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The Distance Dynamic

Some interesting dynamics are going to come into play in a few years, and beyond. As travel becomes less and less affordable with the price of fossil fuels climbing as supply starts to decrease, the American workforce will make increasing efforts to live near their places of employment. In large metro areas, where most of the population lives and works, distance from the office seems to be a determinant in housing location for only a small percent of the population. Most people have certain neighborhoods they like for various reasons, but home affordability is obviously key. A lot of people, perhaps most, consider where they live to be more permanent than where they work, so rather than trying to live as close to work as possible, they just focus on affordable neighborhoods within the distance they're willing to commute to work. So what will happen when the lower and lower-middle class can't afford to pay for gas to get to work? Buses can't go everywhere; they can pick people up at Park and Rides, but what if the final destination isn't in a major urban location (i.e. not in a spot served by mass transit)?

Auto Bailout - Part 1

Normally I would be 100% percent against any sort of bailout of auto companies. I've thought for years that it made no sense that the U.S. government subsidized corporations who made unsafe, inferior, and environmentally harmful products. But now's our chance to change all that. This time I think we should give them money (assuming they really need it, more on that later) but with the following conditions:

  1. the fleet average mpg must be at least 35 by 2012
  2. at least 20% of new vehicles must be Hypercars by 2012
  3. at least 20% of new vehicles must be electric by 2012
  4. the top speeds of new vehicles cannot exceed 80 mph
  5. all vehicles must have front and side airbags

Products to Avoid

If you don't know already, you should avoid products with triclosan and triclocarban. These are commonly found in anti-bacterial soaps, toothpastes, and other products. Not only is it possible that they cause cancer in humans, but we've already seen harmful effects on marine life because so much of these chemicals is being emptied into major water systems after it leaves our houses through drain pipes.

Thankfully I don't see either one in the list of ingredients in my Aquafresh, but I really liked my Aveeno shaving gel...

Saudi Solar

Be prepared for Saudi Arabia to continue its dominance in world energy markets. Most of Saudi Arabia's 840,000 square miles is desert, perfect for capturing solar energy. And aside from the distinct possibility of a relatively weak world economy, there should be no shortage of capital moving into renewable energy as the price of petroleum continues to increase. Transferring the energy to places that need it will be the hard part, particularly to nations on the other side of the world. Considering the density of batteries, I'm not sure how feasible it is to carry batteries on a boat. I'm also not sure how feasible it is to have wires carry high-voltage electricity across the Bering Strait, if land transfer made more sense, particularly considering how far the electricity would have to travel if it came from the desert.

Booo to KLM/NWA

So, I went to check when my girlfriend's KLM flight from Minneapolis would be arriving, but the KLM website says it's canceled. Since I don't want to assume that KL6161 is the same as NW161, I call Northwest's Flight Status line. It also tells me the flight is canceled. So I call the main NWA line and talk to an agent, and glean from her (since she didn't actually say yes when I asked her) that KL6161 and NW161 are the same, but she doesn't know why the KLM flight is listed as canceled. Wow. Negative 500 points for KLM and NWA.

In the fall of 2007 voters shot down Proposition 1, a measure on the ballot in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties (the Seattle-Tacoma area). Some voted against it because they saw the big price tag attached to it, and some because they had the foresight to oppose private transit in a crowded, fossil-fuel powered transportation system. 2008 brings a ballot measure which brings back the good parts of Prop 1 while leaving out the bad parts. Please vote Yes on the new Sound Transit ballot measure, so that you can receive:

  • light rail expansion, 5-7 years faster than Prop 1
  • commuter rail expansion
  • express bus service improvements
  • station access improvements

Washington: I-985

If you live in the state of Washington and can vote on I-985, please vote No.

I-985 is sponsored by the anti-tax, anti-equality, anti-environment Tim Eyman, which to any hardcore liberal means a vote of you can't be serious (or is that not an option on the ballot yet?). Eyman seems to think that petroleum is a renewable resource and that population growth will slow to a halt soon. His latest initiative aims to provide congestion relief by:

  • opening car pool lanes to everyone during non-peak hours
  • locking away tolling revenue from mass transit, securing its use road expansion/improvement projects
  • using all money collected from red-light camera fines to "reduce traffic congestion and increase traffic flow"
  • increases funding for road emergency response (mind you this is not to help the victims, it's to help the vehicles being slowed by obstructions)

As with a lot of conservative solutions, this all seems reasonable at first glance. But when you think about its long-term effects, it makes almost no sense at all. Reducing congestion on roads will leave people thinking personal transit is the way of the future, that they can continue to live many miles from work without major consequences. It's clear that the market is not working quickly enough in motivating people to switch to mass transit. The future will inevitably be one of reduced energy, powered by wind and solar and biokinetic energy, where people live within walking distance of the place their food is grown, electric mass transport connecting villages to one another. This means extremely major changes in a relatively short period of time. In ten or fifteen years, when gasoline is unaffordable to the lower and lower-middle classes, weather patterns are beginning to spiral out of control, and the economy is in ruin, do you want to look back and think we didn't do everything we could to avoid the situation?

The Risk of Small Steps

There were some interesting articles in yesterday's The New York Times Magazine (Aug. 10, 2008) . Although about completely different topics (one was about Obama and "the end of black politics," the other about recycling toilet water into the tap water system), there was a common thread between the two which really got me thinking. That thread was the notion that one must be careful when taking steps toward their goal, being sure that the step they're taking will not harm satisfying their goal completely.
Take for example the recycling of plastics. While most of us would agree that recycling is a great thing because it reduces the amount of energy we use (usually), reduces the amount of petroleum we use, and feels darn good, we can't deny that recycling is worse for the environment than not consuming at all. By letting the general public feel like they're doing what they can for the environment by recycling, we may be endangering the goal of reducing consumption to sustainable levels.
So how does one determine if a step forward is worth the risk? I'm not sure there is a good answer. But small steps often raise awareness, and if the general public is not aware of something, they are far less likely to support a big step, particularly if it will result in a short-term financial loss. After a series of small steps, that big step no longer seems so big. (Obama's presidential candidacy is a perfect example, considering blacks went to separate schools, etc. less than half a century ago.)
The hardest part may be knowing when a big step is necessary. Do we fix the rusty bridge, or rebuild it completely? Do we tax gasoline gradually to let the market adjust to renewable energy, or do we outlaw combustion engines? Only time will tell, and hindsight is 50/50.

Avoiding Vinyl

All vegans and some animal-rights activists and environmentalists try to avoid purchasing products made with leather. Cows do a lot of burping, emitting tons of methane into the atmosphere, and methane accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases, second only to CO2, so the mass breeding cows, particularly to be slaughtered, is clearly bad for the environment, without me even getting into the environmental problems with trying to feed so many cows.
The problem with avoiding leather, besides the fact that it can be difficult in some situations, is that its primary alternative is vinyl, also known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC (though vinyl comes in other forms). The production and distribution of vinyl is just plain nasty for the biosphere. Thankfully there are some alternatives, but they're catching on somewhat slowly. The easiest thing you can do to start ridding your home of PVC is to buy a non-PVC shower curtain. If you have vinyl flooring or siding that will obviously be more difficult and more expensive to replace, but it may be worth it for your family's health in the long run. And by not buying PVC products in the future (and potentially forcing producers to change to EVA), you may be helping the health of people across the globe.

I recently found out about a new idea for speeding up the economy's transition away from fossil fuels, called cap and dividend. Basically the idea is that the government places an upstream cap on carbon dioxide by forcing first sellers* of fossil fuels to buy permits equal to the CO2 content of their fuels. Then checks are sent out each year (or month) to all legal citizens (or just adults) of the country based on the total value of the carbon permits purchased. The thing I really like about this idea is that it's progressive, meaning each individual gets the same amount no matter what. This is the first idea I've heard that has a decent chance of keeping the lower class above water (at least those who are able to find affordable housing within a distance to work that allows affordable transporation) while the economy is in transition. The average family of four might receive $1,200 to $6,000 per year, according to a study by MIT. The only potential problem I see with cap and dividend is that the inflation that is bound to occur with increasing energy costs affecting all sectors of the economy might overtake the rate at which dividends increase, possibly leading to economic collapse if energy alternatives are not available in large enough quantities (and they won't be). My hope is that people will continue to spend less money on frivolities and focus more on necessities and conservation, with green jobs replacing those that will be lost when people stop buying yachts and hot tubs and Hummers.

* I'm not sure if "first sellers" means prior to any processing or not, but it affects all the players downstream regardless.

This is a response to Ben Stein's article "Running Out of Fuel, but Not Out of Ideas."

Mr. Stein, while I have great respect for you, I have to disagree with your article, and admit that I'm puzzled by it. First of all, I'm curious what your goal was when writing it. The title makes it sound like its primary content relates to the many potential replacements for fossil fuels (biofuels, hydrogen, etc.), but it makes very little mention of new energy sources. Was your goal to alleviate people's worries about an energy crisis by repeating that you think we're in a "short-term oil bubble"? If so, you did not provide any items to support that hypothesis. In fact, you even made a case for the opposite by reminding people how little the government has done to support alternative energy.

It seems like your goal was to persuade people that even though we are in a "true crisis," we need to ramp up oil production as much as possible to get through it, rather than starting to wean ourselves off of oil for good. This hypothesis requires some important assumptions about the somewhat-distant future in order to make any logical sense.

The first assumption is that damaging some ecosystems in order to find oil now will be worthwhile in the long run. Besides the possibility of destroying links in the food chain and reducing the number of livable habitats for humans, there's no guarantee we'll find enough oil to offset a significant amount of economic damage. A related assumption is that the current science being spouted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community is wrong. By putting forth the idea that we can continue to burn as much oil as we currently do, you're rejecting the assertion from scientists that immediate reductions in carbon dioxide are necessary to avoid worldwide (yes, I'm pointing at you as well, China) catastrophic damage to the environment.

While a stronger economy now probably increases the chances scientists will come up with a long-term solution to our hunger for energy by providing greater resources for research and development, I believe the vital question we need to ask ourselves is this: Is it more important to us that we can live in the suburbs and drive Hummers for the next two decades (probably won't be able to) and avoid complete anarchy from the demolition of our economy/lifestyle (not likely to happen, at least in the U.S.), or is it more important that we save the biosphere before millions or even billions die from incredible natural disasters, a lack of food, etc.?

It's a difficult question to answer, as, with most things, the poorest will suffer the most from high energy prices now, but try to imagine telling your great-grandchildren that they have to live in constant fear of survival because you couldn't imagine riding your bike to work or replacing your swimming pool with a garden for growing vegetables.