The rise of public bikes in DC

I left Washington DC in June and was amazed on a visit back this weekend how much seemed to have changed in the urban environment in this short time. The biggest change I'm thrilled about is the launch of a new shared bike scheme - Capital Bikeshare - already now the biggest in the USA.

A previous scheme, Smartbike DC, has been operating since 2008 but never caught on. It's network of a mere 10 locations was woefully insufficient to constitute a new form of transport and they required you to join online first, for a flat fee of $40, before you could use a bike. Compare this to Capital Bikeshare's 1100 bikes at 110 stations stretching from Columbia Heights down to the Mall, East as far as Eastern Market and West into Northern Virgina. It's a dense-enough network to use the bikes as genuine public transport - you can feel secure that there will be a parking station sufficiently close to where you are going.

One person I spoke to over the weekend wasn't confident the new scheme would catch on any more than the last one did, opining that those who liked riding already had bikes in most cases. But I think this is no different to the co-existence of private car usage and taxi cabs. As a bike owner and daily commuter I can imagine many scenarios where I might not want the hassle of keeping track of my bike, or only need to go one way, or am transferring to a car, where a shared bike scheme provides the perfect compliment to my private bike ownership.

I rode bikes three times last Thursday getting from one meeting to another and it was wonderful. Cheap ($5 for a day membership, $25/month, $75/year, with use of the bikes free for journey's under 30 minutes), easy (30 seconds and I was joined and away) and fun. And useful! Much more efficient for piecing together my destinations than trains or buses would have been. For a visitor it's a wonderful way to get around.

Combined with this DC has expanded their bikes lanes, already the best I've seen anywhere in the US. There are dedicated bike lanes every few streets, making it easy to get within a block or two of anywhere you want to go without dodging traffic. Some of these lanes are sectioned off from traffic by bollards, or have a lane of parked cars between bikes and traffic, making them extremely safe for cyclists.

Very impressive, DC. Combined with new light rail lines and the expansion of the Metro out to Dulles airport the District is evolving into one of the most walkable and least car-dependent cities in the country.

Surviving on the driest continent on earth

Today is Blog Action Day. This year's theme is water.

Australia is the place which is being hit hardest, first, by climate change. It is the canary in the coal mine. Parts of Southern Australia have been in drought for 12 years, a drought without historical equivalent. At what point do we stop calling it a drought and just accept that the climate has simply changed? Tim Flannery has predicted that Perth, Western Australia, my home town (ish - Fremantle really), could "become the world's first ghost metropolis, its population forced to abandon the city due to lack of water."

As a result of this however, awareness of water conservation is growing and becoming second-nature in most of Australia. For a number of years now in Melbourne each suburb is assigned certain days of the week they can water their garden. If you want to water it on other days you must use water you have collected in the house. Visiting friends in Melbourne now it's common for them to ask us to collect our shower water in buckets, to use on the garden later. People wash their cars over the lawn. Gardens are being re-planted with drought-resistant native plants.

Dual-flush toilets are ubiquitous in Australia (seriously Americans, what's the deal with the lack of dual-flush toilets here? They were invented in 1980 and use 67% less water) and waterless urinals are being installed in many office buildings. People make a conscious effort to use less water and there's a growing acceptance that soon we will be recycling sewage into drinking water.

And this how it should be. Australia is a nation build atop the oldest, driest, most fragile continent on earth. Both waves of human migration to Australia altered the land indelibly. In the second wave starting in 1788 Australia was settled by a people who feared this alien landscape and fought to dominate it, to make it as close to home as possible. For 222 years we have cut down the forests, farmed the plains, irrigated the deserts, bred hard-hoofed animals, so ill-suited to the Australian environment, by the millions and reveled in our status as the world's greatest exporter of carbon.

Australia's first people's found a balance with the world they re-made, a balance that preserved through 60,000 years and covered some of the harshest and most difficult to inhabit places on earth. This is the world's oldest culture, a culture that has adapted to the unique environments of Australian, learned to read and understand its patterns, utilize its flora and fauna, adapt to its demands.

We are a people who do not adapt, we force the earth to change to suit our tastes. But we are reaching the limits of this ignorance as the world shifts in dangerous and unpredictable ways and we find the most basic resource needed for our survival, water, threatened. Australia's changing climate is forcing us to adapt to our continent, to figure out how to make do with the resources we have and protect the habitat we have left. If we are to survive on this incredible continent we have a lot of catching up to do and so much to learn.

It begins with water.

Photo by BouncedPhoton on flickr.

Earth Hour: Good idea, bad framing

So this Saturday is Earth Hour. For the uninitiated Earth Hour is call to action that asks people to turn of their electricity for one hour in recognition of climate change. Earth Hour was started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and has since been taken global by WWF.

Their website says:

In 2009 hundreds of millions of people around the world showed their support by turning off their lights for one hour.

Earth Hour 2010 will continue to be a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community. A call to stand up, to show leadership and be responsible for our future.

Pledge your support here and turn off your lights for one hour, Earth Hour, 8.30pm, Saturday 27th March 2010.

Now turning off your lights is a good idea and I encourage people to take part but the framing of Earth Hour has always bothered me.

Much of the language around the initiative is about 'taking responsibility', 'taking action' and 'showing leadership' but it seems enough to demonstrate this responsibility, action and leadership for one hour, once a year. If Earth Hour were framed as an opportunity to reflect on the immense challenge facing the human race, the need to alter our relationship with the planet and pursue a more sustainable path it would make a great deal of sense to me. It could be an environmental May Day, a chance to come together and prepare for the great work ahead.

Or if it were linked to political action and clearly identifying the necessary policy steps and roadblocks to action, inspiring people to increase the pressure on their leaders for reform, that would make a lot of sense to me.

Instead Earth Hour is framed as actually doing something about climate change. This is completely false conception, and very dangerous. False action which allows us to feel we are making a difference, that we are doing our part, makes it less likely that we will make a real difference, or give up anything beyond an hour of electricity.

Earth Hour is the perfect corporate-friendly initiative: many of the businesses in the Sydney CBD and other cities turn off the lights of their office towers for the hour. On 8.30pm on a Saturday. In return they get to claim a little bit of green cred. But the real issue is why are office lights on at 8.30pm on Saturday night in order to be turned off? Why do they need to be turned on again at 9.30pm? And after this completely harmless non-threatening non-disruptive event business continues as usual.

In 2008 we spent Earth Hour at a participating restaurant. The kitchen power remained on, I assume, as meals continued to arrive in the candle-lit restaurant. It was really nice, a treat. After an hour of enjoyable and romantic dimness the lights came up again. Immediately following the completion of the Hour a fireworks display unexpectedly began, to celebrate this wonderful city-wide event. Environmental protest as dining occasion, as public celebration, as symbolic feelgood vibes, man. Well done on going an hour without electricity - let's blow up some carbon! Woo!

Hard to reflect on our unsustainable culture, the sacrifices and adaptions we will need to make and the difficult road again when fireworks are busting overhead. Ooooh. Aaahhh.

So turn off your lights at 8.30pm this Saturday, but don't kid yourself that you've made a difference when you do so. Instead sit in the dark, or in a park on a rug with friends, or in your backyard staring at the stars, and know that we have huge challenges and changes ahead, and so much work to be done to sweep away the forces that would lead us to disaster if they can make a dollar more. And think about how your actions can lead us towards a better, more sustainable tomorrow. Then act.

My flatmates: media superstars

Having recently moved into a share house for the first time since leaving Australia K and I are really enjoying having flatmates again, especially because we've got such good ones. One thing I like about share houses when they work is the sense of family which develops, a looking out for each other which goes beyond simple friendship. Part of this is the vicarious pride at their accomplishments you feel, or I do anyway. Recently I've been especially impressed with my flatmates media profiles, thought-leaders that they are.

First S was quoted in a Washington Post article on tattoo's in the workplace:

D.C. is culturally one of the most conservative cities I've ever lived in. I just see fewer people displaying body art in the workplace here.

Then D spoke to New York-based Chinese television network NTDT whilst attending a vigil at the Arc Avaaz have built on the Mall in DC, expressing the hope so many of us share that America might take the lead on addressing catastrophic climate change before it's too late and we all start building arcs for real (try not to be overwhelmed by the charisma of the New Zealand news reader):

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.4218033&w=425&h=350&]

Well done guys! K and I are going to have to step it up, clearly.

Blog Action Day | The work that needs doing

Image courtesy of Brent Danely on flickr

Climate change is the over-riding challenge of our age. Even as I sometimes despair of our capacity to take action there is a small thrill in living in such a historic time. The whole of human history has come to this and we must make a choice as a civilization to adapt or, in all liklihood, die. In the very least there'll be hell to pay if we fail to rise to the needs of this moment.

As is often the case with complex problems we are challenged by climate change on two levels: adaptive and technical.

Technical challenges require the use of existing knowledge and skills to find a solution. The technical challenge here is political; we urgently require legislative action to limit and wind back our carbon expenditure. We must ensure that the price of goods reflects their true cost, not simply in the manufacture, distribution and marketing but also in the cost to the environment. We need an international agreement which has the developed world taking the lead but also the developing world following, with technology transfer to assist them along.

The only way we're likely to get this progress is through sustained organising and advocacy which will embolden far-sighted political leadership to facilitate a consensus. We did it with CFC's and can, and must, do it again.

This may be enough to prevent a catastrophe. The increasing cost of carbon and removal of government subsidies will make coal power increasingly uncompetitive and spur investment in renewable technologies.Cars will move through hybrids to plug-in electric vehicles and beyond. The cost of travel will rise and food grown locally will gain a cost advantage over that which prices-in thousands of miles of travel. The value of preserving forests for carbon credits will outweigh that of cutting them down, so much so that governments take their protection seriously.

We can progressively decarbonize in ways which will have surprisingly little impact on most people's lives, except those in the specific industries affected. No-one cares where their electricity comes from, they just want the light to work when they flick the switch. Likewise with cars, for most people they just need to work efficiently to transporting them from A to B. New cars invented in a carbon-conscious world will make today's internal combustion vehicles look like the dinosaurs they are.

However as we rise to the challenge of the climate crisis there is a second possible dimension we can address it on, as an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges go beyond what we know how to do and require us to consider our values. Adaptive problems are often seen as threatening to someone or a group. There is often compromise and loss involved. In other words, adaptive problems are cultural, they force us to consider our values systems and priorities.

Climate change is an adaptive challenge because in addressing it we must consider our relationship with the planet. We must weigh profit in the present with environmental stability in the future; our wants against the next generations needs. We will have to give something up, from overseas trips to new appliances. For many it will cost them their job, forcing disorienting and frightening restructuring of communities. For some countries it may be the end of boom times as the world weens itself off coal and oil. While legislating is a largely technical exercise, reaching international consensus on action also requires adaptive leadership.

If we can manage these compromises, stand by those most affected both by the crisis and its solution, decarbonize our power and redesign our neighbourhoods,  the change to our civilization could be much more profound than simply lowered levels of carbon emissions.

We could reconsider our relationship with the earth, understand ourselves as a part of a greater whole, and live in way which honours this symbiosis, focused on stewardship, sustainability and respect.

This is the change we should be aiming for.

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2009. Blog Action Day takes place each October 15 and united bloggers around the world in posting on the same theme, with the aim of sparking discussion of an issue of global importance. This year's theme is climate change.


How late is too late?

Last night The Day After Tomorrow was on cable. It was one of the spate of big-budget Hollywood disaster porn films which came out in the late-nineties and early noughties which I had not seen before. The disaster in this film is a sudden and catastrophic ice age, triggered by the melting of the Artic and Greeland ice sheets, stopping the North Atlantic Current which keeps most of Europe and North America habitable and which, over the course of just a few days, freezes half the Northern Hemisphere, setting the scene for the heroic "struggle to survive" scenes always featured in movies of this ilk. [youtube=]

So the film is, obviously, a bit over the top, and riddled with scientific inaccuracies as these things always are. But the general premise of government's refusing to take action on global warming until it's way, way too late is something that it's becoming increasingly hard to believe won't happen. Being in America is filling me with despair about our capacity to respond in time to avoid catastrophe and never more-so than when I saw this poll conducted by the University of Maryland, which asked people in 19 countries to rank on a scale of 1-10 how high a priority their government should place on addressing climate change:

Global Warming Support

America stands out as being, of the countries polled, uniquely disinterested in government action to address climate change. And whereas the Iraqi's and Palestinians justifiably have other things they think their government should be focusing on, in America the blame can only be placed on the presence of a well-funded denialist lobby, replaying exactly the delaying tactics of the tobacco industry. Their goal is not to prove that climate change is not happening, but to sow enough doubt about the science to forstall real action. So far they've been extremely successful, especially in the US and, sadly, Australia. The above poll shows just how successful, and what a steep hill we have to climb to get real action here in the world's greatest carbon emitter, without whom no strategy to address climate change can be successful.

This reminded me of a letter I read years ago, by Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace International, on the 10th anniversary of the founding of Ecos Corporation, which he has since left. The letter was entitled Scream, Crash, Boom. In it he declared that environmentalists had lost, that despite thirty years of concerted efforts, the development of huge global NGOs and contribution of millions of hours of activism, the chance to avert catastrophic climate change had passed. The forces resisting this change were just too big, or the tactics used had been insufficient, whatever the reason all the shouting for change (the "Scream" of the title) had failed to  move enough people to force the world's governments to take action. "We tried. We failed. It is what it is."

Therefore the Crash is coming, where we will see the impact of climate change in very real and terrible ways, whether through a Day After Tomorrow-style snap ice age, pandemic bird flu, peak oil or drought for decades without end (which seems to have already arrived in much of Australia). Millions will be displaced or, potentially, killed. "However it unfolds, it is certainly in my judgement going to be ugly, probably very ugly. You can’t keep messing with the system that feeds you, eating away at your capital without bad stuff happening in response."

However then would come the "Boom", the explosion of human ingenuity possible when we are mobilized around an immediate problem.  Humans are unique in our ability to adapt and change, we are just not very good at doing so until we absolutely have to (and sometimes not even then). When we are confronted with problems we experience first-hand, when people start dying (in the Western World) we will respond. "When we do, it’s going to be really interesting. We’ll reinvent cars that make today’s technology look as primitive and stupid as it is. We’ll have energy created everywhere as our roofs and cars become generators rather than consumers of power. Water will just go around and around our houses and we’ll use it on the way through."

I wish I was as optimistic as Paul. I think the Crash is inevitable, we are doing pitifully little to prevent it, and most Americans think we should be doing little more. Where leadership is needed we instead have denial, obfuscation and confusion. So long as there are dollars to be made. But the Crash is coming, and there are dollars to be made in helping us respond to this challenge as well. So how late will we wait, how bad will it need to be before denial turns into action?

Even if we have lost the opportunity to prevent destruction and displacement there is still so much to fight for, every day we lose to inaction will make the Crash worst, the correction harder, the loss of life greater. Every day is another chance to turn it around, before it is truly too late.

While looking up the link to Paul's original Scream, Crash, Boom letter from 2005 I discovered he wrote an updated, Scream, Crash, Boom II letter last year, where he claimed that the "Great Disruption" has already begun:

I want to be clear though that this is not the “end of the world”. It does, however herald an unparalleled era of system stress, economic stagnation and social tension – a global emergency during which we’ll evolve a new economic model and then rebuild. I call it The Great Disruption because it is most likely to be a disruption in society’s evolutionary process, rather than the collapse of civilisation.

It's worth reading in full. And then it's worth considering what you can do, to change both your lifestyle and the minds of your fellow citizens, to help bring about the change we need.

Related: the Pentagon has begun studying the national security implications of Climate Change, which may require military intervention to "deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics".