Suburbia Loving Americans Slow in Seeing the Forest for the Trees with Regards to Sustainability

Idling_Infographic_01There is just something alluring to me about this graphic which exposes the truth about idling a vehicle in a very detailed graphic form. It shows all the fuel and energy we could save, if we just exercised a little common sense about how we use or vehicles.

Related to this was my recollection of surprise, while in Boston last year and observing and learning how many law enforcement and emergency care and response vehicles are constantly left with their engines running. The thinking is that they need to be left idling so that the emergency personnel will have the quickest possible response times. Knowing this now, it would not surprise me that law enforcement makes up a disproportionate amount of motor vehicle emissions associated with idling a vehicle. Whether this makes any real sense or not, obviously people continue to resist efforts like the organization Sustainable America that made the graphic below as part of its The Truth About Idling A Vehicle Campaign.

Yet maybe its also the sustainability advocates that needs to change and rethink some of their approaches? I give the example of the recent efforts by Boulder county administrators to implement a “sustainability tax“. While to us sustainability advocates, a tax devoted to discouraging waste and encouraging more sustainable development and practices seems like a no brainer, for most in the mainstream it seems like another unnecessary burden funding more government bureaucracy, as essential services are faltering. Even in a “sustainable eco-green capital” like Boulder, it seems we can’t really get our act together and offer a real model of what a medium sized sustainable city might begin to look like. This is a key point that sustainability advocates have a lot of trouble understanding that there is no rational reason for understanding much of how our economy and society operates – it just works. Most folks don’t really spend much time thinking about the larger implications of what they do, much less the larger economy. The resistance to serious sustainability efforts has little to do with the idea that turning our vehicles off when we are not using them, is really not a very difficult thing. The challenge comes from rethinking our habitual existence and this exposes the real challenge of serious sustainability efforts. To get people to fundamentally rethink how they live their lives and their sense of value in terms of how they use their time and get things done, means more work and effort and so many folks in this society are so stressed out and overworked just doing what they do to survive and compete.

We saw this even at Arcosanti, where many visitors expressed their confusion and dismay to me over the years about the fact that the project had not been able to organize itself as a more compelling model of sustainable urban living. Arcosanti is just reflecting a larger social pattern of the sustainability community in terms of its inability to respond to the larger scale patterns of unsustainability by creating holistic, working, living and breathing models of eco-conscious, community oriented living. A larger counterpoint though to well intended efforts such as the one on the right is that they are “incrementalist” and also piece-meal in that they don’t address the issue of waste in the economy in a comprehensive and fundamental way. Soleri went so far as to say that they really constituted little more than a “better kind of wrongness.” This was his way of saying that they were not really substantive or meaningful in creating the kind of “Reformulation” he said was vital to our civilization’s survival.

From a Solerian perspective, the issue of “Muda” (which was popularized in Anglo-American culture in the green business reform book Natural Capitalism) is not about wasting less but rather fundamentally redesigning the whole production or consumption system from the ground up to synergistically minimize waste and to efficiently and frugally use natural and human resources/capital. Thus a campaign about idling a vehicle can risk diluting the more powerful and compelling need for what Soleri termed a “Reformulation” of our economy and society towards something more ecologically and socially sustainable over the long term. Because it can be overwhelming, considering all the initiatives and campaigns to reduce waste and bad habits, many of which have been operating with limited success in terms of produce systemic change in overall metrics of consumption, Add to this, the notion that possibly what has been lagging in this process is a more holistic manifestation of social change (consider that this might be one mandatory requirement for building a sustainable society).

Some have termed the missing link in the sustainability movement as being the development of Collective Intelligence to optimize the effectiveness of social networks to achieve the goals needed to create a sustainable society. We are still working in our linear segmented silo based realities. This is where I want to separate the dogmatism of Soleri in terms of his mega dense urban city planning vision called Arcology with the larger Arcology idea of a fundamental change in the way the society operates and consumes resources. Through still being debated a growing body of research does seem to support the idea that large densely packed cities like Manhattan (and secondary to that the subsets of NYC that radiate out from that uber-dense core and even go into the suburban fringes of the megalopolis) are on many levels more sustainable than say suburban or rural regions which in the USA are particularly dependent on the logistics of Car Culture. However this does not take into account the social and political issues that come up with dense urban development. In many the regulatory framework is restrictive and cumbersome for innovators, especially when it comes to groundbreaking sustainable projects. Also the spatial issues and shifts are dramatic in that there space is much more of a constraining factor than in rural and suburban regions.

Finally there is an issue of logistics in terms of the energy to bring resources into the city from the rural areas and the reality that they city is dependent on these rural regions for its life. What if these lines of supply were at some point depleted or broken? I suggest this quote from an article titled “The Green Case for Cities” by Witold Rybczynski in The Atlantic Magazine does address some of the issues mentioned above in relation to offering a more comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes social, economic and environmental considerations (the Triple Bottom Line of Sustainability) and a more “moderate” level of density than what Soleri proposes in his Arcologies:

A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green. Does this mean that we all have to live in Manhattan? Not necessarily. Cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen are dense without being vertical. And closer to home is Montreal, where the predominant housing form is a three- or four-story walk-up. Walk-ups, which don’t require elevators, can create a sufficient density—about 50 people per acre—to support public transit, walkability, and other urban amenities. Increasing an area’s density requires changing zoning to allow smaller lots and compact buildings such as walk-ups and townhouses.

Soleri, regardless of how realistic his super dense Arcology model is or was, was correct in seeing that the costs of low density development has an inherent inefficiency to them and that the future of humanity is tied to our ability to reverse prevailing low density development patterns that lead to this built environment blight that we call “Suburban Sprawl.” The cost of building roads for example to service low density car culture is actually higher than in supplying and sustaining high density urban based societies. So while we focus on issue like not idling our cars, buying organic food, bolting solar panels onto our roofs and saving water by not brushing our teeth, its likely that if the underlying dynamics of how the built environment of modern American society don’t change, that little real progress will be made with regards to sustainability.