Published Somedays

Downfall of Society

(updated: Aug 11, 2007)

"The human species may be seen as having evolved in the service of entropy, and it cannot be expected to outlast the dense accumulations of energy that have helped define its niche. Human beings like to believe they are in control of their destiny, but when the history of life on Earth is seen in perspective, the evolution of Homo sapiens is merely a transient episode that acts to redress the planet's energy balance."
- David Price.


I am a hypocrite. I preach about environmental impact and yet I drive an SUV (granted a small one but it still gets lousy gas mileage). I bought it before I knew better. Now I know better but I still pollute. I still drive all the way down to go ride at Dow Rd or the Forest Trail. I do it for my health. But there is no alternative. I could try to ride my bike and I know someone who has done it, but I just don't want to deal with the drivers in this town. The benefits I get from the extra exercise are offset by the increased adrenaline and blood pressure caused by ignorant rednecks in this town.

Here's the thing. I hate cars. Always have. I didn't learn to drive until I was 25. I lived in Texas (truck and SUV capital of the world for Christ sake) for three years before I took my drivers test and got a license. I got everywhere by bike and bus. Way back then drivers were friendlier to me than drivers in Wilmington today. I think it has gotten worse. Cars have supplanted everything. Open space, forests, trees, farms, fields. Just think of the huge amount of blacktop that the average Wal-Mart has for parking and then multiply that by the 4022 stores they operate in the US. The total amount of paved surfaces in the US put together is larger than the area of Ohio and it keeps growing each year. Cars have supplanted cycling and walking in this country, and the same thing is happening now in China. Cars make us waste so much space. They destroy forests and habitats. Cars have isolated us and created a society that has dispersed itself to ex-urban areas and lives in fear. Cars cause us to behave badly in cases of road rage, hit and runs, and drinking and driving. Cars created fast food and the drive-through window, leading to obesity. Cars cause wars. Cars have made the American landscape absolutely hideous, with massive interchanges, lights, traffic, and strip mall after strip mall. It's like the cartoon background that keeps repeating itself over and over. People think they go to church and worship god. They really worship the automobile. It's shame that it has come to this.

My friend used to say back in 1998 in Texas that SUVs were the downfall of society. He is probably right.

This country has become very wealthy. What I mean to say is, less than 10% of people in this country now owns more than 80% of its assets. It will only get worse. (I had some statistics from the Economist to back it up but I lost the article). Wealthier people contribute vastly more CO2 emissions and resource depletion than the poor. It would take 600 people in Bangladesh to have the same impact on the environment as 1 wealthy American. America is the world's largest polluter (http://www.environmentaldefense.org/article.cfm?contentID=6083), and as a result we have no business telling anybody else to reduce environmental impact, including China. Why do you think China is growing so fast anyway? It has to feed American consumption. We're like an insatiable monster that will keep growing until it consumes everything until there is nothing left and it slowly starves.

This is the cover art for the latest Nine Inch Nails album. I like it. This is where our country is headed:


So I am hypocrite but only because I know better. But most people are not because they are simply unaware of their impact. They are too busy fretting about the troubles of their day. They are ignorant at best. But ignorance is no excuse. We are heading for disaster. We are rapidly consuming a non-renewable resource near its peak production and spewing its byproducts into the atmosphere. I've read we burn the oil equivalent of about 400 years worth of earth biomass every year and release all that stored CO2 back into the air.

Everything you know or do depends upon on the supply of energy. It is assumed (wrongly) in economics that energy supply is infinite. The whole economic system depends on growth based on a limitless energy supply. This has always bugged me about economics. As a physicist, you are bound by conservation of energy. Add this constraint to economics and the entire industrial model breaks down if it starts taking more energy to extract than what you get from from the extraction.

Can't keep going like this for much longer:


So we are on an unsustainable trajectory and because of the way our society is built solely around the automobile, Americans are going to really pay the price. But it is not just Americans. My dad recently returned from a trip to Istanbul, Turkey. Last time I was there was in 1992. It's now one of the largest cities in the world, with more than 17 million people and everybody drives. Traffic much worse than L.A. Pollution is worse, too. I remember seeing the thick yellow-brown haze over the water. Gas at $8/gallon apparently does nothing to deter people from driving. Nobody bikes. They'd be crazy to. There are no lanes - drivers make their own lanes and drive within inches of one another. 15 years and the place has gone crazy. Real estate prices are skyrocketing as well. What happens in another 50 years? Clearly, they are also on an unsustainable course.

People don't even want sidewalks anymore. Not being used is the argument they'll probably make against bike lanes:
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl-psidewalk14may14,0,6422851.story?coll=sfla-news-palm

Unfortunately, it is not the ones who caused it who will suffer. Not the ones alive today but their children who had nothing to do with it will suffer from a long slow decline in standard of living. I don't know if this country will survive. I think we are in for a very rude awakening. The energy crisis is coming, and we are far from ready for it. Global Warming is already here. If we think we can slowly switch to fuel efficient cars and alternative energy over a period of 30 years just about the time when oil production tapers off, we've got another thing coming. This is a crisis that we have to act upon at an urgency level much greater than that of the Manhattan Project or landing a man on the moon.

I know better, so it is my responsibility to do something about it. It's the reason I'd like to work for a company like GE so I can be part of some of these solutions such as nuclear power, which is coming like it or not (I'd put my money here). This country can turn around on a dime. We've done it before. Remember acid rain? That was caused by Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) emissions from factories and power plants. But today SO2 emissions are much lower even though the energy supply has increased. This is because of a cap and trade system put in place which created a market incentive for reducing SO2 emissions. It worked better than expected, and at the same time spurred innovation, created jobs, and made companies more profitable.

Cap and trade can work for CO2 as well. America needs to stop sleepwalking and join the one already in place worldwide. But it's going to take people like us to help kick it off. If you want an opportunity, this is it. We can start by getting together to make people aware of cycling and start working toward getting bike lanes built all over this town to reduce the environmental impact of cars. We can show how bike lanes can help reduce CO2 levels, gas consumption, healthcare costs, and makes our town more attractive, increasing tourism and thus income derived from it. I mean, our climate is mild (no riding in below zero or a blizzard), it's flat so it's easy to pedal, and it's on the coast where you should slow down and enjoy the scenery. I should have taken photos when I was in Boulder, CO last month. It was amazing to see all the people biking. Everybody is out riding bikes - even parents pulling kids in bike trailers instead of a giant SUV. And they have hills and a harsher climate compared to ours. Other places like Amsterdam where an amazing 40% of people commute by bike are trying to do even more (http://online.wsj.com/article_email/article_print/SB117823466296891497-lMyQjAxMDE3NzA4NzIwMzc0Wj.html). So what's our excuse?

As much as I'd like to remain an optimist, however, there is a side of me that thinks that nothing we do save reducing our population can stem the inevitable destruction of our planet and extinction of our species. Any solution we come up with will just allow humans to keep increasing in numbers, until that solution fails, and we keep finding new solutions and expanding and building until either the entire planet is covered in solar cells and power plants and we reach an absolute limit and catastrophically die off. The longer we can go along this path, the worse the die-off will be. Maybe some day earth will look like the planet Courissant from Star Wars. Maybe the Matrix idea of using humans as batteries isn't so far-fetched after all, but that pesky conservation of energy law keeps popping-up again: energy in > energy out = no good.

Whatever happened to taking the bus to school? I always took the bus or we carpooled. In NJ we walked or rode our bikes. I guess those days are gone:
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl-pcarpool14may14,0,3752040.story?coll=sfla-news-palm

And then there is the assumption that we can just keep doing things the way we have been. We're going to have to change. People are going to have to face reality. We can't just switch to ethanol and keep happily motoring along like before. If we switched to ethanol to run all the cars what would end up happening is that the remaining rain forests (and just about every other forest in the world) would be completely wiped out to grow sugarcane and palm oil plants. If we produce corn ethanol in this country food prices would skyrocket and millions of people would starve? Nice. Trade foreign oil for even more destruction of the planet and release of greenhouse gases just so we can keep driving. I can see the bumper stickers now, "You starve, I'll drive." That's what globalization truly means - it means we can sleep better at night, because we don't have to see our dirty laundry - it's all shipped offshore somewhere out of sight, and out of mind.

And it's nice to know the Dallas, TX area has got its priorities in order:
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/051307dnmetthreebridges.3266051.html

But let's just consider Wilmington for a bit. Wilmington should have another big incentive for reducing CO2 and its contribution to global warming: hurricanes. One major hurricane could wipe out any money "saved" by not doing anything differently, e.g., by keeping its arcane zoning laws in place, and by not committing a much higher percentage of its transportation budget toward bike and other alternative transportation projects that reduces CO2. To do nothing is to roll the dice each year.

See how global warming can impact Wilmington, NC and surrounding areas:

http://environmentaldefense.org/article.cfm?contentID=5374

Especially check out the maps showing storm surge risk in Wilmington.

Another article about the loss of forests in NC:

http://www.environmentaldefense.org/article.cfm?contentID=5420

Forests are critical to CO2 reduction as trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Lastly, what really bugs me about these smart growth plans that cities have adopted, is that they do nothing to stem the tide of suburban development and continued raping of the land. I mean, a city could say that because it has promoted dense urban living and mixed use development, they reduced some suburban development, the need for more and bigger roads, traffic and congestion. But how much? How about none. Zero. Nada. It would have happened smart growth or not. Let me give you a prime example - Austin, TX. For all the planned smart growth the city has implemented has done nothing to limit, slow, or stop any development outside the city. Until a city buys or annexes all the land around it, like a ring around the city, leaves it open or wild space and says, "no development outside this zone", smart growth is a bunch of crap. This will never happen anyway, so it's all a lot of hogwash. The only things that limit growth is less people (which will never happen), oceans (haven't figured out how to build on them, so we just keep pushing up to the edge of the water like Japanese cramming into a subway car), and mountains that are national parks (you know, those are for resorts). So let me restate that. The only way to limit growth is to limit the energy supply. Cities want growth. They want more. That's how the economic system functions.

Here's another example, a common theme in local papers: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/broward/sfl-sdowntowns14may14,0,2517270.story?coll=sfla-news-broward

Take away the growth, and it stagnates and dies. It will happen when the energy crisis hits. And it will happen fast. But we just keep going about our daily lives like oil will last forever. Will we do nothing before it strikes? How about a bike lane? How about sharing the road? A sidewalk? Is that too much to ask?

-SBA



Filed Under: General Entries



8 COMMENTS:

1. Sean Carr said...

Well done sir, well done. Cycling makes sense. It's a win win for the planet and its inhabitants. Whether road or mountain biking, it will always beat the hell out of driving. Whether you believe in global warming or not is not the issue. It'll cut down on traffic, help keep the air clean of fumes and free your soul, brother lol. To quote my favorite author Edward Abbey, "Growth for the sake of growth is ideology of a cancer cell."

May 14, 2007 @ 9:34 AM


2. Sir Lamm-Hammer said...

i am not a fan of govt controlling much of anything, but if they were to introduce a population control bill, i would jump on the band wagon pretty fast. so that was a joke. the govt would find some way to "F" that up too. poeple need to get on a bike and ride in the streets. its where these things belong. just think. if people spent more time riding a bike, that would be less free time to spend in bed with their spouse. Automatic population controll. this is all a little silly i know, but humans are selfishly reproducing for no other reason the to spread thier seed of just to enjoy the creation of life. i am not trying to get all you parents pissed off. i know of a few new parents that are very good people, and will raise good, bike riding humans, provided the earth last long enough. i know it sounds a little harsh but i think about children much like i think about pets. there are so many in this world with bad homes or no home at all. why dont you just adopt one and stop making new ones. anyway this is just my little rant on over population. i know that no one is really going to do anything to change this, but while we are here we can at least try to make the future as bright as possible. get active and make cycling popular agian.

May 14, 2007 @ 1:24 PM


3. Sir Bikes said...

Here's something funny. I taught my son how to ride a bike when he was three, and now I have another one who I started teaching at 12 months using the PV Glider. He likes bikes, but he loves cars, car racing, and Nascar. He collects cars, watches Nascar on tv, plays a Nascar racing game on the computer, has a race track, and even knows who drives which numbered cars (how did he learn this?). It's just funny because I am so anti-car. I absolutely cannot stand Nascar. But I'm not going to try to discourage him, because it can backfire. I'll even take him to the Lowe's Speedway in Concord. He doesn't like loud noises - maybe that will do the trick.

But I would never choose a neighborhood like this to live in again. Every place I've lived I've been able to walk and bike places, except here. Boston, Pittsburgh, Austin, Irvine - I got everywhere by bike or public transportation. I could ride to the trails on my bike in Pittsburgh, Austin, and Irvine.

But here this complete and total dependence on the automobile with not even a consideration for bikes (as if they didn't exist, or why would anyone want to ride one), really bugs me. And now the thing that is really bothering me now is this Ethanol craze, because what's happening is going to be more humanitarian crimes, turning food into fuel, raping of the forests to grow crops so that suburbanites can keep driving their suv's for every little errand, and developers can keep expanding ever outward. Oil companies like Shell screwed the people of Africa, and now the same thing is going to happen with biofuels. We're going to screw the rest of the world again.

The solution calls for us to change our consumptive habits, but no one is willing to do it. We're so used to having our every need met with some product or "solution" that we'll gladly pay money for, so that we can keep moving faster and faster and get busier and busier, despite all the time-saving claims. Doesn't make sense if you sit back and really think about it.

But if you want a solution that doesn't destroy other countries and pollute the world while economic reports lie to us that it's creating jobs, a solution that lets us continue living the way we're accustomed to, then the answer is nuclear power and electric cars with recyclable/renewable batteries.

May 15, 2007 @ 9:47 AM


4. vtry said...

While I have to generally agree with the change of our consumption habits as well as the zero population growth arguments, I am not so sure about putting "doesn't ... pollute the world" and "nuclear power" in the same sentence. While I am just a chemist (not a physicist - could never get their eye glass choice right...) last I checked nuclear waste, such as spent fuel rods are not exactly "biodegradable". In fact it can be pretty hard to find places where the locals will let you put it (even in the middle of now where Utah). I am actually very much in favor of nuclear power, but more because it seems to be the lesser of two evils. Anyways, lets not get too Dr. Evil starry-eyed here okay?

Oh, and you can ride to plenty of trails while living in Boston as well. The Fells and Blue Hills are probably the best examples, but you can even ride to Lynn, just getting over Rt 1 can be a little difficult.

May 15, 2007 @ 1:05 PM


5. Sir Bikes said...

Compared to any other method of generating power, nuclear produces the most power with the least amount of waste. Unfortunately, the waste is extremely toxic. But spent fuel can be reprocessed, it still contains a lot of energy which can be harnessed. It can be bombarded with neutrons to change the plutonium into less reactive elements with a shorter half-life. France has the best nuclear technology - they seem to have figured it out. They generate most of their electricity from nuclear. The new technology nuclear plants are a lot safer. They can store the spent fuel in water and generate residual power. They can mix it in glass and encase it in concrete and bury it beneath the ocean where one tectonic plate slides beneath another so it gets reabsorbed into the mantle. It can be shot into space. Or it can be buried in a geologically stable area out in the desert somewhere where they used to test nuclear weapons and nobody can live there anyway. It's a lot better than polluting the atmosphere or releasing greenhouse gases.

People will complain until one day they can't afford to drive or turn on their flat-screen TV and then they'll be crying for nuclear power.

All the other green energy solutions are a joke. Wind power? Please. No wind. No electricity. Those things make stripmalls look good too.
Growing crops for biofuel? A humanitarian disaster.
Solar? Inefficient.
Hydro-electric? Most of the large lakes have already been dammed.
Coal? An environmental disaster. Ask someone from Tennessee if they like watching the mountains disappear and the lakes and streams polluted.
Natural gas? Same problem as oil - it's running out.
Nuclear? You can light up your house like a Christmas tree and leave it on all night. All the other methods combined can't touch it.

Nuclear is the only way. The sooner people realize this the sooner we can start building them again in this country and the sooner we can avoid the coming energy crisis.

Anyway, when I lived in Boston it was late '80s and mountain biking was pretty new and I didn't even know about it yet.

May 15, 2007 @ 9:38 PM


6. Sir Bikes said...

This is a really good video explaining exponential growth, a concept that seems to elude most economists, politicians, business men, and people in general:

Are Humans Smarter Than Yeast

May 16, 2007 @ 7:05 AM


7. RMXC said...

Can't believe I'm responding... Warning this will be a rambling of incoherent thoughts.

Just moved from Castle Rock, CO to Greenville, SC. My wife and I chose Greenville for many reasons but from my side it came down to the cycling community and outdoor opportunities. So SBAL (can I use that acronym?) is correct in saying that Boulder and much of the surrounding area around Denver has an incredible culture when it comes to cycling and I wish all communities would do what Boulder and various municipalities in area have done in regards to promoting a healthy lifestyle. But alas, that forsight, happens in very few cities around the country. The first time I noticed the big difference between Colorado and the southeast regions was when I went to my in-laws in Lawrenceville, GA (northeast Atlanta) and noticed how few sidewalks there were...ANYWHERE! The biggest difficulty in buying a home in Greenville was finding a place with sidewalks. In the end we ended up building and only one side of the subdivision's streets have sidewalks. WHAT THE HELL is that? I realize this is the builders gig to some degree but the cities COULD require sidewalks on both sides and even some walking/cycling paths. Even the suburbs in Denver have paths everywhere. VERY frustrating!!

But in the end I'm just as much the violator as the fatty behind the wheel of some monster SUV. When I went to MTB in Colorado I had to endure at least a 30 min drive (I lived in the 'burbs of Denver - my fault) and it isn't really any different here in Greenville. I don't know about the rest of you but if I do much mtb'ing at all the gas gauge on my car seems to always be below 1/2. I drive a VW Passat so my consumption level isn't enormous relatively but it isn't miniscule either.

And as SBAL said about the general populace being ignorant due to them just getting on with their daily lives is totally correct. I think the big fatty SUV owning Joe Neighbor often would like to do better in regards to pollutions/consumption/etc., but his/her attention is quickly diverted as one of their three kids screams that they're late for soccer practice and throws the $500 worth of gear in the back of the Expedition and guns in down the neighborhood street barely missing the five year old learning how to ride his bike (who must learn in the "street" since sidewalks don't exist).

And somebody mentioned children and population problems and the "selfishness" that causes it. Well it's about time somebody mentioned the selfishness, in our day and time, of having kids. I have a son, (yes, he is the fruit of my loins) but bless my beautiful wife's heart, there is NO way I could have ever gotten her to go with an adoption before we had "one of our own" first. Frankly it would have been my first choice (outside of the ridiculous $$ and ppwk involved) but it never would have worked for her or the in-laws. People see this as their God-given-right to have children so in this country it's blasphemy to speak of this.

On nuclear power; I am all for it. Yes, there are some hurdles to clear but in France many of them have been done (Oh no, we have to take a lesson from Frenchie). I watched a program the other day that mentioned the recycling of the rods, although it was expensive and in it's infancy. But, just like going to the moon, if we throw some dollars at this I'm sure we can get it done.

IMO what we as Americans need to do is to realize that it isn't all about me, us, and our "lifestyle" but sometimes it has to be about the greater good; for our community, city, country, earth, etc. And that sometimes, in order to do something for the greater good, it will require us to spend money (possibly higher taxes) in ways that will not have a benefit for me personally or immediately but way down the road for somebody 10k miles away. Heck, it may do good for your son, grandchild, great grandchild. And guess what, we may have to change our lifestyle for the greater good and for the future of all earth's inhabitants.

Oh, forget it!!!

May 16, 2007 @ 11:43 AM


8. Sir Bikes said...

Hey RMXC, nice comment. Dude, I think about moving to Greenville, SC a lot. I really would like to live there, but I'd have to find a job first.

I'd like to point out one thing about the selfish American lifestyle and unwillingness to change -
Consider the famous economist Nash (the one they made the movie A Beautiful Mind about). He proved that the best outcome comes when people maximize their own outcomes AND those of the group (so-called Game Theory). When everyone is out only for themselves, being brainwashed for years by advertising and the powerful auto lobby; when things such as roads and oil are subsidized, artificially keeping prices low and distorting their true costs, clearly we don't have a optimal solution. We lose in the long run. So unless we change the path we're going down we just might be f'd.

People only change their behavior in response to pricing. When prices are held down artificially through subsidization, it creates distortions in the market. One effect with hydrocarbon technology is that it prevents or delays the development of alternative energy because none of these technologies can compete with oil. Another of course is the creation of massive suburban sprawl, free parking, and the ubiquitous huge SUV. And yet another is the lack of adequate public transportation and bike lanes. Today, however, the US Government is losing pricing control because the Arab world now owns most of the remaining oil reserves and world demand keeps growing, which explains why we're at war with Iraq. In the long run this can only hurt us more.

I could explain it better with some graphs and equations and fancy accounting but I leave that for another time.

-SBA

May 16, 2007 @ 4:46 PM


 

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