The Color Asphalt
Editor’s Note: Ever since the American sociologist Robert Merton’s classic 1936 study The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action, people involved in trying to change society for the better (or save it from itself) have had another reason to be humble (as if another were needed). Merton, whose work gave us such concepts as self-fullfilling prophecy, deviant behavior, and the law of unintended consequences, developed the ideas that have since been translated into such popular admonitions as "no good deed goes unpunished" and "be careful what you wish for because you might get it."
In this spirit, we particularly appreciate Hartmut Gerdes thoughtful essay reflecting upon possible consequences of our future success in achieving two goals for which many have worked long and hard -- fuel-efficient non-polluting cars and clean, abundant, cheap renewable energy.
Scenario I: Smart Growth Vs. Smart Cars
trust you are as pleased as I am to hear about the "hybrid" electric-gas powered smart car. In the future, we’ll likely have cars powered by fuel cells. Hybrids produce far less environmentally or atmospherically damaging exhaust, and fuel cell powered cars will produce almost none.
Continuing technological advances
and economies of scale in production will make these vehicles affordable,
and as a consequence,the air we breathe will be cleaner and our rivers
will keep us from driving and commuting more and farther?."
"What will keep us from driving and commuting more and farther?."
Alas, smart cars may have unintended consequences. Assuming that gas consumption and, consequently, the price of gas will tumble, and assuming that buying a car will be more affordable, will more people want to own a car? Or buy a third and fourth one, with one for the teen, thus needing a three or four-car garage? What will keep us from driving and commuting more and farther? And, with smog scares a thing of the past, will John Q. Taxpayer be inclined to keep supporting public transit at appropriate levels, let alone transit-first policies, in all but the most densely populated urban areas?
So, will there be less transit, and more traffic gridlock? How will smart cars affect regional land use (and I don’t mean Saudi Arabia’s)? Will we abandon smart growth and New Urbanism, widen our streets, relax urban growth boundaries and environmental and open space regulations, and encourage sprawl? (Or just pack our telecommute kit, cut ties to any other but the cyber community, and head for the countryside?)
Furthermore, consider the increasingly powerful demographic, economic, environmental and public policy forces, with even some of the media now on the bandwagon, that have rediscovered downtown and community and are now advocating urban infill. This after 50 years during which urbanized areas have added land area as much as seven times faster than they have added population. And now, just when it would appear that the inward-directed development forces might get the upper hand over the outward-bound ones, here comes the smart car...
Granted, for this scenario to fully materialize we are looking at a decade or two. (For starters, Toyota will sell a more expensive four-seat 50 mpg car.) But if there will indeed be more asphalt down the road, how can we square smart cars and smart growth?
Scenario II: Smart Growth Vs. Abundant Energy
Aside from the rush toward cleaner and more efficient cars, a lot of scientific resources are presently focused on replacing oil and coal with more abundant, cheaper and cleaner energy. Great news, most of us will instinctively say. Again, we must ask, what may be its positive and what its unintended consequences?
Clean energy, like hybrid and fuel cell cars, will be good news for global warming and climate-based dislocations. (That is, beyond the damage done by then, and implanted for years to come.) It will benefit many of the world’s peoples who have been held back by scarcity of energy. But what would happen if the world’s production engines heat up and permit economic expansion on an unprecedented global scale? Would it then be the other five billion people’s turn to achieve the "American way of life" (or what Hollywood tells them that is)?
Abundant and inexpensive energy will increase production, consumer demand and wealth worldwide, and, potentially, cause a colossal strain on, and competition for, natural resources such as water, ocean riches, timber and precious metals. In doing so, it would threaten the world’s ecosystems and bio-diversity. The scenario might follow the current model: More abundant and inexpensive energy induces economic growth and consumption, which increases use - and waste – of resources, and causes pollution. Witness today’s lopsided statistics that result in the less developed nations considering the industrialized countries, particularly the U.S., the world’s main resource exploiters and polluters. (As if that weren’t enough, industrialized societies keep exporting their tried - or should we say tired? - solutions and values.)
There will be mitigating circumstances, such as expanded individual and collective liberties and empowerment, slowing population growth, new and powerful global communications and educational technologies, the absence of acid rain, and the ability to substitute certain natural resources with artificial ones. (For instance, in no country will trees need to be chopped down any more to heat dwellings.) Some "less developed" societies offer storehouses of wisdom and guidance, and European countries and Japan, in particular, have created more modern models that have made environmental virtues out of necessities in the areas of energy, land and natural resource conservation, and transportation.
Yet, once the world is awash in abundant and cheap energy, will we feel encouraged to do away with the traditional, or newly acquired, prudence to protect and conserve natural resources? And, as a consequence, will we face a whole new set of environmental - and societal - problems and dislocations?
Cleaner and cheaper cars, and
cleaner and more abundant energy, pose tough technical challenges, but
even more formidable environmental, social and political ones. As the
world scrambles to develop alternatives to the 19th and 20th century transportation
and energy technologies, we will be forced to adopt radically different
attitudes toward our global environment and neighbors. A profound respect
for, and the intelligent husbandry - and sharing
for ... and sharing of the world’s natural resources will likely
become humankind’s premier societal and moral challenge in the
"Respect for ... and sharing of the world’s natural resources will likely become humankind’s premier societal and moral challenge in the 21st century."
We depend on a sustainable global environment, and on global social peace, for survival. To become sustainable and maintain social peace, we will need to consider and anticipate the cumulative global impacts of our technological and economic endeavors. We will need, in short, to learn to expect the unexpected and anticipate the unanticipated if we are to abolish unintended consequences.
Gerdes, AICP, principal of Square
One Productions, San Francisco, is an urban designer. He produces
urban design and environmental visualizations and videos as well as
photo and videomontages.
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