Modernization vs. ecotheology

The Breakthrough Institute has an interesting essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describing the case for “modernization” in our ecological approach versus what they call the traditional view, “ecotheology” which views our modernization as an affront to nature.  Here’s a long quote.  Be sure to also read the responses by Leslie Paul Thiele and Jon Christensen.

The rise of the knowledge economy — encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector — has further accelerated the West’s growing disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to claim some role in producing food, shelter, or even basic consumer products. And yet they can afford to spend time in beautiful places — in their gardens, in the countryside, on beaches, and near old-growth forests. As they survey these landscapes, they tell themselves that the best things in life are free, even though they have consumed mightily to travel to places where they feel peaceful, calm, and far from the worries of the modern world.

These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.

The contradictions between the world as it is — filled with the unintended consequences of our actions — and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads…

Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let’s call this “modernization theology.”

Where ecotheology imagines that our ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate “nature,” modernization theology views environmental problems as an inevitable part of life on Earth. Where the last generation of ecologists saw a natural harmony in Creation, the new ecologists see constant change. Where ecotheologians suggest that the unintended consequences of human development might be avoidable, proponents of modernization view them as inevitable, and positive as often as negative. And where the ecological elites see the powers of humankind as the enemy of Creation, the modernists acknowledge them as central to its salvation.

Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation — human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.

Do the Math

The article I linked to earlier by Mims sent me to Do the Math, which I find very intruiging.  It’s written by Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego.  He writes about growth, energy and economics, but from a physical science point of view, which is fascinating.  Some most-read posts include Galactic-Scale Energy, Can Economic Growth Last and Sustainability Means Bunkty to Me.

If you only read one post, read Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist.

Act One: Bread and Butter

Physicist: Hi, I’m Tom. I’m a physicist.

Economist: Hi Tom, I’m [ahem..cough]. I’m an economist.

Physicist: Hey, that’s great. I’ve been thinking a bit about growth and want to run an idea by you. I claim that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Economist: [chokes on bread crumb] Did I hear you right? Did you say that growth cannot continue forever?

Physicist: That’s right. I think physical limits assert themselves.

Economist: Well sure, nothing truly lasts forever. The sun, for instance, will not burn forever. On the billions-of-years timescale, things come to an end.

Physicist: Granted, but I’m talking about a more immediate timescale, here on Earth. Earth’s physical resources—particularly energy—are limited and may prohibit continued growth within centuries, or possibly much shorter depending on the choices we make. There are thermodynamic issues as well.

They go all the way through dessert.

He’s also obsessed/extremely dedicated to reducing his personal energy use footprint, and writes about his exploits pinching therms in graphic detail.

The only downside to Tom’s blog is that he doesn’t include full text articles in his RSS feed.  But you should subscribe anyway.

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.

Not-so-smart cities

First, I want to say I totally agree with the last half of the last sentence in Greg Lindsay’s opinion piece in the New York Times:

…the smartest cities are the ones that embrace openness, randomness and serendipity — everything that makes a city great.

The rest of the piece I don’t quite get.  Lindsay objects to the new city being built in New Mexico which will have no residents, but be used solely for testing “smart city” technology like “smart power grids, cyber security and intelligent traffic and surveillance systems”.  He objects because he feels computer simulations are not robust enough to capture human’s inherent “randomness”.  To support his case, he uses an example of a RAND corporation study, from 1968 (!), that failed to “smartly” reconfigure fire service.

Take the 1968 decision by New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to hire the RAND Corporation to streamline city management through computer models. It built models for the Fire Department to predict where fires were likely to break out, and to decrease response times when they did. But, as the author Joe Flood details in his book “The Fires,” thanks to faulty data and flawed assumptions — not a lack of processing power — the models recommended replacing busy fire companies across Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx with much smaller ones.

What RAND could not predict was that, as a result, roughly 600,000 people in the poorest sections of the city would lose their homes to fire over the next decade. Given the amount of money and faith the city had put into its models, it’s no surprise that instead of admitting their flaws, city planners bent reality to fit their models — ignoring traffic conditions, fire companies’ battling multiple blazes and any outliers in their data.

The final straw was politics, the very thing the project was meant to avoid. RAND’s analysts recognized that wealthy neighborhoods would never stand for a loss of service, so they were placed off limits, forcing poor ones to compete among themselves for scarce resources. What was sold as a model of efficiency and a mirror to reality was crippled by the biases of its creators, and no supercomputer could correct for that.

First, any good planner or engineer will tell you that models and software should be a starting point, not a finishing point.  I have no doubt that any new technology that comes out of the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (that is the new city’s name) will be refined in the real world as it’s performance among us mammals is tested.  If the RAND corporation couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adjust in 1968, they were bad planners.

Second, we shouldn’t use technology because politics could get in the way?  Don’t fault technology, fault bad process and implementation.  Also, where does this line of reasoning lead us?

Third and finally, this is the only example Lindsay gives of a failure of “smart” systems in the real world (except for a reference to something Jane Jacobs said), and it occurred in 1968.  Lindsay omits the myriad “smart city” technologies that are already commonplace and are generally deemed to have net positive impacts.  Here is a partial list (and I’m no expert):

And coming soon:
None of the second list, and I’m pretty sure none of the first list (at least computerized versions thereof) even existed in 1968.  The fact that many of these systems currently exist, and regularly operate without massive failure, seems to refute Lindsay’s assertion that we shouldn’t continue to develop them.

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.

US-China Electric Car Project Kind of Misses the Point

The BYD E6 Electric Car

The BYD E6 Electric Car

Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth has a good discussion with Lee Schipper about the problems with the US-China deal on producing electric cars.  Without repeating the post, the essence is that zero-emissions cars don’t solve the traditional problems that planners have been struggling with for a long time.

“Creating a zero-carbon car for China tomorrow won’t solve the much bigger problems of urban congestion, traffic fatalities and the paving over of once-beautiful cities to make room for more cars,” Dr. Schipper said. “The discussions should back up. Energy is only a means to an end. What are the ends, urban access and mobility, or cars for a small minority?”

This isn’t to say that China and the US shouldn’t be building electric vehicles.  Only that a carbon-free car is just that, a car, with all its other attendant issues and urban design challenges/drawbacks.

Road Trains: The Best of Both Worlds?

The idea of “road trains”, a group of cars using advanced technology to form a caravan of cars driven semi-autonomously, arose from two different sources this week.

The (in)famous Antiplanner, Randall O’Toole, touts road trains as a congestion-relief solution superior to rail building in his new book, Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.  He says building new roads is “politically difficult” and that new passenger rail construction “rarely makes economic sense”.  Enter road trains.  They can increase the capacity of existing road networks, according to O’Toole.  He claims this technology can increase highway lane capacity by 200% to 400%.

The second source is the EU’s Safe Roads and Trains for the Environment initiative, which is actually implementing the road train concept.  Cars signal their destination wirelessly to road trains already on the road, and then technology takes over to group the cars and control steering, braking and navigation.  The lead vehicle, perhaps a bus or truck driven by a more experienced driver, monitors the status of the road train.  When you approach your exit, your car leaves the train and you resume manual control.  The EU work suggests fuel consumption for the vehicles behind the lead vehicle can be cut by 20%.

This approach avoids the large costs associated with embedding sensors in roadways to guide vehicles, and instead relies on technology within each vehicle (collision avoidance, navigation system, automated braking and steering).  O’Toole puts the cost of this technology at between $1,000 and $10,000 per vehicle.  I’m interested to see if his book includes a calculation of how much transit, bike lanes or other alternatives you could buy for the cost of installing this technology in all vehicles.

The benefits of this technology are numerous if it can be implemented:

  • A reduction in fuel consumption.
  • Providing the comfort and independence of an SOV with some of the efficiencies of transit.
  • Not having to drive.  Giving car passengers back their driving time, for leisure or productivity, would be a huge gain.

I see some downsides though:

  • Increasing capacity on highways doesn’t equal increased capacity on city streets.  This technology is perfect if every destination is adjacent to a freeway off-ramp.  However, greatly increasing the capacity of highways while keeping the city streets (where drivers still have to use their puny human brains to drive) the same seems like it would equal chaos.
  • Equity.  This “solution” to congestion puts all of the costs onto the car owner.  If you think everyone should have equal access to the transportation system (and you plan your land use so that a car is almost essential), you should think about how to make this technology (which probably means a new car) affordable to everyone.  O’Toole suggests “transportation vouchers”, an idea based on people making personal choices about the best transportation mode (although he really thinks there shouldn’t be any choice, the car is king).  Not a bad idea necessarily, but I would suggest combining it with a true mileage tax to raise the necessary revenue.  I assume O’Toole supports this idea since he says in his book review that he does not support any government subsidy to transportation.
  • Different cars and maintenance regimes = crashes?  In all the articles about road trains, I haven’t seen any discussion about how to handle the different capabilities of individual cars.  Some cars have much better brakes than others.  Some cars can accelerate more quickly.  People maintain their cars differently (meaning they do less maintenance).  Can the technology compensate for the different capabilities of each car?  Does each car “know” the distance required to stop based on its components and the condition of its parts?  Bringing this technology to the real world means accommodating all kinds of cars, of varying ages, types and capabilities.  Unless of course this advantage is made available only to those who are able to afford the newest and best vehicles, or we move to a uniform, government-regulated and maintained pod-car.

Poll Everywhere brings expensive audience participation systems to the masses for cheap (sort of)

You still use your mobile phone just to talk?  With your voice?.  Even with an old-school brick phone, if you’ve got a text messaging plan, you have access to all kinds of google results, the twitter hive-mind and even frequent requests for money from the president.  No fancy web browsers or multi-touch required.

Poll Everywhere, as well as PlaceMatters, are taking advantage of the near-ubiquity of mobile phones to lower the cost and barriers to a tool that has value for planners: audience participation systems, otherwise known as  audience response systems or keypad voting. Think mobile phone = keypad and cheap web app = expensive voting software and you’ll get the gist.  I’ll gush a little bit about Poll Everywhere below the fold.

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Not since Al Gore’s run in 2000 have geeks and technophiles had such reason to rejoice in the selection of a new president.  While Gore only invented the internet, Obama already has an intriguing track record of putting technology to use to enhance transparency and communication with regular folk.  Some things that get me pumped, after the break. Continue reading