Category Archives: Sustainability

Climatopolis – Matthew Kahn (2010)

Climatopolis is a recent book by Matthew Kahn, an economist and ‘green’ thinker, focusing on the effects of climate change on cities (subtitle = How our cities will thrive in the hotter future).  It’s a fairly short and easy read, and has some interesting findings and ideas, taking some level of climate change as a given and suggesting that market forces will provide mechanisms of adaptation as city amenities (like weather and flood risk) change over time – leading people to move around as they see fit.

I find various passages in the book to be annoyingly glib however.  Too often Kahn simply parrots free-market ideas without much consideration or subtlety.  Here are a couple examples.  Page 27, he says that high taxes “encourages people to work less and take more leisure” – well, perhaps, for some portion of the ‘people’ who find that the marginal work effort is not worth the marginal gain, but most people have pretty fixed expenses and will probably work just as much if not more.  Page 45, at the end of a chapter on a variety of responses to city disasters, he writes “One theme that emerges from this chapter is that government policies can significantly increase the degree of climate -related risks that a population faces” – yet one of the sections in the chapter talks about the use of better building codes to increase the quality of buildings and reduce potential damages…  so obviously bad policies can make things worse and good policies can make things better – it’s not a one way street!

As noted on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there is also a rather casual treatment of past instances of mass violence and death, citing statistics that show that both the A-bombed cities of Japan and Vietnam got back fairly quickly to their longer-term growth rates.  Not much comfort for those in the midst of the onslaught.  And likewise for those caught in climate-change disasters, it’s not going to make the going any easier to realize that probably all will be back to normal in 15-20 years (assuming that’s true).

Kahn includes in the book some closer looks at issue that Los Angeles, New York and the new Chinese cities will be facing, and it is worth a read just to stir one’s thoughts on the future (with a critical eye open).

Here’s Matthew Kahn’s blog on Environmental and Urban Economics.

Constant Battles – Steven A. LeBlanc (2003)

Following up on a strong recommendation in Stewart Brand’s recent book, I picked up and read Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles from 2003.  LeBlanc is an archaeologist, and his book is about his thesis that in fact there really never was a time of humans living in some sort of ecological balance with nature.  Instead he posits that whenever people started to overrun their resources, there was a strong tendency to warfare, and he claims archaeological evidence of this in finds around the world.

LeBlanc describes different types of warfare that seem to be found in different types of societies – from hunter/gatherer tribes to more complex agricultural groups and states.  While agriculture often had the effect of increasing the resource base, that tends to lead to population rise, and back again to resource constraints.  He does not believe that humans are in some way genetically programmed for warfare, that it’s more of a last resort in desperate circumstances (i.e. when resources are plentiful there seems to be less tension and less reason to fight).

In our modern world, while wars are unfortunately common, the actual numbers of people killed in them is quite a bit less than what he has found from the remains of tribal societies, where as many as 25% of males could die as a result of ongoing warfare.

The book itself is pretty short and not completely compelling reading, but the ideas here are quite interesting.

Thoughts from Dr. Doom

Some interesting comments from Nouriel Roubini (known as Dr Doom for some of his predictions on the economy) in this article “Dr Doom Has Some Good News” by James Fallows in the Atlantic.

I asked Roubini whether, similarly, American authorities and the U.S. public appreciated the contradictions in their own position. He answered by returning to the damage caused by boom-and-bust cycles and the need to find a different path.

“We’ve been growing through a period of time of repeated big bubbles,” he said. “We’ve had a model of ‘growth’ based on overconsumption and lack of savings. And now that model has broken down, because we borrowed too much. We’ve had a model of growth in which over the last 15 or 20 years, too much human capital went into finance rather than more-productive activities. It was a growth model where we overinvested in the most unproductive form of capital, meaning housing. And we have also been in a growth model that has been based on bubbles. The only time we are growing fast enough is when there’s a big bubble.

“The question is, can the U.S. grow in a non-bubble way?” He asked the question rhetorically, so I turned it back on him. Can it?

“I think we have to …” He paused. “You know, the potential for our future growth is going to be lower, because of the excesses we’ve had. Sustainable growth may mean investing slowly in infrastructures for the future, and rebuilding our human capital. Renewable resources. Maybe nanotechnology? We don’t know what it’s going to be. There are parts of the economy we can expect to lead to a more sustainable and less bubble-like growth. But it’s going to be a challenge to find a new growth model. It’s not going to be simple.” I took this not as pessimism but as realism.

I do agree that our notion of ‘economic growth’ has been badly skewed by years of easy credit (and before that we benefitted from years of low-competition after WWII).  Where we go next is anybody’s guess.

Bike Parking

I saw this item today over on “City unveils three more on-street bike parking corrals”.  These are special areas on the street to lock up your bicycle.  This bit was most interesting:

According to PBOT bike program specialist Sarah Figliozzi, the smaller corral on Thurman signals a slightly different approach to the City’s business district bike parking plans. “In the future, what I see is a greater number of smaller corrals, about six staples each,” Figliozzi said. This approach would be more suited to Portland’s larger commercial districts, by spreading the commercial advantages of on-street bike parking around different blocks and businesses.

“Generally, we get very strong support for the bike corrals from the business community, due to the increased customer ratio they make available — up to 10 people for each parking spot — as well as the increased street and curb visibility the corrals provide,” says Figliozzi.

Hadn’t thought about it before, but it makes sense that if you can convert one car parking space into room for 10 bicycles, you just might get more shopping traffic.  (On the other hand, most people on bicycles won’t be riding off with big boxloads of stuff!).

Solar Cooking Innovation

Via Boing Boing I caught this story on a simple invention that uses solar energy to create enough heat to boil water and bake bread.  Here’s an excerpt:

The ingeniously simple design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, and an acrylic cover that lets in the sun’s rays and traps them.

Black paint on the inner box, and silver foil on the outer one, help concentrate the heat. The trapped rays make the inside hot enough to cook casseroles, bake bread and boil water.

What the box also does is eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood. About 3 billion people around the world do so, adding to deforestation and, in turn, global warming.

By allowing users to boil water, the simple device could also potentially save the millions of children who die from drinking unclean water.

Read the whole story here: “Inventor turns cardboard boxes into eco-friendly oven”.

The big question

Tom Friedman’s op-ed today raises the big question… are we in the first stages of a major shift, rather than a simple business downturn?

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

My sense is that a growing number of people are asking this question – which is of course the whole reason for the interest in the idea of sustainability. In one sense, that which is ‘unsustainable’ will, by definition, not continue indefinitely.  But the harder question is whether it’s possible to transition from an unsustainable course to a sustainable course without a ‘crash landing’.  I take some hope from the many interesting new projects that are attempting to find a new way forward on more renewable foundations.

Regulation done right?

This story from Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, “The Canadian Solution,” is worth a read.  He notes that Canada has come through the financial crisis in quite good shape.

So what accounts for the genius of the Canadians? Common sense. Over the past 15 years, as the United States and Europe loosened regulations on their financial industries, the Canadians refused to follow suit, seeing the old rules as useful shock absorbers. Canadian banks are typically leveraged at 18 to 1—compared with U.S. banks at 26 to 1 and European banks at a frightening 61 to 1. Partly this reflects Canada’s more risk-averse business culture, but it is also a product of old-fashioned rules on banking.

While we may find the idea of regulation to be a necessary evil, it’s certainly worth studying what policies actually work reasonably well.  I log this under ‘sustainability’ as well, since it appears that the Canadian model banks will outlast ours!

I’m on the road for the next couple weeks, so probably light blog activity!

Changing attitudes…

I found this story interesting, as it indicates the way that change in thinking sometimes takes place over generations…

It’s from “Car-free? In Japan, that’s how a generation rolls” by Yuri Kageyama, running in today’s Oregonian.

To get around the city, Yutaka Makino hops on his skateboard or rides commuter trains. Does he dream of the day when he has his own car? Not a chance.

Like many Japanese of his generation, the 28-year-old musician and part-time maintenance worker says owning a car is more trouble than it’s worth, especially in a congested city where monthly parking runs as much as 30,000 yen ($330), and gas costs 100 yen a liter (about $3.50 a gallon).

That kind of thinking — which automakers in Japan have dubbed “kuruma banare,” or “demotorization” — is a U-turn from earlier generations of Japanese who viewed car ownership as a status symbol. The trend is worrying Japan’s auto executives, who fear the nation’s love affair with the auto may be coming to an end.

Now the U.S. is a different place – much bigger and more spread-out; but similar changes in attitudes would not surprise me.  Certainly few young people would look to GM or Ford as a ‘shining beacon’ for the future – Apple would be a much more likely aspiration.

Saying Goodbye…

Fog on the Dom

I’ve had a great stay in Utrecht since September last year. But it’s come time to get back to the U.S., so this will be a last look at my surroundings here. Lately we’ve had some foggy mornings and rainy days…

November Window in Utrecht

In one of my first posts here, I had a picture of a plaque that’s above the front door of the building, and here it is again:

Schurman plaque - Utrecht

It says that Anna Maria van Schurman lived at this spot; a Wikipedia entry can be found for her. Last week, these flowers appeared at our front doorstep, celebrating the 401st birthday of Maria van Schurman. The past lives on here.

Schurman flowers at 401

Wind Power!

Curt at Kinderdijk


Yesterday I rode out to Kinderdijk near Rotterdam, a spot where about 20 old windmills still stand. They were built in 1738-1740, and were built so families could live in them. They were used to move water. As you can see, the wind power idea hasn’t changed a whole lot in nearly 3oo years.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

And while on the topic of wind energy, I noted this in Sunday’s column from Tom Friedman (who I don’t always agree with, but I think he’s right on about energy these days), where he writes on Denmark’s success with wind energy.

“Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.” [Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy, quoted] In the last 10 years, Denmark’s exports of energy efficiency products have tripled. Energy technology exports rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion in 2006, compared with a 2 percent rise in 2007 for Danish exports as a whole.

“It is one of our fastest-growing export areas,” said Hedegaard. It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent. In 1973, said Hedegaard, “we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.”

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Why should you care?

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,” said Engel, “and not one out of the U.S.”