Platforms for a Green New Deal

Two new books in review

Also published on Resilience.org

Does the Green New Deal assume a faith in “green growth”? Does the Green New Deal make promises that go far beyond what our societies can afford? Will the Green New Deal saddle ordinary taxpayers with huge tax bills? Can the Green New Deal provide quick solutions to both environmental overshoot and economic inequality?

These questions have been posed by people from across the spectrum – but of course proponents of a Green New Deal may not agree on all of the goals, let alone an implementation plan. So it’s good to see two concise manifestos – one British, one American – released by Verso in November.

The Case for the Green New Deal (by Ann Pettifor), and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos) each clock in at a little under 200 pages, and both books are written in accessible prose for a general audience.

Surprisingly, there is remarkably little overlap in coverage and it’s well worth reading both volumes.

The Case for a Green New Deal takes a much deeper dive into monetary policy. A Planet To Win devotes many pages to explaining how a socially just and environmentally wise society can provide a healthy, prosperous, even luxurious lifestyle for all citizens, once we understand that luxury does not consist of ever-more-conspicuous consumption.

The two books wind to their destinations along different paths but they share some very important principles.

Covers of The Case For The Green New Deal and A Planet To Win

First, both books make clear that a Green New Deal must not shirk a head-on confrontation with the power of corporate finance. Both books hark back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous opposition to big banking interests, and both books fault Barack Obama for letting financial kingpins escape the 2008 crash with enhanced power and wealth while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

Instead of seeing the crash as an opportunity to set a dramatically different course for public finance, Obama presented himself as the protector of Wall Street:

“As [Obama] told financial CEOs in early 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Frankly, he should have put unemployed people to work in a solar-powered pitchfork factory.” (A Planet To Win, page 13)

A second point common to both books is the view that the biggest and most immediate emissions cuts must come from elite classes who account for a disproportionate share of emissions. Unfortunately, neither book makes it clear whether they are talking about the carbon-emitting elite in wealthy countries, or the carbon-emitting elite on a global scale. (If it’s the latter, that likely includes the authors, most of their readership, this writer and most readers of this review.)

Finally, both books take a clear position against the concept of continuous, exponential economic growth. Though they argue that the global economy must cease to grow, and sooner rather than later, their prescriptions also appear to imply that there will be one more dramatic burst of economic growth during the transition to an equitable, sustainable steady-state economy.

Left unasked and unanswered in these books is whether the climate system can stand even one more short burst of global economic growth.

Public or private finance

The British entry into this conversation takes a deeper dive into the economic policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt. British economist Ann Pettifor was at the centre of one of the first policy statements that used the “Green New Deal” moniker, just before the financial crash of 2007–08. She argues that we should have learned the same lessons from that crash that Roosevelt had to learn from the Depression of the 1930s.

Alluding to Roosevelt’s inaugural address, she summarizes her thesis this way:

“We can afford what we can do. This is the theme of the book in your hands. There are limits to what we can do – notably ecological limits, but thanks to the public good that is the monetary system, we can, within human and ecological limits, afford what we can do.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, page xi)

That comes across as a radical idea in this day of austerity budgetting. But Pettifor says the limits that count are the limits of what we can organize, what we can invent, and, critically, what the ecological system can sustain – not what private banking interests say we can afford.

In Pettifor’s view it is not optional, it is essential for nations around the world to re-win public control of their financial systems from the private institutions that now enrich themselves at public expense. And she takes us through the back-and-forth struggle for public control of banking, examining the ground-breaking theory of John Maynard Keynes after World War I, the dramatically changed monetary policy of the Roosevelt administration that was a precondition for the full employment policy of the original New Deal, and the gradual recapture of global banking systems by private interests since the early 1960s.

On the one hand, a rapid reassertion of public banking authority (which must include, Pettifor says, tackling the hegemony of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency) may seem a tall order given the urgent environmental challenges. On the other hand, the global financial order is highly unstable anyway, and Pettifor says we need to be ready next time around:

“sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. … It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city …. It could be widespread warfare…. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system. … [N]one of these scenarios fit the ‘black swan’ theory of difficult-to-predict events. All three fall within the realm of normal expectations in history, science and economics.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 64)

A final major influence acknowledged by Pettifor is American economist Herman Daly, pioneer of steady-state economics. She places this idea at the center of the Green New Deal:

“our economic goal is for a ‘steady state’ economy … that helps to maintain and repair the delicate balance of nature, and respects the laws of ecology and physics (in particular thermodynamics). An economy that delivers social justice for all classes, and ensures a liveable planet for future generations.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 66)

Beyond a clear endorsement of this principle, though, Pettifor’s book doesn’t offer much detail on how our transportation system, food provisioning systems, etc, should be transformed. That’s no criticism of the book. Providing a clear explanation of the need for transformation in monetary policy; why the current system of “free mobility” of capital allows private finance to work beyond the reach of democratic control, with disastrous consequences for income equality and for the environment; and how finance was brought under public control before and can be again – this  is a big enough task for one short book, and Pettifor carries it out with aplomb.

Some paths are ruinous. Others are not.

Writing in The Nation in November of 2018, Daniel Aldana Cohen set out an essential corrective to the tone of most public discourse:

“Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. … The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.” (The Nation, “Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point,” November 2, 2018; emphasis mine)

There’s a clear echo of Cohen’s statement in the introduction to A Planet To Win:

“we rarely see climate narratives that combine scientific realism with positive political and technological change. Instead, most stories focus on just one trend: the grim projections of climate science, bright reports of promising technologies, or celebrations of gritty activism. But the real world will be a mess of all three. (A Planet To Win, pg 3)

The quartet of authors are particularly concerned to highlight a new path in which basic human needs are satisfied for all people, in which communal enjoyment of public luxuries replaces private conspicuous consumption, and in which all facets of the economy respect non-negotiable ecological limits.

The authors argue that a world of full employment; comfortable and dignified housing for all; convenient, cheap or even free public transport; healthy food and proper public health care; plus a growth in leisure time –  this vision can win widespread public backing and can take us to a sustainable civilization.

A Planet To Win dives into history, too, with a picture of the socialist housing that has been home to generations of people in Vienna. This is an important chapter, as it demonstrates that there is nothing inherently shabby in the concept of public housing:

“Vienna’s radiant social housing incarnates its working class’s socialist ideals; the United States’ decaying public housing incarnates its ruling class’s stingy racism.” (A Planet To Win, pg 127)

Likewise, the book looks at the job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal, noting that they not only built a vast array of public recreational facilities, but also carried out the largest program of environmental restoration ever conducted in the US.

The public co-operatives that brought electricity to rural people across the US could be revitalized and expanded for the era of all-renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies, too, should be brought under public ownership – for the purpose of winding them down as quickly as possible while safeguarding workers’ pensions.

In their efforts to present a New Green Deal in glowingly positive terms, I think the authors underestimate the difficulties in the energy transition. For example, they extol a new era in which Americans will have plenty of time to take inexpensive vacations on high-speed trains throughout the country. But it’s not at all clear, given current technology, how feasible it will be to run completely electrified trains through vast and sparsely populated regions of the US.

In discussing electrification of all transport and heating, the authors conclude that the US must roughly double the amount of electricity generated – as if it’s a given that Americans can or should use nearly as much total energy in the renewable era as they have in the fossil era.1

And once electric utilities are brought under democratic control, the authors write, “they can fulfill what should be their only mission: guaranteeing clean, cheap, or even free power to the people they serve.” (A World To Win, pg 53; emphasis mine)

A realistic understanding of thermodynamics and energy provision should, I think, prompt us to ask whether energy is ever cheap or free – (except in the dispersed, intermittent forms of energy that the natural world has always provided).

As it is, the authors acknowledge a “potent contradiction” in most current recipes for energy transition:

“the extractive processes necessary to realize a world powered by wind and sun entail their own devastating social and environmental consequences. The latter might not be as threatening to the global climate as carbon pollution. But should the same communities exploited by 500 years of capitalist and colonial violence be asked to bear the brunt of the clean energy transition …?” (A Planet To Win, pg 147-148)

With the chapter on the relationship between a Green New Deal in the industrialized world, and the even more urgent challenges facing people in the Global South, A World To Win gives us an honest grappling with another set of critical issues. And in recognizing that “We hope for greener mining techniques, but we shouldn’t count on them,” the authors make it clear that the Green New Deal is not yet a fully satisfactory program.

Again, however, they accomplish a lot in just under 200 pages, in support of their view that “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal” (A Planet To Win, pg 8; their emphasis). The time has long passed for timid nudges such as modest carbon taxes or gradual improvements to auto emission standards.

We are now in “a trench war,” they write, “to hold off every extra tenth of a degree of warming.” In this war,

“Another four years of the Trump administration is an obvious nightmare. … But there are many paths to a hellish earth, and another one leads right down the center of the political aisle.” (A Planet To Win, pg 180)


1 This page on the US government Energy Information Agency website gives total US primary energy consumption as 101 quadrillion Btus, and US electricity use as 38 quadrillion Btus. If all fossil fuel use were stopped but electricity use were doubled, the US would then use 76 quadrillion Btus, or 75% of current total energy consumption.

Make room for the bus

A review of Better Buses, Better Cities

Also published at Resilience.org

Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, published by Island Press and University of British Columbia Press, October 2019

We often hear that “the greenest building is the one you already have.” The idea is that the up-front carbon emissions released during the production of a new building can outweigh many  years of emissions from the old building. So in many cases retrofitting an old building makes more environmental sense than replacing it with a new “state-of-the-art” facility.

But should we say “the greenest transportation infrastructure is the one we already have?” Yes, in the sense that by far our biggest transportation infrastructure item is our network of paved roads. And rather than rushing to construct a new infrastructure – with all the up-front carbon emissions that would entail – we should simply stop squandering most of our road lanes on the least efficient mode of transportation, the private car.

While new light-rail systems, subways, inter-urban commuter trains all have their place, simply giving buses preference on existing roads could improve urban quality of life while bringing carbon emissions down – long before the planning and approval process for new train lines is complete.

Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Cities is a superb how-to manual for urban activists and urban policy-makers. The book is filled with examples from transit reforms throughout the United States, but its relevance extends to countries like Canada whose city streets are similarly choked with creeping cars.

Given the book’s title, it is ironic that few of these reforms involve improvements to the bus vehicle itself (though the gradual replacement of diesel buses with electric buses is an important next step). Instead the key steps have to do with scheduling, prioritizing the movement of buses on city streets, and improving the environment for transit users before and after their bus rides.

Higashide begins the book by noting that buses can make far more effective space of busy roads:

Add bus service to a road and you can easily double the number of people it carries – even more so if buses are given dedicated space on the street or if a train runs down it. When you see a photograph of a bus in city traffic, there’s a decent chance that the bus is carrying more people than all the cars in the same frame.” (Better Buses, Better Cities, page 3)

Buses move more people than cars even on congested streets, but the people-moving power of a street really soars if there is adequate dedicated space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users:

From Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, page 3

Frequency equals freedom

Which comes first – a bus route with several buses each hour or a bus route with big ridership? Municipal politicians and bean counters often argue that it makes no sense to up the frequency of lines with low ridership. But many surveys, and the experience in many cities, show that potential riders are unlikely to switch from cars to buses if the bus service is infrequent. In Higashide’s words,

The difference between a bus that runs every half hour and a bus that runs every 15 minutes is the difference between planning your life around a schedule and the freedom to show up and leave when you want.” (Better Buses, p. 23)

There is thus an inherent tension between planning routes for frequency, and planning routes for maximum coverage. The compromise is never perfect. A small number of high-frequency routes might get high ridership – as long as the major destinations for a sufficient number of riders are easily accessible. A route map with meandering service through every area of a city will provide maximum coverage – but if service is infrequent and slow, few people will use it.

In any case, overall bus network plans must be updated periodically to reflect major changes in cities, and Higashide provides case studies of cities in which transit restructuring was accomplished with very good results in a short time period.

Still, adding several buses each hour doesn’t help much if the streets are highly congested. Instead the result might be “bunching”: a would-be rider waits for a half hour, only to then have three buses arriving in a row with the first two packed full.

He emphasizes that “making buses better can start with redrawing a map, but it has to continue by redesigning the street.” (Better Buses, p. 37)

To emphasize the point he cites declining average speeds in most US cities since 2012, with New York City buses crawling at 7.6 mph in 2016. “Among the culprits,” Higashide writes, “is the enormous increase in Uber and Lyft rides; Amazon and other retailers have also led to a doubling in urban freight traffic associated with online shopping.” (Better Buses, p. 44)

Traffic stopped at Church Street and Park Place near the Financial District in Tribeca, Manhattan. Photo by Tdorante10 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effectively restricting some lanes to buses is one strategy to make transit use an  attractive option while making better use of road space. Others are the introduction of advance traffic signals for buses, or “bump-out” bus stops that allow buses to travel in a straight line, rather than swerving right to pick up passengers and then waiting for a chance to move back out into the traffic.

Transit planners often overlook the pedestrian experience as something that’s out of their realm, Higashide says. But a large majority of bus users walk to the bus, and then walk from the bus to their destination.

Unfortunately the dominance of autos in American cities has resulted in streets that are noisy, polluted, frightening and unsafe for pedestrians. In addition transit stops often have no shelter from scorching sun, cold wind or rain, and transit-using pedestrians may have very good reason to feel unsafe while they wait for a bus or while walking to or from the bus. Higashide gives welcome attention to these issues.

Finally, he discusses the rapid progress made by activists in cities where “pop-up” projects have introduced ideas such as dedicated bus lanes. Transit agencies, he says, “have to discard ponderous project development processes that result in 5-year timelines for bus lane projects and try tactical approaches that change streets overnight instead.” (Better Buses, page 11)

The people most likely to need better bus services are least likely to sit through years of public consultations. But pilot projects on specific street sections can demonstrate the many benefits of bus prioritization – for transit users, pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and businesses alike. Higashide discusses pop-up projects which have been introduced in weeks instead of months or years, and have proven effective so quickly that they were adopted and expanded.

That’s good news for city dwellers, and good news for the rest of us too. With such an urgent need to cut carbon emissions, fast, we can not afford to spend ten or fifteen years waiting for huge new transit infrastructures. Likewise we shouldn’t put our hopes in a vast new fleet of electric cars, which will clog streets just as thoroughly as internal combustion cars do today.

In his conclusion, Higashide turns his focus directly to both the social justice and carbon emission implications of transit choices. Speaking of Green New Deal policies, he says “what they choose not to fund is as important as what they do fund.”

Federal policy must make it harder to build new roads, recognizing that highways are fossil fuel infrastructure as surely as oil and gas pipelines are and that their construction often directly harms neighborhoods where black and brown people live, so that suburban residents can get a faster trip.” (Better Buses, page 128)

We don’t need more lanes of pavement. We need to make room for buses on the pavement we already have.


Photo at top: Chicago Transit Authority buses at 87th St, photo by David Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at Resilience.org

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.

Overshoot

The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.


1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

If the insects go, we all go

An illustrated review of Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Also published at Resilience.org

Buzz, Sting, Bite is a breezy read with a sobering message: insects are so deeply woven into the web of life that the worldwide drop in insect populations threatens every other species. (Buzz, Sting, Bite is published by Simon & Schuster, July 2019)

Author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a Norwegian ecologist who specializes in the interactions of the thousands of species that live in dead wood in Scandinavia. But here she writes for non-specialists, with the goal of inspiring more people with fascination, respect, awe and concern for insects.

So she’s happy to sprinkle the text with anthropomorphic metaphors, to showcase strange tales of insect sexual practices, and to regale us with ghoulish examples of insects who devour other insects in bizarre and inventive fashion. She explains why, in scientific terms, insects, spiders and centipedes belong to different phyla, while bugs are a specific order of insects – but she doesn’t let those formal distinctions get in the way of a good story.


Damselflies in Summer Meadow. Sverdrup-Thygeson writes: “Have you ever seen damselflies … perching or flying around in pairs? … The sole purpose of this tandem position is that it allows the male to keep watch over the female and make sure she doesn’t mate with any rivals until she has laid (what he hopes are) their jointly fertilized eggs on a suitable aquatic plant.” (page 34)


Though the book is illustrated only with a few eloquent black-and-white illustrations, Sverdrup-Thygeson’s story-telling is vivid. In just over two hundred pages the reader will absorb much fundamental biological understanding, along with compelling anecdotes about species from all over the world.

She concedes that a small number of insect species cause us harm, from annoying but temporarily itchy bites, to sudden crop failures, to epidemics of deadly diseases. Her focus, however, is on the other side of the ledger – the far more numerous species whose activities are indispensable to the biosphere that supports us.


Red Wasp on Hydrangea Paniculata. “Insects’ visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 percent of the world’s wild plants, and insect pollination improves fruit or seed quality in a large proportion of our global food crops …. A study of forty different crops across the planet showed that visits from wild insects increased crop yields in all systems.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 85)

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Echinacea.


At the end of the book she quotes Harvard professor E.O. Wilson: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change …. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” And by the end of the book, Sverdrup-Thygeson has helped us to understand why Wilson was so right.

Insects evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than larger species did, and as a result our ecosystem is built on a foundation of insect biodiversity. More than half of all bird species, for example, eat insects, as do most freshwater fish. For about 80 per cent of wild plants, as well as most of the plants that we eat, visits from a variety of insects are either essential or measurably beneficial.


Red Admiral Butterfly on Coriander. “Most insect species on the planet undergo complete metamorphosis. This includes the dominant insect groups, such as beetles, wasps, butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes. The ingenious part of it is that they can exploit two totally different diets and habitats as child and adult ….” (page 5)

Green-Eyed Dragon. “The dragonfly excels as a lethal hunter, succeeding in more than 95 percent of its attempts. … Their vision makes a significant contribution to their success …. Almost their entire head consists of eyes. In fact, each eye is made up of 30,000 small eyes, which can see both ultraviolet and polarized light as well as colors. And since the eyes are like balls, the dragonfly can see most of what is happening on all sides of its body.” (page 16-17)

Disappearing Damselflies. “Freshwater fish live largely off insects because some insects take infant swimming so seriously that they keep their young permanently submerged until they reach the age of reason: mosquitos, mayflies, and dragonflies, to name but a few.” (page 101)


And then there’s decomposition, AKA composting and recycling. All over the globe there are sophisticated teams of bugs, bacteria and fungi which transform rotting animal flesh, fruit, leaves, trees, and dung into nutrients that then feed other species.


Ants in Tree-House. “Once fungi and insects, mosses and lichens, and bacteria have moved in, there are more living cells in the dead tree than there were when it was alive. So ironically enough, dead trees are actually among the most living things you can find in the forest.” (page 113)


There are many reasons for a rapid decline in insect numbers in many countries, including habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and climate change. Typically, the rare and most specialized species are the first to go, Sverdrup-Thygeson says. And though extinction is a frightening (and increasingly frequent) outcome, she warns that:

“It’s too late to worry when a species is on the brink of extinction. Species cease to function in the ecosystem long before the last individual dies out. That is why it is so vital not to focus exclusively on species extinction but to turn the spotlight on the decline in the number of individuals.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 178)

Buzz, Bite, Sting is an easy read for a summer day – but the book is meant to spur important action and change:

“We have everything to gain by caring a bit more about insects. I believe in knowledge, positive talk, and enthusiasm. Be curious about bugs, take the time to look and learn. Teach children about all the strange and useful things insects do. Talk nicely about bugs. Make your garden a better place for flower visitors. Let’s get insects onto the agenda in land-use plans and official reports, agriculture regulations and state budgets. … My hope is that this book will open more people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of insects and the extraordinary lives they live alongside us on this planet we share.”


Photographs taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Port Darlington, Ontario. Photo at top of post: Meadow Sunset Dragonfly (click here for full-size version)

 

Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at Resilience.org

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)

 

The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.


Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

Of hope, grief, and humility

A review of Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice

Also published at Resilience.org

If you’re looking for hope in Dahr Jamail’s new book The End Of Ice, the recommendation that Dr. Harold Wanless gives for Miami is about the closest you’ll find:

“Sea level rise is going to accelerate faster than the models, and it’s not going to stop,” he says. “So the government has to have a plan that includes buyouts. It’s cheaper to buy this area out than it is to maintain the infrastructure.” And before vacating most of the city,

The final thing is cleaning the land before inundation, and this is most important. We should be planning for that, including removing things in the buildings and industrial land that will pollute the marine environment, including low-lying areas in flood-plains. Otherwise we will give our kids a highly polluted new marine environment ….” (From The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, by Dahr Jamail, published by The New Press, January 2019

Is preparing for a new Atlantis a hopeful scenario? Well, it’s all relative. As South Miami mayor Dr. Philip Stoddard puts it, “Frankly, there is worse stuff than sea level rise. Most of the rest of the aspects of climate change are far worse. With sea level rise you can move, as compared to what do you do when the food supply disappears? How do you grow crops? How do we feed people? The answer is, not very well.”

Dahr Jamail is the author of three books growing out of his experience as an unembedded journalist in Iraq. But he says what he learned while researching The End Of Ice shook him even more deeply than did his reporting from Iraq.

He is also an experienced and dedicated mountaineer who has spent a big chunk of his life working with rescue teams on high-altitude glaciers in Alaska. Watching the rapid shrinkage of these glaciers has given him a personal window to the onset of climate disruption. But communion with these starkly beautiful environments also offers him a way to cope with the overwhelmingly frightening prognosis that he hears from climate scientists in the Arctic, the Amazon basin, south Florida and the coral reefs of the South Pacific.

Though most of the book consists of interviews with front-line scientists, a recurring theme is his struggle with despair, depression and a sense of meaningless when confronting what he is learning. For all of us who pay attention to the steadily worsening climate news, his reflections on hope, grief, and humility are an important part of his message.

Suffice it to say that most of his interview subjects think we have already blown our chances of keeping global average temperature rise to 2°C or less – even if, miraculously, all nations meet their Paris Agreement commitments. And if 3°C, 4°C or more of temperature rise has already been set in motion, then some truly devastating positive feedback loops are likely to follow. Two such feedbacks that Jamail discusses are rapid die-offs of forests in both the Amazon and the boreal regions, which would turn these forests into major carbon sources rather than carbon sinks; and the potential for an explosive release of long-frozen methane due to the warming of arctic permafrost.

Even without such feedbacks, many researchers believe that the IPCC reports have been underestimating risks for decades now. As Harold Wanless explains,

There are political games going on in the IPCC and their modelers can’t look beyond the model. The IPCC only uses stuff in refereed journals, which is already four to five years outdated, and they cut off three years early for peer review, so it is at least 10 years outdated ….”

Furthermore, Wanless says, the need for consensus in the IPCC reports results in “lowball projections” skewing the reports and downplaying the seriousness of our predicament.

With each successive IPCC report, the previous predictions are shown to have been too optimistic. The loss of Arctic sea ice is galloping ahead of official projections – “we already reached the amount of Arctic sea ice loss anticipated for 2050 back in 2002.”

(Today’s news offers further confirmation, as a major new report says even in the best-case scenario at least one-third of the Himalayan ice cap will be lost by 2100, while with a 4–5°C global warming, at least two-thirds of this ice will be gone by 2100.)

Unlike the Greenland glaciers or the ice sheets covering Antarctica (which many scientists believe are already on an unstoppable path to melting), mountain-top glaciers don’t hold enough water to play a large part in sea-level rise. These glaciers do, however, play essential roles in their regional ecosystems, and their disappearance will have devastating impacts on biodiversity, agriculture, and political stability for hundreds of millions or billions of people.

Mountain snow caps, Jamail explains, are like water towers – storing water throughout the winter and spring, and gradually releasing cold water into rivers and valleys in summer. The icewater shapes micro-climates as it flows down the hills, providing life-giving conditions for species dependent on cold water. Then it provides drinking water or irrigation water for some of the world’s major agricultural areas in foothills and plains.

If snowpacks melt too early due to winter rains or high spring temperatures, the water is gone long before it is really needed in summer. The consequences will be widespread, Jamail says:

Most people in the United States who don’t live in areas where some or most of their water source is reliant upon glaciers may think melting glaciers won’t impact them. But they would be wrong. Diminishing glaciers in the western United States will impact agriculture, driving up food prices everywhere. And globally, when the millions of people who rely on glaciers for their water and agriculture lose those glaciers, many of these people will have to leave their homes, becoming refugees.”

Jamail ends the book with an extended reflection on death, despair, grieving and gratitude. He finds solace in quiet time gazing at the sunset on the face of a mountain, though that time feels like the precious hours shared at an intimate friend’s deathbed. And he says he has learned to surrender hope: “I came to understand that hope blocked the greater need to grieve, so that was the reason necessitating the surrendering of it.” He adds,

“Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things .… My acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself. … I am grieving and yet I have never felt more alive.”

Perhaps each person must answer these questions their own way, and though I have immense respect for Jamail’s work and his conclusions, I cannot say I am ready either to fully embrace hope or to give it up.

Jamail also shares inspiration in the words of Stan Rushworth, an elder of Cherokee descent who relates the lessons imparted by his father. For me these words especially ring true. Rushworth says:

The dire position we’re in now is solid evidence of the fact that the predominant civilization does not have a handle on all the interrelationships between humans and what we call the natural world. If it did, we wouldn’t be facing this dire situation. … We simply do not have a big enough or right-minded enough vision. Because of this, we need to allow for something we cannot understand.

This is not about hope, but more, humility, and carefully considered action within that humility, and much deeper listening.”

Photo at top: Dahr Jamail, photographed by John Fleming, from the cover of The End of Ice

Beyond computational thinking – a ‘cloud of unknowing’ for the 21st century

Also published at Resilience.org

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, by James Bridle, Verso Books, 2018

If people are to make wise decisions in our heavily technological world, is it essential that they learn how to code?

For author and artist James Bridle, that is analogous to asking whether it is essential that people be taught plumbing skills.

Of course we want and need people who know how to connect water taps, how to find and fix leaks. But,

learning to plumb a sink is not enough to understand the complex interactions between water tables, political geography, ageing infrastructure, and social policy that define, shape and produce actual life support systems in society.” (Except where otherwise noted, all quotes in this article are from New Dark Age by James Bridle, Verso Books 2018)

Likewise, we need people who can view our technological society as a system – a complex, adaptive and emergent system – which remains heavily influenced by certain motives and interests while also spawning new developments that are beyond any one group’s control.

Bridle’s 2018 book New Dark Age takes deep dives into seemingly divergent subjects including the origins of contemporary weather forecasting, mass surveillance, airline reservation systems, and Youtube autoplay lists for toddlers.  Each of these excursions is so engrossing that it is sometimes difficult to hold his central thesis in mind, and yet he weaves all the threads into a cohesive tapestry.

Bridle wants us to be aware of the strengths of what he terms “computational thinking” – but also its critical limitations. And he wants us to look at the implications of  the internet as a system, not only of power lines and routers and servers and cables, but also of people, from the spies who tap into network nodes to monitor our communications, to the business analysts who devise ways to “monetize” our clicks, to the Facebook groups who share videos backing up their favoured theories.

Wiring of the SEAC computer, which was built in 1950 for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. It was used until 1964, for purposes including meteorology, city traffic simulations, and the wave function of  the helium atom. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

From today’s weather, predict tomorrow’s

Decades before a practical electronic computer existed, pioneering meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson1 thought up what would become a “killer app” for computers.

Given current weather data – temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed – for a wide but evenly spaced matrix of locations, Richardson reasoned that it should be possible to calculate how each cell’s conditions would interact with the conditions in adjacent cells, describe new weather patterns that would arise, and therefore predict tomorrow’s weather for each and all of those locations.

That method became the foundation of contemporary weather forecasting, which has improved by leaps and bounds in our lifetimes. But in 1916, when Richardson first tried to test his ideas they were practically useless. The method involved so many calculations that Richardson worked for weeks, then months, then years to work out a ‘prediction’ from a single day’s weather data.

But by the end of World War II, the US military had developed early electronic computers which could begin to make Richardson’s theory a useful one. To military strategists, of course, the ability to predict weather could provide a great advantage in war. Knowing when a particular attack would be helped or hindered by the weather would be a great boon to generals. Even more tantalizingly, if it were possible to clearly understand and predict the weather, it might then also be possible to control the weather, inflicting a deluge or a sandstorm, for example, on vulnerable enemy forces.

John von Neumann, a mathematician, Manhattan Project physicist and a major figure in the development of computers, summed it up.

In what could be taken as the founding statement of computational thought, [von Neumann] wrote: ‘All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.’”

Computational thinking, then, relied on the input of data about present conditions, and further data on how such conditions have been correlated in the past, in order to predict future conditions.

But because many aspects of our world are connected in one system – an adaptive and emergent system – this system spawns new trends which behave in new ways, not predictable simply from the patterns of the past. In other words, in the anthropocene age our system is not wholly computable. We need to understand, Bridle writes, that

technology’s increasing inability to predict the future – whether that’s the fluctuating markets of digital stock exchanges, the outcomes and applications of scientific research, or the accelerating instability of the global climate – stems directly from these misapprehensions about the neutrality and comprehensibility of computation.”

Take the case of climate studies and meteorology. The technological apparatus to collect all the data, crunch the numbers, and run the models is part of a huge industrial infrastructure that is itself changing the climate (with the internet itself contributing an ever-more significant share of greenhouse gas emissions). As a result the world’s weather is ever more turbulent, producing so-called ‘100 year storms’ every few years. We can make highly educated guesses about critical climatic tipping points, but we are unable to say for sure when these events will occur or how they will interact.

Age-old traditional knowledge of ways to deal with this week’s or this year’s weather is becoming less reliable. Scientists, too, should acknowledge the limits of computational thinking for their work:

In a 2016 editorial for the New York Times, computational meteorologist and past president of the American Meteorological Society William B. Gail cited a number of patterns that humanity has studied for centuries, but that are disrupted by climate change: long-term weather trends, fish spawning and migration, plant pollination, monsoon and tide cycles, the occurrence of ‘extreme’ weather events. For most of recorded history, these cycles have been broadly predictable, and we have built up vast reserves of knowledge that we can tap into in order to better sustain our ever more entangled civilisation.”

The implications are stark: “Gail foresees a time in which our grandchildren might conceivably know less about the world in which they live than we do today, with correspondingly catastrophic events for complex societies.”

World map of submarine communication cables, 2015. Cable data by Greg Mahlknecht, world map by Openstreetmap contributors. Accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

Lines of power

In many ways, Bridle says, we can be mislead by the current view of the internet as a “cloud”. Contrary to our metaphor, he writes, “The cloud is not weightless; it is not amorphous, or even invisible, if you know where to look for it.” To be clear,

It is a physical infrastructure consisting of phone lines, fibre optics, satellites, cables on the ocean floor, and vast warehouses filled with computers, which consume huge amounts of water and energy and reside within national and legal jurisdictions. The cloud is a new kind of industry, and a hungry one.”

We have already referred to the rapidly growing electricity requirements of the internet, with its inevitable impact on the world’s climate. When we hear about “cloud computing”, Bridle also wants us to bear in mind the ways in which this “cloud” both reflects and reinforces military, political and economic power relationships:

The cloud shapes itself to geographies of power and influence, and it serves to reinforce them. The cloud is a power relationship, and most people are not on top of it.”

It is no accident, he says, that maps of internet traffic trace pathways of colonial power that are hundreds of years old. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the US military-intelligence complex, which gave birth to internet protocols, have also installed wiretapping equipment and personnel at junctions where trans-oceanic cables come ashore in the US, allowing them to scoop up far more communications data than they can effectively monitor.2

These power relationships come into play in determining not only what is visible in our web applications, but what is hidden. Bridle is a keen plane-spotter, and he marvels at flight-tracking websites which show, in real time, the movements of thousands of commercial aircraft around the world. “The view of these flight trackers, like that of Google Earth and other satellite image services, is deeply seductive,” he says, but wait:

This God’s-eye view is illusory, as it also serves to block out and erase other private and state activities, from the private jets of oligarchs and politicians to covert surveillance flights and military manoeuvres. For everything that is shown, something is hidden.”

Aviation comes up frequently in the book, as its military and commercial importance is reflected in the outsize role aviation has played in the development of computing and communications infrastructure. Aviation provides compelling examples of the unintended, emergent consequences of this technology.

High anthropoclouds in the sky of Barcelona, 2010, accessed through Wikimedia Commons. The clouds created by aircraft have an outsize impact on climate change. And climate change, Bridle writes, contributes to the increasingly vexing problem of “clear air turbulence” which threatens aircraft but cannot be reliably predicted.

On the last day of October, just a few months after New Dark Age was published, I found myself at Gatwick International Airport near London. I wanted to walk to the nearby town of Crawley to pick up a cardboard packing box. Though the information clerks in the airport terminal told me there was no walking route to Crawley, I had already learned that there was in fact a multi-use cycling lane, and so I hunted around the delivery ramps and parking garage exits until I found my route.

It was a beautiful but noisy stroll, with a brook on one side, a high fence on the other, and the ear-splitting roar of jet engines rising over me every few minutes. Little did I know that in just over a month this strange setting would be a major crime scene, as the full force of the aeronautical/intelligence industry pulled out all stops to find the operators of unauthorized drones, while hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded in the pre-Christmas rush.

Another month has passed and no perpetrators have been identified, leading some to wonder if the multiple drone sightings were all mistakes. But in any case, aviation experts have long agreed that it’s just a matter of time before “non-state actors” manage to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deadly effect. Wireless communications, robotics, and three-dimensional location systems are now so widely available and inexpensive, it is unrealistic to think that drones will always be controlled by or even tracked by military or police authorities.

The exponential advance of artificial stupidity

Bridle’s discussion of trends in artificial intelligence is at once one of the most intriguing and, to this layperson at least, one of the less satisfying sections of the book. Many of us have heard about a new programming approach, following which a computer program taught itself to play the game Go, and soon was able to beat the world’s best human players of this ancient and complex game.

Those of us who have had to deal with automated telephone-tree answering systems, as much as we may hate the experience, can recognize that voice-recognition and language processing systems have also gotten better. And Google Translate has improved by leaps and bounds in just a few years time.

Bridle’s discussion of the relevant programming approaches presupposes a basic familiarity with the concept of neural networks. Since he writes so clearly about so many other facets of computational thinking, I wish he had chosen to spell out the major approaches to artificial intelligence a bit more for those of us who do not have degrees in computer science.

When he discusses the facility of Youtube in promoting mindless videos, and the efficiency of social media in spreading conspiracy theories of every sort, his message is lucid and provocative.

Here the two-step dance between algorithms and human users of the web produces results that might be laughable if they weren’t chilling. Likewise, strange trends develop out of interplay between Google’s official “mission” – “to organize the world’s information” – and the business model by which it boosts its share price – selling ads.

The Children’s Youtube division of Google has been one of Bridle’s research interests, and those of us fortunate enough not to be acquainted with this realm of culture are likely to be shocked by what he finds.

You might ask what kind of idiot would name a video “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Surfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho”. A clever idiot, that’s who, an idiot who may or may not be human, but who knows how to make money. Bridle explains the motive:

This unintelligible assemblage of brand names, characters and keywords points to the real audience for the descriptions: not the viewer, but the algorithms that decide who sees which videos.”

These videos are created to be seen by children too young to be reading titles. Youtube accommodates them – and parents happy to have their toddlers transfixed by a screen – by automatically assembling long reels of videos for autoplay. The videos simply need to earn their place in the playlists with titles that contain enough algorithm-matching words or phrases, and hold the toddler’s attention long enough for ads to be seen and the next video to begin.

The content factories that churn out videos by the millions, then, must keep pace with current trends while spending less on production than will be earned by the accompanying ads, which are typically sold on a “per thousand views” basis.

Is this a bit of a stretch from “organizing the world’s information”? Yes, but what’s more important, a corporation’s lofty mission statement, or its commercial raison d’être? (That is, to sell ads.)

When it comes to content aimed at adults the trends are just as troubling, as Bridle’s discussion of conspiracy theories makes clear.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he explains, “a belief is not a delusion when it is held by a person’s ‘culture or subculture’.”

But with today’s social media, it is easy to find people who share any particular belief, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous that belief might seem to others:

Those that the psychiatric establishment would have classified as delusional can ‘cure’ themselves of their delusions by seeking out and joining an online community of like minds. Any opposition to this worldview can be dismissed as a cover-up of the truth of their experience ….”

This pattern, as it happens, reflects the profit-motive basis of social media corporations – people give a media website their attention for much longer when it spools videos or returns search results that confirm their biases and beliefs, and that means there are more ads viewed, more ad revenue earned.

If Google and other social media giants do a splendid job of “organizing the world’s information”, then, they are equally adept at organizing the world’s misinformation:

The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.”

Our unknowable future

After reading to the last page of a book in which the author covers a dazzling array of topics so well and weaves them together so skillfully, it would be churlish to wish he had included more. I would hope, however, that Bridle or someone with an equal gift for systemic analysis will delve into two questions that naturally arise from this work.

Bridle notes that the energy demands of our computational network are growing rapidly, to the point that this network is a significant driver of climate change. But what might happen to the network if our energy supply becomes effectively scarce due to rapidly rising energy costs?3

Major sectors of the so-called Web 2.0 are founded in a particular business model: services are provided to the mass of users “free”, while advertisers and other data-buyers pay for our attention in order to sell us more products. What might happen to this dominant model of “free services”, if an economic crash means we can’t sustain consumption on anything close to the current scale?

I suspect Bridle would say that the answers to these questions, like so many others, do not compute. Though computation can be a great tool, it will not answer many of the most important questions.

In the morass of information/misinformation in which our network engulfs us, we might find many reasons for pessimism. But Bridle urges us to accept and even welcome the deep uncertainty which has always been a condition of our existence.

As misleading as the “cloud” may be as a picture of our computer network, Bridle suggests we can find value if we take a nod from the 14th-century Christian mystic classic  “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Its anonymous author wrote, “On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you …. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds.”

Or in Bridle’s 21st century phrasing,

It is this cloud that we have sought to conquer with computation, but that is continually undone by the reality of what we are attempting. Cloudy thinking, the embrace of unknowing, might allow us to revert from computational thinking, and it is what the network itself urges upon us.”


Photo at top: anthropogenic clouds over paper mill UPM-Kymmene, Schongau, 2013. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.


NOTES

1 For an excellent account of the centuries-long development of contemporary meteorology, including the important role of Lewis Fry Richardson, see Bill Streever’s 2016 book And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air.
2 More precisely, though intelligence agents can often zero in on suspicious conversations after a crime has been committed or an insurgency launched, the trillions of bits of data are unreliable sources of prediction before the fact.
3 Kris de Decker has posed some intriguing possibilities in Low-Tech Magazine. See, for example, his 2015 article “How to Build a Low-tech Internet”.

The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall

Also published at Resilience.org

In late 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ready to spell out his government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. His pitch to Canadians went along these lines:

We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.

If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?

This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)

Though Gutstein takes a deep dive into Canadian politics, industry and academia, much of his story also concerns the series of international conferences which attempted, with very little success, to come up with strong international solutions for a climate crisis that knows no borders. Thus The Big Stall has relevance to climate change campaigners in many countries.

By the early 1990s, Gutstein says, the pervasive influence of neoliberal economic theory was leading to “a silent corporate takeover of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Neoliberal theory said that the “free market”, not government, should be relied on to solve the problem of climate change. That suited the oil industry, because the one thing they feared most was a hard-and-fast regulatory limit on carbon emissions.

An ad for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, perhaps? Not so – this is a still from the Alberta government’s tv ad series with the tagline “The TransMountain Pipeline is on  Canada’s side.” At keepcanadaworking.ca.

Lessons from Big Tobacco

In common with many other historians, Gutstein pays close attention to the strong links between public relations campaigns used by the tobacco industry and the similar strategies employed by Big Oil, particularly in sowing public confusion about the scientific consensus.

But as Gutstein’s book makes clear, the mainstream environmental movement failed to absorb a key lesson from the decades-long struggle to combat tobacco addiction: the industry whose products are the root of the problem should not be relied on to devise solutions.

Corporate participation in COP21 [Paris 2015] and in the conferences and talks leading up to and following it stands in stark contrast with the corporate role in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There, tobacco interests are excluded, a fact which helps explain that treaty’s rapid progress in curtailing tobacco use. … At the climate talks, in sharp contrast, there is no conflict between Big Oil’s interests and public health and environmental interests. The corporate sector succeeded in making itself integral to the process.” (The Big Stall, page 158-159)

Fossil fuel interests assured their seat at the table in part by sponsoring the negotiations. In Paris in 2015, Gutstein writes,

Big Oil even partly financed the talks. France could have easily paid the C$255-million cost, but by allowing corporations to contribute 20 per cent, the host country encouraged the private sector to be part of the inner circle that was planning and organizing the event.” (The Big Stall, page 160)

The result was that in spite of inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals, the Paris Agreement contained no binding emissions reduction requirements. Instead countries were free to make their own reduction “pledges” with no penalties for missing their targets. This result was perfectly predictable, Gutstein says: “Paris was guided to its inevitable conclusion by the veiled hand of Big Oil and its corporate and political allies.” (The Big Stall, page 155)

He traces the pattern of corporate influence over climate negotiations back to the role of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong at the 1992 Rio Summit, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland at the eponymous Brundtland Commission in the 1980s.

Brundtland helped popularize the phrase “sustainable development” – a phrase which Gutstein says has come to mean little beyond sustaining the profits and asset values of major corporations. Thus fossil fuel interests can forge ahead with plans to extract even more nonrenewable resources while forestalling international action to reduce carbon emissions – and then sign declarations of support for “sustainable development”.

An ad for Wind Turbines? Flowers? Puppies? Kites? None of the above – this is a still from an Alberta government tv spot promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion, which is intended to double the amount of bitumen exported through the Port of Vancouver.

To tax or not to tax carbon

The story gets complicated, of course, because corporate figures do not always agree on the best ways to protect their bottom lines, and sometimes they respond to changing political winds in different ways.

Gutstein covers these shifts in corporate spin in great detail. Put simply, major fossil fuel interests went from denying that there was any scientific consensus on the reality or cause of global warming, to support for carbon-emissions trading markets, to support for a modest carbon tax.

In Canada in particular, a carbon tax was seen as a necessary concession to strong public concern that Canada wasn’t doing its part to mitigate global warming. Recognizing that the oil sands had a terrible reputation around the globe, oil interests hoped they could earn public favour by supporting a carbon tax. And politicians including Justin Trudeau pitched the carbon tax as an integral part of an indivisible package: we need to tax carbon to reduce emissions, while at the same time building new pipelines to ensure that oil sands extraction continues to grow.1

The common element in all of these fossil fuel corporation strategies is that there must not be any strict regulatory limit on carbon emissions – we must trust “the market”, in all its infinite wisdom, to arrive at emissions reductions. (When fossil fuel interests want subsidies, or need government help to get their products to market, then of course it is quite alright to deviate from free market principles.)

Gutstein makes clear that the level of carbon taxes advocated by fossil fuel interests is far too low to have a significant impact either on their profits or on national carbon emissions. Likewise, he says, the imposition of carbon taxes alone cannot substitute for the wide range of regulatory measures and incentives needed to make a rapid transition away from a fossil fuel economy. But he leaves unanswered another question: does he think carbon taxes could play an important role if they were set high enough to be effective, and were part of an appropriate package of other rules and incentives? In other words, if our political parties move beyond their fealty to neoliberal free-market ideology, should they enact effective carbon taxes?

The final corporate PR strategy that Gutstein discusses is the trend for fossil fuel companies to embrace the “market opportunity” of leading the transition to new energy systems. By publicizing their corporate efforts to buy wind turbines, study battery technology, or build heavily-subsidized prototypes of carbon-capture-and-sequestration plants, fossil fuel companies would like us to believe they are leading the way into a clean green future. But the important action happens behind the scenes, as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against any effective and compulsory limits on carbon emissions.

A clean green future? Major graphics in this article are stills from an Alberta-government funded tv ad series promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion. The ads do not show images of pipelines, tar sands open-pit mines, tailings ponds or refineries – just prosperous people and unspoiled environments. (At keepcanadaworking.ca.) Since the ads are paid for by a provincial government, and the TransMountain Pipeline is now owned by the federal government, fossil fuel industry adherence to “free market” principles can be flexible indeed.


FOOTNOTES

By the time The Big Stall was published, Trudeau’s grand bargain was in danger of failing on both fronts. Court cases and business decisions had delayed or cancelled most of the pending pipelines that would facilitate oil sands expansion. In the meantime the minimal carbon tax Trudeau has promised has been dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” by the new Premier of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party, and the scheduled tax is now vehemently opposed by provincial leaders in about half of the country.

When good is not enough – extending the bicycle’s reach in The Netherlands

Also published at Resilience.org

The Netherlands has a worldwide reputation as a bicycle-loving country – but bikes account for only a small proportion of kilometers travelled.

While the Dutch have given far greater official support to bicycling than other industrialized countries have, the dominance of car culture is still a fact of life in The Netherlands.

The government publication Transport and Mobility 2016 includes the section heading “The Dutch and their sacred cow” – and the authors aren’t referring to the bicycle. Rather, they note that over half of the adult population, and 71% of households, owns a car. This proportion rises to 84% of rural households, and 90% of high-income households.

Using figures from 2014, the publication states that 28% of trips made are by bicycle and 18% are by foot –  but these trips tend to be short. Overall, 73% of kilometers traveled within the country are by car, with 9% by bike, 9% by train, 3% by other land-based public transport, and 3% on foot.

What are the most promising ways to shift a significant portion of this travel to carbon-emissions-free or low-carbon modes? Trips for education only account for 7% of kilometers traveled, and 80% of Dutch students under 15 already bike to school, so additional improvement in that category will be hard to achieve.

Commuting is the biggest single category of kilometers traveled. In common with other countries, the Dutch spend a disproportionate amount on roadways to accommodate more cars. But unlike most other countries, the Dutch are also investing substantially in infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to get to work without getting into a car.

Steel wheels and rubber tires

Building the Cycling City, published by Island Press, August 2018

In their excellent work Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett discuss two areas of focus in efforts to increase bicycles’ modal share. (See the first part of a look at this book here.)

Cycling is the most common form of transportation in the country for short trips – 3 to 5 km – but most commutes are significantly longer than that. Fortunately, the country has also maintained a highly effective train network, and trains and bikes are now working symbiotically.

The Bruntletts note that “the nationwide [rail] system serves over 1.2 million passengers each and every day, half of whom bookend their train travel with bicycle rides.” (Building the Cycling City, page 140)

A small infrastructure program has been essential in promoting bike-train trips. Because the train system is already well used, there is no room on trains for bikes at rush hour. Therefore people are encouraged to keep one bike at home to ride to the local train station, and another one on the other end to pedal from the train station to the workplace. (That’s one reason the country now counts more bicycles than people.)

To be secure in this practice, people need safe bike parking adjacent to all train stations. Thus you can now find bike parking facilities at every train station – for hundreds of bikes in smaller towns, thousands of bikes in small cities, or tens of thousands of bikes in bigger cities.

This covered bike-parking facility is in the northern city of Groningen, adjacent to the train station.

The most impressive of these efforts is in the southern city of Utrecht. A large university town just a short train ride away from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden and Den Haag, Utrecht boasts the country’s busiest train station. To ensure that many of the rail passengers don’t need to rely on motorized transportation to get to or from the station, the station is now the site of the world’s largest bike garage, in a complex which holds 22,000 bikes and will hold 32,000 when completed.1

A state-of-the-art bike parking garage in downtown Utrecht. Gently sloping ramps wind from the street up through the three levels of parking, and electronic signs at the ends of aisles tell cyclists where free spaces are located.

The largest of the facilities holds 12,500 bikes of standard or close-to-standard sizes, while a separate facility can accommodate delivery bikes and bakfiets – long bikes with a large box that can hold up to three children. The garages are fully sheltered from weather, are constantly monitored, and most are open 24 hours a day while some sections are open “only” from 6 am to midnight. With so many cyclists using the facilities, it also makes sense to have a service and repair shop on site.

This attention to the needs of people with bikes may sound expensive. But clearly a 12,000-bike parking facility is far less expensive in both Euros and land area than a comparable-capacity car parking garage, or the kind of bus terminal that would be required to get all those people in and out of the train station by bus. And making the bike-train combo safe and convenient pays big dividends: Transport and Mobility 2016 notes that “An inhabitant of Utrecht differs from the inhabitants of the other provinces in making the most trips as well as the most kilometres by bicycle and train.”2 (Emphasis mine.)

Electrification

During my first week in The Netherlands, I was bent over the handlebars fighting a fierce wind when an elderly woman, sitting bolt-upright in the breeze, passed me with little apparent effort. I thought, “Wow, these Dutch people are really fit!” After the same thing had happened several more times, I caught on and learned to recognize electric-assist bikes3 by their characteristic battery location.

The Bruntletts note that

“Despite its mostly flat terrain, the Netherlands has emerged as the world’s largest pedelec market per capita, with electric bikes making up almost a third of new bicycle sales in 2016. Denmark is a close second ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 50)

There is a very good reason that The Netherlands and Denmark are such good markets for electric-assist bikes: they have the infrastructure that allows safe riding on an extensive network of protected bike lanes. Citing European Cyclists Federation development director Kevin Mayne, the Bruntletts say “the places with the best bike infrastructure are the ones that sell the most pedelecs, and the global e-bike market won’t fulfill its potential without great places to ride.” (Building the Cycling City, page 87)

But with safe infrastructure and traffic conditions in place, pedelecs have the potential to get people out of cars for longer commutes, not just short rides.

Within the city of Groningen where distances are small, cycling already has a 61 percent modal share, which the city hopes to increase to 67 percent. The Bruntletts write

“What would be more impressive would be to increase the current 12 percent of people arriving by bike from outside the city …. E-bikes will play a crucial role in any such increase by lengthening the average commute distance from eight kilometres to twenty kilometres with very little additional effort from riders.” (Building the Cycling City, page 64)

Elsewhere in the country, a small network of snelfietsroutes (“fast cycling routes”) are being built between major residential and commercial centers. Designed not for scenic appeal but with the straight-forward goal of promoting efficient bike commuting from city to city, these routes also appeal to cyclists who may not be up to an athletic workout five days a week, but would still like to bike their long-ish commutes. Electric-assist bikes have already proven very popular on these inter-city routes.

In general there is no need for specific public infrastructure to support pedelecs, if there is already a comprehensive network of safe lanes for ordinary bikes. Yet the presence of charging stations could make even longer rides practical – for example, the kind of rides that would use most of the battery power on a one-way trip, requiring a re-charge before the return trip. Some employers are now providing charging stations in bike garages at work, and I spotted this station outside a popular restaurant along a well-used cycling route.4

Public bike-charging station in Stellendam, South Holland

As with parking garages, charging stations for bikes take up much less space than charging stations for an equivalent number of cars. And since e-bikes consume far less energy than e-cars, charging infrastructure is far less technically demanding and far less expensive. (Pedelec batteries are rated in Watt Hours while electric car batteries are rated in KiloWatt Hours.)

Post-script: follow the red-brick road?

As Melissa and Chris Bruntlett so engagingly document, The Netherlands has done far more than other industrialized countries to safely integrate bicycles into their overall transportation system, with great results for public health and for the vitality of their cities. One result of the national habit of cycling is that the transportation sector in The Netherlands is accountable for just one-fifth of the country’s carbon emissions, compared to one-third in the US.

While the Dutch have a commanding lead when it comes to effective promotion of everyday cycling, they have achieved this in the context of a transport system where cars remain dominant. Most households own cars, most kilometers are traveled by car, and many features of daily life and of the national landscape will be entirely familiar to people living in other car cultures.

Outside the core urban areas, a hierarchy of speed rules just as it does in many other countries – the spacing is just tighter. The US Library of Congress report “National Funding of Road Infrastructure: Netherlands” states

“According to European statistical sources, the highest motorway density in Europe is found in the Netherlands (78 km per 1000 km² on average in 2009), Luxembourg (59), and Belgium (58).”5

Motorway interchange near Schiphol airport

As noted earlier, more affluent citizens are more likely to own and use cars for their commutes, and they also tend to commute longer distances. For a small, densely populated country which clearly values its farmland, the motorways take up a surprising amount of space in rural areas. Furthermore, dedicated high-speed car-and-truck lanes also impose their geometry on slower-speed travellers. While cycling through the countryside, for example, you need to find the infrequent roads that cross the motorways, where you may bike up and over the dedicated high-speed transport lanes. Likewise if you’re pedaling a bikeway alongside an expressway, you need to take a detour each time you come to an interchange, with a wide curve around the sprawling clover-leaf interchanges. These impositions on cyclists and other low-speed travellers are deemed necessary to allow uninterrupted high-speed travel on the expressways.

But what if, as a world community, we finally embark on the serious kind of energy and lifestyle revolution that is needed to adequately reduce carbon emissions? Or – a more likely scenario in our current political scene – what if we run short of cheap fossil fuels without finding a technological miracle to allow our high-energy lifestyles to continue with low-intensity fuels such as solar and wind-power? What sort of challenges will we face in transforming our transportation infrastructures?

The Netherlands will clearly have a head start in such a transition. Yet as I cycled through the countryside, it often struck me that there too, the road system is astonishingly overbuilt. Frequently I found myself biking on a dedicated bike path, beside a two-lane service road, beside a multi-lane expressway, with another service road and bike path on the other side.

A generation or a few from now, when our descendants have through choice or necessity transitioned to a low-energy, and therefore low speed, transportation system, will they still need or want to devote such wide swaths of countryside to transportation? And if not, how will they repurpose some of those thousands of hectares of heavy-duty pavement?

In my first few days biking through The Netherlands I wasn’t always happy that many bike lanes are routed along old, somewhat rough brick roads – the surface just wasn’t as smooth, fast or  comfortable to bike on as a well-maintained asphalt surface.

But then I reflected on the almost endless repairability and reusability of those brick roads. From my own work experience I know that “recycling” asphalt and concrete pavements demands large amounts of high-intensity energy resources. But in The Netherlands I saw workers with simple hand tools re-laying old bricks and re-creating good-as-new roads.

I won’t be around to see it, but in the long term my guess would be that the centuries-old red brick roads of The Netherlands will be the ones that are renewed for centuries to come.

Centuries-old street in centre of Haarlem.

Next week: a look at new cycling infrastructure in Valencia, Paris and London in light of the infrastructure in The Netherlands.

 

Top photo: covered bike-parking facility next to train station in Groningen.


Footnotes

“A third big bicycle parking garage for Utrecht”, 17 April 2018, Bicycle Dutch website

2 Transport and Mobility 2016, Statistics Netherlands, page 19

3 While the “electric bikes” now seen in North America most often don’t require the rider to pedal at all, the variety common in The Netherlands has a motor which only kicks in while the rider is pedaling. These electric-assist or pedelec bikes thus amplify a rider’s strength, but don’t allow completely effort-free riding.

4 On the downside, ubiquitous availability of charging stations could lead more people to rely on the battery-assist mode almost exclusively, resulting in a steep drop-off in the exercise levels and health benefits of e-bike converts. See discussion of a recent European study at “Riding e-bikes does not lead to health benefits”, on A view from the cycling path, September 12, 2018

5 National Funding of Road Infrastructure: Netherlands”, US Library of Congress

A modest investment with major dividends: cycling culture in the Netherlands

Also published at Resilience.org

How would you describe the process in which a small country builds a 35,000 kilometer network of fully separated bike infrastructure – and traffic-calms 75 per cent of their urban streets to a speeds of 30 km/h (19 mph) or less?

Building the Cycling City, published by Island Press, August 2018

One apt analogy is “picking the low-hanging fruit”. While Dutch cycling policy has required only modest annual investment, it has resulted in cities where bikes are used for most short trips – five kilometers or less – which can be pedaled by ordinary citizens from age 8 to 80 with no great effort. Furthermore this policy has helped preserve historic urban centers by removing the need for intra-city expressways or vast parking lots, while also promoting a fit and healthy population.

These are some of the themes that come through in a recent book by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett. Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality provides an excellent overview of the different ways that transportation policy has developed in five Dutch cities. The book also shows how lessons learned there are now benefitting other cities including New York, Calgary, Vancouver, and San Antonio.

This article is based on the Bruntletts’ excellent work, as well as on my own four-week bike tour of the Netherlands in September and October.

Giving priority to the most vulnerable road users, not the least vulnerable

In cities throughout the industrial world in the 20th century, the lion’s share of public space became the domain of people engaged in a dangerous and polluting activity – driving cars. The Netherlands was no exception to this trend.

But by the mid-1970s, spurred in part by a growing number of traffic fatalities and in part by the OPEC oil embargo, a strong reaction to auto-dominance took hold in several Dutch cities.

In the northern city of Groningen, a plan to build big new roads through historic neighbourhoods prompted 24-year-old Max Van den Berg to get into municipal politics. Just seven years later, the city implemented a transportation policy promoted by Van den Berg and allied councillors. Their Traffic Circulation Plan

“proposed dividing the city center to four parts and forbidding cars to cross between those quarters. This made the inner city practically impenetrable with a car, leaving cycling and walking the best ways to get around. The plan didn’t completely remove motor vehicles from the equation – as public buses and delivery vans would retain limited access to parts of the core – but it came remarkably close.” (Building the Cycling City, page 53-54)

One result 40 years later is that distracted walking or cycling is not a capital crime in Dutch cities. Even at rush hour in Groningen, one can walk or pedal through the central city while engrossed in conversation, while focusing on a smart phone, or while writing the next great novel in your head – without fear of being squashed by a car.

The same pattern holds true in many other small- and mid-sized Dutch cities where the urban core is mostly free of the noise, pollution and danger posed by cars. While some cars and delivery vehicles creep through these districts, the drivers know that foot-powered residents have the right of way – not just at crosswalks or traffic lights but all along the length of narrow historic streets.

Above, a “scramble” in Groningen at rush hour, where cyclists going every direction smoothly negotiate their way through the intersection. Below, an intersection in the core of Leeuwarden, the capital city of the province of Friesland.

Today, Groningen’s traffic planning embodies a very basic principle: “pedestrians over cyclists, cyclists over public transportation, and public transportation over cars. Essentially, the most vulnerable users of the city have priority over the least ….” (Building the Cycling City, page 61)

The important but limited role of separated bike lanes

The Netherlands is justly famous for its vast network of protected bike lanes, not only along arterial roads within cities, but also throughout the countryside connecting every village, town and city.

The rules for when, where and how cycle lanes are built are now well defined. Basically, in areas where it is not practical to slow cars so that they travel at close to the speeds of bicycles, separated paths must be installed. In cities, this often means a street-side lane with a curb separating the bike traffic from car traffic. In most cases these cycle lanes run on both sides of the streets. Critically, the urban bike lanes are not carved out of the sidewalks – the realm of pedestrians, who are also to be protected and encouraged – but are achieved by narrowing or removing car lanes.

“Bicycle street. Autos are guests.”

On rural roads with moderately fast cars but low traffic volumes, separate bike lanes are not always installed but cars are expected to – and do, in my experience – pass bikes carefully and courteously, yielding to bikes whenever oncoming traffic makes it impossible to pass safely.

Alongside busier roads with traffic of 50–60 km/hr or faster, there are fully separated bike lanes. Often these run right beside the roads, but there are also many cases where the bike paths diverge from the roads significantly, providing a quieter ride and cleaner air for people on bikes.

A significant component of the system is the system of signage. Bicycle routes are marked by signs at nearly every intersection, with signs that are visually distinct from the directional signs for motorists. This makes it easy for a bike rider to navigate through new areas, without pulling out either a smart phone or a paper map. There are also hundreds of maps on metal signposts showing local cycling routes, with each province maintaining its own set of local route maps.

Above, a roadside sign showing local cycling routes in the northern province of Friesland. Below, a popular cycling route on the coast in the southern province of Zeeland.

 

All this infrastructure, of course, costs money – but is it expensive? That’s a matter of perspective, and the Dutch do spend more money on cycling infrastructure than other nations. Melissa and Chris Bruntlett write,

“The Dutch cycle because their government spends an astonishing €30 ($35 US) per person per year on bike infrastructure – fifteen times the amount invested in nearby England.” (Building The Cycling City, page 15)

Yet this €30 per person is a very small fraction of what the Dutch – and other nations – spend on auto infrastructure. According to official figures from 2015, “The Dutch government spends a total of 15 billion euros on traffic and transport” each year – meaning the cycling infrastructure expense is a bit more than 3% of the government transport and traffic budget.

For this €30 per capita, the Dutch have been able to preserve the character of their central cities, keep carbon emissions lower than in neighboring countries, and enjoy some of the best health in the world due to an active population and cleaner air. Given the cost of health care alone, the €30 per capita spent by the Dutch government to promote cycling is an astonishing bargain.

While infrastructure such as separated cycle paths is an important component of the cycle strategy, it is important to keep in mind that the Dutch did not immediately launch a major building program when they began to focus on cycling in the 1970s. Furthermore, even today about 75 percent of their roads do not have separate cycle lanes.

In their chapter on Amsterdam, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett explain,

“This cycling utopia was built on traffic-calming rather than bike lanes. Instead of constructing separated cycle tracks on every street, officials started with speed-limit reductions, parking restrictions, through-traffic limitations, and lane narrowing and removals.” (Building the Cycling City, page 93)

Cycle lanes are great, but you’ve got to get from home or office or school to the cycle lane, and that route must be safe before most urban residents will want to bike on a regular basis. If the route to and from a dedicated cycle path remains dangerous and nerve-wracking, only the daring folks who are already cycling are likely to get onto the cycle path.

Traffic-calming on most or all non-arterial roads, therefore, plays a crucial role in laying the groundwork for widespread use of separated bike lanes along major routes. Fortuitously, the cost of traffic-calming methods is generally very low, meaning that is an obvious place to start in a long-term strategy to boost active transportation.

In the next installment, I will look at ways the Dutch are extending the humble bicycle’s reach through an intentional symbiosis with their train network, and through the rapid uptake of electric-assist bikes. A third installment in this series will look at cycling promotion efforts in Valencia, Paris and London, in light of the Dutch example.

In the historic centre of Middelburg, province of Zeeland.


Top photo: mural and bikes in downtown Leeuwarden, Friesland