Monday, March 30, 2009

Parting of the Sensory 

David Owen had an interesting piece in the March 30th New Yorker about how the current economic mess, and our attempt to recover from it, will effect the environment. Key section:
The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes. And a national carbon policy, if it’s to have a real impact, will almost certainly need to bring American fuel prices back to at least where they were at their peak in the summer of 2008. Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.
I can honestly say that I never really considered the fact that increased fuel efficiency standards isn't necessarily the greatest answer b/c it will just lead to more driving. As someone who lives in a Metro area and commutes by public transportation, I was never really bothered by the high gas prices last summer. Maybe the answer is keeping the prices high. Compared to other countries, we've always had it good here.


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