Posts filed under ‘Design’

Would the World Be a Better Place Without Cars?

children-for-peace_thumbA BBC article I read today suggested that with moderate activity alone, people could be physically fit. With that in mind, I’ve argued for years that the car has been single largest source of obesity in society (see The Transportation Trap). Well, it made me think of another way in which car culture has greatly impacted the world we are creating.

Cars have enabled more extreme social behaviors. I‘m from the United States and constantly wonder how it became such a violent society. And, I attribute a great deal of the blame on the car. Traditionally people were stuck in one place. In order to fulfill basic needs for social acceptance by their community, people would self moderate behavior in order to be more accepted. Now people can live without knowing their neighbors. Mobility has enabled people to disassociate themselves from these traditional anchors of family and neighbors. I believe this has had the effect of enabling more extreme behaviors by making it easy for people to self-select who they have to “deal” with. While this can be empowering, it can also lead to “silo-ed” or incestuous thinking. Being forced out of necessity to get along with your neighbors teaches people how to “play well with others.”

I bring this up as one example of how we can “tweak” the way we live now that will have positive ripple effects into the future. What you think? Would the world be a better place without cars?

Advertisements

October 29, 2014 at 11:36 am 2 comments

Time to Change Our World

With the new year also comes a sense of hope — hope that this year will be better than the last.  And, so this post is also about hope. I believe that ultimately we all want the same thing: to achieve our potential, to provide for both ourselves and our families, and do so in a way that does not harm others or the environment.  I’ve also stated that the solutions to our problems already exist.  They do not require new technology, only new ways of organizing how we live.  We have the technology and the knowledge to create the world of our hopes and dreams; what we do not have is the collective will.

My sense is that we all want a change for the better, but the momentum of life, of business, of our societies keeps us plodding forward in a direction that leads us further and further from the sustainability we need to achieve and indeed our own personal happiness.  This momentum creates a resistance to change that is hard to crack.  So, I am proposing an experiment.  The first step to making real change is by raising people’s awareness of the problems and the solutions.  To this end I am suggesting we make our collective voice heard by our leadership through social media.

On a recent trip to India, I was amazed at how connected the average person has become through mobile phones.  They are everywhere.  Indeed, internet connected mobile devices are now omnipresent throughout the world and through them the average person can raise their voice for change.  Let 2014 be the year our political and corporate leaders hear our voice by tagging #timetochangeourworld

We can change the world for the better if we act collectively.  So, start spreading the word because it’s #timetochangeourworld

January 1, 2014 at 11:04 am Leave a comment

Understanding Our Impact

In my last entry, The Butterfly Effect, I suggested that people would make different choices if they had a better understanding of the social and environmental impacts of their consumption. While products and services bombard us with words such as green, environmentally friendly, organic, rain forest certified, dolphin free, sustainable, local, etc, their meanings are at least confusing and at worst deceptive.  My idea is to create a simple and easy to understand grading system (A, B, C, D and F) such as the ones you see posted on restaurants that guide people as to the social and environmental impact that a product embodies. The idea is to offer people with an easy way to become socially responsible consumers and businesses.

Such a grading system could be called the Environmental & Social Impact Grade (ESIG), the Social Responsibility Indicator (SRI), or the Embodied Energy Grade (EEG). My current favorite, however, is the Product Impact Grade (PIG).  This grade would be a composite picture of the product’s impact and could include such elements such as its carbon footprint, embodied energy, employee’s working conditions and pay, social impact, management pay, expected life of product, impact on human health, and corporate transparency.  These are just some of the element’s I’ve come up with off the top of my head.  The grade could represent a statistical percentage or something more simple such as A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Improving, D=Poor, F=Fail

Ideally, this grade would be prominently printed on each product label – products ranging from cigarettes to diamonds, coffee to cars, and from food to furniture. While I’m sure there would be a great deal of controversy and heated debate about what elements should be reflected by the PIG, it’s also a discussion that is long overdue.  Ideally, by reflecting a product’s sustainability, the PIG will also become a reflection of the social contract we hold with each other and our environment regardless of race or religion, wealth or politics.

Imagine if customers went into a Wal-Mart store and found most of their products labeled with a big fat “D” or “F”.  They would still be the same products we’ve been consuming for years, but the grade will give people a sense of the sustainability of that product.  No one likes a D or an F and such marks would provoke people to wonder what is behind the grade.  The labeling would be tied to a product database that details the reasons for the grade.  The grade would gradually affect consumption patterns and businesses will be forced to adapt.

This is an inexpensive, within-the-box solution that uses education to inform both consumer choices as well as business behavior.  It does not need a global treaty to implement.  Other than possibly requiring the grade to be printed, the PIG doesn’t need any government legislation.  The result could be that people choose less sustainable practices because of price, but at least our unsustainability will be the result of our conscious choice and not our blind ignorance.

July 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm 7 comments

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect is used to illustrate an element of chaos theory.  It suggests the possibility that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the globe a few weeks later.  As far as affecting weather, this seems to be more of a mental exercise rather than a meaningful explanation of weather.  However, in our globalized consumer economy, it demonstrates how a seemingly innocent action in one place can have large, unintended consequences on the other side of the planet.

Examples of ill considered consequences of our economic system include growing corn for fuel which raises the cost of staple items in Latin America.  Our disposable attitude towards technology leads to environmental pollution and poisoning in China.  Making the automobile the cornerstone of our mobility increases productivity everywhere so that the society can afford them and then estranges those in a society who cannot (see The Transportation Trap).  The connections are infinite and ubiquitous in our everyday lives and only seen by those who take time to notice.

What future do we want?  Well, the one we’re going to get is the one we are building now and this is not the future I want.  For myself, I do not want my prosperity to be the source or cause of someone else’s suffering – whether I understand the intricate linkages or not.  I am sure many will disagree or have an opinion about.  However, it’s an important enough question that we must openly and seriously discuss and debate it.  It is not enough for governments to hold a conference; rather everyone must become engaged and involved in the conversation if we are to have a meaningful mandate for a change to sustainable systems.

I believe humanity has reached a unique point in its evolution – a place in time when we can and will define our character as a species.  The difference between a child and an adult is in acknowledging their responsibilities. A modern world cannot ignore the “negative externalities” of its economic system and an advance society cannot ignore its responsibilities.   So too, we cannot consider our civilization to be “grown up” until we acknowledge our responsibilities.

The challenge humanity faces is not a technical one – we already have the know-how to make our world sustainable.  The challenge we face is one of collective will – we fear the uncertainty of change.  I have a belief (probably naïve) that, like myself, the great majority of my fellow humanity does not want their prosperity to be the cause of another person’s suffering.  If so, the means to bringing about a sustainable world may be found in tapping into this sense of compassion by making people aware of the Butterfly Effects of our globalized, consumption economy.  The problem is: how?  My next blog entry will propose a relatively simple, inexpensive and non-regulatory solution.  My sincerest hope is that we choose a future we all want.

July 24, 2012 at 7:17 am 3 comments

Transitioning to “Cantilevered Sustainability”

My posts to the Sustainability Puzzle have focused on presenting a basic outline of how to re-organize ourselves sustainably. Now that we have a working design, how can we actually transition society into a cantilevered system of sustainability?  Well, I think there is no silver bullet, but a great deal of the legwork can be accomplished through the tried and true carrot and stick approach of tax policy.  Let me share my general thoughts with you.

One of the goals of a cantilevered system of sustainability is to cluster resources and communities around them.  It aims to densify cities and dramatically improve their sustainability.  These resource intense cities would be cantilevered by sustainable communities networked by smart rail systems in the space between cities.  Because these communities are sustainable and provide their own services, they would not require government services and would be tax free (see The Grand Bargain).

In order to prepare for the new built environment, one change I would propose is to reformulate property tax assessments to include the actual cost of services to a property as well as an “unsustainablity” assessment.  Properties that are less eco-friendly will be taxed at a higher rate than those that are resource-neutral.  The tax can increase over a period of time to make carbon-hungry buildings uneconomical, incentivizing retrofits or altogether replacement.  Another aim of the policy is to concentrate cities into a defined area — promoting vertical and green development while discouraging sprawl.  This will inevitably result in abandoning structures as well as areas that are not populated enough to make it economical for the resources required to keep them within the domain of the city. There will ultimately be a lowest tax rate in the city, but since it will be connected by roads, education and health systems, there cannot be a 0% rate within cities.  This 0% rate would be reserved for sustainable communities outside the city.

One of the greatest sources of our unsustainability is our transportation system (see Transportation Trap) and city sprawl encourages private car ownership.  By discouraging sprawl and encouraging densification through an “unsustainability tax”, we’re promoting the economics of public transport and undermining the need for the private automobile.  For example, currently malls pop up in suburbs that are only easily accessed by car and require new off ramps, dedicated traffic intersections, new sewage and water lines.  Such infrastructure sprawl will become uneconomic as its construction and maintenance will no longer be subsidized.

The traditional argument would be that increasing taxes will slow down economic activity.  However, it is also true that people will spend money to avoid taxes! If the policies are announced in advance and phased in over time, people and business will be able to make the physical changes and experience little change in their tax rate.  The benefit will be a surge in building and innovation of technologies, services and systems that will result from this planned change in our built environment.  This “call to action” will create a short-term boom of 10 years or longer during the transition into our new sustainable systems.

To read more on the wisdom of densifying cities:

http://environment.umn.edu/momentum/issue/4.1w12/steffen.html

March 11, 2012 at 7:16 am 15 comments

Reframing the Sustainability Argument: It’s about How We Organize Ourselves

Like a doctor treating a medical problem, without accurate and good information, the doctor can’t diagnose the problem correctly.  And, without an accurate diagnosis, he or she can’t develop a proper treatment.  Our society works in much the same way.  If the general population is not given accurate information about our sustainability problem, how can we expect them to realize that the treatment and its urgency are appropriate for the scale of the problem?

From our past experience, we’ve learned that the solution to our economic problems is through creating more jobs, more manufacturing and more consumption of goods.  The problem is that this solution clashes with our environmental reality—the way we live consumes too many resources and it is only going to become worse because of our population growth.  However, if we are content with a permanent economic underclass, then it may be possible to continue the current paradigm in one form or another.

The CBC documentary Surviving the Future echoes what is the common perception about how we will reach a sustainable future – through better technology.  I clearly reject this notion because the key to sustainability is in how we organize ourselves.  Solutions based on this assessment can be achieved with our current state of technology.  Time is more important than technology in determining our success because the longer we wait, the more complex and larger the problems become.

Our growing population is having a devastating impact on our environment and can’t continue.  Imminent ecological system collapses include fish depletion, water table depletion and the influence of fossil fuel, not only on the environment, but on our society.  It has distorted who we are as humans and our basic moral code of treating others as we would like to be treated is being compromised.

The good news is that, strictly speaking, we have enough resources and adequate technology to allow everyone a dignified life.  However, our current systems require a great deal of waste in order to work.  It is how we live that is creating these devastating consumption patterns that jeopardize our future. At some point, someone needs to be the adult in the room, stand up and make everyone face the facts.  How do we do this in our world with 7 billion voices?

At times I feel like I am alone in this argument for urgent action, but I know there are others such as David Suzuki that have a much larger sphere of influence and still there is not even a murmur of concern in capitals around the world.  Yes, there are documentaries such as Surviving the Future and online groups such as the  Future We Want.

Our failure to address what is probably the largest issue that humanity will face is a combination of a lack of leadership, the distraction that occurs with too many voices and the faith we place in the current economic paradigm.

The scope and scale of the problem requires a global response because it is both an issue of population and resources.  We can no longer afford to cling to quaint notions of a world with limitless resources.  A few generations ago when the world was less populated global coordination was not necessary, but today’s growth rate makes it imperative.

February 20, 2012 at 8:35 am 31 comments

In Pursuit of Happiness

In this blog, I’ve very often discussed happiness which at first glance may seem unrelated to sustainability.  However, as I see it, the two are quite inter-related because the fundamental drive of people, perhaps even the purpose of life is to find happiness.  In the world we are now creating, people believe they will be happier once they have x, y and z – usually things that can be bought.  Where our modern pursuit of happiness clashes with sustainability is that after we’ve bought x, y and z we realize we’re still not happy and develop a new list of things to buy that will make us happy.  And, little by little we are consuming our world.  From my experience I’ve found that happiness is found in our relationships and not in our stuff.

The engine of our world economy is our consumption and this creates problems not only in terms of environmental sustainability, but also has consequences in how it creates poverty.  So much of our consumption economy is simply driven by corporations, businesses and advertisers need to feed their profitability by fulfilling peoples search for happiness. If I am correct that it is relationships that foster happiness then, this is a huge distraction of resources, wasteful and is contributing to other people’s poverty.

The question then is how do we build a civilization that contributes to relationships?  I think the answers already exist and have a proven track record.  For example, pedestrian friendly communities help people to know their neighbors and develop a sense of connection with their community.  Public transit is a major element that contributes to the pedestrian culture.  Local economies literally allow people to invest in their own communities and the welfare of the people that create it.  Systems that require less work create less stress and more family time.  And, finally communities that utilize sweat equity rather than taxes create a greater sense of connection not only with the community, but with the idea of self-governance and responsibility to their community.

One of our obstacles to making fundamental changes to our world stems from public confidence in several myths about our civilization.  The first is the images of happiness that I’ve just discussed.  Once we realize that happiness cannot be found in buying stuff and that it is found in our relationships with each other, we will change our priorities.  A huge myth is that somehow if we keep doing what we’re doing that poverty will disappear.  Well, the devil is in the details and the current system is built upon economic inequity.  And, the prosperity that billions of people have experienced relies on a resource bubble that is unsustainable.  This brings up the next myth that life is getting better: While this may have been true in the past, we’ve reached a critical point in our population growth, use of natural resources and people’s tolerance of social inequity.  A sustainable system does not try to have people live without stuff, but rather recognize what is enough.  People need to come to terms with the reality that it is not important to live like a millionaire nor should that be their goal.

No one can make anyone else happy, but we can certainly make it easier for everyone to achieve by designing and building systems that contribute to the greater goal of happiness.  Ultimately, I believe the movement to sustainable systems will result from a rising awareness of our consumption of resources and its impact on our fellow man and will result in voluntary societal restraint of our consumption of products.  While the Sustainability Puzzle is attempting to address the built elements of our world, I’m trying to tackle both sides of the happiness equation.  I’ll soon be releasing an ebook with the working title of Liking Yourself to address the existential challenges of being happy.  While these writings are probably inadequate to change our world, I’m doing what I can with the limited resources at my disposal.

September 26, 2011 at 9:27 am 6 comments

Older Posts



%d bloggers like this: