Braunholtz: A super-sized parking problem
Vail CO, Colorado
In some ways the limited space of our condominium’s parking lot mirrors the larger environmental problems of the world and our attitude and actions.
Since the 1980s, awareness of the world’s environmental issues has grown with a grudging acceptance that the Earth’s ecological functions and resources have limits. Simply put, at some point we’ll exceed the planet’s capacity to absorb our waste and provide us with raw materials (water, food, energy, etc).
Sustainable growth became a fashionable word that no one wanted to define, probably because no one wants to do it with the current technology. We’re all waiting for the magic bullet that’ll reduce our ecological footprint and allow us to keep on consuming at ever-increasing rates.
The result is that across the globe everyone has a better lifestyle but we’ve all moved away from sustainable growth. In 1975, if the global population lived like North Americans we would have needed three Earths to provide the resources and absorb the waste. By 2003, it’d risen to about five Earths.
It’s a clumsy calculation that ignores a country’s size and population, because a country with few people and large resources will have a natural advantage. Still it does give a general idea of where the world is heading. There’s a law of diminishing returns here, too.
Poorer countries managed to make larger gains in lifestyle for smaller increases in their ecological footprint than well-developed ones, who consumed a lot more for relatively little improvement.
You can see this reflected in what we drive. Since the 1980s, our cars have become bigger, more powerful and expensive than ever but they still only go from A to B. Some call it the Spinal Tap Economy; we all want the amplifier that goes to 11 instead of 10, even if there’s really no difference.
It’s a want-versus-need confusion happily created by marketing departments. How did people live 20 years ago? Just fine. Unlike the advertisements few people actually tow military aeroplanes around with their cars on a daily basis.
In Vail ” a town of educated and aware people ” it’s almost rare to see an actual mid-size car these days. And the SUVs and pick-ups have all done the “mine goes to 11” shift as well. An original Jeep Cherokee would now be a compact utility vehicle. The environment is a nice concept, but a big vehicle is the real deal, though we’re going to find out that the environment’s limit are real sooner or later.
Our parking lot is already approaching that point. It copes well with 1980s-sized cars. The odd SUV and pick-up are OK because the smaller cars and empty spaces can give up their extra space. Now that each unit has a SUV and pick-up, it’s awkward. Everyone, regardless of vehicle size, has to park really close and squeeze out of their doors.
Still with communication, cooperation and tolerance, it’s working. Hopefully this’ll continue as the lot shrinks further with the piles of plowed snow. Consumerism has its costs and we’re all going to have to dig in and shovel to pay them this winter.
It’s easy to see the big picture in a small parking lot. I’m not sure if the world’s governments have got that perspective yet. We’re all so enamored of the big, shiny, guzzling lifestyle that we haven’t thought where we’re going to park it.
Technology will help as greater efficiency and alternative sources of energy become available, but we have to choose to use it. Expecting people to change and show goodwill by themselves is, as Bjorn Lomborg puts it, “effectively a tax only on good people.” Market and social systems have to make that choice for all us.
A carbon tax that funded research on solar panels would be a double-edged sword for good. Pushing people towards more efficient choices and perhaps discovering a golden bullet or two. We’re going to need all we can get.
It also might make our parking lot feel a little larger again.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.
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