The end of nature

Christopher Mims delivers a sobering review of man’s near-total dominance over nature, and what might be next.

If you think of the Earth as a space ship with an energy budget that equals the input of the sun, which is exactly what it is, then you can imagine that there is a total quantity of biological productivity of which our planet is capable. Estimates say that humans are already appropriating between one quarter and one half of this productivity. The total amount of land given to crops is tied with forests as the single largest terrestrial ecosystem. Our food production requires almost a quarter of the total land area of the planet.

We have basically killed most of the wildlife that was available to us only a single generation ago. Chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva has declared that while 13 percent of Earth’s landmass is now protected as some sort of park — an area larger than all of South America — we have completely failed to stop the eradication of the plant and animal inhabitants of these “wild” places. Much of this is due to the fact that wild things are apparently quite tasty. And if you think this is limited to the land, the evidence is that our oceans are in even worse shape, with global fishing stocks set to collapse by mid-century. Meanwhile, as we all know, climate change is only accelerating what scientists now call the “sixth extinction.” Or in other words, the sixth time in the 4 billion year history of life on earth that the entire planet was so challenged that a vast majority of life came perilously close to being snuffed out.

This is not a narrative that should surprise anyone. Like all species, we were destined to expand up to the carrying capacity of our environment. We just happen to be the best ever at altering that environment to support ever more of us, consuming at an ever more rapid rate. What’s nature, now? To a significant extent, it’s us. It’s our machines — the hybrids of flesh and technology that we have all become.

I don’t mean to be cavalier about the damage we’re doing to our planetary life support systems. But any attempt to talk about the 21st century without acknowledging that every living thing on the planet will be altered by humans is intellectually bankrupt. There is no “nature” left — only the portion of nature that we allow to live because we imagine it serves some purpose — as a thing to eat, a place to reprocess our waste, or an idea that fulfills our dwindling desire to maintain “the natural” for aesthetic or ideological reasons.

It is truly the age of the Anthropocene.

A series of tubes

We have a graduate student from Sweden visiting my office this week, and among various other interesting Sweden-related information, she brought a booklet for the new “green” development, Hammerby Sjostad.  Among other interesting features, waste in the development will be collected by vacuum tubes.

Other blocks are connected to the stationary system.
There the waste is collected in refuse chutes which are linked by underground pipes to a central collection station to which the waste is carried by vacuum suction. There the waste is in different containers and when full picked up by trucks. The station is located in the outskirts of the living area, which reduces the noise and pollution in the living area. At the present the system manages combustible domestic waste, food waste and newspaper.

Minnesota GO: 50-year trends presentation

MN/DOT is conducting a process, which they’re calling Minnesota GO, to develop a 50-year vision for all types of transportation in the state .  I was asked to present in April at an advisory group meeting, and I talked about 50-year trends from a planner’s perspective.

The advisory group video page has some other great presentations from folks who more accurately fit the title of “expert” like Michael Noble on energy and Michael Huber on health.  The video interview page also has some good ones, including David Levinson and Frank Douma.  While you’re at the site, don’t forget to put in your two cents.

Road Trains Tested In The Real World

Road Train Test

Road trains (also called vehicle platooning) are convoys of semi-autonomous vehicles with a professional driver in the lead vehicle.  The Safe Roads and Trains for the Environment initiative (SARTRE) describes road trains as:

…a convoy of vehicles where a professional driver in a lead vehicle drives a line of other vehicles. Each car measures the distance, speed and direction and adjusts to the car in front. All vehicles are totally detached and can leave the procession at any time. But once in the platoon, drivers can relax and do other things while the platoon proceeds towards its long haul destination.

Road trains were actually tested in the real world by Volvo, who is part of the SARTRE team, in December.  They cite the benefits of road trains as numerous:

Platooning is designed to improve a number of things: Firstly road safety, since it minimises the human factor that is the cause of at least 80 percent of the road accidents. Secondly, it saves fuel consumption and thus CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent. It is also convenient for the driver because it frees up time for other matters than driving. And since the vehicles will travel at highway speed with only a few meters gap, platooning may also relieve traffic congestion.

There are some potential downsides to road trains as well, but ideally they can deliver many of the benefits of intra-city transit without some of the drawbacks.  Really road trains are just a stepping stone to fully autonomous cars, and caveats of same apply here as well.

The Rest Of The Story On Robot Cars

The City Fix scooped me on using the Johnny Cab image, but tribute must be paid to such a forward-looking film.

The internet seemed to resound with almost unmitigated delight when Google announced their progress on driverless cars last week.  German scientists see a “golden future” for their driverless vehicles.  There are, however, some key implications that are being missed about what it means if our cars are driven by robots.  I’ll preface the rest of this post by saying that I think the benefits of robot cars probably outweigh the drawbacks.  However, robot cars are not a panacea, and we shouldn’t overlook unintended consequences.

David Levinson at The Transportationist does an excellent job summarizing why robot cars matter, but in my opinion doesn’t go far enough explaining the potential downsides.  Here are some of my thoughts on why we should adopt robot cars carefully, even with their myriad advantages.   Continue reading

Science Porn

The populars: Mechanics and Science. As a bespectacled, not-so-outdoorsy kid, getting these magazines every month was like getting a box of candy in the mail. All full of color photos and nifty diagrams, promising abundant gadgetry for all, and instilling a healthy belief in an impressionable kid that science and engineering could be counted on to solve life’s problems and, if need be, save the world. It appears they’re still at, now armed with flash websites and better renderings. Via Planetizen, PopSci has a feature on “The Green Megacity“. This time, science and engineering are here to save us from our planet-wrecking selves.

Unfortunately, adult life (and planning school) makes you jaded, and I couldn’t let their flashy graphics go without some critique. While the straight technology improvements (energy paint, tidal turbines) they show seem feasible, the transportation concepts (except the bus) fall short for two reasons:

  1. What I’ll call the commodification, or perhaps more accessibly, the jumpsuit fallacy. I’m familiar with this one from my endless hours of magazine reading (see above) as well as most every movie about the distant future (more so the older ones). In the future you see, everyone’s everything is equal shape/size/color: their jumpsuits, pod house and pod-car/bike/hover thing. I understand that this is the engineers (and sometimes planners) fantasy, commodification means interchangeability and economies of scale. Too bad that ever since Ford started making Model T’s in different colors, people have wanted their cars (and houses and clothes) to be different from their neighbors. Undifferentiated pods (or bikes) may work in a downtown area, but it would take a lot for most people to totally give up what they see as a mark of individuality and freedom.
  2. The density issue. I can predict this coming up a lot on this blog. Without a transportation system that is based first and foremost on walking, maglev trains and racks of pod cars are just a World’s Fair dream. If you have to drive your pod car alone to your house in the suburbs, how is it any different than a normal car (besides the solar panel roof)? Using a small vehicle is not an engineering break through, its a pocketbook breakthrough. Can a maglev skytran really carry 14,000 people per hour if it doesn’t have high-density nodes to move between? Point being, if we don’t break the social and political barriers to density, walkability is out, and therefore serious transit (pod or otherwise) is probably out.