“Getting to zero” is a lousy goal

Also published on Resilience

In an alternate reality, gradually moving toward a zero-carbon-emission economy and arriving there in two or three decades would be a laudable accomplishment.

In an alternate reality –   for example, the reality that might result from turning the clock back to 1975 – a twenty-five year process of eliminating all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions could avert a climate crisis.

But in our reality in 2022, with far too much carbon dioxide already flowing through the atmosphere and the climate crisis worsening every year, knowingly emitting more greenhouse gases for another two decades is a shockingly cavalier dance with destruction.

This understanding of the climate crisis guides the work of Bruce King and Chris Magwood. Their own field of construction, they write, can, and indeed must, become a net storer of carbon – and not by 2050 by rather by the early 2030’s.

Their new book Build Beyond Zero (Island Press, June 2022) puts the focus on so-called “embodied emissions”, also known more clearly as “upfront emissions”. The construction industry accounts for up to 15 percent of global warming emissions, and most of the emissions occur during manufacturing of building materials.

No matter how parsimonious new buildings might be with energy during their operating lifetimes, an upfront burst of carbon emissions has global warming impact when we can least afford it: right away. “A ton of emissions released today,” write King and Magwood, “has far more climate impact than a ton of emissions released a decade from now.”

Emissions released today, they emphasize, push us immediately closer to climate crisis tipping points, and emissions released today will continue to heat the globe throughout the life of a building.

Their goal, then, is to push the construction industry as a whole to grapple with the crucial issue of upfront emissions. The construction industry can, they believe, rapidly transform into a very significant net sequesterer of carbon emissions.

 That goal is expressed in their “15 x 50” graph.

By 2050, Bruce King and Chris Magwood say, the construction industry can and should sequester a net 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Graphic from Build Beyond Zero, Island Press, 2022, page 238.

A wide range of building materials are now or can become net storers of carbon – and those that can’t must be rapidly phased out of production or minimized.

The bulk of Build Beyond Zero consists of careful examination of major categories of building materials, plus consideration of different stages including construction, demolition, or disassembly and re-use.

Concrete – by far the largest category of building material by weight and by current emissions –is a major focus of research. King and Magwood outline many methods that are already available to reduce the carbon intensity of concrete production, as well as potential methods that could allow the net storage of carbon within concrete.

Equally important, though, are construction materials that can reduce and in some cases eliminate the use of concrete – for example, adobe and rammed earth walls and floors.

By far the largest share of carbon sequestration in buildings could come from biogenic sources ranging from timber to straw to new materials produced by fungal mycelia or algae.

Harvesting homes

“Tall timber” is a popular buzzphrase for building methods that can sequester carbon within building structures, but King and Magwood are more excited about much smaller plant materials such as wheat straw or rice hulls. Their discussion of the pros and cons of increased use of wood products is enlightening.

“Assessing the degree of carbon storage offered by timber products is not at all straightforward. Far from being the poster child for carbon-storing building, the use of timber in buildings requires a very nuanced understanding of supply chain issues and forest-level carbon stocks in order to be certain we’re not doing harm in the process of trying to do good.” (Build Beyond Zero, page 111)

First, when trees are cut down typically only half of the above-ground biomass makes it into building products; the rest decomposes and otherwise emits its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Second, particularly where a large stand of trees is clear-cut and the ground is exposed to the elements, much of the below-ground stored carbon also returns to the atmosphere. Third, even once a replacement stand of trees has grown up, a monoculture stand seldom stores as much carbon as the original forest did, and the monoculture is also a big loss for biodiversity.

To the extent that we do harvest trees for construction, then, “We need to take responsibility for ensuring that we are growing forests at a rate that far exceeds our removals from them. Notice that we are talking about growing forests and not just planting trees.” (page 115)

This careful nuance is not always evident in their discussion of agricultural residues, in my opinion. The “15 X 50” goal includes the conversion of huge quantities of so-called “residues” – wheat straw, rice hulls, and sunflower stalk pith, to give a few examples – into long-lasting building materials. But what effects would this have on the long-term health of agricultural soils, if most of these so-called residues are routinely removed from the agricultural cycle rather than being returned to the soil? What level of such total-plant harvesting is truly sustainable?

Yet there is obvious appeal in the use of more fast-growing small plants as building material. Straw can sequester about twice as much carbon per hectare per year as forests do, while “the carbon sequestration and storage efficiency of hemp biomass is an order of magnitude higher than that of trees or straw.” (page 99)

There are many existing methods to turn small plants into building materials, ranging from structural supports to insulation to long-lasting, non-toxic finishes. It is reasonable to hope for the creation of many more such building materials, if industry can develop new carbon-emissions-free adhesives to help shape fibers and particles into a myriad of shapes. King and Magwood note that existing industrial practices are likely to act as hurdles in this quest:

“Nature provides plenty of examples and clues for making nontoxic bioadhesives in species such as mussels and spiders. However, the introduction and scaling of these potentially game-changing materials is so far hampered in the same way as bioplastics: by an extremely risk-averse construction industry and by a petrochemical industry keen to keep and expand market share ….” (page 162) 

Straw-bale construction project in Australia, 2012. Photo by Brett and Sue Coulstock, accessed via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

We don’t have 30 more years

Build Beyond Zero is a comprehensive and clear overview of construction practices and their potential climate impact in the near future. It does not, however, provide any “how-to” lessons for would-be builders or renovators to use in their own projects. For that purpose, both King and Magwood have already published extensively in books such as Essential Hempcrete Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide; and Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Design for Rammed Earth and Straw Bale Architecture.

In Build Beyond Zero, King and Magwood offer an essential manifesto for anyone involved in commissioning or carrying out construction or renovation, anyone involved in the production of building materials, anyone involved in the establishment or modification of building codes, anyone involved in construction education.

It’s time for everyone involved with construction to become climate-literate, and to realize that upfront carbon emissions from buildings are as important if not more important than operating emissions during the buildings’ lifetimes. It’s time to realize that construction, perhaps more than most industries, has the capability of going beyond zero to become a significant net storer of carbon.

That opportunity represents an urgent task:

“It has taken more than 30 years for energy efficiency to approach a central role in building sector education …. We can’t wait that long to teach people how to make carbon-storing buildings. If we follow the usual path, the climate will be long past repair by the time enough designers and builders have learned how to fix it.” (page 173)

With global greenhouse gases already at catastrophic levels, we have dug ourselves into a deep hole and it’s nowhere near enough to gradually slow down and then stop digging deeper – we also need to fill that hole, ASAP.

As Build Beyond Zero puts it, “‘Getting to zero,” to repeat one more time, is a lousy goal, or anyway incomplete. You make a mess, you clean it up, as my mother would say. You don’t just stop messing, you also start cleaning.”


Photo at top of page: Limestone quarry and cement kiln, Bowmanville Ontario, winter 2016.

Segregation, block by block

Also published on Resilience

Is the purpose of zoning to ensure that towns and cities develop according to a rational plan? Does zoning protect the natural environment? Does zoning help promote affordable housing? Does zoning protect residents from the air pollution, noise pollution  and dangers from industrial complexes or busy highways?

To begin to answer these questions, consider this example from M. Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines:

“It remains zoning ‘best practice’ that single-family residential districts should be ‘buffered’ from bothersome industrial and commercial districts by multifamily residential districts. This reflects zoning’s modus operandi of protecting single-family houses at all costs, but it makes no sense from a land-use compatibility perspective. While a handful of generally more affluent homeowners may be better off, it comes at the cost of many hundreds more less affluent residents suffering a lower quality of life.” (M. Nolan Gray, page 138)

Arbitrary Lines by M. Nolan Gray is published by Island Press, June 2022.

The intensification of inequality, Gray argues, is not an inadvertent side-effect of zoning, but its central purpose.

If you are interested in affordable housing, housing equity,  environmental justice, reduction of carbon emissions, adequate public transit, or streets that are safe for walking and cycling, Arbitrary Lines is an excellent resource in understanding how American cities got the way they are and how they might be changed for the better. (The book doesn’t discuss Canada, but much of Gray’s argument seems readily applicable to Canadian cities and suburbs.)

In part one and part two of this series, we looked at the complex matrix of causes that explain why “accidents”, far from being randomly distributed, happen disproportionately to disadvantaged people. In There Are No Accidents Jessie Singer writes, “Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic. Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.” (Singer, page 13)

Gray does not deal directly with traffic accidents, or mortality due in whole or part to contaminants from pollution sources close to poor neighbourhoods. His lucid explanation of zoning, however, helps us understand one key mechanism by which disadvantaged people are confined to unhealthy, dangerous, unpleasant places to live.

‘Technocratic apartheid’

Zoning codes in the US today make no mention of race, but Gray traces the history of zoning back to explicitly racist goals. In the early 20th century, he says, zoning laws were adopted most commonly in southern cities for the express purposes of enforcing racial segregation. As courts became less tolerant of open racism, they nonetheless put a stamp of approval on economic segregation. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, economic segregation usually resulted in or preserved de facto racial segregation as well.

The central feature and overriding purpose of zoning was to restrict the best housing districts to affluent people. Zoning accomplishes this in two ways. First, in large areas of cities and especially of suburbs the only housing allowed is single-family housing, one house per lot. Second, minimum lot sizes and minimum floor space sizes ensure that homes are larger and more expensive than they would be if left to the “free market”.

The result, across vast swaths of urban America, is that low-density residential areas have been mandated to remain low-density. People who can’t afford to buy a house, but have the means to rent an apartment, are unsubtly told to look in other parts of town.

Gray terms this segregation “a kind of technocratic apartheid,” and notes that “Combined with other planning initiatives, zoning largely succeeded in preserving segregation where it existed and instituting segregation where it didn’t.” (Gray, page 81) He cites one study that found “over 80 percent of all large metropolitan areas in the US were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. Today, racial segregation is most acute not in the South but in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.” (Gray, page 169)

Public transit? The numbers don’t add up.

From an environmental and transportation equity point of view, a major effect of zoning is that it makes good public transit unfeasible in most urban areas. Gray explains:

“There is a reasonable consensus among transportation planners that a city needs densities of at least seven dwelling units per acre to support the absolute baseline of transit: a bus that stops every thirty minutes. To get more reliable service, like bus rapid transit or light-rail service, a city needs … approximately fifteen units per acre. The standard detached single-family residential district—which forms the basis of zoning and remains mapped in the vast majority of most cities—supports a maximum density of approximately five dwelling units per acre. That is to say, zoning makes efficient transit effectively illegal in large swaths of our cities, to say nothing of our suburbs.” (Gray, page 101)

Coupled with the nearly ubiquitous adoption of rules mandating more parking space than would otherwise be built, the single-family housing and minimum lot size provisions of zoning are a disaster both for affordable housing and for environmentally-friendly housing. Typical American zoning, Gray says, “assumes universal car ownership and prohibits efficient apartment living. But it also just plain wastes space: if you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that your local zoning ordinance was carefully calibrated to use up as much land as possible.” (Gray, page 96)

Zoning regimes came into wide use in the mid-twentieth century and became notably stricter in the 1970s. In Gray’s view the current housing affordability crisis is the result of cities spending “the past fifty years using zoning to prevent new housing supply from meeting demand.” This succeeded in boosting values of properties owned by the already affluent, but eventually housing affordability became a problem not only for those at the bottom of the housing market but for most Americans. That is one impetus, Gray explains, for a recent movement to curb the worst features of zoning. While this movement is a welcome development, Gray argues zoning should be abolished, not merely reformed. Near the end of Arbitrary Lines, he explains many other planning and regulatory frameworks that can do much more good and much less harm than zoning.

There is one part of his argument that I found shaky. He believes that the abolition of zoning will restore economic growth by promoting movement to the “most productive” cities, and that “there is no reason to believe that there is an upper bound to the potential innovation that could come from growing cities.” (Gray, page 72) At root the argument is based on his acceptance that income is “a useful proxy for productivity” – a dubious proposition in my view. That issue aside, Arbitrary Lines is well researched, well illustrated, well reasoned and well written.

The book is detailed and wide-ranging, but unlike a typical big-city zoning document it is never boring or obscure. For environmentalists and urban justice activists Arbitrary Lines is highly recommended.


Image at top of page: detail from Winnipeg zoning map, 1947, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The high cost of speed

Also published on Resilience

Imagine that we used a really crazy method to establish speed limits. We could start by recording the speeds of all drivers on a given stretch of roadway. Then, without any clear evidence of what a safe speed might be, we might argue that the great majority of people drive too fast, and therefore the maximum legal speed will be set as that speed exceeded by 85 percent of drivers. Only the slowest 15 percent of drivers, in this scenario, would be considered to be driving within the legal limit.

If you have a passing familiarity with the legal framework of car culture, you will recognize the above as a simple inversion of the common 85th percentile rule used by traffic engineers throughout North America. Following this guideline, driver speeds are recorded, engineers determine the speed exceeded by only 15 per cent of the drivers, and that speed is deemed an appropriate speed limit for the given roadway. All the other drivers – 85 per cent – will then be driving within the speed limit.

Two recent books argue that the 85th percentile guideline is as arbitrary and misguided as it sounds. In There Are No Accidents, (Simon & Schuster, 2022; reviewed here last week), Jessie Singer summarizes the 85th percentile rule this way:

“Most speed limits are not based on physics or crash test expertise but simply the upper limit of what most amateur drivers feel is safe. A speed limit is the perceived safe speed of a road, not the actual risk of traveling that speed on that road.” (Singer, page 95)

Singer draws on the work of Eric Dumbaugh, who has a PhD in civil engineering and teaches urban planning at Florida Atlantic University. Dumbaugh has analyzed tens of thousands of traffic crashes in urban environments in the US. He concluded that the traffic engineering guidelines used for decades are based on false information, are often misapplied, and result in dangerous conditions on urban roadways. Absent physical evidence of what constitutes a safe driving speed, engineers simply assume that most drivers drive at a safe speed. Dumbaugh doesn’t mince words:

“Traffic engineering is a fraud discipline. It presumes knowledge on road safety that it doesn’t have and it educates people generation after generation on information that is incorrect.” (quoted by Singer, page 96)

The dangerous conditions on roadways have contributed to thirty thousand or more deaths in the US every year since 1946. But the engineers who design the roadways cannot be faulted, so long as they have applied the rules passed down to them in standard traffic engineering manuals.

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer was published by Wiley in 2021.

Similar themes are also a major focus in an excellent book by Charles Marohn Jr., Confessions of a Recovering Engineer (Wiley, 2021). Marohn was trained as a civil engineer, and for the first part of his career he worked as a traffic engineer designing what he saw at the time as “improvements” to roadways in small cities. Over time he began to question the ideas he had absorbed in his education and the guidelines that he followed in his engineering practice.

Marohn is now founder and president of Strong Towns. He has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the planning principles underlying American suburbia, and the design guidelines used to justify the arterial roads in those suburbs. He writes,

“The injuries and deaths, the destruction of wealth and stagnating of neighborhoods, the unfathomable backlog of maintenance costs with which most American cities struggle, are all a byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering.” (Marohn, page 5)

These values are held so widely and deeply, Marohn says, that they are seldom questioned or even acknowledged. These values include :

“• Faster speeds are better than slower speeds..
• Access to distant locations by automobile is more important than access to local destinations by walking or biking. …
• At intersections, minimizing delay for automobile traffic is more important than minimizing delay for people walking or biking.” (Marohn, page 12)

Working from his own experience as a traffic engineer, Marohn explains the order in which issues are considered when designing a new or “improved” roadway. First the engineer decides on a “design speed” – a driving speed which the road should facilitate. Next to be established is the traffic volume – all the traffic typically traveling the route at present, plus all the additional traffic the engineer anticipates in the future. At that point the engineer will choose a design based on official guidelines for that design speed and that traffic volume; so long as the guidelines are followed, the design will be deemed “safe”. Finally, the engineer will estimate how much it will cost.

Marohn argues that the questions of whether traffic should move slow or fast, and whether all existing traffic should be accommodated or instead should be restricted, are not technical issues – they are questions of values, questions of public policy. Therefore, he says, issues of the desired traffic speed and desired traffic volume should be dealt with through the democratic process, with public input and with the decisions made by elected officials, not by engineering staff.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Some sins are forgiven

In the early days of car culture, traffic casualties happened at a far higher rate per passenger mile than they do in recent decades. Part of the improvement is due to changes in vehicle design – padded surfaces, seat belts, air bags. Part of the improvement can be attributed to what is called “forgiving design”, at least as applied on rural highways. Examples of forgiving design are gradually sloped embankments, which reduce the likelihood of rollovers if a driver veers off the road; wider lanes which lessen the chance of sideswiping; centre barriers which prevent head-on collisions; straightening of curves to improve sightlines; and removal of roadside obstacles such as large trees which an errant driver might hit.

On highways these forgiving design principles make sense, Marohn believes, but on urban arterial roads they are disastrous. He coined the word “stroad” for urban routes that combine the traffic complexity of streets with the high design speeds of inter-city roads. Stroads feature the wide lanes, cleared sightlines and levelized topography of highways, giving drivers the impression that higher speeds are safe. But stroads also have many intersections, turning vehicles, and access points for pedestrians. This means that the higher speeds are not safe, even for the drivers. And vulnerable road users – pedestrians and cyclists – often pay with their lives.

Most stroads should be converted into streets, Marohn says. “Instead of providing drivers with an illusion of safety, designers should ensure the drivers on a street feel uncomfortable when traveling at speeds that are unsafe.” (Marohn, page 43) To ensure that the mistakes of pedestrians and cyclists, and not just drivers, are forgiven, he advocates these guidelines: “Instead of widening lanes, we narrow them. Instead of smoothing curves, we tighten them. Instead of providing clear zones, we create edge friction. Instead of a design speed, we establish a target maximum travel speed.” (Marohn, page 41)

On a typical urban street, with stores, offices, schools, restaurants, and many people moving around outside of cars, that target maximum speed should be low: “Traffic needs to flow at a neighborhood speed (15 mph [24 kph] or less is optimum) to make a human habitat that is safe and productive.” (Marohn, page 56)

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, even as motorist fatalities have continued a long downward trend. The rising death toll among vulnerable road users was particularly noticeable during and following the pandemic. In Marohn’s words we find a good explanation:

“Most [traffic fatalities] happen at nonpeak times and in noncongested areas. … the traffic fatality rate is much higher during periods of low congestion. This is … because the transportation system is designed to be really dangerous, and traffic congestion, along with the slow speeds that result, is masking just how dangerous it is.” (Marohn, 117)

With many businesses closed and many people working from home, there was much less traffic congestion. And without congestion acting as a brake, people drove faster and more pedestrians were killed. That wasn’t intentional, but it was predictable – it was no accident.

* * *

As Jessie Singer explains, we find an extensive matrix of causes that contributes to “accidents” when we look beyond the individual making a mistake. That matrix very often includes racial and economic inequality, which is why poor people suffer more in nearly every accident category than rich people do.

Both racial and economic factors come into play in the current wave of pedestrian deaths. In the major city closest to me, Toronto, pedestrian deaths occur disproportionately among racialized, poor, and elderly people. These deaths also occur most often on wide arterial roads – stroads – in older suburbs.

Marohn’s words again are enlightening: “as auto-oriented suburbs age and decline … they are becoming home to an increasing number of poor families, including many who do not own automobiles.” (Marohn, page 43) When these residents need to walk across four, five or six lane high-speed arterial roads, the predictable result is pedestrian deaths among the most vulnerable. An obvious, though politically difficult, solution is to redesign these roads to bring speeds down to a safe level.

The inequality that contributes to “accidents” is buttressed in most North American cities by an elaborate legal framework telling people where they are allowed to live and work. That legal framework is zoning. In the next installment of this discussion we’ll look at the history and consequences of zoning.


Image at top of page is in public domain under Creative Commons CC0, from pxhere.

Dangerous roads are no accident

Also published on Resilience

If you watch network television you can see auto companies spending a lot of money making our roads more dangerous. One slick ad after another glorifies massive cars and trucks as they careen around curves, bounce over bumps and potholes, and send up clouds of dust on always-open roads. The message is clear: it’s really cool to buy the biggest, most menacing vehicle you can afford, and drive it as aggressively as you can get away with.

It’s not that the car companies want to cause more serious injuries, but a simple logic is at work. The outsized profits from sales of big SUVs and trucks go to the bank accounts of car companies, while the hospital and funeral expenses of crash victims are charged to someone else.

There Are No Accidents, by Jessie Singer, is published by Simon & Schuster, February 2022

The way to reduce the horrific human cost of crashes, Jessie Singer explains, is simple: make the companies who produce dangerous vehicles accountable for their damages.

Singer’s book There Are No Accidents was spurred by the killing of one pedestrian by  motor vehicle, and traffic violence is one major subject she covers. Yet the book covers so many related subjects, and covers them so well, that one review cannot do the book justice.

What we call “accidents,” Singer says, usually result from a non-intentional act – a mistake – in a dangerous context. When we focus only on the person closest to the accident, who is often the person making the mistake, it’s easy to find one person to blame. But in so doing we typically overlook the more powerful people responsible for the dangerous conditions. These powerful people might be manufacturers of dangerous products, regulators who permit dangerous products or practices, or legislators who set up rules that make it difficult for accident victims to win redress. 

With this basic framework Singer looks at the history of workers’ compensation in the United States:

“By the end of the First World War, in most of the United States, when a worker had an accident, employers were legally required to provide compensation for medical care and lost work. For employers, this was a massive shift in their economic calculus. … The decline in work accidents was dramatic. Over the next two decades, deaths per hour worked would fall by two-thirds.” (all quotes in this article are from There Are No Accidents)

She also examinations the rise and fall in prescription and street drug overdoses, and the peculiar laws that conveniently overlook accidental discharge of firearms.

In all these disparate cases, a person making a mistake might pay with their life. But many social actors together set up the dangerous conditions. Economic inequality, racial prejudice and social stigmas act as multipliers of these conditions.

“Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic,” Singer writes. “Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.”

She also examines why “black people die in accidental fires at more than twice the rate of white people.” And why “Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely as white people to be accidentally killed by a driver while crossing the street.”

A sudden epidemic of traffic violence

About a century ago, a new and very dangerous condition began to kill people in rapidly growing numbers. “While the accidental deaths and injuries of workers generally declined from 1920 onward,” Singer writes, “accidental death in general rose – driven by huge numbers of deaths of car drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.”

Majority opinion did not, at the time, blame the children who played in streets, or “distracted walkers” who dared to stroll while engrossed in conversation. Outraged observers would occasionally pull a driver out of a car and beat him following the killing of a pedestrian, but there was also a clear recognition that the problem went beyond the actions of any individual driver. Thus citizens, editorialists, and city councils responded to the epidemic of traffic violence by calling for mandatory speed regulators in all cars to keep streets safe for people.

It took a concerted publicity campaign by the auto industry to shift the blame to “jaywalkers” or the occasional “nut behind the wheel”, and away from dangerous vehicles and dangerous traffic laws. Within a generation streets had become the precinct of drivers, with the ultimate price often paid by individual victims who still had to walk, because they couldn’t afford to drive dangerous vehicles themselves.

Eventually public demand and legislative requirements resulted in automakers introducing a wide variety of safety improvements to their cars. Notably, though, these improvements were focused almost solely on the safety of the people inside the cars.

And in the past twenty-five years there has been a large increase in the number of pedestrians killed by motorists: “Between 2009 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reported a massive 51 percent rise in the number of pedestrians killed in the United States, from a little over 4,000 a year to more than 6,000.”

The increasing carnage was abetted by simple of facts of physics which both automakers and regulators had understood for decades:

“As long ago as 1975, the U.S. DOT itself figured out that three factors most determined whether or not a person was injured in a car accident: how much the vehicle weighed, how high it was off the ground, and how much higher its front end was compared to a pedestrian. By 1997, the department demonstrated that large vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks were significantly more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than smaller cars.” 

The automakers knew this, but they also knew they could make bigger profits by marketing bigger vehicles while escaping accountability for the greater numbers of pedestrians killed.

It didn’t have to be this way. Some countries took a different course. “Since 1997 in Europe and 2003 in Japan, vehicles have also been tested and rated for how safe they are for pedestrians, too, should the driver hit someone,” Singer writes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed similar rules in the US but General Motors objected and the matter was dropped.

During the same period that US pedestrian fatalities were climbing steeply, “Pedestrian fatalities fell by more than a third in a decade in Europe and by more than half since 2000 in Japan.”

Love and rage

Eric James Ng was a middle-school math teacher, a fan of punk music, an activist, and he rode his bike everywhere, every day, through New York City.

Jessie Singer writes, “Eric was sixteen when I met him working at a summer camp. … Eric was magnetic, and I fell in love, right away. I still feel proud to say he loved me, too.

“Eric was killed at age twenty-two.”

He was killed while riding his bike on one of the busiest bike routes in the US, when a drunk driver mistook the paved bike lane for a car route and drove down that lane at high speed. The same type of “accidents” had happened before and would happen again, in spite of safety advocates urging that concrete bollards be installed at potential motor vehicle access points. But those life-saving bollards would not be installed until 2017, after a driver intentionally turned down onto the bike lane and intentionally hit people, killing eight people and injuring eleven others. Then, within a few days, new barricades were installed at dozens of intersections between the bicycle lane and motor vehicle driveways – exactly the type of barricades that would have saved Eric James Ng’s life.

Anger is a natural reaction to lives cut short and deaths that came far too soon, caused in significant part by dangerous conditions that were clearly known but tolerated due to lack of political will. Jessie Singer’s book would be a powerful and enlightening read even if it were a pure expression of anger, but it is so much more than that.

Eric James Ng, she writes, signed his emails with the phrase “love and rage.” That signature would make a fitting tag for her book too.

“In making recommendations after an accident,” she writes, “two goals are central: that we are guided by empathy and that we aim to repair harm.”

That empathy shines through every chapter of There Are No Accidents. Singer wants us to “Remember that the people who die most often by accident are often the most vulnerable – the youngest and the oldest, the most discriminated against and least wealthy – and start there. Start by concerning yourself with vulnerability.”

And if we truly want to change the dangerous conditions that make mistakes deadly, we need to look beyond the individual making a mistake or the individual victim. “Blame is a food chain. Always look to the top. Who has the most power? Who can have the greatest effect? The answer is very rarely the person closest to the accident ….”


In motor vehicle crashes, speed kills and higher speeds kill more. In the next installment we’ll consider how speed limits are set on roads and streets.

The toxic cloud called ‘Internet’

Also posted on Resilience.

The global electronics network is a sort of “bad news, good news” story in Jonathan Crary’s telling.

The bad news is that “the internet complex is the implacable engine of addiction, loneliness, false hopes, cruelty, psychosis, indebtedness, squandered life, the corrosion of memory, and social disintegration”; and that “the speed and ubiquity of digital networks maximize the incontestable priority of getting, having, coveting, resenting, envying; all of which furthers the deterioration of the world – a world operating without pause, without the possibility of renewal or recovery, choking on its heat and waste.”

The good news? The internet complex will soon collapse. 

Scorched Earth, by Jonathan Crary, published by Verso, April 2022.

Crary opens his forthcoming book Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World with these words: “If there is to be a livable and shared future on our planet, it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism.”

If you’re looking for a careful, thorough, let’s-consider-both-sides sort of discussion, this is not the book you want. “My goal here is not to present a nuanced theoretical analysis,”Crary writes.

Rather, he wants to jar people out of the widespread faith that because we’ve grown accustomed to the internet, and because we’ve allowed it to infiltrate nearly every hour of our lives, and because it may be hard to imagine a future without the internet, therefore the internet should and will endure.

Do some good things happen on and through the Internet? Of course – but Crary is not impressed by arguments that the internet is a liberating, empowering technology for progressive movements:

“Part of the optimistic reception of the internet was the expectation that it would be an indispensable organizing tool for non-mainstream political movements … [I]t should be remembered that broad-based radical movements and far larger mass mobilizations were achieved in the 1960s and early ’70s without any fetishization of the material means used for organizing.” (Scorched Earth, p. 11)

Likewise he comments that the anti-globalization rallies of the late 1990s happened before the pandemic of smart phones, and the huge protests against the US attack on Iraq in 2003 pre-dated the onset of so-called social media. Since then, he laments, the “stupefying” effects of Internet 2.0 have dissipated people’s energies into clicktivism, leaving less time and energy for the building of personal, in-the-flesh networks that might truly challenge the direction of capitalism.

References to material pollution are scattered throughout the brief book, but Crary focuses more of his attention on the pollution of minds, emotions and perceptions. Some parts of his critique are now shared by many, both within and outside the big tech complex. He calls attention, for example, to a pervasive erosion of self-esteem: “Each of us is demeaned by the veneration of statistics – followers, clicks, likes, hits, views, shares, dollars – that, fabricated or not, are on ongoing rebuke to one’s self-belief.” (Scorched Earth, p. 24)

Less widely understood is the immense effort put into data collection, including eye tracking, facilitated by the acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people who make their self-surveillance devices available to trackers at all times:

“We often assume that internet ‘surfing’ means the possibility of following random, uncharted visual itineraries …. From the standpoint of the bored individual, hours spent in this way may seem to be a desultory waste of time, but it is time occupied in a contemporary mode of informal work that produces value as marketable information for corporate and institutional interests. (Scorched Earth, p. 100)

The value exploited by corporate interests includes finely tuned means to convince people to buy things they don’t need, which neither they nor our ecosystems can afford.

Another section was particularly thought-provoking and sobering to me, as a nature photographer who publishes online. Crary explains that internet researchers collect reams of data on “what colors and combinations of colors and graphics are most or least eye-catching.” That information is in turn funneled back into UXD – User Experience Design – to make screen time as addictive as possible and unmediated experience of nature a fading memory:

“The ubiquity of electroluminescence has crippled our ability or even motivation to see, in any close or sustained way, the colors of physical reality. Habituation to the glare of digital displays has made our perception of color indifferent and insensitive to the delicate evanescence of living environments.” (Scorched Earth, p. 106)

Internet 2.0, in sum, turns us into willing accomplices of corporate consumerism, while undermining our self-esteem, sapping our abilities to appreciate the non-virtual world around us, and sucking up time we might otherwise devote to real community. Facebook, Twitter and their ilk have pulled off one of history’s spectacular cons – getting us to refer to their sociocidal enterprise as “social media” and getting us to believe it is “free”. 

Stockpile of mobile phones for recycling/disposal, September 2017.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Cloud is an ecological force’

In just 124 pages Crary bites off a lot – more, in fact, than he really tries to chew. From the outset, he portrays the internet complex as a final disastrous stage in global capitalism. He notes that “the internet’s financialization is intrinsically reliant on a house-of-cards world economy already tottering and threatened further by the plural impacts of planetary warming and infrastructure collapse.” (Scorched Earth, p. 7)

But what is the physical infrastructure of the internet complex? Crary doesn’t delve into that issue. A recently published article by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, however, makes an illuminating companion piece to Crary’s book.

Entitled “The Cloud Is Material: Environmental Impacts of Computation and Data Storage”, Monserrate’s research is available here. MIT Press has also published a shorter article adapted from the full paper. Quotes cited here are taken from the full paper.

Monserrate’s central point is that, like a cl0ud of water molecules, “the Cloud of the digital is also relentlessly material”, and further that “the Cloud is not only material, but is also an ecological force”.

Crary refers to the capitalist industrial system, of which the internet complex is now one major component, as “choking on its heat and waste”. Monserrate helps us to quantify that heat and waste.

Discussing what data center technicians refer to as a “thermal runaway event”, Monserrate writes “The molecular frictions of digital industry … proliferate as unruly heat. … Heat is the waste production of computation, and if left unchecked, it becomes a foil to the workings of digital civilization.”

In most of the data centers that keep the Cloud afloat, he adds, “cooling accounts for greater than 40 percent of electricity usage.”

Can’t the network servers and their air conditioners be switched over to renewable energy in generally cool environments? It’s not so easy, Monserrate tells us. Because of network signal latency issues, large portions of the Cloud are located as close to financial and government centers as possible. The state of Virginia’s “data center alley,” he says, was “the site of 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic in 2019”. That degree of concentrated electricity consumption is difficult if not impossible to service without huge coal, gas or nuclear generators.

The energy demands go far beyond air conditioning:

“The data center is a Russian doll of redundancies: redundant power systems like diesel generators, redundant servers ready to take over computational processes should others become unexpectedly unavailable, and so forth. In some cases, only 6–12 percent of energy consumed is devoted to active computational processes. The remainder is allocated to cooling and maintaining chains upon chains of redundant fail-safes to prevent costly downtime.” (Monserrate, “The Cloud is Material”)

Keeping your cat videos available on demand around the world, keeping Amazon’s gazillion products available for your order at 3 a.m., keeping all of Netflix’ and Hulu’s videos ready for bingeing, and keeping this entire data stream transparent to both commercial and military surveillance – well, that results in a lot of coal and gas going up as carbon dioxide emissions.

One result: “the Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry.”

Like the cell phones that Apple, Google and Samsung encourage you to replace every two or three years, every physical component of the internet complex has to be mined, refined, chemically transformed, assembled, packaged and shipped, before it soon becomes outmoded. Monserrate cites a Greenpeace study estimating that “less than 16 percent of the tons of e-waste generated annually is recycled.” And that recycling is often done by the lowest-paid workforces in the world, in enterprises that don’t respect the health of the workforce or the environment.

“The refuse of the digital is ecologically transformative,” Monserrate concludes.

Life without Internet

So is the Internet destined to be but one brief blip in human history? The answer seems clear to Crary – the internet will collapse along with the industrial complex that supports it:

“The internet complex, now compounded by the Internet of Things, struggles to conceal its fatal dependence on the rapidly deteriorating built world of industrial capitalism. Contrary to all the grand proposals, there never will be significant restoration or replacement of all the now broken infrastructure elements put in place during the twentieth century.” (Scorched Earth, p. 63)

Personally I am cautious about making such firm predictions, though I don’t see how the internet will persist long in its current form. Total disappearance is just one potential outcome, however. The current internet industrial complex, as Monserrate describes, includes a vast amount of redundancy, and perhaps that will make it possible to transition to a still-useful internet with only a fraction of the energy and material throughput.

In a transformed economic system, without the built-in impulsion to sell hardware and software “upgrades” to consumers on an annual basis, and without the created “need” to have every video snippet available anywhere anytime, and without the motive to maintain a vast surveillance and behavior modification apparatus – perhaps a future civilization could benefit from many of the significant benefits of the internet without paying a soul- and ecosystem-crushing price. (On this subject, see for example the research by Kris De Decker in “How to Build a Low-Tech Internet”.)

But if we don’t redirect our global economic system, and fast, the whole toxic cloud may crash whether we like it or not. And perhaps, on balance, that will be a very good thing.

“If we’re fortunate,” Crary dares to hope, “a short-lived digital age will have been overtaken by a hybrid material culture based on both old and new ways of living and subsisting cooperatively.”


Photo at top of page: A young man burning electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, as another metal scrap worker arrives with more wires to be burned. September 2019. Photo by Muntaka Chasant, licensed via Creative Commons, accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

The uncertain prospects for us multicell types

Also posted on Resilience.

You and I and termites have a lot in common. For one thing, we are all dependent on microbes to stay alive (though few microbes depend on us).

A Natural History of the Future, by Rob Dunn, Basic Books, November 2021

Besides, humans and termites, along with every other multi-celled living creature, belong to just one small branch on the evolutionary tree of life. All of us multi-celled types together – be we plants, insects, fish, birds or apes – are barely a rounding error in the catalogue of life, in which the overwhelming majority of varieties of life are bacterial.

These perspective-correcting points loom large in Rob Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future (Basic Books). If it were merely a compendium of curiosities the book would still make a really good read, given Dunn’s ability to highlight recent work by dozens of other researchers combined with his gift for clear exposition. But in his discussion of key laws of ecology Dunn has a practical purpose in mind: he wants to give us a better chance at surviving this new age of instability which we call the anthropocene.

In spite of all our clever technologies, he argues, human life is and always will be limited by basic principals of ecology. These laws of ecology are particularly important as we leave a millennia-long period of relative climate stability and begin to cope with the climate chaos we have created.

Climate change sometimes recedes into the background in A Natural History of the Future … for a few pages. Dunn takes us billions of years back into evolutionary history, and he spends much of the book reviewing events of recent decades, but his aim is to elucidate our near future. And in the near future no challenges loom quite so large as climate change.

In the big picture, think small

At the outset Dunn helps us understand the scope of our ignorance. When Western scientists such as Linnæus started to classify species, they focused mostly on species which were relatively large, beautiful, or directly useful to us. These scientists also tended to work in northern Europe, an area with very little biological diversity relative to much of the world.

By the second half of the twentieth century this limited world view was being challenged from within academic science. Once they paid close attention, ecologists realized that species of insects vastly outnumber all the species of larger animals. As Terry Erwin wrote in 1982, “there might be 30 million tropical arthropod species.”

Other scientists were exploring the bewildering variety of fungi. Still others, aided by new techniques in genetics, got a glimpse of the staggering diversity of bacteria. A study published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 “estimated that there might be a trillion kinds of bacteria on Earth.”

Dunn summarizes the perspective shift in these words:

“By the time I was a graduate student, Erwin’s estimate had led scientists to imagine that most species were insects. For a while, it seemed as though fungi might be the big story. Now it seems as though, to a first approximation, every species on Earth is a bacterial species.” (A Natural History of the Future, page 28)


‘A Novel Representation of the Tree of Life’ (from Nature, 11 April 2016), shows the predominance of bacteria in the tree of life. Dunn includes a simplified version of the same graphic, and he writes: “All species with cells with nuclei are part of the Eukaryotes, represented in the lower right-hand section of the tree. … The Opisthokonta, one small part of the Eukaryote branch, is the branch that includes animals and fungi. Animals, if we zero in, are just one slender branch of the Opisthokonta. … [V]ertebrates do not get a special branch on the tree. The vertebrates are a small bud. The mammals are a cell in that bud. Humanity is, to continue the metaphor, something less than a cell.” (Graphic by Laura A. Hug, Brett J. Baker, Karthik Anantharaman, Christopher T. Brown, Alexander J. Probst, Cindy J. Castelle, Cristina N. Butterfield, Alex W. Hernsdorf, Yuki Amano, Kotaro Ise, Yohey Suzuki, Natasha Dudek, David A. Relman, Kari M. Finstad, Ronald Amundson, Brian C. Thomas and Jillian F. Banfield; via Wikimedia Commons.)


For good or ill, our smaller companions on earth have always played large roles in natural history. Termites, for example, were just another type of cockroach until they acquired the gut microbes that allow them to digest wood. We humans “are probably dependent on more species than any other species ever to exist” – including, to mention just a few, all the insects that pollinate all the plants we eat, and all the gut microbes that help us to digest that food.

While we can’t hope to fully understand or even name all the varieties of life, we can, Dunn says, understand basic rules that influence how new species evolve, how existing species go extinct, and how species interact with each other and with their changing ecosystems. If we respect those rules we lessen the chances that we will threaten our own chances of survival any further.

Islands and corridors

The book covers too many subjects to adequately summarize in one review, but consider two simple concepts. A discussion of island ecosystems highlights the principle that bigger islands tend to have more species. It is equally true that ecosystems with greater diversity of species are more stable through time.

“Islands” can refer to bodies of land surrounding by water – but also to isolated specific habitats surrounded by very different ecosystems. One effect of our own rapidly climbing population and the explosive growth of urban habitats, Dunn explains, is the fragmentation of many ecosystem into an array of tiny islands – small areas of forest or plots of prairie – surrounded by cities or monoculture farms. These fragments – islands – are often too small to support a diverse number of species, and too widely separated from similar fragments for species to move between the islands. The result is that these islands are all highly vulnerable to significant or rapid change – including the change we are now enforcing by our rapid release of greenhouse gases.

The ecology of corridors is attracting wide interest, because it is readily evident that many species will need to move to survive. In some places and for some species, corridors that we carefully preserve or recreate may help plants and animals move along with the warming climate.

Corridor biology can also have unintended and unwanted consequences, Dunn points out. Not only are we building megacities, but these megacities are sometimes merging. In the nearly unbroken urban area from Washington DC to New York City,

“We have already created a corridor, a perfect and immense corridor, but it is not a corridor for rare butterflies, jaguars, and plants. It is, instead, a corridor for urban species, species able to move along roads and live amid buildings, species that live not in green spaces but in gray ones.” (page 72)

A corridor, in other words, for pigeons, Norway rats, and less-beloved species including some of the parasites that plague people in warmer cities, and which will move north with ease as the climate heats up.

Diversity and stability

The global market economy has pumped hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it has appropriated most of the world’s arable land for monocultures of a small number of staple crops. Taken singly each of these transformations would have destructive effects – but in tandem they put us in a real heap of trouble:

“We have built a food system that thrives when variability is minimized. But … we have also altered Earth’s climate in such a way as to make it much more variable and unpredictable.” (page 150)

The diversity-stability law implies that “Regions with a greater diversity of crops have the potential to have more stable crop yield from year to year and hence less risk of crop shortages” (page 11). Dunn cites analysis by Delphine Renard, who compared nationwide yields from 91 countries, for 176 crop species, over a 50-year period. The yields were summed in terms of calories, so that agricultural yields from corn to potatoes to peaches could be compared in a common unit of measurement. The result: Countries with high crop diversity experienced 25 percent overall yield declines an average of once in 125 years. Countries with the lowest crop diversity experienced 25 percent declines an average of once in eight years.

The coming century will be more challenging than the past century, Dunn says. It would be easier, though still difficult, if we could expect steadily rising temperatures in every area. That is not, of course, how climate change is working. Instead, the general heating trend will be punctuated at unpredictable intervals by damaging cold spells. Dry areas are likely to get dryer, but with occasional damaging downpours, while wet areas get wetter but experience occasional droughts.

Considering climate physics and ecological principles together, then, it is essential that we begin the re-diversification of agriculture.

Other topics that Dunn covers include the dangers in indiscriminate use of biocidal chemicals – be they antibacterial hand creams routinely applied, antibiotics routinely added to animal feed, or herbicides sprayed on nearly every major crop field in whole countries. He discusses why some types of avian intelligence will help birds cope with climate change, while other kinds of birds will be at a terrible disadvantage. He explains that in spite of our advanced technologies, the dense concentrations of humans occupy the same geographic areas today that we tended to favor 6,000 years ago; this is a subject I hope to return to in a coming blog post.

The final chapter focuses once again on bacteria. We humans will die off some day, Dunn says, because no species last forever. If we mess up in spectacular fashion, millions of other multi-celled species will go extinct along with us – mammals, birds, fish, insects, trees and flowers. But uncounted millions of unicellular species – teeming masses of bacteria that thrive in scalding heat, concentrated acids, or intense radiation – will survive any calamities we are able to bring on.

A Natural History of the Future is a big book in its scope and in the degree of detail. Throughout, Dunn makes things clear for non-specialist readers. Highly recommended.


Photo at top of page: A Mastotermes darwiniensis worker termite. The giant northern termite is a large endemic species which lives in colonies in trees and logs in the tropical areas of Australia. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), via Wikimedia Commons.

For better or worse, we adapt

Also posted on Resilience.

Affluent owners of seashore properties buy up homes a safer distance from the coast – pricing poor residents out of communities they have called home for generations. Rural residents set up agro-forestry enclaves on mountain slopes, capturing some of the increasingly unpredictable rainfall. Relatively wealthy nations build and guard fences at their borders to keep climate refugees away. Water bombers fly hundreds of sorties from lakes and reservoirs to fires raging in drought-ravaged forests.

All these climate change adaptations have been happening for years now. But among the hundreds of examples of climate change adaption one could identify, some responses simultaneously work against climate change mitigation, and many work against climate justice – they are what Morgan Phillips terms “climate change maladaptations.”

He wants environmentalists to think more clearly about adaptation strategies so that we can get on with the urgent work of what he calls great adaptations. That’s the point of his recent book Great Adaptations: In the shadow of a climate crisis. (Arkbound, Sept 2021)

When he joined The Glacier Trust in support of adaptation projects in Nepal, Phillips learned that

“Lives in the Himalayan villages I have visited are on a knife edge. Landslides, floods, glacial retreat, drought, fire, air pollution, and insect pests are haunting the future of an already fragile country; it is on the brink of being turned upside down. … I knew that climate change needed to be mitigated, but the need to adapt to it is far greater than I’d ever imagined.” (Great Adaptations (GA), page 3)

Yet in 2020 The Glacier Trust “found that only 0.82% of articles written by the UK’s five biggest environmental organisations are focused on climate change adaptation.” (GA p 197)

There are valid reasons why, historically, environmental organizations preferred to focus on climate change mitigation rather than adaptation.1 If global economic elites had put serious work into mitigation 30 years ago, instead of lip service, we might not be in a position today where climate change adaption is, and will remain for generations, an urgent task.

In choosing to focus his book on adaptation, Phillips makes it clear that mitigation remains as essential as ever. We need to begin creative and effective adaptation projects around the world, because climate-induced crises are already happening. At the same time, without urgent mitigation work – primarily through a rapid curtailment of fossil fuel use – the climate crises will become so severe that effective adaptation in many areas will be impossible.

His book is wide-ranging but clearly written and free of obfuscating jargon. It deserves a wide audience because his message is so important:

“In the same spirit in which we call for a just transition to a low-carbon society, we must also call for just adaptation to climate change. They are two sides of the same coin.” (GA p 15)

Some of the adaptations Phillips discusses are as particular as changing one farming practice on one particular landscape. Others span the globe and involve changes to the international economic order, accepted definitions of universal human rights, or both. One great adaptation – forgiveness of debt – could be an effective step towards international justice whether or not it is enacted with climate change in mind:

“Cancellation of historical and unfair debts would save countries millions of dollars every year. This money could be put to use on climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.” (GA p 14)

Migration is another obvious adaptation to the climate crisis. Current citizenship law and current property law result in a crushing burden being paid by those who typically have done the least to cause the climate crisis. To achieve justice in climate adaptation, “we all also need to be free to find refuge and a new life in a country of our choosing if we want to – or are forced to – migrate because of climate change.” (GA p 14)

In some regions permanent migration might be neither desired nor necessary, but seasonal migration may be appropriate. Phillips notes that migratory lifestyles have been freely chosen by many cultures throughout history and we should open our minds – and our legal structures – to facilitate this adaptation strategy.

It should be clear that effective and just adaptation will call into question the deepest foundations of global political economy. Phillips harbors no illusions about the scale and the difficulty of the challenge. “My feeling,” he writes “is that to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, ‘Western’ civilisation needs to be disassembled with great urgency and great care.” (GA p 149)

Citing Rupert Read, he considers the possibility of “a successor civilisation after some kind of collapse [of ‘Western’ civilisation]”. As an example of such a many-faceted response to climate crisis, Phillips discusses the “Make Rojava Green Again” movement in the region Western media refer to as Kurdistan. In his description,

“The ‘Make Rojava Green Again’ movement has strong ecological, multicultural, democratic, and feminist principles. It is based on a political system of democratic confederalism, where power is devolved to as local a level as possible ….” (GA p 167)

The Rojavan example has been inspiring to people around the world, not only because of its egalitarian and ecological principles, but also because the movement has become a decisive force in the wake of the global proxy war in Syria and the failed US occupation of Iraq. The response to this civilizational collapse has been, not an attempt to return to business as usual, but a new way of life: “‘Make Rojava Green Again’, and other ‘Phoenix’ like it, are so important because they help us to imagine different kinds of future. Rojavan’s are willing to challenge the value structures that underpin ‘Western’ civilisation.” (GA p 170)

The adaptation examples Phillips considers come from rich countries, poor countries, megacities, and sparsely populated rural areas. They are equally diverse in their effects: some adaptations reinforce inequalities; some adaptations fuel additional global heating; some adaptations help mitigate climate change while supporting global justice; many adaptations are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.

But simply ignoring adaptation is a very risky strategy, “especially if the responsibility for adaptation is left in the hands of central Governments, large NGOs, and big businesses that are, by nature, resistant to anything truly transformative.” (GA p 197)

With this book, Phillips writes, “The Glacier Trust is trying to frame adaptation as a positive and transformative process grounded in the principles of social justice and ecological enhancement.” (GA p 204)

We must adapt to climate changes in future, and we are adapting already. But if the adaptations are merely ad hoc and not thoughtfully considered, they are more likely to be maladaptations than great adaptations.


1 Paul Cox and Stan Cox provide an excellent historical overview of the mitigation/adaptation divide in their chapter “Adaptation and Mitigation Amid the Consequences of Failure”. (In Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency, Post Carbon Institute, 2021.) They conclude that “Societies once could choose between changing direction or dealing with climatic disaster; now it is necessary to do both at once.”


Image at top: Grounding of John B. Caddell (tanker ship) by Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 in New York City. Photo by Jim Henderson, on Wikimedia Common.

Around the world in a shopping cart

Also posted on Resilience.

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.

‘This is a key conversation to have.’

This afternoon Post Carbon Institute announced the release of the new book Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency. That brings to fruition a project more than two-and-a-half years in the making.

Cover of Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency

In May 2019, I received an email from Clifford Cobb, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. He asked if I would consider serving as Guest Editor for an issue of the Journal, addressing “problems of transition to a world of climate instability and rising energy prices.” I said “yes” – and then, month by month, learned how difficult it can be to assemble a book-length collection of essays. In July, 2020, this was published by Wiley and made accessible to academic readers around the world.

It had always been a goal, however, to also release this collection as a printed volume, for the general public, at an accessible price. With the help of the Post Carbon Institute that plan is now realized. On their website you can download the book’s Introduction –which sets the context and gives an overview of each chapter – at no cost; download the entire book in pdf format for only $9.99US; or find online retailers around the world to buy the print edition of the book.

Advance praise for Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency:

“Energy descent is crucial to stopping climate and ecological breakdown. This is a key conversation to have.” – Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, author of Being The Change

“This lively and insightful collection is highly significant for identifying key trends in transitioning to low-energy futures.” – Anitra Nelson, author of Small is Necessary

“The contributors to this volume have done us a tremendous service.” – Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute, author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

“For those already applying permaculture in their lives and livelihoods, this collection of essays is affirmation that we are on the right track for creative adaption to a world of less. This book helps fill the conceptual black hole that still prevails in academia, media, business and politics.” – David Holmgren, co-originator of Permaculture, author of RetroSuburbia

“The contributors explain why it is time to stop thinking so much about efficiency and start thinking about sufficiency: how much do we really need? What’s the best tool to do the job? What is enough? They describe a future that is not just sustainable but is regenerative, and where there is enough for everyone living in a low-carbon world.” – Lloyd Alter, Design Editor at treehugger.com and author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More Than Ever


Some sources for the print edition:

In North America, Barnes & Noble

In Britain, Blackwell’s  and Waterstones

In Australia, Booktopia

Worldwide, from Amazon

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience.

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history of auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.