Unless

The Thinker by Rodin

Winter never really arrived this year. Typically we don’t get much in the way of snowfall in a given winter, but the snowplows tend to come out at least a couple of times during the season. And they were out a couple of times this winter as well, but they were mostly sitting by the side of the road waiting for conditions to worsen, which they did not. Most of our snow this winter, to the extent we had it, was flurries. None of the snow that we received lasted a day or exceeded an inch. To the extent we saw snow, it was on the top of cars that had driven in from the Shenandoah Mountains or points further north and west.

Temperatures also were moderate. There was a cold day here and there. I only recall temperatures dipping into the teens once. I usually go through six to eight weeks of scraping the frost off my windshield most days. This year I performed the chore only a half dozen times. Technically it was winter, but in reality it was some new amorphous season for which we have no name. Neither fall nor spring but feeling not at all like winter, it was full of short days, with highs mostly in the fifties but sometimes in the seventies. March brought a couple of days with temperatures creeping into the low eighties. The grass in my yard started growing in early March. The wild onions were peaking up in January. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin bloomed over the weekend: a surreally early start to spring that was (and still is) winter.

Thanks to climate change, we are likely to have to come up for a new name for winter because it no longer fits. On the plus side, our heating bill was manageable. No need to worry about frozen pipes, or being stuck in a snow bank. Only twice did I put on the heavy winter coat. A light jacket and some gloves were all I needed.

My wife wants to move further north to some place like Boston where winter is still cruel and still bites, and where you spend most mornings relocating snow off your driveway and digging a path to your mailbox. I’m pretty sure Bostonians did a whole lot less of that this year as well. Ski resorts spent much of the winter hunting for snow and customers. They created ski slopes loosely packed with artificial snow, which mostly vanished shortly after application. Out west, the usual mountain snowfalls largely never appeared. Westerners are already anxious about the probable drought they will be facing this summer.

One year does not a trend make, but one trend that is unmistakable is the rise in average global temperatures. There is about a one in three chance that this summer will be the hottest on record, again. It clearly won’t be much longer before the last of the Arctic sea ice melts during the summer. Much of it will reappear in the winter, but its gradual disappearance will lead to the extinction of many species that depend on the ice, like the polar bear. It is likely that extinction driven by climate change is already very much with us but we are simply not looking for it. Like a horse running a race with blinders, most of us simply choose to ignore the evidence all around us. The planet is fundamentally and rapidly changing, and not for the better.

You would think conservatives of all people would be alarmed. You cannot go back to those mythical good old days when the climate is so radically different. Instead, they are the ones aiding and abetting climate change. They do it through well-practiced and obnoxious denial of indisputable facts. Science is irrelevant because if you can acquire power you can legislate the science you want, such as they are doing in Texas where teaching “creationism” and a six thousand year old earth to public school students is considered on par with teaching evolution. Facts simply get in the way with the way you want things to be. Ignoring facts gives you the opportunity to not only keep climate change going, but to make it worse. Gas prices are approaching record levels and naturally it’s all Obama’s fault. It has nothing to do with demand worldwide by a wealthier and overpopulated planet that is taking off, as predicted, exceeding available capacity. $2.50 a gallon gas if you elect me, promises Newt Gingrich. Yet doing more to stimulate demand simply raises prices higher.

Acknowledging what is happening at least lets you ponder what can be done about it. Natural gas is not a long-term solution, but it can be a bridge that can move us to a carbon free energy future. It is plentiful and cheap as well as clean, but with the exception of some city buses, it’s hard to find any motor vehicles using it. No automaker that I am aware of is working to create cars powered by natural gas. Why should they when it’s so hard to get a fill up? Presumably Republicans think the free market will solve the problem but no one in the free market seems to be stepping up to the plate. Those few Republicans that acknowledge the problem know what is really required: government regulation and the (horror!) spending that comes with it. We need to require carmakers to build cars powered by natural gas. We need natural gas filling stations along all our major interstates. In populated neighborhoods, there should be a requirement that you should not have to drive more than five miles to fill up your tank with natural gas. Require it and Americans will start to drive cars powered by natural gas. Why wouldn’t they when natural gas will cost half as much, or less, than gasoline? Moreover, there are few things we cherish more than our mobility. If we can reliably fill up our cars with natural gas, we’ll take to it like a duck to water. But to do so requires the hand of government, and that must be socialism or something.

We are saying in effect that we are okay with our extinction, in spite of our so-called reverence for human life. I’d say in retrospect we’d have to say we saw our extinction coming. However, there won’t be any of us left to ponder these preventable mistakes. One thing is for sure: we cannot change the future until we acknowledge the present and let the facts instead of uninformed prejudices drive our policy.

The good news for the planet is that our extinction is likely to come sooner rather than later. Then maybe the planet can recover. We seem to be incapable of being stewards of our planet. Indeed, we believe it is our job to rape it. It’s in the Book of Genesis, and we must let nothing like inconvenient facts contravene our sacred scripts.

Our sacred scripts are also destined to disappear into the dust with our extinction and will thus ultimately mean nothing, except that our species was a foolish accident of nature whose extinction, fortunately, we hastened. We will have painfully destroyed ourselves as well as much of the species we depend on. That which we claimed to conserve and cherish, we will ultimately squander on the altar of reckless human selfishness.

Unless, very improbably, we take to heart the lesson of The Lorax now in theaters. Unless. The hour is very, very late.

State of the Union

The Thinker by Rodin

President Obama gave a pretty good state of the union speech on Tuesday. He ended it with the usual rhetorical flourish that speaks more to our aspirations than to reality. He closed with:

We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I won’t be running for president so there is no chance that I will be giving a state of the union speech. However, if I were to give one it would read in part a lot like this:

Thank you very much. As you know it is my duty as president to annually report on the state of the union. Unfortunately, I have to report that the state of our union is fractious. At no time since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. Extremes on both sides of the aisle are pulling us apart as a country. This extreme polarity as well as refusal on both sides to move toward meaningful compromise are undermining our national security, economic growth and put our nationhood at jeopardy.

Barry Goldwater once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater was dead wrong. Our liberty is only sustained through finding and expanding our common ground. It happens by moving toward consensus rather than confrontation. At this critical time, true patriotism will be measured in our ability to come to consensus and make painful but necessary choices that one Congress and White House after another has punted.

We cannot undo these past damages, but we can move toward a sustainable and prosperous future for our country. Finger pointing no longer serves any national purpose. None of us here are blameless. We all contributed to our national problems. It includes me, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and new Speaker John Boehner. Many of us followed what we believed was the right and sustainable path. Sometimes an individual policy we advocated may have been right for the nation. However, if it is not congruent with our national needs it is still wrong. What can be said is that, in the aggregate, we were all wrong and have been mostly going in the wrong direction for decades.

For example, taking care of our senior citizens in retirement is a worthy national endeavor, but only if programs for them like Social Security and Medicare are put on a sound footing and are soberly and competently administered. It is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed Medicare costs to expand without addressing its inefficiencies and creating a plan to keep it solvent. Similarly, it is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed the last Administration to lead us into a war based on false pretenses. It was scandalous to offer tax cuts without offsetting these tax cuts with reductions in government services. My administration, previous administrations and previous Congresses failed to competently manage and govern our own country. Time and time again we put short-term thinking and ideology ahead of the national interest.

These are facts beyond any reasonable dispute. The evidence is overwhelming and can be found in record numbers of mortgage defaults, our bloated budget deficits, the high unemployment, the growing ranks of our homeless, our obesity epidemic and a fouled environment. By virtually any metric that you can use, our government has failed our job as national stewards. We, its leaders, have failed America.

The state of our union is fractious at best and alarming at worse. Now we must right-size our government so that it meets the needs of our nation. We need a new national strategy and we need sound tactics that align with our national strategy. Our strategy requires clear national goals, and both parties must agree on these national goals.

I offer six goals. Our most immediate challenge is not the budget deficit, as wrenching as it is in scope and size. It is to break the back of unemployment in this country, which has been dangerously high. In breaking the back of unemployment, we must do it in a way that creates good jobs that will restore our fading middle class. We don’t want to restore it by putting talented people to work flipping burgers or sweeping floors. Prosperity drives everything and makes anything possible. We can do this today by continuing to invest in common sense infrastructure projects, all of which will aid our current and future prosperity. To facilitate that our infrastructure investments are made wisely, we need an independent commission that places our money in investments that will create an improved infrastructure in the most productive ways possible.

That is our short-term goal and it should be easy for us all to agree on. However, infrastructure does not just happen. It will take money, and if we cannot agree on something simple like raising taxes on the rich to levels that were in effect in the Clinton administration, then we must keep borrowing the money. Projects that promote short-term employment and are most needed to improve our infrastructure should get the highest priority.

Our long-term goals should also not be controversial. I propose five long-term goals, in priority:

  1. Ending the extreme partisanship in this country
  2. Fix the federal government’s deficit spending
  3. Living in a sustainable way
  4. Making the United States the 21st century leader for new technologies and services
  5. Ensuring that all Americans receive quality health care

First, partisanship. Partisanship is not necessarily bad. However, our partisanship has reached extreme and dangerous levels. This did not happen by accident. It happened because we permit gerrymandering of our legislative districts where partisan interests are unduly represented and the interests of moderates were squeezed out. To solve this problem, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a constitutional amendment requiring all states to draw federal congressional districts in a politically impartial manner to be overseen by our federal judiciary.

Our government’s deficit spending has reached dangerous levels. We do not want America’s future to be like Greece’s present. To achieve fiscal solvency, a number of unpopular things must be done. Entitlements like Medicare must either have self-funding mechanisms in place or be limited to a percent of GDP or the federal budget by law. Both must be governed by independent and impartial commissions empowered to make changes to the system to ensure their viability. Medicare spending, for example, could be limited to twenty percent of federal expenditures or require premium increases annually to ensure that it remains solvent. Do these things and most of our other federal financial problems will take care of themselves.

America’s failure to live in a sustainable way increases the likelihood of war and suffering at levels so extreme they are hard to imagine, but are frighteningly real. Climate change and population growth are already causing wars, unrest and mass migration. It contributed to unrest in Tunisia. We must find a way to cap our population growth and live sustainably with nature. Our failure to get our environmental act together inside our country and with the rest of the world ultimately dooms not just our country but also our species. It will change life irretrievably here in our sacred home, the Earth. However, if we succeed we will do so by developing many of the products the world needs so that it too can live sustainably. Being green is not just good for the planet, it is good for our prosperity and it helps mitigate future wars and immense suffering.

To prosper, we must out innovate the rest of the world. Our prosperity rests in nurturing our human capital. Not only do we want to create business environments to allow companies like Google and Apple to flourish, we want to make sure that our children receive a first class education so when it is their time they can out innovate the rest of the world in the future. This cannot happen when we won’t pay teachers salaries that correspond to their importance to our nation, or when school districts in states like Oregon cannot afford to put their children in public schools five days a week.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must make health care available and affordable to all, not just to those who can afford it. America cannot flourish unless we are healthy. There are plenty of examples in other countries of national health care systems that work. Some align very well with the American way. Japan’s health care system, for example, offers enormous competition at very reasonable prices. Let’s let an independent commission tell us which of these many plans will work best here in the United States, then let’s move aggressively forward to make it happen in our nation.

I am offering six steps toward a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. I need each of you to work in the common national interest. If you do so, you and this Congress will be forever revered in our national history.

Thank you and good night.

Recipe for extinction

The Thinker by Rodin

Last winter, during our record snowstorms here in the East, various Republicans and climate skeptics took advantage of the extreme weather to tout that global warming was not happening. After all, what could be more convincing that a couple double-digit snowfalls? They had a good time with it and the media shamefully went along. Politicians in general seem anxious to deny the reality of global warming. The Senate seems unable to do anything to move legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, meaning instead being a leader on the global warming issue, the United States prefers the role of laggard. At this point, I would be happy if we could just be laggards. Instead, we prefer to just stick our heads in the sand and ignore the issue altogether.

To complement the near record snowfalls last winter, the East Coast (where I live) has been suffering through record high temperatures. It is not our imaginations. No less than NOAA has formally declared that the March through June of this year has been the hottest months on record. Doubtless these records will be easily broken, likely next year. As much as we would prefer to ignore global warming, chemistry is what chemistry is. Keep dumping more carbon into the atmosphere and average temperatures are going to increase.

Storm events on average are also getting more severe. We here in the mid-Atlantic witnessed this again this weekend when a powerful cell of thunderstorms raced through our area, taking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers and causing three deaths. The thunderstorms came with seventy mile an hour winds that toppled trees like matchsticks and killing a boy in nearby Sterling, Virginia.

It just so happened that about an hour after the thunderstorms blew through, my wife and I had a party to attend in Montgomery County, Maryland. We ended up on roads blocked by trees. We encountered downed power lines stretching across the road. Needless to say, we turned around and tried other routes. At least half of the traffic lights were out as well. The lights were also out at the house where our party was held, but daylight and cooler temperatures from the storms made the party endurable. Most likely the house is still without power, as is much of the more rural parts of Montgomery County. Power crews from as far away as Ohio are coming to help restore power. One thing is clear: with record heat, there was plenty of energy driving these massive thunderstorms.

July in the Washington region is always a time you sweat your way through. Triple digits are not uncommon, nor are Code Red, Orange, Yellow and Purple days when the air quality is poor. The air quality doesn’t have to be this bad but, of course, we refuse to look toward renewable forms of energy. Instead, Midwestern power plants along with power plants hidden in the Appalachian Mountains grind out the energy our air conditioners need, almost entirely using coal. The greenhouse gases of course go into the atmosphere, turn our local atmosphere toxic soup and make the already dangerous triple digit heat even more dangerous.

I thought I had seen everything global warming had to offer at this point until on Sunday when I took a shower. In sweltering ninety degree plus heat and humidity I found I had to replace a post with our mailbox on it. I tried to minimize my misery by doing it during the mid morning, but it was still a sweaty and exhausting job. I looked forward to a tepid shower when I finally finished the job, knowing that a cold shower was out of the question.

The last thing I wanted though was a hot shower, so I kept dialing back the hot water until nothing was coming from our water heater at all. Instead of tepid water, though I was getting warm water. If I was hoping to cool down from a shower, I had hoped in vain. Our land was so hot and so cooked that our water pipes, buried more than a foot underground, now carried only warm water.

This was new. Eighteen sweltering summers in my house but only now in 2010 have I had no choice but to endure a warm shower.

Nothing will convince climate skeptics, but if I were looking for proof this warm shower experience would be very alarming. But not for long. Soon, I will expect to take warm showers during the summers. As for climate skeptics, if they acknowledge it at all, they will probably say it’s entirely natural. It’s part of God’s plan or something, when all it really is is us humans thoughtlessly and recklessly throwing trillions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. All this global warming is entirely preventable. All we have to do is choose to act.

Instead, we seem to be embracing our extinction. Climate skeptics tend to be pro-life, so to me the irony of their position is inescapable. Let’s just hope that on our way to extinguishing our own species a few other species can cling on. Perhaps they can find a way to live in balance with nature. We sure haven’t. Nor do we seem inclined to do anything meaningful that would at least halt our extinction.

Unlike the millions of species that went extinct due to natural selection, at least we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

Future generations trying to survive in an overpopulated and overheated world will rue us for our current thoughtlessness. We won’t care. We will be dead but oh, the memories we will take to our graves: driving big and dirty cars, eating greasy artery clogging food and comfortable summers spent indoors in air-conditioned houses. These climate skeptics might as well give our children and grandchildren the finger, because it’s obvious they don’t really care about them or their children. All they care about is living selfishly and recklessly and letting others in the future pay the consequences.

The age of limits

The Thinker by Rodin

The motto for the University of Central Florida (where I got my bachelor’s degree) is “Reach for the stars”. For a university less than an hour’s drive to Cape Canaveral it is an appropriate motto. While UCF will continue reaching for the stars, the world in general and America in particular is realizing that reaching for the stars is unaffordable.

I am not speaking specifically about the space program although we are “reaching for the stars” a lot less than we used to. For example, the Obama administration is trying (wisely, I think) to retire the space shuttle. It also has the novel idea that in the future, the private sector should provide the government with a service to get astronauts into earth orbit and back. High unemployment and exploding deficits seem to be generating a bipartisan consensus that we now have more government than we can afford.  Believe it or not, I agree.

It is my opinion that given our modern world we probably need more government, at least for select programs. However, I don’t see how to pay for these programs without cutting others. Granted, the government can be staggeringly inefficient. While certain agencies are very efficient and indeed innovative, others are hugely wasteful. This week’s Washington Post investigation into the proliferating and apparently overlapping authorities working in the murky and high-classified world of counterterrorism shows good intentions gone seriously awry. There appears to be no central authority managing all this. We do have a Director of National Intelligence but in reality, the DNI is more of a coordinator than a director, as he does not have budget authority. This explains the high turnover among DNIs. Even if he did have the authority, it would prove a Herculean task to align our counterterrorism priorities with this kudzu of agencies and contractors and their proliferating and overlapping missions.

The main reason the United States is not reaching for the stars is that a lot of genuinely needed government is squeezed by the steadily increasing costs of entitlements. These entitlements are principally Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, although the list could also be expanded to include items like federal pensions. Arguably, we could actually get both health insurance costs under control, push it out on the private sector, pay a whole lot less and cover all Americans if we adopted the Japanese health care model. Perhaps we will get there someday but right now, we prefer to dither around the edges. The recently enacted health care legislation is a step in the right direction, but only a step.

Efficiencies in government programs are fine, but ultimately all government must be paid for with taxes. However, you can only pay taxes in relation to your income. With less income, less discretionary money to spend, and with more of it allocated toward health care, the consumer can no longer prop up the economy, which reduces economic growth. Moreover, if economic growth slows or halts, tax revenues must slow as well.

As Joe Bageant depressingly points out, future economic growth also assumes that nature will keep providing us with its bounty in endless supply. It assumes that we be able to find new affordable sources of mineral wealth and endless new tracts of land for agriculture and housing needed for a burgeoning population. Unfortunately, it appears that most of the easily available minerals have been extracted, which means the cost of living is going up. If our income does not keep pace then our standard of living is likely to be lower. Moreover, land is also finite. We cannot continue to grow forever by developing unspoiled land. Survival itself is predicated on the existence of nature. In short, growth is becoming more expensive. The more we grow, the more it costs to grow, and the less benefit there is to growth.

Thinking Americans seem to understand that we have reached a nebulous growth limit. If we can grow our way out of our economic problems, it will be at an unacceptable cost. We saw what the cost was recently with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Moving to an energy economy based on renewable energy is certainly more desirable than our current hydrocarbon-based economy, which among other things made June 2010 the hottest June on record. Our structural problems though are far larger than creating a clean energy future.

The real problem is we have reached a critical mass of people. Since 1970, the United States increased its population roughly by half: another hundred million people. From now on, population growth is going to introduce disproportionately negative effects. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, population growth is unstoppable. This means that the cost of living is going to increase, as more of us compete for fewer and more expensive resources.

The effects are being borne out not just at the federal government, but at state and local governments as well. As costs eat away at income, there is less revenue available for governments. Inevitably, this means fewer services. However, right now it seems impossible to come to consensus on how to address the problem. If government must be cut, what should be cut first? Since we essentially have government by corporation, it is likely that corporate interests will triumph over the needs of citizens.

Inevitably, something must give. In fact, that something is already giving. All sides seem to acknowledge our problems are structural, but parties are unwilling to move from ideology toward pragmatic solutions. Republicans will block any tax increases if they can, even if, as in the case of repealing tax cuts for the rich, there is plenty of ability to pay. Democrats seem loathe to admit that any part of the welfare state needs to be trimmed back. Most think that with the right mixture of pixie dust we can maintain the welfare state without raising taxes on the middle class. Right now Democrats are content with the delusion that health care reform will change the dynamics of runaway spending, when it will not. Even President Obama understands this. He has stated that it will only slow the growth of health care spending.

It won’t help in November if voters respond to their frustrations and visceral fears by electing more ideologues to Congress. This merely extends our national dysfunction, adding to the final bill. Perhaps Tea Partiers secretly hope that if elected they can effectively bring about the collapse of the federal government, thus allowing government to be reconstituted under a smaller federal model. Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995. Maybe it will work in 2011.

Even if they succeed, reducing the scope of the federal government will not really address the central issue. Reducing the scope of the federal government merely pushes costs back on state and local governments. For example, states already pay hefty shares of Medicaid services. If the federal government were simply to stop contributing to Medicaid, states would either need to pick up the slack, drastically cut Medicaid services or end Medicaid altogether. Unfortunately, ending Medicaid altogether does not solve the problem of treating poor people’s medical problems. It would simply extend lines at emergency rooms and push up already high health care premiums, which would make more people lose health care coverage. To “solve” this problem would mean to not solve it at all: simply not treat those who cannot afford to pay. Let ‘em eat cake, I guess.

Unless things are fundamentally realigned in a workable way, many of these sorts of horrible choices are in our future. If we acted united rather than divided, we could manage these problems with much less pain. Social security, for example, is not in much financial trouble and extending the retirement age can make it solvent with no increase in taxes. The real problems are in wasteful and hugely overpriced health care programs, which are exacerbated by our unwillingness to eat right and exercise, perhaps because lower income Americans simply cannot afford healthy food. Our choices here are stark: either do away with health insurance except for the increasingly smaller proportion of people moneyed enough to afford it, or institute the sort of “socialized” medicine anathema to so many on the right, whose effect might well be the rationing they fear. (We already have rationing based on ability to pay. What terrifies the right is that a physician might be required to put someone with less money but a more chronic condition ahead of their ability to get care.)

In an age of limits, other sacrosanct programs must now become touchable. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates understands that in a weak economy runaway military spending cannot be sustained indefinitely. Consensus seems to be forming that our War on Terror, or at least in Afghanistan and Iraq, are no longer affordable nor are they buying us national security.

There is plenty of general government bloat that could be removed if we could summon the nerve; it’s not just where a lot of politicians think it is. Bloat includes the excessive and overlapping national security programs The Washington Post documented, huge and wasteful agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare in general, Medicare and Medicaid payment reform, and even our manned spaceflight program. We should not be cutting those services that are vitally needed to run our complex and increasingly interconnected world. Some of these agencies arguably need more money. These include the FDA, FAA, FCC, NIH, TSA and the SEC, to name a few. These agencies in reality spend only pocket change yet provide invaluable and absolutely necessary services.

The glass half-full news is that we are hardly alone. Even China at some point will have to scale back its growth and limit its services. Countries like China less leveraged by debt will have more breathing room, but the dynamics of population growth and resource limitations are inescapable for all nations. The more we resist these dynamics, the harder things are going to be.

Nature is trying to tell us to live simpler. We need to start listening.

Can being “prolife” be anti-life?

The Thinker by Rodin

If you pay attention to the news you have read about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. He was gunned down yesterday at his church in Wichita, Kansas by alleged murderer and “prolifer” Scott Roeder. Tiller was one of a small number of surgeons willing to provide late term abortions. He is hardly the first surgeon to pay with his life for providing abortions and he is unlikely to be the last. In fact, the National Abortion Federation has chronicled over 6000 acts or attempted acts of violence since 1977 against abortion providers, including eight deaths. Unsurprisingly, Roeder had close connections with the most extreme elements of the so-called prolife community.

Clearly many Americans feel passionately on the issue of abortion. If convicted, Roeder will be one of the virulent ones who felt murder was justified to prevent what he saw as other murders. Moreover, if convicted there is a significant possibility that Roeder will also be murdered, not by a pro-choice supporter, but by the prolife state of Kansas, which often executes first degree murderers.

I have noticed that being “prolife” rarely means being pro all life.  I doubt you will find many so-called prolifers who are also vegetarians. Sizeable numbers, and probably a majority of prolifers are also pro-capital punishment. This seems a reasonable inference in Kansas, which is heavily “prolife” but also heavily in favor of capital punishment. As has often been noticed, prolifers seem far more concerned about making sure pregnancies are carried through to birth than they are concerned about the babies after they are born. Many are glad to saddle mothers for the cost of their unplanned or unwanted offspring too. Whether conceived as a result of rape or incest, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to these folks. It’s all about principle. For them, life begins at conception. Never mind that when fertilization occurs the blastocyst is inert for an extended period of time, unless it comes in contact with the uterine wall and then gets lucky. Even so, Mother Nature provides all sorts of obstacles to keep many pregnancies from coming to term. I have a sister who miscarried. She certainly did not want to miscarry. You have to wonder though about some in the prolife crowd. If life is sacred, should all pregnant women also be required to take drugs to reduce the likelihood of miscarriage? Should they be charged with a crime if they miscarry and had not taken all possible recourses to prevent the miscarriage? I have no doubt that to many on the extremes the answer is “absolutely”.

Mother Nature does not intend all pregnancies to go to term. This too is entirely natural. There are millions of women who have needed abortions to save their own lives. In the mind of many prolifers, since they cannot deal with moral ambiguity, it is better to risk both the life of the mother and the fetus than to ensure one of them will survive. This is being prolife.

Maybe it is just me, but I suspect that people whose moral positions are absolute about anything are mentally deficient. We know from experience that life is ambiguous. It is built into our universe at no less than the subatomic level, as anyone who has studied quantum physics knows. To survive in this world we must all come to grips with the ambiguity that frames life. And yet, to absolutists like these ultra-extreme prolifers, they would prefer to ignore this uncomfortable reality. The cycle reaches its paradoxical and tragic nadirs in incidents like yesterday’s murder of Dr. George Tiller. The very incident is both tragic and rife with irony: that for some who value life more than anything, they must take it away, thus proving the paucity of their argument beyond ambiguity.

Absolutism is bound to twist and pervert the glorious dysfunctional ambiguity which is our natural world. Consider what our world would be like if we were 100% “prolife”. At the macro level there would be many more humans on the planet than we already have, many of them with serious and lifelong disabilities. There would also be many needlessly traumatized mothers, many of them who would not survive childbirth. Arguably we cannot sustain the people we already have on the planet, as witnessed by the resultant poverty and disease which tragically kills tens of millions of us every year. To the extent we add more humans on the planet, we further erode the mutual ecosystem on which all life depends.  The result of being “prolife” is to help ensure a reduced standard of living for those of us who are already alive and to make life for future generations of humans even more wretched and miserable. Ultimately, being “prolife” means being anti-life in general, pro-misery and anti-environmental.

If we are lucky, the best result for future generations will be similar to what is already unfolding in China: compulsory family planning. This is the most humane and environmentally benign way to deal with rampant population growth and a planet that cannot sustain this growth. Much more likely though will be larger and more brutal wars, genocides and suffering on scales that are hard for us to currently fathom. This will unfold in a world of diminished resources where we all fruitlessly try to ensure we get the life we want at the expense of someone else. Whatever form of homo sapien emerges from this dark future will be far more brutish, uncaring, inhuman and anti-life than anything alleged killer Scott Roeder will dish out in a single act of murder for the sake of some insane absolutist principle.

Perhaps it is time to embrace the ambiguity which is life here on earth. It may be the prolife thing to do.

For Obama: some environmental cheers and jeers

The Thinker by Rodin

No candidate running for president will run a perfect campaign and that certainly includes Barack Obama. When I endorsed him in January, I said he too was a flawed candidate. Overall, Mr. Obama has pleasantly surprised me with his post nomination campaign. He comes across as very thoughtful and articulate. It is clear that his campaign is remarkably well managed and on message.

If a presidential candidate is serious about winning, some accommodation toward the politically fickle winds of the moment is generally considered necessary. So we have seen in the last few days some statements by Barack Obama that have my head shaking. Pandering may seem necessary when winning at all costs is the goal, but when it happens it lowers my opinion of the candidate.

Obama’s proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was one of these political accommodations that made me wince. What a bad idea! Yes, I know his plan is to remove the easily refined light sweet crude oil from the SPR and replace it with the harder to refine heavy crude oil. This is supposed to result in no net loss from the SPR. As a result, he believes this will provide some working relief to the middle class, which is still reeling from the latest oil shock.

The SPR is there for a reason: to accommodate the nation’s needs in a national emergency. No such emergency exists. I grant that many families are suffering under the burden of $4 a gallon gasoline. Still, the economy is in no danger of collapse. Artificially lowering gas prices, if it works, simply encourages more of the dependence that got us in trouble in the first place. Obama says such a release would be temporary. He points to the effect of a decision made late in the Clinton administration to sell oil from the SPR and says that decision reduced gas prices. It is unclear whether it would have that effect today, but it would make it harder for America to get over its addiction to oil and move toward a post oil age. This is a politically expedient decision but overall a call I think he will regret.

Another bad call: tacitly agreeing with John McCain that we need to drill for oil off our coasts. Obama characterizes this change of heart as one part of an overall energy strategy and suggests such drilling would be limited. He knows that any oil we discovered would have but the most modest effect on oil prices. If oil companies started drilling tomorrow, it would be at least six years before we would see any oil from these fields.

There are a few reasons that oil companies are not drilling in these tracts that they are already allowed to drill in. Their geologists have surveyed these oil fields. The likelihood of getting oil in the quantity desired is slim and the cost of drilling in these deeper waters is high. In addition, you cannot force an oil company to drill for oil. Oil companies will look out for their bottom line, and if it does not increase it they will politely spurn politicians’ suggestions. This means that both Obama’s and McCain’s calls for drilling are specious. There are the many coastline states that have prohibited offshore drilling. They recall California’s 1969 experience that fouled 35 miles of beaches. Any oil that is recovered would have only the most modest effect on oil prices and would do nothing to move us to a post oil economy. Even if there were no oil spills, the drilling would have a major environmental impact on our seaboards.

What the nation needs is a comprehensive energy strategy that moves us into a post oil economy while simultaneously moderating greenhouse gas emissions. It may not get much in the way of votes, but if the nation had a strategy like this backed up by money and commitment it would be good not only for the nation and the environment, but good for the economy too. It would stimulate growth in jobs that are environmentally friendly.

However, I did like Obama’s speech today in Berea, Ohio. Obama pointed out a few days ago that a great way to reduce oil consumption is for drivers to make sure their car is tuned regularly and their tires are properly inflated. Republicans for some reason latched on to it as a crazy idea and began handling out tire pressure gauges to draw people’s attention to the proposal. This attitude is particularly odd coming from Republicans, who are reputedly big on individual responsibility. His proposal is not laughable; it is effective and can be made workable.

If I were running for president, I would do more than just suggest that Americans do these things. I would give modest tax deductions or credits for having your car tuned. Aside from the 1-3% reduction in oil consumption, if Americans practiced this regularly, it would help get Americans into the habit. Most Americans are too busy to be proactive about car maintenance. Knowing they can get a tax deduction for being kind to the environment (and their wallet) can lead to a pattern where most people will have their cars tuned regularly.

Getting people to check their tire pressure regularly can be accomplished too. We could offer modest credits for gas stations that add or expand air pressure hoses. A tire pressure center should provide tire pressure gauges on site and easy guides for determining the correct tire pressure for your tires. Why not add a penny to the gasoline tax but offer a penny a gallon rebate for checking your tire pressure within one hour of filling your tank? Simply insert the same credit card you used for your gas purchase to activate the tire pressure system at your gas station where you filled your tank to claim your credit. These modest steps, along with regularly increasing CAFE standards are pragmatic steps toward energy independence.

I suspect that before this campaign is over we will see many more accommodations by both Obama and McCain to lure in swing voters with proposals that are stupid. I just hope that these latest proposals from Obama are not serious and are discreetly dropped when, as I expect, Obama wins the election in November.

A new inconvenient truth: we need to raise taxes

The Thinker by Rodin

Way back in 2003, I penned this post that more than five years later still gets regular hits. (It has received eighty hits since the start of the year, according to Google Analytics.) I was very politically incorrect back then when I suggested that we are not paying enough in taxes. I still feel this way and I am sad to say that recent news articles bear me out. We are woefully behind simply maintaining the infrastructure that we have. This was tragically borne out a year ago with the catastrophic bridge collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis that killed thirteen people. As a direct result of this event, federal and state money suddenly materialized to replace this bridge. The replacement bridge will cost $234 million and is scheduled for completion by Christmas.

You would think that this event might have changed the dynamics. However, as the Associated Press found, just twelve percent of our most structurally deficient high use bridges have been repaired. It would cost an estimated $140 billion to repair just the bridges that need to be repaired right now. Yet, President Bush is threatening to veto a transportation bill because it spends $1 billion more than he likes. It will not surprise you to learn that Bush’s motives are wholly ideological. He is a conservative and conservatives do not believe in raising taxes or spending money on projects not considered essential. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, bridge construction is not essential to this president. Our War in Iraq though is essential, and at least some of that money is going to build new bridges for Iraqis. Apparently, bridges are essential for Iraq, but are not essential for the United States. Go figure.

I picked bridge repair as an example only because it is easy to see the consequences of inaction. In fact, our infrastructure is crumbling all around us. Here in Virginia, our state House of Delegates once again bollixed up attempts to raise transportation taxes. The result is that not just bridges that are suffering, but cars spend much time sitting in traffic and consequently unnecessarily spewing emissions. So far this year there have been three Code Red air quality days for the Washington region, and twelve Code Orange days.

Better air quality, like safe bridges, are solvable problems. Neither is solved by rocket science but by the application of money and will. Just as maintaining your car means you extend its useful life, bridge life can be extended through regular maintenance too. Instead, we would rather defer the cost of maintenance to have a little more cash in our pockets today. The result is like driving your car on a half a quart of oil. You can do it for a while, but at some point, you are looking at some very expensive consequences. It is pennywise and pound-foolish.

The anti-tax crowds, epitomized by nuts like Grover Norquist, are pennywise folk. They are convinced that all expenditures of money by governments are ultimately wasteful no matter how much they address a public need. Their philosophy though amounts to living in the moment and closing their ears when the application of their philosophy results in inconvenient news, like what happened in Minneapolis one year ago exactly on August 1, 2007. These problems do not go away by ignoring them. They simply get worse and more expensive to fix.

The irony is that if instead of aggressively cutting taxes we had prudently kept the old tax rates then we would have had the money back then to fix many of the systemic problems that are cropping up all over the place today. Our tax rates seemed quite acceptable to the American public when our president was inaugurated. We were even paying back some of our massive debt. Granted, even back in 2000 we were not quite spending what we needed to spend to address problems like deteriorating bridges. This was due in part to federal gas taxes not having changed since 1993. However, construction costs have increased during that time. The result is that there is less money available to fund projects like bridge maintenance. Rather than raise gas taxes, thus far Congress’ solution is to charge it. Hopefully only as an interim measure, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to add eight billion dollars to the Highway Trust Fund by supplementing it with money from general Treasury funds. In other words, we will go into more debt to pay for it and pass its cost on to future generations.

Our fiscal crisis in many ways mirrors our blindness with the oil crisis. We buy more foreign oil because we are used to an oil-based economy and do not want to think about how hard it would be to change to something else. We know that recoverable oil is a finite resource that in general will only get pricier because it will be harder to extract. Similarly, we borrow money from creditors on the expectation that they will always be willing to lend it to us. As some overleveraged homeowners are finding out, if your liabilities exceed your assets no one is willing to loan you any money. The same can happen to the United States government. Our weak dollar, trading at record lows, suggests the time may not be that far off.

To solve the oil crisis we must realize that we cannot drill our way back to our previous lifestyle. To solve our fiscal crisis, we have to realize that we cannot indefinitely depend on our creditors unless we first show a willingness as a nation to roll up our sleeves to fix some of these problems. In short, we need to raise taxes.

Raising taxes is never convenient, particularly at a time when so many Americans are struggling. That is why my suggestion will go over like a lead balloon. That is also why if I were ever inclined to move my fantasy run for president into a real run for president, my message would fall mainly on deaf ears. Like John Anderson in 1980, I would lose spectacularly.

Still, most of us, if we stop listening to the spin and start listening to our hearts, know that we face a new inconvenient truth. The cost of not raising taxes today simply means that to fix these problems tomorrow will cost even more. So yes, for a while, those extra taxes would hurt. At some point, you sufficiently address the under-funded infrastructure problems and taxes can be eased. Nevertheless, taxes must never be eased beyond the point that we can adequately maintain the infrastructure we need to run our modern society.

Instead of running for president, all I can do is be that fly in the ointment. I am more than willing to pony up my share of additional taxes. Most likely, I would pay disproportionately more in taxes than many of you, since I have a six-figure income. I do not like paying more taxes either, but I am willing to do so. I do know that despite laughably naïve men like Grover Norquist, we are interconnected. We critically depend on our infrastructure and our social safety nets. Since like you I get great value from these things, I am not afraid to pay my share.

As was true when I wrote about it in 2003, things cost money! They cost what they cost because that is how much it costs! No ideology can change this. I expect to pay close to $200 on Monday to have a locksmith fix a bad lock, which must work with our house key. It seemed like a lot of money to me too, but that is the going rate for fixing a problem that I cannot fix by myself. I would rather pay the $200 than find that anyone could get into my house or that I could not get out when I needed to.

We have a great nation that thanks to the low tax mantra is rapidly moving from first-class status to second-class status. I think I am a patriot by coming forward to proclaim that I am willing to have my taxes raised to make sure we remain a first class nation.

The hard road ahead

The Thinker by Rodin

In 1980 at the tender age 23, I voted for John B. Anderson for President. Anderson was an independent candidate. Anderson was full of great ideas that were politically non-starters. One of his ideas was to increase the federal gasoline taxes by fifty cents per gallon. This was at a time when you could buy a gallon of gasoline for under a dollar a gallon. His rationalization was that the tax would serve three purposes: reduce our dependence on foreign oil (we had already been through two oil shocks during the 1970s), give us incentive to practice conservation and provide the funds needed to achieve energy independence. This great idea killed his campaign. He started his campaign at above 25% support in polls and ended up with 7% of the vote.

John B. Anderson, Independent for President in 1980

In one of life’s little ironies, just a month after the tragic events of September 11th, John Anderson showed up at my church and gave a talk. (See picture.) He was then about to retire as president of the World Federalist Society (now Citizens for Global Solutions). There was time for questions and answers after his lecture. I went to the podium, looked him in the eye and told him I proudly voted for him in 1980. I mentioned his gas tax proposal and opined that events had sure proven him right. Had we taken the unpopular steps he suggested in 1980 and imposed on ourselves a fifty cent a gallon gasoline tax, the events of September 11th likely could have been avoided. It was President Reagan after all who strategically aligned us with Saudi Arabia, providing a compact of military arms for a dictatorial state for the assurance of low oil prices. It was our support of this oppressive state that provided the animus for Osama bin Laden, a citizen of Saudi Arabia to target the United States on September 11th. If only we had the courage to follow through on Anderson’s courageous idea, three thousand Americans who died that day would still be alive and we might also be energy independent today.

Change is never fun and serious change is usually resisted. Those who embrace inevitable changes though often end up ahead in the end. Why has the Euro been doing so well while the U.S. dollar has been in the toilet? It is because in Europe they were prepared for a changing world. Gasoline has been highly taxed for decades in Europe specifically to discourage the automobile and to encourage public transportation. If you have been to Western Europe, you know that it has phenomenal public transportation. Right now, Europe is also leading the way on global climate change. Among many initiatives, it is markedly reducing its carbon footprint through fuel efficiency standards in place today that we will not have in ten years. Not surprisingly, the European economy is doing rather well in shaky economic times. Its currency is so valuable because Europe as it is configured and managed is very well matched for our changing times.

What has the United States done? It would be polite to say we have been dragging our feet. In reality, we have largely ignored the environment and concentrated on glorious selfishness instead. We started an unnecessary and foolish war in Iraq that is bankrupting us. We have pretended to care about global climate change while doing almost nothing to address it. We have blithely ignored the consequences of our increased oil dependency. Public transportation, which is still inadequately funded, remains focused on highways and bridges. We have thrown mostly chump change at mass transit solutions.

It’s karmic payback time. In the years to come, we are going to get sticker shock at the cost of having ignoring these problems for so many decades. We may come to resemble Haiti in the sense that we will ask our leaders to deliver the impossible: address climate change, keep our taxes low but not allow our standard of living to change. If the 1980 election is any guide, when we discover our current leader cannot do it, we will elect someone else who will claim they can, but who will also fail.

Whether we like it or not, the times, they are a changing. We can choose to adapt to this new reality or, more likely, continue to try to have the same selfish lifestyle we always have had and take half measures. However, more of the same will only result in additional unnecessary pain. It is time to acknowledge that our future lives will be markedly more downscale than our current lives are. This transition is unlikely to be much fun. As a nation, we are in the initial phase of an extended high colonic.

Here are some likely outcomes that I see. Traditionally, the cost of living out in the country has been cheap. That is going to change. Life in the country may become a privilege for the rich. To live in the country you will have to pay the freight: ever-higher gas prices. As those living further out feel the gas squeeze, they will naturally choose to live closer in. By doing so, they will be less affected by the cost of oil. They will also be closer to jobs. By living closer in, they will have access to public transportation so they can get by with one or no cars. This will allow them to have a comparatively higher standard of living and more job security than if they live in the country or in a far-flung exurb.

This will work for a while. Of course, economic factors will make most who do not live around a city also want to move in closer too. This means land prices will rise the closer you are to urban areas. Which means the cost of living will go up around cities too. You will feel damned either way. As I suggested in a recent post, people watching these mega-trends are already making the smart choices. They are moving in now while housing prices and interest rates are down. Their houses are going to be smaller than they envisioned, but they will gladly pay this price for convenient access to jobs and transportation.

Energy costs will continue to rise, which will drive everything toward energy efficiency. Energy efficiency though will not come cheap. New houses will probably need more than just better insulation and highly energy efficient windows. They will need solar panels on the roof. It will be built into the building codes. Houses will be required to be built with LEED Silver or better standards. This will raise the cost of housing making it that much harder to afford to buy a house in the first place. Older houses are probably too hard to retrofit to be LEED compliant. Eventually they will become too expensive to inhabit, so they will have to be replaced with energy efficient houses. More likely, they will be replaced with condos and apartment communities. Demand will require it.

We will require readily accessible public transportation. This will mean heavy rail, light rail, trains, buses and bike trails everywhere and maybe even the return of trolleys. This cannot be done for free. It will require substantial tax increases. In short, we are all going to feel very squeezed which will have the consequence of us having lifestyles that will seem markedly poorer than our parents. We will probably resent this new reality.

What I have outlined is something of a best case. What actually happens is likely to be quite different and probably worse. Certain trends like people migrating from far-flung areas to closer in areas are inevitable. Most likely, we will try incentives like tax credits to ease the pain. Yet tax credits still have to be paid from somewhere. In short, to reinvent society takes incredible amounts of money. We will pay it one-way or the other. It can be intelligently accomplished through taxes and careful planning, or unintelligently through reaction to market forces. It is a road that we will have no choice but to traverse. However, we do have a choice on how painful it will be. As with most things, the sooner you start and the more intelligently it is accomplished, the less painful it will probably be.

I suspect that if a candidate today proposed a fifty cent a gallon tax on gasoline, he would get the same response at the voting booth that John Anderson received in 1980. Unfortunately, because we have dragged our feet for thirty years, the cost of procrastination has gone up dramatically.

So get ready. Our economic foundations are starting a seismic shift that will affect every one of us. Are you going to work with these natural forces? Or are you going to resist them? We all need to realize that to adjust to these new realities will require extraordinary sacrifice, akin to what our parents went through during World War II, but unfortunately lasting much longer. Over the next fifty years, we will have to reinvent ourselves as a society and as a world. I hope that this time we find the determination to do it intelligently. If government of the people, by the people and for the people is not to perish, we the people are going to have to come to terms with these costly changes that are already unfolding all around us.

Trapped in exurbia

The Thinker by Rodin

As a part time prognosticator, I sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes I get it right. When I get it right, it is not necessarily a reason for feeling smug. Today, I reread this post that I wrote back in 2005. I wrote it when the oil squeeze was just beginning. I remarked how uncomfortable I felt seeing new exurbias sprouting up in nearby Loudoun County, Virginia because virtually all of them are inaccessible to public transportation. I wondered what would happen to these communities with continued increases in price of oil or its unavailability.

Now we are finding out, and the answer is scary, as this NPR story reports. Ashburn, Virginia is in Loudon County, Virginia and part of the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It is one of those newly built exurbias. What is happening in Ashburn is that home prices are tumbling much faster than the national average.

Realtor Danilo Bogdanovic surveyed two rows of neat, new, brick townhouses on Falkner’s Lane. “These were selling for about $550,000 at the peak, which was about August ’05, and they’re selling right now for about $350,000,” Bogdanovic said. “Fifty percent of this community has been ether foreclosed on or is facing foreclosure.”

Coincidentally, my hair stylist lives in Ashburn. Today while she was cutting my hair, we were chatting about high gas prices. If she and her husband had to do it over again, she said, they would have never moved to Ashburn. Their gas prices are driving a big dent in their budget. Yet, I learned, moving in closer was not an option. They would lose too much money, because their house was worth less than they paid for it. If her house is on Falkner’s Lane, I can understand why she would feel blue, since she might now own a house worth $200,000 less than what she paid for it.

What might turn things around? As I implied back in 2005, some public transportation might help. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist in Loudoun County, but it is very limited and assumes you commute to work in Washington, D.C. A resident of Ashburn could drive or bike to the Dulles North Transportation Center and from there take an express bus into Washington D.C. This bus is not cheap. It costs $6.00 each way with a smart card, or $7.00 if you pay cash.

What would someone in Ashburn do if they needed to commute to some other job center like Tyson’s Corner? Perhaps they could catch another bus at the West Falls Church Metro Station, where the bus stops on its way into Washington. What if they need to take public transportation to go to a doctor’s office in Reston, Virginia? It might be technically possible at certain times of the day, if they can make it work with the commuter bus schedule and make their bus transfers on time. What if they need to take public transportation to go to the grocery store? As best I can tell, there are no such routes. Even if routes were put into place, given that Ashburn is such a sprawled out community they might have to walk a mile or more just to get to a bus stop.

For all practical purposes, residents of Ashburn are stuck. Owning a car is required to live there. Their lifestyle is held hostage by the price of oil. Oil prices may seem astronomical, but they are fortunate that gas is available at any price. Without it, Ashburn would become a gigantic modern ghost town. Combine rising oil prices with a falling dollar and the negative net worth of so many residents of Ashburn and you end up with houses that are worth $200,000 less than they were just three years ago. You have whole communities of people with negative equities in their houses, unable to move and who are one job loss away from financial catastrophe.

My own house is about three miles away from Reston. Reston is a major source of employment and has thousands of great jobs for knowledge workers. In the unlikely event that you lose your job at one company in Reston, you can probably pick another one like it somewhere else in Reston. A Fairfax Connector bus serves my neighborhood, but it operates during rush hours only. However, my house is just three to five miles away from thousands of jobs, not ten or fifteen miles away like in Ashburn. Where I live, you can probably get to your job without a car if needed. I bicycle to work, which is three miles away, three or four days a week. Consequently, gas prices affect me much less than most commuters. Yet even if I worked downtown, I still would not be too badly inconvenienced. I could bike to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride, which is also three miles away, or grab the 929 bus, which runs by a road a few hundred feet from my door. Once at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride there are plentiful express buses that will take me to the West Falls Church Metro station. From there I can get to any place on the Metro system. If I needed to take a bus to nearby Reston, Herndon, or even some of the local malls, I can transfer at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride. Obviously, I could get to these places more quickly by car, but it is possible. The same cannot necessarily be said about communities like Ashburn.

My neighborhood is not immune to the real estate slowdown either. Our house has lost about $75,000 in value since its 2005 peak. However, that is $75,000 though, not $200,000. There are plenty of houses for sale on my street, virtually all in excellent condition. We live in a terrific family neighborhood where owners take pride in their houses. I suggested to my stylist that they should move to a house on my street. She would be two miles from work so the cost of gasoline would be insignificant. However, with the negative equity in her house, moving is out of the question. Where would she and her husband find the money to pay off their loan on closing?

I do not think these underlying dynamics are likely to change. We are at the beginning of a fundamental transformation of America. This means our love affair with the automobile is likely to change dramatically. At best, I expect oil prices will stay about where they are now. Therefore, for many homeowners out in exurbia the financial squeeze, already bad, is likely to get much more painful. The long-term trends though are clear. Unless you can work from your home or can find employment close by that pays your bills, do not buy in the exurbia. If you are in the exurbia and can move in close, this is the time to do it.

Housing prices are down substantially in good neighborhoods like mine that are close to jobs and public transportation. Because prices are down and mortgages are very affordable, now is an excellent time to buy in these neighborhoods. It may not be easy to sell your current house, but as I learned in 1993 if you lower the price enough you can sell any house. You can buy a better and closer house at a substantial discount and be primed for appreciation during this seismic realignment of society. In addition, selection is plentiful.

To the many residents of Ashburn and similar far-flung communities who are feeling the squeeze, you have my sympathy. If I lived in Ashburn, I would still move closer in if I could find a way. The long-term housing dynamics for Ashburn and places like it look dismal. You may find yourself inhabiting a modern ghost town.

Some pragmatic ways you can help save the planet

The Thinker by Rodin

It is one thing to say you are pro-environmental. It is another to change your life to minimize your impact on the planet. It is especially hard today because modern living tacitly requires you to be anti-environmental.

For example, most of us recognize that the cars we drive are major contributors to the global warming as well as foul the air. As a practical matter, we cannot give up our cars because to do so life becomes incredibly inconvenient. To give up a car you generally need to live in the city where the cost of living is typically higher. Even if you can settle in the city and live carless, lugging your groceries weekly by bus, often from supermarkets far away from where you live, gets tiresome rather quickly.

So of course, we tend toward pragmatism, which often means our environmental actions are half hearted. Nonetheless, short of living on a street corner there are things that you can do that will dramatically reduce your environmental impact. Here are some choices to ponder. I will broadly group these into long term, medium term, and short term.

On the macro level, the two biggest things you can do are to have fewer children and to become a vegetarian. By having fewer children, I mean you should strive to do what they do in China: have one child, not two or three. The planet needs fewer people. The maximum the planet can sustain and live comfortably with nature is about a billion humans. My wife and I made a choice to have just one child. I confess our reasons were only partially environmental. They were also selfish. One child is easier to manage than two. Whereas providing a college education for two children would be challenging, providing it for one is much easier. Family life in general is simpler in smaller families because there are fewer people who need care.

There is no question that vegetarianism is great for the planet. It is also very good for your health and longevity. I confess that I am not a vegetarian, however neither am I a rabid meat eater. I eat red meat rather infrequently and the meat I do consume tends to be 70% or more chicken. My friend Wendy is anxious to induct me into what she refers to as “The Church of Vegetarianism”. I suspect in my case a full conversion would require divorce, which in itself would not necessarily help the environment since two people living together is the more environmentally benign. Nonetheless, in part thanks to Wendy, I am more mindful of the meat that I do eat.

Morningstar Farms, for example, is getting much better at creating vegetarian products for those used to meat. While they do not quite taste like meat, they are an acceptable substitute. Their Grillers imitation hamburgers, for example, are at least 50% of the way toward tasting like meat and have a similar texture. Particularly when I do not want to fuss with dinner and I am eating alone, a veggie burger makes for a reasonably tasty entrée. It takes huge amounts of plant food to fatten any animal so you can consume it. To say the least it is an inefficient process. Most farm animals also generate huge amounts of animal waste. Vegetarians will also rightly point out that there is no humane way to slaughter an animal.

In the medium term, we need to factor the environment into all our choices. Understandably, many people would not choose to live in the city if they have a choice. However, living in cities tends to be a good way for humans to minimally impact the environment. Living in denser communities means that there is less reason to develop new tracts of land. This leaves more open space for the many species that are already threatened by our population growth. If you can live in a city without a car, you are making perhaps the most significant contribution possible toward reducing your impact on the planet in a first world country.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as citizens is to relentlessly petition our legislators to vote for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, allows you to rate your legislators on how “green” they are. Grinning Planet maintains a site with links to organizations that keep environmental scorecards at the state level. If you are having problems determining the true environmentalist candidates from the faux environmentalists, many such organizations provide endorsements. Besides voting and lobbying your representatives to pass greener legislation, if you have extra time and or money these organizations also need your help.

Other things you can do: get permission to work from home one or more days a week. That takes one commuter off the roads and lets you sleep in later. When commuting, take public transportation if possible. If you happen to live close enough to work where driving is optional, do what I do and bike to work when the weather is seasonable. Likely, you need more exercise anyhow.

When choosing jobs, prefer jobs that are easily accessible to public transportation. Often commuting using public transportation is not practical. Consider a carpool or vanpool instead. I spent most of my career working in and around Washington D.C. while commuting from the suburbs. I took the Metro for a number of years. Mostly I commuted by carpool or by vanpool. Not only did I save time and money, but also my employer was generous enough to subsidize my vanpool expenses.

If you own your own home, there are many things that you can do. You can be environmentally friendly and save energy with new energy efficient windows or better insulation while reaping nice tax credits. Last year we replaced our windows and earned a $200 tax credit. Solar energy may seem so seventies, but tax credits are available if you install either solar panels or solar water heating, and it is unlikely your homeowner’s association can prohibit your from doing so. Many of these things are not just good for the environment, but good for your wallet. Another simple way to be kinder to the environment and your wallet is to install a programmable thermostat. Why heat or cool your house when you will not be there? In our house, we are aggressive in our use of ceiling fans. This allows us to keep the thermostat a bit higher in the summer without noticing the higher room temperature. While many people loathe heat pumps, in moderate climates they tend to be the most efficient way to heat or cool your home. A heat pump that extracts heat from your soil is better and more efficient than one that pulls it from the air. Of course, choose natural fertilizers and weed control techniques when possible. If your lawn is not too large, an electric mower is much more environmentally benign than a gas mower.

If you have not tried some short-term strategies, here are a few obvious ones. Replace your incandescent and halogen lamps with compact fluorescent lights. LED (light emitting diode) lights are even more energy efficient, but are just coming on to the market. Whenever you replace an appliance, look for the most energy efficient appliance. For example, front loading washers and dryers are more energy efficient than top loading models.

Consider buying used, even if you can afford new. Thrift stores have an unearned bad reputation. By buying used clothes there, you are being good to the environment. Of course where possible recycle and donate items you no longer use. It is particularly important to keep electronic items out of landfills. If you look for them, you can find places in your community that will recycle these items, often for a fee.

Perhaps the best way to help the planet is just to be environmentally mindful every day. In addition to trying to persuade your legislators to vote green, word of mouth can be often useful too. Make sure your friends and neighbors know about your environmental leanings and encourage (but don’t nag) them toward making better environmental choices.

Americans have been adept at ignoring the interdependent web of life. That time has passed. The effects of our reckless selfishness are now very clear. Like it or not, any action you take has a reaction. I hope you will join me and millions of others by making your actions better for the environment. In doing so, you are truly giving the gift of life.