remain the transportation of choice much longer. Already, public transit in the United States is seeing large increases in ridership, which it is ill-prepared to handle because we have starved it of resources. Over the next 20-30 years, as fuel becomes even more expensive, this trend is likely to continue. We will still have cars, but they will not be the main part of our transportation system.

There is no reason why car makers cannot adapt to this situation by diversifying into public transit vehicles, but the Big Three have not done so. Instead, they have behaved as if oil is a renewable resource and the chief problem facing them is increasing sales.

Bailing out the car industry in its current form would reward not only bad management, but a disastrous vision of the future. Instead, Congress might consider a different financial aid package that would encourage the car makers to innovate, help displaced workers, and build for a long run in which we must use less fossil fuel. Some elements of that package might include:

  • Making the whole package contingent on a commitment by the automakers to develop fuel-efficient vehicles and to seek a minimum efficiency of 50 mpg (already common in Europe) within ten years.
  • Increasing and extending unemployment benefits so that people displaced by necessary changes (even bankruptcies) in the auto industry need not suffer.
  • Making additional funds available to help automakers develop and retool for innovative public transit solutions. These funds would be contingent on automakers' developing a plan for the new work, and supervision of their use would be strict to keep them from being used for business as usual. And finally,
  • Making the whole package contingent on replacing the management which has so badly failed a major industry with people of vision and imagination.
These measures, even taken together, would not solve all the problems of the auto industry or transportation in the U.S. But they would be a start. Whether the Congress has the vision to consider them or something like them is another question—and perhaps the most difficult of all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What to Do with a Big Box Store

If you set out to deliberately build an unsustainable retailing structure, you could hardly do worse than the big box store. Unattractive, surrounded by acres of parking lots, and closed off from the outside world, the big box store comes close to violating every rule of sustainable and beautiful building. It is a sad legacy of the move to the suburbs.

It becomes even worse when it fails. Stores close, developers abandon it and move on, and it becomes a ghost. (See the three-part series in this blog on Dead Spaces: Part I; Part 2; Part 3.) The ghosts of big box stores complicate water runoff, contribute to climate change even when no one uses the parking lot, and are even more ugly than their live big box cousins.

In the long run, the big box store will almost certainly succumb to rising fuel prices and environmental constraints. The major question is what to do with the buildings and parking lots that remain when a big box store is abandoned. Tearing it down is one possibility, but this is both unimaginative and (because of the building materials used in most big box structures) hazardous to the environment.

Now the Washington Post has assembled a team of artists, architects, engineers, and developers to come up with creative suggestions for recycling these dead spaces. The article by Joel Garreau, repays study. The Post's team has some imaginative suggestions, with artists' renderings that bring them to life.

One doesn't have to agree with all the suggestions to see that this is a good start toward resolving an issue that we face even as I write and will face more urgently in the future.

Monday, October 06, 2008

An Argument to Nowhere

Climate skeptics set great store by the argument that science has not "definitively proved" that human actions are the cause of global warming. The chief problem with this argument is that it goes against the scientific consensus and the evidence, but there is another criticism, less-noted but equally compelling: It does not support the policies that the skeptics think it does.

Skeptics, among them Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (insofar as I can make out what she is saying), are fond of simply stating that there is doubt about the role of human activity in climate change, as if because of this we need not worry about our use of fossil fuels. The implication (never stated) is that we are free to drive to our heart's content in ever-bigger cars, build a new coal-fired electric plant each week, and clear as much rain forest as we like. Nothing of the sort, however, follows. The argument is a kind of bridge to nowhere—or more accurately, to an uninhabitable planet.

What the skeptics have done is to assume that the only reason to cut back on fossil fuels is the danger of global warming. If we can't prevent it whatever we do, then we do not have to change.

Not quite. The reasons to cut back on fossil fuels are many, and they would be persuasive even if the skeptics were right and climate change were beyond human control. Some of the arguments below apply to all countries; others apply chiefly to the West and the United States. None depend on any particular explanation of climate change.

  • Fossil fuels are a major source of pollution. This summer's questions about air quality in Beijing were not about long-term climate change, but about short-term clouds of unbreathable smog and how they might affect the summer Olympics. Chinese authorities dealt with the problem by restricting automobile traffic. The smog level dropped, although Beijing's air quality probably remained poor because of China's heavy dependence on coal. It would be hard to imagine a more concrete demonstration of the role of fossil fuels in air pollution. Fewer cars on the road=less fossil fuel emissions=less smog.
  • Fossil fuels are expensive and often dangerous to produce. Coal mining is known to be a dangerous profession with a long list of mining disasters and tragedies in every major coal producing country. Oil drilling, while not as hazardous as mining, has become more expensive as producers turn to sources like oil shale which are more difficult to extract.
  • Even before they are burned, fossil fuels create environmental hazards. Oil, for instance, must be transported to markets, generally by ship, with the risk of accidents and spills. The best-known of these was the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Pipelines, while generally safer than ships, also damage the environment where they are laid.
  • For the West, and particularly the United States, dependence on fossil fuel is bad strategy. In the summer of 2008, for example, Russian troops invaded Georgia. Although Georgia had attacked first, the Russian action was universally condemned—but the West could actually do little or nothing. Military action was out of the question because of the danger that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons, and an economic boycott was impractical because Europe was heavily dependent on Russia for its fuel supplies. Some like Thomas Friedman argue that the West's use of fossil fuels helps to fund "petro-dictatorships" and, indirectly, terrorist groups. Depending on a resource that funds those who might attack you is not especially good strategy.
  • "Energy Independence" based on increased production of oil is not possible for the U.S. or the West. The arithmetic is simple and irrefutable. The U.S. controls just over 11% of the oil reserves in North America, or less than 3% of world reserves. Europe controls about 1% of the world's oil. Independence from foreign sources, at least at current consumption levels, is a myth.

The climate skeptics are, of course, wrong. All the evidence and the consensus of the science community says that humans have helped to create global warming and can help to alleviate by changing their way of life. But climate change is not the only reason to change. As the (admittedly incomplete) list above shows, there are many others.

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.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Virtues of Age, Part 2

Older, walkable neighborhoods are, as I argued in another posting, good for the environment and the sense of community. Now a study from the University of Utah, described in Tara Parker-Pope's New York Times "Well" blog,shows that older neighborhoods may also be good for one's health. Walkable neighborhoods encourage residents to walk—to the store, to the library, to a neighbor's house, and to many other neighborhood locations. Newer, suburban-style neighborhoods are designed to keep car traffic moving; they do not encourage walking. In many cases, they effectively discourage it.

Walking is exercise in the outdoor air. Driving is sitting still in a large, moving steel box. A walk to the store uses calories and relieves stress. A drive to the store uses fewer calories and much of the time makes daily stress worse. Which is better for the body? The question almost answers itself. Little wonder that the Utah study found that walkable neighborhoods are better for your health than communities where residents drive everywhere.

One more reason for choosing to live in a city neighborhood.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How We Got into This Mess

The July 29 edition of the New York Times includes an article on recyling in Houston, TX, that gives a capsule demonstration of how we got into our environmental mess, and the barriers to fixing it.

Houston recycles 2.6 percent of its waste, as compared with other cities like San Francisco (69 percent) and New York (34 percent). As many as 25,000 Houston residents have been waiting ten years for city-provided recycling bins. And city officials are not optimistic: Houston is too sprawling for efficient recycling collection, and its citizens are too independent to accept recycling requirements easily.

Houston is sprawling because its planning system effectively encourages sprawl and because nearly every city planning function is subordinate to the need to move automobile traffic and park cars. Its downtown is a wasteland of tall buildings in a dead zone full of parking lots. It is LeCorbusier's vision of high-rise buildings in a park; but the park has become instead a paved-over nightmare, and after dark the streets are empty.

The city of the future? Not quite, but Houston's problems remind us how far we have to go, and how hard it will be to get from here to there. In Houston, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Most Walkable, Least Walkable has released its list of the ten most walkable cities in the United State, including a couple of surprises. The list, in order, is:

  • San Francisco, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Boston, MA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Washington, DC
  • Long Beach, CA
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Portland, OR

The site evaluated 40 cities using its walkscore calculator. At the bottom of the list, from least walkable to slightly more walkable, were:

  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Nashville, TN
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Oklahoma City, OK
  • Memphis, TN
  • Kansas City, KS
  • Fort Worth, TX
  • San Antonio, TX
  • El Paso, TX

The Walkscore report also includes a list of walkable areas within each city, including the low-scoring cities, and a survey of the walkability of neighborhoods within each city.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Biofuels Revisited

A little over 18 months ago I posted a critique of President Bush's State of the Union message and its emphasis on increased use of biofuels, particularly ethanol. Unfortunately, the posting lumped ethanol with biofuels made from wood. This was incorrect, as commentator sverdalov reminded me:

Please do not insult those working on the development of wood to biofuels (ethanol is the presidents favorite, not theirs) or their choosen feedstock. Wood is a renewable resource when managed properly as the US forest products industry has learned to do. High yields (measures in tons/acre/year) can be achieved with a great deal of success. Also, the use of wood does help with global warming, as the net CO2 to atmosphere is 0, as the trees will regrow, recapturing the CO2. Further, since non-fuel products are likely, some of the carbon captured would be in the form of products (such as plastics) to be sold to the consumer. This would aid in decreasing CO2 in the atmosphere.

I stand corrected on the use of wood for biofuels. The larger point, made in this and other postings, is that biofuels will not spare us from the need to become less dependent on the private automobile and improve our public transit. Private cars are the least efficient way to move people, no matter how they are fueled. We have to do better at providing alternatives.

I am grateful to sverdalov for this correction.

Afterword, July 28, 2008: Commentator Marshall Massey reminds me that trees are a precious resource and not to be used lightly to create products like biofuels which, at bottom, only facilitate inefficient transportation like the private car. He is correct. If this contradicts what I said earlier in this posting, so be it. I believe, with Emerson, that the search for perfect consistency is "the hobgoblin of little minds" and can often impede the search for truth.

In my reading, sverdalov was defending wood-based biofuels and criticizing me for lumping them with corn-based ethanol. His critique was correct to that extent, and I still accept it. The larger question is whether we should be expending effort and money on biofuels at all. sverdalov's original comment did not directly address this policy question. I agree that wood-based biofuels are different from and less harmful than biofuels based on food crops.

On the larger question of substituting biofuels for gasoline, I was not explicit enough. Our problem is not how to fuel our cars; it is how to use them less, or not at all, and still retain that freedom of movement which is one of the hallmarks of a free society. A change in the fuel mix does not and cannot address that problem. Creator Spirit, come.

(See the related article, Requiem for the Car Industry, for one possible scenario on the fate of the private car.)

Offsetting Without Tears

Carbon offsetting, in which individuals, households and corporations "offset the carbon emissions [their] lifestyle generates by funding projects that reduce carbon emissions" (Consumer Reports, March 2008), have become increasingly popular lately. Offsetting seems to offer an accessible way to reduce emissions beyond what is possible by individual conservation alone. In principle, it is a helpful idea. In practice, there are traps for the unwary.

The system seems easy and painless. A family or corporation calculates its carbon footprint (the emissions it generates annually). This is theoretically easy to do using one of the many online carbon footprint calculators. Most calculators—which are in effect fundraising devices—assign a dollar amount per ton to carbon emissions. The user donates this amount to the organization which provided the calculator, and the money goes to projects that are supposed to lower the worlds's overall emissions, usually low-emissions power projects, conservation projects, or reforestation projects.

The difficulties with this approach, although they do not necessarily invalidate the idea of offsetting, should lead us to approach it with care:

  • Calculating a family or corporate carbon footprint is not a simple matter, and the online calculators are not as easy or helpful as they seem. I tried four of them and got family footprints ranging from 16.0 tons (of carbon) per year to 32 tons. This in turn led to suggested offsetting donations ranging from $236.00 to $640.00.
  • Every calculator that I tested needed data that was difficult (or in some cases nearly impossible) to get. This shows that the calculators are serious—providing data on energy use requires a lot of record-keeping and research—but it can be frustrating for the user, especially when:
  • Online carbon footprint calculators ask different questions, which means they are using different metrics and algorhythms for their calculations. Thus it is not surprising that they get different results.
  • Carbon offsets and providers are currently unregulated in the United States. Consumers should be sure that an offset provider will actually deliver on its promises.
  • Although contributions to (or investments in) sustainable power and conservation are likely to be useful, experts differ about whether reforestation is likely to have much of an impact. An organization like The Nature Conservancy, which emphasizes reforestation and land management, may have less impact on carbon emissions than a group which invests in sustainable power. (The Nature Conservancy's calculator, however, is the most thorough and easy to use of the ones I tested, which is why it appears in the column on the right of this essay.)
  • Some, like the environmentalist George Monbiot, argue that carbon offsetting can provide a kind of "license to pollute," allowing families and corporations to think they are saving the planet without changing their own habits—or in some cases, polluting more and rationalizing their bad habits with offsetting. This argument, while perhaps unfair, stands as a reminder that there is no solution to climate change that avoids changes in individual and corporate behavior.
Despite the difficulties, carbon offsetting has in fact raised capital for low-emissions energy and conservation projects—and reforestation, whether or not it sequesters carbon as its advocates claim, is desirable in itself for many reasons. The problem with offsetting is not the concept itself. It is finding the best way to implement it.

Here is one approach that seems reasonable for a small household. First, calculate the household carbon footprint using a good online calculator. The suggested donation will vary with the organization providing the calculator, and in any case, one household may be able to give less, another more. The simplest way to proceed is to use the suggested donation as guideline. One can only do what is within one's power to do.

The keys to this approach are

  • Offset some of your household's normal usage. Offsetting is of little or no use if it becomes a rationalization for increased emissions.
  • Do not simply donate to the organization that offers the calculator. If you already know and trust the organization, a donation may be the wisest use of your money. If not, without regulation and established quality standards it can be very difficult to judge. A good alternative is to:
  • Donate to a good local project that needs financial support to succeed, or invest directly in an alternative energy project or company that needs capital.
  • In addition to making an offsetting donation, look for additional ways to reduce your household's carbon footprint.
Our family's particular project is the Friends Center's green retrofit in Philadelphia. In the United States, buildings are the third largest source of greenhouse gases after the industrial and transport sectors (EPA figures), which makes green building projects particularly suitable for offsets. The Friends Center was originally a more or less typical energy-intensive 1970s building. It differs from most buildings of its era only in having windows that open, thanks to pressure on the architects from the organizations which built it. Remaking it will save a great deal on carbon emissions even though it is a small building. Supporting a project like this will not, by itself, save the planet. But it is a start.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Common Sense and Fuel Prices

Official Washington is buzzing with proposals that allegedly would help to bring down fuel prices. The most loudly proclaimed, probably because they make good rhetoric, are permitting offshore drilling for oil, cracking down on oil futures speculators, and giving motorists a "holiday" from federal gas taxes.

All of which sounds good and would achieve precisely nothing. Or worse than nothing.

  • offshore drilling would endanger beaches and not produce any actual oil for years;
  • blaming speculators for high fuel prices merely postpones the day when we have to adjust to those prices, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman;
  • a gas tax "holiday" would encourage greater usage and probably drive prices up rather than down.
The obvious way to deal with high fuel prices is to use less fuel. This would make life less expensive. It would also cut greenhouse gas emissions. Using less fuel is a common sense solution which helps in many ways. Unfortunately, it makes for dull rhetoric: Drive less! Ride the train! Use a Bike! Walk to the Store!

For policy suggestions on using less fuel, The City Fix has two recent postings that are relevant. One, "Easing the Pain Caused by High Fuel Prices," includes three practical suggestions for city design and social investment that can help. The second and more recent is a series of photographs of the Beijing subway system, which was built to ease travel at the Olympics but will also help control fuel use and pollution in one of China's major cities.

Well worth reading.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What To Do with an Old Gas Guzzler

Judith Warner's New York Times blog, "Domestic Disturbances," has a very funny posting on the family's Land Rover, which now sits in the garage except for trips to the local Metro stop, the supermarket, and the gas station—all less than a mile each way.

Warner's speculations about the ways the family might actually use the Land Rover in future are hilarious. A good, short read with a serious point lurking among the laughs.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Annotated G8 Statement

In contrast to 2007, when the Group of 8 failed to reach agreement on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the G8 Summit this year issued a statement calling for a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This sounds important, but in fact the situation is not much different from 2007. The goal for cuts is too small, the statement is not binding on member nations, and the agreement does not include emerging polluters China and India. What seemed like a start, however inadequate. turns out on a close reading to be lacking in both substance and force.

Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog, DotEarth takes an extended look at the statement, with an annotated version and a critical analysis. Well worth reading.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hip Deep in the Big Muddy

It is curious how much two disasters can have in common.The most recent, the midwestern U.S. flood of 2008, is an affliction on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. The second, much smaller but catastrophic nonetheless for those affected, is the almost annual river flooding in Bucks County, PA.

The common element for both is the way that misguided (or nonexistent) land use planning helped pave the way for calamity.

Joel Achenbach, a staff writer for the Washington Post, presents impressive evidence that a combination of farming and residential development on flood plains, wetland drainage, and manipulation of the water table contributed to the flooding and very likely made it more severe than it might otherwise have been. Without heavy spring rains, there would have been no flood. But even with them, human mistakes had helped to prepare the way for the catastrophe that did in fact happen.

It would be unfair to blame the farmers for the disaster. Farming is a hard, precarious profession. Farmers have little choice: they must grow what is profitable, and they need land to grow it on, even if that land is a wetland that should never have been drained.

Developers who build on flood plains and create subdivisions from farms bear some responsibility—but not all. The American style of residential development is based on profligate use of the land, but land use decisions, like decisions about draining wetlands, are matters of public policy. Better policies might have saved enough wetlands and farmland to make a difference.

The best way to minimize floods and their human consequences is thoughtful, informed land use planning. If our planning is flawed or—as is sometimes the case in the U.S.—we have no effective planning mechanism at all, there will be consequences. And those who pay will seldom be those who made the policies.

Consider the plight of riverside residents in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. For years, going back to the 1950s, local governments in Bucks County have been helping the county's economy to grow by approving projects that pave over land for shopping malls, destroy local farms to build suburban subdivisions, and put parking lots almost literally everywhere in the county. This has meant problems with water runoff, which in turn has made flooding on local rivers more likely—and entire towns close to the rivers have suffered.

In Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and, on a smaller scale, Bucks County, residents are suffering because in the United States we have traditionally regarded land use planning as suspect. We must do better in the future.

(For some suggestions about land use planning, see the third of my series on dead space and suburban development.)

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Fuel Price Follies

Everybody in the United States is in a lather about fuel prices. Airlines are scrambling: they are cutting service (for which read personnel), charging for services that once were free, and passing fuel surcharges through to customers, just to avoid losing money. Two of the three candidates for U.S. President advocated a summer Federal gas tax "holiday" which, economists universally pointed out, would not save consumers any money and might raise the price of gasoline in the long run. Automakers like Chrysler, suddenly unable to sell the SUVs and trucks that had become their staple, are now offering protection from gas price increases. Finding the best gas price has, in fact, become a cottage industry, with new Web sites springing up every day.

Little of this is surprising. Americans have lived with cheap transportation fuel for so long that life without it is inconceivable to many. Worse, we, more than any other developed country, are unprepared for fuel costs which, in the long run, will go up, not down. We fly and drive everywhere, and until recently, fuel economy (let alone the effect on the planet) was not a factor in planning and transportation decisions. Now we have few alternatives, and our failure to provide them will make the transition to a future of fuel economy and high fuel costs that much more painful.

Consumers, showing more common sense than many politicians, have begun leaving their cars at home, consolidating car trips, and using public transit, according to a recent Washington Post report. The increase in ridership in Philadelphia is somewhere between five and 10 percent—not enough to bring our fossil fuel usage down significantly, but enough to show a trend that could do this if it keeps up. The problem is that our public transportation, both here and in the rest of the country, is not ready for the increases in ridership that will (and should) come as fuel costs remain high.

Politicians and policy-makers still don't quite get it. Conservatives suggest that oil prices are experiencing a speculative bubble, and prices will go down as market forces act—all of which could be true but would not prevent higher prices as oil becomes more scarce and harder to extract. Liberals attack the oil companies for enormous profits—which they certainly have made in the past few months. The problem is that attacking the oil companies will not prevent oil from become harder to find because there is only so much oil in the ground in the first place. To adapt to a future of expensive oil, we have to stop living as if cheap fuel is a human right. This means investment in old infrastructure like railroads, and new ideas like light rail and alternative energy. Many politicians, however, still insist that building roads is an investment, while funding public transit is a subsidy.

A future with cheap oil is not on offer. Nor, unless we want the earth to become uninhabitable, is a future based on massive use of fossil fuels. Whether we can get to a future that is not based primarily on fossil energy is the central question of our age. We will not do so by giving ourselves gas tax holidays, inveighing against the oil companies, or deceiving ourselves about the nature of the problem.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Climate Change Bill Likely to Reach Senate Floor

The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act will mark the first time that a climate change bill has been debated in the Senate since 2005. Kate Sheppard of Gristmill gives a good summary of the bill, its history, and its strengths and weaknesses. It is not the strong bill that we need, but it at least acknowledges that there is a problem. Sheppard's lucid summary is well worth reading.

Postscript June 11: Threats of a filibuster by opponents of the Climate Security Act prevented the bill from reaching the Senate floor.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Virtues of Age

We live on a block and in a neighborhood full of old houses. Most of the houses on our block have three stories; some, like ours, share a wall with another house. Others stand alone. The houses around the corner are all classic Philadelphia row houses—one of the most efficient house designs ever devised.

On our block, the houses differ in design, in distance from the street, and in other ways, but they have much in common. They are not large by modern standards; our house is about 1,575 square feet, much smaller than a typical McMansion (3,000 square feet). None has a garage, although the house next door has a converted carriage house that can shelter a car. All have entrances that face the street and welcome visitors. All have small front gardens.

It is not an exercise in nostalgia, but the literal truth, to say that no one builds houses like these today. In an exchange of letters on suburban housing in a recent Atlantic Monthly, a builder pointed out that because the market favors large houses, developers must economize on material and methods in order to make a profit. For instance, they use sheetrock instead of lath and plaster, and molded plastic windows and trim, because these save money. For a smaller house, fewer shortcuts might be necessary.

More to the point, during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, no one built neighborhoods like the ones that are common in cities. There is a good vegetable store on the corner of our street. Within easy walking distance one can find two drug stores, a hardware store, two supermarkets, a pizzeria, a library, five schools, several medical and dental offices, and two veterinary offices.

Suburban developments have no corner stores, walkable shopping streets, or local schools within half a mile of where students live. They have distant supermarkets and big box stores, shopping malls, and consolidated schools, none accessible to most residents without a car. Hence the two or three-car garage which dominates many modern houses and inevitably raises every family's carbon footprint when they drive to the mall or to school.

The suburban way of life, so dependent on cheap fuel, is nearing the end of its viability. Architects and planners like the New Urbanists are designing walkable neighborhoods modeled on blocks like mine. One does not have to agree with all of New Urbanism to see that they are on the right track. We must live in smaller, more efficient houses, and we need to be able to walk, not drive, to neighborhood amenities.

This is not a radical change, though in a world full of suburban development it may seem so. We already have neighborhoods like this in our cities. The stereotype of the city—that its people are either very poor or very rich—has just enough of the truth to be credible. But it is not the whole story. Many city neighborhoods, like my block, are affordable, pleasant places to live. In the future, we will need more such places.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Toronto's Greenbelt Leads the World

Urban sprawl—the uncontrolled growth of automobile-driven suburbs—has increasingly been recognized as a form of blight. It destroys vital farmland to create tract house developments miles from work, shopping, and even good walking areas. Suburban shopping districts cling to the edges of the highway, each store with its own parking lot, or close themselves from the outside world in shopping malls surrounded by the inevitable acres of asphalt for parking. Sprawl is an offense to the eye, the aesthetic sense, and the planet.

One proposed solution to the sprawl problem is the creation of greenbelts, areas of land closed to development and protected for agriculture, parks, and wildlife. The largest and most creative of these, according to a study reported in the April 9, 2008, Globe and Mail, is the greenbelt surrounding Toronto.

"Ontario's greenbelt is positioned to be the most successful and most useful greenbelt in the world," concluded the study, compiled by the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, a Toronto-based think tank.

Commissioned by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, the study compared Toronto's greenbelt with similar efforts in Canada, England, and Europe.

According to the report, greenbelts face at least two major problems: pressure for development, and "leapfrogging" of sprawl over the greenbelt.

So far, the province of Ontario has resisted pressure from developers to open the Toronto greenbelt to sprawl.

"My goal and my mantra that drives me is that we're going to be doing nothing but expanding the greenbelt," Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson said in an interview [with the Globe and Mail.]

To avoid "leapfrogging," Ontario authorities hope to expand the greenbelt, in effect doing the opposite of opening the protected land to development.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The World's Worst Traffic

The City Fix, an excellent web site on urban issues, reports that the worst automobile traffic in the world is in Bangkok, Thailand. In a world that includes Los Angeles, Houston, Mumbai, and Peking, this comes as somewhat of a surprise. But it probably should not. According to the report, the Bangkok authorities have made the situation even worse by, in effect, subordinating all planning and design to traffic movement—a policy which has backfired in at least one respect. To make room for more roads, the authorities covered the city's canals with concrete. Since the canals served not only as transportation routes, but as reservoirs for rainwater (which Bangkok gets in abundance), the loss of the canals has led to greatly increased flooding. This in turn increases congestion and slows down traffic.

Traffic in Bangkok is so bad that "'hundreds of women over the past few years have been forced to give birth in cars.' Police are now trained in midwifery" as a matter of routine. Productivity has suffered greatly—even more than in car-centric cities like Los Angeles, where traffic delays of more than an hour are routine.

Anyone who wants to see the future without congestion controls, it appears, has only to look at Bangkok. It is not a pretty sight.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Place for Walkers

There are a lot of things to dislike about the American suburbs. There is no streetscape; the houses all look similar; the houses are too big and cheaply built. Suburban planning and design, which assume abundant cheap fuel and no climate change, are among the more important causes of the outlandish American carbon footprint.

But the most annoying problem with the suburbs is simpler to state and harder to remedy: there is no place to walk. Often there are not even sidewalks, as if walking was actively discouraged. Perhaps it is.

A new web site,, shows just how difficult it is to walk in the suburbs. The walkscore calculations are imperfect in some respects, and the maps are sometimes out of date. But the walkability scores that the site generates ring true. To get a score, the user types in an address. The site then calculates the score based on how close the address is to shopping, libraries, fitness centers, and other services. On a scale of 100, anything above 70 is considered walkable. 50-70 is borderline. A score below 50 means that a car is a practical necessity, and there is nowhere to walk—at least not if you want to use local services.

My own experiment with walking scores, while not systematic, was enlightening. I ran scores on addresses from Philadelphia, some Philadelphia suburbs, and some other suburbs where friends and family live. Here, in descending order of scores, are the results:

Office in Central Philadelphia: 98
Home in a Philadelphia neighborhood: 82
Apartment in an older suburban town: 80
Home near the Philadelphia city limits: 71
Home in a Portland, OR, suburb: 40
Home in a newer Philadelphia suburb: 22
Home in a new Tucson, AZ, suburb: 11
Home in the country in New Jersey: 5

This is all very unscientific and unsystematic, but it is no surprise. Anyone who has lived in or visited the suburbs knows they are not walkable. And anyone who looks at the cost of fuel and the climate change numbers knows that the suburbs are also unsustainable.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Allison Arieff on Housing and Community

Allison Arieff's latest posting in her blog for the New York Times ("Is Your House Making You Look Fat?") is a sharply-written essay on how to design houses for lower environmental impact, greater sense of community, and better health for those who live in them.

Well worth reading.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Biofuels—A Greater Hazard Than We Thought

Biofuels from corn and other crops, which were supposed to be the silver bullet that would fuel cars without affecting climate change, are actually a worse source of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, according to a report in the New York Times. Two recent studies published in the journal Science looked at the overall greenhouse gas effect of biofuels—including emissions from the production process, the consequences of land clearance to grow crops for use as fuel, and other factors. They concluded that production and burning of fossil fuels was less harmful to the earth's climate than production and burning of biomass fuels.

These two studies add to the already-strong case against increasing our use of biofuels. In addition to their overall effect on the environment, fuels derived from food crops have raised the price of food and hurt farmers in some developing countries. (See the summary in a recent issue of Sojourners.) And their other environmental and social effects—particularly destruction of forests which are the homes of many plant and animal species, including humans—hardly bear thinking about.

Biofuels have long been promoted as one answer to many problems, not just climate change. But on closer inspection, their virtues turn out to be far less than their supporters claim.

  • Supporters claim that biofuels could replace some fossil fuels and lessen the West's strategic dependence on oil from the Middle East and Russia. The problem is that biofuels could not replace enough fossil fuels to make a difference unless we devoted an indefensible (and dangerous) amount of arable land to their production.
  • Biofuels could theoretically be less expensive and have more stable prices than fossil fuels. But market forces would operate on biofuels as much as on fossil fuels. As demand for ethanol rises, and more and more land is devoted to its production, either food or fuel prices—and probably both—are bound to rise.
  • And, of course, there is the claim that biofuels could help to save the planet. The science is now showing that this claim is unfounded.
In the end, the claims for biofuels seem at least poorly supported. The truth is that we cannot grow enough biomass crops to fuel the world's transportation fleet. An increased emphasis on biofuels, as in recent action by Congress mandating their greater use, is no substitute for finding ways to get from place to place more efficiently. One can't, for example, make a private automobile more efficient than a train simply by changing its fuel. Gallon for gallon, the train will always use fuel more efficiently.

We cannot just slot in biomass fuels and keep driving everywhere. In the long run, the planet will not support it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Price of Coal

Coal-fired plants are a primary source of electricity in the United States, China, and many other countries. There are proposals in the U.S., including one in Pennsylvania, to manufacture liquid fuel from coal because there is a lot of coal in the ground, and synthetic fuels would lower U.S. dependence on Middle East oil.

Coal, that is, is central to industrial society as we now know it. But it comes with costs. It is a major source of greenhouse gases, soot, and smoke. Coal mining—the traditional underground sort of mining—is one of the most dangerous professions on earth. These are among the costs of coal.

There is another price we pay for our coal: the destruction of some of our most beautiful and precious mountains and the culture of the people who live in them. The people of Appalachia have long suffered more than their share of poverty. Now they also suffer, even more than in the heyday of "strip mining" (removal of the earth above a coal seam), from environmental ruin. The method of this devastation is called mountaintop removal. It is, according to the mining companies, more efficient and safer than underground mining. What they fail to mention is what it does to the hills, the valleys, the watersheds, and the people who must live next to mountains whose tops have been blown off.

A detailed description of mountaintop removal and its effects is at When a mining company blows off the top of a mountain to get at the coal beneath, the debris from the explosion must go somewhere—and "somewhere" usually means into the valleys below. This disrupts watersheds that have existed since long before there were humans in those valleys. It leads to flooding, destruction of property and roads, and huge economic costs in a region that is already poor. (Little or none of the proceeds from mountaintop removal find their way back to those same valleys.)

To environmental and economic costs, we can add spiritual and aesthetic ones. Mountain people may not have a great deal of money, but because of the beauty of the mountains they are seldom poor in spirit. Mountaintop removal destroys that beauty—a loss which is in some ways more painful than any economic cost.

All this because we have not found a substitute for coal to feed our appetite for power. And because we have assumed that the cost of energy is what we see in our electric bill. It is not. In the long run, the price of coal as we now extract and use it is too high to pay.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wagering on the Future

The French mathematician Blaise Pascal suggested in his Pensees that believing in God is a better "bet" than not believing. This is Pascal's Wager, which
. . . posits that it is a better "bet" to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing. (Wikipedia)
Those who "bet" on God, Pascal argues, lose nothing if they are wrong, but gain boundless life now and in the next world if they are right. Those who "bet" against God lose nothing if they are right, but gain nothing—and may reap eternal punishment in hell for the fact of their unbelief—if they are wrong.

As an argument for religious belief, Pascal's Wager is not persuasive. Philosophers and theologians have presented many criticisms of it since Pascal's time, but the chief difficulty with it is simple: No one commits to religious belief or unbelief because of a bet. People do not manage their spiritual lives that way.

As a rough guide to risk management, however, the Wager (which is actually an example of decision theory) can be useful. It can clarify issues, and in using it we are forced to make at least approximate predictions about the consequences of our wagers.

Consider its application to climate change. The scientific consensus is that the climate is growing warmer, and that human-generated greenhouse gases—mainly from burning fossil fuels—are a major cause of the change. Those who accept this theory argue for policies that will reduce our production of greenhouse gases. A small number of skeptics argue that any observed warming is part of a natural cycle and not subject to change by human action or inaction.

In the original Wager, readers were asked to "bet" by choosing whether to live as if God is real. Applying this reasoning to climate change, we "bet" by choosing either to live as if human actions—our actions—can make a difference or choosing to live as if our actions make little or no difference.

If our actions can make a difference, then we would want to make some changes in our way of life. For example:

  • We might invest in public transit to encourage people to drive less, thereby using less oil;
  • We might invest in technologies, existing and new ones, not based on fossil fuels, to generate electricity; and
  • We might invest in technologies that use less energy (e.g., compact fluorescent light bulbs) in order to use less fuel of any kind.
These actions and others we might take have one thing in common: All of them have side benefits quite apart from their effect on climate change. If we burn less fossil fuel, we will be less dependent on oil from unstable parts of the world, and our air will be less polluted. If we improve public transit and drive less, our roads will be less full and travel will become easier even for those who must drive (e.g., ambulances, which will get to hospitals faster). If we invest in sustainable technologies, we can open up new possibilities for economic development and jobs. Thus, even if we have bet wrongly and the skeptics turn out to be right, our world will be a cleaner and better place to live.

If, on the other hand, we bet that the skeptics are right, we need not take any actions to reduce our use of fossil fuels. We might want to for strategic reasons (to protect our economy from disruptions in oil supplies) or because we think reducing pollution is a good thing in itself. But nothing in the skeptics' position compels us to change. We would probably reduce pollution and fossil fuel usage less than if we had bet against the skeptics. Thus, if the skeptics turned out to be right, we would very likely be quite a lot worse off. The planet would still be warming alarmingly, the air would be more polluted, and we would still suffer from traffic jams and oil dependency.

If it turns out that the skeptics are wrong, and we have lived as if they were right, we would face the prospect of greater and faster global warming than if we had bet against the skeptics—and the air would likely be more polluted, the roads more jammed, and our lives far more at risk.

It should be an easy bet to make.