Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Other Car...

Alex Steffen has a fascinating article in progress, which I will recommend to any bot or person dropping by:

"My Other Car is a Bright Green City"

It stems from a discussion of the new Tesla roadster and its wonderful green credentials (120mpg etc). Alex thinks it's cool, but is nonetheless missing the point:

Well designed cities would have a much greater impact on emissions than well designed cars
Cars, *any* cars, are a major barrier to letting us create well designed cities.

Well planned cities are compact, high density communities.
Cars need space, and that need for space encourages urban sprawl

Well planned cities allow efficient and fast mass transit systems
Cars encourage commuting, and hence call for even more space (ie roads) which makes it more costly to provide more infrastructure such as effective mass transit systems

Well planned cities create a sense of community
Cars cause isolation and stress

Well planned cities improve the quality of life
Cars reduce it (unless you like commuting an hour a day)

And a myriad other trade-offs that Alex discusses far better than I can.

In the comments section, I stated that:
This essay serves as an excellent example of the sort of 'light to bright' education that's needed at 'the end of the beginning' to address the 'what do we do now?' syndrome.'
This is a statement contains a lot of buzzword gobbledygook which I think is worthwhile interpreting:
  • Green cars are 'light green', easy to visualise, easy for the individual to contemplate and even acquire. The down side is that their influence extends only to the individual level and hence, they are a drop in the ocean. Worse, they have the potential to divert attention from better alternatives.
  • Green cities are 'bright green': something that promises to make substantial reductions to our ecological footprint, but which requires systemic change to bring about (NB: not all systemic changes are substantial. eg: the decision to phase out incandescent bulbs in favour of compact fluoros)
  • 'light to bright' is the process by which people who are trying to make a difference are guided, through contemplating the simple things they can do, to a greater appreciation of the systemic changes that are necessary to make real inroads into our environmental problems. It usually starts with a thing, thinking about how much that thing improves matters and what could be done to improve matters more. Alex's essay does this by looking at the extent of the environmental problem, looking at the paltry improvements a green car makes, and highlighting the problems it causes from still being a car. He then looks at his 'other car'.
  • The 'end of the beginning' was a term Alex used a while ago to open a discussion on what needed to be the new goals for the environment and sustainability lobbies now that the message about imminent and abrupt climate change had been successfully delivered and heeded by the bulk of society. The main concern was to alleviate the inevitable reaction to long term denial: namely the 'what do we do now?' syndrome. The likely response is vague light green gestures. Which is where the 'light to bright' bit comes in...
Like all good essays, I find it raises a number of further topics to explore:
  • How do we lessen the impact of the extensive traffic lanes we do require? (using airships to move goods between terminus and warehouse? Genetically engineered grassmats that can cope with car tyres?)
  • Is it really a question of why we move things? (abstract: because things, being composed of hadrons, can't occupy the same space.)
  • The question of commuting makes a naive assumption that our destinations are unchanging. Sure, it is nice if work is within walking distance, but if I change jobs, what then? Do I move house?
But enough of my waffle. Go read Alex!