Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Co-Co-optation of Environmentalism


Co-optation: it's a cumbersome word. We think of it in terms of corporate media, "greenwashing" and other forms of economic dominance of environmentalism in today's society.

Now we're doing it to ourselves.

The culprit is success. "Big Green," the amalgam of large national and international environmental organizations, has finally succeeded in grabbing the attention of world media, thanks to "Global Warming" and, to a lesser extent, Peak Oil. Lurid headlines, blockbuster Hollywood movies and media presentations by prominent political figures have brought the specter of sea level rise, increasingly destructive storms, species extinction and killer heat waves to television sets across the globe.

The cost of all this frenetic attention has been, oddly enough, environmentalism, the ideological and sociological movement to change the systemic destructiveness of the dominant human social system. Exclusive attention to anthropogenic climate change factors, that is, greenhouse gas production from human activities, focuses proposed responses to climate change on technological "fixes" to reduce greenhouse gas production and transition to a "sustainable,""post-carbon" world of "renewable" energy sources, such as wind and solar. Unfortunately, this focus on technology ignores the underlying social structure that drives environmental destruction and that would continue even in a world of "sustainable" energy production.

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) has been proposed as an alternative to private automobiles producing greenhouse gases, taking cars off the roads and putting them on elevated tracks, powered by electricity produced in part by photovoltaics. While this may reduce greenhouse gas production in urban areas (depending on the source of electricity and the total energy costs of producing and maintaining PRTs), it will also stimulate urban growth and sprawl, which exacerbates the problems. Even worse, such a technological fix ignores the opportunity cost foregone of restructuring our living and working relationships to reduce the need for so much transportation in the first place.

Members of Parliament in the UK are now required to factor in the carbon cost of any project they approve. While this is a small step in the right direction, it has been seized on by the nuclear power industry as a justification for building more nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy only appears to produce less greenhouse gases if one ignores the enormous carbon footprint of mining and processing uranium for fuel, transportation and storage of radioactive wastes for thousands of years, and the dismantling, transportation and storage of radioactive power plant components for thousands of years after their relatively short useful life.

Environmentalism has been co-opted by technocratic sustainability-ism. Big Oil is jumping on the Big Green bandwagon, along with Big Solar and Big Wind. Big Nukes is hanging onto the tail-gate, trying desperately to climb aboard. The search is on for a new energy drug to fuel the human addiction to growth and technological "progress."

The search is futile, because the problem is social, not technological. The worst thing we could possibly do is invent a free source of energy that produces no pollution. With no technological limitation to human growth, humans would wipe out themselves, and much of the planet, in less than a century.

Fortunately for us, and our immediate, non-human neighbors, there is no free energy lunch. A thousand years from now, our descendants, if there are any, will have no need of environmentalism. Society, if it exists at all, will include all life in its range of relationships.

Environmentalism will be co-opted by Life.

5 comments:

  1. Any technology can be co-opted, it all depends upon the underlying public policies that implement them.

    Urban growth and sprawl, for instance, still happens even though there has been a renaissance of urban light rail systems since the 1970s. Portland, OR is often pointed to as a model case -- but they also had the guts to draw an urban growth boundary.

    Witness the UK requirement you note about factoring in the carbon cost of projects. Nothing wrong with that; it's only a problem if they fall for the nuclear industry tactic.

    We should adopt strong anti-sprawl regs. However, wouldn't you agree it is highly unlikely they would include abandoning already-settled areas? PRT could offer the possibility of affordable, energy efficient transit to more places, and supplement line-haul systems where they already exist (i.e. a more widely available alternative to driving).

    The energy and emissions advantages of PRT are obvious: demand-responsive electric transit; a fleet of fixed size made up of lightweight vehicles; re-used many times per hour by succession of passengers; less materials and construction per mile compared with large-vehicle modes. Controlling sprawl is the responsibility of community-wide land use regulations (and lifestyle restructuring), which are the product of political processes.

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  2. Of course, this post wasn't about technologies being co-opted, it was about environmentalism, which has nothing to do with PRT.

    Urban growth and sprawl are facilitated by any transportation system that allows urban growth and sprawl to occur, while residents can still do their shopping.

    If PRT offers affordable, energy efficient transit to more places, how does this not promote sprawl?

    I disagree that the energy and emissions advantages of PRT are obvious. No one knows how much energy is required and how much emissions are produced from a fully implemented PRT (including energy and emissions required for construction and maintenance) since a PRT has never been built to measure. All the alleged advantages of PRT are wafts of vapor rapidly dissipating on the wind, unformed, unproven and unobtainable.

    "Less construction per mile?" How about the elevated track and poles to hold it up, the stations every umpty-ump feet, the empty cars that circulate endlessly looking for passengers, the maintenance facilities, the command and control facilities?

    We already have the infrastructure for "large vehicle modes. It's called streets and highways. Why build an additional transportation infrastructure?

    PRT is an enabler of urban sprawl, and, as such, much be so considered in any community-wide land use regulations (and lifestyle restructuring (by whom?)).

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  3. Whoa. Context.

    I'm accustomed to discussing transit technologies as a set of policy choices. Thus, when I refer to "less construction," I mean in comparison to conventional rail and streets and highways.

    When I refer to "energy efficient transit to more places," by places I mean places within the service area. The service area is defined by the political process -- willy nilly expansion is one choice, another is to have growth boundaries and policies that provide strong protections for the land and waters.

    I have hopes that more cities and metro areas will choose the latter, and the beneficial effects of transit will be maximized. If not, unsustainable growth will continue no matter what transit systems are used.

    "No one knows how much energy is required"? Actually, engineers have calculated it, the variables are known: vehicle weight, wind resistance, type of motor, passenger and cargo weight, etc. ATS Ltd. of the UK has calculated that their vehicle will use less than 900 BTUs per passenger mile.

    They're going to try and prove it with their first installation in the UK.

    You're right that the problem is social. I see economic transactions as the seeking of psychological rewards whether individual or collective.

    However I don't think it's futile. I don't think we'll need limitless energy, because we have it within our imaginations to restructure our lifestyles to require less need for transportation.

    If we balance, as you wrote, "our living and working relationships to reduce the need for so much transportation in the first place," then we won't need multimillion dollar per mile rail systems capable of 10-, 15-, 20,000 or more passengers per hour per direction.

    We would bike, or walk, or if we needed to go to another part of the city we might use small solar-powered trams, or PRT.

    "Living and working relationships" will mean something else in your thousand year timeframe. The city I am imagining with balanced growth, environmental protections, and human-scale cityscapes is something I hope can happen in my lifetime.

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  4. Today, the people are "there." They're in their urban settings, commuting to jobs in the city. I don't see any mass changes to that any time soon.
    However, PRT does enable this to continue.
    I believe the solution is education and getting more people to realize that finding meaningful work closer to home is the ultimate solution.
    I sure as hell don't want to ride on some electric conveyor belt carrying yuppie office workers to their captial intense personal hells.
    Maybe once oil prices hit $150 PB, creating an avalanche of bankruptcies, more people will reinvent their "careers" and find work closer to home.
    And I don't need a PRT. I have two damn nice bikes I can ride into work. 12 mile trip. Not too bad, but I aim to make it even shorter.

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  5. Mr. Lewis, I'd like to address your last comment point by point:

    "If PRT offers affordable, energy efficient transit to more places, how does this not promote sprawl?"

    You are erroneously equating "more places" with "sprawl". PRT may be deployed densely in the city center, providing more mobility within the city. Further, If PRT can provide many of the benefits of a car without the need for parking, cities can avoid being paved over for parking garages.

    There's really no evidence whatsoever that PRT would cause or promote sprawl. Perhaps it could be deployed in such a way as to encourage sprawl, but that is a planning issue, not a technology issue.

    "All the alleged advantages of PRT are wafts of vapor rapidly dissipating on the wind, unformed, unproven and unobtainable."

    Do you summarily reject all of the research that has gone into PRT? Dozens of research teams all around the world have studied PRT down to the smallest detail for over 4 decades. Many have produced fully functioning prototypes; some have obtained regulatory approval; construction costs and operational characteristics have been derived from extensive research using conservative assumptions. Do you discount all of that just because you haven't seen it yourself?

    "Less construction per mile? How about the elevated track and poles to hold it up, the stations every umpty-ump feet..."

    Yes, proposals usually account for all those costs. Why would you think they didn't?

    "... the empty cars that circulate endlessly looking for passengers, the maintenance facilities, the command and control facilities?"

    And what form of transit doesn't require any of this? Buses and trains run nearly empty to adhere to schedules; cars sit in traffic and at stop lights; and all forms of transit have maintenance needs - are you suggesting that roads and rails do not require maintenance?

    Also, empty vehicles do not "circulate endlessly" in PRT - that is a fallacy. When there are no passengers, PRT cars are idle. Of course, there are occasions when empty PRT vehicles must move, but the amount of empty vehicle movement is directly proportional to the passenger load, usually estimated to be about 30% of moving vehicles. But contrast this to a bus or a train, which has MUCH larger vehicles moving almost completely empty for much of the day - unlike PRT, their empty vehicle movement is driven by schedules, not demand, so even if there are no passengers, buses and trains must keep moving.

    As for the automobile, of course they don't move empty - but they do sit idly in traffic, and they do consume precious acres of downtown land (parking).

    "We already have the infrastructure for large vehicle modes. It's called streets and highways. Why build an additional transportation infrastructure?"

    Well, you can continue to pave over your city with highways and parking lots, which we already know causes sprawl. Or, you can take a chance on a low-impact solution (one 3-ft diameter post every 50 feet compared to acres of blacktop) that leaves the street level untouched. In fact, since PRT consumes no space from the street, it integrates seamlessly with existing traffic and/or transit - and can avoid expensive and destructive highway expansion.

    "PRT is an enabler of urban sprawl, and, as such, much be so considered in any community-wide land use regulations (and lifestyle restructuring (by whom?))."

    No, PRT is indifferent to sprawl. City planners are enablers of sprawl.



    If you like, I can elaborate on these points in more detail. I've learned a lot about PRT in the past few years, and I can point you to all the research and documentation. There is a lot of misinformation (and disinformation) on PRT, so it can be difficult to navigate.

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