The fossil waters underlying the Great Plains, left over from the Pleistocene, are giving out. We done sucked ’em dry. Any hydrologist could have told you it was in the works. We’ll see the end of fossil ground water pumping in the 21st century, whether we like it or not.
Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend. The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis. Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.
What is a car?
For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.
- Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
- The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
- The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
- The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.
The New York Times looks at our national policy of paying to rebuild vulnerable coastal communities, no matter how ill advised their developments might be. In effect, we’ve encouraged people to upscale their beachfront shanties into expensive vacation homes, increasing the value at risk next time a storm hits. As the seas rise, ever more money will be sent down this gopher hole. Instead, we should prohibit future development, map out the most vulnerable locations, and draw up buy-out offers ahead of time, so when disaster strikes, it can be used as an opportunity to re-direct investment into less risky areas.
A Love Story And A Clearance Sale, musings of an arctic sea ice researcher on the fact that he will probably outlive the object of his professional affections. A minimum of zero sea ice appears likely between 2015 and 2020, and models suggest that once you get to a minimum of zero, the ice-free season is likely to expand quickly, with significant impacts to northern hemisphere weather patterns.
The wet side of Greenland. Apparently almost the entire Greenland ice sheet, including the summit, are experiencing above-freezing temperatures this year, with ice sheet albedos at an all time low, leading to a dramatic increase in meltwater flow, doubling previous flow records in some rivers. Yikes!
A short literature review on the connection between the present fires and heat, and climate change. No individual local weather event can be reliably pinned to climate change, but the probability of a winter and spring like the ones we’ve had in 2012 without climate change are very low. We are living in a different world now, and we don’t know how it’s going to work.
Former Xcel CEO Dick Kelly would be fine with no more coal. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment that his former employer works within in Colorado, and the company’s need to protect a couple of billion dollars worth of undepreciated coal assets makes it very hard for them to move away from it.
An hour long interview based documentary by some Dutch filmmakers about the changing social and economic realities of southern California, in the wake of the financial crisis, and America’s general malaise.
It’s dangerous to cling to an identity which is no longer compatible with reality. Remember the Norse and their Greenlandic colonies. In the long run I think adaptability is the greatest kind of power you can wield. Evolutionary power.
We need, in so many ways, to move beyond thinking of ourselves as consumers, instead of citizens. Consumers, instead of producers and creators. Society and culture are almost infinitely flexible, if you’ve got the right mindset and a reason to change.
Anthropocene — the Age of Man. First coined in irony, the International Commission on Stratigraphy is now debating whether to officially end the Holocene geological epoch. We humans are leaving home, in time if not in space.
A firsthand account of the floods in Queensland. Australia has been living in the (climatic) future for some time, facing the prospect of desalinization plants and admitting that most of their agriculture is not viable, given soil both saline and infertile, and the decade long drought. The government is buying up the water rights in the Murray Darling basin because it’s cheaper than agricultural subsidies, and the rural vote is given disproportionate weight in Australian law. There is a dark poetry in the fact that Queensland’s export coal mines are underwater today. None of this is to say that climate change is necessarily behind the floods or the drought or the bush fires from a few years ago, or the mad cold winter in Europe this year, or the forest fires in Russia this summer. We won’t ever be able to attribute any particular weather event to anthropogenic CO2, but all this is the kind of thing one ought to expect if one opts to change the composition of the homeworld’s atmosphere: