Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 27 Aug 04 22:35
White's right at a superficial level but wrong at a deep level. He's right that it's impossible for the rest of the world to consume resources at an American ca. 2000 level in any functionally sustainable way. He's wrong, though, that this means that the world can't have a modern American/European standard of living, or that we all must "live simply." It mistakes method for results. There are ways -- demonstrable, present-technology ways -- of living a comfortable Western lifestyle (or the non-Western analog) without consuming nearly the resources that we do in the US. And near-term technological developments will make it possible to live even better than we do today, while consuming far, far less. This is an existing, ongoing process. Take one example, energy use. It turns out that per-capita energy use in California is close to one-half the per-capita use of the rest of the United States, and the difference can be significantly attributed to improved energy efficiency measures, many of which were implemented in response to the Enron manipulations. It turns out that Dick Cheney was wrong (surprise!) -- conservation isn't merely a personal virtue, it's a functional policy. And it has some pretty impressive implications, too. Art Rosenfeld at the California Energy Commission (and at Lawrence Berkeley Labs) has calculated that, over the last century, we've seen an annual 1.3% global improvement in power use efficiency, with some regions much better. Shifting from 1% annual improvement through this century to 2% annual average improvement -- a very doable target -- would mean the difference between 50 terawatt global power consumption in 2100 and 18 terawatts. For comparison, we use 12 terawatts annually now. The goal, the achievable, realistic goal, is not to get the people in the developing world to live like we do today, but to get them to live like we will tomorrow. Spending the next decade or two to bring India and China and Brazil (etc. etc.) to 2004 conditions is stupid; spending the next decade or two to bring them to 2020 conditions is much, much smarter, and probably easier. It's certainly more efficient. And the story that isn't getting told in many places is the very real possibility that it won't be the US and Europe bringing China, et al, up to match us, but China, India, and Brazil -- as well as the nations increasingly in their spheres of influence -- leapfrogging us, adopting the more efficient, more sustainable, more readily distributed, and increasingly *less expensive* technologies ahead of us. One of the most important memes we've been exploring at WorldChanging is that of the "leapfrog nations," the notion that the developing world is better-suited to integrate diverse-distributed energy, smart grids, free/open source software, advanced wireless networks, etc. etc. is that they don't have the deeply embedded, encrusted infrastructure we have here. It's an updating of the classic Alexander Gerschenkron essay, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Alex is really on top of this idea that the way to win is to go forward, to adopt the newer, greener technologies, that intentional self-sacrifice is not sustainable; it's the crux of his forthcoming book, Bright Green. I haven't given the idea justice -- he's really good at explaining this. Unfortunately, he's off to a friend's wedding off in the middle of nowhere this weekend, and probably won't be back online until Sunday night.
from TAWN KENNEDY (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 04 00:01
Tawn Kennedy writes: Jamais It is heartening to think in terms of 'leap frogging' nations and the flexibility that a lack of entrenched infrastucture allows for the implementation of cheap green technology. Frankly, i'd be pretty disappointed if the majority of the world lost communication/transportation infrastructure and we reverted to insular tribal communities. This seems to be a prevailing meme around quite a few people in the permaculture/intentional community network... Something "like head for the hills and get thee a self-sufficent oaisis." I prefer the idea of a global community sharing resources towards regenerative design and a vital cultural commons. I guess I wonder if any of you worldchangers (or anyone else) have seen tendrils of the permaculture/sustainability movement that hold a more inclusive and dynamic vision for the future... I am always on the look out for dem (r)evolutionary memes. Tawn Kennedy
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 28 Aug 04 06:33
Tawn, you may misunderstand the leapfrog concept. It says that developing nations can better implement new approaches because they don't have to deal with entrenched infrastructure, but it doesn't mean that they won't have infrastructure. It's just that the infrastructures will be built with efficiencies that are more difficult for developed nations to gain because we have to accommodate or build on infrastructures that are already there, and are built with older tools and older ideas. Jamais, I don't agree that Jim White was wrong - I think he was making a similar point. But I also don't agree that we can sustain the same standard of living for everybody everywhere, as you seem to be saying. And I do think that simplification is inherent in the process of accommodating everyone. That's part of the process of reducing the ecological footprint... denser living arrangements, reduced need for automobile travel, no SUVs, less air travel (vs more virtual presence)... those occur to me offhand, just thinking about simplification with regard to transportation. I personally reduced my footprint when I stopped living in houses and started living in apartments, which are much more efficient, and I'm an advocate for that... I think the American vision of the dream house built to spec should be swapped with a vision of high-density communities where people live more efficiently, and I think that's a kind of simplification. I mean, the way we live will have to change and be less excessive, but as you say, that doesn't mean that we're not comfortable, that we can't have satisfying lives (at least assuming we don't have catastrophic climate change etc. - we all know the vulnerabilities). The SUV is an example of what I meant by forces that will drive change. People will stop driving SUVs (and will drive automobiles less) as energy becomes scarce and expensive. Even hybrid SUVs will suck energy because of their inherent size and weight, and people will naturally decide against that drain. Part of this evolution will be driven by the kinds of tools and ideas that we're talking about at WorldChanging. I think we're trying to establish a context that supports a consciousness about the costs and efficiencies inherent in everyone's day to day existence, and point to tools that that make more sense based on a clear understanding of our ecology (including our media ecology).
Taran Rampersad (taranrampersad) Sat 28 Aug 04 07:12
Tawn, In a way we do have some 'insular tribal communities'; we have two distinct tribes world wide right now: Those that use modern telecommunications, and those that don't. The internet is an extension of modern telecommunications. I'm heading to CARDICIS (http://www.cardicis.org ) and start my journey this evening to St. Lucia, and this has bearing on this discussion in an interesting way, and one easily demonstrable. I'm going somewhere with this, please bear with me. When people hear about the Caribbean, what do you think of? The odds are good that you think of beaches, cool drinks, and hammocks. And for the average tourist, that's all they think about. But people live here. They live their entire lives in fields planting crops, or doing construction work, and what have you - just like everywhere else. But most people don't see that because it doesn't come in the travelling brochure. A lot of people fail to realize that the Caribbean itself has a lot more to offer than beaches and cold drinks, and while some may deny it, I've heard enough fake Jamaican accents to know that people really don't know too much about the Caribbean. Believe it or not, each island - and even each region on each island - usually has a distinct accent. Think New York - Brooklyn versus Long Island. There are very distinct cultures within the Caribbean, beyond what Hollywood has 'educated' the public about. So you see, the tribal insulation does exist because of culture, communication and technology. But one of the things we're trying to do - especially at Cardicis - is break some of the barriers down, or at least start a process to do so. Yes, I have seen the tendrils you speak of - I'm even about to become a part of an attempt - and then it becomes a question of how inclusive this is, because we're not including large parts of the world. It's sort of like having a conference about the developing world in a developed country. It's not who you include sometimes as much as who you leave out. But it might be done, it should be done, and I think the process for it to be done is already underway, though slow and largely unrecognized. Weblogs. And I'm not talking about the Joi Itos of the world - rather, I'm talking about 'regular' people writing. That's where it starts. Where people connect and discuss - sensibly - things that they could not have discussed years ago because of geography/finance, and what have you. But now people are beginning to mix on a different level - one without as many limits. Memes? I don't know if it qualifies as a meme, this cultural interaction at the molecular level - if it is, I'm sure one of the alpha bloggers has already written about it - but the whole thing is really about people, and people wanting to discuss things. It's a cultural revolution, and if you think it's a meme then so be it. But the problem of this cultural revolution is that it's not violent, and therefore we can't point fingers at it. It's seeping in. Sometimes the best way to destroy something is to make it popular before it's time. We like to talk about the revolutions, because a lot happens in a very short period. We have a tendency to look upon revolutions and take all the positives, but we fail to see the negatives at times. Societal revolutions are frequently violent and cause death, but that's an extreme. Or is it? Consider a revolution involving a substance which is readily available over most of the planet. Consider that the substance is used to power devices, and becomes very powerful through the use of a form of machine which converts the substance into power to be used, but the machine knocks. Someone discovers another substance that makes the knocking go away, and adds it to the substance. Because of this, a revolution in transportation takes place. I've just described gasoline (petroleum) and tetraethyl lead. While in developed countries, tetraethyl lead is no longer used, most developing countries still use it. And to give you an idea, in the U.S. where lead is no longer available in fuel, the level of lead in the average American human body is about 625 times larger than that of a century ago, and that's after a drop of 80% in blood levels after the Clean Air Act. The question is, and one I haven't researched because I fear the answer: Where is the tetraethyl lead being used in developing nations coming from? That's a pretty morbid thing to consider, but in a global environment and culture, I'd have to say it's pretty important. But let's look at another revolution. Another substance, again readily found - more so than the last one. With it devices can be built which can communicate with each other and do repetitive tasks quickly - the substance is Silicon, of course. You'd be hard pressed to find a place on Earth that doesn't have the stuff, and the only thing that makes Silicon Valley honor it's name is the fact that people there know how to use the stuff to make things happen. But I can go outside right now and scoop up some silicon in my hand, and I'm fairly certain you may be able to as well. Sand. But this revolution has only really affected a minority of the world's population. We look at the great leaps and bounds in the last century - from the phonograph to FM radio - and if you really take stock, most of the world hasn't used these 'new technologies'. We've left behind many people, that those of us who celebrate the revolution typically forget, since they do not have a voice *here* on the internet. But there are people working on that; I do what I can as well. We call it a 'Digital Divide', but I see it as more of a socio-economic divide. Now the last example is the most interesting, because we have evolved a very advanced method of communication - one that finally may outdate papyrus derivatives - yet if you really look at the majority of the communication, we really haven't gotten any better at communicating. And that's a silent 'revolution' taking place as well, through weblogs - and discussions such as this. So Tawn, I'd have to say that there's a revolution right here. And you're a part of it. :) Speaking of 'revolutions', I'd like to wish everyone a happy Software Freedom Day - you can see details about it here: http://www.softwarefreedomday.com I see Jon has slipped in ahead of me, and I'll toss in the fact that there are people and corporations who profit from the status quo and do not want it changed. This is not a new thing, but it is something that must be recognized and dealt with for there to be progress of any sort.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 04 08:21
Vinay Gupta writes: On east and west, I'm half Indian, half Scottish. Where do I fit? ;-) I'm one of WorldChanging's editors, and (somewhat) the resident contrarian. I look at the numbers and just wonder and wonder and wonder exactly where the solution might come from. There are a lot of places where we need not one, but two or three orders of magnitude improvement in efficiency to make the ecological books balance. Not that I'm a pessimist but I like to examine all options!
Berliner (captward) Sat 28 Aug 04 08:50
That softwarefreedomday link doesn't seem to work incidentally.
Taran Rampersad (taranrampersad) Sat 28 Aug 04 09:17
Berliner - my most humble apologies, I mixed up .com and .org: http://www.softwarefreedomday.org/ works. And as Vinay writes of being half Indian and half Scottish, I have a similar genetic issue. I'm half Indian, half Greek/Italian/Portugese/???. Where do we fit? And this, too, is another sign of how our cultures are merging. The people of mixed descent are pretty tangible proof that there is a cultural stew bubbling. It helps that all of our parents have children, perhaps. :)
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Sat 28 Aug 04 10:35
For clarification, Vinay is a WorldChanging contributor, not an editor. And, in further clarification, I'm pretty sure nearly *every* WorldChanging contributor (and editor) has at one point or another figured themselves to be the resident contrarian -- it's a bit of a cultural struggle within ourselves. The goal of focusing on the solutions out there, and not the problems, is not a way of ignoring the problems, or minimizing them, or pretending that the solutions will be easy. But Alex and I each found in our professional experiences, he working with non-profits and green groups, me working as a scenario consultant, that it's really hard to get smart people to think about positive outcomes. People with a lot of knowledge about how the world works often find it easy to see the challenges, and difficult to see how those challenges can be met. There's also a kind of frisson some people get out of imagining the worst -- Alex dug up with wonderful word from Renaissance Italy, "terriblimsa," which describes just that sensation. And successes, when they do happen, tend to be initially subtle and incremental and prone to intermittent backsliding along the way. All of this can manifest as organizations (whether activists or corporations) more focused on avoiding a loss than creating a win. When we started WorldChanging last year, we did so knowing that weblogs and news sites documenting the challenges we face as a planet were easy to find, but that sites which both accepted the problems as grave and focused on what do to about them were not (there is a cluster of "solution" sites out there with a distinct cyberlibertarian/net.conservative approach, which manifests as a denial of the severity or even existence of certain problems, especially climate-related problems). -=-=- Tawn, you're absolutely right that the "run for the hills" tribal approach is dead wrong, and I use that term intentionally. We have far too many people on the planet for a global shift to small, self-contained tribes to work. There's a subset of environmentalist that will shrug and say, "so we need fewer people," but I find that callous disregard for the deaths of millions -- billions -- of people to be utterly disgusting. You ask about groups out there focusing on inclusive sustainability. Check out ONE/NorthWest, a Seattle-based group run by Gideon Rosenblatt. I think you'll like what you find. <http://www.onenw.org/>
Carlos Martins (arariboia) Sat 28 Aug 04 11:11
Hi, everyone. I am in no way associated with WorldChanging, so this is just a side comment on Taran's mention in <21> of China, India and Brazil as possible alternate "role models". For my part, I can regretfully assure that, in terms of pursuing policies centered on, or even consistent with, sustainability, Brazil is anything but. But that is a discussion that does not belong here (maybe I could raise it at WorldChanging?).
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Sat 28 Aug 04 11:44
Carlos, Brazil gets mentioned a lot on WorldChanging, but rarely as a model for sustainability. We usually talk about it as a source for innovative (if not always successful) ideas about distribution of technology, and its role as a leader in the "G20+" alternative development movement. But none of us live in Brazil, so we're basing our arguments on observers' reports. I know from seeing your posts on the Well that you don't easily fall into a predictable political camp (right, left, socialist, etc.). What do you see as Brazil's global potential at this point? (Feel free to reply in email.)
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 04 14:47
Vinay Gupta writes: Sorry about the editor/contributor confusion! I want to say very strongly that I *believe* in positive outcomes - and that they'll be reached by enormously brave and clear-sighted understandings of the realities of the situation. It's as if we're in the United Kingdom just before the Industrial Revolution, wondering how everybody can be provided for. At that time, the unimaginable future was steam engines, mass production, tractors and nitrogen fertilizers. We're pointing at indicators of those unimaginable futures! WorldChanging! Watt Steam Engine nears completion! RMI's 10XE project ("Factor Ten and Non-Violent Overthrow of Bad Engineering") http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid1081.php is a prosaic attempt at fixing basic inefficiencies in our production systems: factoring out the absurdities and replacing them with whole systems thinking, resulting in order-of-magnitude improvements in efficiency. However, we have to ask ourselves "is this enough?" - if we had factor ten improvements in, say, CO2 emission per unit of human benefit from energy use, would they get us where we need to be, which is climate neutral? And the answer is actually "no, factor ten isn't enough" if we're starting from American standards, because by the time every peasant who wants electrical light and a refrigerator has one, the global demand for electricity will have increased far more than ten times, still leaving us in the hole climatically speaking. Factor 10 is *a*good*start*. And this is the need for radicalism: to realize that factor ten is not enough, and to look back at history and see that the last five hundred years are *littered* with factor 100, factor 1000, factor 10000 improvements in human productivity, and in particular in the production process. The labor of a single worker now produces thousands of time the benefit that it did six hundred years ago. What the Industrial Revolution did, in essence, was to leverage labor by, say, Factor 1000. Now we need to do the same with energy use, with raw material use, with environmental contamination. I don't think that environmentalism makes any sense outside of the context of "ultra-technology" except as a harm reduction strategy until the technologies we need are deployed, and a low-tech fall back position for the human race in case they never get here. This might seem like an absurdly cocky stance, but consider this: if current rates of scientific and technological progress continue and continue to accelerate, how long before it will be possible for the human race to essentially scratch-build an earth-like planet? A thousand years? Five thousand years? Even if you say "ten thousand years", that's a short time period relative to the documented history of our species. One can certainly argue that the current rate of change cannot continue but that is just as much a wild ass guess as discussing creating earth-like worlds to order. This "Future-heavy" model puts environmentalism in a new context: it's about protecting our ecosystem until we have grown smart enough to repair and protect it from ourselves, and build new ones if we need them. It's not about protecting the one-and-only ever-precious earth but rather about an entirely pragmatic approach of "keep this one in good repair until we can *produce*them*on*production*lines." Now, all of that said, I think the most exciting thing I've seen in five years is the Potters for Peace Filtron - http://www.potpaz.org/pfpfilters.htm a ceramic pathogen filter made using pottery that anybody who can throw a pot can make. I'm incredibly enthusiastic about incremental changes, growing deployment of solar and wind, and so on. I love things which make people's lives better. But most incremental change is reassuring because it is a positive indication of social awareness and the movement of capital into solution-finding businesses (rather than problem-maintaining ones!) rather than as direct practical action on the fate of our planet and our species. The blunt truth is that unless Factor 100 changes come, western-style consumer civilization still going down the toilet pretty damn quickly and certainly. We might be able to fall back to peasants with solar panels, if we're lucky. A final thought: recycling non-metal post-consumer waste is a drain on our efforts and makes people feel good about *consumption*. It is, in fact, a Eco-Papal Indulgence granted to environmental sinners without producing significant environmental benefits. We should allow it to die a graceful death and focus on certification of goods for net lifecycle environmental impact. We need to kill the myths, the feel-good eco-platitudes which the society took from the early days of the environmental movement, and get real. We, as a culture, need to take environmentalism as seriously as we take war, and for much the same reasons: it is a matter of survival.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 04 14:48
Vinay Gupta again: One bit I forgot: environmentalism in the context of massive continued technical, social and scientific change is radically different from the "steady-state" environmental models we're surrounded by. Old school "growth is unsustainable" environmentalism suggests, implicitly or occasionally explicitly, that we're shooting for a steady-state world, one in which population and consumption are stable, at some sustainable level. This is clearly hogwash because knowledge continues to advance. There's no such thing as "stable" as long as the scientific method is still in use, or basic human creativity for that matter. Again, that spins the model: it suggests that environmentalism is a *dynamic*process* attempting to protect certain features of the planet (biosphere, climate etc.) from damage as we continue to ramp up the discovery curve spinning off new dangers like internal combustion engines, nuclear everything, biotech, home fusion units, and whatever else the future brings. Environmentalism *in*the*light*of*continued*technological*change* is no longer about simply protecting the planet by limiting our impact, but rather actively guarding it from the numerous side-effects of our growth, not just in numbers and impact, but knowledge and understanding.
Carlos Martins (arariboia) Sat 28 Aug 04 15:17
Jamais, both technology distribution and the G20+ are more complicated issues (and of course I'm likewise biased by what's going on in this here Bananaland), so, making an even greater effort to not derail the discussion, I'll get back to by email.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Sat 28 Aug 04 19:04
Hi all -- very interesting discussion so far. I'm delighted to have been introduced to both worldchanging.com and (thanks Vinay!) the Potters for Peace site. Lots of good material. Vinay went in this direction a bit, but I'd like to ask for some comments on something Jon said in 28, above: "The SUV is an example of what I meant by forces that will drive change. People will stop driving SUVs (and will drive automobiles less) as energy becomes scarce and expensive..." While I agree that once oil becomes desperately scarce people will start driving less, I think it's going to have to reach that extreme of a condition. Certainly, as gas passed $2 a gallon in the US this summer (and our gloriously underpriced gas is an entirely different discussion) I didn't see too many SUV drivers changing their habits. Most of the people I know who, say, bought hybrids (buying their way out of the situation, assuaging their guilt, yes) were already driving pretty efficient sedans -- so the MPG jump was mostly from ~30 to ~50, not ~15 to ~50. What I'm trying to say here is that I think that absent catastrophic conditions, there needs to be a fundamental change in American attitudes and beliefs -- kind of like the shift from houses to apartments. It seems that one of our core values as Americans is "screw you, I got mine", and that this value has only gotten stronger in the last, say, 20 years. Finally, the question! So, what can we do to change this value? How can we make conservation and efficiency as cool as consumption and waste is now? (oh, and finally -- glad to see the link to my good friends at one/northwest!)
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Sat 28 Aug 04 20:43
David, that's a great question, and one which has come up in different forms in a number of recent scenario projects I've worked on. How can we get people to change a behavior which now has devastating -- but longer-term, and sometimes indirect -- consequences? You really have two choices: make the alternative more attractive, or make the present course less attractive. The Viridian movement -- started by <bruces>, and a point of connection for nearly all of the WorldChanging participants -- is all about making the alternative more attractive. Make it cool, make it appealing, make it something you *want to* do instead of something you *should* do. We do seem to be headed in that direction, and there are some examples (such as with Green Design for buildings) where change is becoming visible, but there's a real question of whether this change will happen fast enough. As for making the present course less attractive, in a way, it's turning out that way without much memetic assistance from electric greens. Rising gas prices, the rollover danger of SUVs, oil wars, climate change risk leading an increasing number of financial and insurance businesses to take global warming seriously -- the negatives are piling up. But the question, again, is whether they will accumulate fast enough to trigger necessary behavioral changes before the *really* bad shit starts coming down. The goal we're pushing for is to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities to accelerate change, and to be able to respond effectively and intelligently if change doesn't happen fast enough. The *last* thing we want is for disaster to hit and to have everyone standing around dazed and confused. That leads to irrationality and, ultimately, violence. I interviewed Adam Kahane last week. He's the author of _Solving Tough Problems_, which addresses the question of how you get people to sit down and deal with seemingly impossible challenges: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001070.html And it boils down to people being willing to talk, openly and honestly, about the situation. Getting to that point, though, is the real challenge. Sometimes it takes a disaster to serve as a catalyst; sometimes it takes the threat of a disaster. In South Africa, for example, it was the threat of civil war, violent unrest, chaos and financial collapse that led people who had been fighting each other for years to sit down and figure out what it would take to avoid disaster: (From the book, p. 30):"A popular joke at the time said that, faced with the country's daunting challenges, South Africans had two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option was that we would all get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and fix things for us. The miraculous option was that we would continue to talk with each other until we found a way forward together. In the end, South Africans, contrary to everybody's predictions, succeeded in implementing the miraculous option."
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 04 22:09
Two emails from Vinay. The first: What's interesting about SUVs is that they're inherently the fruit of government legislation. As I understand it (and the dirt is in an unreleased book I can't discuss yet) "cars" had to be safe, efficient, and meet higher standards than "trucks" which were envisaged as light commercial vehicles. Then somebody (who? I'd love to know that story!) figures out that you can build a passenger vehicle on a pickup-truck bed and still classify it as a truck, end-running around milage and safety regulations for the lighter "car" class. If we had less inept legislation we would never have seen SUVs. Consumer demand might have still pushed for larger and larger vehicles but rather than bursting through this anomalous regulatory loophole, the might have been policed under the same policy as other cars, and be lighter, more efficient, and safer. I think it's important not to think of the SUV craze as being the consumer's fault, or the car companies' fault: it's an artifact of pathological regulatory frameworks. I'm not sure what the lesson of that is. And another: I think the following is actually one of the implicit axioms of the WorldChanging approach: don't expect people to experience deprivation to be green. Environmentalism lives in the shadow of the deeply ingrained Christian ideology which equates suffering and hardship with closeness to God or goodness. The myth of "To be Green, You Must Suffer and Go Without" is really hard to overcome! Ecological thinking definitely has a religious flavor for a lot of people, with the great dialectic between the Greens and the Corporations being very good vs. evil in a biblical sense. As an Indian raised in Scotland, I can kinda see both sides of those issues. Is it good vs. evil, or knowledge vs. ignorance (the hindu version of good and evil, roughly.) The notion of a *want*positive*, *stuff*positive* environmentalism - one which says "go ahead, have a great life, and don't mess up the planet" - an environmentalism of "going with the good stuff" rather than "going without the bad stuff (which you happened to enjoy)" seems to be part of what we're taking about. It's definitely a core ideal of the Viridian movement but I feel like we're also a little less into the technofetish requirement of Viridianism. The idea that it could even be *fun* to live right is really kind of radical and new. The idea that an environmental stance needn't be seen as some kind of personal moral ideology, but a pragmatic matter of simple goodness... not the guilt of the bad provoking change, but the joy of the good... Well, I don't know quite what I'm seeing here, but do you know what I mean? Taking the moral load off the topic, getting over the plenitude=bad anti- consumption rhetoric which has come to be associated with ecology... you can go ahead. Eat the apple, as long as it's the organic one!
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Sun 29 Aug 04 09:24
Thanks for the answers! Although I have sympathy for describing SUVs (or FUVs, as I've heard them called recently :-) as "an artifact of pathological regulatory frameworks", I also have to respond by saying that in the end, it's consumers buying grossly inefficient, dangerous vehicles that causes manufacturers to make more of them, regulations or not. I tend to think of SUVs in terms of fighting drug abuse (and maybe addiction isn't a bad metaphor, here): Get rid of the suppliers, and more will step in to supply the market; address the core societal problems creating the market, and the suppliers will go away naturally.
Gail Williams (gail) Sun 29 Aug 04 10:08
That's a terrific quote, David.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sun 29 Aug 04 13:03
Vinay Gupta writes: David, here's how I think of it. What people *want* when they buy an SUV is three things: 1> A bigger vehicle to throw their stuff in, ride with six friends, pick up the kids, and next door's kids, from soccer. 2> A high, large, rugged, safe-feeling vehicle. 3> A "rugged", "manly" (sorry) vehicle. One of those needs is practical, and two are largely emotional: SUVs are in fact not all that safe, and, well, I'm not sure that "rugged and manly" is really the image they have any more, thank god. But the first need is real: people really did need big, spacious vehicles occasionally, and our vehicle availability models (buy, or rent from centralized locations at highish fees) means that if you need it sometimes, you wind up buying it and taking it everywhere. That real need could, in theory at least, have been met within the "car" paradigm, but regulations made it impossible. Rather than the inherently more efficient car becoming larger to fill the real need that some families had, the regulations created a bottleneck with a pathological failure: huge vehicles *outside* of tight efficiency regulations. If the SUV-sized vehicles were under the "car" dispensation, they would not be getting 15 to the gallon! Yes, 70s style boat-cars would have sucked, but so much less badly than SUVs do. The shape is inherently more efficient, the design teams much more aware of safety issues, etc. The real need took pathological forms because of the regulations: people could have had large, relatively efficient, safe vehicles, but our laws got in the way of them being made. And, of course, we can't simply close the SUV loopholes, once Detroit had invested in the SUV and realized how much profit there was to be made selling them, the now-vested-interests prevent the generally-sane-if-lax car efficiency laws being extended to cover the new monster vehicles. My friend, Jon Lasser (a Viridian) argues that, in fact, the SUV is a psychological reaction to decades of privation-thinking about cars: small, cramped, underpowered and wimpy because of the legal framework that made them more efficient. Once rebellion against the nanny state (sorry, I'm firmly tongue in cheek here if that's not obvious) became available in the form of SUBURBAN MONSTER TRUCKS! all that repressed energy went into buying them. Every time the three kids in the back were cramped because the car had to get 28 mpg in 1984 and there were engineering limits, a little lust for a REALLY HUGE VEHICLE got stored in the minds of the car buyer, and then, one day, the SUV became available and that stored-up big-car lust could be slaked, meaninglessly, loudly and repeatedly. I'm paraphrasing Jon's rather sophisticated argument extremely poorly and taking it much less seriously than it deserves, actually, so perhaps he'll put it straight later in this thread. This is an example of privation-centered environmentalism, I think. We made cars smaller than people actually liked them for years for environmental reasons, and then one day a legal *error* allowed them to end-run around those rules, and they did. Had the regulations been framed differently, let- us-say MPG / passenger, and left it more-or-less at that, then we could have seen standard sedans come in four, six, eight passenger sizes, within the existing regulatory framework. Or we could have accepted large cars from the beginning, and put really serious energy and money and time into developing plastic car bodies ten or twenty years ago, rather than today. It's a complicated subject. The Rocky Mountain Institute's new book on oil efficiency, which I had some indirect involvement in, has chapter-and-verse numbers on all of this, and a history of the SUV. I think that there are lessons to be learned about environmental regulation's interaction with consumer (actually, I hate that word, let's say "End User") desires, and the need for consistency and rapid closure of loopholes. If the SUV had been clobbered, swiftly, by rewriting the car laws to cover the new passenger vehicles, we might have seen *one*year* of 15mpg monsters and never another.
Dawn Danby (dawndanby) Sun 29 Aug 04 13:06
Jumping in late - I'll interrupt with a small introduction. I'm Dawn Danby, a designer in Toronto, Canada and a WorldChanging contributor. I was trained in industrial design, but I keep getting myself into unusual circumstances, working in green building, furniture and product design, and I harbor a secret identity as a medical illustrator. I'm now collaborating primarily with artists and engineers on a sustainable urban redevelopment project, designing larger-scale public projects. Alex drew me onto WorldChanging after finding me though the sustainable/design/portal resource site I assembled for industrial designers; Bruce had posted it on the Viridian list. I first met Jon in Austin at a SF writers/Viridian party, and I finally got to meet some of the other WorldChangers this summer. Most of my work has orbited around sustainability, coming at it from various approaches - so I have a certain empathy for a spectrum of solutions. I'm currently preoccupied with making these ideas relevant to different worldviews. Windsor, where we're currently working (across the river from Detroit), is a very union-driven, unglamorous industrial city. When we talk about sustainability in the southern Ontario rust belt, we're engaged in a very different conversation than the one we're having here. It's like visiting another era; we're redistributing current technologies, carving out opportunities for real innovation, but we're consistently running up against a knowledge barrier. Jamais has noted the common difficulty in generating positive viewpoints among informed people. I personally spend a lot of time with uninformed people, so I wonder if there's an educational parallel to the notion of leapfrogging: while we can talk about leapfrogging technologies, how do we encourage the conceptual leaps to implement them, as change agents down here on the ground? In different ways, many of us have spent years doing a lot of research, internalizing a mess of dark indicators, and have emerged with a motivation to actively seek out solutions. I hope that generating a picture of a better system, as we do in a kind of aggregate sense with WorldChanging, can motivate people to invest in these. I don't think that WC has a certain orthodoxy - we all have our degrees of optimism, and our own recipes as to which combinations of technologies and behaviours carries the best approach to sustainability. I was attracted to WC because of its positive edge, and I hate to think that all people should be required to internalize fear and wrangle with doomsday scenarios. But in my experience, many active greens are in a selective intellectual place where one has to go through a trauma of eco-depression and emerge energized. It's a lot to ask. -=-=- If we want to see the idealized 2020 conditions distributed through the world, we need to ensure that big chunks of North America - currently shouldering enormous ecological footprints - have rapidly made dramatic changes. While some of the technologies may be here, a lot of the emotional/conceptual buy-in for change comes as a result of damage control in the present: ecological collapses, cancer clusters and so forth. The mainstream responds overwhelmingly to present crises. But given potential and less visible bottlenecks (topsoil, fresh water), I personally suspect that we will see some measure of scarcity - in spite of greater efficiencies (Factor 10+). First, because *any* alteration in a North Americans' access to Stuff will be perceived as deprivation. And second, because there are certain non-negotiable currencies that can't be improved upon - nitrogen in soil, to name one. We spend a lot of time discussing technology, but new eco-technologies can provide more capacity for consumption. Free energy could have disastrous implications. The question is how we can increase efficiency, retain and expand our resources - but to then hold off on devouring the remainder.
Berliner (captward) Sun 29 Aug 04 13:17
So, Vinay, you think designing a green(er) station wagon might ameliorate things?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Sun 29 Aug 04 13:46
A couple of useful links about SUVs: http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_01_12_a_suv.html http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/000605.html The first is Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker about the psychology of driving SUVs. The second is my write-up of the Union of Concerned Scientists' design for a safer, greener SUV.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Sun 29 Aug 04 20:02
Thanks for those links, Jamais -- I think that Gladwell piece is the link between the ideas Vinay and I are both talking about -- especially Rapaille's point about the unconscious desires that are expressed in an SUV purchase. I don't mean to be either dominating this discussion or trolling, really, so feel free to take this conversation in another direction. That said... I'll press on until you do :-) I think we can agree that one of the main motivators for buying an SUV (irrational and innacurate tho it may be) is to be safe. In Gladwell's section 3 he discusses the disparity between American and European attitudes towards what "safe" means: Europeans think nimble and quick is safe; Americans think far away is safe. That seems like it might be the core of the cultural change that needs to happen: Americans need to feel that a small car is not only safe, but *safer*, and that it's the smarter and better solution. But (in the spirit of Rapaille's "reptilian responses") isn't "safe = far away" a core part of the American psyche to some extent? Even "Native" Americans left where they were and took off across a land bridge for somewhere else. Excepting the children of slaves, we're nearly all here in the US (apologies to those of you outside the US) because at some point in our ancestry someone stood up, looked around wherever they were, and said "to hell with this #(*&(*, I'm getting out". (This is much on my mind out here on the northleft coast, where Western Expansion is practically a recent memory and where many people up here in the former Oregon Territory are still chafing because there's no further to go, and by god, they have to actually *deal* with their annoying neighbors. ) So -- if I'm not stretching that point too far -- I'm really still interested in the question of how to change that kind of a fundamental or core value.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sun 29 Aug 04 23:06
Vinay Gupta writes: There is an apocryphal story about a certain Great Environmentalist, who says: "I have a design for an amazing urine-separating toilet which will revolutionize urban planning, if we can only teach the American Male to pee sitting down" Compare with Buckminster Fuller: "Change people's environment and then they will change their behavior spontaneously." I think that any model which relies on changing people's current desires, or models of reality, or actions, is going to have poor returns. "The American Male" is not going to pee sitting down because it's good for the earth, and I don't think there's a single good historical example where, without legal force, people changed their behavior on a massive scale because it was benefiting "the world." That's part of my interest in thinking about the political implications of scientifically-based but personally-intrusive environmental legislation, which I've called "ecostalinism" in recognition of China's brutally effective environmenalism-by-population-restriction. People want and like big cars. That's not likely to change on a huge scale, although things like that do happen from time to time. If, at the start, we'd accepted that and attempted to find technologies which would have allowed big cars to be fuel efficient, that might have ended the trouble in 1980, rather than having generations of fairly small cars followed by the blowout of the SUV era.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Sun 29 Aug 04 23:07
Vinay Gupta again: To expand a little: as Americans, we have a particular problem in dealing with the environment because we have a government of enumerated, limited powers. The *constitutional* basis for telling somebody they can't burn leaves in the back yard of their own property is, to say the least, shaky. The original intent of "it's your land, do what the hell you like on it, but obey community standards outside of your own home" is fundamentally different from many other states which give Government the job of Doing The Right Thing. In a Do The Right Thing State, the government can figure out how to protect the environment, pass a law, and that's all she wrote. That's the government's job. Here, at least in theory, government's job is "Take care of this list of stuff for us, and touch nothing else. If it's not on this list, it's for the people or other political entities like the States or Towns." Protect the Environment is not on that list, and that's part of why it's so hard to get real environmental action out of the Federal Government, but so easy to get War, which is right there on the list. Finding a way to address environmentalism in a way which is politically consistent with personal freedom is actually a huge issue. To say that it is illegal for me to dispose of my own property, on my own land, as I see fit because of damage to "the environment" - an entity with no clear constitutional protections - is not easy. Right now we have a grossly overgrown Federal Government which exceeds it's purview at home and abroad in ways so massive it's hard to see the idea that it might not, actually, have some kind of automatic right to run the EPA, but it's true. Who the hell is The Man to tell me what I can or can't grow or burn in my own back yard? Legislation to prevent the manufacture and sale of certain substances deemed dangerous, say lead-based paint, or DDT, or Dioxins or, well, Marijuana is inherently problematic. The right of the State to reach on to my private property and tell me what to do is *fundamentally* problematic. For example, if Detroit wants to make a 5MPH tank for general sale, and Fred wants to buy one, who is the Federal Government to say he can't have it? And, if that's OK, why is it not OK for the Government to say "And by the way, Fred, only one child is allowed for you and your wife." You may say "but that's a silly example" but *why* is it a silly example? Please remember that China's One Child Family laws may be the most effective piece of environmental legislation ever passed by the human race, before laughing and considering this line of enquiry absurd. How do you limit the power of The State to control the lives of individuals, while at the same time not only allowing, but compelling, The State to protect our world? It's a big question.
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