Thursday, January 15, 2015

It's the principle of the thing

Several times here at My Minnesota, we've observed that "Nature always bats last." Ron Meadore has a column in today's MinnPost that provides yet another example of how true that is, and how we often manage to "short-sheet" ourselves by looking for cheap inexpensive, simple, short term solutions to the symptoms of issues. Fortunately, if we want to start addressing root causes rather than symptoms, as we need to, there are several approaches we can follow. One of the most fundamental is called biomimicry, and it uses "Life's Principles." If we really want a sustainable society, and who wouldn't, more of us should become much more familiar with solutions based on biomimicry and systems thinking.

[UPDATE: at the time the preceding paragraph was written, the author hadn't seen this guardian story: Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists]

Driving to Green Buildings

Here's an example of why we need to become increasingly system-focused in defining and proposing solutions to our development problems. (One of the principles I remember from high school is "the proper definition of a problem is half the solution.") Most "green building" approaches incorporate energy efficiency in building design and construction. This reduces the building's green house gas emissions and operating costs. However, for the average office building, more energy is expended getting occupants to and from the building than operating the building itself. We need to spend more time thinking about where we need to define the system boundaries. Another example, closer to home, showed up on the streets.mn blog within the past few days. There are some very interesting and well done graphics that tell the story that most of greater Minnesota receives more in highway funding than they contribute. What isn't told in those graphics is the total dollars needed (something like $6 billion over ten years, based on an average from this MinnPost quotation: "In Minnesota, MnDOT reports that 50 percent of the state’s highway pavements and 35 percent of its bridges are more than 50 years old, and says the highway system faces a $12 billion funding gap over the next 20 years.")

gravel roads aren't capital intensive infrastructure
Photo by J. Harrington

Economists urge us to impose greater taxes tax on what we want less of and reduce taxes on what we want more of. That approach strongly suggests foregoing taxes on things like savings account interest, and taxing carbon emissions related to buildings and their transportation intensity. Of course, we can't be sure carbon taxes would enable us to meet green house gas emission targets so we should consider something like a cap-and-trade system to go with the taxes. I'd like to be able to claim ownership of this approach, but the governor of Washington is pushing for "a combination of carbon revenue and more traditional sources — the gas tax, license fees, etc. The carbon-funded portion of the transportation bill will be devoted to low-carbon alternatives (transit, electric cars, etc.) and maintenance, while new highway construction will be funded from the other sources." This is expected to address Washington's need for $12 billion in transportation funding over ten years. Even though Minnesota's need is only 50% Washington's over that same period, mightn't it make sense for our legislature and the Dayton administration to consider an approach similar to Washington's instead of relying on the same old, same old and little more creative than a sales tax on gasoline. What an impact that kind of creativity could have for a Minnesota governor who isn't running for reelection and wants to leave a legacy.

On Inhabiting an Orange

By Josephine Miles 

All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs in deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travels go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.


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