Archive for March, 2008

The Responsible Society

We teach the subject of social responsibility in our universities, we lecture the topic to our children and I think many assume that society is generally responsible. But, are we? It seems to me that just as a person is responsible for their choices, society is likewise responsible for its collective actions. What does this imply? It implies that society is responsible for the failure of the systems it implements and that poverty, homelessness, hunger and inadequate healthcare are the manifestations of our system’s failures.

Throughout this blog, I’ve tried to capture the implications of responsibility by describing the essence of what distinguishes children from adults – taking responsibility for their actions. It does not magically happen at the age of 18, 21 or even 74. It is a state of mind that we accept when we are mature enough to comprehend it. And, like a teenager modern society wants the benefits of being an adult, but we still try to escape taking responsibility for our choices.

As a society, I think we have yet to mature to the point of accepting our full responsibilities. The huge variance in incomes demonstrates that we still do not believe every person and job in a system is essential to the mechanics of society. Our economics is like the unexplored frontier where everyone is on their own. But, in a day of global communication, transportation and trade, with a population racing toward 7 billion, we ignore the obvious interdependence and reliance of one people’s prosperity and wealth upon another’s labor. Indeed, we are all in this together and our individual prosperity stands on the shoulders of many others. In a responsible society we will be treating our brothers as we would have them treat us. We’re not there yet.

Getting people to wrap their heads around sustainability is an uphill battle, so framing the argument in terms of responsibility is more tangible, but still neither sexy nor motivating enough for most to take action. So, in search of motivation I ask the following: Is a responsible society also a moral society? The debate of what is moral behavior can become dizzying and lost in the relativism of perspectives. However, if you believe as I do that being responsible is a subset of moral behavior, then by society focusing on meeting its responsibilities we will move a long way toward becoming a moral society.

The good news is that a responsible society also turns out to be a sustainable one. So, while people may not understand what sustainability is, most people value and can strive for being responsible. But now I’m wondering does that also imply our society will not be a moral one until it is sustainable? Hmmm. Curious, very curious…

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The Transportation Trap

If we look at the modern world and ponder what single element defines it, I would pick transportation. It has been an essential medium for both our technological and economic progress and in less than 50 years we have conquered the distances that used to separate and isolate us. However, judged against the scales of time and innovation, this transportation system organized on the building blocks of planes, trains and automobiles could easily be described as “version 1.0”. And, while I like what our system accomplishes – mobility, I don’t like how we achieve it – through environmental degradation and the consequential social inequity. So, to achieve a sustainable future we will need a “system upgrade”. Unfortunately, our greatest obstacle to sustainability is our child-like infatuation with the current transportation system based on fossil fuels and the resource intense automobile.

The private car is the foundation of our transportation system in America and in my earlier entry, Transportation and Social Equity, I argue that the auto is also a barrier to participation in our greater society. But, if you consider all the pieces of infrastructure needed to support this system, the investment costs become clearer. These pieces include : roads, gas stations, mechanics, driveways, garages, parking lots, land and space, fuel, refineries, pipe-lines, car manufacturers, dealers, junk yards, traffic police, road signs and lights, regulations, the commute time we invest, bridges, tunnels, pollution, injuries, lives (1.2 million deaths/year), labor to build and maintain, insurance and the health care costs that result from the sedentary lifestyle it systematizes.

Even if we develop a car that travels 400 miles on a gallon of water, the costs are too high – the infrastructure needed to support it largely remains the same and continues to be inefficient, wasteful and a source of poverty. What is the alternative? Public transportation seems the obvious answer. The problem with this simplistic answer is that the domination of the almighty car has shaped American society into a suburban sprawl that makes our current paradigm of public transportation ineffective and not a realistic solution.

In our quest to achieve a sustainable civilization, if public transportation utilizing high speed trains, light rail and automated people movers is to become a reality, then we will need to change the paradigm by reorganizing how and where we live. That is to say, rather than build this system to go where people currently populate (the current mindset), we will have to build the system to connect strategic resources such as agriculture and energy, and let people populate along those routes.

Barriers to realizing this “Transportation System v2.0” reside in the public’s mindset – Americans are unlikely to lead the world toward a sustainable future because of our deep association of the car as a symbol of freedom and individuality. In this way our success also becomes our trap and sustainable transportation systems will probably appear in underdeveloped countries first. Why? One, with scarce resources they must be more strategic in their infrastructure choices. And two, neither their egos nor livelihoods are as invested in the current paradigm to resist such innovation.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

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