Posts tagged ‘sustainability’

College Tours Summarized in One Sentence

The WSJ has an editorial on college tours, wherein they talk about the sameness (and lameness) of most college tours.

Most colleges offer both an information session and a tour.  We always found the tour, given by students, more useful than information sessions given by the admission department.  I came to hate the information sessions in large part because the Q&A seems to be dominated by type A helicopter parents worried that Johnny won't get into Yale because he forgot to turn in an art project in 3rd grade.

My kids and I developed a joke a couple of years ago about information sessions, in which we summarize them in one sentence.  So here it is:

"We are unique in the exact same ways that every other college you visit says they are unique."

Examples:  We are unique because we have a sustainability program, because we have small class sizes, because our dining plans are flexible, because we don't just look at SAT scores in admissions, because our students participate in research, because our Juniors go abroad, etc. etc.

There you go.  You can now skip the information session and go right to the tour.  Actually, there is a (very) short checklist of real differences.  The ones I can remember off hand are:

  • Does the school have required courses / distribution requirements or not
  • Is admissions need blind or not
  • Is financial aid in the form of grants or loans
  • Do they require standardized tests or not, and which ones
  • If they do, do they superscore or not
  • Do they use the common app, and if so do they require a supplement
  • Do they require an interview or not

My advice for tour givers (and I can speak from some experience having gone on about 20 and having actually conducted them at my college) is to include a lot of anecdotes that give the school some character.   I particularly remember the Wesleyan story about Joss Whedon's old dorm looking out over a small cemetery and the role this may have played in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The biggest fail on most tours is many don't show a typical dorm room, the #1 thing the vast majority of prospective admits want to see.

When Environmentally Sustainable Actually Was Sustainable

Many of your know that my company operates public parks.  So I see a lot of different approaches to park design and construction.  Of late I have been observing a trend in "environmental sustainability" in park design that is actually the opposite.

The US Forest Service has built more campgrounds, by far, than any other entity in the world.  For decades, particularly in the western United States, the USFS had a very clear idea about what they wanted in a campground -- they wanted it to be well-integrated with nature, simple, and lightly developed.  They eschewed amenities like pools and playgrounds and shuffleboard.  They avoided building structures except bathroom and shower buildings.  The camp sites were simple, often unpaved with a table and fire ring and a place for a tent.  They used nature itself to make these sites beautiful, keeping the environment natural and creating buffers of trees and natural vegetation between sites.   I have never seen an irrigation system in a western USFS campground -- if it doesn't grow naturally there, it doesn't grow.

This has proven to be an eminently sustainable design.  With the exception of their underground water systems, which tend to suck, they are easy to maintain.  There is not much to go wrong.  The sites need new gravel every once in a while.  Every 5-10 years the tables and fire rings needs replacement, hardly a daunting task.  And every 20-30 years the bathrooms needs refurbishment or replacement.  The design brilliance was in the placement of the sites and their integration with the natural environment.

Over the last several months, I have been presented with plans from three different public parks agencies for parks they want to redevelop.   Each of these have been $10+ million capital projects and each one had a major goal of being "sustainable."   I have run away from all three.  Why -- because each and every one will be incredibly expensive and resource intensive to operate and of questionable popularity with the public.  Sustainability today seems to mean "over-developed with a lot of maintenance-intensive facilities".

What each of these projects has had in common are a myriad of aggressively architected buildings - not just bathrooms but community rooms and offices and interpretive centers.  These buildings have been beautiful and complex, made from expensive materials like stainless steel and fine stone.  They have also had a lot of fiddly bits, like rainwater collection and recycling systems and solar and windmills.  They have automatic plumbing valves that never seem to work right.  The grounds have all been heavily landscaped, with large lawns that require water and mowing, with non-native plants that need all kinds of care.  Rather than a traditional sand pad for tents they have elaborate wooden platforms.

The plans for these facilities are beautiful.  They win awards.  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them through awards.  But they make no sense as a recreation facility.  In 10 years, they will look like hell.  Or sooner, since one agency that is in the process of spending a $22 million bond issue on 5 campgrounds seems to not have one dollar budgeted for operation and maintenance.

These things actually win awards for sustainability, which generally means they save money on one input at the expense of increasing many others.  One design  got attention for having grass on the roofs, which perhaps saved a few cents of electricity at the cost of having to irrigate and mow the roof (not to mention the extra roof bracing to carry the load).  I briefly operated a campground that had a rainwater recovery system on the bathrooms, which required about 5 hours of labor each week to keep clean and running to save about a dollar of water costs.

Prices and Sustainability

I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market.    He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.

I asked him how that could be.  I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them.   Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral.  If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources.  Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?

In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices.   Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.

In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals.  But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world.  The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm.  Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here?  Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country?  Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well.  Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource.  That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.

Solar False Advertising

I saw this at Flowing Data -- this is apparently a chart prepared by some sustainability group at MIT to map solar potential of different sites in Cambridge, MA

Look at all the sites marked "excellent".  I have news for the brilliant folks at MIT.  Even the best, flattest roof facing south in Cambridge, MA still rates a "sucks" for solar potential. (source)

Even with massive state and Federal subsidies, those of us who live in the bright red areas find that roof-top solar PV is still an - at best - marginal investment with very long payback times.  We all hope to change this in the future, but there is no way a city like Cambridge with approximately half the solar insolation we get in AZ is going to have "excellent" roof top solar PV sites.

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

The Bankruptcy of Sustainability

This story just floored me:

"How much is sustainability worth?" asks Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Nigel Jaquiss. "Try $65 million in public money." That's how much taxpayers will be spending on a $72 million "green" building in downtown Portland. At $462 a square foot, it will be "perhaps the most expensive office space ever built in Portland."

The director of the Oregon Environmental Council defends the building as something that can "leverage long-term outcomes," whatever that means. But she would defend it, since the state is promising OEC, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and other left-wing environmental groups office space in the building at low rents that are guaranteed to stay fixed for decades.

Although the public is paying for most of the building, "tenants will be expected to share a commitment to help advance Oregon's leadership in sustainable development, collaborate with fellow tenants, and pursue OSC's standards for energy and water use." Apparently, people who don't share those "commitments" won't be welcome, even if their taxes helped pay for the building and even if they are willing to pay more for office space than the greenies.

Sustainability supposedly bills itself as being about using a reduced amount of resources.  But this goal is already accomplished by pricing signals, as they signal the relative scarcity of resources we might want to employ.  By definition, then, building the most expensive office space ever means that they are more resources (or a mix of scarcer resources) per square foot than any other previous construction project.  How in heavens name is this "sustainable?"

Like many such public projects (e.g. light rail), this project drains resources from millions of people via taxation to benefit just a few.  It takes an approach that could never, ever be scaled to benefit everyone in the city as it would be bankrupting.  This construction uses unreasonably large resources for an application that will never come close to returning this investment and can only be funded on a small scale using the resources drained from millions of people.  How is this "sustainable?"

I will leave the answer to these questions to the reader, but here is a hint:  Those advocating projects like this tend to treat human labor as free, to be deployed like Egyptian slaves to the whim of the state planner, either via taxation or more directly through demands for free labor (e.g. in recycling programs).

Wow! An Article on Water That Actually Focuses on Price

For years it has aggravated me that politicians claim the need to make command and control decisions on water conservation, and they run advertisements trying to shame me for my water use, all while the state government has subsidized some of the cheapest water in the country.

This is crazy!   If we are really drawing down reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell as well as underground aquafers, then raise the price until demand matches a sustainable supply level.  Duh.

But water is one of those commodities like gasoline that politicians love to meddle with prices for populist ends.  So we continue to have cheap water, and as a result we have 1) no incentive to find new sources and 2) no incentive to conserve.  As I pointed out in the earlier post linked above, we here in the desert have water less than half the price of Seattle!.  All while the government pays farmers over $100 million a year to grow water-hungry crops in the Arizona desert, using price-subsidized water.

Well, miracle of miracles, and for the first time in my experience, the AZ Republic actually published an article focusing on the absurdity of water subsidies. The article focuses narrowly on the cross-subsidy of our municipal power and water authority, charging higher electric rates to keep water rates lower.

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of the effective subsidy, for like most of the economically ignorant the Republic focuses only on the difference between the current price and cost (which is about $33 million).  The real subsidy is the difference between the current price and the true market clearing price at a sustainable supply rate (sustainability defined here as the rate that maintains reservoir, both above and below the ground, levels constant or rising over the long term.)  This is a MUCH larger number than $33 million.

My Definition of Sustainability

I was going to respond to this goofy post on sustainability, but it would just be wasted time for this audience.  I think most of you can spot the errors and non sequiturs.  The heart of the problem is that the folks discussing "sustainability" have far more faith in the goodwill of people who deal with them through force (ie the government) than the folks who deal with them only via mutual consent (e.g. private enterprises).

I have never understood this attitude -- sure, the private guy on the other side of my transaction may be ridiculously wealthy, but he got that way only by being able to provide a service people are willing to buy of their own free will at a price that actually covers his costs**.  No one ever volunteers to consume government services unless they are 1) forced to do so (as in public schools or a government supported monopoly) or 2) the service is heavily subsidized (meaning it doesn't not cover its costs).

Which led me to my definition of sustainability, which I think is particularly important in this time of absurdly skyrocketing government spending.  Sustainability in my world means being able to supply a product or service that people are willing to buy of their own free will for the price I specify or that we negotiate, without any sort of coercion.  And that this price charged covers not only my costs, but covers the capital costs of continuing to improve my offering in order to fend off potential competitors.  And that this price further yields me a profit which pays me for my effort and gives me the incentive to keep providing this product or service.

In a free society, the ultimate measure of sustainability is profits.   Profits are what make the division of labor possible, which in turn is the only approach we have ever found to living above a subsistence level.  Without profits, activity beyond subsistence only occurs through coercion at the point of a gun.  If an activity does not yield us surplus, does not reward us for our time spent, then we only pursue it if our rulers use force to make us do so.

iPods and Dell computers and Big Macs are sustainable.  Government health care and cash for clunkers and the Post Office and Amtrak and about everything run by the State of California are not -- except when the government uses its power of force to grab the money it needs to close their budget gap or restrict individual choices or both.   The Post Office is a great example -- the government uses force to take money via taxes from citizens to cover its operating losses, which the Post Office incurs even though the US has used force to prevent anyone from competing with its first class mail business (particularly the most profitable segment, intracity mail).  And still, I might add, the Post Office is going bankrupt.

Look at Exxon vs. Amtrak.  One runs for profit, and in fact gets excoriated for its profits, while the other is run by the government and is lauded for its beneficence.  Which has proven the most sustainable?

And private enterprise has checks on their behavior that don't exist for monopoly government offerings.  When private businesses screw up, or become senescent, or even corrupt, and fail to cover their costs, they are supposed to go bankrupt.  For all the public handwringing about Enron being a bad example for capitalism, it was in fact a victory for capitalism  --  an unsound, possibly corrupt, business died.  Unsustainable business models, whether they be banks making nothing down mortgages or car companies producing bad cars, fail -- in fact, they are supposed to fail -- and resources are diverted to sustainable companies and businesses.  Except when .... you guessed it .... the government intervenes to prevent this from happening by bailing out bankers and manufacturers alike because those companies are owned by or employ people who helped get the president elected.

This renewal never happens in government.  We still have Amtrak, despite nearly 40 years of losses.  We still struggle with the post office and the DMV.  Heck, we still have state alcohol boards fingerprinting bar owners and running FBI checks on them to make sure we are not Al Capone, a problem that went away with the end of prohibition 3 generations ago.

Postscript: A part of the linked post is also a plea by two progressives for more protectionism.   Clearly, these two folks don't agree with the majority economic opinion that protectionism is bad for all nations.  But let's accept their premise for a moment.  Let's assume, as they do, that trade is a mercantilist zero sum and that protectionism would net boost our economy.   They are essentially advocating that the US, the wealthiest country on Earth, protect its workers to the detriment of poorer workers around the world.  Is this really the progressive position?

Postscript #2: A good question I have been using for people lately who show great confidence in the government's ability to solve problems through coercion:  "Imagine what powers you want to give the government.  Now, imagine your political opponents in the _____ Party wielding those powers.  Are you still happy?  If not, what are you counting on?  Point to the period in history where the same party held the presidency for 30 or forty years straight."  This question works well because almost everyone who favors giving coercive power to the government imagines only themselves or their allies wielding this power.

** Footnote: OK, the guy in private enterprise may also have gotten rich from rent-seeking and government favoritism,  but is that a failure of free enterprise or government?    I would normally have said this was a rhetorical question -- clearly, to me at least, rent seeking is the result of a system that gives government employees power over individual decisions.  In a country of strong personal liberties and limited government,  rent-seeking is much much harder.  But my liberal mother-in-law is totally convinced that rent-seeking is not the fault either of the structure of the government or the individual occupants of government but totally the fault of private businesses, and that only more regulation will stop it.

Poverty Is Not Sustainable

This article from Climate Resistance about the sustainability movement is terrific.  I want to excerpt a relatively long chunk of it:

It is our belief that Oxfam's increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation's difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil's painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.

If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil's painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn't abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.

Oh no, says Oxfam. That's not sustainable....

The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history "“ before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what "˜nature' provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is "˜natural'. Famine is "˜natural'. Disease is "˜natural'. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist's lexicon are nature's own way of ensuring "˜sustainability'. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called "˜the iron logic of nature' is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam's intention. That is why we criticise it.

Hat tip:  Tom Nelson.

Now I Understand - Obama Means Five Million New Government Jobs

I have not been able to figure out how Obama gets to a 5 million job creation number from his alternative energy plans.  As I pointed out,

OK, so the total employment of all these industries that might be
related to an alternate energy effort is about 2.28 million.  So, to
add 5 million incremental jobs would require tripling the size of the
utility industry, tripling the size of the utility construction and
equipment industry, tripling the size of the auto industry, tripling
the size of the aircraft industry, and tripling the size of the
shipbuilding industry.  And even then we would be a bit short of
Obama's number.

But now I think I am starting to understand.  Tom Nelson gave me the clue with this article from the town of Frankfort, Kentucky:

Commissioners again discussed the possible creation of a sustainability coordinator position for the city.

Andy MacDonald, of the Mayor's Task Force on Energy Efficiency and
Climate Change, told commissioners that the creation of the position is
"the next critical step" to reduce the city's environmental footprint.

Commissioner Doug Howard brought up the possibility of asking the
city's recycling coordinator to fulfill part of the proposed position's
duties until money is available.

OK, so we need both a recycling coordinator and a sustainability coordinator for a town of 27,741 people (2000 census).  At this rate, that would imply nearly 22,000 government jobs across the country just in the government recylcing and sustainablity coordination field.  Now I am starting to understand.  Obama means five million new government jobs.

Trying to Market Poverty

An announcement in the AZ Republic yesterday:

Best-selling author Bill McKibben, who wrote one of the first books on
global warming, will be the featured speaker at a roundtable discussion
on sustainability Tuesday afternoon at the Burton Barr Central Library...

In his latest book, McKibben argues that accelerated cycles of economic
expansion have brought the world to the brink of environmental
disaster.

Instead, he suggests that we should be creating smaller, more sustainable local economies. 

I have never fully understood the word "sustainability," but in this context, doesn't it mean "poorer"?  It strikes me that McKibben is trying to sell poverty, or at least advocating that everyone voluntarily become poorer.  He is successful with middle-class soccer moms at the library only to the extent that he hides this fact and calls poverty something else  -- in this case "smaller, more sustainable local economies."

By the way, does jetting from city to city across the country to sell his book make him a sustainability expert?  If he believes what he says, why doesn't he just sell his book within a 50-mile radius of his home?

Sustainability is always for thee and not for me.

Sustainability Through Poverty

In my previous post on urban planning, I mentioned the increasingly popular idea of sustainability through povertyDon Boudreaux responds to the currently hip idea that somehow we need to revert to a more local economy with local food production.  This is absolutely absurd, for any number of reasons.  I'll just list three:

  • It doesn't work.  The total energy used for transport, say of food products, is a small percentage of the total energy used in the total production process.  The energy transportation budget is generally smaller than efficiency gains from scale or from optimizing location.  For example, a wheat farm in Arizona on 50 acres is going to use a lot more energy (and water, and fertilizer, and manpower) than a wheat farm on a thousand acres in North Dakota.
  • It leads to poverty.  Our modern society, our lifestyles, our lifespans all are a result of the fantastic increases in efficiency we have reaped from the division of labor.  A push to localize all production reverses the division of labor.  Many products, such as semiconductors, become outright impossible on a local scale.
  • It leads to starvation.  It is hard for us to imagine famine in the wealthy nations of the world.  Crop failures in one part of the world are replaced with crops from other parts of the world.  But as recently as the 19th century, France, then the wealthiest nation on earth but reliant on local agriculture, experienced frequent crop failures and outright starvation.

More on the food-miles stupidity here.  And an interesting study that shows that processed foods greatly reduces waste and trash to landfills was here.

Update: More on food miles here at Reason

New York Inspired Thoughts on City Planning

I really can't stand to be in New York City for very long.  The crowds, the hassles and the lines all conspire to drive me crazy.  Every second I feel like I am packed around by more people, and I find it horribly claustrophobic.

If your immediate reaction to this statement is to feel like I am attacking you or your lifestyle, you are wrong.  My purpose is not to say that those who love it here in NYC are making an incorrect choice, for they are not.  If they derive energy from the people and the density and all the amenities that density can justify, great.  It is in fact an interesting (and depressing) feature of modern discourse that my saying that I don't personally choose a certain lifestyle is found as threatening to people who do.  Why should it?  My only answer is that this zero-sum statist society of activists has created the expectation that the next step of anyone who expresses a negative preference for something will be to run to the government to get it banned.

The reason I bring my preference up at all is that the vast majority of city planners get a huge hard-on for New York.  Their goal is to turn the world into Manhattan.  They wish to maximize densities and minimize personal automobile use and, well, backyards.  In other words, a bunch of folks who have the ear of the government wish to use the coercive power of the government to turn the world into something I can't live in.  Again, I have no problem with New Yorkers having New York, but why does Scottsdale have to be New York too?

By the way, on a quasi-related topic, the Anti-Planner has an interesting observation:  Supposed gains in sustainability in high-density urban areas have more to do with making everyone poor than with the density  (emphasis added):

Many planning advocates take it for granted that sprawl and auto driving are inherently unsustainable. McShane shows
just how this attitude can go when he describes Halle Neustadt, which
some Swedish urban planners once described as "the most sustainable
city in the world."

McShane here refers to some field work
done by the Antiplanner. To make a long story short, what made Halle
Neustadt "sustainable" was poverty
, and as soon its residents gained
some wealth, many of them moved out and most of the rest bought
automobiles, turning the cities many greenspaces into parking lots.

Owen then turns to climate change, which he describes as the last gasp
of smart growth. Smart growth, he notes, "has always been a policy in
search of a justification, a solution in search of a problem." Now, in
climate change, smart-growth advocates hope they have found such a
problem.

One difficulty, McShane notes, is that there is no guarantee that
smart growth is really more greenhouse-friendly than ordinary sprawl.
Depending on load factors, Diesel trains can emit more greenhouse gases
per passenger mile than autos, and concrete-and-steel high-rise condos
can emit more CO2 than wood homes.

McShane refers in particular to an Australian study
that found that "place doesn't matter," that is, low densities were not
particularly greenhouse unfriendly. Instead, income was much more
important, meaning that the high-rollers living in million-dollar
downtown condos were generating far more greenhouse gases than
moderate-income suburbanites
.

Which implies that the "solution" to sustainability (whatever that is) and CO2 emissions is to promote poverty.  That may seem like a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, but in fact the latest IPCC warning on climate relies heavily on the work of Nicholas Stern, who says the solution to global warming is to make western income levels look more like those in India (emphasis added):

Mr Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, sends out a
very clear message: "We need to cut down the total amount of carbon
emissions by half by 2050." At current levels, the per capita global
emissions stand at 7 tonnes, or a total of 40-45 gigatonnes. At this
rate, global temperatures could rise by 2.5-3 degrees by then. But to
reduce the per capita emissions by half in 2050, most countries would
have to be carbon neutral. For instance, the US currently has, at 20-25
tonnes, per capita emissions levels that are three times the global
average.

The European Union's emission levels stand at 10-15
tonnes per capita. China is at about 3-4 tonnes per capita and India,
at 1 tonne per capita, is the only large-sized economy that is below
the desired carbon emission levels of 2050. "India should keep it that way and insist that the rich countries pay their share of the burden in reducing emissions," says Mr Stern.

Translation: India should stay poor and the West should become that way.

Phoenix Envy

Today I read one of the most bizarre articles I have read in quite a long time.  Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star (HT: Junk Science) seems to have developed a fantasy that climate change will drive people out of Arizona and back to Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto.  Uh, yeah.  The article is laden with shoddy science, gross contradictions, bad economics, and a recurrent envy of wealth and success.  The article is so much of a mess that I just can't resist fisking it in detail, despite its length. 

Before I begin, though, I am not necessarily a huge Arizona booster.  Phoenix works pretty well for me at this point in my life, but I have lived in many great places.  And I am the last one to criticize anyone who decides that they just can't live in a place where it is 110F for 6 weeks straight.  That being said, lets get into it.  The article is titled: 

Climate Change Herald Mass Migration:  Concerns
raised as the U. S. Southwest grapples with historic drought, water
supply depletion and the creeping sense that things can only get worse.

We will get into all this later, but you gotta love the "creeping sense that things can only get worse."  Who has this sense, other than the author?  Phoenix is one of the most optimistic and positive places I have ever lived.

The state of Arizona has more than 300 golf courses, a booming economy,
endless sunshine and, at last count, at least five Saks Fifth Avenue
department stores "” in short, nearly everything the well-heeled
sybarite would need.

He sets the tone right up front.  This article is not about climate or rain or anything else.  It is about envy and a distaste for other people's wealth and success.

There's just one thing missing: rain.

For the past
month, not a drop has fallen in Maricopa County, home to greater
Phoenix, the state's economic engine and fastest-growing hub. Over that
period, temperatures have hovered five to seven degrees above the
30-year average, at one point holding steady at over 43C for 10
straight days, while hundreds of brush fires burned statewide.

Its the freaking Sonoran desert!  We go months without rain.  We are supposed to go months without rain.  We average like 8 inches a year.  This county went months at a time without rain long before human beings burned their first molecule of fossil fuels.  If we got much more rain than this, all of our Saguaro cactuses would die.

And 43c is 109F.  We almost always go 4-6 weeks with temperatures over 109.  And he is saying this is 6C (10F) more than normal.  Get real!  I can't remember any June or July we ever went even 5 straight days under 100F during this part of the summer. By the way, Arizona's highest June temperature was recorded in 1994, its highest July temperature in 1905, and its highest August temperature in 1933. So much for record highs of late. (Maybe one reason it seems to be getting hotter is that they are measuring the temperature of asphalt parking lots).

"And they're still building billion-dollar houses, right in the
middle of the desert," says Paul Oyashi, incredulous. "It doesn't seem
rational, does it?"

Holy Crap!  Billion dollar houses!  Our retractable roof football stadium didn't cost a billion dollars, Canadian or US.  Oh, and you see that having gone 4 paragraphs without being snide about wealth, he needed to get back to this topic.  And who the $%@!! is Paul Oyashi?

In a word, no. Rational, some would say,
would be a mass migration from the drought-ravaged American southwest,
where Southern California just experienced its driest 12-month period
in recorded history, to more verdant climes.

One such place?
Cleveland, the battered hub of Cuyahoga County, where Oyashi sits as
director of the department of development. "We don't have earthquakes,
we don't have brush fires, we've got all the fresh water you could ever
want," Oyashi says. "That's logic. But the problem is, it flies in the
face of reality."

So this Oyashi guy is the development guy for Cleveland?  Who made the Toronto Star a shill for the Cleveland chamber of commerce?  Is it really this writer's premise that we are on the verge of a reverse migration from Phoenix to Cleveland?  My sense is that we are not on the verge of such a reverse migration, and this is a chance for everyone in the Rust Belt to lament that fact.

At first glance, the crises
of the rust belt and the Southwest would seem unrelated. They are, in
fact, inexorably linked. Each has what the other does not. In Phoenix,
tremendous affluence; in Cleveland, and in Detroit, Toledo, Youngstown,
Buffalo, Rochester, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, abundant,
near-endless water "“ in the Great Lakes alone, as much as 25 per cent
of the world's supply.

Note the writer implicitly accepts the zero-sum wealth fallacy -- in his eyes, wealth is a natural resource just like water.  Cleveland has water, Phoenix has wealth.  I won't get into this fallacy much here, but suffice it to say wealth is not something that springs magically from a well.  More here.  For a hundred years, Cleveland was a wealth-creation machine.  To the extent they are not today, they might check their tax and regulatory policies.

And as the Southwest and parts of the
Southeast grapple with historic drought, water supply depletion "“
earlier this year, Lake Okeechobee in Florida, a primary water source
for the Everglades, caught fire "“ and the creeping sense that, with
climate change, things can only get worse, a new reality is dawning:
that logic, finally, will have a larger role to play in human migratory
dynamics, continent-wide. With it come not just doomsday scenarios, but
for certain urban centres left for dead in the post-industrial
quagmire, a chance at new life.

Wow, where to start?  Anyone note the irony of Cleveland pointing fingers at someone because their lake caught on fire?  Not that he bothers to explain why a lake catching on fire is related to climate change or even drought.  And why on an article on the Southwest is the only example of water shortage taken from Florida?

But what you really need to note is the arrogant technocratic bent of the author.  He is saying that all you idiots in Phoenix are defying reality, and that finally maybe you will start making the right choices.  This is typical elitist crap.  In the author's world, anyone who makes a choice the author would not is making a wrong choice.

"Sticking a straw in the Great
Lakes is not a solution to Phoenix's water problems," says Robert
Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project at the State University
of New York at Buffalo. "Maybe it's time to really think about what
constitutes need and stop spending money to build carrying capacity in
places that don't have it by nature, and start investing in places that
do."

Shibley has long been a champion of Buffalo's dormant
potential "“ a potential reduced by half or more through the latter part
of the 20th century, as the population fell below 300,000 from a
historic high of more than 700,000.

OK, now we quote a second guy about problems in the American Southwest.  This guy is from Buffalo, New York and is a promoter of the city of Buffalo.  Why is the Toronto Star giving these guys paid advertising for their causes under the guise of a news article?  And who the hell ever suggested sending water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix?  This is a "straw" man if I ever heard one.  Even if we started building pipelines east, there would be no reason to go past the Missouri or Mississippi.

And I love this "investing in carrying capacity" thing.  What the hell does that mean?  Yeah, we have to build infrastructure when the city grows.  We have to look for water, you have to pay for snow plows.  To build in the desert, we have to pipe in water to survive.  So what?  Buffalo and Toronto and Cleveland have to truck or pipe in coal and heating oil in the winter to survive.  What's the difference?

He suggests that in the
Great Lakes basin, where less than half a per cent of the world's
population sits within easy reach of a quarter of the planet's fresh
water, the opportunity for harmony exists. In a perfect world governed
by reason, Shibley says, the only robust economic centre in the region
would serve as its heart. And that would be Toronto.

Oh my God, what a statement.  Humanity's last hope to live in harmony with nature is to move to the Rust Belt, home of a disproportionate number of America's Superfund sites and the burning Coyahoga River.  These are cities that still use the Great Lakes as a toilet, dumping tons of raw sewage out in the lakes every day.

That's an
issue for international bureaucrats to solve. But the reality is this:
according to the U.S. government, the population of the United States
is expected to reach 450 million by 2050 "“ an increase of almost 50 per
cent. The predicted pattern of settlement for these new citizens will
take them to the seven most built-out regions of the country "“ Arizona,
Texas, Florida and California among them.

Have you seen Arizona?  Is this guy really arguing that Arizona is more built-out than Michigan, New York, and Ohio?

"You're going to have
150 million people living in at least seven of the major regions that
don't have water, don't have carrying capacity, can't feed themselves,"
Shibley says. "It's an ecological disaster waiting to happen. So
there's a good reason to think that people should come back to the
Northeast, where we have the carrying capacity, and have the water."

First, we have water.  We don't even have rationing here in Phoenix, and have not in my memory.  What does "have no water mean?"  The issue with Phoenix water is that we have about the cheapest water in the country.  Any overuse (whatever that means) of water here is because politicians pander to citizens and set the price very low.  So yes, I have a big lawn that seems nuts in the desert, but that is because my water bill here is less than half of what it was in Seattle(!)  Raise the price, and I would probably xerascape my lawn.

And what city in the Great Lakes area "feeds itself?"  No one in American cities feeds themselves.  Its called division of labor.

Some have already taken notice. Last year, The Economist
ranked Cleveland the most liveable city in America (26th in the world)
based on five categories: stability, health care, culture and
environment, education and infrastructure. Among the booming cities of
the Southwest, only Los Angeles and Houston cracked the top 50. Phoenix
didn't make the list, falling behind Nairobi, Algiers and Phnomh Penh
among the world's top 126 urban centres.

LOL.  I love it, we're behind Nairobi in some survey.  Look, there is a huge disconnect in this whole argument.  If Cleveland is really more liveable, then people will move there.  But the author is saying that people are moving to Phoenix instead.  So the theme of the article is that, what?  Phoenix has a problem with too many people moving in and has a problem with too many people moving out?  This is back to the technocratic elitism.  The author is just upset that ordinary people don't do what journalists tell them they should do.

Water is a factor. It
is already a significant issue in the major regions Shibley mentions
which, not coincidentally, depend on the same diminishing source for
much of their hydration.

In 1922, seven states "“ many of them,
like Nevada, Arizona, Texas and California, desperately arid "“ signed
the Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the mighty waterway's
seemingly abundant flow.

But recent observation of the river is
alarming. Only two per cent of the river's water makes it beyond the
U.S. border, where large Mexican cities dependent on its bounty are
left with a trickle "“ much less than they need. With climate change,
river flow has been dwindling, due, among other things, to decreasing
snowfall and less consequent spring runoff, which forms a significant
part of the Colorado River basin's lifeblood.

The river is the
main water source for more than 30 million people stretching from
Colorado in the north all the way down to the U.S.-Mexico border. By
the end of the century, inflow to the river (which includes runoff and
tributaries) is expected to drop by as much as 40 per cent.

First, who is saying that climate change is affecting the flow of the Colorado River?  Annual variations certainly affect it, but no one, and I mean no one, has created a climate model with the resolution to say that if there is substantial global warming in the future,the effect on the Colorado River flow will be X or Y.  Even the IPCC admits it really doesn't have a clue how world temperature changes might affect river flows, or the water cycle in general.  People always want to assume that hotter means drier, but hotter also means a lot more ocean evaporation which can translate into more, not less, precipitation. 

The problem with the use of the Colorado is not climate, but price.  As mentioned above, Phoenix has among the lowest water prices in the country.  In addition, farmers in Arizona and Southern California, who use most of the water despite the snide remarks about golf courses and billion dollar homes, get rates subsidized even lower.  Letting water prices rise to a real supply/demand clearing price that matches demand to river flow would solve the water "crisis" in about five minutes.

At
the same time, climate change projections show temperatures in the most
parched regions of the Southwest increasing between five and seven
degrees. That would make Phoenix's hottest days well over 54C.

Five to seven degrees C are at the high, worst case end of the IPCC projections, which are themselves grossly overstated for a number of reasons I wrote here and here.  Also, much of the warming would be winter nights -- you just can't add the global warming projections to the daytime maximums -- this is plain ignorant.   One thing I agree with -- if our daytime temperatures were to reach 54C, which is over 129F, I will be moving. 

In
Arizona, though, these warnings seem to fall on deaf ears. "The Greater
Phoenix region continues to bust at the seams," says Christopher Scott,
a research professor of water resource policy at the University of
Arizona in Tucson. "People look at this and think, `This can't go on,
can it?'"

But it does, and faster than anywhere else in America.
From 1990 to 2005, the population of Greater Phoenix grew 47.7 per
cent. In Scottsdale, a posh, affluent corner of Greater Phoenix that,
despite the lack of moisture, has more golf courses per capita than
anywhere else in America, growth was 72.1 per cent over the same
period.

Altogether, Greater Phoenix will likely crest at 4
million people some time this year, making it the fourth-largest
metropolitan area in America. By mid-century, some estimates suggest it
will reach 10 million, leaving Phoenix and Tucson fused in the desert.
"We'll basically be one massive urban corridor," Scott says.

Hey, he quoted a guy from west of the Mississippi!  This is the same kind of language that every anti-growth person uses in every city.  And by the way, there is that class thing again -- "posh, affluent."  And what does "bust at the seams" mean?  Phoenix has some of the least-bad traffic of any major city, we have sufficient water, sufficient power, lots of raw land, etc.

Phoenix
receives water from the Colorado through canals hundreds of kilometres
long, pumped through parched landscapes and small communities along the
way that take their fill. It is, essentially, a city that shouldn't be
there, so distant is the water supply.

"Shouldn't be there," by what definition?  Here is what that means:  "I, the author, don't think there should be a city there."  OK, don't live here.  Couldn't I write this sentence instead, "Cleveland receives petroleum from Texas and the Middle East in pipelines hundreds of miles long to provide needed heat in their cold winters.  Its is, essentially, a city that shouldn't be there, so distant is its energy supply."  Jeez, why is it we can have a global economy and division of labor and move resources around the world, but we have to build cities right next to water sources.  What about Aluminum, oil, gold, bauxite, lead, zinc, and iron?  Must we only build cities where all these are near by as well?

Scott, who has studied
water supply issues from India to Mexico to West Africa, has seen no
end to water-appropriation schemes in development-crazy Arizona.
"Piping in sea water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, desalinating it,
and then piping the salty brine back into the ocean "“ that's the kind
of hare-brained notion I've heard here," he says. "Do I consider these
things tenable? Not at all. But these are proposals people are talking
about seriously, in public, and they're getting a lot more play."

Scott
worries that technology may well make such things possible, but at a
destructive energy cost that simply exacerbates the problem. "We're
already starting to ask questions about the larger issues associated
with pumping in all that water along those canals "“ the energy costs,
and the carbon impact associated with it," he says. "They may solve the
water issue short-term, but they pull the sustainability rug out from
under you in the process."

We now see the author's real position.  He is not really lamenting the lack of water in the Southwest - he likes it.  He wants to drive people out.  We see he and professor Scott here actually lamenting the fact that technology might solve the water problem.

As to the sustainability issue, its absurd.  I will admit I don't know the figures, but I would be shocked if moving water around was even 0.1% of US energy use.  And besides, we move everything else around the world, moving water is trivial.

Finally, I don't really want to accept the author's premise that CO2 reduction is so critical, but if I were to accept it, I might point out that most of our electricity in Phoenix is provided by America's largest nuclear plant supplemented by natural gas, while mid-Western cities are fed mostly by big old honkin coal burning plants.  I would put our electric generation carbon footprint up against most any Rust Belt city.

The long-term solution, of course, is
to relocate people where they can comfortably exist. (Oyashi certainly
knows a place where you can get a decent house on the cheap.) In a free
society, of course, forced migration isn't really an option.

Do you get the sense he says the last line with a frustrated sigh, lamenting the fact that he can't force people to live where he thinks they should live?

But
as the sustainability crisis worsens, "usually economic forces will do
it for you," says Robert McLeman, a professor of geography at the
University of Ottawa. "When cities have to build new infrastructure and
to jack up taxes to cope, when the cost of running a household becomes
prohibitive, people will move."

Fine, but I will bet you a million dollars our taxes in Phoenix are a lot lower than they are in Toronto. And I know for a fact, since I almost moved there once, that our cost of living is a lot lower.  So maybe this infrastructure and sustainability crisis in Phoenix is a chimera?  Maybe its just wishful thinking?

..."Once the heat becomes unbearable, they may find the
freezing cold a little more bearable"“especially if it's not quite so
freezing cold as they remember."

It won't happen without help. In
Buffalo, Shibley speaks of a federal urban sustainabilty plan that
funnels federal money to the Great Lakes region to help draw population
back. It's been more than 30 years since the U.S. had a comprehensive
national urban plan. Looming ecological crises in burgeoning urban
centers more than justify a revival. "Cities don't grow by topsy, it's
not a thing of nature "“ it's a function of public policy," he says.

Oops, we seem to be abandoning the whole "free society" thing above.  Sure looks like they want to use federal law and tax policy to drive migration where they want it to go, against where people are moving currently of their own free will.  Oh, and city growth is NOT a function of public policy.  Cities grew up and evolved long before government ever took a heavy hand in their development.

But
a significant piece is missing, McLeman warns. "These cities will have
milder climates, be easier to live in, and cheaper," he says, "but
ultimately, they'll have to have the jobs to go with them."

Oyashi
is painfully familiar with the concept. Cleveland may have a surfeit of
cheap, liveable housing and an abundance of fresh water, but its
problems are legion. Abandoned industrial sites litter the area, too
big or too expensive to put to other purposes. Small victories pale in
the face of greater challenges, like trying to convince Ford not to
close two of its three plants in the region. "We've got some dinosaurs
walking around here," he says.

Speaking of public policy and taxation, you don't think that different public policy choices in Cleveland vs. Phoenix might have a teensy bit to do with this?

But those problems, endemic
rust-belt-wide, are just the most visible. High crime rates,
languishing schools and spiralling urban poverty plague Cleveland, too.
Phoenix, for all its money, can't make it rain any more than Cleveland,
with all its water, can print the money it needs....

Gee, the relative growth in Phoenix vs. the lack thereof in Cleveland sure is a head scratcher.  Its incredible that people would tolerate long transportation distances for water just to escape things like high crime rates, languishing schools and spirally urban poverty.

He lays the responsibility at the federal
government's door. "It's not like we have a policy that says, `You
know, we should have a national policy that provides incentive for
people to live in ecologically sustainable areas,'" he says. "What we
have here is `Go wherever you want, do whatever you want, and the
government will follow with its chequebook.' You get this haphazard
checkerboard of winners and losers, rather than directed development in
the regions that can sustain it. It's crisis management."

Yes, its just awful that the government lets people live wherever they want and then puts infrastructure in the places people choose to live.  So haphazard!  People are doing things that are not controlled or directed!  Eek!Clearly the author thinks the government should build the infrastructure wherever it wants to, and then force people to live in those places.   We elites know better!  We will tell you where you should live!  And by the way, who in the hell anointed the Rust Belt with the title of "most sustainable area."  And what is sustainability?  Couldn't I argue that all those midwest cities are sitting on valuable cropland or forest land, and that Phoenix is the most sustainable because we are just building on empty desert?  And if there is such a thing as sustainability in city development, who decided that the proximity of fresh water was the #1 be-all end-all component?

So, I will make a counter-proposal.   Rather than focusing on cities, let's focus on agriculture, because water IS a be-all end-all component to agriculture.  Much of the water we use in the Southwest is for agriculture, and I
don't think that agriculture would be here without huge subsidies. Frankly, the sustainability problem of agriculture in the desert is orders of magnitude worse than that of cities here.  So here is the plan:

1) Sell water in Arizona for a price that better matches supply and demand

2) Stop subsidizing water for agriculture

3) Stop sending farm subsidies, such as for cotton, to people to grow crops in the desert.

This would relieve a taxpayer burden AND it would likely shift farming out of the Southwest to places like the Midwest.    As a result, you would get a migration of farmers and agriculture back east and you would free up a lot of water in the southwest so more people can live here, where they really want to live.    But of course, this is not what the author wants.  He wants more people in the cities, paying absurdly high Detroit property and income taxes.  Well, good luck.

Update:  Large follow-up post to this one, including research on Arizona water use and how the Rust Belt treats the Great Lakes like a toilet here.