Thursday, May 27, 2010

Positive, but not entirely accurate, report about Freiburg

Two US architects apparently spent some time in Freiburg a few years back and have published a nearly entirely accurate post about the city. The only thing they get wrong is that Freiburg installed four (not five) wind turbines a few years back (I'm not sure about the year myself).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Political correctness revisited

This is the kind of political correctness I remember growing up with: Texas plans to change the study of slavery in school books with the study of "Atlantic triangular trade."

The NY Times calls it "archconservative political strong-arming," but it's just the basic southern mind-washing I remember so well. It's very widespread, in a way that leftist PC never was. Political correctness was, in fact, mainly invented by the right to ridicule criticism aimed at the right.

And what do you know - near the end of the NYT article, a conservative tells a textbook publisher, "We want stories with morals, not P.C. stories."

I rest my case.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some thoughts on the oil spill back home

I was prompted to think some more about what's been going on by this campaign for a new BP logo. My favorite is this one:

In a way, I don't think we can go far enough in blackening the BP logo, which is why I don't like the proposals that still are half green. At the same time, I honestly don't think that BP is any worse than any of the other companies, and I don't think that any of this BP bashing really gets to the crux of the matter -- which is us.

BP is only out there extracting oil because we are willing to pay for it. Granted, we could -- and should -- force our oil companies to take precautions, but we should also be willing to pay more for this environmental safety. That means we need to stop complaining about the price of gas, start paying enough to make it cleaner, and try to consume less in order to compensate for rising prices.

Obviously, we need to tightly regulate these firms, and the US obviously failed to do so -- in fact, regulators are apparently in bed with oil firms, so what do you expect? What I don't get is the resistance in the US to coming down harshly against BP. Why not make them cover direct and indirect costs? Why limit their liability at all? Why should taxpayers have to cover unlimited liability instead of the polluters? Why do we put up with politicians who call criticism of BP "un-American"?

Europe has a hard time understanding why Obama is not capitalizing on BP's gigantic blunder. As this article puts it, European politicians and the general public would have ruthlessly exploited the event to promote their agenda and make oil companies more responsible. At the same time, it is hard to compare because European politicians would not face absurd charges, like the Gulf oil spill is "Obama's Katrina." European politicians would not have to take the blame for something that merely happens during their term in office unless they had actually passed laws -- or failed to pass laws -- leading to the catastrophe. But that's not the way US politics works.

In the US, people were upset about the government not moving in to rescue people after Katrina hit. Sitting in Germany glued to the television, I wanted to fly home immediately to help as I watched New Orleans being flooded, but I decided that by the time I got to New Orleans from Germany, everyone would have been rescued. That turned out not to be the case. I could have gotten to New Orleans from Freiburg, Germany, faster than the US government did. After Katrina, it was clear what needed to be done. But with this current oil spill, I'm not sure what to do, nor is Obama, nor is BP. It's an intractable problem. And hard to compare with Katrina.

With the public debate in the US being so partisan, it's no wonder that people cannot come to a consensus on how to react to the spill.

Having said that, boycotting BP is not an answer. And frankly, there are good reasons to drill for oil off the US coast; one is to have less of your money leave the country. You just have to understand that the natural disasters are then also yours.

So how do we use less oil?

We use oil not only in our cars, but also to heat our homes and cook food. Increasingly, natural gas is used to generate electricity, and some oil is also used in this way. But we also need oil -- roughly 6 percent of it -- for our plastic wrappers, DVDs and CDs, Vaseline, lipstick, our computers, to fertilize fields plowed with tractors running on oil (including for organic food), etc. Doing without oil today would be extremely hard. So if you use oil in any of those ways, you might not want to point the finger -- except at yourself.

Using less oil in cars is not always easy in the US, where cars may be the only way to get around. So the transition will take a long time -- we need it not only thriftier cars, but more compact, walkable cities with public transport.

Using less oil to heat our homes is fairly easy. Germany already has Passive Houses, which do away with heating systems altogether at negligible extra cost. And increasingly, we will need to use vegetable oils to make our plastics, lubricants, etc.

Finally, as the oil interests the swamp on the Louisiana coast, it will kill off the plants holding together the muddy slope, and Louisiana will lose land much faster than it already is. God help us when New Orleans has to dodge the next bullet...