Friday, December 5, 2008

Rail Efficiencies

Having recently traveled from my home near Madison, Wisconsin to Pontiac, Michigan using rail as much as possible (Metra commuter rail from Harvard, Illinois to Chicago and thence Amtrak to Pontiac) it is clear to me that investments in rail-based transportation could yield substantial environmental and social benefits in this region of the United States – primary among them a massive reduction in automobile-centric sprawl. The synergy between rail transit and dense, pedestrian-oriented urban habitat is especially clear in the Chicago heartland. Her leaders – God bless them! – never allowed their transit system to collapse, much less be systematically dismantled by transit-averse business interests.

However, I am troubled by the various claims I've seen over the years regarding energy consumption and CO2 emissions per passenger-mile for trains/streetcars versus automobiles versus airplanes. Environmental organizations and sustainability advocates routinely assert that energy consumption for passenger rail is much "greener" than driving or flying. But Tables 2.13 and 2.14 in the Department of Energy's Transportation Energy Data Book #27 indicate that existing Amtrak intercity passenger rail is only 25% more efficient than the fleet average for cars; furthermore, Amtrak is only 18% more efficient than air travel!

Given the greater-than 80% reductions in GHG emissions we need to achieve in the coming decades, and given the fact that new CAFÉ standards mandate a 40% improvement in the mileage of cars and SUVs by 2020, efficiency gains from passenger rail of 18% to 25% seem paltry. Moreover, due to basic laws of aerodynamics, the efficiency of high speed rail (i.e. trains moving at 150-300 mph) will inevitably be less than trains moving at 50-100 mph. While I cannot recall the source at present, I am quite sure I have seen credible data within the last five years which indicated that Bullet Trains in Japan were no more energy-efficient on a passenger-mile basis than airplanes.

Of course the real issue vis a vis energy and CO2 is the practical potential for these transportation modes in the future, not the existing efficiencies of each as currently deployed. During the past half-century, aerospace companies (with lavish financial support from the Department of Defense) have pursued the most ambitious research and development programs by far of any “transportation” industry in the United States. Along the way, improvements in engines, aerospace materials, and aircraft designs have yielded astonishing increases in the efficiency of air transport (almost ten-fold). And even though they vigorously marketed absurdly inefficient cars in the '60's and then gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks more recently, automobile companies also made notable investments in R&D during the same time period; consequently the energy efficiency of engines and transmissions were substantially improved (it is the sheer size and weight of SUVs and pickup trucks which make them gas hogs, not their drive-trains).

Meanwhile, passenger rail locomotives and rolling stock in our nation changed very little even as ridership plummeted (until recently) and domestic engineering activity all but ground to a halt. Thus we must ask how efficient our passenger trains could be if they were constructed with aerospace materials, up-to-date engineering, etc. What if hybrid drives and regenerative braking were widely deployed? What if more trains were electrified? What if the expansion of electrified rail were coordinated with upgrading the national electrical grid? Having languished for so long, surely our passenger railroads are ripe for major improvements!

And there are sound reasons to believe that investing in rail technologies rather than airplanes or automobiles is likely to produce the biggest efficiency gains overall. Thanks to many decades of top-notch engineering, aircraft have already approached their theoretical efficiency limits; thus spending billions more on R&D probably won't change efficiencies by more than a percent or two. Similar logic applies to automobile R&D generally, although electric cars and battery technologies might prove to be an excellent gamble. Even so, such breakthroughs in "automotive" technology might be used to equal or greater advantage in trains rather than cars. Given the nature of "fixed costs", it is usually much cheaper to install a particular technological improvement in a single unit – say, a locomotive that moves 250 people – than to install that improvement in many units – say, 250 cars that move 250 people.

Usage factors must be carefully considered also; the percentage of empty seats makes an enormous difference in passenger-miles per unit of energy or pound of CO2. (While the vehicle occupancy of automobiles cannot (yet!) be less than one, trains and airplanes often travel with relatively few passengers – and sometimes with none at all.) How much more usage-efficient is existing Amtrak service along the heavily-used Washington-Boston corridor versus lightly traveled routes in the "hinterlands"? How efficient is the best existing passenger rail in Europe? Japan? Practically speaking, what kind of usage factors could we expect for high-speed service along a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis route?

Given our worsening ecological circumstances, our unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the prospects for a long and severe recession, America desperately needs facts rather than urban myths and "green-washing"; we need reality-based planning rather than cheerleading and poorly conceived, hastily-approved public works projects. We must thoroughly analyze the efficiencies of our existing transportation modes, soberly review existing and practically-achievable alternatives, and then responsibly choose those transportation arrangements our heirs can afford in the future. This is not the time to shoot from the hip, "wish upon a star", or print our money into hyperinflation!

And throughout it all we must never forget this elemental fact: proximity is the most efficient form of "transportation" that will ever exist. There is nothing like already being within a short stroll, a flight of stairs, or a quick bicycle ride from where we want to be. Our greatest challenge is to stop manufacturing so many "needs" for more complex, ecologically-disruptive forms of transportation in the first place!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On the Spot

Yes, it’s important that “regular folks” like Ingrid Jackson of Tennessee put Presidential candidates on the spot (debate #2). Would they boost green jobs? Would they avert climate change in time?

But putting THEM on the spot is nowhere near enough. No President will fund eco-friendly employment if 51% of voters refuse to foot the bill. No President will aggressively fight global warming if 51% of us aren’t willing to cut our own emissions without being compelled by government decree. No candidate has forgotten President Carter’s crushing defeat after he warned us to tighten our belts and live within our means – economic and ecological.

Tragically, we-the-people are still far more concerned about holding our leaders to account than demanding accountability from ourselves. Just look at the incredible discrepancy between media treatment of politicians and corporate executives versus the man on the street. Back when "pain at the pump" was headline news, did any reporter ask an ordinary citizen, "Excuse me, sir, but did America invade and occupy the Mideast for your oil?" Have you ever asked that question yourself? Great lies and greater evils flourish when such candor is taboo.

You and I need to stop waiting for Washington! Let’s create green jobs for ourselves and our neighbors – and pay for them ourselves. Let’s start a transportation revolution – beginning with 100% renewable self-locomotion via our own legs. Let’s decide how we’ll slash our CO2 emissions to safe levels by 2020 – and get down to it. And let’s stop wars for energy which are being waged on our behalf against humanity and nature – petroleum from the strife-torn Mideast, oil sands from Canada's vast forests, and coal from beneath the pristine mountaintops of Appalachia.

Because if we don’t make this stuff happen from the grassroots up, it ain't gonna happen at all.

Friday, September 19, 2008

New World Order

From the Madison (Wisconsin) Capital Times:

Community planners, municipal officials, and business owners tend to get fixated on the notion that "If we build it they will come/behave/do/act…". Meanwhile, many New Urban/anti-sprawl advocates focus on "If we stop it they won't come/behave/do…"

Stated another way, they (and we) often subscribe to a mechanistic view of (those other) human beings as mere automatons responding to environment (in this case infrastructure). But as most of us know intuitively, there can be safety in numbers – i.e. when more people choose a particular activity/behavior, not only does it become more acceptable socially, but it can actually make the activity/behavior safer for participants regardless of infrastructure. This recent study demonstrates it applies to bicycling:

Does this mean infrastructure doesn't matter? Can we afford to forget about bicycle lanes and paths, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, or the "Elephant in the Drop Off Zone"? Should we stop giving our elected officials and public servants (ahem) extra-real-hard spankings when they forget about "habitat for humanity" and choose instead to make the world as convenient as possible for the resource-gobbling species homo automobilicus?

Absolutely not! What it does mean is that we should encourage our fellow citizens to stop waiting for infrastructure, stop making excuses, and git their dang butts on the saddle. We got a New World Order to make – one we-the-people will CREATE by showing up with two wheels…and two feet.

(This letter was also sent to state and county highway departments as well as a number of Madison-area municipal officials, planners, and environmental leaders.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Technology & Self-Restraint

James Howard Kustler frequently emphasizes the crucial point that technology is not a replacement for energy. This is no less true for ethics.

"Technology is not a substitute for enlightened self-restraint. To the contrary, the more powerful and complex the technologies that we-the-people choose to adopt, the greater the caution and the more refined the precision we must exercise in the deployment, lest through inadvertence or lack of foresight those technologies undermine or destroy the foundational ecosystems that sustain human life." - Hans Noeldner, 29 Jul 2008

Man with 11,000 watts of technology at his disposal 24/7/365 can do far more damage to his fellow human beings - and his home planet - than Man with 300. (Incidentally, the average automobile produces significantly more than 11,000 watts at highway speeds...)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

No Race for Small Footprints

Burning through aviation fuel just as fast as money. Multiple flights per candidate per day. High-speed armored convoys at every stop. And always with a phalanx of fossil-fueled media in their wake.

It’s not just that prospects with small Footprints need not apply for the job. No, it’s also the virtual certainty that our frenzied election process will quickly cull anyone – candidate or newsperson – who has any VISCERAL comprehension of how small we-the-people must make our Ecological Footprints to save Earth. Walking gently and living carbon-lite are totally alien to their way of life. If those who are swept up in this hyper-metabolic machine “got it”, they’d either go mad or have to quit out of conscience.

We are damned fools to expect either Obama or McCain to lead us to the Sustainable Promised Land – or for the mainstream media to reveal where it is on the map. They’ve long since flown far beyond it, and they aren’t looking back.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Elephant in the Drop-Off Zone

June 30th – first day of Summer School

This morning, as I walked towards Prairie View Elementary School to escort a child to my wife’s in-home day-care on West Lincoln Street, I witnessed two motorists nearly run down children who were trying to cross the street. I am sick with fear. And I am filled with anger at my community. Because the problem isn’t just these two distracted motorists. It’s how so many of us have chosen to live.

No doubt the summer school curricula will include many lessons on conserving resources and preserving ecosystems and coexisting peacefully on Earth. But what will our children learn about fighting global warming when they are strapped all by themselves into the back seat of a fossil-fueled motor vehicle? What will they learn about overcoming America’s addiction to oil with Mom’s foot on the accelerator pedal? And what will they learn about coexisting with 6.5 billion other human beings when their parents can’t even manage to live in peace with children who walk and ride their bicycles to summer school?

It’s not just that so many of us still deny the connection between our own hand on the gas pump and the blood and treasure that America is forfeiting to occupy the Mideast – we can always blame President Bush instead of ourselves and our neighbors.

It’s not just that we remain blind to the carbon dioxide that pours from our tail pipes – coal-fired electricity is a bigger problem and we can always hang the crime of thermal genocide on evil utility executives.

It’s not just that we are passing more bucks than ever to OPEC and oil lobbyists in Washington – Fed Chair Bernanke is the fall guy de jour for inflating the dollar into worthlessness and driving our nation into bankruptcy.

But there is absolutely no excuse for us to pass the buck when our own schoolchildren are being endangered by…US! Citizens of Oregon*, how can we not see the elephant in the room? Because when we get into our vehicles and drive to congested places like an elementary school entrance, that’s exactly what we become – elephants! Even if we drive a Prius or Vibe instead of an Expedition or Avalanche, our automotive exoskeleton is a veritable pachyderm compared to a child who is trying to cross the street.

It’s time to face some inconvenient truths. The way to stop global warming is to stop driving our children everywhere – including summer school. The way to stop wars for oil is to stop buying so damn much of the stuff – even if that means actually LIVING where we live rather than driving somewhere else all the time. And the key to coexistence lies in choosing to be small and slow and gentle rather than big and fast and powerful.

P.S. If this feels like an attack on you, dear reader, consider how our precious children feel when we fail to see them beyond the anonymity of our tinted glass and beneath our supersized hoods.

* Oregon, Wisconsin, that is

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Election Spin 2008

Now that the final stretch of Election 2008 is underway, Republican spin on energy issues is becoming obvious.

(1) High gasoline prices? It's the fault of environmentalists (i.e. DEMOCRATS.) These guys – and their bosom buddies the trial attorneys and activist judges – have managed for far too long to block exploration and extraction of vast reserves right here in America.

(2) But Mr. McCain, didn’t you say you were opposed to more offshore drilling only a few months ago? $4 gas changes everything, just like 9/11 changed everything. (Remind the people of 9/11 whenever possible.) Next question?

(3) And didn’t President Bush help his brother Florida Governor Jeb Bush to block offshore drilling in Florida? Next question!! (And make sure that damned reporter gets blacklisted – I don’t want any more questions from him!)

(4) How much oil is really available in areas that are currently off-limits, and how soon can oil corporations get it to the (American) consumer? American companies must be allowed to produce more American oil – end of discussion. There shall be no mention of realistic estimates of recoverable reserves, the mind-boggling number of holes already poked into this highly-perforated continent, nor of the brine-laden dribble from US wells which currently average tens or sometimes hundreds of barrels per day rather than the thousands and tens-of-thousands which obtained in the prior century.

(5) What about long lead-times for new infrastructure? What about looming shortages of highly trained, experienced personnel as the aging petroleum workforce retires? Details, details! Again, acknowledging these factors will only detract the public’s 15-second attention span from the Main Point: Everything is the fault of Democrats.

(6) What about leaving some oil in the ground for future generations? Acknowledging that our heirs might have more important things to do with oil than burn it in speedboats, riding lawn mowers, and flights to Vail to play on the powdery slopes shall be Grounds for immediate decapitation. Technology and The Market – not frugality and enlightened restraint – are The Answer. Oh, and by the way, Democrats are the blackguards who always block The Market from optimizing Technology.

(7) What about fairness? Is it RIGHT for five percent of Earth's population to burn more than 30% of the world's motor fuel? Implement Evasion Tactic #1: Government must not interfere with Free Enterprise. It is axiomatic that consumers have a right to purchase whatever they want with their hard-earned dollars – and if that happens to be oil, fine and good. Also Spake Die Markt.

(8) But hold on a minute - do Americans really need to consume so much oil? Isn’t quite a bit of our usage discretionary? Whoaaaa! Stop right there – this is Economic heresy! We NEVER NEVER NEVER distinguish between needs and wants. Economy must grow; therefore Everything consumers (can be convinced to) want is a need.

(9) What about refineries? Obviously more and bigger are better. Once again, the eco-warriors (i.e. Democrats) and their accomplices at the bar and on the bench are to blame for blocking production of domestic oil resources. (Fortunately for the Republican Party, the chances are slim that oil companies really want to invest in significant expansions of their US refining capacity – “It's the lack of supplies, stupid!” So Republicans can make hay on the issue, pin blame on Democrats, but not risk offending any Republican voters who, in the final analysis, would revolt at the prospect of a refinery spoiling their view from their McMansion on the 18th hole.)

(10) What about Clean Coal? Unloose the fetters on Free Enterprise! Let The Market work its magic! (To the extent that the term "Clean Coal" is defined at all, it will be portrayed as a fait accompli rather than a dubious research-stage technology which might never prove practical. Naturally no mention shall be made of the fact that the Federal government recently pulled the plug on FutureGen, Clean Coal’s flagship research project.)

(11) Are the environmental costs of coal mining acceptable? Don’t EVER bring it up!! And if someone else does, tar and feather those unpatriotic left-leaning bastards (i.e. Democrats) who always sabotage good-paying American jobs and block the use of our own domestic energy. (Fortunately, the most devastating coal mining in America happens to occur in historically Democratic territory, so the Democratic Party probably won’t make it an issue of it either. Hey!! What could be better?)

(12) What about Coal-to-Liquids? Go for it! Subsidize it! Provide big tax loopholes – oops, I mean incentives – for it! Next question?

(13) What about Tar Sands? Go for it BIG TIME!! (Tar Sands are especially good because this province-spanning disaster isn't happening in the backyards of any US voters.)

(14) What about Nuclear? YES! YES! YES!

(15) But what about disposal of nuclear waste? Don’t bring it up until we’ve got a political “solution”. (OK, Karl, you're our best spinner ever, now get to work on it pronto! Hmmm…what if the most geologically stable sequestration site turned out to be in a lightly populated state that just happens to be a Democratic stronghold? SWEET!)

Last but not least:

(16) What if oil prices go down?
We got a winner!

a. "Thank God Dubya unsheathed Amerka's mightily sword after 9/11! Otherwise Unser Fuehrer wouldn't be able to twist OPECs greasy arms and make 'em open the spigots."

(17) What if prices really go over the top? What if there are actual shortages? What if rationing proves necessary? EVEN BETTER! Now would-be-emperor George becomes Moses. Not only can all these troubles be blamed on Democrats (see above), but the bumbled invasion of Iraq suddenly becomes a prophetic act of deliverance:

a. "Gosh, here it turns out that Iraq has MORE oil than the Saudis…Thank God Dubya gave Saddam the boot! I mean, just think what would happen if Saddam still controled of all that oil…"

b. "Thank God Dubya has (most of) our sojers and sailors defending (our) Freedom (to consume all the oil we want) right there where (most of) the (world’s remaining) oil is!” (After the people have endured shortages and/or rationing for a few days, politicians of all stripes will tacitly acknowledge that “their” oil is now ours; by then everyone will clearly understand that if The Flow is not quickly restored, our Non-Negotiable Way of Life will collapse.)

c. “Thank God Dubya is opening-up Iraq to Free Enterprise! Now our multinational oil corporations can show the world what real production efficiency looks like – and THAT will bring oil prices back down to Earth again!"

d. "Thank God Dubya is constructing that huge military complex – oops I mean embassy – in Bagdad. Now let's see if Iraqi resistance fighters – oops I mean terrorists – can stop the Free Market from delivering oil to the consumer (i.e. US)!"

e. Oh, and now that rationing is necessary, Homeland Security needs to issue and track National Identity Cards. And maybe Dubya should clamp down a bit more on civil liberties, freedom of association, freedom of the press…

Will the Democratic Party act like the proverbial deer in the headlights if/when Energy comes to dominate the campaign? Unfortunately, refuting the Supply-Side Fairytale in the realm of political “reality” requires that a voting majority must have the rudimentary ability to grasp basic scientific and geological facts. Nor does it help that the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the looming exhaustion of low-entropy, environmentally-benign energy "sources" virtually ensure that our Happy Motoring Days will sputter to a halt rather soon.

The troubles that lie ahead call for much more than “change”. They demand a truly courageous, sweeping new vision of a sustainable civilization – along with equitably-shared sacrifices, hard work, and a pervasive dedication to the common good we-the-people have not evinced since WWII. Unfortunately real citizenship doesn't "sell" anymore. Or that's what we – and our "leaders" – keep telling ourselves.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Habitat Follows Behavior

The possibility that we can create a thriving, truly sustainable civilization on Earth will arise from our willingness to choose "unreasonable" responsibility. So, dear reader, I challenge you to choose to live your life as though the scale and form of your built environment is a direct result of your scale and form – and my own - as we occupy and move through it:

Another way to state this is: "Habitat Follows Behavior". Now this definitely flies in the face of conventional wisdom! In fact "starchitects" would have us believe that humanity is a product of the physical built environment (and, therefore, Man can be perfected by Architect!) Surely this god-like delusion puts the cart before the horse; the evidence is overwhelming that built environments reflect the nature and values of the specie which inhabits them.

Introduce a gluttonous, power-obsessed, hyper-individualistic species and you will get Wretched Habitat regardless of the good intentions of the architects and planners who serve them. Introduce a humble, frugal, community-oriented species and ironically – even though their built environment will not be a top priority for the inhabitants – great (if modest) architecture will arise organically and mainly as a consequence of pragmatism.

What does our scale and form while in motion have to do with it? Earth is finite and the laws of thermodynamics are well-established – albeit very poorly understood by most citizens. Given a planetary population of 6.6 billion people and counting, and given that per-capita rates of consumption, emissions, and environmental degradation are growing even faster, it is abundantly clear that our current arrangements in Amerka – especially those related to transportation – are energetically and ecologically unsustainable. Given our supersized waistlines and debilitating levels of social isolation, it is clear that our current transportation arrangements are not good for us.

If we accept the imperative of good stewardship, our plans to create a sustainable civilization must be founded on conservative, realistic assumptions rather than on speculations, wishful thinking, and the tremendous inertia of "business as usual". This inevitably means we denizens of the First World – and our descendants – must live far smaller in terms of the physical environment. Closer to home, the central question is this: will you and I choose transportation behaviors which restore human-scale arrangements in our own community? Or will we continue to "be" automobiles every time we go somewhere? The former demands that we relinquish our seemingly-limitless sense of entitlements to material comforts and luxuries.

Speaking of wishful thinking, we must not expect or wait for our government to lead us to sustainable behaviors. Note well, my friends, that ever since we-the-people kicked Jimmy Carter from the Oval Office for having urged us to put on our sweaters, both of our political parties have been all too eager to indulge the consumerist/entitlement mentality that is now bankrupting Amerka. Transformation is not a job for people who sit in the bleachers and observe and pass judgment. It is a job for players.

Citizen HanZiBoi

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Surge

18 May 2008 Madison, Wisconsin – Delphic Newswire

The US Commerce Department reported today that production of lame excuses surged to an all-time high in April as millions of Americans manufactured billions of reasons to do absolutely nothing themselves to avert global warming, stop wars for oil, or prevent sprawl, obesity, isolation, and physical atrophia. Surprisingly, even places like Wisconsin’s Dane County – known for its self-righteous proclamations of progressive leadership – rank well above average in per-capita output of pathetic evasions.

“Soccer mom” Sue Viego from the Ravenoaks country estate subdivision ten miles south of Madison offered a typical justification. “Hey, get off my case! My little Justin needs to play soccer just like all the other normal kids. I need to drive him to practice and games, and it takes a big vehicle like my Ford Excursion to keep him safe from all the idiot drivers out there.”

Gwen Emitmoore of Verona noted that she bought a “whole bunch” of compact fluorescent light bulbs when they were on sale more than a year ago, but hasn’t had the time to install them yet. “It’s dark and depressing with the curtains and shades drawn; I like to leave the lights and TV on to cheer me up. Anyway, why should I be forced to conserve? There are plenty of people who use more than me!”

Joe Sechsgepaecken from the Town of Burke on Madison's north side was surprised to hear that his family wasn’t making progress. “Mildred wanted a new fridge, so we got one of them energy efficient models. Naturally I moved the old fridge to the shop – I keep beer in it now. What do you mean our electric went UP? Ain’t I done everything I’m supposed to?”

William Heifen-Aetname from Monroe Street in Madison represents one of the few people who are choosing to act. “I put a big ‘No War/No Warming’ bumper sticker on my Subaru, right next the “Coexist” sticker, and I’m driving all over to make sure people see it. I park at the front door everywhere I go – then everybody has to walk by and read it when they come in from the parking lot.”

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mow Is Less

It began sensibly enough. The courthouse square and the schoolyard. The space in front of the house, around the garden, a path to the privy. The younger children would cut some lawn every week or so with the reel mower. Pa and the older boys would scythe the tall grasses in the orchard and surrounding the outbuildings to gather for hay a few times each season. Grazing animals performed much of the “lawn” maintenance too. A century ago, people mowed modestly -- enough for picnics and band concerts and the children to play croquet.

How times have changed! Today we-the-people of the United States mow 30 to 40 million acres of grass, an area almost as large as the state of Wisconsin, about half the acreage our nation devotes to corn. Although urban lawns tend to be very small, suburbanites tend to mow a third-of-an-acre or more, and many exurbanites, non-urban businesses, and retired farmers mow five to ten acres of lawn.

Each year we apply millions of tons of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and billions of gallons of fossil-fuel-pumped water to make our lawns grow luxuriantly – and then burn billions of gallons of petroleum to pare back the over-stimulated turf! Tragically, many of us use more water and non-renewable fuels to maintain our lawns than most other humans on Earth use to grow food for themselves.

Do our lawns serve a basic human need? Is our enormous allocation of resources to turf justified because lawns provide essential food, clothing, shelter, or protections from dangers or disease? Are 30 to 40 million acres of mowed grass a practical necessity for civilization?

NO! Rigorously-shorn lawns became fashionable a mere century ago, and their tremendous expansion in the last fifty years was made possible by skyrocketing land, fuel, and water consumption. Modest areas of mowed grass for play areas and around gardens and buildings are indeed practical, but we have far exceeded this. Most of our current lawn acreage experiences human traffic only when we (or our lackeys) are doing maintenance.

So what is the present-day mowed, fertilized, pesticized, and irrigated American Lawn? A host for diverse native grasses and forbs? A sanctuary for birds and other wildlife? An efficient watershed that absorbs, filters, and slowly releases rainwater? A source of livestock feed? An opportunity for healthy exercise? A soil-building carbon dioxide “sink” that helps to fight the greenhouse effect?

NO! Most contemporary lawns comprise a chemically addicted monoculture, so very few plant or animal species live there. Birds cannot nest in frequently cut turf. Short grass and compacted lawn soil absorb significantly less rainfall than woodlands or native meadow vegetation. Lawns furnish almost no livestock feed today. Few kids or adults benefit from aerobic lawn-mower-pushing every week; we perch our ever-fatter bottoms on noisy, gas-guzzling riding mowers instead. Given the amount of fossil fuels we use to mow, fertilize, water, and chemically treat our lawns, we actually exacerbate global warming.

Mow has become less. Less wildlife and plant life. Less clean air and water. Less peace and quiet. Less physical fitness and environmental health. Less financial and energy security. Lawn mowing even plunges our nation deeper into debt, since we now import two-thirds of our petroleum. To keep our mowers fueled and this vast acreage faithfully shorn in the decades to come, will we continue to send forth our soldiers to serve as World Oil Policemen?

When it comes to lawns, we-the-people show no more wisdom or foresight than the sheep and cattle which once cropped the grass. It’s time to wise up, one yard at a time -- starting with our own!

Links and references

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Green Car Checklist

Development efforts at “green” car design studios like Aptera Motors
( ) look very promising - especially in the all-important virtual-reality/venture-capital-raising realm. But take care! Wildly optimistic public expectations for "green" cars are severely impeding humanity's faltering steps towards creating a sustainable society. The species homo automobilicus would much rather wait for technological silver bullets than adopt lifestyle changes - especially as regards unlimited personal motorized mobility.

But transportation systems based on moving human beings one-at-a-time or two-at-a-time in sixteen foot, two-ton metal boxes is itself fatally flawed. Even 100% “green” cars live on 100% DEAD pavement – and we are rapidly suffocating Earth beneath highways, streets, and parking lots. The sooner we-the-people get over our obsessive-destructive love affair with the automobile, the better.

That said, should mankind manage to continue the project of civilization, greatly reduced levels of driving in far more modest and efficient vehicles will play a important transportation role. The issue is not whether we will continue to use cars, it is whether we will choose the degree of enlightened self-restraint that is essential for a sustainable balance. Regrettably, new tech automophilia seduces many into believing that behavioral restraints are unnecessary.

Everything becomes clear when promising vehicular advances are evaluated using the following "Green Car Checklist". Here is the scoring for “Aptera” – but note that the composite results differ little from scores for the “Prius” and “VW TDI New Beetle”.

YES - reduces direct CO2 emissions from vehicle
YES - reduces dependence on fossil fuels
YES - reduces material usage in vehicle
YES - less intimidating to non-motorists
??? - fewer deaths and injuries to non-motorists in accidents
(probably not if driven at >30 MPH)

NO - reduces obesity by increasing physical activity
NO - fosters infill and compact development
NO - fosters walking and bicycling
NO - fosters use of public transportation
NO - reduces demand for Earth-suffocating roadways
(unless lanes could be made much narrower)

NO - reduces demand for Earth-suffocating parking
(unless TWO or more will fit in ONE conventional parking stall)

NO - reduces destruction of watersheds and aquifers
NO - reduces displacement of wildlife habitat
NO - reduces loss of farmlands
NO - increases civic interconnections via shared public spaces
NO - fosters local interdependence

Winner? Looser?


(1) Very promising engineering step
(2) Wrong focus for the automobile-addicted public

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Global Warming "Religion"?

The following is a letter-to-the-editor which I submitted to the Wisconsin State Journal and (Madison WI) Capital Times on 22 March 2008.


Many skeptics have begun to assert that Global Warming has become a “religion” of sorts, and several made this charge at the March 19th public listening session held by the Wisconsin Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming. Such allegations contain more than a kernel of truth: zealousness, righteousness, and stern reproaches of “disbelievers” are prevalent among Climate Change activists.

Yet it is clear many skeptics are motivated no less by their faith in the Church of Perpetual Economic Growth. Nor can anyone deny which “religion” reigns supreme in these United States: the doctrine of producing and consuming, of developing and expanding, of discarding and emitting more and more, forever and ever, Amen. Our economic high priests proclaim that the “Law of Substitution” will overcome all material and energetic limits. They praise the infinite wisdom of the “Invisible Hand”. And they demand that “The Market” be unshackled and set free at last – then irksome non-monetary considerations like foresight, ethical governance, and enlightened self-restraint can be cast aside.

God Himself may not know whether in this century mankind will render Earth a thermodynamically-inhospitable habitat for humanity. But only complete fools would ignore the fact that our species is reaching and exceeding many of our planet’s limits: the devastating overharvesting of ocean fish, the combustion of a cubic mile of non-renewable petroleum per year, and vast soil erosion due to unsustainable agriculture. If we do not ration our exploitation of Earth, Nature will ration us.

Edmund Burke’s warning summarizes it best: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kunstler's Nightmare

I’m sorry, Mr. James Howard Kunstler, you’re gonna hate me for saying this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the “warehouse in wheels” you despise so vehemently will work equally well in reverse. That’s right, your old nemesis Wal-Mart may soon be squirting out chintzy plastic salad-shooters in Sheboygan and shipping ‘em straight to Shanghai.

“Whaaa?” you ask. “Howz that possible?” Easy! All they gotta do is convert their US stores into sweatshops and their Chinese factories into Supercenters. After the nose-diving dollar topples debt-laden Amerkan consumers from the apex of the world’s economic pyramid; after the Second Great Depression crushes every vestigial sense of entitlement from us; it will be a proverbial cakewalk to “retool” former shopaholics, NASCAR worshippers, and hedge fund boiz into planet Earth’s low-wage grunts. Like you say, “It’s all good!”

But with oil topping $108 per barrel…and then $200…and eventually $400…a “warehouse” on eighteen-wheelers won’t be affordable, not even for Wal-Mart. No prob-LAY-mo, Jimbo! They’ll just follow your advice and float their warehouses on the water. Move their cargo on ships which sip that expensive oil a drop at a time. From Sheboygan and Chicago through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence to the sea. From Saratoga Springs down the Hudson, from Dayton down the Ohio, and from Minneapolis down the Mississippi. Out of Puget Sound, out of the mouth of the Chesapeake, and out of San Francisco Bay. And then half-way ‘round the globe, to the Twenty-First Century nexus of economic power and consumption. Using a pittance of fuel per ton of freight.

Yes, there will be mighty rivers of Amerkan-made stuff flowing the other direction this time – back to China, back to Thailand, back to India. Using the same old containers piled high on the same old ships. But not just extraneous kitchen gadgets and whole phyla of stuffed toys – they’ll be hauling away nearly every kernel of wheat and corn, nearly every ingot of steel and coil of rebar, and – too bad for all you carnivores out there – most of “our” beef. No matter which direction it moves, Wal-Mart will make oceans of money. But don’t get your hopes up that more than a few drops will “trickle down” from Bentonville Arkansas to the rest of the USA!

Who knows? With indentured-servant Billy Fourwheeler pedaling his bicycle to the salad-shooter plant in the old Wal-Mart store; with Sue Viego’s Expedition up on cinderblocks and “recycled” into the family chicken coop; with soccer centers transformed into Victory gardens and ballet schools shuttered and Amerkan kids engaged in fossil-fuel-free, free-range play right out the kitchen door; maybe – just maybe – Earth’s hardworking farmers will manage to produce enough rapeseed oil to run the whole damn thing for a while.