Published Somedays

The Unsustainable States of America

(updated: Jun 9, 2007)

I should stick to mtn biking, but, I live in Wilmington, not exactly a mecca for mtb, so I take to the road on occasion. When I go out on the road, I almost always ride the Porter's Neck loop. I also use the same road to get to the grocery store/post office/bank to run my errands. There are no bike racks anywhere, so I usually just lean my bike against the building. For the grocery store I lock it to the iron fence where they keep the grocery carts. I used to take my trailer with the rubbermaid bins so I could buy a bunch of groceries but after all the crap I had to put up with from motorists I gave it up.

As a matter of fact I almost got hit while riding my bike the other day. A man in an SUV went to serve around a slower moving truck and came into my lane head on. Fortunately, he hit the brakes and then waved apologetically before I became roadkill. Maybe I'll try it again, but I don't like feeling like I've entered a war zone on the road.

Until punishments for motorists injuring or killing pedestrians and cyclists fit the crime, I'm just not going to take the risk. Here's an example right in here in Wilmington that happened last week:

According to the Star News, a cyclist was hit on Glen Meade Rd. while crossing 16th street yesterday.
From the Star News, Thursday, June 7, 2007, 5B:
"He was riding on Glen Meade Road across 16th Street when the Land Rover struck him while turning left. Wilmington Police Officer S. Solano said he didn't cite the driver and the cylist wasn't badly injured."

This sort of thing is very common. I'm even surprised the cyclist didn't get ticketed.

Here's one that happened recently:

Man sentenced to house arrest in car bike crash death

A legally blind motorist struck and killed a Penn State professor riding his bicycle along a road. The man said he was distracted by reaching for a soda bottle on the floor. His penalty? Nine months house arrest. For killing someone. When he had no business driving.

There are many other examples. Here's a few more compiled from just one city where I used to live, Austin, TX:

No Justice for Cyclists

So until we stop treating cyclists like collateral damage with little or no consequence for the motorist, and until we introduce new zoning laws which fix our dysfunctional land use pattern which frames everything in terms of cars, cycling as a legit form of transportation will get nowhere.

So how did it get like this anyway? It's the zoning laws. Let's just consider Wilmington, NC / New Hanover County and it's arcane zoning laws and unintended consequences. It seems as thought the original intent of the zoning laws was to keep commercial areas and residential areas separate, and to limit the allowable density of commercial/residential development so as to limit the environmental impact of the area. So that made sense about 50 years ago, but today's environment is rapidly changing. Here's what has happened as a result:

1) Separating residential and commercial has created a need to drive to get the things you need. Furthermore, it is only by driving that you can get to these areas. There are no provisions for anything else. End of story.

2) Limiting the density to limit environmental impact has actually increased the impact by spreading it over a larger area. More land consumed means more fuel and more roads required to traverse it, and more pollution and greenhouse gases released. Keeping it spread out means public transportation is not viable and the only way this system works is through cars and inexpensive fuel.

3) Wetland mitigation is done by setting aside a portion of property and by buying wetlands elsewhere. Maybe someone else can enlighten me, but setting aside wetlands somewhere else (miles away), sounds more like purchasing guilt credits than anything environmentally sound. The land is there anyway. So a developer or the city/county buys it. What? This makes no sense to me, because, well, nothing has changed. Except that now there are less wetlands than there were before.

But the thing everybody assumed when making these laws is that the energy supply was limitless. This was an incredibly bad assumption which may cost us dearly. We know now that we are about halfway through all the oil in the world. Peak oil is occurring. The oil companies all know this. That's why they are not investing billions in new refineries. They're not dumb. Don't believe me? All you have to do is look in the magazines, newspapers and on television. In fact, yesterday I saw an ad by Chevron talking about how we're going to manage the second half. Here's another ad showing a way to suck out the last remaining drops in the ground.

Pretty much sums it up. These "pockets" won't amount to a hill of beans thanks to a country that consumes more than 35 million barrels a day.

The answer is obvious to me as a cyclist - start conserving energy and start planning alternative transportation to cars. To the current administration the answer is obvious - go to war in a desperate effort to hang on to our current American way of life.

Nobody wants to change. I mean, people can't even be bothered to switch out their incandescent light bulbs with energy efficient fluorescent bulbs. These have a payback of less than one year and are a really easy way to cut emissions and save money. Lighting accounts for 19% of the world's electricity use. The U.S. population consumes 40% more fossil energy than all the solar energy captured by harvested U.S. crops, forest products, and other vegetation each year (Pimentel and Pimentel, 1996). That is a staggering statistic when you think about it.

So then I did some simple calculations just to give you a sense of just how much energy we consume in this country. Every year, the US uses about 86 Quads (Quadrillion BTUs, 1 Quad = 1015 BTU = 3.83 x 1020 Joules). This equates to 9.0 x 1019 Joules/day. A third of this energy is used by transportation. So just to give some reference to how much energy this is, consider a typical hurricane. The total energy output per day in an average hurricane is about 5.2 x 1019 J. So the US consumes more energy every day than a hurricane produces.

Here's another one: A typical 1 Megaton nuclear warhead releases 4.2 x 1015 J of energy. So each day we use more power than if we set off two 1 megaton nuclear warheads. Every single day. Keep in mind that the first nuclear warheads, the ones used on Japan, were only 0.017 and 0.019 megatons of TNT.

US Prescription: Take two a day.

40% of the energy we burn comes from oil. This is just the US we're talking about here. That amounts to the releasing the energy contained in hundreds of years of bio-decay, every single day. This is really stored solar energy. And now we we use so much that can't possibly get ahead no matter how hard we try with technology. If someone tells you they have a environmentally sound sustainable solution for our energy needs, they're trying to sell you snake oil. Nuclear is as good as it gets.

My guess is that 99% of everything that's ever been discovered or invented occurred since the discovery of crude oil. We can engineer and create incredible things when there is plenty of cheap energy that enables it. It is the catalyst for our creative minds, as well as the fuel for creating more and more of us. What we're not good at is long term thinking. In another 30-40 years or so our energy needs will double. And then in another 30 years it will double again. There is no technology out there today that can replace non-renewable fossil fuels. Moreover, our way of life directly conflicts with some of the technologies that are being pushed as a panacea, such as biofuels. The way we build our society is predicated upon the belief that the energy supply will never be exhausted. A belief. Like a religion.

So if people can't be bothered to even make easy energy savings, how are we going to tackle the more difficult ones? If we allow ourselves to continue down this path of rampant development and global warming, that is extremely unethical. America is the world's biggest polluter. Americans consume roughly 25 percent of the world's resources and produce 1/3 of the world's garbage. So maybe what we need is forced conservation. The government could start by banning incandescent bulbs. I'm sure that would cause a real hardship for us. Yet all we hear about on the news is about some stupid bird flu pandemic that is merely a symptom of the real problem and a drop in the bucket compared to how many will die from war, starvation and disease caused by a scarce energy supply environment.

However, I shouldn't say "scarce energy supply" when actually there's plenty of energy. The problem is one of too many people and too much consumption making too many demands on that supply. So next time when someone starts yapping about the oil companies and price gouging, politely point out that it is America's overconsumption of oil and unsustainable lifestyle is causing prices to go up.

The only real solution then is to conserve and start reducing our numbers voluntarily or nature will do it for us in a catastrophic dieoff. If we had any respect for nature we would. Oil has allowed us to increase our numbers dramatically, and as oil peaks and declines, the population will decline along with it. Mother Nature is a ruthless enforcer. People do not understand this. They think changes happen slowly over many years, so that we will have time to produce alternate sources. But that is folly. Changes happen abruptly. They follow a 1/fB frequency distribution where B > 2, known as black noise, which means that you have nothing happen for a long time, then all of a sudden a catastrophic event occurs. Then it settles down again into a new equilibrium, for example, one that may be much less hospitable to humans. You know the old wives tale, "bad news comes in threes"...that's black noise.

Source: Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws by Manfred Schroeder
Black noise. The good news: catastrophes are finite. The bad news: we're ripe for a big one.

By 2060 there will be 12 Billion people on the planet, more people alive than ever existed.

But if we continue to put off the problem, ignore it, remain ignorant of it, and if we can't even do the simple things, like conserve more, then maybe as a species we're not meant to survive. Or maybe we're doomed to a black noise process with many cycles of overshoot and collapse. I only regret that the ones that caused this and perpetuate the ignorance won't be the ones to suffer. I just hate to see innocent people suffer. You can read more about the energy forecast here (and this is the optimistic version):

Policy Pete (Scroll down to Larson Thane's Optimistic Future Energy Scenario)

More here:

In a future post I'll show you some shocking slides of housing density growth from 1940 projected through 2030 in the south (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) and compare it to lilly pads in a pond, which should give you a really good picture of exponential growth and the unsustainable path on which we're headed.


Filed Under: General Entries


1. Pearce said...

Great post SBA, I always enjoy reading them....

Jun 10, 2007 @ 4:19 AM

2. Lamm said...

i did not read all that cuz well. you go on for hours. but here is a thought. did you know that the gov't takes in taxes on gas than the oil companies take in profit. also the maybe the reason the they are not building new trefineries is because of these same taxes. the more that they produce, the more the gov't will take, and it is not like they are making it easy. you would think that if the gov't wanted to lower gas prices for real, that they would give the companies building the refineries some sort of credit or bonus or tax break to make it more suitable for them to build. we all know that the oil companies are making out pretty good in the last few years, so why would they want to waste money on less of a profit marrgine. just my .02 cents.

Jun 10, 2007 @ 5:52 PM

3. Sir Bikes said...

Funny as $^%! video on youtube which drives home the point about how we've become a fear-based society fueled by the media and politics which focuses on precisely the wrong problems while ignoring the real ones.

No More Manipulation

Jun 11, 2007 @ 2:02 PM

4. Trailguy said...

I'll comment on part of your thoughts about this area. I can confirm your thoughts about the local failure to serve the people and prevent chaotic development and destruction of the natural assets. I have lived here since 1954, experienced Hazel (the 100 year storm), and grew up fishing, hiking, camping, hunting in areas made for all that.

I grew up knowing the local big landowners, developers, went to school with their kids, and watched their kids take over at their designated times.They infested the city and county boards, forced their desired bending, changing, and sometimes simply ignoring zoning mandates and protocal. They set the stage and began destroying an area that had the potential of being a true gem of natural, cultural, and yes also commercial assets.There was tremendous potential for it all, in all directions, and I watched as 95% was devoured for the financial gains of a few big landowners and developers.

My opinion,cynical because I know what it once was, is that it's pretty much done, and we now simply compete with Myrtle Beach.
What I describe is a tiny fraction of the extremity and magnitude of how it came to be. I watched it happen

I still enjoy the areas available for hiking, biking, fishing, etc.It now, however takes more work, knowledge of the land, and some luck to find and enjoy the outdoors of our area.


Jun 11, 2007 @ 7:13 PM


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