Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What is the right way to save the world?

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.
      from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Many people recognise that we have an ecological problem. Unfortunately for all of us, a lot of those people don’t do much to try to reduce their personal impact, instead limiting their actions to mouthing platitudes.

I have written extensively about this on this blog, and I have commented on the limitations of using economic incentives to encourage people away from engaging in carbon-emitting activities (I see this as a problem, because the most wealthy people, who have already emitted the most carbon, are those least affected by such economic costs). In other words, we need to work hard to ensure that a carbon tax is not a regressive tax. (I think the Australian Labor Party achieved this under Gillard, and that it’s a damn shame their law was repealed).

What I want to focus on here then, is the group of people who know that something needs to be done, and are prepared to make personal changes to help make it happen. I have the most respect for this group of people, because I think taking collective ownership of the problem is the only way to tackle it.

And it is a big problem. Dennis Meadows (one of the original members of the Club of Rome), in a recent interview, said that climate change is not the problem, it is the symptom, and that the problem is over-consumption (too many people, consuming too much). He said that if we can somehow “fix” climate change, but keep everything else the same, and continue growing then we’ll just encounter another symptom (eg. soil loss, ecological collapse, etc). I think this is a compelling argument.

But, as concerned citizens who want to do something active to help reduce our contribution to this problem, what should we do? Clearly over the next century or so, human life will be massively reorganised and entirely new ways of living will need to be invented. But how do we get there?

Should we stay in the city, where we remain largely reliant on industrial food/resource provisioning, where our ability to tap into natural energy flows is limited, where our ability to dispose of wastes is limited by local regulations, where houses and land are more expensive — requiring greater participation in the money economy? The benefits of doing this are that resources and knowledge can be more easily shared, and transport can be more active (less car travel). These are real and large benefits.

Alternatively, should we move to self-sufficient properties and create an independent lifestyle? In doing that we have more space and potentially more money (because land is cheaper in remote locations) so using fuel such as firewood is more feasible, and food production can be much less intensive. There is also less regulation, so more freedom to establish unconventional systems (eg. composting toilets), and opportunities to reestablish native bush. These are clear benefits, but the cost is expensive transport, and provisioning of services, both of which have environmental consequences.

Here are two big choices, but there are successively finer-grained choices all the way down.

Should we pursue a low impact, but low money lifestyle (the frugality approach), value conservation, but not invest particularly in renewable technologies?
Alternatively, should we pursue a high tech approach, investing heavily in renewables and/or batteries?
Should we invest in electric vehicles or try to minimise car use? Should we use taxis? Bicycles? Public transport on diesel buses?
Should we eat meat? Processed food? What about dairy? What about bought alcohol?
Should we buy computers? Phones? Paint? What’s worse — using petrol in an old car or electricity in a new one? Is it better to drive further to buy organic food or to buy non-organic food from the little old lady on the side of the road?

Given the greater efficiencies of collective infrastructure, is it better to focus on improving policy than personal investment (eg. is the embodied energy in rainwater tanks, batteries, cars better put towards shared infrastructure such as dams, grid-batteries or public transport?)

Clearly, when asking these questions, we need to look not only at the now, but how things might evolve as time passes. What effects will technology have? How will politics change? What about economic or demographic factors?

None of these questions have simple answers, and I believe that there is that there is no correct approach. There is no unified “green movement”, but I’m concerned that greenies are becoming divided into subgroups, each of which is firming its orthodoxy into, in some cases, dogma. This makes it harder for separate groups to work together, but it also makes it harder for individuals to explore new ideas and approaches to doing things.

We are likely to have more success, as a disparate group of people whose goal is to achieve something about ecological overshoot, if we are tolerant of different approaches and philosophies. We will work more cohesively as a group, but we will also be able to explore more ideas.

Western countries in 2117 will look very different to today. Many aspects of society will need to be reinvented to cope with ecological overshoot and resource scarcity (not to mention technological, geopolitical, economic and demographic change). We will need all the ideas we can get if we are to achieve this, and we can’t afford to dismiss any without consideration.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Council deputation

Below is a deputation I made to Unley Council on Monday, 26 June

Good evening Councillors,

I am Dr Angus Wallace, and I am here as a representative of the Unley Bicycle Users Group. I wish to speak briefly to you, regarding the Rugby/Porter bikeway, given the report in the Eastern Courier about the priority for cycle commuters being reconsidered.

Cycling has many benefits. The chief benefit is health. Cycle-commuters are 46% less likely to die of any cause than otherwise-similar people who do not cycle-commute. That is an incredible statistic, and shows the power of “incidental exercise” to make our population healthier. The other clear benefit is, or course, cost. Cycling is at least an order of magnitude cheap that car travel -- money that can be spent in the local economy. Cycling is also more convenient -- the increased density that bicycles afford means that even narrow paths can carry many people. Also, cycling is often pleasant and fun, social, communitarian and spontaneous in a way that driving in a car never can be.

Unley Council has been one of Adelaide’s far-sighted councils in encouraging cycling. Truely, you have made great strides in the last decade, and the City of Unley has reaped the rewards — quieter suburban streets, more usable spaces for children, more money being spent locally, better health of the population. And of course, the tourism that events like the Tour Down Under brings.

But we can go much further.

There is much untapped potential, and it is excellent that Unley Council recognises this. The decision to build the Rugby/Porter bikeway will be seen, in years to come, as a watershed moment, though not the only one. Right now, 500 people commute along the Rugby/Porter bikeway at each end of the day. Unley Road carries 30000, making that 500 people sound like not much. But, it is important to remember that traffic congestion is non-linear. A few extra cars make a very big difference. Who notices how much worse their driving commute is on a rainy day, when some cyclists drive instead? It is significant. But, if the Porter St bikeway was a genuine arterial cycleway, we could, in a few years, take 1000 cars OFF Unley Road, getting those motorists on their bikes instead. Imagine the effect that would have on commuting times.
For example, reflect on the proposed Adelaide Botanic High School. The school will be serviced by the Frome St bikeway, which connects to the Rugby/Porter bikeway. Empowering students to cycle to this new school frees their parents from the burden of driving them. This decreases traffic congestion and increases our productivity. I believe there is broad community support for such works.

But, for this to happen, it is imperative that an arterial cycleway has priority. It needs priority like Fisher St has over its side streets. No one would dream of giving a small cul-de-sac priority over Fisher St. This is not about safety — it is a simple, utilitarian question of the greater good. Roads with more traffic have priority over roads with less – whether the vehicles are cars or bicycles. Also, we must remember that the status quo is inherently dangerous. Commuter cyclists on Unley Rd are sharing a contested space: there are obstacles to navigate, buses and trucks. Every car passing a cyclist will be slowed by the cyclist, and every such passing is an opportunity for error. Providing a dedicated, connected, arterial cycleway is the only way to increase the safety of these cyclists, and to increase the uptake of cycling..

Unley Council’s leadership in the promotion of cycling has had great benefits already. We are on the cusp of realising yet more benefits. All that is needed is to provide the space, and the cyclists will come — decreasing demand on our over-crowded roads — increasing safety, health, our sense of community and the local economy. To allow this, dedicated arterial cycleways are needed, and they need to have appropriate priority over side streets.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Where are you now?

Back in the mid-1990s, I was sitting in the back row of my English class, in perhaps the most un-disadvantaged non-private school in the state. A school with a catchment so that not just anyone could send their children there. Where the wealthy (but egalitarian) and upwardly-mobile bought expensive houses to send their children to an elite public school subsidised by the less-well-off.

But, being a public school, there were no fees, and anyone who lived in the catchment could send their children there. Because there were plenty of rental properties, and as-yet un-gentrified pockets of houses, the students attending the school were more diverse than the equivalent pool in one of the nearby private schools. This diversity manifested as a general reluctance, on the part of the student body, to conform to the wishes of the school administration (whether it was uniform, attendance, homework, drugs, you name it).

Next to me, in the back row of class, was a girl I thought was pretty good. Sitting there, the English class passed me by. Perhaps I had reached an age where I could consider her sexy, instead of merely attractive. I never really knew what her thoughts were – she was very intelligent: maybe the smartest kid in class – and had a bit of a detached air that I liked and was a little intimidated by. Whether it was wishful thinking, or actual encouragement, I felt like we were a something.

This went on for some time, I can’t remember now. English class was a bit of a blur for me at that point. One day, I remember her laying her head in my lap and looking up at me – her eyes alive with intelligence, humour and irony.

But all things come to an end, and we drifted apart (from whatever it was that we were when un-apart). It occurred to me at some point that if I wanted to go to university, I might actually need to do some work (that, and I really liked English as a subject), or maybe she just got tired of my juvenile attempts at wit and insight.

By and by, school came to a close. I learnt some hard lessons about overindulgence in alcohol. Others were exploring other possibilities, maybe she was one of those. Either way, I didn’t have much to do with her after our brief and platonic affair.

When school finished, I saw her once or twice by chance, but essentially never spoke to her again. I’ve often wondered about her over the years. I always knew she was smarter than me, but felt that she had somewhat squandered her final school years. I also believed that for smart people there remained options – that she could make something of her life (whatever that meant to her). I now wonder what might have happened if I’d had a bit more guts – hadn’t been so perversely shy of self-exposure. Perhaps it would have only taken a nudge, at that point, to make all the difference – like the shoe that was lost for the want of a nail.

I never did find out what she was doing or how she felt about it.

This year is the 20th anniversary of my cohort finishing school and she was one of the people I particularly wanted to see – to hear about her tussles with life, and how she’d coped with some of the bitter lessons that adulthood brings. But I now know that conversation can never take place because she killed herself a few months ago and that door is closed.

All this time, she remained (I am sure) a friend of a friend of a friend. I could have contacted her, but never did. It probably would not have helped anyway to see this long-lost-forgotten person from school settled into some comfortable stereotype of middle-class suburbia.

I can only imagine, but not know, what feelings drove her to it. A rapid shutter-fire of thought-feelings flitted through me -
An emptiness of unknown, unappreciated and unrecorded days. Of drabness and aloneness (even in the presence of others), then
That my inaction could have led to this, then
The ridiculousness of that thought, then
What it must have felt like, standing there at that final moment, then
That such thoughts are but easy stereotypes, fettering the mind from the complexity of real life, then
There must have been some kind of moral miasma, long fermenting, to lead to such a strait, then
That despite the finality of death, her life must have contained many pleasures, then
Sadness that I never attempted connection to realise any such pleasures, then
A re-kindling of an echo of a crush on the now-dead, then
That the collective mind-image we, who knew her, hold, is now all that remains -- tethering her to the world. A tether that time and our own mortality will eventually sever.

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