A while ago, I raised the problem–an inconvenient truth, if you will–that moving to a renewable energy future is going to be difficult:
My impression reading a lot of commentary about renewable energy is that there’s this fantasy that we just have to build a bunch of windmills, install some solar panels, buy a Prius, and replace our windows and all will be well. But the brutal reality is that we need to urbanize our suburbs. We need to discourage detached housing. We need to massively fund local mass transit–not just SUPERTRAINS. We can’t have people firing up their own personal combustion engine to buy groceries. Most people will not be regularly driving to and from their detached house with a big front lawn and large backyard. This will require the kind of effort only seen with war mobilization–and, these days, we don’t even really mobilize most people even as we fight two wars (or three, if we count Libya).
I understand why the report downplays this: across the board, developing countries are actually increasing suburban housing, and de-urbanizing. In the U.S., even though cities are finally gaining population, this simply means that the increase in suburbanization is slowing. (Hooray for the first derivative!) Urbanization policies would be immensely unpopular, and meet widespread resistance (although some suburbanites would support urbanization if they could afford it).
Lance Mannion lays out what this would really mean:
Even if Americans could be persuaded to give up our current suburban idyll en masse, most of us can’t do it or don’t dare.
People can’t sell their houses because they’re not worth what they paid for them or won’t make them as much money on the sale as they’ll need to move. Even if they can sell their houses at something better than a dead loss, where do they move to? Closer to her job or his? Closer to his family or hers? Whichever job they choose, what’s to say it’s going to be there in a few years or even one? What’s the sense in moving closer to the office or the factory with the odds being good that the company’s going to go belly up or move its operations overseas before you have to replace the hot water heater or buy a new energy-saving dishwasher?
What are the odds we’re going to get a President with the guts to not only tell the American people, “It’s time to move out of the McMansion in the country to a bungalow on the outskirts of the city” but tell corporations, “No more making obscene profits by screwing your employees every which way and then moving your operations when you can’t make more money by screwing them some more”?
Radically changing the way we live and make money is a moral challenge, as well as a political one, and persuading us to make those changes ought to be the job of priests and preachers as well as politicians. But over the last forty years the priests and the preachers have been obsessed with sex and working hard to persuade us to a.) have less of it while b.) making more babies. A. of course doesn’t address the problem except by giving us less reason to go out on the weekends. B. makes it worse because more babies means, eventually, more cars and more McMansions and more lighting things on fire.
This is not going to be easy to fix. Not at all.