For several years Californians have debated the issue. On one side, extreme environmental groups are demanding water-rationing before it’s too late. On the other… republicans.
It is a serious issue, to be sure. Water levels have been falling in California since long before this most recent drought. In fact, NASA satellite data shows that water storage in California has been at a net loss since 2002. That’s more than a decade and “San Francisco” sounds prettier than “Mad Max- California edition.”
The same NASA data shows that between the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, the water level is 34 million acre-feet- almost one and a half times the size of the biggest water reservoir in the entire United States- below normal. Was it just a bad year? Frankly, no. Californians (read: Americans) just suck at conserving water (read: anything). California has lost more than 12 million acre-feet of water yearly since 2011. During droughts, farmers have no choice but to tend their fields with groundwater and farming is so water-intensive that many wells can’t even reach down to the groundwater anymore. Are you ready for a scary fact? It’s time for a scary fact: California only has one year of reservoir water left based on current usage statistics. Are you ready for an even scarier fact? California doesn’t even have a contingency plan. They’re kind of just flying by the metaphorical seat of their collective pants and hoping for the best.
Don’t worry California, I’ll tackle this one. We don’t need to ration water and we certainly don’t need to… republican the issue. Not only will I solve your water problem, I’ll also tackle your public revenue problem and eliminate some poverty while helping small business.
Here’s what you do: everyone gets X kilo-gallons of water for free per month. Anyone who goes above that gets charged increasingly higher water usage fees. This will mean that people conserve water to avoid paying more. What do we do with all that money? You distribute it to the households that didn’t go above the limit so that you’re rewarding them for conserving. Now those families have more money to spend around town and the state doesn’t have to worry about huge water shortages anymore.
The NGO Carbon Market reported last week that European businesses make billions from free carbon quotas. For the average European Joe, this must sound absurd and incomprehensible. Wasn’t the European Union Emission Trading scheme intended to make the polluter pay? Perhaps the question is: who is being paid, then? Other–bigger–polluters, so it seems.
The idea is that by putting a “cap” on carbon emissions, goods and services that rely on emitting carbon should become more scarce–at least until technology makes it possible to produce them with less emissions–which means more expensive, too, as the same number of consumers compete for a smaller supply. With the human factors of production (labor and capital), this higher price provides an incentive to increase supply, which will eventually bring the price down again. This is the called the “price mechanism.”
However, with natural scarcities such as land and government created scarcities such as permits, this cannot happen. Instead, they generate a flow of income called “economic rent.” Such income is called “unearned” because it does not reflect any kind of human effort. This is the economic mechanism through which European corporations are making big money out of carbon permits–for absolutely doing nothing.
Pollution permits, though a government created mechanism, reflect natural scarcity–the capacity of the earth to process waste and regenerate resources. Producing more waste causes harm to humans and other life, both now and in the future. Ignoring this harm allows businesses and individuals to “externalise” costs, meaning that the damage is paid for by someone else. This means that the price for some goods is artificially low, and thus, again because of the price mechanism, there is an oversupply of these goods. One way to deal with this problem is through so-called “Pigouvian taxes” (which should rather be called Pigouvian fees), which charge the true cost of pollution directly to the polluters.This fee serves as an incentive both to consume less of the polluting products and to create technology that avoids pollution in the long term.
These Pigouvian taxes require that we assign a fixed monetary value to the damage caused by pollution, which should be the price of repairing the damage. However, they provide little actual control over the amount of pollution produced, since it is possible for people to continue to produce an equal amount of waste but consume less of something else to compensate for the cost of Pigouvian taxes (i.e. the case of inelastic demand).Therefore, they don’t make sense as a solution when we lack the means to repair the damage but do have information about the maximum capacity of waste nature can absorb.
Putting caps on pollution through permits could offer a valid alternative. However, it would be essential that the economic rent of these permits be captured by the government. After all, each individual has a right to an equal share of natural resources, including the capacity of the Earth to absorb waste. This distribution can be accomplished by renting out the permits periodically to the highest bidder. A benefit of this system would be that the environmental cost would be set by the market and would decrease with development of technology to prevent pollution (because of lower demand).
Such a system would capture all of the unearned income paid for by consumers. The money collected should then be distributed equally to all citizens according to the rightful share of each. Those citizens that generate more waste than their fair would thereby compensate those that generate less. This system is socially justifiable because poor people pollute less in absolute terms and will thus benefit financially. The additional income could also be used to reduce taxes on the lowest incomes.
The European Union chose not to capture this economic rent, which would have resulted in a much more efficient allocation without generating unearned income. Under the current system, economic rent is “capitalized” into the selling value of the permits. This is intentional: supposedly, the incentive to buy and sell these permits will cause them to be allocated to the best use. The problem is that in a market of capitalized economic rent assets, there may also be speculation and actual under use of the assets, because as long as you can exclude others, full use is not required. If this isn’t bad enough, European governments actually gave away the valuable permits to large polluting businesses, a huge free handout on top of their historically externalised cost.
In these times of high public debt and slow economic growth, European citizens are constantly told they must suffer austerity and/or high taxes for their own benefit. It is time that the European population learns about economic rent and holds its representatives responsible for their lack of economic judgement in environmental policies.
A new documentary by Chinese journalist Chai Jing titled “Under the Dome” has been hailed as China’s “Silent Spring” (a reference to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book which motivated the US government to protect the environment.). Chai Jing’s film was initially welcomed by the Chinese government, but as the documentary went viral they suddenly decided to suppress it. The film was initially posted on the website Youku and hit 200 million views. It has been pulled from the site, and other media sites which talked about it have removed their coverage. The film is still available on Youtube with English subtitles. It is a riveting piece of work filled with stunning information, definitely a must watch.
The film points to air pollution as one of China’s greatest health risks. Anyone who has seen pictures of Beijing recently knows how bad the smog there is. Hundreds of other cities in China are equally bad. Until recently, many Chinese did not know the difference between smog and regular fog.
Smog has three main harmful components: Sulfur dioxide, Nitrogen oxides, and aerosols. Aerosols are any non-gaseous substance that remains suspended in air for a long time, for example dust or smoke, in the film they are referred to as particulate matter. Airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns get past all the human body’s natural defenses and are absorbed with each breath. The film shows how much fine particulate matter a person can breathe in on one day on the streets of Beijing, and these fine particles consist of hundreds of chemicals known to cause inflammation or be carcinogenic.
In spite of the catastrophic magnitude of the problem there is room for optimism. If China were to enforce the regulations it already has, and adopt the pollution control technologies the United States has already adopted, it could reduce air pollution by over 80% within a decade.
Coal is identified as the number one source of Chinese smog. China burns 3.6 billion tons of coal annually, more than the rest of the world combined. By comparison the US mines 1 billion tons annually and exports some of it. Much of the coal being burned in China today is dirtier than any coal that has ever been used in the United States. The Chinese are burning massive quantities of unwashed lignite, which is around 30% carbon. By comparison most of the coal mined in the US is over 70% carbon and washing coal has been standard practice since the early days of coal mining. For the simple reason that impurities weaken steel. Washing coal involves crushing it and floating it across water, many of the metals and sulfur compounds sink to the bottom. Prior to the 1960’s water pollution from coal mines was a major problem, but measures have been taken to prevent discharge into rivers and streams.
The quantity of heavy metals released by coal smoke is miniscule as a percentage, but as an absolute quantity it is one of the biggest culprits. For example, coal is blamed for releasing 50 tons of mercury into the atmosphere annually in the United States where we burn about a 900 million tons of coal. Sulfur and Nitrogen pollutants are increasingly being removed using flue gas scrubbing systems. Since 1990 over ¾ of the coal mines in the midwest have been closed down because of high sulfur content. Over ⅓ of the coal mined in the United States now comes from the Poudre River Basin in Wyoming which has the lowest sulfur content. Large parts of [h]those reserves were acquired by Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860’s.
The second biggest source of Chinese smog is oil. In particular, diesel exhaust is responsible for 100 times more emission of fine particulates than gasoline. Diesel is also responsible for more sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions than gasoline. In fact, smog in Beijing actually peaks right around dawn before traffic has picked up, because most truck deliveries to the city happen at night. Relatively worse than diesel trucks are marine engines. Some boats burn extremely low quality fuels and even crude oil. China has a system for ranking the quality of fuels, but the documentary points out that none of China’s fuel regulations are being enforced.
The United States has recently done a lot to clean up the exhaust from diesel trucks. In 2006 the US mandated a switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel with less than 15 ppm of sulfur, from the previous standard of less than 500 ppm. In 2008 the US mandated diesel particulate filter systems which must reduce particulate emissions by 85%. These measures are costly but the improvement in air quality has been dramatic. Unlike in China, enforcement of the law in the United States is quite strict. Any truck driver caught polluting more than the prescribed rate is slapped with a heavy fine. Off road vehicles, boats, and locomotives are exempt from the new diesel emissions standards.
The US regulations amount to saying there is a right way to burn fuel and a wrong way. Anyone caught releasing a few grams of sulfur the wrong way will be fined through the nose. But someone releasing tons of sulfur the approved way pays nothing. In the short term these regulations have undeniably achieved their stated objectives. Yet one must still question whether the regulations are truly suited to purpose. The purpose being to control the overall amount of pollutants like sulfur in the atmosphere we all breathe. Would it not be more appropriate to charge every sulfur emitter in direct proportion to the amount of sulfur they emit?
Recent technological improvements like “fracking” have made natural gas cost competitive with coal. Many traditional coal using industries are switching over. While there are reasons to be concerned about the ecological consequences of gas drilling, the exhaust that comes from burning natural gas is clean, at least relatively speaking. Natural gas distribution pipelines in the United States are managed in a way very similar to the electricity grid. It is relatively straightforward for any gas producer to pump any amount of gas into the system anywhere at any time and get paid for it. China has not yet jumped on the natural gas bandwagon. According to Chai Jing this is because the fuel and pipeline industries in China are dominated by a handful of state monopolies. Additional infrastructure and new government policies are needed before China can transition to natural gas. “Under the Dome” by Chai Jing is a wakeup call for China. Over 200 million Chinese viewed it before the clubfooted Chinese government clamped down after having initially supported it. Air pollution in China is an enormous issue. In addition to explaining the science of air pollution, Chai Jing does an outstanding job showing how and why political forces have failed to tackle the issue. There is room for optimism. Chai Jing points out that heavy polluting industries like steel and cement have already begun to slow down. And the construction industry has slowed down considerably since the Chinese government announced that government officials can only buy real estate using the real names.
“We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” — Cyril Scott, President, Rosebud Sioux Tribe
“Get off my land!” That injunction, which calls to mind a rifle-wielding homesteader, protecting hearth and home against intruders — is about as American an image as you can think of.
The civil infrastructure behind that image is less storied, but equally consequential. There is scarcely a square inch of North American land whose tenure is not duly recorded and righteously enforced, down to the pickiest easement or lien. Americans believe in land ownership.
A big infrastructure project, such as an oil pipeline — or a highway, or a railroad — must pass through many boundaries, and its legal right to do so must, in every case, be secured, purchased, negotiated — or conquered. There are many layers of irony in the fact that the biggest, most fraught and controversial pipeline project of the new century could be stopped by a band of people in tipis, saying “No further.” Many people have heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. A fair number have even marched against it. However, readers may not have a clear idea of the overall industrial context; in other words, they might not know how many oil pipelines there are: some 185,000 miles of them, crisscrossing the United States, carrying every kind of crude oil and refined petroleum product. About 55,000 miles of these are “crude oil trunk lines,” of which the Keystone XL represents the large variety. It is planned to be three feet in diameter (the trans-Alaska pipeline is the biggest, with a diameter of four feet). Its daily capacity is projected to be around 830,000 barrels of crude per day.
It’s hard to get your mind around something as huge as oil consumption in the United States. The US currently uses 18.89 million barrels of oil per day; this figure is down from a high of 20.9 million in 2006. That seems like a lot. How can we visualize it? Let’s think of it in terms of tanker trucks: the big semis that pull up to fill tanks at your local gas station. Such a tanker carries about 5,000 gallons, or 895 barrels of gasoline. That means that today’s United States uses 21,106 tankerfuls of oil every day. Each of those trucks is about 60 feet long; if we put them all on a road with an average of three feet of space between them, we’d be looking at 252 miles of semi trucks. And, of course, we don’t consume crude oil, we consume refined petroleum products, which means that the oil has to be transported at least twice. That means that, at a minimum, the US’s daily oil-transportation needs would fill four lanes of the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike bumper-to-bumper with tank trucks, with a few thousand more waiting on the on-ramps. Tanker trucks, of course, really only make sense for dispensing finished products; most crude oil is moved through pipelines.
If that’s the case, then why is the Keystone project so controversial? Well, to hear its supporters talk, it shouldn’t be. Arguments against it are characterized as no more than treehugging, Obamafied puffery. Oil is oil; it’s the stuff that modern economies run on; demand for oil may fluctuate a little, but over the long term it’s a given. Getting more crude to US refineries, especially from a friendly neighbor country, can only be a good thing. “Global warming” probably isn’t even real. These assumptions describe the political climate that TransCanada faced in building its Keystone pipeline project, most of which, indeed, is already in place, transporting gobs and gobs of oil as we speak. They didn’t expect this final section, connecting Hardisty, Alberta with Steele City, Nebraska via Montana and the Dakotas, to pose a problem.
Oil Sands: the Crudest Crude
When we hear the price of oil reported on the financial news, we often hear it in terms of the a benchmark called “light, sweet crude,” which sounds very nice, sort of like maple syrup. Lightness and sweetness are references to crude oil’s density, and its sulfur content. Light, sweet oil, such as Brent crude from the North Sea, are priced higher, because they demand less refining to yield retail products such as gasoline. The kind of crude oil the Keystone XL pipeline would carry is less like light, sweet maple syrup, more like the kind of gunk you’d scrape off the bottom of a truck. It’s called “oil sands.” (Many call it “tar sands,” which is more descriptive, but Canadian oil people insist that because tar is a human product, “oil sands” is more correct.)
The resource is bitumen, a tar-like substance mixed with sand. Extremely large deposits of the stuff exist in Alberta (there are other large deposits in Venezuela). It is mined in two ways, either by strip mining, for shallow deposits — or, for deeper deposits, by a process similar to fracking, in which steam is forced underground, liquefying the bitumen and pushing it to the surface. In either case, however, mere mining doesn’t elevate the gunk to the status of “crude oil.” It must undergo an energy- and water-intensive pre-refining process to make it valuable enough to bother with refining, and fluid enough to move through a pipeline.
Indeed, in the oil-embargo years of the 1970s, there were proposals to exploit Canada’s oil sand fields, which have long been known to be vast: Canada’s proven oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s. But because of its many disadvantages, oil sands was not deemed commercially viable at the time. Since then, a few factors have changed: easily-recoverable sources of liquid crude oil have become depleted, raising the average cost of a barrel of crude. Lots of oil is still being brought to market, but more of it is getting there through new technologies such as deep-ocean drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The newfound viability of Canadian tar sands (if it indeed exists) is part of this trend. Additionally, instability in the Middle East, the area that surrounds the world’s largest petroleum reserves, makes North American sources that much more attractive.
Nevertheless, the delivery of tar sands oil is anything but a light, sweet process. Surface mining operations thus far have dug up huge areas of hitherto pristine boreal forest and marshland; some four tons of earth must be moved to create a single barrel of oil. Furthermore, separating bitumen from its sand matrix consumes between two and four barrels of water per barrel of oil. It actually uses more water than that, but some is recycled. The used water, however, is laced with toxic chemicals and cannot be placed back into the environment, but is held indefinitely in huge “tailings ponds,” two of which are visible from space to the naked eye. The process also uses lots of energy. The strip-mining operations use the world’s largest electric shovels, loading 100 tons per scoop into dump trucks that carry 400 tons per load. The water used to separate bitumen from sand must be heated. It has been estimated that current tar sands operations contribute four per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, and that figure is projected to triple over the next six years. Some engineers are proposing to lower this figure, however, by using portable nuclear reactors to heat the water.
The more one looks into the realities of the tar-sands industry, the more absurd it seems. In order to separate the bitumen (which is only twelve per cent of the oil sands “ore” by volume; four tons of it must be mined to yield a barrel of oil) they need to heat so much water that nuclear reactors are a viable way to do it? And even once the bitumen is separated, it is still too viscous to ship; it has to be “upgraded,” using more heat and pressure, to get it to flow.
But, (advocates insist) we need the oil. And if these ecological travesties are going on way up in Northern Alberta (where, by the way, it is creating lots of jobs; the remote village of Fort McMurray is a boom town), what do we care? They’ve got plenty of land up there. But: the remoteness of the Albertan oil sands deposits brings us to the next chapter of our story. No oil-refining capacity exists anywhere near them. For this oil to be viable, there has to be a cost-effective way to get it to refineries.
Advocates of the Keystone XL assert that it should be built because those Canadians are going to sell their oil anyway; if they can’t use this route, they’ll send it West to the Chinese, or East to Atlantic ports. It isn’t that easy, though. To get to the Pacific, a pipeline would have to cross the Rocky Mountains. The route East is much longer, would have to pass through many complex, populated rights-of-way, and has already faced vociferous opposition in Portland, Maine, where voters this year prohibited the reversal of flow through an existing pipeline to accommodate oil-sands crude. Shipping of crude oil by railroad is at just about the peak of existing capacity, and has led to some devastating spills. No, there is a very big, very clear reason why the Keystone XL pipeline is such a big deal:
Without it, the Canadian oil sands industry will be a losing proposition.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m saying that without Keystone XL, the Canadian oil sands industry will be a losing business proposition for its investors. It’s already a losing proposition for the planet; its external costs are, as we’ve seen, absurdly high. But, in spite of everything, if it is able to deliver 830,000 barrels per day to US refineries, it will be profitable — and this pipeline is the only way it can possibly do that. If the pipeline goes through, mining operations will ramp up, economies of scale will kick in, and money will be made. If it doesn’t, well… then the big scar on Alberta’s land won’t get bigger, and a very large amount of carbon won’t get dumped into the world’s air.
James Hansen and Bill McKibben saw the writing on the wall, and organized a very efficient public campaign to raise awareness about the pipeline and its dangers, and their efforts seem to have been effective in strengthening President Obama’s resolve against the project (because it crosses an international border, its final approval is the responsibility of the State Department). This could be overridden by new legislation. A bill to force approval of the pipeline recently lost narrowly in the lame-duck senate; once the new Republican senate is in place, it will almost surely pass. Obama has been sending signals that he would likely veto the bill — but, that may not be the end of the Keystone XL. There could conceivably be enough votes to override his veto, or the pipeline could be traded for a policy the president wants more, such as a minimum wage increase.
The Last Stand
So, bad as it is, the Keystone XL might get the go-ahead anyway, and there’ll be no stopping it, right?
Perhaps there will. There is another sovereignty that must be consulted here — one that deeply disapproves of the Keystone XL pipeline. President Cyril Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said this in a November 14th statement in response to the bill to force approval of the pipeline that was passed by the House of Representatives:
[T]he Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota Oyate) recognizes the authorization of the this pipeline as an act of war. The tribe has done its part to remain peaceful in its dealing with the United States in this matter, in spite of the fact that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has yet to be properly consulted on the project, which would cross through tribal land, and the concerns brought to the Department of Interior and to the Department of State have yet to be addressed.
The House has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands.
In earnest of this, the Rosebud Sioux, with the full cooperation of the other Sioux Tribes in South Dakota, have set up a “Spirit Camp” near the tiny community of Ideal, South Dakota, on a small patch of Rosebud tribal land that appears to lie in the proposed path of the pipeline. There, tribal members and supporters have vowed to stay, to guard the land and stop the pipeline.
Does the pipeline route actually cross reservation land? That is an important question, and it appears that TransCanada has chosen the route carefully to avoid doing so. First Nations in Canada have, for the most part, strongly opposed oil sands development, and the company clearly wanted to avoid crossing reservations land in the US, recognizing that doing so could expose them to another level of legal complications. However, it is very difficult to cross the country to the North and East of the Rosebud Sioux reservation without crossing land that does, indeed, belong to the Rosebud Sioux. And, furthermore, even were the pipeline not to actually cross Rosebud trust land, consultation with the tribe is still legally required if such a project were to cross adjacent lands in which the tribe has recognized riparian, burial or sacred considerations.
This Far. No Further.
The question of whether a crude oil pipeline in South Dakota crosses sovereign Indian land is by no means settled, legally or morally. The history of the “Great Sioux Reservation” which was created by the 1868 treaty of Fort Laramie is, in many ways, an apt microcosm of the entire history of dealings between the United States and the indigenous people of North America.
The vast majority of surviving Native Americans never surrendered to the United States, and never sought to become US citizens. As settlement pressure increased, tribes were moved, often forcibly, to designated areas. On these reservations, Indians would maintain self-government. They were not subject to the laws of the state(s) that surrounded the reservations; they would maintain a “nation-to-nation” relationship with the federal government, based on treaties (treaties duly negotiated between sovereign states had long been considered, under common law, as the law of the land).
However, by 1887, even that arrangement, disadvantageous as it was to the Indians, came into conflict with the Manifest Destiny of the United States. That year, under the Dawes, or “General Allotment” Act, Native Americans were offered US citizenship under the worst possible terms. Under this law, the reservations would be dissolved and individual families would be allotted 160 acres of land. If individuals accepted these allotments and farmed their lands in a suitable manner, they would be granted citizenship. To be sure, there were many more 160-acre parcels of land in the Great Sioux Reservation than there were individual families to allot them to. That was part of the plan: the “surplus” land would be made available to white settlers.
This was, of course, just the latest in a long series of treaty abrogations by the US government. Nevertheless, as in the case of slavery (or fee-simple land ownership, for that matter), a need was felt for some form of legal justification. This came in the 1903 Supreme Court decision of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which has been called the “Indian Dred Scott decision.” The court held that the US Congress has the power to unilaterally abrogate treaty obligations with native tribes. A series of laws, pursuant to this decision, offered to buy Rosebud Sioux lands for $2.50 (later $2.75) per acre. As the poster shows, these were bargain prices.
This history is the source of the “checkerboard” pattern of trust lands held by the Rosebud Sioux, which are now considered non-contiguous parts of their Reservation. The sovereign status of Indian nations was reinstated in US law by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, pushed by the Franklin Roosevelt administration and termed the “Indian New Deal.” By this time, however, more that 90 million acres, some two-thirds of Indian lands, had been transferred to white settlers.
The Profaning of the Black Hills
Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota (and Wyoming) in 1874. Before that, this area, which had been held as sacred for hundreds of years, had not been much use to the United States. But, after the Lakota were defeated in the battle of Little Big Horn (1876), Congress seized the Black Hills, in a rider to an 1877 law that ceased all government aid, including food, unless the Black Hills were immediately ceded to the US. There was no mention of compensation.
In 1942, the national monument opened at Mount Rushmore (named for Charles Rushmore, a prospector). The mountain had previously been known by the Lakota as Six Grandfathers, and it featured prominently in the celebrated spiritual journey of Black Elk.
In 1980, the US Supreme Court, upholding a 1977 decision by the US Court of Claims, affirmed that the seizure of the Black Hills was illegal under the Fifth amendment, and awarded the Lakota $106 million in compensation. The various Lakota tribes making up the Sioux nation (Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock) agreed not to accept the cash compensation and demanded that the land be returned to them, as stipulated in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The money was held in escrow, and now totals over a billion dollars. Some are tempted to take the money; the various Sioux reservations are among the poorest areas in the United States. However, the current value of the settlement would only amount to a bit over $10,000 per person.
The Spirit Camp
It is widely understood that all aspects of legal precedent regarding the “government-to-government” relationship between the United States and Indian nations are uncertain. Indeed, the 1903 Lone Wolf decision (affirming Congress’s right to abrogate treaties with Indian nations at will) has not been overturned. And, laws passed that enforced the allotment policies of the Dawes act are still accepted as legal precedent. Nevertheless, there is a body of law that establishes some form of sovereignty for federally recognized Indian nations. Under that body of law, you can’t slap a pipeline down on reservation land — or atop sacred or burial sites on nearby stolen land — without permission.
The Rosebud Sioux members who are living in tipis along the pipeline route, outside of Ideal, South Daktoa, are making sure these facts are not ignored:
Resistance to this threat is underway. The Lakota and their allies are rising to the challenge with several carefully calculated actions, one of which is to organize and erect spiritual tipi camps to stop progress along the pipeline right-of-way…. We will use the legal and moral authority of the First Nations peoples to protect significant spiritual and burial sites which are at immediate risk…. Our government spends millions of dollars to protect cultural sites in other countries we occupy while it issues permits for the destruction of similar sites in the heartland of America for corporate profit.
The XL pipeline is the current leading threat to the survival of the planet and these spiritual tipi camps are our best opportunity to stop it. Lakota men and women are putting their lives on the line for all of us, and they need your help.
Should the Keystone XL pipeline survive a presidential veto, or otherwise gain government approval, the Spirit Camp could be the last thing that stands in its way. To be sure, the US government has the ability to sweep aside this resistance which, however heroic, is quite small. But, it won’t be able to do so without perpetrating yet another unforgivable atrocity against the Lakota people.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.