Sunday, July 01, 2007

Deceptive landscape

I have taken to walking for exercise in a nearby neighborhood populated primarily by well-heeled professionals. There is very little car traffic (which makes up for the lack of sidewalks), and the area is both unusually quiet and aesthetically pleasing. Nearly all the houses have well-kept gardens with a variety of ornamental plants and flowers punctuated by properly-trimmed shrubs. Still, none of this exhibits the obsessiveness associated with grounds surrounding the homes of the super rich that are meant to repel outsiders by telling them that they don't belong there. Instead, this neighborhood displays an orderliness that is both comfortable and reassuring.

But my pleasant walk through these leafy streetscapes is deceptive. For all its orderliness this neighborhood generates enormous entropy that is hidden from the viewer's eyes. This has implications for our political life because these are the kinds of neighborhoods across the United States from which communities draw their leaders and in which turnout is heaviest during election time.

Even for those familiar with the environmental depredations wrought by this way of life, it is difficult to point to anything troubling in this neighborhood that is directly visible except perhaps the belching gas-powered lawn mower which disturbs the air with its thick exhaust. Even the Tru Green/Chemlawn truck applies its poison and fertilizer with little fanfare, leaving behind only mildly distressing miniature green and white signs that say children and pets should stay away, but only for the day. The tap...tap...tap and constant hiss of sprinklers dousing lawns produce a soothing cadence in the otherwise quiet air, signaling the delivery of a refreshing drink to living things groaning in the summer heat. (Of course, intellectually, I know that all this irrigation is a colossal waste of fresh water and of the energy to purify and pump it.)

The explanation for why this way of life creates enormous entropy and thus environmental damage is alas abstract on the one hand--global warming due to fossil fuel combustion used to create electricity is a fairly complex chain--or relatively hidden on the other--unseen oil and natural gas wells and petrochemical refineries that provide the basis for many of the chemical inputs used by the average American gardener or lawn enthusiast.

So, if the daily experience of the leaders who live in such neighborhoods is one of order and pleasant surroundings, how can we expect them to champion change? What immediate and visible incentive do they have, short of some personal philanthropic tendencies, to confront the major environmental and resource depletion problems of the day?

This is a classic problem of lag times. When it comes to climate change, for example, the rise in temperatures we are experiencing now has its origins in greenhouse gases emitted more than a generation ago. And, the feedback that would tell us how we are doing today will not arrive for another 30 years. Likewise, the deprivations that resource depletion might bring to a neighborhood like the one I describe above will not come there first. They will be felt first by the world's marginal populations; and, those deprivations will at most be experienced by Americans remotely in the form of television appeals for humanitarian aid. Americans will make few connections between the desperation they see on the television screen and the rising prices at home for basic goods. In fact, something like this is already happening when it comes to petroleum products, metals and food. But there are no shortages here--yet!

The human mind is primarily inclined to think in concrete terms. Abstract thinking is largely an acquired talent which needs constant practice in order not to atrophy. And, yet it is abstract thinking which is required to address the perplexing, systemic challenges we face. You might be able to reduce your own carbon footprint; but the carbon footprint of humanity is not going to be reduced without determined collective effort. And, that will require complex abstract thinking.

One step toward that way of thinking may be to see through the deceptive landscape of any relatively prosperous American neighborhood. Only when we can uncover the hidden and often abstract evidence of the damage our way of life is doing to the biosphere will a genuine public inquiry into our ecological fate be possible.


Anonymous said...

Well, if the affluent streets near here (Orange County, California) are any indicator, you see a few Priuses anyway.

That said though, I sometimes think the way you do ... before reining myself in.

It really is an open question who is most dialed in to our immediate future. The common expectation that "I can adjust" may be rational.

Those of us looking for a tipping point just have to push the idea that adjustment now makes sense. Sure you could wait ... but did you know that a new SUV is going to cost people $3000 a year in gas?

... sure, you can afford that, but is it the best way to spend $3000? etc.

Step Back said...

If only there were a camera like an Infra Red camera except that it shows numbers of tons of coal burned and puffed up into the sky for every event in suburbia.

See the nice sprinklers spraying the green green lawns? How many motors are pumping away to keep the water pressure going? How much coal is going up in smoke for this green-looking activity? The lifestyle-in-terms-of-coal-puffs camera knows (LITO CP camera).

Now point it at the electric wires buried underground and see what happens. Point it at the Fed Ex truck racing into the cul de sac. Can you see the smoke billowing out of the jet aircraft that your just-in-time package was on?

pdxbiker said...

Even if all of the residents of these tidy neighborhoods used push mowers, bought hybrids, and CFLs the problem would not be solved. Our mortgages/taxes are too high and skillsets too low to make the switch to a more sustainable life.

Anonymous said...

For all its orderliness this neighborhood generates enormous entropy that is hidden from the viewer's eyes:

1. The gas-powered lawn mower
2. The Tru Green/Chemlawn truck
constant hiss of sprinklers.
3 Environmental damage.
4 Global warming. There is only one way that we can get global warming:
By moving the Earth closer to the sun.
In order to avoid discussions about actual pollution, political leaders have launched "Global warming" where there is nobody to blame, since it does not even exist.
5.Fossil fuel combustion used to create electricity.
6.Unseen oil and natural gas wells and petrochemical refineries
7.Bigger carbon footprint.
8.Hidden damage to the biosphere.
9.Becomming people who do not want change. And lying about this, in order to get political power.
10. What incentive do théy have, to confront the resource depletion problems of the world? Money!
11.The deprivations that resource depletion might bring will be felt first by: Price!

Anonymous said...

Conventional lawns are "un-natural acts" upon a local ecosystem and as such require a lot of energy and fresh water to maintain.

First, as non-native species grass plants are not adapted to the local environment so they require more inputs just to survive and even more to prosper.

Second, mono-cultures of anything, including food crops, are much less stable with respect to invasion by opportunistic plant species (which we humans label as weeds) and are much more susceptible to infectious disease than are the mixed natural communities. High population densities of plants or animals increase the likelihood of disease transmission, particularly when the population is stressed. Disease subsequent to nutritional or environmental stress is a major controlling factor for populations, plant or animal.

Finally, we manage the grass in a way that requires even more inputs. We keep it cut un-naturally short so that the plant is less efficient and water loss is high. And we keep it in the growing phase with its associated high inputs so that grass remains green, rather than letting it go to seed and cure, restoring energy in its roots in a normal annual cycle.

One of the greatest changes suburbia could make is changing the lawn paradigm from grass to a more natural "lawn" that incorporates more native plants and that would support more natural fauna. But I'm betting that in suburbia changing this paradigm will be even harder than changing the automobile as the transportation paradigm.

Anonymous said...


THE ARCHITECTS know this already.
They mix environmental elements into the building and its builded exteriors in order to create concept-stability. The gardener´s approach may be due to less education than the architect,
but those people who are allergic to grass, would they be more allergic to the locals or to the non-native grass-species?
(Ans.: The locals)
Wouldn´t that be a very important criteria?
Another important criteria: Colour.
From what i know from problems in the same category I would guess that the most beautiful colour would be non-native-related.

STABILITY (with respect to invasion by opportunistic plant species, weeds) of un-naturally short-cut, non-native and therefore higher input-requiring species, which are more susceptible to infectious disease than the mixed natural communities, in a local ecosystem, MAY from a certain point of view NOT be the success-criteria, since many people want to have people working for them.
Donald trump says that probability should not be taken into account ("Billionaires don´t care what the odds are. We don´t listen to common sense or do what´s conventional or expected. we follow our vision").
Opportunistic plant species (which we humans label as weeds, and God probably label as devilish, but which the police don´t label as criminals, which is due to the length of their education, because here they would finally have hadsome proper task to keep them occupied), don´t even stand a chance up against that attitude.

Anonymous said...

Hybrids are net-energy-losers, as are all storage-based schemes. The only usable strategy is to drive less.