The side effects of being green in a not so green place.
Kermit the Frog has never been so right. I had a day I’ll remember forever; it was a day that punished me for my attempt to be green.
My day started like any other: wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, shower, drink coffee, prepare for work, walk to the office, drown myself in coffee, get started. Today my morning routine would prove disastrous for my hopes of furthering my business development aspirations. Can you spot the place where I went wrong?
If you haven’t just yet, let me tell you about my calendar. I was scheduled for a lunch meeting with my boss and one of my clients. We’d leave at 11:15 am to arrive early and beat the lunch crowd. I’m beginning to prep to leave as my boss walks toward my desk at 11:10. He had nearly forgotten I was going with him as I asked about the meeting. He informs me I’ll need to take my own car … dammit?! Now do you see?!
He’s leaving for other meetings afterward and I’ll need to drive myself. I realized to make this work I need to walk home, get my car, and drive to lunch adding nearly 15 minutes to the trip. Being 15 minutes late might not sound long, but for a lunch meeting it’s eternity. I would have missed a quarter of the meeting and worst of all; I’d be late.
I’m shut out because I walked in today. We’re a sustainability consulting company and I just found out I need to be unsustainable to keep up. Atlanta is a city made by and for those who drive. There is so much pollution from cars that cities to the east (down wind) are above attainment levels. And, today I was punished for trying to do my part in reduction.
It’s all a bit melodramatic and I really should have thought ahead. But, it was a harsh reminder that all travel in this city is dependent upon cars. It’s very, very difficult to live otherwise and especially if you do any kind of sales. Nowadays I always ask –
“What if I need to drive myself?”
But that didn’t cross my mind this day. It seems silly and ridiculous to drive a half mile to work. I chose my studio apartment for the purpose of not driving. I feel like the laziest man in the world when I park my car in our expansive surface parking lot (which is nearly 3/4 empty daily) and trot the remaining 50 yards into our building. Far too often the drive in takes longer than my walk because the lights in this city are timed by grade school kids.
And again, what was I thinking? I wasn’t. This is business and there’s no room for efficiency when money is to be made. I’ve learn my lesson. I need to drive in; no matter what. Welcome to Atlanta.
I’ll bet you never thought of this.
The Environmental Impact Of The Back To School Period – bit.ly/N1rjWo – FastCo.Exist explains that all those new pens, notebooks, clothes, and computers can affect more then just your wallet. The quick summary, think of the cost impact on landfills. School supplies are necessary to education, but there may be some alternatives to buying new every time.
Now that you’ve considered environmental impacts of school supplies, take a few moments to learn about what Sustainability reporting really is – http://bit.ly/PpANaZ – This is Triple Pundit’s succinct explanation about what a sustainability report actually is (and should be)
A Word on Sustainability
If someone tells you they’re a sustainability consultant, or expert, your reaction should be to ask, “in what industry?”
The reason I say this is because sustainability is not a profession with a defined industry, it’s a specialization. It’s similar to being a lean manufacturing expert or a talent acquisition consultant. They’re both specializations within larger industries i.e. manufacturing and human resources. Sustainability is a skill set within a large realm of thinking, much like creative writing would be to grammar. However, the realm that sustainability exists in is a strange mix of management consulting, environmental analysis, and politics. It’s tough to really pin down.
Sustainability has become a leviathan-like specialization because you can apply its principles to nearly everything, which is good. But, what makes it dangerous is that you can tie everything you analyze back to some life threatening environmental hazard. This is the sustainability marketing technique used to grab your attention and then reel you in. Everyone is worried about their health and well-being, so of course everyone worries about the world becoming uninhabitable. This is why I say most of what you hear coming from sustainability experts, most often entrepreneurs cashing in, is lies or damned lies. They’re just looking to get you worked up; ever heard of Al Gore?
It’s All Lies
Fossil fuels aren’t running out, the weather is different every year no matter what we do, and that Al Gore fellow is the only thing on this planet full of hot Green House Gas. That’s what you want to hear right? Well, all of those are all lies. Or are they? In fact, if you’re a sustainable thinker none of that matters. Are you confused yet? Good, because that’s exactly what I want.
Sustainability is just like statistics. There are lies, damned lies, and sustainability. Sustainability is an overly complicated opportunity cost methodology backed with statistical and environmental analysis, which is usually quite shoddy, used to confuse average people into feeling guilty so they spend more money. A common tactic used in sustainability is the butterfly effect.
“If you take that plastic bag from your grocer, you’re killing an endangered species in Namibia.”
You’ve either said something like this before or heard someone say it. Perhaps not to this extreme, but I bet it’s closer than you think. Arguing a point like my Namibia-Plastic-Bag-conundrum can be very effective if you’re dealing with an overly emotional audience, but in reality it’s almost impossible to actually prove. If you’re a statistician you’re familiar with the term “spurious relationship”. Just because two things are statistically related doesn’t mean they are causal. This is something sustainability speakers don’t want you to realize when they’re hammering home their point about how your poor choices are ruining the earth and more importantly our economy.
But, it’s not Sustainability’s Fault
There are two cold, hard truths here to consider: 1) We are terrible at global thinking and 2) we want all of our issues in life to be black and white. Neither are true.
We, as humans, are ill equipped for global thinking. Earth’s systems are far to complex for us to handle as individual thinkers. The reason climate change can’t be irrefutably proven is because climate models can’t predict all the factors affecting localized weather events. I use that example not to poke fun at climate scientists, but to illustrate that proving a butterfly effect is nearly impossible because Earth’s systems are so very complex.
All those things that happen outside our realm of understanding are called externalities. As an example, pollution is an externality in standard business decision making. We don’t really understand and can’t predict how pollution will affect a company’s ability to operate down the road. We can’t understand it, so we don’t use it in decision making.
So, Earth is difficult to understand and here’s the second truth. We like our answers to be 100% correct or 100% wrong. Grey areas are not our specialty. A former real estate mentor of mine had a great saying he used each time he entered a room to discuss a new deal with investors. This, for those uneducated, is that last place you want to be unsure of an outcome. He would say, “The numbers we’re going to show you today are incorrect and the financial result of this deal will not look like this. But, we’ve done our best to analyze the risk and we think we have a good one on our hands.”
And, he was right. The actual numbers never reflect our predictions because externalities are roughly impossible to predict (we don’t understand them, remember). He didn’t know it at the time, but that’s my favorite saying both for finance and also for questions of sustainability. He had a great understanding that life happens in the grey area.
Let’s recall my first proposition here. Sustainability isn’t an industry; it’s a specialization.
Perhaps a cleaner definition for sustainability is to say,
“it seeks to define and analyze risk associated with externalities to improve long term decision making.”
Like the premise that there is no such thing as a free lunch, sustainable thinking seeks to show how costs add up on a grander scale. There will always be winners and losers no matter how anything is produced and sold. Sustainability attempts to reduce the number of unforeseen future losses caused by the winners today (there’s no accounting for the damage caused by Charlie Sheen however.) It’s pretty much impossible, but it’s worth trying. Not all of sustainable thinking is a lie and in fact I think it represents a new wave of analysis for capital investment. The hoopla created by greedy greenies seeking to make a quick buck makes proving the validity of that a bit more difficult.
Keep reading here to learn more about what environmental risks should be considered to improve our understanding of investment and economic development.
The Transportation Referendum from a Capitalist Planner’s Perspective
Can a 1 penny tax fix congestion in Atlanta?
Georgia voters are apparently being asked this question for the upcoming transportation referendum vote on July 31st. Asking voters that question infuriates me for two reasons. One, congestion isn’t a problem that can be fixed. And two, the perceived problem of congestion is shrouding the real issue, which is a question about the long term economic viability of Atlanta’s development patterns, i.e. how we build stuff.
Congestion is not a problem that can be fixed.
…At least not in the traditional sense. Congestion is unavoidable with dense urban development. Ask drivers in London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. All of these cities have world renowned public transportation systems, yet they all suffer from horrendous traffic. Recently London introduced congestion pricing in an attempt to price drivers off the road during peak hours. It’s not a solution, but it’s a way to make it better. I repeat that you cannot ‘fix’ congestion.
If you’re looking for a problem to fix, consider mobility. Mobility is what a transportation planner is really concerned with, even though they can’t always say that correctly. What I described above, the London congestion pricing model, addresses mobility directly. Officials in London were concerned that mobility through the city was stifled during rush hour and they identified a solution. Price motorists off the road and onto alternate modes of transportation (rail, bus, bike, etc.) to improve everyone’s ability to get around. Not everyone is 100% happy, but, like solving congestion, that’s impossible.
I ask you not to vote for or against the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) based on whether or not you think it will fix congestion. It won’t. Atlanta will always be congested unless its overall economy collapses making it a city more like Detroit. What you should consider is whether or not you think it will improve mobility for residents and visitors of Atlanta. Easier mobility means everyone can get around cheaper and faster than before. Cheaper and faster transportation means more consumers. I’ll let you proceed to your nearest economics book to learn about demand side versus supply side economics to decide if you think more consumers is a good thing.
If the problem is mobility, how do we fix that?
…very simply. A long term shift, say 30 to 50 years, toward transit oriented development should do the trick.
Atlanta’s lack of mobility is derived from is history of leap frog development, which led to a massive amount of poorly connected suburban neighborhoods. If you’re curious about what leap frog development looks like you can drive North on SR 400 starting at Lenox road all the way up to Cumming. This style of development has happened in nearly every direction out of Atlanta, but North 400 is a prime specimen of the leapfrog effect.
Easily accessible land and low transportation costs made it easy to move suburban development farther away from the city center. It made for short term, easy profits so long as people kept moving outward. This type of development started post World War II and has been the American standard for how cities grow. Demand for transit oriented development has waxed and waned over the last half century. Over the last 2 decades, both baby boomers and younger professionals have started demanding well connected walkable developments. City governments are responding to the demands from developers to make it easier to create such places. Cities like Portland have introduced growth limits and Nashville has enacted a form based zoning code to guide density and require less zoning approval.
A transportation package isn’t the solution for the problems created by leap frog development. Any public transportation will be vastly underused and underfunded. As is the case with MARTA, low funding and wavering demand make for a very, very underutilized system that is a perpetual downward spiral. Public transportation doesn’t work with the low density. Low density suburban neighborhoods can’t create the ridership volume or the necessary tax dollars to support it. That is, unless special taxes are enacted to specifically address transportation needs. Using taxes to front the origination cost of the transportation projects will help guide development and create a better connected city. It’s what Washington D.C. did. While it’s not the perfect city, the downtown is revived from ghost town status and it’s drawing in talented professionals like moths to a porch light.
A combination of transportation funding and relaxed zoning codes regarding density and mixed uses can spur such a turn around. One alone won’t be successful.
I won’t delve into each project and how they could affect long term mobility and development opportunities. But, I’d suggest you do so. If you’d like to please visit The Atlanta Regional Roundtable to get a great look at what’s actually on the list.
After reviewing the projects on the list, sit down and consider whether or not they will improve safe, cheap, and easily accessible mobility around the Atlanta region. If you think it will help, vote yes, if not, vote no. Just try to avoid using congestion as your measuring stick because no one can answer that impossible question.