Jun 9, 2010

Only better policies can really save us

This is post 3 of a 5 part series. Previously:

In the previous posts in this series, I argued that we must reduce our oil consumption and outlined individual actions we can take to do so. Unfortunately, all manner of structural problems conspire to limit how much difference we can make as individuals. As a simple example, consider what happens to the supply and demand of parking if you stop driving: parking becomes easier or cheaper for someone else to find, leaving everyone else with less incentive to change their behaviour. Unfortunately, this is just one example of a much broader phenomenon. Oil is a fungible commodity, meaning that whatever is not used in one place can be trivially transferred to use elsewhere, and without wholesale economic systems change we are on a course to use the last drop we are capable of extracting from the ground, at ever higher costs. If we are really to escape the terrible consequences of oil use, we must change the way our economy is organised comprehensively enough that we can actually leave oil in the ground.

To achieve this sort of change, we have to build up from individual actions to local, national and ultimately international policy. The local part is the easiest to get a handle on. Local governments make decisions every year that have important impacts on the behaviour of, and opportunities open to, the people who live in their jurisdiction. Many of these are straightforward allocations of resources; investing in more, larger or faster roads increases driving while transferring those same resources over to improving public transport, bike infrastructure or the pedestrian environment encourages people to leave their cars behind by giving them better alternatives. Here in Seattle, we face a particularly extreme allocation of resources into oil-dependent infrastructure with the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement megaproject, which will plough $2 billion into a downtown highway bypass while almost certainly sucking away all the resources that might have been spent on improving travel within downtown.

Local government also exerts a lot of control over urban form by means of building codes and zoning laws, and these make a huge difference to resource use. Everything that encourages car-friendly infrastructure over pedestrian-friendly, and especially if it encourages sprawl over dense urban living, contributes to making us all use more oil as we travel past each others' houses to get to anything. Local examples include a set of townhouse design rules which both increase the amount of space one house needs and leads to hostile pedestrian environments, and the very limited area in which developers are allowed to build multifamily housing. Many cities in the US have similar issues, and if they were all fixed we would consume significantly less oil as a country, simply because we'd be travelling so much shorter distances going about our business.

Nationally, we need not only to introduce policies that deliberately reduce oil use (such as Cap and Trade in some form), but also to remove the huge number of subsidies that make enormously resource-wasteful activities economical; the most obvious being highway subsidies. We can and should take this further, and use a huge economic lever to reduce demand for oil by shifting taxes from income and goods to pollution. This is where we start to get multiplier effects that approach the scale of the problem.

Of course, the same argument about fungibility that applies between individuals applies between countries, so ultimately international treaties will be crucial. I won't go further into that here, because the international influence of the US is so huge that it's clear that no worthwhile international treaty can be passed until we are seen to be fixing our own problems, so we must focus on domestic policy first. And domestic policy is somewhere where you can make a difference by educating yourself about the issues, talking about them, and writing to elected representatives wherever you are.

If you take one thing from this whole series of posts, please let it be the importance of advocating for policies that wean us collectively off oil.

This is post 3 of a 5 part series. Coming up:

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