Tag Archives: win-win-win

Pascal’s Wager: The Climate Change Version

 

The prevailing view among conservative politicians and their funders (though not so much among actual conservative voters) is that responding to climate change is either unwarranted because it doesn’t exist or unaffordable and undesirable because of the costs and the supposed sacrifices entailed.

Both of those positions, of course, are not valid. I don’t need to go into the falsehoods and disinformation in climate change deniers’ arguments. That’s been dealt with exceedingly well by many others. And in terms of the deniers’ second path of objection – cost and sacrifice – the rebuttal to that is the very basis of EcoOptimism: the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

This latter point brings to mind a famous philosophical argument for believing in God whether or not God actually exists. It’s a type of gaming argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, and it goes like this:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.

wager1

There’s no way I want to get into a discussion of the existence of God, but the great thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it pretty much says you might as well believe in God since three of the four conditions say it’s in your best interest.

As others have observed [some of the top ones in a quick Google search: 1, 2, 3], we can make a similar argument regarding climate change. (Note I’m using the prevailing term, but I prefer to refer to climate disruption or, better yet, climate chaos.)

wager2

But the EcoOptimism take on this is slightly different. The “conventional” environmental version of the wager is that we could lose out in some of the scenarios. However that argument omits the non-environmental benefits of responding to climate change. The argument here comes down to the observation that, as I wrote above, the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

Another important point about this variation on Pascal’s Wager: the original wager merely referred to believing in God; not on doing anything to follow through on the belief. My climate change variation requires action. It’s not sufficient to merely phrase the argument in terms of believing in climate change; the validity of the argument is also predicated on acting on climate change:

  1. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be rewarded with both sustainability and thriving lives and civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be condemned to either greatly diminished lifestyles or human extinction: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will still be rewarded with thriving civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  4. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will not be rewarded, but we will not have gained anything either: thus a finite loss.

wager3

Basically, the climate change “wager” says we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

A Letter to Mayor de Blasio: Don’t forget the environment as a cause of inequality

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

Your campaign platform based on the “tale of two cities” was compelling, highly needed and, as evidenced by your election landslide, popular. Having lived in Manhattan for over 30 years, I’ve watched and experienced the extreme economic and demographic changes first hand, changes which accelerated greatly during the Wall Street- and development-friendly era of Mayor Bloomberg.

Your focus on inequity during the election, though, came at the expense of virtually any discussion of environmental issues. In part, this might have been an effort to differentiate yourself from your predecessor’s emphasis on addressing the environment. From the broad mandate of PlaNYC, to the striking rethinking of city streetscapes, down to one of his final accomplishments, the banning of plastic foam food containers, former Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental accomplishments were huge.

It would be a shame if you de-emphasized – or worse, rolled back – these laws and initiatives, particularly because there is a strong correlation between environmental issues and inequality. The most obvious of these is well-documented: the high rates of asthma in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This arises from the placement of noxious uses where both land values and political clout are lower. Clearly this has health effects, but it also impacts income (lost work and increased health costs for those who can least afford it) and education (lost days at school).

Similar overlapping relationships can be found in other areas including access to mass transit and parks, programs for energy efficiency, and food deserts. (While it’s somewhat understandable that the first test of Citibike was in the densest parts of the city, there’s a strong argument that it’s more needed in areas where transit is less accessible, where bicycles can provide the last mile.) In another significant example, many of the areas of NYC most at risk from storm surges and rising sea levels are the poorer sections of the city.

Overall, this relationship between environmental issues and inequality falls under the definition of environmental justice:

The concept behind the term “environmental justice” is that all people – regardless of their race, color, nation or origin or income – are able to enjoy equally high levels of environmental protection. Environmental justice communities are commonly identified as those where residents are predominantly minorities or low-income; where residents have been excluded from the environmental policy setting or decision-making process; where they are subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and where residents experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations, requirements, practices and activities in their communities. Environmental justice efforts attempt to address the inequities of environmental protection in these communities. [source]

The synergisms in addressing inequality and the environment are a perfect example of EcoOptimism: solutions that simultaneously solve ecological and economic problems while also improving our quality of life. Environmental impacts span both halves of the “two cities” with, if anything, harsher effects on the parts of the city you campaigned for. Hopefully, you and the members of your new administration will see the importance of this and expand upon the groundbreaking environmental work of your predecessor.

 

Cities, Community and Sustainable Development

The impetus for this post arises from a call for blog submittals on the topic of “Cities and Sustainability” for the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Conference. Here I propose that community is a necessary part of sustainability.

While the environmental advantages of urban living remain unintuitive to some – a vestige of an earlier environmental movement belief in the virtues of living off the land — anyone who has looked into ecofootprints (or carbon or water footprints) knows that urban dwellers consume significantly less resources than do suburbanites or even most rural denizens. We travel shorter distances, more often by foot or mass transit than by car. Our homes are smaller and stacked, requiring less material to build and fill them with as well less energy to heat, cool and light them. The primary downside, perhaps, is the need to import most of the food supply. But this, too, may be a misplaced criticism since so much of the food supply is grown globally. If anything, then, the transportation and distribution of food is more efficient in cities than in spread out development. And for local, seasonal crops, we’re seeing a growing movement to urban gardens, which have the potential to provide a portion of food needs along with “reconnecting” urbanites to nature (addressing the Thoreaus amongst us).

So the rapid urbanization of the population is, in many ways, an environmentally positive – even necessary — event. Too often left out, however, is the question of what life in these cities is or will be like, and this has at least two significant implications for sustainable development.

Modern urbanization has taken several physical forms: horizontal expansion of low-rise districts, vertical densification where geography limits outward pushes, and ground-up creation of entire new high-rise cities. What most of these lack, due to the artificial influences of zoning, economics and modern architecture, are the street life and vitality of older cities. The tendency, even in the greenest buildings, is toward characterless and anonymous (or, alternatively, monumental) structures that pay little attention to the street or the community. A resulting combination of a lack of pride of place and, as I have written previously (1, 2), design that discourages neighborhood interaction, leads to a diminished sense of community. This loss of belonging to something larger than one’s self contributes to the perception that environmental issues, both local and global, are someone else’s problem.

This also has bearing on the potential for another positive environmental movement: the sharing economy. Sharing objects and services means less consumption has to take place, saving both resources and money. The good news is that urban living, by definition, has a good deal of sharing built into it: sharing of lobbies, floors and ceilings, of sidewalks, parks and transportation. But the possibilities are greater, ranging from tool libraries and community gardens to cars, communal cooking and guest facilities. These are often a part of what’s come to be called “intentional communities” such as cohousing where people band together to form communal groups. But urban areas in general have great potential for sharing, due in no small part to proximity and convenience – so long as a community exists that is conducive to sharing.

There is a reinforcing loop present in this. A strong community sets the stage for sharing, and sharing tends to strengthen the community.

We know that cities objectively represent a more viable path to sustainable development than either suburban sprawl or off–the-grid lifestyles. The much needed — and too often missing – part is attention to the quality of urban life, particularly as cities get denser. Density can be justified on both environmental and economic grounds, but true sustainability demands more. This is the premise behind what I call EcoOptimism: solutions that symbiotically address ecological and economic issues while also improving our lives. Urban living, if developed with people and community in mind, is perhaps our most fundamental EcoOptimistic path.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.

The Great (and Not So Great) Bike Debates

Cycling is a great example of an EcoOptimistic solution, as I’ve written about before. It works on so many angles that it surpasses the win-win-win solutions that I often discuss here. It relieves congestion since replacing a car with a bicycle takes up much less space. It relieves pollution since it is essentially a zero-emission mode of transportation. (Not counting the incremental increase in food required to generate the human muscle power.) It takes a lot less energy and materials (some of them toxic, like PC and the nasties in batteries) to make a bicycle than a car. It improves health since, instead of sitting in a car, you’re powering the bicycle. And it’s good for us in another significant way by reducing both the number and severity of accidents; a bicycle and rider, at cycling speeds, constitute a lot less inertia than a one or two ton vehicle at driving speeds.

Which leads us to one of the two cycling topics filling my blog world this week. The first one is known as the Idaho Stop, a law that’s been in place in Idaho for 30 years and is now being considered elsewhere, that says a cyclist may proceed through a stop sign or red light after slowing or stopping to verify that there is no conflicting vehicular or pedestrian traffic. In essence, a cyclist can treat a red light as a stop sign, and a stop sign as a yield.

bikeredlight

The discussions this week arose largely due to an Atlantic Cities post by Sarah Goodyear, whose writing I usually enjoy and agree with. This post, though, was titled “Cyclists Aren’t ‘Special,’ and They Shouldn’t Play by Their Own Rules.”  The gist of her point, which I’ve heard from friends as well, is that cyclists should have to obey the law just as drivers do. Technically, legally, of course, that’s correct. But that’s close to where my agreement with Goodyear ends. While I wouldn’t say cyclists are special – that implies a category better than others – I think the relevant point is that cyclists are different, in the sense that a person on a 20 or 30 pound bicycle riding at single digit speeds is very different from a person in a one or two ton vehicle moving at double digit speeds. It’s basic physics: the much greater mass moving at higher speeds can cause magnitudes more damage. Plus cars and trucks are much larger and less maneuverable.

Which means that, yes, cyclists should have their own set of rules, and those rules should include the Idaho stop. It makes no sense at all for the same rules to apply to life-threatening and slower-to-stop vehicles as to puny bicycles. (I’m certainly not the first to make this argument. See here, here, here, here and here, among others.)

If this was recognized, and a more reasoned and applicable set of laws was created for bicycles, then the police could concentrate on true law breakers: the cyclists who ride unsafely and who endanger others; the ones who run red lights and stop signs without slowing and yielding; the ones who ride the wrong way. (I’m talkin’ to you, food delivery cyclists.)

Actually, I do sympathize somewhat with the delivery cyclists. When a delivery is four blocks away but the wrong direction, and because of one-way streets the alternative involves adding an extra three or more blocks, and you’re getting paid by the delivery, the temptation to take the shorter route is high. I’ll ride the wrong direction on occasion, too. I have a choice, when riding home, of going about 150 feet the wrong way on my low-speed lightly-traveled block, or going an extra five blocks, three of which are on much more trafficked and dangerous streets, and involve crossing a major street twice to get to and from the bike lane. I endanger no one in my brief sojourn in illegality and, in addition to adding a lot of time, endanger myself far more by taking the legal route. But, unlike the simple and clear Idaho stop, I’m not sure how to legitimize the good judgment I feel I exercise there.

I’d be willing, though, to trade off that example (and perhaps walk my bike that 150 feet) for the peace of mind of being to proceed slowly through a stop when all is clear without risk of getting a one or two hundred dollar ticket. In short, make the rules make sense and then apply them as rigorously as they are applied to drivers.

At the outset here, I said there are currently two cycling topics causing much bloggery. That second one is more New York City-specific and has hit both new media and traditional press, provoked by the rollout of the long-awaited CitiBike share system. (The racks have been appearing over the last couple of weeks. The bicycles come next and the system goes live on Memorial Day weekend.) Though the city held many public meetings to determine the locations of the bike racks, it now seems, to judge by the recent reports and letters, that people are surprised and aghast. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it’s a small percentage that’s upset by the racks.

The reasons for objection range from esthetic (the currently empty racks, the Citibank logo on the bikes and signage), to loss of parking spaces, to safety (concerns that there will be more rude cyclists or that they may ride on sidewalks – which is and should be illegal for adults). Some residents of one historic district claim the bikes and racks don’t belong because they’re not what would have been in the original streets — as if parked cars or, for that matter, paved streets and parking signs are more historically correct. The arguments often take very different tones – as, it seems to me, is often true of liberal versus conservative vocalizations. Check out this particular exchange in the New York Daily News which began with a diplomatic approach by Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives (disclosure: I’ve been a member for 20 years) and evoked a strident response by the editorial board, attacking White as “the smug spokes-man.”

There’s one note on which a friend who has serious bike share issues and I agree: couldn’t they at least have designed the information kiosks so they could stand up straight?

There’s one note on which a friend who has serious bike share issues and I agree: couldn’t they at least have designed the information kiosks so they could stand up straight?

Most of the objections, I think, come more simply from our resistance to change. There’s a physical aspect of change: the street or the park is going to look a bit different, and that takes getting used to for some. Equally important is resistance to challenging the primacy of cars. Why is it okay to provide (sometimes free) storage of private cars, taking up valuable public space, but not okay to provide storage spaces for public bicycles?

I suppose it’s easy for me, a car-free person (“carless” sounds like I’m deprived and missing something), to pose this question. But really, why should so much public land be given away to those who own cars, especially in a city like New York where most people don’t have cars? If car owners had to pay the real cost of the land they use for parking (here comes my economist side sneaking in again), you can bet there’d be a whole lot fewer cars and more bicycles, mass transit and car sharing. And a whole lot less congestion as well as a whole lot more open space for truly public use.

I’m sure there a few Citibike rack locations that need rethinking and perhaps relocating, which is precisely why the racks are designed to be easily moved. Let that public process happen. Indications are that the city Department of Transportation fully expects this to occur in some instances. But let’s keep that perhaps innate resistance to change in mind. Let’s allow some time to try it and see how things go. The experiences in London and elsewhere prove the validity of this approach. My prediction is that 99% of the locations will be just fine once we get used to this new and highly useful part of our streetscapes, and bike sharing will soon be seen as an integral part of cities’ transportation networks. We’ll all — cyclists and non-cyclists – enjoy less congested, less polluted and safer streets.

 

Biking and the Fallacy of Zero-sum Environmental Thinking

The great James T. Kirk once said (or is it ‘will say’ since it takes place about 270 years from now?) “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” My much less quotable version of this might be “I don’t believe in the zero-sum scenario” — at least not in the case of environmentalism, where I like to point out the many win-win and win-win-win scenarios.

A zero-sum game is “a situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side.” Because of misperceptions of competing interests, environmental issues are often seen as resulting in, at best, zero-sum results. Gains for the environment, for example, are seen as necessarily won at the expense of jobs or energy prices. Developed countries are pitted against developing countries. You get the idea.

On a smaller — and therefore perhaps more personal — scale, bicycling as an alternative form of transportation often ends up in verbal skirmishes with drivers (played out in the news and, sometimes, the courts), who see bike lanes as stealing space from vehicle lanes, and business owners, who fear shoppers won’t come if they can’t park in front.

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

There are, of course, some valid complaints about cycling. Here in NYC, there is a sort of Wild West legacy of riding in which cyclists until recently had no safe turf. Hence a fend-for-yourself attitude developed whereby many, especially delivery bikers, would ride wherever and however they could to get where they needed to be. Since drivers gave them no respect, the feeling became mutual. (I don’t, by the way, have any such rationale for cyclists who scare or endanger pedestrians.)

With the recent expansion of bike lanes here and elsewhere and an accompanying growth in cycling, both bicyclists and drivers are in a transitional learning period. Cyclists – especially the “old timers” – need to adjust to the fact that they are now a legitimate part of cities’ transportation networks and, as such, need to be responsible. (I’ve been cycling in NYC for over 30 years both for utility and recreation, and have more recently become more, um, law-abiding, in part to be a cycling “ambassador” and offset some of the ill-will generated by more selfish riders.) Drivers, for their part, should realize that every bicycle represents one less car and, therefore, that much less traffic congestion and that many more available parking spaces. Win-win, like I said.

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)

 

Actually, it’s better than that, with at least three wins we can tally. But let’s back up slightly to a story that made headlines last week. Washington state Representative Ed Orcutt believes bicyclists get a literal free ride in that they don’t pay gas taxes while using roads. (The bigger headliner was that he also said that cyclists pollute because they exhale more carbon dioxide while pedaling. He later partially retracted that Onion-ready statement.) Never mind that gas taxes often don’t cover a lot of the costs of road construction and maintenance, or that the idea of person plus a 30-pound bicycle, utilizing a space maybe 2 feet wide by 4 feet long, contributes any sizeable wear to roads compared to a 4000-pound, 16’ long by 6’ wide car is ludicrous.

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source

 

Orcutt isn’t alone in proposing bicycle taxes. Special fees have been proposed in adjacent Oregon (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was the bastion of treehuggers!), are in place in Hawaii, and sales taxes are actually being levied in Colorado Springs. I’ve written about perverse subsidies (here and here); these are perverse taxes in that they discourage an activity that is beneficial to society.

Let’s enumerate some of those beneficial aspects of cycling.

  1. Cycling is virtually emissions free. I say virtually because the human pedal power comes from calories which, of course, come from food. But the incrementally larger amount of food needed to generate that human power is negligible, especially when compared to the power required for other means of transportation.
  2. As mentioned above, cycling requires far less infrastructure and space than most other types of mobility. This also means that…
  3. Cycling reduces traffic congestion and saves time for all, including drivers. This is true even after accounting for traffic lanes removed for bike lanes.
  4. Bicycles have a weight-to-person ratio of around 1:5 as opposed to cars, which are something like 22:1 (if there are no passengers). Even with four passengers, the ratio is still around 6:1. That’s a lot more material and resources consumed per person. (Before you write in, yes, I know that doesn’t account for miles travelled.)
  5. Cycling also has public health benefits. Driving, as a sedentary “activity,” can’t make that claim. In an age of obesity and lethargy, we all benefit from the reduced health costs.

So we have a many-times win if we are looking at the supposed tradeoff between cycling and driving. How about the interests of businesses?  Here in NYC and, I’m guessing, elsewhere, proposals for bike lanes that reduce the number of parking spaces or make curbside access more difficult inevitably elicit objections from storeowners who fear that customers will choose other stores where they can get from their cars to the store more readily. The fallacy in their thinking is that, in urban shopping districts, most customers are local and are therefore on either foot or bicycle. So a bike lane serves to entice more customers, not fewer. This has been documented:

….businesses on Eighth and Ninth Avenues in New York saw a 50 percent increase in sales receipts after protected bike lanes were installed on the corridor. On San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the merchants said bike lanes had been good for business….[and there’s] a Memphis neighborhood where people, without authorization, spent $500 on paint and made their own bike lanes. Six months later, commercial rents on the strip had doubled, and all the storefronts – half of which had been vacant – were full.

That initial concerned reaction from storeowners is understandable in the context of our car-centric culture. And like the common but incorrect assumption that adding lanes to highways reduces congestion, it intuitively makes sense. You know all that advice about intuition and trusting your gut? It’s not always right. Data tend to be more conclusive.

Are there losers when space or funding is taken from cars for bicycles? Certainly. But all pointers seem to indicate that there are far more winners, including among drivers and storeowners. Since I started here with a quote from Star Trek, it seems fitting (if geeky) to conclude with one, this time from Mr. Spock:  “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The few here are a smaller subset of the small number who drive in cities, a fraction relative to the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists and the good of the public in general.

The basis of EcoOptimism is the win-win symbiotic ecological and economic solution. Environmental initiatives, when implemented well, result in more jobs, a stronger economy, a healthier population and, for our added convenience, a world we can still live in.

 

Economic Insurrection, or Nature’s Economy vs Wall Street’s

If you’re into economics (and, after all, who isn’t?), you probably see economic theory as divided into two camps, supply-side and Keynesian, that roughly coincide with Conservatives/Republicans and Democrats. Supply-side economics became better known as trickle-down economics while Keynesian economics is grouped with neoclassical economics.

But never mind all that. If you were reading closely (and not already bored by this slew of terminology), you may have noticed that Liberals or Progressives were not represented above. That’s because, in the eyes of many lefties, neither of those economic camps has it right. In short, both schools ignore nature and therefore are fundamentally wrong about how the world – and the economy that is a subset of it – works. They deal instead in an artificial idea of economics in which humanity essentially lives in a vacuum.

No, that’s not quite right either. If we somehow actually did live in a vacuum, we’d have to provide everything on our own. There’d be no oxygen or water or coal or, well, anything. But we don’t and can’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, we draw upon nature for everything we make or consume.

What if bees charged for pollinating?

What if bees charged for pollinating?

The problem is that conventional economics pretty much ignores that fact. It regards nature as free. We can take anything we want from it and we can dump anything left over into it. It’s the ultimate free lunch. And as fans of Robert Heinlein, Barry Commoner or Milton Friedman know, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Conventional economics also regards nature as unlimited, at least in a theoretical sort of way. The thinking is that we’ll never run out of something because its price will increase as its availability diminishes and, as that price goes up, we’ll either use less or switch to alternatives.

But there are a lot of problems with this approach. An obvious one is that some things in nature, like oxygen or water, are irreplaceable. If we run out of those, or if they become exorbitantly expensive, it’s game over.

Yet we don’t really put prices on those things either. They’re “free as air.”  Which means we don’t know the true cost of things. (Riffing on Oscar Wilde, the authors of Natural Capitalism wrote “People now know the price of everything but the true cost of nothing.”)

We do put prices on everything we do. (Well, more or less. A lot of the most important things we do, like raising children or taking care of elderly parents, are considered to be outside the economy.) When nature does it though – when nature, for instance, grows a tree or makes oil – that doesn’t appear anywhere in our ledgers. Yet the benefits are ours for the taking.

The alternative goes by a few names. Perhaps the most widely used is ecological economics. I alluded to it in my facetiously titled post Planets Are People My Friends. The acknowledgement that conventional economics has this fundamental flaw goes back quite some time, but has only started to gain wider recognition more recently. Sometimes on the fringes: the True Cost Economics Manifesto, with strident, almost revolutionary language, seems to have appeared around 2005. (The original website is gone, but the manifesto is reposted at Adbusters, among other places.)

But more recently, perhaps as some of the signers of that manifesto graduated into the “real” world, the fringe has moved inward, with a widespread understanding that the Earth’s “commons” (its air and water and other resources) are not a fee-free dumping ground.

It’s not just a matter of calculating and finding a way to charge the “true costs” of the things we make and do. It becomes part of a larger understanding, in some ways a philosophy, of both the economy’s and humanity’s purposes. In the blog Common Dreams: Building Progressive Community, economist David Korten asks “What Would a Down-to-Earth Economy Look Like? How did we end up with Wall Street when models for a healthy economy are all around us?” He comes up with this comparison of nature’s economy vs Wall Street’s:

Korten writes: “With proper care and respect, Earth can provide a high quality of life for all people in perpetuity. Yet we devastate productive lands and waters for a quick profit, a few temporary jobs, or a one-time resource fix.”

Over at the Center for Steady State Economics, Rob Dietz (co-author of Enough Is Enough, which I reviewed here) has a two-part post “The Rise of Fantasy as the Basis for Economic Policy” and “Restoring Science as the Basis for Economic Policy.” There are, he says, two camps of economic thinking, Fantasy Camp and Science Camp, and you can easily guess which one he falls into.

At Fantasy Camp, the counselors educate campers to believe that humanity can circumvent natural limits. Campers are taught that our unstoppable ingenuity can overcome any resource shortages or manage any amount of waste generation. There’s a strong undercurrent of consumption — a desire to accumulate ever more power and stuff in an attempt to gain complete control over life (and even death).

fantasy_science_camps

(My take on this was probably decided many years ago when my parents sent me to – literally – a science camp. Unfortunately, it was long before geeks were cool. But I digress.)

In EcoOptimism parlance, Wall Street’s economy is based on “win” only and the hell with everything else, while Nature’s is win-win-win. In other words, the one per cent vs 100%.

The New – and Improved — Economy

The core of EcoOptimism is that, contrary to popular and political belief, we have solutions that can simultaneously address economic and ecological problems – and, what’s more, land us in a better place than we started. If you’re into biomimicry, think of these solutions as our attempts at symbiosis.

So when a couple of items lauding examples of symbiotic solutions landed here, it seemed more than appropriate to conjure an EcoOptimism post out of them.

EconomicsGraph

illustration: Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Nation, an article titled “It’s the New Economy, Stupid” explains “What many progressive advocates are calling a “new economy” framework emphasizes not just new jobs but also new policies that simultaneously create a fair economy, a clean environment and a strong democracy.” In the new economy, conventional production and consumption are rethought in favor of alternatives that result in goods rather than “bads,” satisfying jobs with futures, and lifestyles that allow us to flourish.

win-win-smAn example: that article in The Nation refers to a Tellus Institute study that concluded “the United States could create more than 2 million jobs by 2030 by transforming our waste management from incinerators and landfills to recycling and composting. Many of the jobs could shift from large private corporations to municipal unions. [T]his shift would tackle the environment, equity and racial justice all in one shot.” A no-brainer, no?

Another example arrived as an op-ed in The New York Times this week: In “Going Beyond Carbon Dioxide,” the authors address a serious roadblock in solving global warming: CO2 is persistent and reversing its impact is often compared to stopping a train or a cargo freighter. “[E]ven if we are able to [reduce CO2 emissions by as much as half by 2050] over the next 40 years, we would not slow the rate of warming enough by midcentury to moderate consequences like rising sea levels, the release of methane and carbon dioxide from melting arctic permafrost, and a rise in extreme weather.”

Pretty pessimistic stuff. But, they write, there is a viable short-term alternative:

We can slow this warming quickly by cutting emissions of four other climate pollutants: black carbon, a component of soot; methane, the main component of natural gas; lower-level ozone, a main ingredient of urban smog; and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as coolants. They account for as much as 40 percent of current warming.

Unlike carbon dioxide, these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere. If we stop emitting them, they will disappear in a matter of weeks to a few decades. We have technologies to do this, and, in many cases, laws and institutions to support these cuts.

The article continues, pointing out both the feasibility of these actions and the very positive environmental results.  But then the authors go on to point out that, in addition to halving the rate of global warming, there are multiple other benefits such as preventing “an estimated two to four million deaths from air pollution and avoid[ing] billions of dollars of crop loss annually….Many of these actions would improve public health and crop yields in the countries making the reductions, and perhaps encourage them to go further.”

There is a risk, of course, in that pursuing this approach we might fool ourselves into rationalizing that we can avoid dealing with CO2, but that’s not a valid reason to skip what appears to be a clearly win-win program.

Why aren’t we already on these paths? The answer brings us back to the previous EcoOptimism post. As The Nation authors comment “For this movement to grow, it needs three things: a more compelling story of the new economy, more support for local pilot projects and strategic wins at the national level.  When it comes to building a narrative, a more attractive new-economy vision has to be constructed….” Which is the point I was making when I wrote in a recent post “Now we need to make [this vision] concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).”

So maybe I don’t really need to quote myself, particularly when there seems to be a growing clamor – and ample quotes from others — along the same lines. When the dust settles after the end of semester grading crunch, I hope to “relax” with a few more books including Gus Speth’s America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy and Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet. I’m hoping the backlog on my reading list represents a sort of critical mass portending the inevitability of a new economy.

Are we scared yet?

Scary things I’ve experienced or heard in the past couple of weeks:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the bright side, I guess, we’ve a re-elected president who actually mentioned climate change (though barely) and, here in NY, a governor and a mayor who are willing to go further than just mentioning it. Whether that will amount to more than lip service is yet to be seen.

Among the many issues this quadfecta of scariness raises is one that starts with the question: is it time to be scared? Once you get past the basic question of whether this truly is scary stuff — the dead canaries before an imminent disaster — it’s actually, I think, a matter of several more complex questions.

The primary one I’d pose asks whether getting societally scared is useful. This is an old question in the environmental movement. Will we be more successful and persuasive if people fear for their lives? Historically this has been true, but there are risks in that approach: backlashes, accusations of crying wolf and/or hysteria and, conversely, the possibility – which seems to have proven the case so far – that there’s no way to create an imminent enough and sustained environmental fear. Climate disasters and oil crises come and go. Most of the country has long moved past Katrina and the BP oil spill, and Sandy is already all but gone from the headlines.

Can one be scared and optimistic, too?

For a blog incorporating the word optimism in its title, a further question is whether fear is antithetical to optimism. I don’t want to get embroiled in language or psychology definitions; certainly one can be afraid while hoping for the best. But EcoOptimism is based on the idea that we neither want nor need to make the eco argument on an “end is nigh” approach. We know that hasn’t worked with previous warning signs. Perhaps it might this time. We don’t, however, know whether there is a tipping point of warnings, in terms of either frequency or scale. In other words, even if we wanted to, we can’t count on it.

Many of us have also been reluctant to make our case hinge on such a tipping point because it’s entirely possible that by the time the public perceives that we’ve reached that point, it will be too late. That fatalism would seem to be even less in keeping with this idea of EcoOptimism, but here’s where I think some clarification is needed. E-O (I’m tired of typing it out) isn’t about a belief that the worst won’t happen. We’ll leave that head-in-the-sand delusiveness to the James Imhofes, Koch brothers and other Friends of Fox.

Rather, the optimism in E-O is the belief that, yes, there are solutions to our environmental issues, but additionally those solutions are also compatible with (or the same as!) solutions to our economic travails AND, furthermore, implementing those solutions will result in improved well-being and improved life styles. This is counter to both the usual notion that environmental solutions are a drag on the economy, and that environmental solutions require sacrifices in the quality of our lives. (Apologies if you’ve been a regular reader of E-O; you’ve heard me say this innumerable times.)

So what this means is you or I can be an EcoOptimist and yet be concerned or even pessimistic about our future. Phew, so in my moments of eco despair  I’m not contradicting myself after all. Nor do we have to be delusional or unrealistic; we can comprehend that we’ve got a nasty situation here, and we may or may not be too late. (More on that in an upcoming post.) The point is that you don’t have to agree that doom is imminent (plus or minus a century or two) in order to pursue the same steps and policies advocated by the Chicken Little greenies when those policies are also beneficial in non-enviro senses…and, oh by the way, might also save humanity. As any number of Jewish moms would say:

What’s not to like?  

What we have here is the environmental analog of Pascal’s Wager. (What’s the term – other than “plate of shrimp” –used to describe when something comes up multiple times in a short period? Pascal’s Wager has done that to me this week.) Blaise Pascal argued that one might as well believe in God because, in doing so, you’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s just, he says, the rational thing to do. And so it is with environmental policy.

Where’s the (true cost in) beef?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EcoOptimism states we can simultaneously solve our economic and ecological problems while improving, rather than diminishing, our lives. One of the critical steps in finding the ways to do this is through a concept called true costing. This involves figuring out what all the costs of something are – not just what you pay directly, but also counting what you and everyone else pays indirectly. For instance, the true cost of gasoline is not only the price at the pump, but also the costs of, among other things, related air pollution, climate change and human health.  Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting debuted a short animated video, “The Price of Gas,” showing just that.

If instead you want to calculate the true cost of driving as opposed to only the fuel, then the categories of costs (called external costs or externalities by economists) would include things like wear and tear on roads (paid in taxes), costs of accidents (paid in health and auto insurance, lost working time, lost life), cost of time spent in traffic jams (lost working and leisure time), cost of land devoted to roads, etc.

Unless those costs are figured in, you can’t make an accurate decision on whether to buy or do something. And free-market capitalism depends on the accuracy of prices and information. Without it, bad decisions are made.

Some true costs are really surprising. Vegetarians and environmentalists have long talked about the ecological impacts of eating meat. Now the Center for Investigative Reporting has posted a video, “The hidden costs of hamburgers,” showing in easily understood terms what those impacts – and their dollar values – are.

Image from “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers”

A nearly simultaneous story reveals that when the Department of Agriculture rolled out an internal program suggesting that employees participate in “Meatless Mondays” – the idea that, for just one day a week, not eating meat would reduce environment impacts – the cattle industry raised a huge stink (insert your own methane joke here), saying it was “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table.” Note that the USDA program didn’t even address the benefits to personal health.  To my thinking, the argument against going vegy would be a lot stronger if there wasn’t also that pesky issue of cholesterol and heart disease – and the external costs that tend to accompany illness and death.

The USDA succumbed and withdrew the program. Once again, corporate self-interests prevailed over the public’s interest, over individuals’ health and over common sense. It’s almost enough to make the EcoOptimistic lose our optimism. (Especially when it seems eating certain fried industrial chicken sandwiches can be promoted as a socio-political statement!) But it’s going to take more than that to get us to back off. When enough folks understand the win-win-win aspects of shifts – of little tweaks — like these, common sense and self-interest will prevail.

Is there a design aspect to this? Dunno. Maybe in packaging and educating? As with many EcoOptimism areas, a major component lies in communicating the win-win-win scenario. (BTW, is it time for an abbreviation?  Constantly writing out or reading win-win-win is going to get annoying really fast. Does “triple-win” work? Evoking the triple bottom line makes sense.) How can designers get the word out?  As long as we have externalities (meaning we don’t at least have something resembling carbon pricing), there’ll be a need to make the costs apparent in other ways than the price at the register. The CRI video is one step. Perhaps a new cow parade, this time with messaging? And with a little, um, methane offgassing for added emphasis?

I’m not much of a tofu, let alone tofurkey, fan. But I can certainly go one day a week without meat (that’s easy – in fact, I prefer the idea of Meatless Weekdays), especially when it’s better not only for both me and the environment, but my wallet as well. I got no beef with that.