Friday, April 22, 2011

Typewriters are to computers as cars are to: ___________________

We often write Climate Change 101 blog posts about efficiency, and I think that's great. Today's post takes a different tack, and instead raises questions about doing something else instead of doing something more efficiently. What does that mean?

Consider why someone might want to buy a Hummer, for example. Sure, it will get you from Point A to Point B. In the eyes of some, it gets you there in style. I suspect it's relatively comfortable too. There are certain conveniences provided by having any vehicle -- you don't have to travel on someone else's schedule. You don't have to worry about if a bus or subway stops near your starting and ending points. It gets you there faster than walking or biking and in a climate controlled environment.

There are certain inconveniences too. You have to pay for the thing, to insure it, to fill it with fuel, to maintain it, and to fix it when something breaks. You also have to park it. And it's got emissions, of course, and we know those change the chemical composition of the atmosphere which in turn changes the dynamics of the atmosphere.

Indeed, the climate-controlled environment that it provides for its passengers while en route contributes, just a little on the individual level, to the destabilization of the global climate (which is why I'm writing about it here). Scale it up to the hundreds of millions of vehicle owners the world around, and it's no longer just a little. (See previous posts: Making the Case as Simply as I Can,  How can the CO2 released weigh more than the gasoline I started with?, and Interesting Conversations Happen on Facebook for more on how emissions scale up to major problems).

Many of us, myself included, think we want a car. I'm suggesting that we step back from that and consider what services it is we want from cars, and think about if we can get equal or superior benefits in another way at a comparable or lower economic cost while lowering environmental costs.

I don't really want a car. I want to get from Point A to Point B with reasonable convenience, in comfort, and, I admit, I want to get there in some sort of style. Aspects of my family's style are conveyed by our ten year old Prius with its environmentally themed bumper stickers. I also don't want my transportation to cost too much -- for either me or for the environment.

Where I'm going with this might be summarized by an SAT-style analogy question:
Typewriters are to computers as cars are to: ___________*
Making cars more efficient is clearly important, and I'm really glad smart people are working on it. But what I'm wondering is: Can we make something more efficient than (and just as desirable as) cars? Sometimes fundamentally new technologies push away the old. A jet is not a re-engineered canal boat or train.

And, it's not always about more efficient ways of doing the same thing. Trains, planes and automobiles are all instruments for transporting people and goods from Point A to Point B. Part of the idea is also developing ways of meeting the needs and wants achieved by travel without the travel.

I mostly Skype to work. And it allows me to work all over the country and the world without doing nearly as much travel as this sentence implies (though I still do way more travel then I'm comfortable with from an environmental perspective). But it's a step in the right direction, and the technologies are improving at a blazing pace.

It's not just about changing technologies, either. I hope my next car is a rental. Or a car-share. Or improved mass-transit. None of those changes require new technologies, they just require people (my family) to do things differently. I'm part of a two-car family, but at least one of those cars is almost always parked in the driveway. If it was just a little more convenient for me to access a car sharing program or rental car, we'd be able to move to being a one-car family with the primary change in lifestyle being more money in our bank account.

Recognizing that we need a much longer blank line, how will you complete the analogy?

Don Duggan-Haas

*Some of you may recognize this as a favorite question stem of mine. Change "cars" to something else, like "schools" and you can push your brain in interesting directions. And I think you should.

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