Monday, April 14, 2008

Sure we can, but will we?

Matthew Yglesias and John Quiggin agree: we can keep getting richer and save the environment if, as the soon-to-be-bestseller writes, “we implement the right policies in a timely manner.” Seeing as I've made this argument in other forums before, I don't really disagree with the argument, but the likelihood of it being followed through. I'm pessimistic because, well, there's a track record here: the American government has been advised, in one form or another, on the necessity of investing in renewable energy since the 1950s, and we've seen precious little positive change.

Worse yet, in some ways we've seen a real retrogression here. In the 1950s, after America faced the wrenching oil crisis of 1948 – humorously, the “crisis” was over becoming a net oil importer for the first time ever – the Paley Commission recommended solar and wind energy as a way of reducing America's reliance on oil imports. This was presented as relatively uncontroversial, technocratic, blue-ribbon panel stuff but was abandoned by the Eisenhower administration in favor of the nuclear military-industrial-complex that was then just beginning.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and instead of sustainable energy being more dry technocracy, it's become fully enmeshed in the culture wars. Reagan famously (and totally symbolically) removed Carter's solar panels from the White House, the green movement was blamed for the decline of the logging industry, and George H.W. Bush said, en route to the 1990 Rio Summit, “the American way of life is not negotiable.” Note the words: Bush wasn't defending a standard of living, or a per-capita GDP figure, but the American way of life.

The cars-suburbs ecology isn't just a particular economic arrangement that Americans have made, but has actually become a form of cultural identification. (Invisible to those living in it, of course, the way Obama is the first candidate with a race and Clinton is the first candidate with a gender.) You can point out that suburban commuters are wasting their money by the boatload on car costs, or that their kids are in just as much danger from any number of “urban” ills in the suburbs, but the ideal persists.

Given Obama's recent “gaffe” we're busy talking about various forms of American tribalism, it's worth pointing out the most-entrenched one is America's love of cars. I think Yglesias (and Atrios) know this persists today because every time they post about increasing density they seem to follow up by rapidly adding, “but we're not trying to take away your cars!” To put it another way, car control is going to be at least as thorny as gun control.

I don't know what the answer to this is. I suspect that the status quo will persist for some time: supporting “green” measures that are actually worse (like corn ethanol) because they comfort the public in to believing that no major changes are necessary, while providing 1/10th as much money to renewables as we do to oil or coal. Oh, and as a bonus, hectoring the Chinese and Indians for not doing their part.


Catelli said...

Even if society starts to hate the car more than we love them, I just don't see how we can get rid of the car without completely restructuring the suburban environment. Not only are the burbs not mass transit friendly, they aren't even car friendly.

The low density is one issue, the winding roads through suburban neighborhoods is the biggest hindrance in my opinion. There is just no effective way to move people through these stupid suburban mazes. We'd have to raze everything and reconstruct.

Mass transit is a non-starter here (barring elevated lines suspended above every neighborhood), leaving the auto as the best choice out of a mass of poor choices available.

Which is why I advocate sustained research in alternative power for the personal auto in concert with mass transit issues. There is no way that in the next 100 years we will be able to get rid of personal transportation. Any transportation solution has to account for our suburban design in order to get people effectively and as energy efficiently as possible from their doorstep to their destination.

aweb said...

There are lots of ways to get rid of personal transportation in 100 years. It's only been 100 years since the car started taking over (give or take), 50-60 years of suburbia, and it's always much, much easier to destroy infrastructure than build it.

Since one of the problems with suburbia is the low density, the reconstruct phase wouldn't be as large (area-wise) as the dismantle/neglect phase. The basic problem of transportation won't go away no matter what we are using...the suburbs will continue to waste large amounts of energy on transportation unless they are redesigned. There will be no future where this energy is free (if there is, well, I'm happily wrong) and available for pissing it away driving around in circles.

In the end, I don't see (and this is just my own opinion) the major problems of current societal construction going away through tweaking and small adaptions to the current setup. Suburbs use too much land, too much water, too much energy (heating/cooling, transport)...any one of these problems can spell the end of the current setup.

Large scale changes in how/where people live seem inevitable, and I seem to agree with John here, it seems increasingly unlikely that we'll voluntarily make the changes needed.