Advocate On The Hudson

The Downscaling Conundrum

Aug 24, 2014

For over 150 years of the industrial revolution, bigger has always been better, but in the 21st century figuring out how to downscale will be the most daunting challenge mankind will face.

Many of the most disturbing events taking place around the world, the Middle East, Ukraine etc. revolve around the supply of fossil fuels. It is a militarized world because there are stores of wealth, instead of more equitable distribution, and they must be defended. The tools used to maintain the status quo are also heavily tilted in favor of big machines, military and civilian, cars, trucks, airplanes etc. that also depend upon these materials to provide their motive power. WWII, and even WWI, in many's estimation, was largely decided by the combatants ability to manufacture, use and fuel these enormous mechanisms effectively, to employ the heavy armor that carries its ordinance into battle. In some important ways, in spite of all the miniaturization and other technological advances made in the last century, this is still true. Nobody should ignore the bravery of troops and cleverness of commanders as key factors in these matters of course, along with the righteousness of their causes, and the cooperation of populations in these struggles, but the machines, and the fuels they run on are still huge factors in determining who prevails.

Even local conflagrations, like those now taking place in Ferguson Missouri, one commentator suggested, are deeply rooted in the frequency of car stops, the assumed profiling that goes into them and the higher rate of incarceration generated by unbalanced enforcement. “The New Jim Crow”, the book I am currently reading, makes a strong argument that policing policies have had a great impact on the definition of communities and the ability of their members to assume their rightful place within societies. The remarkable revelations regarding the use of retired military equipment and the adoption of quasi-military tactics has become a serious element of the overall picture.

We have accustomed ourselves to a world where speed, power and the ability to physically overcome the obstacles that restrain our ambitions and assumed freedoms have become paramount concerns, both psychologically and practically and the source of a preponderance of violence and unhappiness. This is mostly a direct result of the importance of status and the historical differences in access to resources which the past has delivered to us in abundance. We may be able to encourage a more balanced and egalitarian approach to these situations by modifying some behaviors but the underlying influences are powerful and without examining them and finding ways to re-balance these situations, any cosmetic or minor improvements may just serve to sustain the prior contradictions and mis-alignments.

Our inability to face up to and deal with these important issues is dismissed by most as a consequence of our busy lives and pressures to keep things together in an increasingly pressurized and difficult environment. Who has the time to devote to causes when the garbage has to be taken out and the mortgage payments made in time? For the privileged it is mostly a question of priorities, sorting through available pleasures and choosing the most attractive ones. For everybody else, social, environmental and other problems are considered insoluble anyway and beyond the reach of the common man. It is up to the editorialists and the habitually discontented, widely regarded as maladjusted individuals with the need to complain about something, to bring up these issues and grind their molars to bring themselves a measure of self-satisfaction. The only way that things will change if there is a catastrophe and the cure might easily be worse than the problem if you're not careful, so why bother?

This attitude is encouraged by those who would prefer that things stay the same regardless of the consequences. We are frozen in space, comforted by the amount of company we have in this paralytic coma. We know that our leaders are dunces and expect no more from them. We know our neighbors are in the same boat so why should we be the ones to stand out? The differences in priorities between old and young, black and white, male and female, in themselves are so profound and effective in determining our attitudes and ideas, that the smaller ones, like the variations in income and prospects, sink into unimportance.

We take for granted a host of incongruities and distinctions that are really unfortunate and unnatural yet too minor to rise into full consciousness. We know that everybody is different and would be horrified to live in a world where these aspects of our individual relationship to the world did not exist, since we identify ourselves by them and spend a lot of time enhancing or submerging them. Sure, one person is a better dancer and another a smoother talker and that is OK. But what if one seems touched by an Angel and another doomed to fail, should that be accepted without question?

We love competition. More so when we or our team wins, but the thrill of being in a contest where one might prevail gins up the adrenalin regardless. Some of this is perfectly natural and a wholesome way to motivate people to excel. If the game is rigged though, it can dispirit the players and make them permanently cynical. Even more importantly, it creates a model for other activities and sets standards of behavior. It has been said that in a baseball game in Japan, the perfect score is a tied one, and participants are happiest when everybody is a winner and nobody a loser. This kind of societal compassion might be pointed at by cynics as the reason that the country has been in economic distress for decades, a core failure that keeps the spirit of success from pushing individuals to achieve and thereby prosper. Another interpretation is that the commonality here is an expression of the humanity of those people and far more valuable than a trophy or medallion stuck away in a drawer somewhere.

Empathy is the enemy of dominance and can not be measured or put into a chart or a bottle to be be put on a shelf. In our culture we are captives of quantification and have sacrificed the concept of quality to the accumulation of points, square feet of house size, horsepower and stacks of possessions. Not surprisingly, 750 watts, a mere one horsepower, brings to mind a lonesome cowboy, a sad and unimposing figure, yet this is three times the figure permitted in the European Union and Asia to propel a person 25 KPH on an electric-assist bike, enough to do the job of getting somebody to work or play each day. It might be necessary to double that figure if you add a second person as passenger or substantial sized load of goods, some weather protection or the energy to overcome a strong headwind, but it is enough for almost any purpose. Is there any rationale for keeping these vehicles off the road since bicycles are now considered legitimate vehicles everywhere and permitted on city and country roads everywhere?

The New York State situation is illustrative. The NY Times this week highlighted the increased role of electric-assist bikes in Germany, hardly a third-world country, with thousands of them in use by the post office there and a rapidly increasing presence as commuter vehicles throughout this heavily-industrialized nation. Last year, a bill here to legalize these vehicles came with a day of being passed by the NY State Legislature. The prospects for this happening next year are good, especially since the national bike organizations, People for Bikes etc. have now indicated their strong desire for this to happen. For too long, the bike culture looked upon these devices as heretical, a departure from the ethic of self-reliance and self-propulsion essential to their vision of the role of cycles in the society. Finally, they have come to realize that there is a huge portion of the population that wants to bike but finds the exertions necessary to overcome hilly terrain, the long distances of their commutes and their desires to show up to work without having to change clothes, to be serious impediments to the use of regular bikes. Logic, fairness and common sense are overcoming historic prejudices and limitations of vision, but much too slowly.

The ebike industry has done a pretty good job of perfecting this technology. It has come at a price though, in that typical bikes are in the $1500 to $3000 range and the cost of lithium-ion batteries is still relatively high. There is talk of breakthroughs that will radically lower these costs and extend range while making the vehicles as light as typical mountain bikes rather than the 60-80 pounds that were the rule when lead-acid batteries were the norm. The designs are beginning to evolve rapidly as well, with Kickstarter and other such venues highlighting exotic and exciting-looking alternatives with extra features such as special communications, health-monitoring and mobile-device charging becoming standard equipment on many models. Instead of merely taking regular bikes and adding on a motor these vehicles are now beginning to forge an identity of their own. Prices in the $3000-$5000 range are no longer unusual and every major automobile company from Ford to Mercedes is featuring their own version of this new transport modality. Models with higher speeds, beyond those permitted under the Federal law that limits them to 20 MPH without assistance, are also becoming more popular here, even though they may require more paperwork and permits.

In spite of all these changes, the real potential of this modality to radically transform our transportation systems is still to be realized fully. This will involve the shift from the two-wheeled model, a bike basically, to the three-wheeled version usually referred to as a trike. Our concept of trikes is conditioned by their identity as the vehicle of choice for 3-6 year old kids. The hilarious notion, popularized by the old “Laugh-in” bits, of a full-grown person precariously turning the wheel of his tiny tricycle too quickly and tumbling over sideways, or the elderly resident of a retirement community tooling along at 3 MPH, still dominates out thinking. Human-powered and electric assisted hybrids, with some weather protection and freight capacity, like the ELF, are now being born, even appearing this month on the cover of the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog, but are still rare and virtually invisible. In time, they should become the most common form of travel, especially when they can become part of vehicle-sharing systems. Many new designs will need to be perfected and introduced to the public and overcome the limitations imposed by unjustifiable rules, such as the one proposed in New York State which prevents those under 16 years of age from riding as passengers.

Sure, over time we will be able to overcome these restrictions and sense will prevail but we are already decades behind in our thinking and really need a leap forward to make up for some of this lost time. One of the reasons that it is difficult to accomplish this is because of the pressures exerted by those with the largest stake in the existing system. Keeping archaic laws in place is possible through the intransigence of public officials who automatically endorse the policies already in place without considering their actual impact. It took 10 years for the NYS Senate to even consider the legalization of ebikes even though a bill had been passed in the Assembly each year all during that time.

This reflexive endorsement of the status quo is a willful failure to consider the improvements to our lives that new technology can sometimes provide, with no other rationale than the protection of existing interests and their historical limitations. Imagine if we were still using landline rotary dial phones because AT and T preferred that system. More public pressure can sometimes help and the ability of these new interested industries to promote their products matters as well, but we have lost decades due to this form of reactionary mindsets. It is a subtle form of corruption and is one of the factors that is eroding the potential for those now struggling with the exceptional pressure to survive and prosper in this economy. Downscaling is very difficult for those institutions, like governments, that depend upon the scale of economic activity without necessarily relating to the amount of useful activity involved versus the amount of waste being generated. We ordinarily do not distinguish between the two and in this case we must.

This calculation does not even count the most important issue of all, our health. Giving us the option of using our muscles and bodies to accomplish needed work is essential to our futures. The greatest costs incurred are in health care and the loss of vitality is what shortens life and makes it less rewarding and pleasurable. Here is the opportunity to preserve our most important abilities, at the same time as we save money and improve the environment and it is not being encouraged in every way? How can that be? Are we so decadent or are our institutions so out of touch with our most pressing needs that we can not recognize this reality? Sadly, there is only one answer. We are lost and we can not expect our “guides” to bring us home. Only a much higher level of activism and consciousness can change this situation and it is ours, not others, that matters. If we can't fix something as obvious as this, how will we ever be able to take on the more difficult questions? Answer: we can't.

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