Running Twice as Hard for Nothing!

Vaclav Smil recently wrote [1], “…the argument that its large territory and low population density prevents the United States from joining a growing list of countries with rapid trains (traveling 250–300 kilometers per hour or more) is wrong. The northeastern megalopolis (Boston-Washington) contains more than 50 million people with average population density of about 360 per square kilometer and with nearly a dozen major cities arrayed along a relatively narrow and less than 700-kilometer long coastal corridor. Why is that region less suited to a rapid rail link than France, the pioneer of European rapid rail transport, with a population of 65 million and nationwide density of only about 120 people per square kilometer whose trains à grande vitesse must radiate from its capital in order to reach the farthest domestic destinations more than 900 kilometers away? Apparently, Americans prefer painful trips to airports, TSA searches and delayed shuttle flights to going from downtown to downtown at 300 kilometers per hour.”

When you compare the per capita annual CO2 emissions of the US (19.87 tons), Australia (18.71 tons) and Canada (17.3 tons) to major Old World countries, such as Germany (10.05 tons), Japan (9.77 tons), the UK (8.94 tons), Spain (8.45 tons) and France (6.55 tons) [2], you seriously have to ask if the New World is getting much bang for its exhaust.

Of course, much of the infrastructure of the developed New World was based on the assumption of cheap and easy energy, whereas the foundations of the Old World were set before this wealth of fuel availability. The same could be argued about some of the cultural differences (especially around transit) between both groups.

James Howard Kunstler argues that the design of many of the older European cities is far more humanistic also. They are places where you want to be out and enjoying, not merely a montage of concrete and lonely puffs of “nature” to pass by along the freeway, so typical throughout sprawling New World cities [3]. Similarly, in recent article, I stressed that the fixation over cheap energy over the past few generations has in fact devalued urban development and nowadays actually costs us more [4].

The standard of living in the US, Canada and Australia are not double that of Germany, Japan, the UK Spain or France, so the difference in emissions reflects a failure. You can safely ignore the greenhouse effect of these emissions, and focus on sprawl related emissions, including increasingly clogged roadways, separation from work, goods and services and housing as well as the poor quality of those houses, and still the failure is evident. Another pet peeve of mine is the lost of a sense of community, which too is a reflection of sprawling suburbia.

Looking at the barrel price of oil, while it will fluctuate, it’s beyond reason to expect we will again see the heydays of cheap oil of the mid-twentieth century. It is only likely to get more and more expensive over the coming decades; apply that realisation to the fuel hungry developed New World and it should become clear how vulnerable these countries actually are.

Australia is particularly vulnerable with the addition of global warming.

While floods and droughts are all part of normal life down-under, such events are likely to become more frequent [5]. How quickly we in urban Australia forgot the hardship of the decade long drought on rural Australia with the wild floods over the 2010-2011 spring and summer. Not only will most living costs increase will the oil barrel, but so too will the costs associated with the increased need for insurance and repair, water security (ie. both desalination and increased reservoirs) and infrastructural upgrades. Without clear leadership and planning, earlier while fossil fuels are comparatively cheaper, we may well be pushed from developed back into a developing country.

I want to protect our standard of living as much as most, in fact I’ve argued before that the loudest promoters of business-as-usual are not attempting to protect our standard of living, but rather outdated technology and industry [6]. However to do this we must separate ‘standard of living’ from ‘way of living’, which too often get confused into the same definition. A basic human right should be a base standard of living. No-one should be left beneath that level. That should be one of our primary goals.

The ways in which we live, on the other hand, are far more plastic, but should be aimed to meet certain criteria, such as; common access to goods and services; energy security that is low-carbon; strong equality; promotes true diversity (eg. see Economy; the Noisy Noisy Child of Ecology [7]); local resilience (eg. localising food production), and; increased work / life balance (with the focus on greater community care and development). With some basic humanistic and sustainability principles we can start to design societies that foster improvement.

Clearly there is little excuse for countries like the US, Canada and Australia to have such an immense carbon footprint for each of its citizens and we who live in such countries should want better than to remain so dependant to an expensive and ultimately vulnerable lifestyle. It’s self-evident that we can at least halve our emissions for the same standard of living. Investing in and promoting innovation is likely to take this much further, whilst improving on those criteria above and provide extra avenues for job creation and financial flow.

Do we, in the developed New World, really enjoy painful trips?


[1] Smil, V. 2011. Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations. American Scientist 99:212-219
[2] World Resources Institute, Climate and Atmosphere (accessed April 2011, 2005 data compared)
[3] James Howard Kunstler: The tragedy of suburbia
[4] Moth: How Much is Your Place Worth?
[5] Bureau of Meteorology, Climate Change
[6] Moth: Is Monckton Working for an Amish Conspiracy? How the Future is More Than Debate Over Climate Change
[7] Moth: The Human Island: Economy; the Noisy, Noisy Child of Ecology


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