Thursday, September 27, 2007

A World of Trade-Offs

Let's pretend, for a moment, that it's a good idea to conserve energy and reduce pollution. Let's also pretend that shorter commutes save more energy, and produce less pollution, than longer ones.

Given these premises, it seems logical to conclude that shorter commutes are a good idea, as the Urban Land Institute has in fact done:

The report, "Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change," analyzed scores of academic studies and concluded that compact development -- mixing housing and businesses in denser patterns, with walkable neighborhoods -- could do as much to lower emissions as many of the climate policies now promoted by state and national politicians....

Compact growth, according to the study, allows consumers to spend less on gas and saves taxes that would otherwise be spent on pumping water and building new roads to far-away subdivisions. "Southern California's regional planners have found that by locating new housing near transit corridors, they can save $48 billion that they would have spent on new roads," said Amanda Eaken, a planning consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Not surprisingly, free-market fundamentalists see this as little more than neo-Leninist agitprop:
James Burling, litigation director for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that has battled environmentalists over land-use issues, dismissed "the latest anti-sprawl crusade based on global warming" as "no different from every other anti-sprawl campaign from Roman times to the present."
"Rational choice" is what supposedly gives market forces their moral authority, so it's odd that conservatarians so consistently reject the idea of educating consumers. Burling seems to think that we haven't learned anything about land use or climate or energy over the past 2000 years...or at least, nothing consumers need to worry their pretty little heads about. "So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn," he says, "there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that."

Except to impose land-use regulations, or make planning decisions that encourage compact development, or educate people about externalities and opportunity costs so that they understand the consequences of their choices...all of which are things that people like Burling passionately oppose precisely because they are effective. Burling's claim that "government bureaucrats" are impotent is belied by his own efforts to thwart them, along with whatever public or expert opinion influences their decisions.

Peter Gordon, meanwhile, takes things several steps further:
Socialism collapsed but climate change arrived just in time to save social engineering. So there are now many suggestions on how to redesign our cities and our lives.
Gordon equates public debate with public planning, and public planning with socialism, and socialism with tyranny; compact development and the gulag are different not in kind, but in degree. If we truly want to be free, we must transfer our rights and responsibilities to a single, omniscient authority:
We live in a world of trade-offs and must think about the costs. Social engineers cannot do this very well and this is why socialism collapsed and why we look to markets to do what committees of wise men and women cannot.
Is that explicit enough for you? We must let the Market "think" for us...about the long-term costs and trade-offs of land use, no less. If you ask me, this - rather than "socialism" - constitutes the real hive-mind assault on human autonomy and responsibility.

The Market, in this fantasy, is the ultimate brand; its perfection bestows dignity and worth upon even the shoddiest products, just as the human soul should - but somehow doesn't - upon wage slaves in the Marianas. If all the options presented to you are drab or dangerous, the fact remains that you have the freedom to choose between them; in this way, you can consume choice itself as a sort of meta-product (the authenticity of which is demonstrated by the fact that all manufacturing marks have been carefully filed off).

The sucker standing in front of a three-card monte table also enjoys this elemental freedom; the game may be rigged, but the choice of cards is totally up to him.

UPDATE: The Sietch Blog has some interesting figures on the cost of commuting:
[G]ridlock is creating a $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel — that’s 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully-loaded supertankers.

Talk about waste. A gallon of gas has about 19 pounds of CO2, meaning that 2.9 billion gallons of gas wasted means 55.1 billion pounds of CO2 needlessly pumped into the atmosphere every year.
(Illustration: "A comparison of the concentration of traffic delay in San Francisco and Los Angeles," via Moving Past Push Pins.


roger said...

"consume choice itself as a sort of meta-product...."

that sums it up nicely. works for both toothpaste and politics. so what if there's melamine in the toothpaste and larceny in the senator's heart. we get to choose our poison.

dan mcenroe said...

There are lots of compactly developed neighborhooods where the homes have a bit of lawn, at least here in NYC. That's not necessarily a trade-off. But what I'm not clear on is what, exactly, we're supposed to do with all the crappily developed neighborhoods we're already stuck with. Can the new, properly planned neighborhoods be established quickly enough to offset the damage the traditional burbs are doing?