Monthly Archives: May 2012

WAGTD Book Review: World on the Edge

The burgeoning field of apocalyptic literature has much to learn from the non-fiction field of WAGTD, which is my term We’re All Going To Die. Because when it comes to the end of the world, well, it’s the only logical conclusion. #WAGTD. Tweet all about it!

World on Edge

Does anyone hear this iceberg crashing?

The current issue of E—The Environmental Magazine has a review of the book I just finished, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, by the president of the DC-based Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown, age 78. The guy has 26 honorary degrees, so when he speaks, intellectuals listen.

The book’s second half spells out Plan B to rescue the Earth (Plan A is WAGTD), and he totals up the cost to exactly $185 billion per year. This total splits almost evenly between social programs, like adult literacy, and environmental restoration. He makes a sound argument that both have to happen simultaneously. And the cost sounds reasonable when compared to the U.S. military budget of $661 billion per year and the world’s military budget of $1,522 billion per year. We can afford this.

Those numbers make sense, but the book is oversaturated with statistics. Some jump out, such as a proposed pricing of gasoline at $15 per gallon, but many other numbers related to crops and irrigation flew over my head. I do catch his drift about food security creating conflict. With a hotter planet and shifting climate patterns, many countries will be left without the means to feed themselves, and they will not sit still.

While many doomsday scenarios focus on water, Brown’s version targets soil as our most precious and threatened resource. How can we save the soil? Climate change is expanding deserts, so reversing that trend would be his primary defense. His main solution is switching to electricity for most needs, such as transportation, and deriving electricity from wind and other sustainable sources. In his Plan B, nuclear and coal are dead, and wind replaces oil as a primary source.

Boy in Ghana tears apart foreign computers.

This book offers very levelheaded doomsday advice. He makes it sound as if these transitions will happen, sooner or later, just as the Berlin Wall was destined to fall. His polemic puts the burden on national governments and international agencies to enact Plan B, and he calls for a mobilization to equal the efforts of World War II. Does this guy actually live in present-day Washington, DC? He thinks our current leaders will propose to spend money and work together to help save the lives of people living overseas? Maybe they will, once they realize they are saving their own hides.

Brown has two more books coming out within the year, an autobiography and one titled Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food. Clearly obsessed with agriculture, Brown didn’t quite clue me in to one of this century’s biggest problems: how are we going to feed 10 billion people? Actually he did: Plan B sees population peaking at 8 billion within 30 years, and that’s not too much more than the current 7 billion, right?

Today 1 billion people are malnourished. Tomorrow another 219,000 mouths will be asking to be fed. You do the math. These numbers have got me on the edge.

Enviros versus Architects: Both Wrong

Green architecture is an oxymoron, and the environmental movement is upside-down, if you follow the logic of a founder of contemporary urban planning, Andres Duany. Speaking today at the Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, Duany threw zinger after zinger about how his side of urban planning has raised the profile of the walkable city and effectively defeated suburbia.

“We have to be students of failure,” said the Principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, referring to the past three generations of planners that encouraged sprawl and isolated acts of architecture. His alternative, called new urbanism, design cities around a 10-minute walk instead of on driving. Examples include compact European cities such as Venice and the model city of Seaside, Florida, featured in the movie The Truman Show.

postcard from Seaside

A postcard from Seaside’s website.

Not only faulting cities and suburbs for losing their way, he pans the current environmental movement for trying to “green” everything, as if sticking trees in the sidewalk will save the planet. He upholds the European, treeless plaza as a better model of sustainability.

“The real way to save nature is to make cities that people really love,” he said. Suburbs get abandoned because of mediocrity, he claims.

I agree with his idea of compact communities, although I may quibble with his criticism of how environmentalists try to bring nature into cities. He says that new regulations would prevent a Manhattan from being created again, because existing streams and waterways would take precedent over human environments. My contention is that plenty of urban land exists for infill, thereby precluding the option of building on top of wetlands.

In my recent Going Green column, “Good Green News,” I wrote that one of Miami’s stregths is the separation of nature and city, which allows for concentrations of both. I can see how strict environmentalists would take issue with this stance, as they believe “nature” should overtake everything (this is Duany’s fear). I don’t see it as a “humans versus nature” debate, but rather as a “humans and nature” coexistence. Large expanses of nature deserve protection, but at the same time, people restricted to the ghetto deserve a connection to nature (the rich can afford to escape the city at any time). I believe even a compact city can retain attractive elements of nature, and I definitely believe that cities are “greener” than suburbs.

Duany makes his view clear. “There are consequences to the extravagance of the past 50 years. The lifestyle of the American middle class is causing the climate problems. It’s the beginning and the end of it.” He blames the car, and he is right. The car is the real American Idol.

As for what people really care about—the economy, stupid—he says we are stuck in the “new dimishment” and that “the real estate bubble is nothing.” The real problem is that we, collectively, can no longer afford our car-based lifestyle. So much for bailing out GM. We should be focusing on HM: human motors.