Redesigning Civilization after the Stress Tests

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The BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it’s toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, “The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises.” Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there’s one of these towns out on the fringes near you.
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Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called “Boomburbs,” require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that “Green Home” you see in so many magazines doesn’t analyze how people get to and from that home, then it’s probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won’t limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That’s the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

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Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public’s cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale–though they will in 10-20 years–so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an “eco-city” district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.

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Denver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city’s neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as “The Death of Sprawl” illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there’s a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.
  

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Obama’s $20B Oil Fund, Energy Policy and his “Lost” Year

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President Obama’s announcement of a $20 billion escrow fund to help pay for Gulf economic damages from the oil spill likely won’t be enough to cover projected damages to the economy, environment and livelihoods in the region. Early this month, I’ve estimated those costs potentially to be in the $50-80 billion range, not including clean-up costs.

Ultimately, BP might not be able to afford the damages it is responsible for, as its North American unit has assets valued at about $50 billion. The US and Obama should look at other ways of balancing the ledger, by reducing U.S. oil and gas subsidies ($15-35 billion per year) and transferring those funds to Gulf clean-up, environmental and economic restoration while creating a true foundation for clean energy and alternative fuels development.

Obama called during his Tuesday White House address for a new energy economy: “For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil
were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to
end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels…Time and again, the path forward has been blocked–not
only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage
and candor.”

This demand was also made at the beginning of his presidency when he kicked off numerous clean energy and alternative energy funding measures, mainly through ARRA funding to US Department of Energy programs.

In his early Oval Office days, Obama even went after sprawl, the energy inefficient, destructive and now economically bankrupt car-dependent form of development that has also dominated the United States “for decades,” but that rarely is addressed by national policymakers in the executive or legislative branches of government.

Then came Spring 2009 to Spring 2010, a lost year for energy and sustainability policy, when all minds and actions at the White House were about health care reform. President Obama rarely mentioned cleantech or sustainability policy. His staff were up to their eyeballs in health care discussions, with one day a month dedicated to a staff meeting on “the environment” (with no regular meeting devoted to clean energy jobs or sustainable economic development).

Was it any wonder that comprehensive climate change and energy legislation have since floundered in the Senate? There has been little attempt to project statistically or show how more sustainable technologies–wind, solar, alternative fuels, green building and infrastructure, water conservation technologies–are fast becoming become one of the more dominant economic sectors globally.

Meanwhile, sprawl and its economic (foreclosure meltdown); health (obesity); environmental and energy consequences (import more oil or drill ever deeper domestically) are running rampant, with little “political courage and candor” in admitting that all the latest technologies will do little do overcome these deep-rooted structural and economic phenomena.

There are untold billions of dollars we will collectively save if the Obama Administration, Congress and our communities are willing to examine and reform the root causes of the BP disaster.

Damage from spewing Gulf oil is occurring to millions or billions of life forms in nature, from plankton, to plants, to fish and aquatic species, to mammals and humans.

Planetary climate change from burning oil, gasoline and other fossil fuels is accelerating, and some developing nations suffering the worst early effects are human equivalents to the innocent pelicans and sea turtles gasping at this very moment for their last breaths.

Who is setting up the escrow fund to repair global destruction from climate change? Costs have been estimated at $80 to $500 billion annually and these will be steadily rising as drought, desertification, heat waves and catastrophic flooding impacts become more severe.

This is a tough question for any entity or nation to answer. The longer we wait in the United States to even pose the question of climate change reparations, however, the more the oil wells, pipelines, tailpipes and smokestacks will be uncontrollably spewing with the meter running, reducing our options in times of future crisis.

We need to get creative now, and go beyond creating mere taxes, penalties and escrow funds, and restructure our assumptions about the role of government, business and economic development.

Globally down to the level of our communities and neighborhoods, we need to awaken to the realization that the time of crisis is now upon us. We must respond in a scale that is appropriate to ensuring that quality of life is an issue not just for elite nations or people, but also for the “small people,” whether in the United States or in developing nations, as well as for the biological tapestry that sustains us and the global economy.   

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

 

 

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