Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We Need Our Oil... (Part 2)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I said I wouldn't say much about the Gulf oil spill last time, but I found some interesting posts which complement the point I was making last week about how deeply embedded fossil fuels are in American culture, and how design can dictate our mobility choices.

The first is an article by Jonathan Hiskes of Grist entitled, "Can we just drive less after the Gulf spill? If only it were so easy..." Hiskes comments on interviews of gas-station customers conducted by NPR reporter Brian Mann. Mann concludes that despite the fact that many customers have been very concerned about the spill, "they also don't see a real connection between the spill in the Gulf and the decisions they're making about the cars and trucks they drive, and the number of times they fill up the tank in the week." Hiskes is quick to point out what I was getting at last week, which is sometimes (oftentimes?) Americans lack viable alternatives to automobile transportation, especially in a place like semi-rural upstate New York where these customers were interviewed. None of what they're saying suggests they don't understand the connection between their consumption of oil and the disaster in the Gulf, he says, "They're saying they lack good alternatives to driving. That's the real problem: Our cities and towns (and lives) are built around the assumption that we'll be driving our own cars and trucks to get where we need to go."

Don't believe that urban design and car use go hand-in-hand? Check out the following graphic:

Also linked from Hiskes' piece, this graph from Left for LeDroit depicts the relationship between pre-autocentric design in the Washington DC area and the ability of residents in these places to forgo car ownership. As you can clearly see, in the neighborhoods established before the rise of car culture it is possible to get around without an automobile. Hiskes concludes:

Conversely, people aren't going to walk or bike when amenities are too far away. They're not going to ride mass transit where it doesn't exist. They're not going to buy electric cars when they're not affordable, and when we don't have a network of charging stations. The way to help people drive less is to give them alternatives.

So if it is impossible to avoid car travel in some areas of the country, what else can people do in these places to stick it to BP? Boycotting BP is unfortunately not as straightforward as simply not fueling at their stations. Quite seriously, they have their hands in everything. As Ronald White of the LA Times reports, "Few foreign companies have ever become as deeply rooted in the U.S. economy as BP." Chris MacDonald of The Business Ethics Blog has even called a BP boycott "futile and unethical."

So even though tempers are hot right now and we want some sense of immediate retribution, we must shift our attention to longer-term strategies like investment in renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure, as well as legislation to promote this shift and hold the oil companies responsible for their actions. A little good urban design never hurt anyone either, but again this is obviously a long-term strategy. It took a decades for the oil companies to obtain the power they now have, and it will take a sustained, concentrated effort if we are ever to defeat the monster that we helped create.

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