Monday, February 18, 2013

Time to worry about important things?

Study of Peak Oil and Gas
Study of Peak Oil and Gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Las Vegas Strip
English: Las Vegas Strip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
OK, the worry about the Mayan calender is over, we have survived our trip to the fiscal cliff, and while it is tragic that 1000 people were injured in Russia from the falling asteroid, it did not bring an end to the world as we know it. Of course neither did Y2K, and all the other supposed end of the world events that seem to waste people's attentions. Sometimes you just have to wonder if these things are designed to distract us from the series problems we do face.

One of the major problems that could be looming on the horizon is our oil supply. There is many that say we have nothing to fear but when it comes down to it, people have to start realizing that the supply of oil is not infinite. Of course some say that we have already have hit peak oil and production is only going down from here, there is talk that by 2030 Saudi Arabia may have to import oil to supply their needs. What we do know is that the demand from countries such as China and India are fulling demand and China is using its economic might to control as many resources as possible and the question is, how long will the United States have the economic might to keep up.

That is not to say that there is not oil out there, however our lust for cheap oil was dependent on getting the low hanging fruit to keep the cheap oil going (plus many wars and government interference going back to the turn of the 20th century). However, the low hanging fruit is basically gone so any new oil is going to cost substantially more to develop and of course many will turn a blind eye to the environment damage that will have to be done to develop that oil.

Another way to distract people lately is the thought of autonomous electric cars. I have heard many comments that in 20 years we will all have autonomous electric cars that will solve all of our problems and eliminate the need for transit service. Now let me get this straight, cars across the nation will all be powered by electricity, doesn't that sound wonderful? It would so long as you don't think about the unintended consequences of that action. While the number of cars current being driven by electricity can be handled by our current electric grid, which is by no means stable, what is going to happen when we all have these electric cars? Will some new sources of energy suddenly appear? The question is how many electric cars can the grid handle?

Another item to take into consideration is long term population trends. The once heartland of American is slowly emptying out. Except for a few examples along the Interstate 40 corridor the middle part of America is losing population and the sunbelt and coasts are gaining the population. By looking at the growth of Las Vegas, Phoenix and other places in the southwest and sunbelt you clearly see where the population has grown. The question is how long can these cities sustain their growth? Both Phoenix and Las Vegas are needed more and more water with Las Vegas looking to pull a Los Angeles and start sucking dry other areas of their state. Phoenix has a nice water supply whose cost to the consumer is kept artificially low by the our tax dollars.

The question is, at what point does the population of these areas become unsustainable  Of course if we listen to those that benefit from the growth we will hear that it can go on forever  but at some point reality is going to set in and we will have to take a look at exactly what populations these cities can handle and if they have already reached their limit.

This brings up another topic we need to consider that that is mother nature. We have millions of people living in dangerous areas and new homes are being built there all the time. The general attitude is that it is our given right to build whatever we want, anywhere we want and no one should be able to stop us. The problem is when disaster strikes, these are the same people who come crying that the response to the disaster is all government's fault and they should have done something better.

Let me give you some examples. Near Cannon Beach, Oregon there is many million dollar homes being built near the city. Now who wouldn't want to be near the beautiful ocean with lovely views, nice trees, and nice towns to go visit? The only problem is that these homes are being built in well know slide zones. Of course this is no different that many of the homes built in places like Malibu that keep sliding because of unstable earth. Another example is in Draper, Utah where homes are being built on a sand hill. Homes have started to crack due to the unstable earth and the owners who bought the homes are blaming everyone but themselves. Then again the city and the developers knew about the problems so should they be held responsible for the problems? The developer of course pleads ignorance and says it is not their problem and all the city does is try anyway it can to create new tax dollars for the city treasury.

Of course we also have the disasters that can strike without warning but people want to think it is not going happen like major earthquakes. Living in Portland, Oregon I clearly know that the area could be hit with a 9 point plus earthquake at any time. The last one occurred in 1700 and they happen an average of every 280 years. You do the math. However, how many of the buildings in the Pacific Northwest will be able to handle that sized earthquake? The Japanese are fare ahead of us in dealing with earthquakes and we saw how badly they were taken by surprise when the one hit in 2011. While we can't stop Cascadia from going off at some point, we can take actions to better insure that our homes are more survivable. Once example is the Northridge valve that automatically shuts of the gas when an earthquake strikes and costs around $50.00. They are required in the state of California and some cities in Washington but not required in Oregon. The problem is our elected officials just don't want to take action.

Finally, this brings us to our crumbling infrastructure. With mounting deficits, the amount of money available for infrastructure will go down every year. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy should have been warning signs of exactly how bad our infrastructure is crumbling. However, instead of taking it seriously the government wants to just impose tougher standards as a band aid but is too caught up in political infighting to seriously solve the problems that we face.

I could go on with even more serious issues that are plaguing us as a nation but these are really the ones that directly affect urban planning and transportation. Yes, I have painted a pretty gloomy picture however it doesn't have to be. We have the potential to overcome the obstacles but it will take leadership that we sadly currently don't see in most of our elected officials. The question is when will we get true leaders?
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