I have been reading my usual array of favored websites, and have run into an interesting string of comments in the last couple of days. It seems that Michael Pollan’s piece in the NYT Magazine, which I recommended in the last post, has ignited a furor in some quarters. Pollan is being accused of “eco-armageddonizing.”
Notwithstanding the grotesque character of this ridiculous word, there remain many who say that there is no such thing as climate change, that we need not worry about environmental compromises being wrought across the globe, and that what is really required are massive increases in energy use as an expression of a flourishing civilization. (Yes, someone actually said that – I couldn’t make it up). I am flabbergasted at this thought, but let’s proceed.
Okay, so let’s just say that you are in the non-believer camp. You think that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by liberals led by Mr. Gore (conservative just doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?), and you’re headed out in one of your SUVs to the mall for some widget shopping and a stop at Burger King for a quick hit of 2,400 calories of mystery meat and high fructose corn (double Whopper with cheese, medium coke, large fry, medium shake: 2,380 calories). Before you go, give me just a minute or two for some thoughts.
Put aside global warming or climate change as urgent reasons for rethinking and remaking our urban centers, where 80% of Americans live. Some of the things that have shaped our cities are now becoming sufficiently scarce that a new city, and new ways of living in the city, are needed, and much faster than we can make changes. Try this:
Oil. Whether you believe that peak oil looms or that oceans of oil remain, and whether you believe that speculators are firing up oil prices or demand is bumping up against supply, you can be certain of one thing: you are paying a very high price to fill up your SUV. Assuming for a moment that you are cruising through the global financial meltdown in style, gas will not get much cheaper before it starts to rise again, as suppliers turn off the faucet. They’re meeting in Vienna on the 18th of next month to chat about lowering production to account for reduced demand accompanying the financial miasma – you might want to pop in for a heart to heart.
So what about alternatives? Well the airlines are now charging extra for everything from lunch to luggage, and they’re all choking on their gas bills. Alternatives? Not many. Humorist Gene Weingarten, in the Post Magazine this week, suggests that the airlines should fire all their flight attendants and sell regular priced tickets to those passengers willing to push the carts up and down the aisles. Bonus? They get to keep the tips.
Amtrak is having the best year since its inception, and will likely carry 27 million passengers this year, a bit less than Continental Airlines or US Air, but ahead of AirTran or jet Blue. But guess what? They have only 632 usable rail cars, and besides, we travel 900 times further in cars on highways than in trains on rails. Changing this circumstance will reshape our cities and their regions, but it will take time – years – and lots of money. Cozy up to that gas pump.
Nearly every major urban public transit system is operating beyond capacity as well. But because of the financial meltdown, tax revenues are rapidly shrinking. Waiting for that rapid bus or streetcar system? Get comfy. And that’s just transit. Check out how funding is going for the rest of our urban infrastructure. Not so good. With only $1 trillion in national debt, we should see investment in infrastructure turn around real soon. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but real soon.
A more efficient car? Well, you just helped give the U.S. automakers $50 billion to figure out how to compete with Toyota and Honda, who have them cold, and our guys have proudly announced that we should start to see the benefits of taxpayer largess by 2010 or 2011 or so. By the way, did you know that one in thirteen Americans is employed in the automobile industry? Happy days ahead.
Food. Food prices are rising rapidly. In some places outside the U.S., the increases this year alone are as high as 40%. Screw the rest of the world, you say? Fine. A little hard, since so much of what you eat comes from somewhere else, but food prices in this nation are quickly on the rise as well: produce, milk, beef, fish, are all headed higher. Why? Fuel costs, weather, scarcity. A buck for a tomato, $.80 for a mushroom, and $.75 for an apple this week at our market, and $4.00 for a bushel of corn ($4.03 at close Friday).
If we actually did what Pollan tells us to do, and sourced a vastly increased amount of our food locally, and increased the numbers of local markets, we would have a chance at controlling prices. Oh, and by the way, our food system consumes more oil than any other part of the U.S. economy except cars. If we had cities that could subsist on locally grown agriculture, they would have to be designed differently. But we don’t, so not to worry.
Water. Water scarcity is a critical problem in most of the world. 40% of the world has no access to clean water, and 95% of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their waters.
Don’t care? Well, the central valley of California is not exactly swimming in water at the moment, and that’s where a lot of U.S. food comes from (they use 23 trillion gallons of water a year). The long term drought outlook for the valley, as charted by the USDA, is not too terrific. But never mind, all that water scarcity will do is drive up food prices.
Thinking about tapping into the Great Lakes for a cool one? Think again. The eight states that abut the Great Lakes have created a Compact, just approved by Congress and signed into law, that forbids the diversion of that water. Who says water scarcity is a problem?
As ever, the point of all this is very simple. The city we need to live in is not the city we live in today. Even skeptics should be able to understand this. It seems that when you start to pull on one thread of issues in the fabric of today’s urbanism, the whole place starts to unravel.
Anyway, you know what to do – when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.