Monday, November 2, 2009

Peak Roads

Sustainability can be confusing. The messages and discussions can range from Mad Max ("Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear.") to Alice Waters ("What about her tireless advocacy for sustainable farming? It has changed the way we think about food, and how we eat.") to Al Gore ("First and foremost we need to generate investment returns for our clients. We believe we have already accomplished the goal of integrating sustainability research with fundamental equity analysis in the design of our investment process, but the proof, as always is in the pudding.")

Engineering has a tendency to only focus on the "How" questions of an issue or debate, while ignoring the critical who, what, and why components of an argument and discussion. Want to add a green roof - we can show you the how. Want to debate and discussion the core issues of a critical public policy position - we pass on that one. With our fixations on the how, we are missing other important trends and issues. The infancy stage of sustainability is still about looking at "why" and in some corners making remarkable leaps to the "what" that the engineering community needs to fully understand and appreciate.

Consider the outlook of Bryn Davidson, the executive director of the Dynamic Cities Project, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that helps communities adapt to the challenges of oil depletion and climate change. He writes the following:

Ultimately, sustainability means coming to terms with natural biophysical limits. So we have to get past the idea of planning around extrapolation of past trends. The future may be different than the past is the first thing that we need to come to terms with. This is where the idea of peak roads comes in: If we can say to ourselves, "We have as much road capacity today as we will ever need," then we can start to ask what that means in terms of how we should actually start designing our cities. This shouldn't be thought of as a default "anti-roads" statement. But our numerical models show that we simply may not have enough fuel (and biofuel, and electric cars) to use more road capacity that what we have today.

Peak oil meets peak roads. The path of "getting better versus getting bigger." Mad Max meets Alice Waters meets Al Gore meets Bryn Davidson. I am not sure this philosophy was in the book when the engineering community started reading, "Sustainability: Good for Us and Society." It is important we follow all the debates and discussions with respect to the formulation of public policy associated with sustainability. The engineering profession must always be on guard to the potential damage that can be done by Utopian fixers ("Utopia is not a place one can live."). Like they say "the proof, as always, is in the pudding."

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