Unsprawling

So the New Green Deal is already getting a lot of attention and push-back – both to the good. It’s at least bold enough in some ways to get noticed, if not bold enough in others. For so long, the conversation has been muted by a sense of futility that is quite self-indulgent. Nonetheless…
Not far enough? Correct:

But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

The Environment

America is a nation of sprawl. More Americans live in suburbs than in cities, and the suburbs that we build are not the gridded, neighborly Mayberrys of our imagination. Rather, the places in which we live are generally dispersed, inefficient, and impossible to navigate without a car. Dead-ending cul-de-sacs and the divided highways that connect them are such deeply engrained parts of the American landscape that it’s easy to forget they were, themselves, the fruits of a massive federal investment program.

Sprawl is made possible by highways. This is expensive—in 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl costs America more than $1 trillion a year in reduced business activity, environmental damage, consumer expenses, and other costs. Leaving aside the emissions from the 1.1 billion trips Americans take per day (87 percent of which are taken in personal vehicles), spreading everything out has eaten up an enormous amount of natural land.

Tell them what they could win, Jonny:

But the good news is that if we do account for land use, we will get much closer to a safe, sustainable, and resilient future. And even though widespread adoption of EVs is still decades away, reforms to our built environment can begin right now. In short, we can fix this. We build more than 1 million new homes a year—we just need to put them in the right places.*

Unsprawling America isn’t as hard as it sounds, because America is suffering from a critical, once-in-a-lifetime housing shortage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year that the U.S. has a national deficit of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. Of course, if we build those homes in transit-accessible places, we can save their occupants time and money. But the scale of housing demand at this moment is such that we could build them in car-centric suburbs, too, and provide a human density that would not just support transit but also reduce the need to travel as shops, jobs, and schools crop up within walking distance.

Walking distance needs to become an old/new catch phrase. Also, as another Slate article proclaims, plane trips CAN be replaced by train trips. Not LA to NYC, and not even NYC to Chicago. But most trips under 500 miles and all trips under 300 miles could be taken out of the equation with an updated modest-speed rail system. 100 miles per hour cuts what is a four-hour drive to three (math!), plus airports are never in city centers – you always have to drive in. Bump up the speed to even 150 mph and, well, a 2 hour trip. Math!

Image via Alon Levy on the twitters.

What does The New Green Deal mean?

On the local level, if you find yourself sitting in traffic day after day, or wonder why you can’t take a train to the airport, you often understand at least the short answers to these questions, even if you personally object to them. In this way, The Way Things Are (also known as Why We Can’t Have Nice Things) seem set in stone. Unchangeable, immutable facts of life, if not singular fibers in a hand-basket to the not-so-good place. I know stuff I can do that is planetarily positive that also makes a huge difference to me personally but not a dent in the broader problem. This dissonance can be paralyzing, and often results in people abandoning even the former, achievable, highly-recommended personal actions.

National-level solutions seem just as if not much more difficult. But are they?

Young activists, who will be forced to live with the ravages of climate change, find this upsetting. So they have proposed a plan of their own. It’s called the Green New Deal (GND) — a term purposefully reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s — and it has become the talk of the town.

the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.

But the policy is only part of the picture. Just as striking are the politics, which seem to have tapped into an enormous, untapped demand for climate ambition.

This is not Pollyanna, but it’s also difficult to criticize anything when nothing else is going on or has worked – especially with ‘nothing’ not being an option.

And while Roberts is certainly correct that this is not new, and the politics of it might sound a little gimmicky, the emphasis on the politics might be the key. Plus, novelty is not what is required – it’s quite well-established which policy changes could work best. It’s the will that has seemed out of reach. The Green New Deal agitation might be just what is needed to get the gears moving. Ambitious enough, broad enough, frightening enough (backed by newly-elected officials) to get the attention of you idling in your car because maybe it comes across like a different story on Nice People’s Radio, much less something more foxxy. It’s backed by our leading new firebrand already – adding to the fright she causes but also lending weight to that fright. Maybe it will give us to a chance to at least ask, “Who Knows?” That would be quite a bit more than we have been doing.

Just Kool it

Famed architect Rem Koolhaas says a lot of smart things in this WAPO sitdown. Here he responds to a question about cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness:

Koolhaas: If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step.

Like many of my friends, I am a car fanatic. So we have been looking very closely at the development of self-driving cars. What we know without hesitation is that self-driving cars will only work at the price of total conformity of every member of society. Such a system of mobility will depend on everyone behaving with no exceptions. As exemplified by self-driving cars, there is a built-in authoritarianism in this managed space of flows we call cyberspace.

More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with such a future.

He also thinks LA is the protype city of the future.

Image: De Rotterdam mixed use towers, next to the Erasmus Bridge, by OMA

Approaching your commute

It’s one thing to say, “It’s not a bad drive, all considering,” or to actually mean it when you boast, “It’s usually less than an hour each way,” such have we arranged our difficulties that status, relative isolation, and even our means of transport characterize self-worth as much as taste or wit. And this is self-perception, generated through the lens of the times in which we live. Over a barrel, sacrifice of one’s happiness can go all but unnoticed such that alternatives can never be considered, much less under the motivation of broader, planetary considerations. It’s just not possible for many to think about doing something different because of carbon emissions or global warming. For better or worse, it has to be personal:

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous. It was this that made the greatest of physicians exclaim that “life is short, art is long;” it was this that led Aristotle, while expostulating with Nature, to enter an indictment most unbecoming to a wise man—that, in point of age, she has shown such favour to animals that they drag out five or ten lifetimes, but that a much shorter limit is fixed for man, though he is born for so many and such great achievements. It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

Emphasis added to words from Seneca, from a wonderful book he wrote in A.D. 49 after being recalled from exile on Corsica. It’s full of useful reminders, if not insights, on the very personal level of you. I’m not telling you to slow down or live closer to work. We should believe that we’re not going to change our behavior on the basis of anything external, but also that doing so for ourselves can bring a multiplicity of benefits.

Terrifically Boring


The movements on the Green energy front (What does it mean?) have become complex, obscured tea-leaves reading exercises and here’s another one that will get little attention though it rolls disparate dynamics into one [silent] scream:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday unanimously rejected a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have propped up nuclear and coal power plants struggling in competitive electricity markets.

The independent five-member commission includes four people appointed by President Trump, three of them Republicans. Its decision is binding.

TL;DR – the commission endorses markets. ‘Sustainable’ was an iffy signifier until people. Started. Making. Money. Or put another way: Guy comes into his shrink’s office after a hundred sessions and the doc lays it all out. Everything comes down to: It doesn’t matter which green we’re talking about. They both point to the same place. Ugly, perhaps, and maybe not inevitable enough to happen in time. So parades and grandstanding will seem a little gratuitous and a kind of devolution at the hand of the money power. Again, hate the irony, not the player.

Image: future skate park?

Perfect Cases in Point

We wish they were more rare. But just as rising wages are bad news for business(?) and solar most horribly spells doom for coal, word in the oil game is that consistent catastrophes are needed for oil to remain strong:

The weakness comes at a time when speculators have started rebuilding bullish positions after a sell-off last month, betting the market will tighten in the second quarter. Yet, Brent physical oil traders say the opposite is happening so far, according to interviews with executives at several trading houses, who asked not to be identified discussing internal views.

“We need to see the market going really into deficit for oil prices to rise,” Giovanni Staunovo, commodity analyst at UBS Group AG in Zurich, said. “If this is temporary, it could be weathered, but it needs to be monitored.”

The weakness is particularly visible in so-called time-spreads — the price difference between contracts for delivery at different periods. Reflecting a growing surplus that could force traders to seek tankers as temporary floating storage facilities, the Brent June-July spread this week fell to an unusually weak minus 55 cents per barrel, down from parity just two months earlier. The negative structure is known in the industry as contango.

There’s a new word for you. And yes, many of the other words they use are the ones you know, with commonly agreed-upon definitions. I know one needs a lot of sophisticated financial knowledge to really get the subtleties of these economics, but is the overall message really lost? Of no consequence whatsoever? Yes, we can play terrible music on beautiful instruments, just as we can vote against our interests and condemn ourselves with our own words ( though it really isn’t necessary to do all three at once). Thanks to Bloomberg for delivering the straight dope in the top story today. It’s important, you know? Just like it will be to move past the market riff, as I hope to soon.
And also, the term ‘oil futures.’ FY, irony.

Lego my LIGO

Congratulations to the scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory for the discover that confirms a fundamental premise of how gravity operates:

Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted gravitational waves 100 years ago. The theory states that gravity—the warping of space and time by mass—would manifest as ripples.
The waves detected by LIGO came from the collision of two black holes more than 1 billion years ago.
Physicists have long had indirect evidence that such infinitely tiny waves exist, but never had technology capable of detecting and measuring them. A gravitational wave is about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a proton.

You could say that the real work begins now, plotting out the next moves in this new direction. But that unnecessarily plays down the magnitude of this accomplishment. It took real work to get this far. 100 years later, Einstein was right. Now there’s a ripple.

Image: impression of a gravitational wave generation, via the BBC.

All’s Fare in Love and Mass Transit

126th-anniversary-eiffel-towerIn honor of today’s Google doodle of the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, a word from the fair city – more than a mot, several in fact, on encouraging more transit use and social integration:

What if it were possible to travel as much as you’d like by train or bus within Connecticut, from Stamford to New Haven, Hartford, New London, Waterbury, Danbury, Putnam, and hundreds of other towns, and then to travel within them, all on one transit fare card at the monthly price of just $76?

That’s what, in essence, will occur beginning in September in Île-de-France, the region that surrounds and includes Paris and which is practically the physical size of Connecticut—albeit far more populous and benefiting from a far more extensive transit system.

The plan is to eliminate the current five-zone transit fare system for people holding weekly or monthly passes and replace them with a universal, unlimited fare. The universal card will apply to virtually all transit services within Île-de-France, which is the most populous region in France, with 12 million inhabitants spread over 4,638 square miles (for comparison, the city of Paris proper has 2.3 million residents in 41 square miles, and New York City, which has a universal fare card for Subways and buses, is 305 square miles).

Meanwhile, back at the front… of moving forward with big ideas that help people and planet. Nearer the rear, let’s make sure we continue to wage the battle on whether high speed rail makes sense and against climate scientists lining their pockets with melting glaciers.

The Way We Develop

plosOneSEStories we tell children about a long ago time and place, a verdant, green land with cities and towns that glistened within their limits and only slipped beyond those with the greatest care and caution. Linked by tiny roads and fast rail lines, seen from the air the denser areas were surrounded by neat parcels under cultivation. It all looked so orderly and organized to work properly, if not effectively. Oh, yes, then there was that other meaning of denser:

Giant urban sprawl could pave over thousands of acres of forest and agriculture, connecting Raleigh to Atlanta by 2060, if growth continues at its current pace, according to a newly released research paper from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We could be looking at a seamless corridor of urban development,” said Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the USGS and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who was the study’s lead author.

The development will engulf land from North Carolina to Georgia, and possibly spread to Birmingham, Ala., “if we continue to develop urban areas in the Southeast the way we have for the past 60 years,” he said.

Combining USGS demographic modeling with North Carolina State’s High Performance Computing Services and analyzing the data for six years, Terando and his five co-authors estimated that urbanization in the Southeast will increase by up to 190 percent.

See also, the Myth of Progress for further edification. That orderly view is also available, but you’ll have to make arrangements to take a different route.

Image: The Southeast U.S. region used in this study. (Terando et. al/PLOS One)