Sunday, May 1, 2011

Against the tide

As you may have come to realise, one of the main reasons why we face such dire ecological crises is because contemporary societies have designed themselves to be "outside of nature" with the desire to control our experiences. Our interactions with it have been minimised, and our bubble has been built around extracting energy and material from nature and the environment around us, and depositing degraded materials and energy back outside of our bubble, into nature. Our ethic is defined by doing what we want "in here," and not worrying about what happens "out there," as long as the flow of materials and energy in continues, and as long we can continue dumping what we want out there. We have created this disconnect in order to shirk responsibility in dealing with shortcomings of our philosophies and mental capacities, and in our humility.

I am reading this fascinating book by Alan Weisman, called The World Without Us, in which he envisions how nature might take over human structures and landscapes such as houses and cities. We have many times fought against nature in creating spaces for us to live, eat, and sleep. In having done so, we constantly struggle to maintain what it is we've invested in. For example, in having "reclaimed" land, like in The Netherlands, we are compelled to keep the forces of water at bay by constructing something like Maeslantkering.

Weisman describes the fascinating case of what it takes to keep the New York subway system running smoothly. Everyday, those running the subway must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering the tunnels. Because there is little soil and vegetation to absorb rainwater and groundwater, subway tunnels funnel the water into themselves. There are 753 pumps, maintained by crews, that have to pump water uphill constantly, because of the depth of the subway tunnels, and natural groundwater that gushes up from bedrock. Weisman writes, "Following the World Trade Center attack, an emergency pump train bearing a jumbo portable diesel generator pumped out 27 times the volume of Shea Stadium. Had the Hudson River actually burst through the PATH train tunnels that connect New York's subways to New Jersey, as was greatly feared, the pump train-and possibly much of the city-would simple have been overwhelmed." Pat Schuber, superintendent of Hydraulics for New York City Transit continues, "When this pump facility shuts down [because of no electricity], in half an hour water reaches a level where trains can't pass anymore."

There seems to be an ethic, prevalent throughout our interactions amongst ourselves, and with nature, of domination and competition. We want to dominate other people and their principles (leading to armed conflict), and we want to dominate the forces of nature by creating structures that nature wants to topple, and by demolishing violently natural areas for things of monetary "value." What if we were to live our lives not forcefully against the tide of nature, but rather with it?


  1. Although I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of the post, as with many of your posts I am concerned you become too focused on rhetoric. Before making the claim that NYC should live closer with nature maybe you should prove that they doing a bad thing? If you look at the energy used from transportation, public transition crushes the competition ( Walking comes out to around 360 MPG (that energy comes from oil - so it isn't any better). It seems like your attack is unfocused and sort of backwards. If we shut down the NYC subway system today and had the 20 million people walk to work it could be terrible for the environment (assuming everything else remains the same). Personally I think you should choose your battles a little more wisely and focus on a bigger offender.

  2. I understand what you are saying. There are several things I want to say in response. I fully understand that the investments have been made. I can appreciate that. However, I do think that numbers (such as the 360 mpg) are misleading, part...icularly because there is absolutely no way to take full account of the social and environmental impacts of walking. Absolutely no way. What I can say, however, is that walking is a more natural mode of transportation. (Many natural processes, and probably the most important one for our lives, photosynthesis, are far from "efficient" when we look at them from a purely energy standpoint. Does that mean phootsynthesis is bad? Absolutely not. Rather the way in which it interacts with the natural world is near perfect, and it would be arrogant and anthropocentric for me to say that humans can "improve" on photosynthesis.) Yet, I want to say again that GIVEN what we've invested in already, subways are probably the least worst thing to do. (In this context, I hesitate to use words like "better" or "good.") I can grasp the reality of the situation. However, that should not stop me from envisioning a world that has moved away from notions like "practicality" and "efficiency."

    One of the main premises and principles of the blog is to try to get myself and others to move and think beyond what it is that we've invested in, particularly because we face losing battles. I am absolutely not saying that the NYC subway system be stopped. Rather, in our choices from here on out, I want to continue to ask, How may it be possible to break and reform the norms that guide our behaviours and choices? If we take as givens things like power plants and roads and cars, how might our future choices be different than if we envisioned the world without power plants and roads and cars? I don't have the answers, but I think about them.

    Any retorts are always welcomed, and you know that =). Also, let me know how you might think I should choose my battles. Great, as always, hearing from you.

  3. Hmm seems we agree on more than I realized =) I guess that I would attack the trucking/airline/busing industries because they are SOOO much worse than public transit. Public transit and trains are really some of the best things we have. I w...onder about more water based transport since it is so amazingly efficient. Sort of sad they don't use canals anymore. The efficiency of canals is so great you can pull 16 tons with a mule (e.g. reduced friction is amazing). NYC is partly such an amazing place because of water transit. When energy was more scarce everyone had to live by a good port. If I was driving change I might encourage more people to live by water transit.

  4. I just used the NYC transit example because their battle against water is constant, and will absolutely never end. Just because it gets several million people to where they want to go doesn't mean it was the "right" thing to do...=) Complicated.

  5. Interesting, guess I never thought about the water removal issue with the PATH (although, you can definitely see the water dripping into the tunnels... a slightly unnerving feeling).

    Matthew, you mentioned airlines as being much worse than public transport and that got me thinking. Aren't airlines kind of like public transportation (just a really expensive one)? While they consume a significant amount of fuel, they transport a large number of people as well so the gallons of fuel/passenger is actually quite low. For example, I'm trying to decide if I should drive or fly to Charleston South Carolina. Running through the numbers (831 miles, assuming 28mpg driving, 3mpg flying with 189 max passengers sourced from some yahoo answers site), flying is definitely more expensive and uses more fuel but the round trip consumption/passenger is 3 gallons of fuel flying vs. 60 gallons for the car!

    Of course, this is ignoring the effects of higher altitude emissions for simplicity. Am I missing something here or are airlines looking a lot better?

  6. Great point Ashwin. Jet fuel is MUCH more refined and so it represents much more oil being used than gasoline; so you cannot compare MPG of the two fuels directly. In fact, you really cannot compare MPG for any fuels and have it be fair, there must always be an amazingly complicated correction. I haven't done the calculations myself but I have read on many occasions that flying is very bad. A little googling reveals that flying is fairly similar to driving in terms of impact to the environment but usually a little worse (e.g. and This still means that although flying is semantically related to "public transit" it is still substantially worse than other forms of public transit (e.g. bus, train, subway, etc.).