Circles

davew's picture


Here is a thought exercise. Draw a circle. You get to make the circle as big as you like, but you have to spend the rest of your life inside the circle. The vast majority of us would have absolutely no problem drawing a circle around the solar system, but I suspect a few NASA types would still reserve the right to send probes outside that would transmit back pictures of an extra-circle landscape. The vast majority of us would likewise have no problem trying to circle around the planet. It's a big planet and is always something new to do. Now for something a little harder.

Draw a circle around your continent. You can do anything you like, but you can't leave your continent. Pretend there's a plague on all the other continents and if you visit there you will be compelled to vote for Hillary Clinton. Now if you have a hankering to go to Venice, maybe you could be content with Vancouver. Want a beach adventure on the Great Barrier Reef? Perhaps Baja California will be adventurous enough for you. You absolutely must go to a place that requires you learn a foreign language? There is always Texas. How would it be if you do the circle around the country, your state, or perhaps even your county. How small could you draw a circle and still live a rich and happy existence?

Let me throw one other wrinkle into this thought experiment. The bigger you draw your circle the smaller your children will have to draw theirs. And not just you, if you and everybody else in your generation. And not just your children, but all the other children in their generation, and don't forget about their children. To make this little bit more realistic, you'd really need a series of concentric circles representing how far you go in the average day, week, month, and so forth. We humans consume vast resources just to shove our bodies around, and the only consideration is usually can I afford it. I think the better question is can we collectively afford it?

You might think the resource I am referring to is fossil fuels. While that is partially true you also have to take into consideration steel, copper, roads and rails, trains and airplanes. Nothing is without cost. A Toyota Prius driver might feel holier than a Ford pickup driver, but in reality they are only about 30% holier and the road they both drive on costs exactly the same. This is why I find the endless debates about CAFE standards, flex fuel cars, and even carpooling to be rather tiresome and largely pointless. Even the best of them only make our biggest problem slightly less bad. This is why I believe the circle is a more useful way to think about conservation. If your daily circle is 50 miles across, your travel options are very limited. If your circle is 5 miles across you have many more options.

The problem is most of us make decisions on where to live, where to work, where to send their children to school, and how to entertain ourselves based on the 50 mile circle. This is sad, but true. Sadder still many of these decisions, like buying a house, are difficult to undo.

The circles work both ways. The closer the things you buy are to you, the less energy it takes to bring them to you. By this scale, local beer is better than travelled beer. Local produce is better than that shipped in from California, Mexico, or China. It's not only better for the planet, but it is better for your local/state economy. Think of this as the tree-hugging equivalent of Buy American. Local water is better than shipped water. I view this as the worlds biggest "duh" yet the bottled water companies collectively make billions and waste vast amounts of energy shipping tap water all over the country. ("Tap water?" you ask? Yup. If you are curious google "aquafina tap water". If you now feel like a gullible prat remember true learning never comes without pain.)

If you can arrange to live most of your life within a five or ten mile circle the switch to more efficient transportation becomes a no-brainer. It's woth thinking about. Try it. The next time you feel like driving to dinner, a movie or some other diversion, don't. Think up something to do that doesn't require car. When is the last time you tossed a frisbee around? Or maybe dinner and a movie isn't out of the question. Most people I know live within walking distance of a local eatery, and if you don't consider this the next time you move. Maybe even, gasp, invite a neighbor over and shrink their circle a bit too.

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Re: Circles

Dave,

Definitely a thought provoking sentiment - however, it seems to me that the wonders of the world we live in have largely come about through expanding our circles. It is true that if we all lived in a 5 mile circle we would have less impact on the planet - probably even less than the hunter gatherers we descended from! However, what would be the social cost of such an introverted culture?

I wholeheartedly agree that we're an out of control consumer society (the amount of resources spent on packaging alone is a nightmare). I also agree that there are many day to day personal choices that we can make to start making a difference (think globally, act locally). However, I worry that your point of view (while essentially valid) is counter-productive to achieving the amount of change we as a society need to achieve. Basically if one sets the bar too high one dissuades the involvement one is trying to encourage.

I can't remember which environmental film it was (maybe Gore's?) but it made me smile when there was one snippet with a "green journalist" who said something along the lines of "When you start talking about a more environmentally conscious way of living most Americans think of personal sacrifice and living like Europeans" It was the last phrase that made me smile (I'm a Brit living in the US). But it's the first part which frustrates me - people equate a more environmentally conscious lifestyle with sacrifice. That's dumb. And nowhere is it dumber than in the automotive realm (and nowhere is it more protected by PR and marketing than in the automotive market).

Personally I don't subscribe to the notion of aiming for a 5 mile circle. You mention that people often use a 50 mile circle - well that strengthens my aim. I hope that in the next 5 years someone produces a mass marketable 100/80/20 EV. That's a 100 mile range, 80 mph and $20,000 for a 4 seater small to mid size sedan. Already people are getting close. I've given up thinking that it's worthwhile to lobby the existing players - such a car will come from a new startup - and when it does that 50 mile circle will be far less onerous. I also hope that someone will come up with a 100/80/20 conversion kit to take a Ford Focus (or similar) and turn it into an EV - I hope that we can recycle these cars (and avoid the environmental costs of discarding the old in favor of the new).

Bottom line is I think your goals are very noble but that they are too restrictive and off putting in our current society. I'd rather a minor correction in behavior rather than a 180 degree U-Turn...

Thanks for posting and making me think...

John H.
Blue XM-2000
Ann Arbor, MI

Re: Circles

Thanks for the reply.

jdh2550_1 wrote:

It is true that if we all lived in a 5 mile circle we would have less impact on the planet - probably even less than the hunter gatherers we descended from! However, what would be the social cost of such an introverted culture?

I think the impact would be positive. We have all manner of long distance communication now including the internet and telephones. Even if we keep our bodies within fairly small areas the end result would not be like the 1600's. A personal case in point -- when I first got more serious about carbon footprints I thought long and hard about my mother. I used to visit her roughly once a year but I rarely called. Now by visiting less often and calling more often our relationship has been strengthened, and I am more a part of her day-to-day life than I had been previously. I will still go home when my mom needs me, however. I think the other impact will be stronger communities. Another example -- when I was a kid will played pick-up games of a variety of types most of which were made up on the spur of the moment. Last week one of my neighbors took their nine year old son to another state for a regional little-league tournament. (My mind still boggles at the concept.) A pick-up game has no environmental impact and teaches you how to get along with your peer group. A tournament for nine years olds has a large impact and teaches the children how to perform for parents and other authority figures. Which is more useful to our culture?

jdh2550_1 wrote:

But it's the first part which frustrates me - people equate a more environmentally conscious lifestyle with sacrifice. That's dumb.

I heartily agree.

jdh2550_1 wrote:

Bottom line is I think your goals are very noble but that they are too restrictive and off putting in our current society.

That's why I posted here. Hopefully the thoughts will get a bit more traction than in a more general audience. We disagree on a reasonable distance limit, but that's okay. Most people I know think nothing about driving 20 miles to a movie, 30 miles to a "really good" restaurant, and living 50 miles from work because "my wife likes the shopping." (His wife shops once a week. He commutes every day.) Without a huge leap forward in technology I don't believe this amount of daily movement is sustainable. I share your desire for a decent electric car, but I dislike the notion that many conservation-oriented people are treading water waiting for a technical solution to a problem that is mostly behavior-based.
--
Full time ebiker
BionX and Wilderness Energy

Re: Circles

Interesting thinking... and you're close to what, for example, macrobiotics thinking suggests for growing and distributing food. They think there's nutritional benefit from eating food grown locally, as it becomes ripe. I suspect that food grown local to where you live has constituents that help biological organisms survive in that climate in that time of year, and therefore it would help your body adapt to the local climate. But there's also a huge waste which occurs as food is shipped e.g. we get fresh produce in the dead of winter at the cost of shipping it 10,000 miles or more, with fuel being burned for the whole transit.

But... I think there's value in traveling to a place and seeing and experiencing it for your own eyes. Electronified communication has its value and e.g. the Web has made a huge difference to society overall. But I can say that, having traveled internationally, it makes a big difference understanding a culture to go there and be in that place for awhile.

For example.. consider the stories about glaciers melting and disappearing such as in the Andes mountains. You might think, it's just some snow, what's the big deal? Well, I've been in the Andes and I've seen the native spiritual ceremonies related to the existance of those glaciers. Those glaciers represent their livelihood because the majority of their water comes from the melting glaciers. If/when the glaciers are gone they won't have water for most of the year, and they won't be able to live.

Also, I have coworkers in India, in St Petersburg, etc. I've been able to visit both those places and by visiting those places have a much better appreciation for who they are, than the experience of them I have from conference calls over the telephone or from emails.

When I was in St. Petersburg it was quite a thrill to visit the palaces. That city was built by the Tsars, and the palaces were the home of the Tsars of Russia, and had opulence to match. The palaces are now museums, but the exhibit was as much the buildings as it was the artwork. e.g. During WWII St. Petersburg was beseiged by the Germans and cut off from the rest of Russia, and one of the palaces I visited (outside the city) was in the territory the Germans had occupied, and there were pictures posted all over showing the condition the Germans left the buildings in. It was interesting walking through that building and trying to imagine it having been the home of the Tsars, and then it being occupied by the Germans, and thinking about how the Communists thought about these buildings, and the fact that the current government has restored these palaces, etc.

If I had stayed within a 5 mile circle could I have had all these experiences? Reading about WWII in a book didn't tell me as much as I learned by visiting St. Petersburg. Rather, the books told me different things than I learned by visiting that city.

For me this also touches on a paradigm, that to cut energy use, to me more ecologically sound, etc, that it means to do with less and for society to regress to simpler times with simpler technology etc. What I think is there are ways to do more while using less energy; such as how LED lightbulb's can give the same number of lumens while using 1% of the electricity and lasting 100,000 times longer. Or how cars don't have to pollute, they can run on electricity, and how generating electricity doesn't have to pollute, it could be made from wind and solar technologies.

- David Herron, http://davidherron.com/

Re: Circles

I'm with reikiman - better to get out and experience things first hand just once than to watch one hundred PBS specials... ;-) Also, I agree - we can use technology to achieve more with less - but that still requires a societal shift on a number of levels.

I do agree with a lot of what you say DaveW - and you are definitely right on the fallacy of "waiting for the right technology" rather than dealing with changes now. The little league reference has little to do with the environment and carbon footprints. It's *all* to do with society - as is much of your sentiment.

I guess I'm lucky. Although I live in a city our neighborhood is very much just that - a neighborhood. We live on a dirt road (less than 5 miles from town center) and there is diversity in income level and house styles on our street. Alas there's not nearly enough ethnic diversity. So I don't think I experience the same "suburban mind set" that you're describing. Perhaps you should move to Ann Arbor? There are lots of houses for sale (the Michigan economy sucks right now).

John H.
Blue XM-2000
Ann Arbor, MI

Re: Circles

reikiman wrote:

But... I think there's value in traveling to a place and seeing and experiencing it for your own eyes. Electronified communication has its value and e.g. the Web has made a huge difference to society overall. But I can say that, having traveled internationally, it makes a big difference understanding a culture to go there and be in that place for awhile.

You have a very good point. I agree that there is a benefit to travel for business, education, and pleasure. I have travelled extensively. Some places like Australia have left me with a deep longing to return. Other places, like India, not so much so. But there is also a cost of travel. Most people view this cost in dollars only. The other costs should be part of the equation as well. My guess is in 20 years or so intercontinental travel will only be available to the rich anyway. Airplanes are uniquely sensitive to fuel prices and I don't see any electric airplanes in our future.

The point of the 5-mile circle was not so much to promote insularity as to get around the argument that conservation is impossible without a radical technology shift. I proselytize a lot and one of the responses I get most often is, "I'd love to ride a bike more, but I can't because..." and what follows is a list of entirely voluntary lifestyle choices. I believe people can be encouraged to review these choices. As they do a switch to more efficient transportation options becomes more feasible.

jdh2550_1 wrote:

Perhaps you should move to Ann Arbor?

Oddly enough that's where my mom grew up. Well, Dearborn, actually, but then she went to school in Ann Arbor and met my dad. I've never been, but I hear it's lovely. It would take a crowbar to get me out of this climate, though. One of the modern devices I loathe is the air conditioner and this is the first place I have lived where I don't feel like a martyr for going without.

jdh2550_1 wrote:

Alas there's not nearly enough ethnic diversity.

Yeah. I don't need many fingers to count the non-WASPs in my neighborhood either.
--
Full time ebiker
BionX and Wilderness Energy

Re: Circles

One of the modern devices I loathe is the air conditioner and this is the first place I have lived where I don't feel like a martyr for going without.

Yeah, every time I think about leaving the SF Bay Area the exact same consideration comes up. I'm curious, I looked at the Boulder forecast and it's high 80's to low 90's. Is that typical? In Mountain View we have had mid 70's for weeks, and this temperature will continue for another 2 months.

But, I've written a few pieces about this issue: Beating the heat without causing global warming ... and I think the modern ways ignore the ways our ancestors used to keep cool or mitigate the heat. Such as using thick walls (adobe construction) because of insulation, and using passive solar techniques such as trees and orientating the building to the sun correctly.

Yeah. I don't need many fingers to count the non-WASPs in my neighborhood either.

That's one of the things I enjoy about the SF Bay Area. First, there are no majorities here, all the racial groups are below 50%. There are massive numbers of Koreans, Chinese, Indians (from India), Mexicans, Japanese, Russia, and more. And they've brought their food with them, and to some extent their culture. The neighborhood I'm living in seems to be majority Mexican/Latino.

It's cool I get to know and work with these people from all over the world. But having been to some of their countries, I know there are stark differences. I don't get to know their culture, because while they're here the context they're fitting into is very different from their home culture.

The point of the 5-mile circle was not so much to promote insularity as to get around the argument that conservation is impossible without a radical technology shift.

I appreciate that point of view too. I mentioned earlier thinking about how our ancestors kept cool without using air conditioning. But our ancestor also did their lives without making long travels every day. e.g. think of someone commuting 20 miles to work every day... growing up in Kansas I was exposed to stories of the settlers who took wagons across the plains to find their new homes, and was told that a group traveling by covered wagon was lucky to make 20 miles in a day of travel. There's a huge contrast between 40 miles a day travel, and still doing a full days work, and barely managing 20 miles and that's your days work.

In older cities they're orientated such that people can get whatever they want within a short walk of home. That's one thing I witnessed in Brussels. Which makes me think of the service I saw in Brussels, Paris and ubiquitous bicycle rental ... They had bicycles at kiosks scattered around the city, and it turns out to be a service being operated in several cities in Europe. I found one article in Lyons France interviewing a user of the service, and he described how he lived without even thinking about owning a car, that the bicycle service provided him with all the mobility he neeeded. I haven't been to Lyons but I suspect it will be something like Brussels, Brussels being a fairly compact, fairly densely settled, but not overly dense, with excellent mass transit choices, and great walkability.

The size of the circle one can manage in their daily travels does, I agree, directly correlate with the transportation technology they use. Such as the guy I knew on first moving to the bay area, he was learning to fly private airplanes so that he could buy a house in the Sierra Nevada mountains and fly an airplane every day into the Palo Alto airport, that airport being a short bike ride to the office we were in. That's kind of an extreme in the other direction from your choice to ride a bicycle and use a five mile radius.

- David Herron, http://davidherron.com/

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