By Dom Nozzi
Our future, tragically, will need to include much bitter medicine to swallow as we must pay for the sins committed by our forefathers and foremothers over the past 80 or so years.
Primarily, those sins include the assumption that most all of us should forever commit ourselves to only one lifestyle: auto-dependent, energy-consuming, high-consumption suburban life.
Since early in the 20th Century, no one thought to promote what ecology teaches us for survival: Provide for diverse and therefore adaptive lifestyles and travel choices for an inevitably changing environment. We failed to grasp and act on the Darwinian principle that those species which are not adaptive are in danger of extinction (as are societies/empires).
By not creating or allowing or promoting lifestyle choices such as rural or compact urban, we are in a precarious position. Because we are not diverse and adaptive in America—we are not resilient—a change in one fundamental element of our world—oil prices—means that many of us will be forced to feel a lot of pain in the coming years.
For example, those who bought into the suburban American dream are seeing the value of their increasingly dysfunctional home value erode (much more so than housing in more walkable locations). And because they live in a remote place that requires a car for nearly every single trip, such people will have little choice but to suck it up and pay eternally increasing gas prices.
This is not to mention the enormous household expense of having to finance multiple cars for the household—average annual cost for a car is now over $7,500 per year, I believe. I can think of a lot of things that would be better, financially, for a 2-car household to spend $15,000 per year on than depreciating cars.
A trip to Rome? A better house?
Are there ways to regain the wisdom of sustainability outside of higher energy costs? I don’t know of any. I DO know of a number of civilizations which have collapsed because they were not able to adapt quickly.
As was once said by someone who’s name escapes me, whenever a civilization in history has had to make a choice between making a fundamental change in their behavior and extinction, they have nearly always chosen extinction.
I’m committed to NOT choosing extinction, but am realistic enough to sadly conclude that avoiding extinction will mean pain for an unprepared society such as ours.
A society with no rail system, and a society with insufficient housing set in compact, walkable, mixed use neighborhoods, for example.
I am committed to transitioning, for example, to a society with rail and walkable communities in the coming decades. The United States needs to immediately commit itself to be on that path (in a “Manhattan Project” sort of way). The sooner we set on that path, the less pain we will feel. But some pain is unavoidable.
Much of our future will be about demolishing white elephant mistakes we’ve made over the past several decades, and building or adaptively re-using more sustainable and more localized patterns. Probably much more re-using rather than new building, as we seem incapable of building walkable, lovable, charming development anymore. And because it will be too costly, energy-wise, to build new.
We must also find the leadership to raise gas taxes NOW, while gas prices are low (and while we can leverage the rage induced by the Gulf Deepwater Oil Spill—a rage that is a near consensus).
Gas taxes are an excellent way for us to see effective demand destruction. By reducing gas consumption, we incrementally make ourselves less unsustainably dependent on increasingly hostile and unreliable oil producers, not to mention our dangerous efforts to exploit domestic resources (such as off-shore oil).
Higher gas taxes make us more interested in changing our lives to be less car-dependent. And gas taxes keep a lot more of our dollars here in the US, rather than enriching “petro-dictators.” My fear about gas tax revenue, though, is that it is likely to be used by DOT dinosaurs to have us continue to bankrupt and ruin ourselves by widening roads.
Where is Al Gore’s “lock box” when you need it?
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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