Posts filed under ‘Transportation’

Cantilevered Sustainability

The question of how we as a global civilization can achieve a sustainable economic system looms large in my thoughts.  As any economist will tell you, the question of economics is one of scope and scale, but with a population over 6 billion people, our conventional systems and tactics are failing us.  And, while we know what practices are sustainable, the challenge I’m tackling is to achieve global sustainability that is palatable to the great diversity of people that make up our world – not only culturally, but economically.  Because, let’s face it, the world is being shaped and molded by the “have’s” and the developed countries of the world are very much attached to the trappings of modernity they’ve accumulated over the past century.  The solution I’ve come up with is what I refer to as “Cantilevered Sustainability”.

A cantilevered structure is one that is supported only at one end.  As I envision it, a civilization that is economically and socially cantilevered to be sustainable will be anchored by millions of resource-light communities that locally combine their products and services via smart raiCantilevered Sustainabilityl and internet to offset the more resource intense cities around which they are centered (see diagram).  In this way, a cantilevered system will allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it too.

The success of this cantilevered design is rooted in the ability of local communities to resolve and provide for most of their economic needs from local sources.  By resolving these fundamental needs at their production source, a great deal of wasted time and energy is recaptured by its participating members.  This “trickle up” approach to self governance and reliance will eliminate a growing reliance on central governments for local solutions allowing the big governments to focus on the “big matters” such as financing and coordinating rail infrastructure and international relations.

This “whole systems design” approach offers the opportunity to simplify and streamline structures in ways that incremental changes cannot.   The complexities of our current legal, tax, transportation and health care systems are testament to the downside of incrementalism.  While it is a complicated idea to sell, I believe it is one that the Obama administration understands as it tries to reform health care.

Why is this a good idea?  Well, to any undertaking there is a time component.  And, while academics and policy makers think in terms of incentives – carrots and sticks to achieve policy goals, it is also an approach that requires time we don’t have.  I should be clear that this urgency is not about our planet’s environment – the Earth will eventually restore its ecological balances and health.  The urgency is a social one rooted in how our economics is impacting, both socially and environmentally, our fellow mankind.

I understand that such a drastic change in how we live may seem an unreasonable choice – as a species we prefer to take the tried and tested path.  What this argument fails to recognize is that the path we are on is neither tried nor tested because of the scope and scale of the problem.  We are conducting an experiment whose failure can be witnessed in poverty and terrorism.  I truly believe that our humanity is defined by how we treat one another.  And, if we don’t do our best to care for our brother’s and sister’s around the globe, we will have failed the very challenge that a conscious life offers us individually and collectively as a species.


November 6, 2009 at 10:05 am 2 comments

Dissecting Utopia: Will the Details Lead us to a Sustainable World?

Our modern notion of utopia comes from multiple sources ranging from religious texts to science fiction. The result is images without the burden of consequences making them an unrealistic estimates of what or how that utopia will be achieved. For example, there is a Walgreen’s commercial depicting the consumer’s notion of utopia by suggesting there is a parking space next to the store entrance. Is this what Utopia looks like? Will it be a world without limits and endless convenience resembling the ultimate shopping experience? Today, a utopia is still an idea, a concept. In this state it is something “other” and dream-like that will happen in some vague and distant future. And, it will remain so until we define what it will look like. However, by defining what utopia is, we are taking the first steps towards actually building it.

Maybe we can’t know exactly what our utopia will look like, but I believe there are broad areas of consensus. For example, I don’t believe paradise can exist unless it exists for everyone. And, to achieve this goal I think such a society will have to be “buoyant”. By that I mean just as one should float in water with little thought or effort, so too should our systems be designed to provide our basic needs of food and shelter. But, how? I think we can borrow from the lessons of modern business practices, the system design concept of simplicity and the call of sustainable living to rely principally on local resources. I have written previously on possible solutions for specific needs and each can be resolved on one of three levels: one’s household, one’s community and one’s national government. But, each solution strives to resolve problems as close to the source of need as possible.

  • Food: Our food can be mostly solved at the community level by organizing them under the umbrella of Community Supported Agriculture also known as a CSA. (see Straightening Out a Broken Food Chain)
  • Shelter: Mennonites and Amish demonstrate that housing solutions can be solved at the household and community levels (see The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future)
  • Energy: The electricity, heating and cooling we need to live in modern comfort can be produced at the household level utilizing renewable resources (See The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future)
  • Transportation: Our mobility is one of the defining characteristics of our modern society. It is an issue that affects everyone, everywhere and a sustainable system will require the resources and coordination of central governments (see The Transportation Trap)
  • Education: Our children’s most profound teachers are their parents. This fact suggests a common sense solution that is rooted at both the household and community levels. However, the idea of equal opportunity through education mandates larger scales of coordination in defining the curriculum to achieve that uniform standard. The Federal government or central authority can empower both households and communities to accomplish this task by providing the systems, tools and framework – specifically a K-12 self-guided curriculum that can be taught in 4 hours of class per day and reinforced by the family during the remainder of the day. (see Educationally Challenged)

While comprehensive systemic design can offer the efficiencies that will fuel the system, the “magic” that we hope for cannot be imposed or created out of design. It is what we choose to do with our newly discovered free time that will make the magic. Will we educate ourselves or pursue our passion? Will we create art or devote our time to our family and friends? When we are no longer burdened with the need to scramble for our survival we will truly experience the freedom to realize both our individual and societal potential.

But, how do we get there? How do we move from ideas to reality? That too will require a paradigm shift in how we each perceive and interact in our world. For sustainability ultimately recognizes that we are all in this boat together. And, it is through this awareness that we will discover the motivation for societal transformation – compassion. This past week the Dalai Lama hosted a conference on compassion. And, while this may strike the western ear as an odd focus for a conference, its importance cannot be understated because it is through finding compassion for our fellow man that we will also find the motivation to transform our world from one of poverty and wasteful consumption to the utopia of our dreams.

Related Entries

The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future

Straightening Out a Broken Food Chain

Educationally Challenged

The Transportation Trap

April 20, 2008 at 3:11 am

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

Related Entries

The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future

Transportation and Social Equity

March 3, 2008 at 12:21 pm 3 comments

The Price of Paradise

A couple of years ago I moved to the small town of Avalon on Catalina Island. I discovered that like any place there are advantages and disadvantages to living there. I must admit, Avalon is very appealing in many ways. It’s a small town of about 5,000 people living in a one square mile area. It’s picture perfect with a beautiful harbor to view every day. People greet each other. There is no commute time except for the 5 to 10 minute walk to work. There is hardly any crime and it seemed to me a haven from the “real world”. This “paradise” did not come without a cost and that was the extremely high cost of living with very few jobs that could sustain those costs. But in my conversations with people, they would reply that this was “the price of paradise”. I disagreed and moved back to the mainland to continue my search for paradise. But my experience raised an interesting question: if the world is to become the utopia we all hope for, what will be the costs and will people be willing to “pay” for our paradise?

What if the price of paradise is a world with no private cars. As a major source of pollution, an intense user of resources and a source of economic division (see “Rethinking the Sources of Poverty”) its very likely the world will need to depend on mass public transportation to achieve a sustainable and equitable world without poverty. Will people be willing to give up this symbol of freedom and individuality? I would definitely give up the costs, the frustration of traffic and pollution and crime cars create for a paradise that has affordable, accessible and safe mass transit.

What if we each have to “pitch in” a little more to achieve our paradise? Speaking for myself, I get bored doing the same types of activities and enjoy being both a thinker and a laborer. I look forward to picking grapes of helping on a farm. Now if that were my only job it might get old, but such chores were a community effort as it is in a Kibbutz, I would rather do that than pay taxes or exorbitant food prices to avoid that chore. I’m not sure where people develop these notions of what jobs are important and which are not, but every job fulfills an important place in modern communities. It seems to me that such distinctions are a result of ego and to achieve paradise we each will have to recognize the essential needs of each role, job and task and “pitch in” to achieve equality and sustainability.

What if we each have to tolerate the ridiculous beliefs of others? It seems that our paradise will be defined by peace. But peace does not happen just by itself, it happens through our choices. Peace could be achieved by a benevolent dictator, but I don’t think any of us want to be told how to live. Peace could also be achieved by creating a homogenous population – one religious belief or one race, but I think diversity is a resource and offers strength. And, once again, I get bored being around people just like me, don’t you? Perhaps in paradise we will just have to choose to be tolerant of each other which means we will also have to exercise restraint in the public sphere. I think the great freedom we seek will require great responsibility from each of us (see “Lost in Freedom”).

What if we each have to eat more fruits and vegetables to make our paradise a reality? It may sound silly to contemplate, but our food habits are causing many of our health and ecological problems. For example, beef production is a major source of methane gas and our overfishing is depleting stocks in the oceans. Our agricultural system is overly complex relying on fossil fuels for transport and toxic chemicals to increase yields. And, in general, we overeat because we are depressed and lonely and the excess weight fuels high healthcare costs. Paradise will have none of these problems, but that is because the solution is to buy more locally available organic produce and in general rely less on resource intense meat and fish. In fact, in paradise we might each have to grow a small vegetable garden so as to take on some of the responsibility ourselves.

What if we each have to better educate ourselves and think before we act? We all want to be needed, to be heard by others and contribute to the solutions – the ideal of a direct democracy. But, the founders of America knew that a democracy required a well educated public to make informed choices. It seems to me that in paradise we will each need to be educated. We will each know when to speak up and contribute and when to be quiet and listen. None of us are equal in our gifts, but we each have something special to offer. In our paradise we will all be empowered to achieve our potential (see “Educationally Challenged”).

A key notion of paradise is that it is something different from how we live now. And, in order to achieve this paradise there needs to be change. The distance from where we are now to achieving that paradise is the time it takes us to make those choices. I’m not saying that what I’ve outlined is the price of paradise, but if it were would you pay it?

May 28, 2007 at 6:01 pm Leave a comment

The Rising Tide of 5 Billion Others

This past week I attended the 6th Annual Municipal Green Building Conference & Expo in Los Angeles. While much of the material presented was not surprising as it is a reflection of a market response to the environmental problems we face, there were a few notable comments. In his keynote address, Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the US Green Building Council warned of dire problems facing the world because of rising industrialization and consumer demand around the world, especially in India and China. He seemed to recognize the limitations of a consumer-based market response to this rising crisis.

While counter-intuitive to the realities of our modern world, the quickest and most direct way of addressing humanity’s continued contribution to the environmental problems that plague us is to change our consumption patterns. The global warming crisis offers us a unique opportunity to redefine this fundamental economic pattern, especially in the 5 billion “others” that do not share in its fruits. In fact, I believe it is morally incumbent upon those who possess the technical “know-how” to offer a common-interest solution for those who live hand to mouth, especially when the luxury of such knowledge is beyond their reach.

How can we avoid the tidal wave of consumption and industrialization that is coming? I think the answer lies in some common sense tactics. Most importantly, it should be a “solution in a box” approach. By that I mean the pieces of the sustainable living puzzle should be thought out and organized in such a way that, first, it is easy for an average person to do and, second, it can be done on a massive scale. I believe the characteristics of a solution include the following:

1. Affordable Homes: No one goes out wanting to destroy the planet. Our environmental devastation is a result of people simply trying to fulfill basic needs such as shelter for them and their family. A home that is truly affordable for everyone will have to be based on a simple and easy, owner-built system. To make such a home sustainable on a massive scale, it must also be energy and resource wise. A straw bale construction system would seem to fit this need.

2. Local Communities: The most affordable system to provide social services is to support a strategy that includes strong communities, neighborhoods and local self-government. The Israeli kibbutz offers a practical model. Organized on communal property, the kibbutz sustains itself economically through communal farming and/or business ventures.

3. Internet Based Commerce: Our transportation system is a major contributor to our environmental problems. A sustainable future will rely not on a “brick and mortar” based economy, but on an intellectual economy of ideas and services that can be mostly exchanged over the internet.

4. Education: Perhaps it is naïve to say, but it is possible to change the world in 12 years through education. A sustainable economy mandates 100% literacy so that people can build their own houses, self-govern and conduct business over the internet. The MIT laptop program is a practical program that will support the educational system necessary for a sustainable, internet-based economy. Education is also the key to confronting the challenges of population growth

5. Light Rail Transportation Network: Light rail is a sustainable transportation system in both its use of resources as well as its ability to create corridors of human activity to lessen humanity’s footprint on the environment. The power of such a network is in its unique ability to brings together isolated communities to form “metro-communities” numbering anywhere form a hundred thousand on up. While this is the most expensive piece of the sustainability puzzle, there are several “out-of-the-box” ideas for reducing and funding construction costs that are beyond the scope of this commentary. However, such infrastructure does provides a focus for public resources, especially when governments are looking for specific measures to attack both global warming and poverty.

While this vision may seem distant and unrealizable, there are working examples that exist today. At the Green Building Conference I had the privilege of meeting Ali Sahabi (SE Corporation) who designed and constructed an eco-village in Corona, California. While it is principally a market-based response to our environmental problems, it offers a visible template of practical concepts that can and should be implemented on a massive scale. Several people questioned the green-ness of the concept that requires people to travel to and from the village by car. Mr. Sahabi noted that the master plan includes an easement for light rail, because It is not a question of ‘if’, but ’when’ our economy will mandate the use of public transportation.

While it is good that the green movement is now sexy and has market appeal, the rising tide of consumption mandates immediate and practical solutions to fend off its inevitable impact on the environment. I was surprised to hear comments suggesting we need a revolution to truly address the global warming challenge. While those comments echo my personal thoughts, its doubtful that such a revolution will begin in the developed world because those who feel they have something to lose usually resist change, while those who have nothing to lose welcome it. I believe the meek will inherit the Earth and the 5 billion others can show the rest of us how to live a happier, more fulfilling and sustainable lives.

On The Web

One Laptop Per Child

Ex-generals: Global Warming Threatens U.S. Security

April 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Transportation and Social Equity

What do we know about the sources of poverty? Well, simplistic as it may sound poverty results from systemic failures of the economy. The traditional point of view of poverty stems from our historical past and so do our solutions. The modern response is to create more jobs. However, in our new and global reality this seems to be a catch-22; more jobs create more economic activity resulting in more environmental degradation. I call this solution the “Captain Kirk response” because it reminds me of the Star Trek Captain demanding “more power” to get them out of trouble. As any trekkie knows, sometimes this tactic only resulted in greater problems. What a provocative idea! Maybe if we want to solve the issue of poverty, we need to tackle it differently.

One of the fundamental causes of poverty in the world are the costs of participating in our greater society. In my opinion, a great many of these additional costs stem from our inefficient transportation system. While cars are fun and have even become extensions of our ego and identity, they are probably the most resource intense form of transportation imaginable. This fundamental societal structure necessitates the individual’s need for higher incomes to meet the costs of car ownership. In this way, an entire society needs additional productivity to produce incomes capable of sustaining a transportation system: the cost of automobiles, fuel, insurance as well as the taxes that create and maintain the enormous road infrastructure. The cost of this infrastructure even extends into our private homes in the form of garages and driveways.

A transportation system is the foundation of any economy, however ours has consequences that are rarely discussed. For example, the ability of an individual to go and live wherever that can drive also means that government follows them to provide the services we all expect and demand. Although liberating for the pioneer, it has quietly raised the cost of living for the rest of society who foots the bill for these scarcely utilized roads and services. More importantly, this ability of people to sprawl has had environmental costs in how we continually attempt to change the native landscape according to our whim. And, slightly off topic, but not irrelevant, did you know that 1.2 MILLION people die every year as a result of automobile accidents?

I believe a transportation system based on rail technology and alternative energy sources would help eliminate poverty by eliminating the enormous barriers that the current transportation system incurs upon them. In the same fowl swoop it will also contribute to resolving the environmental issues that stem from it. Of course most modern communities, especially in America, are built around the presumption of the automobile. So how communities are designed and organized would have to be rethought in order to make such a system feasible. However, it does not take a genius to recognize the health dividends of a pedestrian friendly system.

Before we dismiss this proposal, one question we might think about is what’s more important? Tackling the issue in a way that can positively affect billions of people both now and in the future while moving our system to a more sustainable one? Or, maintain a fundamentally flawed system because some of us are already “sitting pretty”? Remember, solutions to problems exist in what we can do, not in what we can’t. While one solution to poverty may seem simplistic just because it can be stated so clearly (i.e., lower the cost of living) that doesn’t discount the elegance of the solution. The problems facing the world can seem overwhelming, and likewise so can the solutions. One thing is certain; the world we hope for will not come about through the will or wishes of any one person, but through the actions of a great many acting in common hope.

April 9, 2007 at 6:18 pm 1 comment

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