Tag Archives: cars suck

Why does anyone care about Keystone XL? Ride a bike.

Some Canadians who get the real issue.

Some Canadians get it.

I honestly don’t get US environmentalists’ decision to make their Line In The Sand against climate change at the Keystone XL pipeline. In an era of $100 a barrel oil, Canada’s oil resources are not going to be left idle, and other countries with dirty but accessible oil aren’t going to sit and wait for cleaner resources to come on stream.

In fact, stopping the pipeline may cause increased carbon emissions. An oil pipeline is about the most energy-efficient transportation method among all commodities. Yes, it’s made to transport dirty Canadian tar sands oil. But if Keystone XL isn’t built, that same filthy oil is most likely going to get shipped to Asia instead, using even more carbon on the way. And the US will buy oil from elsewhere, some of it being the carbon-intensive heavy oil of Venezuela and Colombia. (And every complaint raised here about the tar sands is true in the lawless llanos of South America: carbon-intensive processing; huge water production and little control over water disposal; disputes with indigenous people and other local cultures; pipeline spills.) The US will get that fuel by ship, using more carbon per barrel to import it than if it were carried by pipeline.

The problem isn’t the transportation method of the oil. The problem is the oil. Cars kill everything: they run over people, birds, dogs, butterflies, you name it. Single-occupant cars obstruct social life and increase stress. Cars make mass transit less efficient and get in the way of bicycles. Meanwhile, they devour the bulk of the world’s liquid fuels and convert these long-buried plant molecules into carbon dioxide and smog. The problem, at heart, is cars. (Planes suck too, especially per passenger. My biggest contributions to the greenhouse effect are from my occasional plane trips.)

The story is in the news these days because environmentalists are counting on US President Barack Obama to stop the pipeline, while some are expecting him to let the pipe get built. Personally, I say he stops it. It’s become a cause celebre, and the main beneficiary is a Canadian company. It’s easier to stand up to those supposedly dirty Canucks than to stop the real climate villains in suburbia, those who fire up a one-occupant car every morning to commute to work.

What’s most frustrating about watching this fight from afar is that it is so similar to the drug war. Just as slowing the flow of cocaine from Colombia’s Caribbean coast has done nothing to reduce US drug addiction (the shipments moved to the Pacific, to Venezuela, and to Brazil), slowing the flow of oil from Alberta to Louisiana will do nothing to reduce US car addiction. And just as with the drug war, it’s easier to rant and rave about some foreign threat than to face the fact that the harms are ultimately caused by one’s own friends, clients, neighbors, family members, and self.

If you don’t want a hotter planet, stop driving cars, especially inefficient cars and those with just one or two occupants. Stop building parking lots. Don’t take plane trips, either. Convince the people you know to do the same. And don’t go start with some “we need structural change first.” Structures, such as new transit lines, get built to meet demand. You need to be that demand, rather than blocking the intersection and slowing down the few US bus lines that still exist.

On the other hand, if you want to feel good about yourself without making such a change, go ahead and worry about one pipeline or another. But don’t try and convince yourself you are stopping climate change.

PS: If you have either already made what personal changes you can, or you just prefer to stick to structures rather than personal choices, the infrastructure projects that are most important to halt are parking garages, regional malls, exurban office parks, and regional sprawl more generally. They are what induce driving. (Low-density suburban residential development can also make the list, but as I’ve seen here in Latin America, such development can coexist with good mass transit and a low-carbon lifestyle as long as there are little shops scattered through, neighborhood schools and nearby transit stops. Such things are verboten in the USA.)


Chile and the temptations of petro-populism

It would be hard to find two countries more opposite within South America than Chile and Venezuela. Excessively rigid rules vs. no rules. Homages to a right-wing dictator vs. homages to a left-wing dictator. Majority white European vs. a rainbow of mestizaje. Wheat, wine, apples, softwoods and salmon vs. oil, rum, mangoes, chemicals, and red snapper.

But there’s one thing everyone can agree on: we want cheap gas, cheap parking, and unlimited road space for our death monsters. Continue reading

Pave the Earth II: Chile loves cars

If there’s one thing that defines the Chilean national character, it’s a love for the countryside. That means that the first thing people do when they can afford it is buy a car. For country-dwellers, a car or truck helps make the rural lifestyle a bit more profitable, as taking crops to market in horse-drawn wagons is more quaint than efficient. For city folks, a car helps people to see the countryside on the weekend. But of course soon enough, a big portion of both country and city folks, once they own cars, become suburban folks. And once they are living in spread-out suburbs, they need another car, and another. It’s a feedback loop we’ve seen all over the world.

I don’t know exactly where Chile is in this process, or whether it’s already too late to halt the sprawl. What’s clear is that the feedback is accelerating. Check this out, from the national statistics office car report, released yesterday: Continue reading

Pave–I mean save–the Earth!

RioCentroGo read Quasecarioca as he points out the hypocrisy built into the carbon-spewing mess that is the UN’s upcoming climate change summit.

The Rio Centro convention center is a hallmark icon of the disastrous, planet-warming, urban-planning-done-wrong that Rio+20 is supposed to be working to counteract. Rio Centro is located in the rapidly expanding Barra da Tijuca suburb that turns the walkable, pedestrian-friendly center of Rio completely on its head with a maze of highways, shopping malls, parking lots and gated communities.

I only add that what he says is new only in degree, not in kind. The first Rio summit, in 1992, was held in an equally remote conference centre for “security” reasons. Heads of state flew around in helicopters and zipped through the city in motorcades as nervous camo-covered teens with M-16s guarded every overpass. The simultaneous NGO summit in 1992 was at least transit-accessible, but as I have mentioned before, I was the only person there to arrive by bicycle. The whole professional activist and climate-bureaucrat world is one of the more infuriating realities for those of us who ride bikes and eat local vegetarian food as we try to limit our carbon footprints. A single climate change bigwig, be s/he from the UN or NRDC or WWF or Nature Conservancy, can swamp a lot of the good done by those of us who try to live lower-impact lives. As David Brower said, “Conservationists have to win again and again and again. The enemy only has to win once.”

Anyway, read Quasecarioca. He’s smarter than me and is actually informed and stuff. Yes, you — why haven’t you clicked yet? Click it.

20 years on from the Earth Summit

Hey, remember how at the first Earth Summit in 1992, the US & Japan governments blocked action on carbon taxes and binding global targets on greenhouse gases, saying that such things would push oil to above $30 a barrel? Remember George HW Bush saying, “The American Lifestyle is not up for negotiation”? Remember the horror stories of possible $45 oil, and how that would destroy the world economy? (And yeah, I know that austerity is never a winning platform, and these governments were just hand-puppets of the big car and oil companies. But imagine if they had taken leadership in convincing the companies of the long-term benefit of the simple, elegant solutions already being proposed at the time — like a harmonized carbon tax across developed countries.)

And remember the activist groups who saw climate talks as an opportunity to load in every pet issue, from dismantling the World Bank to increasing aid for poor countries to stopping free trade agreements, rather than just focusing on the task at hand, which was to reduce fossil fuel consumption? (And yeah, I’m as holistic as the next guy, but no, poor countries wouldn’t have been hurt by a carbon tax — at least not as much as they’ve been hurt by the last decade of volatile oil prices. Indeed, some of the biggest success stories in the developing world, such as Brazil and Chile, have high fuel taxes, while the countries like Venezuela and Bolivia that subsidize fuel as a path to development have struggled.)

Anyway, thanks, everybody. There’s another Earth Summit coming up in Rio in June. This article (a couple months old already) gives a good sense of the prospects — which can be summed up by saying that we are on track to join other “dominant” species.

PS: At the first Earth Summit, I was the only person to arrive daily by bicycle. On that, at least, we’ve made some progress.