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Deep thought - June 27

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Back to the Future

James Howard Kunstler, Orion
I LOVE THOSE CITIES-of-the-future illustrations from the old pop-culture bin. In “yesterday’s tomorrow,” they always get things so wonderfully wrong. One of my favorites, from the August 1925 issue of Popular Science Monthly, depicts a heroic cross section of New York’s Park Avenue looking to the south from around 47th Street in the far-off sci-fi future of 1950. “Airport landing fields” are denoted on the roof of a building that has replaced the familiar Grand Central Station tower at the end of the vista. A zeppelin hovers over a row of quaint little “aeroplanes” stashed up there. Park Avenue itself has become a pedestrian mall, not a honking Checker Cab in sight. They’re all down in a three-level underground tunnel system: one level for slow motor traffic, one for fast, and the lowest for trains and subways. “Spiral escalators” connect all the levels to the street above, and turntable-equipped parking garages occupy the basements of the “half a mile high” skyscrapers that line the avenue.

The illustration is a beautifully rendered black-and-white lithograph, and the layout of this future New York is impeccably rational down to the pneumatic “freight tubes” in the lowest subbasement of the buildings. It expresses every wish of its day about optimal city life to absolute perfection, the engineered efficiency breathtaking. Of course, this vision didn’t come to pass. Among other things, it failed to anticipate the effects of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the massive shift to suburbia afterward, which decanted so much wealth (and so many well-off citizens) out of the cities. About the only thing it got right was that the buildings lining Park Avenue would eventually be a lot bigger.

...In other words, most visions of the future are really less about the future and more about what’s happening now. Extrapolation tends toward exaggeration. Today, there are two basic cities-of-the-future themes competing in the collective imagination: the dazzling megacity of megastructures (Dubai’s steroid-induced construction) versus something I call Thanatopolis, the city of the dead (Blade Runner, Children of Men, The Book of Eli, etc.). All this said, it should be obvious that planning for the city of the future is tied into the urgent issues of our time—climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, the crisis of banking and money, population overshoot, and war—familiar themes to readers of this journal. Add to this the virtual certainty of the nonlinear playing out of events, and you’re soon in the realm of pure conceit. But assuming the human race will carry on (and I do), we’ll have to live somewhere, and in some manner, and lots of plans are being made now anyway.

I depart from a lot of current thinking on the subject. For instance, many people seem to think that there will be more of everything—more people, taller skyscrapers, greater suburbs, bigger airplanes, larger metro regions, or even super-gigantic slums. I don’t go along with this bundle of bull, except for the slums, which I think will be short-lived, contrary to the vision of popular author Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. Of course, trends won’t proceed with the same timing everywhere in the world. But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.

I see our cities getting smaller and denser, with fewer people...
(July/August 2011)



Behaviour change, not technology, is key to cutting vehicle emissions

Nadya Anscombe, environmentalresearchweb
When it comes to reducing emission from light-duty vehicles (LDV), researchers in the US have shown that technology alone is not the solution.

In a paper published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), Jalel Sager and colleagues from the University of California show that to meet greenhouse-gas emission and climate-reduction goals for the year 2050, the way in which we use LDVs has to change.

Co-author Daniel Kammen told environmentalresearchweb: "Reducing LDV emissions is often thought of as a technological challenge, with efforts going into the development of more efficient cars or fuels that produce fewer greenhouse gases per unit energy. However, by decomposing transport-sector emissions into technological and behavioural drivers, we show that even significant technological advances will be insufficient to meet climate goals, unless the growth in LDV use slows or reverses."

...As well as improved urban planning and public transport, the researchers say that pricing policies and parking and congestion fees have also been shown to influence travel behaviour. Steadily increasing fuel taxes have proven especially useful in many developed countries, for example Germany, in reducing VKT and encouraging automakers to increase fuel efficiency over time. They point out that "the US, with some of the lowest fuel taxes in the developed world, seems ripe for such a measure"...
(21 June 2011)
You can find the paper here.



The great land grab: India's war on farmers

Vandana Shiva, Al-Jazeera
Land is life. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the Third World and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy. As the resource demands of globalisation increase, land has emerged as a key source of conflict. In India, 65 per cent of people are dependent on land. At the same time a global economy, driven by speculative finance and limitless consumerism, wants the land for mining and for industry, for towns, highways, and biofuel plantations. The speculative economy of global finance is hundreds of times larger than the value of real goods and services produced in the world.

Financial capital is hungry for investments and returns on investments. It must commodify everything on the planet - land and water, plants and genes, microbes and mammals. The commodification of land is fuelling the corporate land grab in India, both through the creation of Special Economic Zones and through foreign direct investment in real estate.

Land, for most people in the world, is Terra Madre, Mother Earth, Bhoomi, Dharti Ma. The land is people's identity; it is the ground of culture and economy. The bond with the land is a bond with Bhoomi, our Earth; 75 per cent of the people in the Third World live on the land and are supported by the land. The Earth is the biggest employer on the planet: 75 per cent of the wealth of the people of the global south is in land.

Colonisation was based on the violent takeover of land. And now, globalisation as recolonisation is leading to a massive land grab in India, in Africa, in Latin America. Land is being grabbed for speculative investment, for speculative urban sprawl, for mines and factories, for highways and expressways. Land is being grabbed from farmers after trapping them in debt and pushing them to suicide.

India's land issues

In India, the land grab is facilitated by the toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investments and commerce through neo-liberal policies - and with it the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. It is facilitated by the creation of a police state and the use of colonial sedition laws which define defence of the public interest and national interest as anti-national.

The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land. The 1991 World Bank structural adjustment programme reversed land reform, deregulated mining, roads and ports. While the laws of independent India to keep land in the hands of the tiller were reversed, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act was untouched...
(7 June 2011)

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