When Transport Let Me Down

Last week was a long week for me.

I was sent to Perth for a meeting of the wider network across Australia and New Zealand of the project which I’m currently involved in, to discuss the science, maintenance, application and broader potential use for our micrometeorological and eddy covariance monitoring. Apart from the background politics that is inevitable within such groups with long working histories, it was enriching to see some of what interests me personally.

From a professional perspective, the technical discussions on calibration and data analysis were useful. From my educational background (ecology), the long term data results, showing how different sites react over time and environmental factors (for my site, fixing up a calibration error exposed in our year of data an incredibly conservative ecosystem beautifully adapted to severely water constrictive conditions) was very fascinating. And from the environmental blogger side of me, discussions regarding climate and climate modelling (something poorly understood among those whom debate most feverishly about them) were enlightening.

With all this in mind, on the morning of our last day of lectures, it became clear that the South American volcanic ash cloud meant that I and everyone else present at the gathering, would be grounded in Perth another night – possibly two.

Of course, in itself, this is no bad thing. Too often my job has taken me to places across Australia where I haven’t been previously, only to pull me back before I saw any of it. In this case, I got to see much of Perth and can safely conclude that it’s a great place – I’m particularly envious of their local surf beaches (something I need to travel fairly far from Adelaide to find in SA).

However, within me casual musing persisted.

With all the non-scientific debate regarding climate change / models, methods to limit carbon emissions, peaking oil and the related food security; here I was, with a head overloaded with relevant science, effectively trapped in a distant city grown fat on mining money. It wasn’t difficult to wonder what the effects would be of a world where flight is not grounded due to ash, but solely on cost.

When flights are impossible, you simply cannot help but feel suddenly isolated.

Many commentators have pointed out that even whilst the GFC was in full effect, CO2 emissions didn’t slow – in fact they spiked. It’s been suggested that this is proof that increasing expense will not help manage CO2 emissions, however, with the growing national purchasing power of China – where much of the worlds production actually occurs – and leaders, such as Rudd and Obama calling for people to ‘spend the country out of recession’, I can’t help but feel it difficult to make such claims.

The point to all of this, it seems to me, is that it’s all really a fight over a standard of living. Whatever particular debate over a relevant subject you decide to look at and whatever side you focus on, the deeper you look at it, the clearer it is that the vast majority of people involved are mostly concerned about either preserving their standard of living or increasing it (there are extremists on either side – the “hair shirts” and the “fat cats” – but please, let’s ignore them for a sensible discussion).

In this light, it becomes completely acceptable that they hold such strong views. None of these individuals should be demonised in any form. We all simply want a comfortable life in which we can follow the pursuits of our choosing. That truly is a life worth working towards (I’d argue that filling our lives up with quickly depreciating stuff is counter to such a goal, but is a subject for another article).

The sudden realisation I experienced last week was that our developed countries are incredibly vulnerable. So energy and transport dependent, it doesn’t take much to upset the system. Remove transport from a major port for a prolonged period and you’ve removed much of the resilience of that region. Many regions couldn’t feed their people were it not for the vast grain bowls elsewhere.

Following a decade of hype over “terror” and serious discussion regarding the likelihood of eminent peaking oil (if not, as some in-the-know have stated, that we are already past that point), it’s disturbing that little to no conversations are occurring about improving local resource security. That is to ask; if transport/energy were to be cut off, for whatever reason, how would the local population maintain a desired standard of living?

My home city of Adelaide couldn’t feed itself and being the most sprawled Australian city, access even to supermarkets is difficult for most without a car. That is a twofold dependence on transport that will feel the pinch with increasing fuel costs. Power outages in our summers too have been a cause of increased mortality. Clearly it’s not a smart city.

Localisation also improves job availability and retains local wealth, why move them away?

The need to increasing local resource security is far greater than any of the various debates give it credit. Increased local resource security leads to a more resilient city which in turn ensures a comfortable standard of living for more citizens that is more reliable. Most of us want this but spend our time arguing over the detail, while missing the point completely. This seems to be the nature of the various debates, which leads to what many of us have been observing; a lot of hot air and the same old problems persisting. It has to stop – leading us back to conversations over what is more important; we all desire a comfortable, productive life, how can we not only achieve it, but also make it as robust as possible.

It was only a minor disruption that I experienced in Perth and whilst checking out the surf, I was well aware of the multitude of cargo ships along the horizon – this city had no reason to worry about incoming supplies… at least for the immediate future. But what about in a decade from now? Oil prices are sure to be higher than they are today. Will there be as many ships waiting to dock? Will there be as many planes heading in and out? Maybe, but will as many people still have access to those goods and services with the additional costs embedded?

Tools, such as pricing carbon (something that Tony Abbott has previously agreed is a useful tool – before back flipping to appeal to more voters), force us to do what we should have started doing long ago, asking ourselves how to make cities more invulnerable to energy and transport dependence. It’s not about taking away, but about owning up to poor design (Adelaide being my example above) and demanding better communities that work for their population. If we really desire a high standard of living, we should want nothing less.

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7 thoughts on “When Transport Let Me Down

    1. That cartoon illustrates my concern beautifully. It’s far too energetic being help up as we are. However, I don’t think a comparatively high standard of living is impossible on lower energy requirements.

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  1. I suspect we could have a compartaively high *quality* of life with renewables etc, but *quantity*, no, I don’t see how. That is, I think we could enjoy ourselves a lot more if we stepped off the treadmill of consumption, but I don’t think we will…

    What do you think of the whole Steady State economy thing (Herman Daly etc). And Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth”?

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    1. Quantity is little more than “peacock features” – the result of the neo-liberal economic structure we’ve wasted half a century appealing to. It’s comprised most of quickly depreciating junk – in that way, it keeps consumerism at high levels. I don’t think, for instance, if the bulk of people actually realised that ‘item-A’ halves it’s value basically logarithmically over time and is rendered waste due to a small, cheap, yet embedded component in a needlessly short time, they would accept such consumables; yet the focus is on GDP and maintaining production levels, which look good when compared. Quantity is needless noise – but something a few generations now only know. It’ll be a steep learning curb to overcome with mentality.

      This isn’t to say (for other casual readers, as I’m sure ACN knows well enough) that technological improvement etc is to end – far from it. Anyone who has read my Innovation is Key, knows I believe technology is our only option forward. Further R&D should develop on cyclic methodologies. We can “turn the wheel” of such processes quickly – in some ways having an economic result similar to that today – but not the same; that’s the fundamental part. For such tech, it should be designed to be “reclaimed” for use in improved systems. The materials thrown out in modern batteries and mobile phones is a classic example; how on Earth are such materials “worthless”?

      Steady state economy is the future – but only when population is also stable; something we’re many generations from achieving. I have to agree with people like Dick Smith who say, at this point, we need to decrease the global disparity, especially in health care and education – they will be the most powerful tools for improving the global standard of living and for slowing population growth. Whilst that occurs, we need to reshape the economic models being applied in communities. It can’t be steady state yet, but it can rely on cyclic processes and thus lead exactly to a steady state long term.
      I commented on a Tim Jackson presentation a while ago. He knows his stuff!

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  2. Currently reading the “Post Carbon Reader” chapter on urban design and sprawl.

    The real test of a sustainable community?

    If you have to drive more than 15 minutes for a carton of milk then your in trouble…

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  3. I’m surprised by your apparent epiphany in this post, Moth: we’re all only a few meals away from anarchy. Which could, of course, explain why those holding the reins won’t consider anything other than the systems they know will work for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Changes must be planned; sadly, those that are, are too often derailed before they can get going by minority interests in the field they affect most. Biggest conundrum in history, that one. At some point, political correctness will be outweighed by sheer necessity.

    Resilience in the local community is one strand of the way forward, and the good news is that it isn’t reliant on governmental action. By it’s very nature, it must develop from the ‘grassroots’. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the transition network?

    On another note: interesting to hear that ash in the air is affecting you there — in the UK our airlines were grounded last year by ash clouds from volcanic eruptions in Iceland. This year, too, though not as badly; ‘the research has been done’, and, oddly, the scientific advice is believed in this field where it isn’t in certain others I could name — probably something to do with the scientists saying what the industrialists want to hear. It’s strange how once you hear about a thing suddenly you notice it everywhere. Perception’s an odd thing.

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    1. I understand that and have long been worried about our energy dependence. ACN’s dwighttowers link probably visualises me fears best. For me, just the sudden sense of isolation away from my social network got me thinking – and that it’d not an altogether common realisation, I expanded it for the article.
      I wasn’t aware of the transition network – must have a look at it. Gen[A] (if it ever gets running) I hope has a ‘grassroots’ edge to its output.
      You couldn’t be more correct and I’d had a similar thought; experts suggesting it’s probably not safe to fly was backed on less confidence than we now have about AGW, yet people have been pretty good about accepting such advice. I think, unlike AGW, people are completely aware of the dangers of flying (anyone who has felt real turbulence even more so). It’s just not worth the risk. AGW isn’t worth the risk also, but we haven’t felt it personally so it’s harder for people to appreciate the magnitude of the situation we face.

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