Carfree Times

      Issue 30

24 February 2003   
No Blood for Oil
This image belongs to everybody, everywhere

Special Issue: Stop the Oil War

Why a Special Issue?

Carfree Times has never before published a special issue. Bush & Co. are rushing to war for reasons they have never been able to articulate. (See Stephen Zunes's article for a paragraph-by-paragraph deconstruction and rebuttal of Bush's State of the Union Address; this is must reading if you think Bush actually made a valid case for war.) This special issue includes several articles that relate, directly or indirectly, to America's "need" to go to war with an Iraq that is already substantially disarmed and little threat to anyone.

The real issue is Bush's burning desire to control Iraqi oil fields, which contain the largest remaining reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia. This oil will be bought with the blood of a few Americans (and any others foolish enough to join this crusade) and the blood of thousands, possibly millions of Iraqis. Bush will then turn over the oil assets to his friends in the oil business for them to milk for every cent they can.

This is the stepping stone to the hydrogen economy, which, in Bush's vision for the USA, will look just like today's dysfunctional, auto-centric USA. The hidden footnote is that, as the oil begins to run out, America's vast coal reserves will be used to make the hydrogen needed to fuel the hydrogen-powered economy that may have been developed by that time. This is a simple approach, one that would probably work. Unfortunately, it will be accomplished by using the dirtiest fuel known to man, the one that releases the most CO2 into the environment per unit energy. The CO2 will be sequestered, with unknown effectiveness, in underground reservoirs, unless that turns out to cost too much, in which case it will simply be released into the atmosphere (which is why, I believe, that Bush took the USA out of the Kyoto agreement).

All of what Bush proposes can probably be achieved, as long as one is willing to ignore the costs to other nations and still wishes to continue to drive giant vehicles with wild abandon. There are, however, better means to a more desirable end. We will consider some of the issues in the following articles.

Why Americans Drive So Much

Each American drives farther in a year than a citizen of any other country. The reason is simple: as a matter of public policy, different classes of land use (i.e., residences, offices, stores, and schools) are required to be located in different zones, which are so spread out that the only practical form of transport is driving - when trip origins and destinations are so diffuse, no form of public transport ever imagined can provide decent service.

This dispersion of uses is combined with the "American dream home," which is a single-story building situated on its own plot of ground, the bigger the better. Because so much land is required for this style of habitation, distances that must be traveled in daily life are far greater than necessary.

The results of this policy can be seen in the California housing shortage. House prices were already absurd when I moved there 20 years ago; today, they are simply out of sight. Quite ordinary bungalows in San Francisco's notoriously clammy fog belt bring $600,000 in today's market, and they are built on quite small lots by American standards. If these areas had been built as urban neighborhoods, with taller buildings and narrower streets, they could have accommodated many more inhabitants.

But the problems are even worse in most of the rest of California, which was built to the more usual American pattern, with larger lots, even wider streets, and few houses more than a single story high. California has thus sprawled over vast regions yet still houses a comparatively small population, virtually every member of which must drive long distances over crowded roads every day. Even with technical improvements in air pollution control, air quality is still bad in most urban areas of California.

The demand for housing in California has outrun availability for 20 years, and today only 140,000 houses are built each year, despite demand for about 220,000. Those who arrived in California years ago understandably want to protect the remaining open space, which has cramped the style of developers once accustomed to building a few dozen houses on any handy parcel of farmland.

California has recently turned more to "master planned communities," where lots for single-family detached houses are somewhat smaller. These projects sometimes even include multifamily dwellings. Houses are set closer to the street, which increases the chance of interactions with neighbors and also reduces the required lot size. These communities are intended to be more pedestrian-friendly, with local shops and services. This, it is hoped, will generate a greater sense of community.

The enormous costs of infrastructure associated with dispersed habitation also drives up the cost of housing in the USA. The costs of providing basic utilities in suburban neighborhoods runs about five times the cost of installing such services in urban areas, on a per-capita basis. The costs of owning and operating a residence are much greater when the building is free-standing, as more heating and cooling is required than for multi-story buildings that adjoin one another.

The costs of this dysfunctional way of living are becoming apparent to Americans, who are starting to demand a return to real communities where it isn't necessary to drive absolutely everywhere. The movement is known as the New Urbanism, and while it does not solve all the problems related to auto-centric urban planning, it is a large improvement. Americans value the benefits of this way of living so highly that New Urbanist developments typically generate more profits for the developer than conventional sprawl.

Today, in California, people are often prepared to accept two-hour (each way!) commutes in order to buy a house they can afford. The absurdity of this situation will be brought home if the price of gasoline in the USA rises only to the price in Europe, which would likely bring on political revolt and people find themselves pinched between the mortgage and fuel costs. In the event of a real oil crisis, many of these people will no longer be able to afford to drive to work, even if they can buy the fuel at all.

Some information in this story was found in:
"Smart Solution:
Developers tackle housing and land shortage
with small homes, cozy streetscapes"
Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal
6 December 2002 print edition

The SUV as a Symptom of Social Dysfunction

The need for vast quantities of petroleum to fuel America's transport has been further exacerbated in the past ten years by the emergence of the SUV (Sport/Utility Vehicle, legally a category of truck). These are the largest private passenger vehicles ever built for the road. The worst of them get as little as 12 miles/gallon (roughly 20 liters/100 km) of fuel. They weigh as much as three tons and are invariably equipped with the huge, fuel-guzzling V-8 engines needed to provide swift acceleration in such a heavy vehicle. Most of these vehicles are equipped with four-wheel-drive, which is rarely actually used by their owners: these are technically off-road vehicles, capable of tearing up virgin land almost anywhere, and they are often marketed as vehicles for tough-guy, go-anywhere people, photographed against a backdrop of snow-draped mountains, without another car in sight.

The real reasons that people buy SUVs are more sinister: these huge vehicles intimidate drivers in ordinary cars. Everybody knows that when an SUV hits a passenger car at any speed, it is likely that the occupants of the car will die, while those in the SUV are quite likely to survive, often unharmed. Because of their designation as "trucks" for regulatory purposes, SUVs have escaped not only the more stringent fuel-efficiency standards applied to ordinary passenger cars but also the safety provisions. Crucial is that SUVs are not subject to the same bumper-height standards that apply to ordinary cars, so in a collision, the SUV often overrides the car it hits, often with fatal consequences for those in the car.

Less well known is that SUVs are actually more dangerous for their occupants than ordinary cars - the rate of fatal injuries is actually a bit higher in SUVs than in ordinary cars. This is due to the propensity of these behemoths to overturn in circumstances that would leave an ordinary car upright. Worse still, for the SUV users, is that while ordinary cars must protect their occupants during rollovers, SUVs are not required to do so, and most do not. It is the rollover wrecks that make SUVs so dangerous for their occupants.

If SUVs are so bad, why have so many Americans bought them? The answer, I fear, does not bode well for American civilization. Many Americans have grown up in isolation, in their suburban fortresses. They are afraid of their fellow man and want as much protection as possible from him. They perceive the SUV as a way to protect themselves. Most people who buy these things know on some level that they unnecessarily endanger others on the road, but these misanthropes care so little about the health and well-being of their fellow man that they choose to drive a vehicle that poses a large threat to other road users, in the hope that they will themselves be safer. The final irony is that they endanger themselves in the bargain.

I fear that the popularity of the SUV announces the advent of social breakdown in the USA. When people care so little about the consequences of their acts as to buy such patently dangerous vehicles as these, what does it say about the health of the social ties that once bound Americans together? What is the future of a society in which this kind of behavior is tolerated, even encouraged?

For more on SUVs, see especially:
"Bumper Mentality:
A review of Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: SUVs"
Washington Monthly
December 2002

Life in the Car

A recent article in the Washington Post begins: "Katie Butler logs up to three hours a day in a minivan. Between shuttling with the boys to school, running errands, attending ballet classes and visiting friends, she is a veteran of the Washington area's mind-boggling traffic. She is also 2 1/2 years old."

This is how many American kids are growing up: in the car. And yet her mother is aware of the problem and concerned: "If I didn't have help," said Butler, of Washington, "she'd spend an enormous amount of the day in the car," which is to say, far more than she already does.

What are the effects of all this car travel on children? It wasn't until recently that the matter was even regarded as worthy of recording, but, for the first time, the US government's National Household Travel Survey includes a category for children 5 and younger. Three-fourths of children 5 and younger ride in private cars daily, it turns out. Now that a quart of milk can no longer be found within walking distance of the house, every errand requires yet another trip in the car.

That this is unhealthy for children is well known. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children aged 4-14, according to US government statistics. In addition to the considerable risk of death and injury in wrecks, the air inside cars is now known to be even more toxic than the ambient air on a busy street.

But what of the social effects of spending so much time with a parent who is distracted by the demands of driving, especially in heavy traffic? What is the quality of time a child spends with a parent he can only see in the rear-view mirror? Does it matter that the parent can't even reach out to touch the child without risking distraction and thus death? Is this really an environment in which a child should grow up?

Of course, children trapped in cars are not outside playing and making friends. They're forced to keep still in restrictive child seats, for their own good, of course. This is one of the reasons that so many American young people are overweight. They're learning the worst possible health habits for later life.

The only real solution to this quandary is a return to human-scaled communities, where the goods and services required in daily life can be found within comfortable walking distance. This will have the beneficial side-effect of exposing children to socialization outside the home at a much earlier age, as young children meet friends and neighbors on the street during the course of normal daily activities. Would this not be a much happier and healthier way to grow up than spending so much time cooped up with a nervous parent trying to drive through heavy traffic?

"The Road Too Much Traveled:
For Many Children, Drive Time Just Keeps Going"
Washington Post
27 January 2003

A Life of Increasing Expectations?

Writing in a recent article in the Manchester (UK) Guardian, George Monbiot begins: "With the turning of every year, we expect our lives to improve. As long as the economy continues to grow, we imagine, the world will become a more congenial place in which to live. There is no basis for this belief. If we take into account such factors as pollution and the depletion of natural capital, we see that the quality of life peaked in the UK in 1974 and in the US in 1968, and has been falling ever since. We are going backwards."

Balderdash? Or fact? The economists would argue that, at least among the richer classes, we are much better off now than 30 years ago. But is even this really true? How much of today's wealth has simply been borrowed from future generations? What is the future cost of burning so much fossil fuel today? How much will the resulting climate change cost generations not yet born? Are any of these costs included in the figures published by economists?

What is the value, in today's money, of the species extinction that is anticipated to result from global warming (to say nothing of the species extinction that is on-going, often as a result of oil exploitation)? Monbiot continues: "Our economic system depends upon never-ending growth, yet we live in a world with finite resources. Our expectation of progress is, as a result, a delusion. This is the great heresy of our times, the fundamental truth which cannot be spoken. It is dismissed as furiously by those who possess power today - governments, business, the media - as the discovery that the earth orbits the sun was denounced by the late medieval church. Speak this truth in public and you are dismissed as a crank, a prig, a lunatic."

While this is perhaps slightly overstating the case (no one has yet called me a crank, prig, or lunatic, at least not to my face), it is true that today's economics is founded on an obvious fallacy: growth can continue forever, and must, if national economies are to remain healthy. The opposite is true, but the economic systems we have in place do not accept this obvious limitation.

Monbiot again: "Now, despite the endless denials, it is clear that the wall towards which we are accelerating is not very far away. Within five or 10 years, the global consumption of oil is likely to outstrip supply." He mentions the problems of ground-water and phosphate exhaustion that arise from "modern" farming methods, which, unlike traditional methods, cannot keep us fed indefinitely into the future. What is the value today of a starving child a century from now? Is this cost included in our economic calculations?

The solution, according to Monbiot, is a system that shifts taxation from employment to environmental destruction, which could tax over-consumption right out of existence. This proposition directly supports the carfree city, as such cities would require less material to build and far less energy to operate.

Monbiot closes more eloquently than I can: "Overturning this calculation is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. We need to reverse not only the fundamental presumptions of political and economic life, but also the polarity of our moral compass. Everything we thought was good - giving more exciting presents to our children, flying to a friend's wedding, even buying newspapers - turns out also to be bad. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that so many deny the problem with such religious zeal. But to live in these times without striving to change them is like watching, with serenity, the oncoming truck in your path."

"Our Quality of Life Peaked in 1974. It's All Downhill Now:
We will pay the price for believing the world has infinite resources"
31 December 2002



Increasing Quality of Life, Reducing Standard of Living

Or: Living Better with Less Oil

If, in the year 1 A.D., you had invested US$0.01 (one cent) at just 2% real interest (i.e., nominal interest minus inflation) compounded annually, the interest on your investment today would somewhat exceed Gross World Product (GWP). Go back and re-read that. It seems impossible, but the math is very simple. The principal in 2003 would be $1,650,227,679,638,880, and the interest would be $33,004,553,592,778.

As George Monbiot established in the article cited above, this simple factoid destroys the underpinnings of contemporary economic thought, which holds that growth is good, should be high, and can continue indefinitely. Obviously, growth cannot continue indefinitely. Given that the assumption of endless growth is fatally flawed, what implications does that have for public policy? Given that even current levels of consumption have overtaxed the Earth's resources, what are we to do? It seems self-evident that we must try to bring economic growth to a halt with the same sort of urgency that we are bringing population growth to a halt. But how do we sell the world's people on the idea of stopping economic growth?

We must begin with fairness: economic prosperity must be brought into balance all around the world, with no exceedingly rich or grindingly poor regions. We must continue with the promise of improving quality of life while standard of living is held constant or even declines. This is much less difficult than it sounds. Indeed, one of the very causes of declining quality of life is increasing standard of living, in the form of pollution and congestion. If most of the automobile industry and its related costs (wars to secure oil, health care for pollution-induced illness, etc.) were removed from the economy (leaving only a sector large enough to supply fuel-efficient automobiles for those living in rural areas), we would see a dramatic increase in quality of life while reducing the size of the economy by perhaps 25%. The further development of knowledge-intensive products, which have very small material inputs, can dramatically improve the quality of life while holding the standard of living in check.

The only real question that can still be asked in the face of the simple reality is: when do we begin the conversion from a growth-based economy to a steady-state economy? It has to happen some day, and almost all environmental problems would be helped by an early change-over. So what is the point of further delay?

Is this really the right time for an oil war, or is it the right time for clearer thinking about our economic future?  

Letter to the Editor

The last issue of Carfree Times carried a letter from Karen Mell, who asked: "Can anyone shed any light on a car free city I can move to or help start?" This has led to the formation of a new Yahoo! group to discuss this question. We have also received the following response. Ed.

Dear Carfree Editor,

I too have dreamt about living in a car free city that could include work and play. I am sure that such a city/community exists with varying limitations. As a resident of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, we have many neighborhoods that include rowed two storey buildings with residences on the top level and shops at the lower level on a subway line. These are older buildings built before suburban living became popularized by the proliferation of cars.

I would be interested in participating in a dialogue with folks like Karen Mell of Kansas City, MO about her desire. Sometimes it just takes an idea communicated publicly by one to multiply to two and more, that begins the process towards realization.

Lolita McKay
Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Carfree Pioneer Charles E. Fraser, 1929-2002

Charles Fraser, best known as the developer of Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island, died in a December boating accident. Harbour Town, the focal point of Sea Pines, was one of the first carfree developments anywhere, dating back to the 1960s. It became the most valuable real estate on the island. The lighthouse he built there in 1968 was the first new lighthouse on the East Coast for more than 70 years and was promptly nicknamed Fraser's Folly. It was to become, instead, one of the icons of South Carolina.

Fraser was an innovator, a creative thinker who was a mentor to many and launched successful careers for dozens of protégées. He will be missed.

"Charles Fraser, Developer of Hilton Head, Dies at 73"
New York Times
19 December 2002

Hot New Links

The links below will open in a new browser window:

"Bush's Oil War," an editorial by J.H. Crawford.

An Annotated Overview of the Foreign Policy Segments of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address Stephen Zunes (cited earlier in this issue).

Editorial against the war by Edoardo Salzano, former Assistent Mayor for Plannng in Venice.

"Our Quality of Life Peaked in 1974: It's All Downhill Now: We will pay the price for believing the world has infinite resources," by George Monbiot.

Energy Shortage from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

Car Wars: The US Economy Needs Oil Like a Junkie Needs Heroin - And Iraq Will Supply Its Next Fix. is working to build a carfree city somewhere in the USA or Canada.

"Urban Ecology, Innovations in Housing Policy and the Future of Cities: Towards Sustainability in Neighbourhood Communities." Jan Scheurer's PhD Thesis.

Behind the Great Divide Paul Krugman, NY Times, 18 February 2003.

The United States of America Has Gone Mad John le Carré.

Bumper Mentality: A review of Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: SUVs.

The Real Revolutionaries Richard Risemberg in the New Colonist on rebels... and their cars.

Methadone for Road Hogs Richard Risemberg in the New Colonist on Zero Emission Vehicles... and why they don't help.

"Are Hummer Owners Idiots? More delightful proof positive that most SUVs are, in fact, morally repugnant. Go, America!," an anti-SUV rant.

Richard Register on electric cars.

Blues for Green in Holland, by Jane Holtz Kay, in the New Colonist.

World Transport Policy & Practice, Volume 8 (temporary site).

The Town Building Institute.

The Social Ideology of the Motorcar by André Gortz (1973!).

Daniel Ellsberg, author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers"

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