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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.1.09




Denial and Delusion

Why we’re not seeing true sustainability

By Robert Bolman 

My printed response this week to Alan Pittman’s “Carbon Foot Print” cover story Sept. 17 explores peak oil as the equally daunting other-side-of-the-coin to Climate Change. I then psychologically examine the inability of our “leaders” to lead in a manner reflecting the urgency that peak oil and Climate Change present us with. Space in print didn’t permit me to cover the bold sorts of changes that we need. This online addendum has no such space limitations. So, following a few introductory ideas, here is a list of some of the things that I feel should be done to address peak oil and climate change. Enjoy!

Genuine, Meaningful Sustainability

I use the expression “genuine, meaningful sustainability” to distinguish what I talk about from what people commonly call “sustainability,” but which in fact is not at all sustainable. Genuine, meaningful sustainability is based on applying a rigorous set of criteria based on energy, resources and arithmetic to virtually everything that we do in modern industrialized civilization. When one really explores what is meant by genuine, meaningful sustainability, one discovers that it is a dauntingly complex, remote, far-flung ideal.

Reaction to Genuine, Meaningful Sustainability

It is a truism for our age that so many economic interests have made so much money for so long through such abysmally unsustainable means, and so many individuals enjoy such great levels of comfort, convenience, material splendor and entertainment through such unsustainable means that achieving genuine, meaningful sustainability is going to be very upsetting to a lot of people. Our leaders need to start getting used to this idea and cannot allow the fear of ruffling a few feathers to prevent them from doing what has to be done.

The Inevitability of Genuine, Meaningful Sustainability

The good news is that the human family WILL achieve genuine, meaningful sustainability. The reason is simple: To do any less is unsustainable. Generally speaking, we will achieve sustainability in one of two ways: We will achieve sustainability voluntarily or we will achieve it involuntarily as it is crammed down our throats by a little something called reality. The longer we wait before making the necessary changes, the more wrenching and traumatic those changes are going to be.

Use of the Word “Leaders”

I use quotation marks whenever I refer to our “leaders.” This is because they are not leading at all. They are being buffeted about by the winds of convenience and expediency. True leaders, the kind celebrated by history, had the vision to see what needed to happen and the courage to go forward and do it — even if it was not popular.

The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle states that when the consequences of a given action are not fully understood, it is best to err on the side of caution. What this means where the following ideas are concerned is that it is not enough to assume that technology will emerge to address our problems. Until such technology actually arrives, we must assume that it will not be there and we must therefore act accordingly.

Economics

Various elements of widely accepted economic theory stand completely at odds with bringing about necessary changes.

For example Gross Domestic Product refers to all economic activity that takes place in a given economy. When the GDP goes up, that is viewed as good. So two jet airliners can collide in mid-air, killing hundreds of people, causing millions of dollars to change hands and this will be measured as a positive thing for the economy.

Another economic orthodoxy that makes no sense is the idea that “the wise and invisible hand of the free market” is the most appropriate mechanism for determining what happens in an economy. The problem is that so many true environmental and social costs are fully externalized (not accounted for) that market forces often reward the wrong behavior and punish the right behavior. This can be addressed by changing the tax system to eliminate taxes on things we want (like income) and instead placing taxes on the things that we don’t want (like pollution, waste and environmental degradation). Hence, the still unimplemented idea of a carbon tax.

While members of our local governments have no power to change state or federal tax policy, a forceful letter articulating the need for these changes and then signed by all city councilors and county commissioners would presumably carry some weight. Also, our local politicians could build coalition with governments from other regions so as to promote policy on state and federal levels.

Roads

All widening and building of roads should be halted immediately. The coming years will see fewer cars on the road — not more. Therefore, there is no real reason to build new roads and widen existing ones. Indeed, the money being spent on roads is desperately needed elsewhere. If “safety” is used as a pretext for additional road building, then “safety” can be addressed much more cost effectively by reducing speed limits. Badly needed revenue can be generated by issuing speeding tickets! (Thus, taxing what we don’t want.)

Thirty years from now, for all practical purposes, there will be no asphalt and concrete will be prohibitively expensive. Oil will be far too precious to mix with gravel to make asphalt. Portland cement, the active ingredient in concrete, is the product of a highly energy intensive industrial process that will be extremely constrained when natural gas production goes into decline. Therefore, starting NOW, all road construction and resurfacing should be done using paving bricks. European cities have done this for centuries and American cities did it historically. The paving bricks are manufactured and then laid out to create a water-permeable, paved surface. If ever the road surface needs to be restored or utilities need to be installed beneath the road, the same paving bricks can be picked up and then reinstalled.

While installing and reinstalling paving bricks may require a lot of human labor, bear in mind that human labor, in and of itself, is environmentally neutral and is a resource that we have in great abundance. When I was in Rome, I saw men reinstalling paving stones that they estimated to be 500 years old. It was an exquisite example of genuine, meaningful sustainability to see men installing paving stones that their great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandfathers may have quarried!

Transit

Any year now, world petroleum production will begin declining by approximately 5 percent annually. Add to this worry that our “leaders” on a federal level are carrying out financial policy that will ultimately devalue the dollar — or even destroy its value or its standing as the global “reserve currency” for oil transactions worldwide. So either oil will become scarce and expensive or the (once venerated) U.S. dollar will be not be accepted for oil purchases.

With this possibility in mind, Lane Transit District should be working to transition away from diesel fuel. I don’t mean hybrid buses which still use diesel fuel, but less of it. Nor do I mean biofuels which contain little more energy than the fossil fuel energy that it took to produce them. Barring some unforeseen technological breakthrough, LTD should transition to an electrified system. The most energy efficient approach — though not necessarily the most futuristic, is electric trollies and light rail. Steel wheels roll over steel rails in an extremely low-friction manner to make the best use of electricity that would hopefully be generated using hydro, solar or wind power.

LTD officials are quick to insist that an electrified street car system would be too expensive, but Eugene had such a system in the 1920s when we were a far smaller, less dense and less economically robust city. So it clearly is a matter of priority. If the money being spent on road improvement (like the $72 million spent on the I-5/Beltline interchange “fly-over”) were redirected, there would be plenty of money to start an ambitious new system serving Eugene/Springfield. While LTD has the best of intentions and a considerable degree of forward vision in building the EmX system, there are clearly identifiable trends and factors that, within just a few years, could leave those shiny new articulating buses sitting motionless, unable to get diesel fuel.

While the extensive steel and concrete needed to build an electrified transit system is not technically sustainable, once built, it would be an extremely enduring system that could continue to serve us for many decades with little additional construction input.

If Eugene were to really get ahead of the curve, it’s ailing RV industry could be retooled to produce public transit vehicles not just for Lane County, but for other cities across the country. (Likewise, it seems that the Hynix plant may be retooled to produce solar panels.)

As Bus Fares only account for about 20 percent of LTD’s operating budget, all fairs should be eliminated. This would dramatically increase ridership and could easily be payed for by the savings of not building more roads or a tax placed on automobile use.

Food

It is said that modern agriculture is a system where nutritionally depleted soil is used as a spongy medium in which to convert petroleum into food. It takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie worth of food. As petroleum is about to go into permanent decline, it is critical that we start producing more of our food locally and in a manner less dependent on energy intensive modern agriculture practices.

Eugene should establish a year-round indoor farmer’s market to encourage local agriculture. Such a facility could end up being a lively civic amenity like Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Lane County government should inventory all agricultural land and potential sites for urban agriculture. Such land should be protected from further sprawl development. Incentives should encourage farmers to switch from grass seed to food crops.

All city of Eugene food purchases, should be of food that is sourced to within 100 miles of Eugene. If that means that catered Eugene city functions don’t feature strawberries in January, that’s OK.

Sprawl

Crescent Village is a lovely development. It is a mixed use, medium density “urban village.” For a couple of blocks it looks just like a charming European city. But it is in EXACTLY the wrong place! What is Crescent Village doing sitting in a field out at the edge of the urban growth boundary (UGB)? Why is Crescent Village not covering that silly hole across the street from the library?

All sprawl type development should be halted immediately. Any remaining pressures for growth and development should be confined to the central “nodal” intersections and areas. Mixed use, medium density “urban village” style development should surround all major transit stops and intersections. All big boxes and commercial buildings should be up close to the street and have several stories of housing above them. While living in an apartment above an Office Depot on West 11th may not seem very attractive, the changes I’m calling for will make our streets much more charming. 

Regardless of what salivating developers have to say, there is no need to expand the UGB. There is plenty of room for infill and redevelopment — especially as the economy is likely to suffer further still as petroleum goes into decline. Increased density is needed to make public transit function better.

There is a reason why U.S. tourists enjoy going to European cities, but ironically, those same tourists never ask why our own cities lack the features that make European cities so charming. With 20 years and a little bit of visionary leadership, the most wretched U.S. cities could be as beautiful as Paris; except with a whole layer of environmental design.

Bicycle Use

One thing that Eugene has done reasonably well is develop an attractive network of bicycle trails. Eugene’s bike trails should be further expanded and improved always with an eye to getting bicycles completely away from automobile traffic.

Idaho has a law stating that bicyclists may treat stop signs like yield signs. Eugene should go a step further and legislate that not only may bicyclists treat stop signs like yield signs, but they may also treat stop lights like stop signs. When you factor in the reality of climate change, all other things being equal, a person on a bicycle completely owns the moral, ethical high ground over someone behind the wheel of a car. Until the above legislation is passed, Eugene’s police should learn to use their discretion and specifically not ticket bicyclists for their exemplary behavior. The police surely have more important things to do than issue tickets to bicyclist who roll slowly through a stop sign when there are no cars anywhere nearby. Police personnel should be trained to use their intelligence and discretion instead of arbitrarily enforcing laws which often don’t make sense when applied to bicyclists within the context of climate change and peak oil.

Buildings

It is not enough for EWEB and other energy utilities to offer favorable loans and other incentives to encourage homeowners to insulate existing wall cavities and install new windows. The majority of houses and other buildings in Eugene should be given a complete upgrade to achieve net zero energy consumption and increase density, longevity and beauty.

Buildings with old roofs and no eaves should be given second story additions. Buildings with poor foundations and limited crawl spaces should be lifted 10 to 12 feet and a new first floor built beneath them. In both cases, the additional square footage should result not in larger houses, but in additional dwelling units. The walls should be opened up and thickened, the wiring upgraded and a super insulation level achieved. All new roof framing should create large south facing areas to be covered with solar panels (perhaps to be manufactured in Eugene!). All such renovations should enhance the longevity and the beauty of the buildings.

A rigorous and widespread program of turning Eugene’s thousands of ordinary, energy wasteful, older houses into state-of-the-art eco-trophy houses could create thousands of jobs and, to some degree, the work could pay for itself through energy savings and increased property values.

Reality

The ideas presented here may be viewed as wild and unrealistic. But what is truly unrealistic is the idea (casually assumed by our “leaders”) that modern industrialized civilization with its built environment fully dependent on automobile use is going to continue indefinitely. This is a resource and mathematical impossibility.

As I wrote earlier, the human family WILL change whether we like it or not. Our present course is completely unsustainable. Worse still, many of the “solutions” to our problems presented by our “leaders,” when looked at through the criteria of genuine, meaningful sustainability, are also unsustainable.

While, the ideas presented above may be extreme, they are much more palatable than the alternative which is to go along with business as usual, waiting for the constraints of physical reality to mercilessly impose themselves.

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Robert Bolman is founding director of Maitreya EcoVillage in Eugene, www.maitreyaecovillage.org. He can be emailed at robtb at efn.org