Cycling Can Save The World (Part 3,267)

Denmark: This is how we roll.

Yo! Any countries having trouble imagining how to reduce greenhouse emissions (which I guess is just about all of you), listen up!

Inspire your lazy-ass public to ride bikes like the Danes and you will take a big chunk out of climate change, or so says this study:

If all Europeans bicycled as much as the people of Denmark, the European Union could achieve up to one-quarter of its target for carbon emissions reductionsin the transportation sector by 2050, a new report says. According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, the average Dane cycles about 2.6 kilometers a day. If that rate were achieved across the EU, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 55 million to 120 million tons annually, or 5 to 11 percent of the EU’s overall emissions target, by 2020.

Wondering why that sort of logic has trouble in the land of the Big Mac (apart from the fact that our “leaders” scorn Europe)? The explanation is here.

Google’s Self-Driving Car

In my Washingtonian piece about traffic gridlock, I mentioned that automatic cars that do the driving instead of easily-distracted humans could reduce congestion, and that Google is developing one.

Well, Sebastian Thrun is working on that Google car, and here he explains what it is all about:

At Google, I am working with a world-class team of engineers to turn science fiction into reality.

Google’s vast computing resources are crucial to our technology. Our cars memorize the road infrastructure in minute detail. They use computerized maps to determine where to drive, and to anticipate road signs, traffic lights and roadblocks long before they are visible to the human eye.

Our cars use specialized lasers, radar and cameras to analyze traffic at a speed faster than the human brain can process. And they leverage the cloud to share information at blazing speed.

Our self-driving cars have now traveled nearly 200,000 miles on public highways in California and Nevada, 100 percent safely. They have driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles and around Lake Tahoe, and have even descended crooked Lombard Street in San Francisco. They drive anywhere a car can legally drive.

Toyota Prius modified to operate as a Google driverless car.

I’d love to take a ride in one. And know more about how many glitches, incidents, and outright crashes the prototypes have experienced. But Thrun is right about the promise such cars offer, and lays out a few I hadn’t thought of:

Take today’s cities. They are full of parked cars. I estimate that the average car is immobile 96 percent of its lifetime. This situation leads to a world full of underused cars and occupied parking spaces.

Self-driving cars will enable car sharing even in spread-out suburbs. A car will come to you just when you need it. And when you are done with it, the car will just drive away, so you won’t even have to look for parking.

Self-driving cars can also change the way we use our highways. The European Union has recently started a program to develop technologies for vehicle platoons on public highways. “Platooning” is technical lingo for self-driving cars that drive so closely together that they behave more like trains than individual cars. Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that the fuel consumption of trucks can be reduced by up to 21 percent simply by drafting behind other trucks. And it is easy to imagine that our highways can bear more cars, if cars drive closer together.

Last but not least, self-driving cars will be good news for the millions of Americans who are blind or have brain injury, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Tens of millions of Americans are denied the privilege of operating motor vehicles today because of issues related to health or age.

I like the idea of a car just showing up when you need it, and leaving when you hop out. And reducing traffic and parking congestion would be nice. But I also think it’s critical that we do more to get out of cars, and learn to walk and bike more, as well as use mass transit.

If a Google car simply extends the Era Of The Automobile rather than serving as one key piece in the radical transformation of our transportation culture, then I don’t think Google is doing us that big a favor. But it is an excellent example of how technology, if developed and applied with wisdom, holds out hope that we can at least ameliorate some of the worst problems that humanity has managed to inflict on itself and the planet.

Here’s the car in action:

And here’s Thrun giving a TED Talk about it:

Have We Reached “Peak Stuff”?

Journalist Fred Pearce thinks maybe:

Take Britain. A new study finds that the country that invented the industrial revolution two centuries ago reached “peak stuff” between 2001 and 2003. In the past decade, Britain has been consuming less water, building materials, paper, food (especially meat), cars, textiles, fertilizers and much else. Travel is down; so is energy production. The country produces less waste, too.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Brits still consume about 30 tons of stuff every year, which only takes them back to the consumption levels of 1989. And the US, well the US is still consuming away. The point here is that even if advanced industrial societies, particularly those in Europe (kudos), are starting to streamline consumption through less waste and greater efficiency, it’s still nowhere near enough to alter the trajectory of depletion and degradation human culture is inflicting on the planet. So we need to think about consumption in much more radical terms.

I say that having just read this excerpt from Carl Safina’s “The View From Lazy Point.” Talk about a hard slap to the face. Thank-you, sir, can we have another?

The first century of the Industrial Revolution, the 1800s, was powered by coal, whale oil, and slaves. The 20th was the century of petroleum (though 40 percent of U.S. train freight is still coal). World electricity generation is still two-thirds combustion (40 percent coal, 20 percent natural gas, six percent oil); plus 15 percent nuclear, 16 percent hydropower, and 2 percent other renewables. That’s how we get energy.

Here’s a taste of how we waste it: In the U.S., where tap water is safe, bottled water costs about 1,000 times as much as tap water and consumes tens of millions of barrels of oil a year (I’ve seen estimates from about 17 to 50 million barrels); it’s been likened to having each bottle of water one-quarter full of oil. It takes three times as much water to make the plastic bottle as the bottle contains. America’s refrigerators use twice the electricity of the European average, and four times as much as the most efficient refrigerators already available. Using the most efficient appliances, worldwide, would eliminate the need to build the 1,400 coal-fired power-plants that are projected to be needed by 2020.

Cars. With nearly the least-miles-per-gallon and nearly the most-miles-driven-per-vehicle, U.S. drivers—with more than a quarter of the world’s cars—burn more gasoline than the next twenty countries combined, including Japan, Germany, China, Russia, plus Brazil—. If average fuel efficiency merely equaled some of the better cars now on the market (40 miles per gallon–5.9 l/100 km), Americans would halve their gasoline use. Just like that. Going to plug-in hybrids would drop driving costs to the equivalent of one dollar per gallon (from the current $3.70/gallon average); gasoline use would drop by 80 percent—without reducing the number of cars or miles driven. This isn’t sacrifice; we’re already sacrificing efficiency. Eventually, the electricity powering plug-in cars could come from wind or solar. Those are some opportunities we’re missing.

Henry Ford reputedly said that if he’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse.’ What else might we be missing? Every hour, enough sunlight strikes Earth to power our world economy for a year. The upper six miles (10 km) of Earth’s crust (people have drilled 7 miles–11 km) holds something like 50,000 times as much energy (in the form of geothermal) as all the oil and gas. With an investment equaling the cost of one coal plant (about a billion dollars) the U.S. could by 2050 generate geothermal energy equal to 250 coal-burning plants. North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas have enough wind to supply not just all the U.S.’s electricity, but all its energy. (Denmark and parts of Germany already get 20 to 30 percent of their electricity from mere moving air.) On one windy quarter-acre, a farmer can grow $300 worth of corn, or allow a company to put up a wind turbine capable of generating $300,000 worth of electricity a year. If the company pays only one percent in royalties, the farmer still makes ten times as much by farming wind.

When ethanol made from corn puts people who need to eat in a bidding war with people who want to drive, drivers win. But some non-edible plants also produce oil. The seeds of Jatropha curcas are about one-third oil. Some algae yields up to 30 times more fuel than other energy crops. Airlines are already testing algae-based jet fuels. “The airplane performed perfectly,” one test-pilot said. “It was textbook.”

These aren’t even all the options. Compared to the possible oceans of improvements, humanity is still dog-paddling in the shallow end of the kiddie pool. Sometimes we seem determined to drown there just because we won’t stand up.

A Voice In The Wilderness

A new campaign is making the moral argument for combatting climate change:

“We believe it’s time to talk about our moral obligation to prevent the human suffering ­created by climate change, to safeguard the poor and most vulnerable communities from harm they did not create, and to protect the natural environment that is the source of all life,” said campaign coordinator Bob Doppelt, executive director of the Resource Innovation Group, a nonprofit association affiliated with Willam­ette University.

My reaction is: Well, or course, and thanks for putting it so succinctly.” And: “Wasn’t it time to start talking about this about, um, 30 years ago.”

Anyhow, remember the sentiment, because it is the right one. But also remember that it comes way too late.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t address climate change. We should, because limiting it matters. But we are also in an era where we, and the biosphere, will be forced to try and adapt to enormous environmental change. And there is no knowing how that story will play out.

The Costs Of Car Commuting

Serendipity: on the day Washingtonian posts my article arguing for using variable congestion fees to reduce traffic, Treehugger posts a great graphic on what car commuting really costs.

One of the reasons people hate the idea of paying congestion fees is that they are often pretty bad at calculating what traffic really costs them. But time is money, as they say, so congestion fees are offset by the time savings you gain. Plus, the revenue can be invested in transit improvements and options that are currently paid for with a gas tax. Think about it.

Anyhow, if you really want to save money, this graphic really drives home the key point: try to live near your work! The Suburban Dream is very expensive.

Tsunami Delivery

We all know how much stuff humanity has. And when a tsunami hits alot of it floats away. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is acting as a conveyor belt for an enormous tide of man-made junk that is headed from Japan to either fetch up on California beaches, or dwell for eternity in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I guess it is a good sign (of growing awareness that stuff matters) that the New York Times editorial board is alarmed, saying:

Scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, created a computer model to predict where the debris would go. Their animation shows a cloud looping across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii, out to the West Coast and back to Hawaii. They say it may make its first landfall this winter in Midway Island, then in Hawaii in 2012, and the West Coast in 2013. In September, a Russian ship sailing to Vladivostok spotted a fishing boat marked “Fukushima,” a TV, a refrigerator and other trash, validating the predictions.

But awareness is really only the first step toward actually doing anything about all the stuff we think we need (the second should be a progressive consumption tax). In the meantime, it will keep piling up across the natural world.

Here’s what the animation model–a real life disaster movie–looks like.

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Weekly Adventure Fix

The latest edition of my Adventure Fix newsletter is out. This edition features a haunting story about a 40 year old plane crash, a dark look at humanity’s future, through the prism of Africa’s Albertine Rift, and lots more. Like this spectacular video:

Adventure Fix costs just $1.99 a month for weekly links to great online adventure content. You can sign up here.

It’s All About Consumption

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So today is the day that population experts believe the seventh billion human will join us on earth. Here’s how we got here:

The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.

That’s a lot of people, and we’ll likely hit 10 billion be the end of this century. The important point about population, though, is not the raw number of people sharing the planet. It is what they consume from the planet. And that is where the scale of the challenge the human race faces, as the human population continues to expand its consumerist, material lifestyle, to every nook on earth, is eye-opening.

According to Scientific American “[t]he human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper.” And while the cost of extracting, refining, and mainlining a metric ton of material has gone down, it doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to nibble away at our planet’s dwindling resources and, as long as we continue to consume on the scale we do now, we better start looking for a new planet.

So what is the consumption challenge? SA says:

Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.

88 kilograms of stuff per day translates into 32.12 metric tons a year. That means the average American would have to cut consumption by more than a factor of 5. Now ask yourself whether our culture and our politics offers any prospect of reducing consumption on that scale. Okay, you can stop laughing.

The point here is that we need to 1) become aware of the degree that the scale of the challenge before us completely overwhelms our politics, our economic trajectory, and our definitions of wealth, and the steps we are currently taking, or plan to take; 2) that the only way to make that sort of paradigm shift is to revolutionize the culture and economy which drives that level of consumption; and 3) we will definitely need some technological silver bullets.

Its long past time to think big, and go big. We need to, um, reinvent humanity. So let’s get started.

Course, here’s the most classic take on stuff (note for the sensitive–George Carlin likes to swear):

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