Friday, November 02, 2007

A future for everyone's favorite species?

With population pressure mounting, environmental degradation increasing, and the precipice of "peak oil" just ahead, it's easy to lose hope for our future. Will we end up like yeast trapped in a sealed bottle of grape juice, eating all the sugar until our own waste renders our environment toxic to us and kills us? Or are we smart and adaptable enough to face this challenge and build a sustainable society?

It won't be easy, and it will require some real global cooperation. I've just finished a series of posts to outline some basic ideas and strategy:

First, people are far more willing to cooperate with others and plan for the future when they have enough resources to ensure their own health and the health of their children. In fertility, mortality I talked about how lowering infant/child mortality leads to parents choosing to have only a few children and investing an enormous amount of effort on each one. In is religion the problem? I argued that people of all nationalities, ethnicities, and religions will increase their racist element and find excuses for war when competition for resources becomes critical (and by contrast will be better off cooperating/trading with different groups when they're doing okay). Then in stand by your home-grown tyrant I discussed the fact that people will often side with a local leader -- even an obvious bad guy -- over a foreign invader if the foreign force's motives are tainted (by desire to control and take resources).

Second, we all need to get serious about limiting our own waste and excess consumption. The biggest, simplest strategy is to move towards low-to-no car urbanism. In living downtown and car-free I talked about how it's not just a question of saving the planet -- it can make your life simpler and more convenient in tons of ways. In European dream I argued that urban living can decrease racism (as kids grow up familiar with kids of all different backgrounds) which increases willingness to cooperate with other nations to save our planet. Finally, in earning admiration in today's world I discussed how our human values are starting to change in the right direction so that reducing wasteful consumption -- thinking of the future -- is seen as the highest virtue.


DTclarinet said...

Sounds like you've contributed a lot to the dialog of surviving our own future. And you are certainly realistic about human nature, especially in "stand by your home grown tyrant".

I say we're pretty fucked. Let's hope for a lot of "evolution" in homo sapiens, or at least that numerous third world countries take power and command the US to give up its addictions.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey GarnetDavid!!!

I think we're not licked yet, but yeah, some major changes are necessary, and soon...

Alon Levy said...

What you say is true... but there are some caveats.

Most importantly, government policy tends to universally destroy cities. The US didn't suburbanize because the postwar middle class decided to move away from cities and prompted developers to build roads and towns. No; the federal government built a highway system, bulldozing many perfectly vibrant urban neighborhoods in the process. On top of it, it encouraged via tax breaks development of new land but not renovation of existing condemned buildings.

Because those new suburbs were so much richer than the cities they were parasitic on, their residents resisted further expansion of city boundaries, of the type that had routinely happened in the 19th century. The residents also pushed for zoning codes that mandated minimum parking spaces and total separation of residential and commercial uses. This hasn't stopped; Long Islanders occasionally demand commuter rail service, but they still resist any kind of integration into New York. When there was a proposal to integrate some school districts in Long Island, including a majority black suburb, the majority white suburbs' residents raised hell, scuttling the integration plan. That was in the 1990s, not the 1970s.

The subsidies haven't stopped, either. In every developed country, and probably in every developing one as well, money flows from city centers outside. You could eliminate poverty in New York just out of the tax imbalance it has with the state. With the tax imbalance it has with the federal government, you could also increase its school funding to this of its richest suburbs. Inefficient, politically overrepresented French farmers guzzle tax money out of the entire EU.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Alon!!!

That is very true -- suburban sprawl was encouraged as a matter of government policy. A lot of cities had vibrant urban neighborhoods and convenient public transportation rail networks that were destroyed in the rush towards cars and suburbs. This happened here in Bordeaux: the original tramway rails were buried to make more lanes for cars; Meriadeck the working-class neighborhood was razed to make room for Meriadeck the shopping center and office complex.

On the other hand, here there's been a huge public effort to reviatlize the urban center. They've dramatically increased the pedestrian-only area in terms of both roads and public places. Plus they've installed a new tramway system. I know that (considering the oil situation) U.S. cities are also moving in the direction of pedestrian, bike, and public transportation, but it's harder to do because U.S. cities developed largely with the car in mind, thus are a lot harder to overhaul than their European counterparts (which typically have a compact-yet-significant "old quarter" that can serve as a pedestrian area and a destination for public transportation).

Even if it's government policy that directs urbanism-vs-sprawl, people have to want urbanism in order to change the government policy, and it's more of a challenge in the U.S. In an oversprawled city, public transportation is more costly to install and less efficient to use. To me the big difference between the U.S. and Europe on urbanism is the following: when you run faster, you go a lot farther, but if you discover you're running in the wrong direction, then you have a whole lot farther to run back.

Rebecca said...

Diet is probably as important as what and how much you drive.

According to Time Magazine, PETA, and a lot of other things I've read: "In a groundbreaking 2006 report, the United Nations (U.N.) said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. "

That's the main reason I went vegan - all this stuff about the polar ice caps melting FREAKS ME OUT.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

That is a very good point, and one I should have covered better in my essays. To produce one animal's worth of meat, you need to produce all of the food an resources necessary to support that animal's entire life. Meat is an astronomical waste of resources, not to mention the greenhouse gasses (which I guess you did, in fact, mention... ;^) ).

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to Rebecca:

I saw this interesting global footprint quiz on Emerging Pensees, and since I've managed to get my transportation "footprint" down, my worst score was for food -- probably because of eating animal products and processed/non-local foods.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I think I would argue more for community living over urban living, with shared responsibilities for one property, such as on a sustainable farm.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

I don't mean urbanism as an alternative to living on a communal farm. I mean urbanism as an alternative to living in the suburbs and relying on a car every time you leave your house. There are a lot of possibilities for living arrangements that are better than the current US middle-class default lifestyle. Among those options, urbanism is one of the more realistic ones for the average person.