The Case Against More 

On Peter Gleick and the Idea of Less

The recent collapse of the I35-W bridge in Minneapolis can hardly be considered an environmental crisis, per se, but as I listened to NPR in the days that followed, I began to wonder if there was an environmental message somewhere in there. Transportation and infrastructure experts weighed in on the dire state of this nation’s tunnels, roads and bridges, and predicted a near-future epidemic of similar crises. Officials and politicians passed the buck, and a general hue and cry for more and better inspection and maintenance was raised in every corner of this internal-combustion-addicted nation. A call for inspection of every bridge in the country went out, but infrastructure-inspection capabilities were already functioning at maximum capacity at the time of the collapse, and structural problems are being addressed as quickly as possible. Remember our last great infrastructure failure? Katrina. Two years later and we still haven’t fixed that mess, which destroyed an entire city.

So, let’s assume, just for a minute, that our current approaches aren’t working. The I35 bridge was one of nearly 80,000 on a national list of “structurally impaired” bridges. Another 70,000 bridges have been deemed “functionally obsolete.” Both designations mean that the amount of traffic on these bridges should be reduced — the functionally obsolete should be replaced. According to a CNN.com article, 24.5 percent of our bridges carry more traffic than they were designed to. All our manmade systems are aging, as populations increase, consumption of goods multiplies exponentially, and resources dwindle. The world’s population has doubled since 1965, and keeps going up. And so it goes.

Last month on NPR I heard speakers at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival outline their “One Great Idea” — given five minutes to speak, a selection of “leaders” from Jessye Norman to Calvin O. Butts were asked to suggest one idea they felt could change the world. My favorite speaker was Peter Gleick, MacArthur grant winner and head of the Pacific Institute, a scientific-environmental thinktank. His idea? Less. We must change our expectations of infinitely expanding markets/populations/consumption to expectations of shrinking ones. Hmmm….

So now, let’s assume that more isn’t necessarily better — more inspection, more building, more bridges. We are, apparently, unable to maintain what we have, and if we continue to add to the system, we’ll have, well, more of what we already have: unmanageable bureaucracies that can’t perform the tasks they’re charged with, no matter how much money we throw at them. You know, FEMA, Iraq…We also don’t address any other problems in this approach: if we’re going to spend billions to keep our roads “safe,” maybe that safety should involve more than just keeping bridges from falling down. Or, to use a crappy metaphor, what if we treated the disease instead of its symptoms?

In this case the symptom is the broken bridge, but the disease is traffic — it’s wearing out the roads and bridges, and at the same time (though this isn’t yet part of the discussion) it’s causing health problems and contributing mightily to global warming. So how do we reduce that traffic? That’s easy: transport goods shorter distances, and improve public transportation for commuters. Tax gasoline so that the price we pay at the pump more accurately reflects the “hidden” costs of fuel consumption on our health, our environment, and yes, our roads. The primary source of funds for highway repair is an 18.4 cent/gallon tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, despite inflation and a dramatic increase in construction costs. The Pacific Institute authored a study this year that showed that for less than one percent of the revenue generated by freight transport, the health effects of that transport could be eliminated, and a significant burden on the health system could be eliminated.

Instead of endlessly adding to our (road, health, planet) maintenance burdens, why don’t we aim for a future of less, and spend money accordingly? Why not ask that every solution address more than a single problem? Why not demand more from less?

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