May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ’em), ‘green products’, (I hate ’em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…


Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.

Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. – and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?

USA by the numbers

September 12, 2008

Where is everyone?  Crowded on your doorstep if you believe the group NumbersUSA, a group dedicated to reducing all immigration, even legal immigration.  (I heard about them from this NPR story.)  Whatever their real reasons for opposing immigration may be – misanthropy, nostalgia, bigotry, fear of change – their argument about environmental degradation in the USA is a lot of hooey.  The biggest problem with our treatment of the natural world here in the US of A is our history of gobbling up space as if there’s no tomorrow!  Consider these maps:

This is a map of the population density (people per square mile) in the lower 48 with 2004 Census data.  Note that nearly all of the land is settled at the lowest density on the map, less than 250 people per square mile.  (Much of it is at much less than that!)  The high concentrations are where the cities are.  If we weren’t so violently opposed to city life…

“I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice.”

–Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!

…perhaps we would concentrate our citizens there and leave the rest of the continent as a garden.  Even in those diseased parts of the nation that are highly urban, the density is not nearly so great as what is common in the rest of the world.  Consider this next map of the metro area around New York City.

Note how the higher density areas are relatively small, and are almost all within the five boroughs of NYC.  The area to the northeast of Manhattan, Bergen County, NJ, is one of the most densely populated regions of the country, but it is settled at about 2500 per square mile.  As I like to say, the USA is mostly unpopulated empty space.  To put these figures in world perspective, consider this chart:

 This graph shows many data items and has two axes.  The black curve on the top (refer to left axis) shows that about 97% of the USA population lives on only 50% of its land.  80% of the population lives on about 7% of the land.  (15% of the population lives within 50 miles of I-95 between Boston and Washington, DC.) 

The blue curve refers to the right axis, and shows that 90% of the land is settled at densities so low that they barely register on the axis. 

Manhattan, our most densely populated place, is only twice as dense as ALL of Bangladesh.  If you factor in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, NY City is about as dense as ALL of Japan.  Many world cities are much denser than American ones as few cities in the USA even approach the density of NYC, let alone Manhattan! 

The horizontal dashed lines show the densities of some modernized countries – clearly people are crammed in – comfortably from what I’ve seen and heard – at rates that far exceed what we have here in the USA.

So, if we want to pave over the USA and have everyone live in a McMansion, then maybe we should cut back on our immigration and population growth.  If we want to use resources wisely, I don’t see anything to worry about.