Last night in the Vancouver area was a case study in how even carbon-taxed gasoline, and pump prices above $1.50/litre, aren’t even beginning to make a change in the average person’s habits, exemplified by jumping behind the wheel and sitting idling for hours in traffic. (In the interests of fairness, I count myself amongst that group — although a combination of good timing with the double lane northbound on the Lions’ Gate Bridge and the reopening of the Ironworkers’ Memorial Second Narrows Bridge meant we only spent 25 minutes in the queue on West Georgia St. to access the North Shore. This is not an exercise in pointing fingers: we all have a lot of habits to re-educate.)
What made this fascinating was the sheer number of people moving back and forth between the North Shore and the City core for the purpose of getting to a prime vantage point to see the Dominion Day fireworks at Canada Place, launched above Burrard Inlet, which separates North Vancouver from Vancouver proper — and that, from the prime points of Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver to the area around Canada Place itself runs the SeaBus, a public transport system (plus free parking in quantity at Lonsdale Quay). In other words, the long queue — stretching from the bridge approach all the way back to three blocks from Lonsdale Quay of people trying to leave the North Shore for the city — was eminently avoidable (as was my family’s car trip to North Vancouver for dinner and fireworks watching as well).
Nevertheless, complaining about the sheer cost of fuel, cars lined up and docilely spewed exhaust while consuming tankloads of fuel, simply because we can’t imagine any other way of getting there from here. (Raphael Alexander’s report at his blog, Unambiguously Ambidextrous, on his mis-adventures in road life, serve as another view on yesterday’s behaviour here in Lotusland, the ecotopian gem of the country.)
It ought to be clear enough, one would think, that we have approached an inflection point where how we lived previously is in jeopardy, and that learning new habits is required. (It was in the summer of 2001 that I was purchasing fuel for my car — the same trusty economical Honda Civic I still drive — for $0.54.1/litre; today it’s $1.52.0.) Yet nothing has really changed: we complain, but suck it up and continue to pay. In the same way we move to ever-farther suburbs (excusing our pending commuting costs as “something that will come back down”) to maintain a reasonable cost of accommodation, or take on masses of debt in a price bubble real estate market (when an 80-year-old bungalow on a minimal lot in need of serious renovation and repair in my neighbourhood sells for $2.3 million, all I can do is shake my head and picture the likelihood the buyer will end up under water with that mortgage!) — common sense has left the building, and mythology and a refusal to recognise that the changes have already occurred and now intensifying in amplitude and intensity rules the day. As Shane Edwards at The Politic.com pointed out, the “law of unanticipated consequences” now waits in the wings, bringing further disruptions and systemic shocks. Enjoy the summer; the fall and winter promise to be rocky, indeed!
I engaged in a quick conversation at lunch hour today with a fellow user of Twitter.com whom I happened to bump into in person (you can follow me on Twitter via this link) and he noted how the language of environmental change offered by his neighbours in the Bowen Island community is not borne out in practice — down to development on the island and the decisions being made with general public approval that reflect a “growth mentality” unabated. We parted agreeing that the price signals being received are nowhere near the point where behaviour will begin to change. “A doubling, at least, to $3.00/litre [and its equivalents for heating oil, natural gas, etc.] will be needed” was our consensus.
Since that conversation, however, I’m not convinced that even that will be enough. This is not even a reflection of the lack of investment in alternative public infrastructure. Rather, the rapidly freezing real estate market (it has flipped, suddenly in the last six weeks, into a buyer’s market from a seller’s market) and the mass indebtedness of society will cause us to freeze, deer-in-the-headlights style, in our current arrangements. Many will be trapped in mortgages that are under water, owing more than the sale of their property will realise, and forced to continue driving to work, to buy groceries, to ferry children in child-unfriendly suburbs (cul-de-sac communities branching off of arterial roads with single-purpose zoning are, alas, decidedly child-unfriendly: there’s no alternative to being driven), and the higher costs of everything just bring the moment of dispossession or bankruptcy closer. If one is trapped and there is no alternative, change is seldom entertained.
It has, of course, the potential to get much worse. Business activity will be severely impaired. Jobs will be shed in an effort to manage rising costs. Goods delivery will be increasingly erratic, as trucking falls apart (already its economics have eaten the profits from driving, and truckers are going bankrupt or parking their rigs because they can’t afford to operate them). Laying taxes down on top of these — BC is already sending the public smoke signals that the promise of lowering personal and business income taxes as the carbon tax escalates might not be kept if the economy slows, as “revenue neutrality” will convert into “maintain government revenues” — is a deadly double whammy.
As W. B. Yeats said in his well-known poem, “The Second Coming”, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. This is what it will take to bring us to the point of actually changing our habits. For, as Yeats also said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The average citizen is not bad; he or she is merely juggling priorities, and trying to hold his or her nose above the water while being squeezed unmercifully. Meanwhile, as always, those who thrive on controlling others escalate their volume and demand “action, more action”, thus making the problem worse as unanticipated consequences continue to pile up. Eventually, of course, the centre is rejected and the anarchy comes, but by then a generation or two have lost their assets and been crippled, and society has fallen apart to be rebuilt again.
Many, of course, plant their belief in technological change, most recently as reported in The Economist. In the long run, technological advances may well give us energy alternatives that make sense. In the short to medium term, however, we cannot reasonably expect the development and large scale deployment of the alternatives required, especially when delaying the purchase of a new vehicle is the first choice of action for anyone who is already financially strapped (and in BC, where a twenty year useful life for an automobile is not at all out of the question, and the cost of living is already sky high, don’t expect a fast turnover of the fleet on the roads to take advantage of changes). Demonstration projects and local initiatives, yes — not a wholesale replacement of the fossil fuel economy. (Indeed, just as with the oil sands in Alberta, which required the previous rise to a sustained oil price of $50.00/bbl or higher to make them economically viable, these alternatives will require today’s prices to be sustained or go higher to make them economically viable. Only those who are full of passionate intensity also believe the laws of supply and demand, or of sustainable economic activity, can be waived aside with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen and a politician’s speech.
No, it is the very dependence upon private (and near-private) motor transportation that must be overcome. But our urban and suburban infrastructures, our “globalised supply chain” economy, our ideas about single-purpose zoning and many more “facts on the ground” stand four-square against changing this, except for those willing to relocate and take losses in economic potential to do so early (the later switchers will find that the viable non-driving infrastructure is “not available at any price”).
Never forget that the Campbell Government’s top transportation priority is not public transportation, but roads for private trucking and private cars. The carbon tax that took effect yesterday is just a cash grab despite all the rhetoric: all the rest of their programme is geared to “more of the same”. Ignore their passionate intensity on the subject. As for the Stéphane Dion “Green Shift”, it is this and ten-fold worse, with its unabashed sense that “government will know best” — and no sense of what the priorities ought to be.
The life portrayed at Barkerville is returning quickly to being the best we can expect, except that we shall face it in the ruins of a civilisation that built to excess on a non-renewable resource basis. Where is the leader who will speak the truth of this? Where is the elimination of programmes to make way for investments in public infrastructure to mitigate that future? Where is the down-sizing of government to deal with a society that can’t afford its current taxation level as its economic output shrinks?
For make no mistake, if we do not prepare for this, all the personal habit changing in the world will be overcome by the violence and anarchy that will be unleashed as the centre finally fails to hold.