Ten Ways to Create a Sustainable New York City

Is the planet doomed?

 

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s fascinating series of “Hainish” novels, the earth’s future is described with the most chillingly brief offhandedness. Hundreds of years before the events these books relate, the home of the “Terrans” was irreversibly poisoned by war and greed. A remnant of the people survived, and went on, over the centuries, to become part of an interplanetary federation — but the Earth’s sad history remained as an object lesson in what can happen to a world whose inhabitants realize, too late, how much damage they’re capable of.

 

Current events might seem to justify that sort of fatalism. Last week, the IPCC issued its latest report, stating that global climate change is ongoing, irreversible and worse than we thought. As Arctic ice melts, the Russians are building up their Northern military presence, looking toward exploiting newly-accessible fossil fuels (Canada and the USA are also interested). Many of the lawmakers making up the new Republican majority in the US Congress are eager to drill, burn and deregulate. The new Chair of the Senate Environment Committee is Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, one of Washington’s most outspoken climate change “skeptics.” Gas prices are down; sales of SUVs and trucks are up. The sky may, actually, be falling.

 

Meanwhile, though, urban populations are rising, all over the world — and that could possibly be good news. Studies confirm the intuition that city dwellers, who live in smaller spaces, and use more public transportation, have smaller carbon footprints than rural folk (and way smaller than suburbanites). If cities could invest in technology that would make urban life much more ecologically efficient, they could lead the way to a sustainability revolution that could, perhaps, stave off Ursula LeGuin’s dire prediction.

 

New York, New York, the town so nice they named it twice, is the grandest, richest, most arrogantly potent city in the world. What if New York City were to show the world the way forward — by devoting itself to becoming, as soon as may be, a Green city, creating absolutely the smallest possible environmental damage — even becoming a carbon-neutral city?

 

Here are ten feasible steps that New York City could take toward becoming a truly green city — while not just maintaining its economic vitality, but actually enhancing it:

 

1. Use tax policy to incentivize efficient land use.



2. Use the same tax policy to increase funding for public transportation, and make it free.

 

These first two are by far the most important; they would create the fertile ground in which all the other reforms could grow. But, tax policy is a wonky issue, and I don’t want to lose you — so we’ll come back to it after we’ve considered a few of the snazzier proposals.

 

3. Drastically reduce private automobile use.

 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of wandering around in New York after a heavy snowfall has rendered the streets impassable to cars, you’ve fantasized about how nice it would be if the city could always be that open and free. But… we could never actually do that… could we?

 

NYC’s public transportation system is really quite good, despite the many strikes against it (overcrowding, funding cuts, deteriorating infrastructure). Millions of New Yorkers (over 55% of households) live without private cars. Imagine the tons of fossil fuel New York City could avoid burning, if no private automobiles clogged its streets!

 

A congestion-pricing system, such as is used in London, was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, and had a lot of support, though the state legislature failed to adopt it. It should. It would be a fine first step. Public transportation options could be beefed up, as the cost of driving in the city increased. The policy could begin in Manhattan, and gradually radiate into the Boroughs.

 

One of the many ways in which private autos are unwisely encouraged is the low price of parking. Motorists should have to pay the true market value of parking spaces. A demand-based, “smart parking” policy would dovetail with congestion pricing for bridge/tunnel entry points to efficiently begin lowering traffic volume. Prices could be gradually increased, until automobile traffic was drastically decreased. Walkable neighborhoods and all manner of “new urbanist” amenities could be created. Sidewalk green spaces could be expanded. Cross streets could be reduced to one vehicle lane, for emergency or delivery traffic; two lanes of every avenue could be reserved for bicycles.

 

4. Introduce a tradable credit system to incentivize innovation in green building design.

 

Last year, the Urban Green Council issued a detailed report on how to reduce New York City’s carbon footprint. Titled “90 by 50,” the report describes steps the city could take to reduce its carbon emissions by 90% by 2050. According to the UGC, 75% of New York City’s carbon emissions come from the building, maintaining, heating, cooling and powering of the city’s buildings. Therefore, creating green buildings, and retrofitting existing buildings to save as much energy as possible, has to play a giant role in any campaign toward a sustainable NYC.

 

The cost of the “90 by 50” effort was roughly estimated at $167 billion for the whole city, over a period of 35 years. That would seem to be rather a lot; NYC’s entire annual budget is in the neighborhood of $70 billion. Nevertheless: it must be done. Indeed, what is the alternative?

 

So, how about if we make it interesting? Set a per-square-foot carbon emissions target, well below the city’s current median level. Buildings whose emissions are below that level are issued credits they can sell. Until they retrofit to lower their carbon footprints, buildings with emissions above the target level must buy credits. When more buildings bring their emissions down below the target level, the value of credits will fall — and then the level should be lowered.

 

Designing a metric for this program would be challenging. It would have to equitably account for myriad ways of reducing carbon footprints: producing renewable energy; increasing green spaces; cutting carbon emissions during every stage of a building’s construction. However, all of those factors can be accurately stated in terms of carbon emissions — our climate-change bottom line. The larger challenge would be to ensure that the metrics would be designed in good faith, and not give easier times to various special interests.

 

 

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Creating the building stock of a green New York City is a project for the entire city. Feasibly doing it should be a potent source of New York pride. Because the stakes are so high, and NYC is such a vast, visible test case, this should be a municipal policy, effective within the Five Boroughs — and New York City’s tradable carbon credits should not recognize offsets from other places.

 

What’s wrong with offsets? If it’s the whole world’s atmosphere, isn’t a ton of carbon a ton of carbon? Not necessarily — if our goal is to green our own huge, huffing-puffing city. Tradable carbon credits would be measured in terms of tons of carbon. The per-ton cost of reducing NYC emissions would be considerably higher than, say the cost of saving a ton of carbon by African charcoal producers, or Brazilian rainforest loggers. New Yorkers’ smart play would be to just buy the foreign offsets and continue business as usual at home. But, business as usual is exactly what New York City can’t afford. We should pay the costs, and enjoy the benefits, of our own tradable credit policy.

 

5. Use Our Kids’ Creative Energy to Market the Program

 

Kids are always the most fervent and instinctive environmentalists. They don’t need to be told that the natural world is beautiful and worth saving; they need no training to recoil from pollution and waste. Let’s explain the stakes and the strategies of the project to our third, fourth and fifth graders, and get them to create posters and videos on its behalf. Let’s utilize our children’s creativity to make the Green NYC Initiative at least as unavoidable as the latest blockbuster movie.

 

6. Involve public schools in “neighborhood adoption” programs.

 

It may have struck the reader by now that, given the reality on the ground, the project being considered is fantastically — maybe even ludicrously — optimistic. Involve our public schools? The deep dysfunction of New York City’s public education system is well-known. The City requires eighth graders to apply to high schools. Families compete intensely for admission to the successful upper echelon of public schools. The system leads inexorably to deep stratification — of school quality, and student success. The City University of New York (CUNY), which accepts all NYC high school graduates, reported in 2013 that 80% of its incoming class needed remedial instruction in reading, writing and math. At the bottom of the heap, forty schools in NYC have been designated as “Persistently Dangerous Schools.” Students have a legal right to transfer out of such a school if they wish, but not all do. The forty schools haven’t all closed; kids still attend them.

 

Many education reformers and activists, seeking ways to serve the needs of actual students (rather than the demands of standardized tests), focus on the alternative of project-based learning. They argue that many — indeed, most — students don’t retain the contextless facts that traditional education tries to pour into their empty heads. Meaningful learning has a better chance of happening, they suggest, if students can undertake projects that make sense to them. Meaningful learning projects happen in real places, not in school cubicles.

 

What has this to do with the greening of New York City? Possibly, quite a lot. It’s worth remembering that schools, even failing ones, exist in neighborhoods — and that in the final analysis, the environment isn’t so much where spotted owls live as where we live. The retrofitting of all those NYC buildings (to earn their carbon credits) will take not just a lot of work, but also a good deal of economic and logistical planning. Is that not work that bored, difficult, ill-served public school students could do, and benefit from doing? The average age of a New York City building, citywide, is 76 years! And there’s a strong correlation between advanced building age (and the corresponding energy wastage) and local levels of poverty: the colloquial term for this is “slums.”

 

 

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The process of retrofitting buildings, insulating, installing windows, etc. is labor- and time-intensive. Often it will be happening in people’s homes; those who are doing the work could scarcely help but get to know the residents. It’s hard to imagine that such a people-intensive project, done for such good reasons (bolstered by a colorful, uplifting ad campaign created by children) could fail to yield very positive results. (Some of the value of carbon credits created by the students’ work could even be donated to school programs.) In a real sense, the greening of NYC would amount to a long-overdue setting-in-order of the City’s house.

 

7. Subsidize “fresh & healthy” food co-ops in “food desert” areas.

 

It’s well-known that various environmentally-influenced health problems are highly correlated with poverty. The list is long, including obesity, smoking, drug abuse, asthma and STDs. Another phenomenon that correlates with poor areas is “food deserts” — areas in which it’s quite easy to buy cigarettes, lottery tickets and energy drinks, but green vegetables and other healthy foods are expensive and scarce.

 

Higher-income New Yorkers (whose children attend that top ten percent of successful schools) can take advantage of a smorgasbord of healthy food options. Good restaurants are everywhere. Local food co-ops are prosperous and inviting; the Union Square Farmer’s Market is an oasis of culinary wonderfulness. However, these options are exclusive, both economically and spatially. Organic food stores, stocking local produce, present themselves as being “part of the solution” — and in some ways, they are — but they aren’t sited in poor neighborhoods. Not only that: folks who live in the food desert of East Harlem could, perhaps, hop on the Lex Ave subway and shop at the Union Square market — but by and large, they don’t.

 

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It’s widely admitted that affordable housing isn’t provided by “the market” in New York (and many other cities) and must therefore be subsidized. Evidently the market doesn’t provide affordable healthy food in poor areas, either. Let’s make a public investment in food co-ops in the poorest neighborhoods. Wouldn’t that pay for itself in many ways? Local residents could work in the coop stores in exchange for lower food prices — and the stores could be advertised via our school-kid PR campaign!

 

8. Create a “Sister City” program to share and spread New York City’s best practices.

 

The greening of New York City will be an inclusive, organic, multilayered process. High school students will be able to proudly point out buildings they have helped to renovate. The whole campaign will have been promoted by kids’ efforts. Innovation and competition to create new kinds of green buildings will be exciting and newsworthy. The technologies, practices and procedures New York develops along the way will be available for use by any other city that’s willing. What better way to share the progress, then, than to partner up with other metropolises — less prosperous, perhaps, but faced with the same environmental challenges? The greening of nuestra hermana, Mexico City, perhaps?

 

9. Tax styrofoam containers, plastic utensils and plastic packaging.

 

Does anyone really believe these things aren’t too cheap? That they don’t entail huge external costs? That they’re desperately needed and no viable substitutes for them exist? Seriously. While we’re a it, other egregiously wasteful products could be targeted for Pigouvian tax treatment, such as non-rechargeable batteries and old-style incandescent light bulbs.

 

10. Identify and fund organic, natural solutions to flood control, such as oyster reefs.

 

New Yorkers have always loved their oysters. The delicious, slimy little creatures have been harvested and savored here for centuries. There’s a good reason for that: oysters like to live in the boundary zone where salt water and fresh water meet — and New York’s harbor offered a very large and accessible expanse of such waters. The gigantic reefs, slowly built by trillions of oysters, provided a highly effective natural seawall that protected the area from storm surges. Over the years, though, oyster-gobbling and harbor-dredging did away with the reefs. Eventually, water pollution rendered it impossible even to farm-raise oysters locally (but in recent years this industry has started to come back).

 

 

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Wetlands also helped to stabilize the shorelines and mitigate erosion and storm damage; little by little, though, they were filled in and built on. In the Netherlands, a country experienced at storm-surge management, large tracts of valuable farmland was simply expropriated for use toward the general good of flood management. Some of this will undoubtedly need to be done along the shorelines of Brooklyn and Queens. A program is already under discussion to compensate homeowners for voluntarily moving out of these low-lying areas.

 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and as sea levels creep inexorably upward, New York City has no choice but to protect itself against increasingly severe storms and high waters. This represents a formidable engineering challenge, which will have many components. Existing buildings can be modified to make lower floors and underground areas waterproof; levees and floodgates can be built. It’s been prominently suggested, however, that efforts to renew the natural flood-protectors of wetlands and oyster reefs could play a vital role in the overall effort to preserve New York City in an era of rising seas and stronger storms.

 

1 & 2: What was that about Tax Policy?

 

We said above that the most important aspect of this entire program, the thing that would make every other part practicable, is to adopt a tax policy that would 1) Incentivize efficient land use and 2) Increase funding for public transportation, and make it free. Now, what sort of tax policy could be expected to do those things?

 

It would have to be quite different from what we have now. On these two pivotal issues — efficient land use and effectively funding public transportation — current tax policy pushes New York City in exactly the wrong directions.

 

The vastness and dynamism of New York City serves to obscure the fact that NYC is very significantly under-built. Citywide, the average building has only 51% of the indoor space that zoning allows on its site. In Manhattan’s Community District 5 — Midtown, the city’s highest-built area — 42.9% of sites have buildings that are less than half the allowable size (and 41.8% of the buildings in that district were built before 1940). Manhattan has 399 acres of privately-owned vacant land. Another 1,228 acres in Manhattan are all but vacant: they sport buildings whose assessed value is 20% or less of  the value of the land they’re on. (Source: NYC Dept. of Finance Assessment Rolls)

 

Does it make any sense for the most expensive real estate in the United States to be so drastically underused? In terms of environmental sustainability, it’s clear that if people are not living and working in the densest, best-connected urban spaces, then they are doing so sprawled somewhere further out — using more roads, burning more gas, doing everything more wastefully, less synergistically. To see how this process Our tax system reinforces this behavior, by rewarding people for holding urban land as an investment, and by penalizing them for building. These bad incentives could be reversed by simply progressively decreasing the property tax applied to buildings, and increasing the tax on the land that lies beneath them.

 

Tax Shift

Such a tax shift, in it’s unadulterated form, would have many benefits. Examples include drastically reducing urban sprawl and poverty. Normally, taxes are seen as an unfortunate necessity, a penalty that serves to reduce our supply of the things we want. This is not true of a tax on land value, however, because land value is not produced by the land’s owner; it is produced by the surrounding community, and public investment in making that site safe, efficient and desirable. A tax on land value simply recovers those community-created values.

 

Building a house on a nice little piece of land somewhere is still something that normal people can more or less accomplish on their own. This leads us to think of real estate as just one sort of thing: a building on a piece of land. In cities, however, because of the size and great risk of development, the real estate business divides into two essentially antithetical parts: the developers, who design, construct and operate buildings — and the land speculators. The latter group just holds sites. Perhaps they hold them entirely idle. More often, though, they put them to some minimal use, enough to pay the property tax (since there is little or no valuable structure on the site, the conventional property tax is, relatively, very low). A surface parking lot is ideal for this; so is a fast-food franchise.

 

Soon to be 10 Hudson Yards
Soon to be 10 Hudson Yards

 

 

Funding Transit: the Henry George Theorem

To sum up a long story, then: we could stimulate efficient land use in cities by taking the community-created rental value of land out of speculator’s hands, and using it for public revenue. This was the proposal made by the American economist Henry George in his 1879 worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. In recent years, this principle has been affirmed by such prominent economists as Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Arnott and William Vickrey, in what they call the Henry George Theorem. In essence, this theorem holds that public investment is reflected in land values — and that to the extent that local public investment is efficient, its cost can be completely paid by a levy on local land rents: no other revenue source is necessary.

 

This principle is perfectly obvious in the case of one vitally important fixture of urban life — which is, moreover, crucial to environmental sustainability: public transportation. The effect of high-quality public transportation on land value is well-known — so much so that “near trans” is a standard rent-justifying item in rental ads.

 

New York City’s transportation system is huge. Five and a half million people ride the subway on an average weekday. The MTA’s annual cost of collecting fares is approximately $810 million per year (its major operating cost, of course, is wages; it only spends some $530 million per year on electric power).

 

The Henry George Theorem implies that were the MTA funded by the land value that its service creates, there would be enough revenue to not only operate it, but to eliminate fares. (After all, someone who commutes to work every day pays over $1,300 per year in subway fares. That is part of what people are willing to pay to live in New York — so we know that eliminating the transit fare would raise land rents by that amount!)

 

The Tax Shift would Support Green Buildings

The property tax on buildings is a significant part of their annual cost; therefore it influences what gets built, the economic viability of various developments. It’s one big reason why “affordable housing” is seen as chronically unprofitable — and why new developments tend to be so big, and so luxuriously high-priced.

 

It’s generally true that tall buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than small, sprawled-out buildings surrounded by lots of pavement. It doesn’t follow, however, that a skyscraper like 432 Park Avenue, with its 10×10 foot windows on every wall, are bastions of sustainability.

 

Our proposal to set up a tradable-credit system to create green buildings would dovetail perfectly with the shift to land value taxation. The tax shift would remove taxation from buildings. The tradable credit system would effectively retain the taxation of buildings, to the extent that they failed to reduce their carbon footprint. Thus, not only would wasteful, inefficient buildings be taxed, but they would be taxed in an environment in which efficient buildings were simultaneously being un-taxed! If the city were to simultaneously adopt land value taxation and tradable credits for green buildings, their beneficial effects would reinforce each other.

 

What Are We Waiting For?

Climate change isn’t a “maybe.” It’s here. But the steps outlined are a win for everybody. There’s a tax-shift advocacy group that says, “New York City: the best place in the world — but it could be a whole lot better!” This town has the wealth, the spirit and the chutzpah to show the entire world how a prosperous and sustainable 21st-century city is done: without federal help, without, possibly, even Andrew Cuomo’s permission. So let’s get started. The alternative isn’t good.

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Seven Things We Waste in Huge Amounts

1. Water

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California, among many other places, is now in the grips of a freakishly intense drought. Yet, the state still wastes an awful lot of water. Golf courses and car-washes are obvious wasters, but agriculture is the thing that really sucks California dry.

As a whole, it diverts or pumps 43 million acre-feet of water each year to supplement its meager rainfall. In total, agriculture consumes 34 million acre-feet of that.

The economics of this can get a little bizarre. Water in California is heavily subsidized — a big reason why so many water-intensive crops are grown there. Fruit and nut trees need more water, but they also bring in much more revenue per acre than vegetables or other crops — and, they represent a long-term investment. That means that if water is scarce, farmers will tend to use it on the biggest water wasting crops. For example, almonds use a stunning 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year, enough for every person in the state to take a luxurious 22-minute shower every day.  California produced 82% of the world’s almond crop in 2013.

According to Big Picture Agriculture, “Many of the methods known to conserve water and use it efficiently have been practiced for thousands of years in some very arid regions of the world with great success. The best systems require little maintenance while yielding maximum results.” The site goes on to list 35 methods, viable at a range of scales, for conserving irrigation water. Why are these methods not widely practiced in California? Essentially it’s because farmers are paid to waste water.

Of course, the problem is compounded when water is used to create products that are deeply wasteful in themselves. Producing a gallon of ethanol, for example, requires 193 gallons of water (see the Food and Energy sections below). The US plans to pare down ethanol production to a mere 15 billion gallons in 2015.

 

2. Food

 

We feel guilty when we forget a container of leftovers in the fridge, it grows fuzz and we have to toss it, and I shudder to think how many tons of the nation’s french fries (not to mention our lettuce) get tossed into the trash. But to get a handle on the immense amount of nutrients today’s food system wastes, we have to go to the top of the food chain: we have to look at meat.

A lot has been written about all this; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, for example, lays it out in gruesome detail. But for introduction, a well-documented New York Times article from January, 2008 does the job nicely. Here are some of the facts it presents:

  • The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. By 2013 it rose to 308 million tons.
  • 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles.
  • Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.
  • About ten times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through grain-fed beef as through direct grain consumption.
  • Iowa alone produces 137,000 tons of pig excrement every day.
  • The price of beef and chicken has declined in real terms over the past thirty years

There can be no doubt that a system that subsidizes meat, by subsidizing grain, is detrimental both to the planet and to the health of all those meat-eaters, not to mention the suffering inflicted on the animals being slaughtered. To put it bluntly: it’s a heck of a lot of waste.

And it goes beyond mere eating. We’ve already mentioned the global poster child for insanely wasteful resource use: ethanol. A third of the US corn crop is used to produce the stuff. The world’s #3 producer of corn is Brazil (China is #2), but Brazil produces only a third of the amount of corn that US drivers burn in their cars.

 

3. Energy

 

energy

There are so many ways to talk about our society’s waste of energy. We could discuss the sheer wattage of solar radiation that hits the earth each day, and the falling price of photovoltaics, or the untapped potential of wind and tidal power sources, or the astounding savings that could be found in ramping up public transportation, and using energy-efficient vehicles. A 2009 cover story in Scientific American showed how the entire world could get all of its energy — for transportation as well as electricity — from wind, water and solar sources by 2030, using tweaks to existing technology.

Of course, we can’t discuss the waste of good energy resources without mentioning the squandering of both human and material resources in wars, and preparation for wars, over the control of fossil fuel resources. Our immense military establishment is, of course inherently wasteful — because military assets are designed to be consumed in the task of destruction. Not only that, military operations themselves use staggering amounts of energy. Here are some astounding examples:

  • The US military consumes more energy than all of Nigeria.
  • In 2006 alone, the Air Force consumed the same amount of fuel US airplanes consumed during WWII (between December 1941 and August 1945): 2.6 billion gallons.
  • F-15 fighter jets burn 1,580 gallons of fuel per hour.
  • Over 70 percent of the tonnage required to position today’s US Army into battle is fuel.

Why do we squander our energy resources so outrageously, when we know that continuing to burn fossil fuels will bring disastrous, irreversible consequences? It’s because the alternatives are, basically, unthinkable to the current political establishment. I’m not saying our energy alternatives are unworkable, impracticable or even present too hard an adjustment. The problem is that in terms of our political economy, our international relations, our sense of who’s on top and in control, they’re unthinkable. Imagine! They’re saying we need international cooperation to protect the global climate. Up to now, international relations has always been about self-interest: individual and corporate, mostly, though occasionally people pull together for the sake of national self-interest. But to deal with climate change, we must appeal to global self-interest. That’s still self-interest, mind you, but it’s far more enlightened.

By 1600 the British Isles were pretty much cleared of timber, save the inviolate estates of nobles. One of the pressing concerns that led to the earliest North American settlements was the prodigious supply of wood to be found there. Wood was the first cargo that the failed Virginia settlement of 1608 tried to send back. The pattern was repeated in the United States. Prior to the civil war, wood provided over 90% of fuel for homes and industries in the US. The coal was there — it was already being used extensively in Britain — but the States had a well-developed and influential timber industry. The bottom line is that we persistently wasted wood in the United States until we truly had no other alternative.

 

4. The Vote

 

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We US citizens are justifiably proud of our democratic, constitutional political system — yet one wonders why we make so little use of it. I live in the little town of Jackson, Maine, pop. 548 in the 2010 census. People in Maine are proud of their democratic traditions and protective of their suffrage; recently Maine resoundingly defeated a ballot issue to do away with same-day registration, and we’re one of only 14 states that allows convicted felons to vote. But — our most recent election was an off year: no national, state or even local offices to be decided; it turned out that the only thing on the ballot was the school district’s budget. Now, the school budget is an issue about which a lot of people in our little town have loud complaints and strong opinions. I went in to vote at about four in the afternoon. “Slow day?” I asked the dutiful poll-watcher lady. She sighed and consulted her clipboard. “You’re number six.”

Average voter turnout in the United States in the 28 national elections since 1945, in terms of the portion of the voting-age population, is 47.7%. That’s 138th in the world. The top ten in voter turnout are emerging democracies that had only had a few elections during that period. But Australia has had 22 elections since 1945; their turnout rate has averaged 84.2%.

It could be that we’re jaded about voting because there seems to be so little to vote for; American politics is mired in partisan gridlock and big-money influence. The current US Congress has single-digit approval ratings, but guess what! Because of the magic of gerrymandering, the number of incumbent congresspersons who will lose their bids for reelection will most likely be in the single digits! Thus, the most expensive election in world history (under current rules, every US election will almost certainly cost more than the previous one) will yield the absolute minimum amount of actual legislative or policy change.

There are commonsense reasons why citizens really ought to use their voting power. The most basic one is that when fewer people vote, the groups who are more likely to vote gain more power over the overall outcome. This basic fact is powerfully used by politicians and their strategists. The 2000 presidential election in the US was very close; much was made over a few thousand contested votes in Florida, and the 2.7% of the popular vote that Ralph Nader managed to get. Nevertheless, George W. Bush was “elected” by 47.9% of the popular vote, which amounted to 27.4% of the voting-age population. Think voting matters?

 

 5. Infrastructure

 

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In 1904, New Yorkers thought their brand-new subway system was the swellest thing ever. And it was! It expanded rapidly, growing into world’s largest railway system, efficiently moving millions upon millions of people to work, to play at Coney Island, to cheer at Yankee Stadium. The New York subway stuck to its five cent fare until 1948. By that time, of course, there were lots of automobiles in the city; in 1904 there were only horses.

The city of Austin, Texas is known as the state’s least scary city to non-Texans. It has the U. of Texas Longhorns, nice museums, an incredible music scene, and interesting historical spots — all in all, a nice place to visit. But it’s rough on unfamiliar drivers. Austin is encircled by ring upon ring of elevated, limited-access highways with endlessly sweeping ramps; it can literally take you twenty minutes to reach a destination that is visible from where you’re standing. “You think this is bad,” say Austin people, “Wait til you see Houston.”

People in Austin wonder whether its already Texas-sized highway system will be able handle the traffic load in a few years. Things get pretty backed-up during rush hours — and, all those new flyways will need to be maintained. That’s not a trivial issue. I have been traveling in and out of New York City on I-95 for many years, and I don’t recall ever not seeing construction on the stretch between New Haven, Connecticut and the New York State line. That means that at existing levels of traffic, using existing road-maintenance techniques, this stretch of highway simply cannot be fixed before it wears out.

There are a zillion examples of other mind-bendingly egregious waste. This is public infrastructure that your tax dollars have bought. I’ll just make one more observation before moving on. Infrastructure capacity is the most important consideration in how cities arrange zoning requirements. If zoning allows, say, twelve-story buildings with a certain footprint in a neighborhood, you can bet that the city figures it has sufficient water, transportation, education and public-safety facilities to handle buildings of that size. Would you care to hazard a guess at how much of the zoned-for, buildable space in New York City is actually built, as of this year? Fifty-one percent. Other major cities are even less densely built. Our cities could hold a whole lot more people than they do, and these people could significantly lower their environmental footprint by moving into cities — and even more so if cities embraced green building techniques. Yet we keep pumping out the parking lots, the beltways, the big-box superstores…

 

6. Borrowed Money

 

borrowit

There is, by many accounts, a debt crisis in modern society. The national debt of the United States stands at about $17 trillion, or some $55.9K per citizen, which is a bit more than the US’s personal debt per citizen, which stands at $52.2K. The US Debt Clock website shows many interesting facts; its numbers adjust in real time, which lets us see that our national deficit is currently decreasing by about two thousand dollars per second. Also, US debt held by foreign countries, which stands at around $5.9 trillion, is currently decreasing by some $4K per second. So the trend lines seem to be positive — but any way you slice it, it’s still a lot of money to be owing.

As wages and household incomes have declined, people have taken on more and more personal debt. As of 2012, the average US household with at least one credit card owed $15.9K in credit card debt, much of it at high-teens interest rates. But, of course, not every family can get a credit card. Payday and car-title lenders lie in wait for the vulnerable. Some states, such as Texas, do not place any limits on the rates such lenders can charge.

But, you might ask, why is “borrowed money” placed in the category of things that are wasted? Well, it’s wasted, by definition, if new loans are taken out just to pay back old ones. Consumers who do this often find themselves in a spiral of debt, leading to bankruptcy, and permanent economic hardship. “Deficit Hawks” warn that our nation faces this predicament too. There are significant differences between the finances of a nation and those of a family: the nation can, within limits, print its own money. However, money can’t just be inflated or borrowed forever without consequences.

Not everyone borrows out of desperation; businesses often borrow money because they can make more profitable use of the cash they have on hand. Nations, similarly, can choose to borrow during economic downturns, times when raising taxes would further depress the economy. Such borrowing can be seen as sensible and sustainable.

However, if one is borrowing more than one would prefer to borrow, then one will most likely not be borrowing on the most advantageous terms. Problem borrowing comes when one just doesn’t have enough income to pay the bills. That’s the borrowed money that gets wasted, and its amount increases when the economy turns downward, and when there are more poor people.

 

7. Human Potential

 

And yet, modern society perpetrates one waste that is bigger — much bigger — than all of these.

Regarding this last, biggest and most important of all the things our society squanders, I can’t imagine saying it better than Henry George did in Progress and Poverty:

[The] greatest of all the enormous wastes which the present constitution of society involves is that of mental power. How infinitesimal are the forces that concur to the advance of civilization, as compared to the forces that lie latent! How few are the thinkers, the discoverers, the inventors, the organizers, as compared with the great mass of the people! Yet such men are born in plenty; it is the conditions that permit so few to develop…. Turn to the lives of great men, and see how easily they might never have been heard of. Had Caesar come of a proletarian family; had Napoleon entered the world a few years earlier; had Columbus gone into the Church instead of going to sea; had Shakespeare been apprenticed to a cobbler or chimney sweep; had Sir Isaac Newton been assigned by fate the education and the toil of an agricultural laborer… what would their talents have availed? But there would have been, it will be said, other Caesars or Napoleons, Columbuses or Shakespeares…. This is true. And it shows how prolific is our human nature. As the common worker is on need transformed into queen bee, so, when circumstances favor his development, what might otherwise pass for a common man rises into a hero or leader, discoverer or teacher, sage or saint. So widely has the sower scattered the seed, so strong is the germinative force that bids it bud and blossom. But, alas, for the stony ground, and the birds and the tares! For one who attains his full stature, how many are stunted and deformed.

 

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A Forest of Free Food for All

Have you ever heard of a “food forest”? Is that something like Big Rock Candy Mountain? No, rather than a fairy tale, it’s a real thing. It’s food-producing trees and plants on public land – kind of like an orchard or garden, but free for citizens to access. And Barrie is starting on the path to having food forests right here, in partnership with FruitShare!

When the City of Barrie had plans to plant trees on public land as part of its reforestation efforts, FruitShare saw it as an opportunity to feed the hungry. Rather than only plant typical native tree species, the City agreed to include some fruit-bearing trees. A dozen now make up Barrie’s first urban fruit forest. Residents will soon be able to enjoy picking fresh apples, peaches, pears and cherries free of charge. In the unlikely event that fruit goes unpicked, FruitShare will harvest and split it between FruitShare volunteers and the Barrie Food Bank.

The City wisely recognizes that urban forest cover provides many benefits, including water retention, improved air quality, mitigating climate change and habitat for wildlife. Now there’s the added benefit of providing free food for Barrie residents for years to come.

Barrie’s urban fruit forest is the first step in the partnership between the City of Barrie and FruitShare. Next is the development of an Urban Forest Management Plan for Barrie, including a food component, with possible expansion to other public lands or right-of-ways.

 

 

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Urban Food Forestry

While the idea is in the earliest stages here in Barrie, further progress has been made in cities like Seattle, Washington, where the Beacon Food Forest is shaping up to be a 7-acre integrated project including an edible arboretum, a berry patch, a nut grove, a community garden, plus gathering and play areas. Certainly we’ll monitor their success for ideas on how to better manage our own public food resources.

This all hearkens back to the idea of “the Commons” – land belonging to the community, free for all to use and share without having to pay rent. Sadly, over the years, most commons were enclosed and appropriated for private use and profit. Nowadays the commons mainly just exists for recreational uses – parks, trails, and beaches. But in prior times, the commons was a vital part of the food production system, providing fruit and other wild crops, herbs, and medicines, as well as grazing space for livestock and fuel for fires. It recognized the ancient principle that the earth was given to all to share, including land and the fruits of nature, but the things people planted, harvested, built or improved became their own, as long as they left enough for others to also provide for themselves. Perhaps initiatives like food forests can help bring back that earth-sharing ethic.

FruitShare is a local not-for-profit bringing volunteers to harvest otherwise wasted fruit from residential trees. This rescued fruit is then divided between home owner, volunteer pickers and the Barrie Food Bank. There are many ways to get involved, such as volunteering to pick, sharing your fruit tree, or providing donations to FruitShare. Please call us at 705-715-2255, email FruitShare.Barrie@gmail.com or visit www.FruitShareBarrie.ca.

 

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as “Barrie paving the path to food forests”. Thank you to FruitShare coordinator Jenna Zardo for her contributions to this article.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Featured Image: A vision of an integrated food forest – by Molly Danielsson

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Addressing Climate Change Without Cost

Copenhagen

 

When the fanfare and posturing of the 15,000 Copenhagen climate change conference delegates finally died down, the parting conference communiqué announced — luckily — nothing much.

 

Governments sheepishly pronounced that while climate change is a critically important problem, the cost of action is prohibitively high, and that it would require additional job-killing taxation and massive transfers of wealth to poor countries, none of which their respective taxpayers would accept. The heads of state positioned themselves on the fence between the climate change defenders, who pleaded this would be money well spent, and the skeptics who insist climate change is a non-issue, and announced that inaction was the economically responsible choice.


Planetary V.S. Political Realities

 

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Climate change is a looming planetary disaster. Science confirms this. On the grounds of Bayesian risk alone, everyone can agree that we must act to curb carbon emissions. Reducing pollution in general would also be highly desirable.

 

The political reality is that increased taxation on the productive economy won’t be tolerated. None of the current panoply of climate change players — defenders, skeptics and governments — entrenched in their respective dogmas, has been able to develop a viable economic strategy to address this crisis.

 

But an economic program to address climate change does exist — one that does not require additional taxation, government expenditures or wealth transfer to poor countries.

 

Taxing the Use & Abuse of Nature

 

Climate change can and should be addressed, at zero cost to taxpayers, by using the tax structure as a policy tool, i.e. tax shifting — reduce or eliminate taxes on jobs and business and increase taxes on natural resources, especially land values and the privilege of polluting. Green tax shifts are revenue-neutral (total taxes paid remains neutral) and cost governments nothing. In fact, they benefit the economy by rewarding resource-efficient, clean production which is generally wealth-producing and job-creating.

 

A revenue-neutral carbon tax would offset income taxes and still maintain the government income needed to fund services like health care and education, plus help reduce pollution-related health care costs and address climate change. Taxing carbon will encourage a greener economy by raising the cost of production in polluting industries — by charging users a more accurate environmental cost — and eliminating taxes that hurt local, sustainable, and labor-intensive production. The reduced income and sales taxes will decrease the cost of production in non-polluting industries; the new green-collar jobs replacing jobs lost in dirty sunset industries.

 

 

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Saving the Environment Saves Money

 

Moving the source of government revenue off personal incomes and business profits and onto levies and fees on the use (of oil, coal, gas) and abuse of the global commons (methane, CO2) should become policy whether climate change is a reality or not, because of the parallel benefits including more jobs, a more prosperous economy, less sprawl, more walkable neighborhoods, increased economic viability of local food and clean energy, resource conservation, nature preservation, less poverty, and fewer preventable diseases like asthma, cancer and diabetes. There will be winners and losers, but since the higher resource costs are offset by reduced labor costs, business can avoid taxes by going green.

 

Poor countries can address climate change with green tax shifting as readily can rich countries; they can prosper without the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars from rich countries, as well as reduce greenhouse emissions.

 

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction to roll out a revenue-neutral carbon tax with the revenue going back to the public in the form a low-income tax credit, reduced personal income taxes and lower corporate taxes.

 

Addressing climate change is more than an environmental necessity. It is also an economic opportunity. Carbon levies, when applied early and fairly, encourage innovation, efficiency and alternatives. When coupled with the right regulations, they provide a total package for a solution to the climate change crisis. Every economic decision is influenced in part by the tax system, so if we get the taxes and regulations right, the market will take care of the rest.

This policy program builds bridges between climate change skeptics and defenders, between business and eco-activists, by offering a win-win, fiscally-responsible, politically-attractive market mechanism which addresses climate without additional taxes, unfair subsidies or punitive compliance legislation. This program makes sense for both rich and poor countries regardless of the real or perceived climate change threat. And, it would avoid the need for future international climate change agreements. The intrinsic rewards would be sufficient for each nation that adopted the reforms.

 

— Frank de Jong

 

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