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The Carbon-Free Futurama

Jul 29, 2008

If Californians and Americans -- are going to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they're going to have to drive less. But is wonking on policy really the best way to make this happen? Or do we have to create a compelling alternate vision for the next generation's lifestyle a kind of Carbon-Free Futurama?

Blogs and news sources including this one have been intensely focused on policy, especially since the passage of AB 32 in California in 2006. How should the law be implemented? What will motivate individuals and businesses to reduce vehicle miles traveled? What is the role of state and regional governments? How should private activity be taxed or regulated?

But policy may be too slow and too reactive. At least that seemed to be the consensus at the informal, once-every-now-and-then, and extremely wonky gathering of Neal Peirce's Citistates Group, currently going on at a mountain resort near the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia border. (The event is being held at The Summit Inn near Uniontown, Pennsylvania giving the participants a first-hand view of early American infrastructure, as the inn is located at the last summit on the 19th Century "National Pike" that connected the Potomac and Ohio rivers.)

Perhaps the most compelling argument against policy was presented by a leading transportation policy wonk, Sam Seskin of Portland. Portland is the subject of a lot of attention because it is the only U.S. metropolitan area where VMT has actually gone down. It's down 10% in the last 20 years. But Seskin said that half of the decline is the result of increased gas prices in the last two years so all the aggressive policy and regulation in Portland has accounted for only a 5% decrease in VMT in the last 20 years.

Clearly, that's not enough. Or maybe a better way to say it is that it's not nearly enough considering the amount of political capital and policy wonkiness expended in the process.

So how else do we go after this? By presenting a positive alternative lifestyle that focuses on "high efficiency and low impact," at least according to all-purpose policy wonk Marc Weiss and economist Doug Henton. How can people get a lot done and also enjoy life while consuming fewer resources in the process? As Weiss, who's promoting the idea of "climate prosperity," put it, people need to believe that "you can get richer by being greener" and "you can get more by using less".

The most compelling vision of the suburban age a vision that comes again and again at meetings like this one is Futurama, the car-oriented vision of 1960, put forth by General Motors, that was the biggest hit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. As Weiss noted, Futurama gave people a vision of the future that they wanted.

That's a big contrast to the typical wonky discussion of planning policy, which has a kind of "eat your peas" undertone: Driving a sports car might be fun, but you're destroying the world and you should really take the bus instead.

So what's the Carbon-Free Futurama? Can you really create a compelling alternative vision for the future that's about walking and bicycling and golf cart type vehicles and so forth?

Maybe it's hard for my generation to imagine and the Citistates Group consists of a lot of old fogies like me. But for the emerging generation which really does believe that their world will be destroyed unless we go carbon-free maybe the ideal looks different.

I've asked my 17-year-old daughter about this, and I'll get back to you on it.

-- Bill Fulton

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