Category Archives: sustainability

A very rambling post…

Books mentioned in this post…

A few days  ago…

As the airliner made its final decent into Raleigh-Durham International Airport today, I looked out the window to see the arrangements of cul-de-sacs, housing developments cut off from all commerce and accessed by one street/entry, and of course lots of big houses with fancy brick fronts but featureless sides, like big ugly barns.

I’d been reading the The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler
, by Duncan Crary, a written compilation/transcription/adaptation/whatever from the podcast. If you don’t know who James Howard Kunstler is, I suggest you investigate. I’m not going to explain a lot here, except to say he is a critic of the development model this country has used for most of the 20th and thus far in the 21st century, an educator of the topic known as Peak Oil, writer, and charmingly acerbic man. Some people think he’s an asshole. I don’t.

I was flying out to North Carolina for a skateboarding event, expending a lot fossil fuel to move me and my equipment some hundreds of miles east for a couple of days. Such travel is common in these days — as Kunstler would call them — the last days of the cheap oil fiesta.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me.

the next day…

As I continue this post, I’m sitting in a Holiday Inn Express, off the highway in Wake Forest. The hotel is clean and affordable (at least I think it is clean – it seems clean), but of course lacks any sort of character. It’s exactly the kind of building that Kunstler rails against. Disposable. Not really worth caring about in the long run. When this building is inevitably torn down, no one will weep a single tear. Buildings like this are designed to be disposable.  Build ’em cheap, make your money, move on.  I am stoked about the free WiFi, however. That’s cool. Certainly though, to paraphrase Jello Biafra, “this could be anywhere.”

After an entire day of skateboarding, I also enjoyed the whirlpool tub I spent 30 minutes filling with hot water.

Anyway, the skateboarding today was fun. Great time with good friends I don’t get to see too often in person. You can say what you want about the internet and social media being fake, but you’ll be wrong at least some of the time.  At its best social media allows real communities of real people to maintain connections despite great physical distance between them, and every so often they will get together for real and have a blast.

In the morning I will get up early, drive my rental car back to the airport, get on another plane and consume more fossil fuels to get home to Dallas, where I’ll drive out to my home in an inner-ring suburb in a quaint (I suppose) house built in 1960.

Perhaps because my suburb came into being in the 1960s, when things were a bit “smaller”, I feel unjustifiably justified that I’m living in a not so bad suburb. I can ride my bike to the store, or to work. My house isn’t a McMansion, etc.

Tonight there was a fight going on down the hall in the hotel. Hopefully it didn’t get physical. I just heard a lot of yelling and obscenities from a man and a woman. As I was about to call the desk it got quiet. That’s either really good, or really bad…or maybe the cops just showed up. Weird. “Honey, let’s check into the Holiday Inn Express and have us a fight!”.  “Hell yeah, bitch! Let’s do it!”

A couple of days later…at home

The flight home was long (just what you don’t really want) and uneventful (exactly what you do want). I seem to have avoided illness after being on the plane with lot of children. The flight was long due to a plane change in St. Louis, and then a stop in Little Rock. Also, getting up at 5:30 am to go to the airport didn’t exactly fill me with joy and energy, but overall the trip was good.

It seems likely that trips like this will become more and more expensive over the coming years and decades, as fuel prices continue to rise. We really need high speed rail in this country. The energy required to lift a human and all his skateboard stuff up to 40,000 feet, fly 1000 miles at 600 mph, multiplied by however many people fit on an airliner, plus pay the flight crew and still make a profit, is just too high. I don’t see how trips like this will be able to continue. They certainly aren’t helping the planet at all, which does bother me, but hell, that plane was gonna fly with or without me, so might as well party while we can. I will look into buying some carbon offsets to ease my conscience.

Having finished the Kunstlercast book the last night of my stay in Wake Forest, I downloaded a book by an author mentioned in it — thank you Kindle Touch 3G — Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs. I managed to read about half of it on the flight home. Really interesting book. Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I think that Jacobs has been accused of being unscholarly, but hell, she wasn’t a scholar! Her ideas and observations are quite fascinating.

A few more notes on my reading…

So yeah, this was kind of a rambling post. I forgot to mention that I forgot to charge my Kindle before I left home, so I had to stop reading the Jacobs book and switch to an actual, physical book I had with me — The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. I read about half of that too! I’m trying to become a minor scholar in the area of urban design/planning, New Urbanism, sustainability, etc.

Regarding my reading: There seem to be two major ways that writers are looking at the future of cities. Actually there are more, but I’m not including those who think we will just go on as we are now. I am concerned only with those who recognize that change will be needed and will happen.

One group of writers, in which I would put Kunstler, thinks that due to Peak Oil and other factors, we are looking at a “lower energy future” — a future in which energy will be more scarce and more expensive, and society will thus have to adapt to those conditions. In the case of Kunstler, he thinks life will be much more local in every way, and we will need to “re-inhabit” the small cities that have largely gone unused over the last 50 years. Kunstler thinks that big cities, with skyscrapers and whatnot, will simply be too expensive or impossible to run. For Kunstler and those of like-mind, Peak Oil is really the defining factor in the future of life in the United States (and everywhere, really).

The other camp, which I would characterize as the “Richard Florida” camp, believe that big cities are the wave of the future, in that they contain the critical mass of people to be successful. Florida acknowledges that Peak Oil and overall resource depletion is a huge problem, but seems to think we will deal with it effectively through technological innovations, changes in our transportation infrastructure, and societal changes overall. I reviewed  on of Florida’s books a couple of years ago — this might help you get a grip on his viewpoints.

To me, the wild card seems to be Climate Change. We know it is happening, but don’t seem to have a good predictive model. Or if we do, we’re ignoring it.  It is hard, for instance, to see a great future for New York City or Boston in, say, 100 years, if sea levels rise (which they will) and flood a lot of those coastal cities.  On the other hand, cities like Boston and New York City are of such national and global importance it is hard to imagine great efforts not be made to keep them intact and functional. It seems improbable that we will be able to build and maintain the kind of sea walls around all our coastal cities that are needed to keep them functioning as they are today. I suppose those cities might gradually grow inland…who knows. It looks like a lot of real estate is going to potentially be under water.

In addition to sea level rise, Climate Change combined with higher energy costs will affect the shear livability of many of cities in the South and Southwest. In these areas it is already damned hot in the summers.  Imagine trying to keep your 5000 sf home cool in the summer if energy costs triple and the summers get hotter. Not fun.

Some of the cities built out in the desert seem destined for abandonment.

Probably, neither of these camps will be exactly right. What actually happens and how we actually deal with it will be unforeseen and mostly unplanned.

Personally, I would rather live in a big urban area. There’s just a lot more to do. But I admit I don’t know how we’re going to deal with the energy and climate issues, and fresh water is a big issue too, and likewise will be affected by climate change.



I will be watching this episode of Frontline tonight — Climate of Doubt.

The total lack of discussion of climate change during the Presidential debates has been disappointing. Climate change remains probably the greatest threat to human civilization. One of the candidates, Romney, doesn’t even think humans have affected the climate. Obama does, but isn’t talking about it. At least Obama has taken some actions on the energy front that might help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Romney would simply drill more and burn more. What a stupid asshole.

I’ve done quite a lot of reading on this topic, and frankly I think we are past the point of no return. If we haven’t already gone beyond our ability to stop the increasing in global average temperature, we certainly (as a country and a species) don’t seem to have the will to do what is necessary. Essentially, I think we are fucked. It makes me glad I don’t have kids, though I don’t feel good about the planet we’ll be leaving my beloved nephews and nieces. Sorry guys – some of us tried, but ignorant Republicans and greedy business men stopped us from doing anything.

One of the better books for the non-scientist lay person I’ve read is Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.  I recommend it. The author spent a lot of time on research, and documents the effects that climate change has already had on various societies.


The Cost of Highways

Saw these two stories today in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Highways are really, really expensive.  I hear people complain sometimes that not everyone on the DART train buys a ticket — that there are cheaters. Compare that relatively small loss to the massive investment in freeways…it just doesn’t compare.

The money involved in just these two projects totals to over three billion dollars. That would finance a lot of light rail and bike lanes and street cars.  I’m glad my friends who have to drive in these parts are perhaps looking at less misery, but there’s got to be a better way of doing things….

Biking for Groceries

I rode the Electra Townie up to Sprouts grocery store today. We are lucky enough to have a Sprouts, Natural GrocersWhole Foods, and HEB Central Market nearby, was well as some more traditional grocery stores. Sprouts is the groovy store that is closest to us – an easy 1.75 mile ride through the neighborhood.

My mission tonight was simply to buy stuff to eat for lunch next week, plus a few other items. Stuff to make smoothies, etc. Sprouts has fairly good prices. The one thing about these stores that still kind of bothers me is that they still sell products that are way over-packaged. Like a small package of baby spinach — it was in a clear plastic container that was just too much for the product. So much waste. No – I didn’t buy that stuff. I’d just like to see retailers insist on packaging that provides less crap to potentially go to the landfill.

It is also very hard for me to buy lettuce and spinach now. Last year we had so much from our square foot gardens — it was great. This year, due to my dad’s illness in 2009, we didn’t have any time to do the gardens. So I’m used to getting really good leafy greens for nearly free. Hard to pay grocery store prices.

Anyway, even though it was a bit cold it was nice to ride the bike to the store.  It has been too long.

Reinventing the Past

railway 007I’ve been working in downtown Plano, Tx, for a few years now, and during that time my interest in transportation and urban planning have grown. Every time I’m driving around town and I see the DART light rail train, it just makes me smile. I love it.

Many people don’t know that between 1908 and 1948, North Texas had a very cool commuter rail system – the Texas Electric Railway. The system ran north/south from Denison in the north, down through Plano, Richardson, and Dallas, and all the way to Waco. It was a passenger system that ran electric trains that looked like street cars.  Back in those days, Plano and Richardson were very small rural towns. The system allowed people to travel to the city efficiently. The cars could apparently reach speeds of 60mph.

I won’t try to tell the entire history of it here. The only place you can see one of the cars and learn about the system is the Interurban Railway Museum, in downtown Plano. Their website tells you a lot about the history.

Also, here is a D Magazine story from 1977: When Dallas had Mass Transit.

I’m going to try to make an appointment to go interview the historian there. I spoke briefly to one of the mean giving tours, who told me as a private company, the railway was not able to continue when faced with increasing requirements for more sophisticated control systems.  Of course, as automobiles became popular, and the highway system was built, that probably put the final nail in the railway’s coffin, as it runs roughly parallel to Central Expressway and IH-35.

It is a shame that the government didnt’ help out. And its amusing that now, as the DART system expands, we are trying to recreate something we had 100 years ago. Here are some pictures from the museum.

Farmers Markets and luxury

Saw this on a thread on the message board of, relating to the recent podcast there about food. One of the participants brings up some common objections to farmer’s markets as being mostly for the wealthy. I enjoyed Duncan’s (the host) reply. I think he’s exactly right. The only thing I’d say is a problem is that we don’t haven enough farmers markets or grow enough of our own food at home in our own gardens.

Quote from: jarober on October 01, 2009, 03:42:32 PM

What you miss is simple: farmer’s markets are expensive luxury items, not a sustainable way to feed a large population. For that matter, being a vegetarian by choice is an affectation of wealthy socities; poorer ones grabat tge (rare) opportunities for meat.

There’s also this: “eating locally” means giving up on a lot of very healthy foods during off seasons – say hello to a whole range of banished 19th century nutrition problems. If modern habits are so bad for us, how does life expectancy keep rising?

The whole farmers market-as-luxury argument makes me laugh. Most of the really high prices at the farmers’ market are literally for “luxury” items — like fancy cheese, or gourmet peanut butter. Those items are priced as luxury items — DUH!

But I find that most of the food is reasonably priced. Although I do make it a habit of looking around before I buy. One farmer might be charging more or less for the same item.

Either way, you get what you pay for in terms of nutrition. The eggs I buy at my local farmers market cost more than the runny, nutritionally-vacuous factory farm eggs at the supermarket. But they cost the same as the “organic” eggs in the supermarket. So I’d rather buy them from farmers who live in my community and whom I see every week.*

A lot of people who bitch and moan about the cost of food at farmers’ markets have X-boxes, plasma tvs, huge DVD collections, big houses and big cars out in the burbs. They have Jet Skis for the summer and Ski Doos for the winter. They take the kids to Walley World (or Six Flags or Disney World) once a year. Etc. Etc.

One of their favorite delusions is to pretend they can’t afford things like food at the farmers’ market because they’re just hard workin’ middle class folks who don’t have money for that fancy “green” food. That is their verbal patriotic totem. We’re not supposed to make them feel bad because they “can’t afford” to shop at the farmers’ market.

But the reality is that they can afford to shop at the farmers’ market. They just don’t want to. They don’t want to deal with the human interaction. And they don’t want to spend money on local food when they could be spending their money on trinkets at Target.

They could skip one meal at a restaurant per week and spend it on the “additional” cost of farmer’s market food. They could not buy that DVD set of Lost Season 5. They could cancel their cable subscription. They could carpool. They could pass on buying that nifty plastic banana slicer that they’ve had their eyes on at Wal Mart.

There are million ways they could make up for the “extra” cost of shopping at the farmers market. And in doing so they could also be help out their local farmers who usually belong to the real middle class in this country.

As far as the seasonal thing goes. If you need to supplement your winter diet with Frankenberries and Frankenanas, then go for it dude! Don’t use that as an argument not to shop at the farmers market at all!

My city has a year-round farmers market. And there’s an amazing amount of great fresh food available during the winter. The greens are grown in green houses. Some of the fruits — like the apples, have been frozen.

As far as life expectancy goes, if you believe that the corn syrup generation will outlive the previous generation then by all means…. dig in brother.

(* Another thing to consider: When I support my local farmer, I am also helping to pay for them to help conserve the agricultural landscape which I enjoy looking at and being in. I’m helping them keep the cul de sacs out of the country. Which also helps my city in many ways.)

« Last Edit: October 02, 2009, 08:07:02 PM by Duncan »