Thursday

Urban Meltdown

Urban Meltdown is written by Clive Doucet, a former city councillor of Ottawa. He is the second Canadian whose work I will have written a marginal commentary for (not counting Kate Pullinger, who was born in Canada but moved to the United Kingdom thirty years ago), the first, of course, being James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The full name of the book is Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual (the sub-title, incidentally, also being the title of one of the chapters of the book). According to the 'About the Author' blurb at the back of the book, Doucet has roots in the Maritimes, which is another (admittedly incidental) connection he has with De Mille. Well, the Canadian literary scene is, in many respects, a small world.

My thanks to Emily for suggesting this book!

The edition from which I quote passages was published in 2007 by New Society Publishers. Incidentally, one of the blurbs on the back of the book (obscured, as was the case with a blurb on the back of The Mistress of Nothing, by an OPL bar code) is by none other than James Howard Kunstler, whose book World Made by Hand I also wrote a marginal commentary for - and which was also recommended to me by Emily.
I have to admit, I am extremely sceptical - perhaps excessively so - of the entirety of the culture, world-view, and ideology of the kind that what I have read of the book leads me to believe that Doucet espouses. He and others are described, either in or on the back of the book, as 'urban activists', a term of which I am suspicious, because, after all, despite the approbation the concept of 'activism' receives here, there is no necessary connection between action (or activism) and virtue.

It is not that I don't agree that something needs to be done if cities, nations, and international bodies are going to deal with climate change, but I remain sceptical of the idea that it is necessary, or desirable, to adopt the 'activist' culture in order to effect such changes as are necessary to preserve the environment. I will explore Doucet's book as fairly as I can, however; after all, climate change is a real threat and no matter what our opinions, it is urgent that we all work together to deal with it.

I shall begin by looking at some of the things about Urban Meltdown that I didn't like or thought were foolish, and then turn to some of the things that I thought were insightful or of interest.

After September 11th, 2001, Doucet recalls having been invited to attend worship at a mosque in Ottawa:
I listened attentively to the imam's sermon. He talked about the need for balance in mind and words, to be careful not to say anything inflammatory either in private or in public. ...
These are not easy times for anyone, but they are the hardest for Canadians of the Muslim faith. In our city a young boy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was seen as an enemy; another is in intensive care. At least two men in the congregation felt they had just lost their jobs because of they were, not what they could do.
At the end of the service, as it came my turn to speak, I found that I could not say anything. I was caught by so many different conflicting emotions that I did not know how to make sense of them. And so I minded what the young imam had said and thought it best to keep quiet, thinking it was better not to speak if what I had to say was not very carefully considered. ...
... [A]s I stood in front of the mosque, I remained silent because such was the emotion of the moment that I was uncertain how to put [what he was thinking] into words without offending people. So I said nothing. [p. 66] So far, so good. As it happens, I was impressed that Doucet was willing to take part in worship at a mosque (or at least be seen to be present) as a way of reassuring Canadian Muslims that they weren't 'the enemy', and I was saddened and disappointed to hear that boys had been hurt, or killed, or men persecuted for something beyond their control. To bring us to the central idea here, that of Doucet's silence in the face of his inability to speak at that time, the problem, as we shall see, is that on occasion what Doucet writes is not something that can be said to have been carefully considered; but then, he would not be the first person to write or say something foolish and think that it is a well-conceived rhetorical or logical argument when in fact it is not. God knows I've made my fair share of such statements.
No sooner has he made such a good point as 'it [is] better not to speak if what [we have] to say [is] not very carefully considered', then, at least in the book, he goes ahead with what are, in his terms, inconsiderate statements:
As the sun goes down on my life, it all seems remarkably clear. There are two concepts of God that people have decided to accept. One is God as a gatekeeper, the God of Abraham and Isaac. This God is standing on guard for us against godless behaviour such as homosexual relationships, cursing and apostasy. The Gatekeeper God creates rules, and if you play well by them you should become honored on earth and then happy in heaven. This is the kind of God that fundamentalists of all types worship. This God divides the world into good and evil; into those who are "saved" and those who are not; into those who follow God's verbal rules and those who do not. This is the world of the "rule enforcers": the priests who with tears in their eyes burned heretics during the inquisition to "save" them from polluting others with their refusal to believe and act in the right way. This is the world of the patriarchy where men have one set of rules and women another. This is the world of lawful and unlawful sexuality.
Then there is the concept of a God who doesn't stand at heaven's gate, waiting to separate the "saved" from the "damned." This God is more like a verb, a verb of creation. In this intimation of God, it is impossible to imagine discriminating against someone because of a different religion, or who they are sleeping with, because in a world that is governed by the idea of God as a verb, humans are all connected to the essential creative force. We are all part of it. The old porcupine who lumbers across the road on a warm summer day, looking hot and cranky, is part of it. The rocks which thrust up from the earth weathered and impenetrable are part of it. The smell of fresh basil in a salad is part of it. This God leaves no one and nothing out.
It is impossible to the followers of this intimation of God to imagine treating someone poorly because of their skin color because to do so would be to discriminate against yourself. This is a concept of God which makes love very easy, but it doesn't make everything suddenly comprehensible. How could the world be easily comprehensible when it is entirely possible that there is not just one world, but many worlds? When one looks up at the vastness of the sky on a summer night with its unimaginable distances, its billions of stars and planets, it seems ridiculous to think that all creation is limited to the life that we see around us on our little planet. Surely, God has more imagination than that. ...
We live as our imagination permits us. What we can't imagine, we can't accomplish. As Einstein once said, "imagination is more important than knowledge" because without imagination, you can't use knowledge. We create ourselves as we imagine we can be created. This is the world of the Verb God. It is a safe and comforting God because it is an inclusive God. It is an intimation of God that belongs to all of us; we can all share this God in the rituals of our different churches and religions. This God has one rule: "love thy neighbor as thyself." The rest we have to invent for ourselves. [pp. 75-6] While making his acknowledgements (pp. ix-x), Doucet admits that the work is (I paraphrase) a 'tangle' of his own experience with general conclusions about how society works, and this is one of those passages where it comes off poorly. In the first place, Doucet's 'clarity' is fallaciously reductive. He takes two points along the spectrum of 'ideas of what God is like' and sets them up as a dichotomy. But in reality there are multiple conceptions of God, many of which are, in my view, better than either of the ideas he presents. The 'clarity' he has achieved is, therefore, that of a false dichotomy. More representative of what is truly the case about ideas of God is the following: If we were to draw the line representing the spectrum of ideas of what God is like as an upward-curving parabola, with 0x (the horizontal line on the graph) being 'what God is really like' and, let's say, -2x as 'the best possible human conception of God most like what God really is', then the two positions Doucet identifies as dichotomous would be on opposite ends of the curve, somewhere near the bottom of the parabola, let's say at -16x. In the second place, is not clear what is attractive about the idea of God ('Verb God') which Doucet evidently prefers. Regarding 'Verb God', Doucet does not make it clear what 'Verb God's' character is for him, which does not hold out much hope that 'Verb God' is actually going to inspire people to live lives in accordance with the virtues that Doucet evidently wishes people to hold. Doucet's 'Verb God' is like the benign and senile 'grandfather in heaven' whom C. S. Lewis sharply criticised in The Problem of Pain. Moreover, Doucet makes several points which have no connection to the argument he is trying to make about what is the best conception of God (which is itself an argument bearing no real relation to the overall argument of his book). How Doucet's claim about how God ought or ought not to imagine things relates to his view of God is beyond me. Indeed, 'Verb God', as Doucet conceives of 'it', should hardly be said to have anything like 'imagination'. If, to take Doucet's example, there is no life in this universe, or in any other possible universes, save (excepting extraterrestrial monocellular life) what is found on our planet, that is not a failure of God's imagination but a function of the effects of physics; not that God's imagination is actually germane to Doucet's point, in any case. Nor does Doucet seem to grasp that human imagination can be misleading and even vicious (strictly speaking), despite the fact that much of his argument depends on our accepting that certain views of human affairs, certain ways of imagining how those affairs ought to be ordered, are, in fact, misleading and vicious; after all, he goes to great pains to denounce the world order of competitiveness, which had, if you will, to be imagined into existence by Western √©lites. In other words, he is being self-contradictory. Finally, describing the mean, nasty, 'exclusive', 'gatekeeper God' as 'the God of Abraham and Isaac' is, in my view, an ignorant claim. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It would seem that Doucet wants a 'God' who is free of the claims of history, but such a God cannot be said to love us or to be love, for God must interact with us in our historical being in order for us to experience God's love for us. God has to deal with us where we are at, and the vicissitudes of history were such that the promises God has from eternity extended to all humankind were comprehended and grasped in history at first by only a few people of a small confederation of tribes on the Levantine coast. The God arrived at without particularity is no God at all, for such a God, such a 'creative life force', cannot express love in any sense which we would be able to experience. The god arrived by pagan Greek philosophical theology or by Enlightenment Deism or, indeed, by the evolutionary model which Doucet appears to here espouse, is incapable of loving or of being loved, despite Doucet's claims to the contrary. All in all, this is one of the worst passages in the book, for here Doucet combines all of the worst qualities to be found in it: wide-ranging and incorrect generalisations; logic-defying leaps from claim to claim; self-contradiction; and a mystifying loss of intelligibility belying the insightfulness that Doucet elsewhere displays. Fortunately, because Doucet's argument on the whole does not depend on how he envisions God (whether that is a weakness in itself is a question for another time), his failure to provide an adequate account of God does not cause much harm, although it must be said that this passage exemplifies many of the flaws which may be found elsewhere in the book. I think that had Doucet limited himself to explaining that because many people oppose doing something about climate change because of what they believe about God, it would have been much more germane to the argument of his book and a better point, generally.
Because of the exemplary, as it were, nature of the above passage, that should perhaps suffice for a discussion of what I found problematic (not to say exasperating) about Doucet's book, so I will move on to what was more interesting and insightful, except to point out that, oddly, Doucet incorrectly spells the Roman general Stilicho's name throughout as 'Stilocho'; which would be vexing except it is one of those cases in which, Doucet having mispronounced (as it were) an odd name, he boldly sticks to it, so that in the event it is more endearing than vexing, despite being wrong.

The insightful and revealing parts of Urban Meltdown, in my view, were Doucet's discussions of what he calls the 'just-in-time' system of product delivery; the folly (not to say idiocy) of applying models of private governance to public organisations (i.e., hospitals or schools); the competitive advantage secured by auto manufacturers (achieved mainly by having the largest cost of automobile manufacture - i.e., the building and maintenance of roads - fobbed off on the public sector); and what he calls 'phase transitions'. As we shall see, these issues are interconnected.

We are introduced to 'just-in-time delivery' early in the book, and Doucet's discussion thereof (which also touches on the other aspects I mentioned above) is worth citing at length:
Our urban problems are also a result of the centralized production system that has evolved in North America. Just-in-time delivery was introduced in the early seventies as a way of reducing manufacturing and distribution costs. The animating idea was that it was a waste of time and money for manufacturers and consumer retailers to have warehouses for storing large inventories of parts and food. It would be much more efficient if they just ordered the components as they needed them and then had them delivered to the door of the factory or store just-in-time [sic]. [I'm not sure why Doucet uses the hyphenated adjectival construction of the phrase 'just in time' here when the correct form would have been what I have just written. Alternatively, had he put the hyphenated phrase in quotation marks, it would have also been fine. But I quibble.]
With just-in-time delivery, they could cut out city warehousing and all the space and staff needed to staff these warehouses and organise the transfers of materials from warehouse to store or factory. This was the final nail in the railroad's coffin. Railroads are a cheaper and much less polluting way to move goods long distances but they can't turn around at the mall. Railroads need transfer areas with some warehouse capacity to store the goods that aren't needed immediately. Just-in-time delivery changed the landscape of cities and of North America. Highway construction and the trucking industry exploded. Warehousing and railroading collapsed further.
... Just-in-time was the magic hand of the competitive marketplace determining the highest and best use of resources and production techniques. North American corporations got leaner, consumers got cheaper products, and stores started to look like warehouses. On the level of producing cheaper goods for the consumer and bigger profits for those who survived... it was a win-win situation.
Just-in-time delivery has been a disaster for city governments, national governments, and the planet. The reduction in corporate production costs was achieved by downloading the cost of warehousing onto the environment and the public sector. Somebody had to pay for the warehousing. Governments have. National highways and city steeets have become publicly funded, incredibly costly, rubber-tired warehouses. Everything now sits in truck stops or rolls on 18 wheels on just-in-time highways. One train can move the equivalent of 100 18-wheel trucks or bulk tanker trucks. Warehouse districts give cities flexibility and security of supply. Just-in-time killed all this less costly, less polluting, flexible activity. I use flexible in the sense that warehouse districts can serve small stores as easily as large.
... In the five-year period between 1995 and 2000 in Canada, there was a 44% increase in truck traffic from 100 billion tons to 180 billion tons annually. My city [Ottawa] takes 3,000 trucks through its downtown core every day. Just-in-time has successfully downloaded corporate costs onto the environment, onto the taxpayer's pocket, and has degraded the quality of life everywhere even in rural villages, because all these trucks needs [sic] roads, bridges and the fastest possible routes. Every minute counts. So if the fastest possible route is through the center of your village or city center, that's where the trucks roll and nothing can stop them because there is no alternative.
Most people have absolutely no idea of [sic] how great a burden roads are on their tax dollars. We are presently [as of 2007] rebuilding 4.8 miles of urban highway in my city, which will add two lanes of road capacity. It will cost taxpayers $67 million to add these two extra lanes, and this is cheap because there is no purchase of land needed. The $67 million is strictly a construction cost. If land must be purchased urban roads can cost $25 million for of a mile.
To put this $67 million in perspective, the total cost of all the money spent for new community infrastructure in Ottawa is $19.3 million. That's right - two lanes of 4.8 miles is costing more than three times the entire budget for parks, community centers, swimming pools, ice rinks and daycares for 800,000 people. This is typical for every city large or small in North America. The city of Timmins in Northern Ontario, for example, spends half of its entire budget on roads every year and no one looks at it twice. ...
And once you have built the road in a northern country like Canada, road maintenance costs accelerated by the annual snowfalls, freezes and thaws kills you. In my city, this cost is $8,000 for every mile of two-lane roadway. The unhappiest result of all is that road construction never solves the problem of road congestion as the congestion moves down the road to where the capacity is four lanes instead of six lanes or six lanes instead of eight. At the point the road narrows, the cycle of failure will begin all over again. People will begin to complain about the bottleneck, and the road will be widened at tremendous cost to push the cycle of failure a little further out.
To put these costs in perspective, one four-lane, signalized city intersection costs between two and four million and every year, a single red light cosrs about $150,000 to install with $45,000 in yearly computer maintenance for the electronics. Year in year out, the Canadian province of Ontario spends a billion dollars on just the inter-city roads. ...
To make just-in-time work successfully, it needs truckers capable of off-loading at a consumer warehouse. You can't drive an 18-wheeler from small store to small store. Enter the Big Box Mall. The Big Box Mall is the consumer end of the just-in-time factory. So the advertisements that say "from us to you" are correct. What they don't explain is that the simplification of just-in-time production, distribution and consumption has turned North America into a barbell society. At one end of the barbell is the production factory and at the other end is the big box consumer warehouse. Connecting them are the roads of North America. The triangular pivot in the middle, which holds the two boxes up, is the public sector. Cities, federal, provincial and state governments build, maintain and secure the arterial system on which the entire economy of the barbell society now depends. ...
To feed just-in-time production and consumption, cities must be privatized. Urban and suburban landscapes are now designed exclusively for the truck and the car. Without easy parking lot access for the producers and retailers, just-in-time can't function. So cities have subsidized mall construction everywhere by assessing mall property taxes at warehouse levels and by permitting mall parking lots to operate "for free." We are now building warehouse districts, not cities. Do you see any real difference between the local "business park" and the local strip mall and housing subdivisions?
There is nothing free about parking lots at all.
The only reason that parking lots have any value is because they are connected to a complex and costly urban street and highway system, built and maintained at public expense. Cities literally give parking lots to the mall and trucking industries. If the land was taxed to reflect their real cost of operation, the competitive advantage of malls would disappear tomorrow. [Highlight added for emphasis.]
But it isn't the mall or the airport authority or the hospital or the university's balance sheet which directly bear the costs of operating local and national road systems, so why should they care? The parking lot profits got to the institution which owns the parking lot, not the public purse. Thus the public pays for the roads but the institution profits from the parking charges or lack of them - so bring on the parking lots! The more parking lots an airport has, the more revenue it generates. In Ottawa parking is the second largest source of revenue for the airport. It's a toxic relationship for the taxpayer because the more a mall, airport or a hospital depends on parking lot revenues, the greater the pressure on the commonwealth to feed those profits by building more roads. In this way the public purse is constantly pressured to feed individual corporate interests. [This last phrase would have been better put, in my view, as 'to feed the interests of individual corporations.'] It's a never ending hand-out that eviscerates cities' ability to do much else but build and support road construction. It's a world in which there are billions to build freeways under the city of Boston but never enough for public transit or community centers for kids. [pp. 25-9] Doucet has more to say on the subject, but at this point in the book there is a break, so it will serve as a stopping point for marginal commentary. Despite the occasional clumsy or confusing turn of phrase ('individual corporate interests'; 'eviscerate cities' ability'), this is, as I think you can see, an interesting passage, largely because Doucet concentrates on some of the costs of roads to society. For a moment, allow me to digress, although, as you shall see, my digression relates to Doucet's discussion here. In the Ottawa Citizen for August 29, there was an editorial complaining about the cost of the CBC to the public purse. Despite some good points about just what it is the CBC is spending the money of taxpayers on, and what is arguably a worthwhile suggestion (at least for consideration) that the CBC organise its funding along the lines of PBS, the author, David Krayden, who is executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies (which, if his article is any indication, is a conservative think-tank, basically complains that the CBC is not demonstrating enterprise or initiative, and makes a nonsenical analogy to the CBC with 'the proverbial child who refuses to leave the security of mom and dad's house' (admittedly I may find this particular analogy irritating because it strikes home for me); if the CBC is bad a managing its finances, it is more likely to be a systemic issue of how money is managed by governments, and it isn't as though the CBC has been given a directive to 'move out' and thrown a hissy fit. What is more, the staff of many private businesses and corporations indulge themselves - and, as we have seen, do so, in effect, at public expense, for they do not have to pay the direct costs of many of the services which are built and maintained for their benefit, should it be remarked that private organisations that indulge themselves have 'earned the right to do so'. More to the point, and to return to Doucet's argument, what kind of 'enterprise' or 'initiative' is being shown by businesses which can rely on taxpayers paying for the real cost of the roads they need in order for the 'just-in-time' system to work? If we're going to ask government departments to stand on their own two feet, shouldn't we at least ask the same of businesses which ostensibly ought to already be doing so? Probably the best point of this passage is that parking lots, although profitable to the institutions that run them (which happen to include universities, hospitals, airports, and, yes, let's face it, some churches), are useless without the publicly-funded roads that feed them, and as we have seen, the costs of roads to municipalities is enormous. Meanwhile (and this is something that Doucet notes elsewhere, in several places), cities receive only a fraction of any given household's taxes to pay for the cost of roads, not to mention all of the other services they are expected to provide. I should point out that provinces also spend an enormous amount of money on roads (as Doucet notes), but receive more of our tax dollar. The supposed gains, meanwhile, in efficiency and profitability for businesses due to the 'just-in-time' system would hardly exist were the businesses and not municipalities to pay for the roads. Of course, it is worth noting that lots of individuals use all those roads, too, but in many respects we're 'profiting' from the fact that we don't have to pay the real cost of roads out-of-pocket; but of course we are paying the price one way or another. In any event, the central point of this section is that, without municipalities and provinces paying, more or less, the entire cost of building and maintaining the network of roads for the benefit of businesses, 'just-in-time' would not be possible because it would not be profitable.
There's more to 'just-in-time':
Healthy cities and healthy nations should mimic trees. Cities should have many kinds of transit possibilities, many small producers, many farms on the edge of the city, many shopping streets, many warehouses and factory districts. There should be lots of roots and branches, lots of redundancy in the system. Duplication, diversity and complexity in the human urban world like in the biological world create stability because if one system breaks there's always another to take its place. But just-in-time delivery has worked against all of this by sucking all of society into a stick thin model where all the milk is trucked in from the cheapest possible factory farm, the apples from the cheapest possible orchards and so on. ...
During the ice storm that ripped into Ottawa in January 1998, what became very clear was that our city would run out of food very quickly because there were no local warehouse districts and no alternative to the icy, closed roads. The railway system has been largely put out of the transportation business. There was less train capacity in Ottawa in 2001 than there was in 1950. The train yards, rail lines, warehouses and repair shops that hummed along in the 1950s no longer exist. In most cases they have been literally paved over. The city's most extensive train yards are presently being converted into an enormous mall area and acres of parking lots. The development has the ironic title of "Trainlands." Ottawa's major east-west line is now an eight to ten lane expressway. The downtown railway tracks have been paved over and the station closed.
This story is repeated in other cities across the continent. So when a five-day ice storm hit Ottawa there were no inter-city trains to take the place of the trucks which couldn't navigate the roads, and there were no local warehouses to go to for food. The stores emptied of goods with just-in-time speed and were not replenished.
Calls to shut down the Canadian-American border after September 11 was an understandable circle-the-wagons reaction [sic], but in a just-in-time North American economy it can't be done. Without trucks rolling down highways and endlessly criss-crossing borders, commerce of all kinds will freeze and people will literally start to go hungry. ...
What the destruction of [the World Trade Centre] exposed was just how vulnerable North American society has become based on centralized production (in this case it was financial centralization) and a just-in-time society. Interrupt the just-in-time delivery system be it for moving money, food, computer or auto parts and suddenly the whole economy is in dire trouble.
Just-in-time production results in a rural-urban supply chain more analogous to a conveyor belt than a tree, and it is this conveyor-belt vision of society which is now pre-eminent. All North American governments have bought into the efficiency myth of just-in-time production and are attempting to model public services on the private models of efficiency. And what works for Wal-Mart must clearly also be good for hospitals and schools.
It's been a disaster. The drive to reduce wages by creating a public sector version of a Wal-Mart with poorly paid, part-time, just-in-time work force has simply driven nurses out of the profession and made it difficult to recruit new ones. It's one thing to not be able to find the clerk to help you purcahse a garden tool; it's a whole other order of problem when your IV drip is jamming and you can't find the nurse.
Funding only hospitals where every bed is occupied and schools where every desk and every room is occupied hasn't been efficient either. It's been the opposite. In Canada this has been a formula for closing hospitals and schools that were cheap and worked while people stack up in six hour waits in just-in-time emergency rooms. Running a hospital and school system like this is the same as trying to run a transit system on 100 percent occupancy. There is no such thing as 100 percent occupancy on a bus line because to achieve 100 percent you have to leave people at every bus stop. Leaving people stranded is a failure. Turning away patients and students is a failure. Hundred percent occupancy of a school or hospital is the equivalent of 100 percent lane use on the highway. It doesn't work. It's gridlock. You need at least 15 percent give in all systems at all times for them to be efficient.
Ten years ago [1997] many inner city schools in my part of the city were down as low as 80 occupancy. ... So the provincial government using its muscle funding formula began to force these "inefficient" schools to close their doors and to sell off the property for useful, tax-paying re-development... . The problem is that children are not just-in-time widgets coming off a production line at a steady rate. Communities like individuals have youthful periods, mature and elderly stages. ... At the elderly stage there is a steep drop in the number of children attending neighborhood schools. But if you close the primary and secondary schools during this phase there won't be sufficient space when the older folks move off to smaller homes and are replaced by young folks with growing families. Closing neighborhood schools creates inner city rot because no young family will move into a community where their children can't attend local schools. Why would anyone make that decision?
And once a city neighborhood school and its adjacent play yards disappear, they are gone forever. They are too costly to replace. Schools are the lungs of the community. They give it breathing space and vitality. ...
There may be some small short-term savings in closing a school at 70 percent occupancy. Unfortunately the long-term costs of creating just-in-time schools are incalculable. Community stability, greenspace, generational revitalization, property values and the neighborhood quality of life all tumble. ...
On the hospital side, the idea was to concentrate the health services in single, "efficient" industrial hospitals where there was no "wastage," i.e., no unoccupied beds, no downtime for doctors and nurses. The small, community hospitals were all closed. The immediate upfront costs of these hospital closures are so staggering it beggars the imagination. Two thirds of all patients do not need "tertiary" (most complex) care, but the costs of keeping these patients in a just-in-time tertiary hospital are twice that of a community hospital. The state has, in effect, closed the cheap hospitals and expanded the costly ones. The bizarreness of these decisions can only be appreciated when you look at the actual costs. At a community hospital in Otytawa, like the Salvation Army's Grace Hospital ward beds were $349 a night; at the new Ottawa General (a tertiary hospital) the costs per bed are $829. Guess which hospital has seen a multi-million dollar expansion? Guess which one was torn down?
... Unfortunately, bed charges are only the start of the just-in-time hospital costs. A major element of hospital costs is getting people, patients, visitors and staff to and from the buildings. A just-in-time factory hospital means that the normal city infrastructure, sewers, waterlines, roads and transit are not sufficient so special roads, special transit connections and special city services must be built. A small community hospital like the Grace fitted like a glove into the community and could exist on the various city services that were there to serve the neighborhood. Community hospitals have few extraordinary costs for the city.
The greatest failure of the just-in-time factory hospitals has been medical. Emergency rooms serve every kind of patient from highway carnage to flus. Wait times everywhere have ballooned from minutes to hours. And factory hospitals are so rife with bacteria and assorted viruses that doctors routinely send patients home if they can urinate. If there are any bacteria or a flu virus in circulation in a factory hospital, the virus just works its way through the entire building complex. ...
Small hospitals that are peppered across the city have the natural insulating factors of distance and different travel patterns, different staff, different accommodations and cleaner premises. Further, in an emergency they can be shut down... without compromising medical services of the entire city. Efficiency, flexibility and creativity have been driven out of the system as hospitals have centralized into ever larger units. ...
... People are beginning to understand that 50 years of unparalleled consumerism hasn't made the world a better place. It hasn't even made the majority of North American people richer.
In Canada the Vanier Institute of the Family reported in its 1999 Annual Report on the family that the 1990s recession recovery has been an "incomeless recovery." Poverty rates actually increased during the decade. The "recovery" was funded largely by record low savings and increased borrowing. Personal debt hit record levels. Taxes did not increase, neither did incomes but the cost of living did. The percentage that taxes take from family income has increased, so newspaper headlines which scream "REDUCE TAX BURDEN" are not incorrect. Taxes do take more from the family's income. But it's not the tax burden that's the problem, it's the income that's the problem.
In the just-in-time, factory-to-mall society we've built, reducing taxes has proved to be a particularly pernicious way of increasing disposable income for the middle class and the poor because tax reductions reduce cheap public services. Inevitably, they are replaced with more expensive private services, special levies or simply making do without.
The ugly truth is that in spite of record levels of consumption things are not getting more stable or more comfortable. Both the modal (what most people are earning) and the mean (the dividing line between those above modal and those below) income are getting worse. Mean incomes were less in 2004 than they were in the 1970s. We have now had 30 years of more people earning less and a larger and larger gap between the richest and the poorest. ...
Consumerism organized around the urban barbell is not a sustainable development formula for anyone, rich or poor. ...
In Canada, the corporate income tax scarcely exists anymore. Corporations which export are essentially tax-less. They don't even pay value-added taxes (GST) on their products. Only those products produced for domestic consumption pay value-added taxes, yet the fabrication of products for both domestic and export markets equally require public support. A worker producing software for the US market requires the same health care, education and public transit as a worker producing software for the Canadian market, but only one form of production pays taxes: the domestic one.
Corporations have virtually disappeared from the credit side of the tax ledger. Commonwealth costs are now shouldered principally by individuals out of personal income and sales taxes at a time when the median income has declined; no wonder we do not have adequate resources to pay for public services. And no wonder people are screaming about taxation levels. Yet... the discussion of what constitutes a fair share of the costs of providing for the commonwealth is never on the table. It's been years since corporations received anything but a tax cut. Anything else is seen as irresponsible.
Just-in-time production and delivery has [sic] created a black hole for public expenditures by forcing cities and states to assume massive capital and operating costs for a spaghetti road system. Corporations have not only off-loaded their just-in-time storage and delivery costs on the public sector; they don't even assume their share of these costs. [pp. 29-36] Incidentally, the name of the development to which Doucet referred, now well underway, has since changed to 'Trainyards', the website for which, I have just discovered, is accompanied by an execrable theme song; the which is cruelly ironic, following what we have learned from Doucet's look at 'just-in-time' thus far, because it includes cutesy 'train' jingles and the like. As is evinced by the numerous editorial insertions of [sic], it is clear that Doucet needed a better editor. Sorry, Betty Nuse of New Society Publishers. Reading Urban Meltdown reminds me of a book I read by Martha Sammons, I think, on some of C. S. Lewis's books, which was published by 'America Press' or some such small publisher, which was replete with all kinds of irritating mistakes. Nevertheless, error-ridden though it may be, Doucet's book presents many penetrating insights. In continuing to look at the consequences of 'just-in-time', we see how presenting it as a model of efficiency for public institutions as hospitals and schools have harmed their operation. For the end, or goal, the telos, if you will, of a hospital or school is not 'just-in-time' delivery of its services. And if 'just-in-time' is not how hospitals or schools (or, say, churches) are meant to function, then insisting that the means by which they ought to function be imported from 'just-in-time' models of business is to confuse the differing ends of the 'just-in-time' business and of public institutions. To insist that hospital boards or school boards adopt 'just-in-time' is to make a categorical error - to say the least. It is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If the ends of the organisation differ, then so must the means (at least to a certain extent, for in many cases, of course, the means by which different groups or institutions pursue their stated ends will be either identical or similar to one another). Insisting that hospitals or schools shall become more efficient or accountable by adopting a method of delivering their products (as it were) which is not conducive to the successful meeting of their ends is unwise. I'm not sure how much more of what Doucet says about the fact the corporations pay so little in tax I will be quoting, so I should say something about it now. It is certainly dismaying that businesses are privileged in this regard. In my view, neither enterprise nor initiative are being demonstrated by organisations which can count on such privileges. The consequences of 'just-in-time', and the fact the corporations pay so few taxes and not at all for roads, means that, for example, city politicians are expected to balance budgets with ever less and less income and ever more and more expense. Meanwhile, the growing gap between the earnings of the rich compared to those of the poor would not necessarily be a problem if the poor were making more money themselves, but if incomes for the middle class and poor are shrinking instead of growing, as seems to be the case, then 'income disparity' becomes vicious. The end result is that the rich complain about being taxed (via higher income taxes), but if governments are to pay for even the most basic services (for the moment counting roads, which should really be considered luxuries), what choice do they have but to raise taxes? For sooner or later it will be impossible to cut taxes without having to cut things that conservatives want governments to pay for (we shall set aside the question for now as to just what it is governments ought to pay for), and then where will things stand?
There are other places in Urban Meltdown where Doucet touches upon the problems which follow the inability or unwillingness of governments to tax businesses, or upon the harmful consequences of 'just-in-time' thinking, but it is time to turn to his look at what he calls 'phase transitions', which have most to do with the consequences of climate change:
Unfortunately, the Greeks were wrong about change. Change is not constant. While steady continuums [continua] of change certainly do exist, we now know change is not always continuous. Often change occurs in violent, unexpected shifts that is [sic] not consistent with the steady behavior of the past. These disjunctures in the graduated change continuum are now being called "phase transitions." Further, they are more frequent and more complex than had been previously understood. [pp. 89-90] Time for a brief digression. That change does not always occur steadily or smoothly does not necessarily demonstrate that the 'Greeks were wrong about change', not that Doucet quite makes it clear what they said about change that, he says, they were wrong about, unless by saying 'change is not constant' he means that the Greeks said 'change is constant'. But to say that 'change is constant' is to say nothing about the manner in which change takes place. Whether my body changes by the gradual process of old cells dying and new cells being made, or it changes because I have to have one of my limbs amputated, change is occurring in either case. The confusion arises, it seems, based on how we interpret 'constant' and 'continuous'. Whether complex or simple, whether violent or steady, whether predictable or unpredictable, whether sudden or gradual, change is still change. All this is to say that one of the problems with Doucet's book is that he puts the readers to too much work having to think through what he is saying, instead of trying to be clear. Poor Betty Nuse. Either she really is a bad editor or she just threw up her hands in despair. Again, it isn't as though Doucet's book consists of drivel, but it frequently lacks clarity of focus and clarity of thought, which is evident even in the bits where Doucet is really on to something. Well, back to the main show.
Stuart Kauffman, in his book At Home in the Universe remarks:
When one species is driven extinct, the event may trigger a small or a large extinction avalanche (a phase transition) that sweeps through some or all of the ecosystem. Why? When one species goes extinct, it is replaced by an invader. [...] These moves change the fitness landscapes of its... neighbours, typically lowering their fitness [which makes them] more readily subject to successful invasion and extinction. So avalanches of extinction tend to spread outward from any single extinction event. [As should be clear, the citation from At Home in the Universe is in Urban Meltdown; my editorial changes have been indicated in brackets.]
This notion of an extinction avalanche applies equally to the chemistry of the biosphere. It is entirely possible that a moment can arrive, for example, when changes to the carbon values in the atmosphere have altered the composition of the entire biosphere enough that it suddenly reaches a trigger point and an irrevocable, unexpected reordering of the biosphere chemistry occurs: an atmospheric, biochemical equivalent of a snow avalanche releasing from a mountainside.
Chaos theory is very clear that fundamental changes can occur with little immediate warning. Also there are multiple equilibrium points, and systems do not always return to their original state. It's not always a linear advance and retreat as with a simple mountain avalanche. There is no guarantee that, if a physical phase transition occurs in the biosphere or in the ocean, either medium will return to its former chemistry, even if humans suddenly stop pumping carbon into the environment. [p. 90] I have not actually finished with Doucet's discussion of phase transitions, but he moves to discussing 'social phase transitions' (pp. 90-7), which, while excellent as analogues of the biological or (more accurately, I think) physical, or even biochemical, 'phase transitions' to which he initially referred, are not perfectly analogical, and, as this post is getting long enough, can be omitted without, I think, doing injustice to Doucet's argument, at least for now. Anyway, there is no possibility for me to be able to adequately discuss the whole of Doucet's book.
... [T]he defining characteristics of a phase transition, be it a social or biological one, is [sic] that it is unpredictable, not linear, and hair trigger. ...
... [A] biological phase transition is not a social phenomenon. It's a physical one, and life doesn't always continue. This is the terrifying aspect of the moments that we are living right now. [Betty Nuuuuuuuuuse!] For it is clear that we have governments at the national level that are not capable of imagining the possibility of this biological phase transition occurring. There is an instinctive feeling among politicians that we can recover from an environmental crisis just as nations have recovered from the devastation of war.
"People will suffer; then things will get better. It's a cycle as old as human time." Unfortunately, the evidence for biological phase transitions is that the old equilibrium does not always return. The Aral Sea has never come back. [pp. 92, 94] This is a suitable point to stop and take stock of where we have got thus far, as it is the end of Doucet's chapter introducing 'phase transitions'. The term is in my view a risible turn of phrase; considering that all of the 'phase transitions' Doucet refers to in his discussion of 'social phase transitions' were catastrophic ones, and considering that the consequences of 'biological phase transitions' are invariably described in terms of their catastrophic effects for life on the planet, the simpler, plainer 'catastrophe' would have done just fine. Even so, it is important to grasp the concept, and I think that Doucet does well enough explaining it. Based on what Doucet has said about them thus far, we can reach the following conclusions about 'phase transitions', and biological ones in particular. A 'biological phase transition' (or, better, an 'environmental catastrophe') is likely to occur suddenly, in that immediate causes are insufficient to account for its happening. While it will appear to happen 'without warning', it is likely that in retrospect its causes will be apparent, although as it is a complex phenomenon, the connection between its causes and the system they form may be unclear. The point that 'multiple equilibrium points' and warning that 'systems do not always return to their original state', despite the somewhat cumbrous language in which they are put, make it clear that (as Doucet says) change is sometimes irrevocable; some things that change cannot be changed back to what they were before. A few examples less controversial than climate change should illustrate the point. On the most immediate local level - one's own body - the organic system which comprises the body will inevitably reach an equilibrium from which it is impossible for the body to return to its 'original state', because it will be dead. Now, as it happens, the change from 'alive' to 'dead' is not always as unpredictable as 'phase transitions' are said to be, but it may be. And although the process by which the Earth's atmosphere became breathable occurred over a long period of time, it is not unreasonable to suppose that, at some point, some part of the process occurred, as it were, all of a sudden. So it is not unreasonable to imagine, or even to expect, that catastrophic climate change could occur likewise. The devastation of the Aral Sea (the which, hey!, you can pay money to see), to which Doucet parenthetically refers, is another example of a 'phase transition', although it might be more of an object lesson of how things can go wrong when we meddle too much with nature to suit our own desires, since it did not happen 'all of a sudden'. Finally, the problem of our reticence with respect to doing something about preventing an environmental catastrophe stems in part from our innate psychological need to 'play the hero'. It is not unlike the student who writes the paper at the last minute, pulling an all-nighter, in order to get that 'high', to feel 'heroic' (the student being me in this case). It is almost as if we are inclined to procrastinate, so that, when an environmental catastrophe occurs, we can all feel good about ourselves when we hurry and rush to save people's lives (or, if worst comes to worst and we die in the attempt, we die knowing that we will be lauded for giving our lives to save the lives of others). But in the long run this kind of 'heroism' is vicious, because the harm done by catastrophes is worse when it happens to people who are unprepared because they want to have the opportunity to 'save the day' (or to be saved). For it would be better if we were prudent (and, indeed, to have recourse to Christian virtue, loving) and did what we could to prevent an environmental catastrophe from occurring or more effectively mitigate its effects, than to do nothing until the last possible moment.
It is time to finish our look at Doucet's discussion of 'phase transitions'.
Cod used to be the poor man's dish. Now if you can find cod in a store, they are in tiny little fillets that in my youth we wouldn't have bothered to eat.
Declining cod stocks are not news. Forty years ago, everyone knew the fish stocks were declining. They had always been declining. There have been less [sic] cod for every generation. When I was a boy, fishermen still rowed out of the harbor in dories and cast their nets out onto the sea as fishermen had done for millennia. ... Then, sometime in the early 1970s, "traditional" fishing stopped. There were just not enough fish close to the shore anymore to make hand casting of the nets worth while. ...
Some scientists began to say that the stress on cod was creating a survival crisis.
Nobody paid much attention. Yes, there were less [sic; &c.] cod, but there had always been less cod. Nothing had changed. ... Then to universal surprise — without warning, from one season to the next — the cod winked out, and no one could catch or drag their quotas. After a 1,000 years [Betty Nuuuuuuuuuse!] of commercial fishing beginning with the Basques, the cod fishery was extinct.
The wailing that went up was intercontinental, and the race was on to blame someone, somewhere. Why wasn't there more of a warning?
Some scientists will tell you that they did warn the government, and the government didn't listen. I don't doubt them. There is a whole federal department devoted to reporting on the Continental Shelf fish stocks. ... But in the boats on the sea where the fishermen passed their lives there was no warning of any great significance. One summer there were enough fish. The next there were not. In the practical daily lives of those who fished, it was as if someone had flipped a switch and turned out the fishing lights.
There are lots of theories. Many of them are reasonable, but nobody really knows for sure. ... Was it warmer temperatures in the ocean? Less salty water? Was it a precipitous decline in the cod's food chain? The disappearance of feeder stocks like the caplin? Did it have something to do with too many mature fish being pulled out and too many small ones left behind, not yet at the reproductive stage? Did we create an orphan sea? Do cod require a critical population level in order to reproduce? Did the industrial draggers and gill nets scrape the underwater reefs so much that these food-producing areas had their basic biology compromised? Was it just too many people pulling too many fish out of the sea? Or was it all of the above?
If you look to complexity theory for an explanation, what it will tell you is that there is probably no single reason. Ocean warming, over-fishing, disappearance of feeder stocks, dragging the ocean floor; combine these and they add up to a landslide of invisible, underwater changes that reduces the fish in the sea and changes the actual ecosystem which cod needed to exist. But what exactly was the point? What was the exact collection of circumstances that drove the cod over the underwater precipice?
There doesn't appear to be an answer, for once a biological extinction process has been launched, the last seasons or the last collection of moments becomes irrelevant. Who can stop the melt of Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves from one season to the next? Who can stop the daily spike of UV rays? When it comes down to a single season, it is too late to repair anything. The ship has left the slip. ...
Scientists are still arguing about who or what was to blame and about who didn't listen to whom, but the hard reality is that no one was able to predict that in the spring of 1990 or 1992 or 1989, commercial cod fishing would cease on the Canadian continental shelf. None of the scientists in the Fisheries Department had capacity to say much more than what the old fishermen had always said, year after year: the stocks were declining.
So what else was new?
We learned that the cod had crossed the extinction line when they crossed it and the cod winked out. There wasn't any time to hit the magic policy button, and this happened to the most intensively studied and regulated fishery on the face of the earth. It wasn't off Mozambique in the midst of an endless, mindless civil war. The cod were the basis of a peaceful, billion-dollar annual industry essential to thousands of people and hundreds of communities. The Canadian government knew this and carefully watched over the cod population, measured it, studied it, licensed it and yet was stll unable to stop its commerical extinction... .
Ten years later, there is still no sign of the cod re-establishing themselves. This was not supposed to happen either. All that was required was for fishing to stop for a while to allow the cod to repopulate the ocean.
Nor does the size of the environmental resource seem to slow final moments of a decline. In fact it would seem that the larger the ecological shift is, the faster the final moments of phase transition are. For the cod, the decline took place over centuries but the commercial extinction itself occurred in a single, seasonal transition. [pp. 99-102] This being the end of a section in Doucet's chapter focussing on biological 'phase transitions', it is an appropriate place to stop and take stock. The demise of the cod fishery is exemplary with respect to the kind of 'phase transition', or environmental catastrophe, that is likely (if not certainly) to be the result of climate change. In the first place, problems are going to be noticeable well before the final, catastrophic change, but, human nature being what it is, we will 'get used to it' and stop being bothered. Second, the causes of the catastrophe are, because of their complexity, unlikely to be understood except in retrospect - but by then, of course, it will be too late. Third, evidence that cannot possibly be controverted will either not appear until the catastrophe itself (too late, again), or until just before whatever catastrophe occurs - in which case it is again too late. Fourth, unless those in authority who possess such knowledge as suggests that a catastrophe will or may occur decide to do something before there is, as it were, enough evidence to hang the culprits with, things will continue 'normally' until, once again, it is too late. Fifth, and it is crucial that this point be grasped, if measures are taken now to deal with human-caused climate change (e.g., shift to a rail-based transportation network; transfer to nuclear energy instead of coal [I realise that this is controversial, but to my knowledge so-called 'green energy' alternatives such as solar or wind power are incapable of meeting the demand for energy, even if that demand were to be drastically reduced]; &c.), it is probable that no change will be noticeable for some time to come, nor will there be a catastrophe. Some may complain that we would be making these changes for nothing but this is the point: if a catastrophe is averted because we are able to reduce the amount of pollution likely to induce climate change to the extent that the earth is able to begin (as it were) the process of healing, we shouldn't be able to notice any obvious or dramatic change. It is rather like complaining about there being no flu epidemic after everyone has been inoculated against the flu!
Let us return to the main event:
Shifts in atmospheric chemistry are much larger than fish stocks, but like the cod, as the degradation curve increases in pitch, the changes gather in strength and momentum. Like a child descending a playground slide, a point is passed in the descent when the acceleration becomes so swift that the final transformative moments occur with unstoppable finality. In the case of the biosphere, the final transformation is more likely to be exactly this kind of sudden transition, not a predictable, gentle last step down a biological staircase. In other words, it is quite possible, as with the cod, that there would be no final warning at all; that it would happen from one season to the next and by definition in a way that no one expected.
If this sounds ridiculously simplistic, consider that the chemistry of the biosphere is planetary. No lab can reproduce the combinations and re-combinations that occur on that scale. The toxic cocktails that pour forth from electrical generating plants, from chemical industries, from the tailpipes of the millsions of automobiles outnumber the earth's natural volcanoes many times over. This is an entirely new phenomenon. Until the 20th century it was the natural world that was in the driver's seat. Humanity was a trivial player in the biological life of the planet, but the ancient game has changed. The earth's largest volcano is now fired by human beings.
Some of the consequences are easy enough to see. The ozone decline in the atmosphere means that human skin burns more easily than it did before. As a result sales of protective clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses have boomed. In northern countries like Canada, sunglasses used to be a summertime affectation. Now, they are regarded as a necessity.
Less well-understood consequences include the decline in the insulating effect the thinning of the ozone layer creates. The day's heat no longer remains trapped on the earth's surface as it once did during the nighttime hours. This means that in spite of general global warming, there are larger temperature swings between night and day. The spiking of the daily temperature in the early afternoon is normal and expected, but it is now being followed by a precipitous evening temperature decline, so steep that people are often obliged to wear insulated coats on a July evening. Global warming is also accompanied by erratic weather, torrential rains, very cold months and very hot dry months that arrive out of the traditional order.
In eastern Ontario where I live, in the summer of 2000 there weren't enough heat units generated for corn to ripen in spite of above-average daily sunlight. This year was followed in 2001 by a vicious heat wave and a drought. 2002 was fine in most of eastern Canada, but there was a crippling drought in western Canada forcing the slaughter of millions of animals. In 2003, drought on the Pacific Coast caused raging forest fires, followed by endless rain. As a friend of mine said, "the seasons turn as they always have but each year does not resemble the last."
The increase in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the simultaneous decrease in the ozone layer are combining to squeeze the earth in a vice. The carbon dioxide increases in the biosphere crank the earth's surface temperature up, but the thinning atmosphere lets the increasing heat escape more quickly. Sounds like a nice, balanced arrangement, but it is not a uniform exchange. During the day, the temperature on the earth's surface rockets up and then at night diminishes very quickly; these sharp temperature differentials cause hurricanes and form new deserts because fewer plants can survive to conserve water and create the transpiration cycle that the atmosphere needs to continue a balanced, regenerative behavior.
In Europe right now, it takes years for the vegetation to recover from a severe heat wave and drought. The year following a heat wave has less [sic] plants, less transpiration, less cooling oxygen, less reduction of carbon dioxide. A destructive, negative feedback loop is created. In the simplest of terms, more heat creates the conditions for more heat. This is what French scientists discovered after they began to investigate the biological consequences of the heat wave in 2002 which killed 12,000 French citizens and 30,000 Europeans.
A great and final transition would occur if hydrogen atoms ever begin flying off into space faster than they can be replenished or contained on the earth's surface. This is entirely possible if the containing layers of the atmosphere continue to degrade and the earth's transpiration cycle continues to weaken. If this planetary imbalance between water molecules produced and lost ever arrives, the atomic structure on which human and more complex life depends will vanish, the earth's surface will return to an earlier evolutionary state and human beings will join the many other species which have enjoyed a flowering, decline and then a sudden disappearance. ...
One thing I've learned from my small career at City Hall is that good governance isn't about polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink. Good governance isn't about allowing tiny groups of people to direct a city's growth or control the earth's vast resources. Good governance is about generating wealth in a way that values the commonwealth as much as individual wealth. But democratic governance must rely on the people. At the end of the day, it is the people who must care about whether or not their city governments and their national governments are protecting them from the more rapacious qualities of human nature. Their governments will not care if they do not care; that is the nature of democracy. So don't look to governments to fix things, look to yourself. If the government isn't working, the reason can be found in the mirror. [pp. 102-4] There was an image (I believe a mathematical concept) of the suddenness of a biological 'phase transition' which Doucet used several times in the work; I thought he mentioned it here, but clearly he did not; it was something about the 'tail spike' at the end of a phase transition. Anyway, this post has gone on long enough so it is time to bring it to an end with one last section of marginal commentary. All of what Doucet discusses here with respect to the 'phase transition' (i.e., catastrophe) that ongoing climate change might result in is, obviously worrisome. One problem with his presentation is that he does not cite any sources for this discussion (say, scientific studies, and the like), so even though I am prepared to accept that he is right about the potential consequences of unchecked anthropogenic climate change (it was a nice touch to compare ongoing human pollution to a volcano; one should add that it is a volcano that erupts not every so often but continually every day), it doesn't appear that there is data to support his conclusions, although I presume some kind of experimental data must be available. More to the point, unambiguous proof that climate change will have a deleterious effect on human life probably won't be available until after the blessed event, at which point there won't be a point, because we won't be around to spread the blame, unlike with the collapse of the cod fishery. While reading this section, I was reminded of a passage from On the Beach, in which Dwight Towers, the American submarine captain, ponders that the 'human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense.' Of course, there's no telling how long a delay there will be should Earth's atmosphere revert to a stage incapable of supporting complex forms of life. Anyway, that about does it for my marginal commentary on Urban Meltdown. I have to admit, I did not enjoy the book as I have other works of non-fiction that I have read for The Marginal Virtues, such as In the Meantime or the Poetics (which have their own problems, of course). As you will have seen for yourself, and as I have mentioned, for one, the book is replete with typographical errors or awkward turns of phrase. I can only hope that Doucet is a better poet than prose author. It is also a bit wandering, although that is not necessarily bad (I don't think that, on the whole, it helped, however). I may have to use 'Nuuuuuuse!' henceforth as a cry of despair whenever I read books which have suffered from similarly poor editing. I also did not have space to comment on the way in which I think Doucet fails to grasp that the virtues which need to be encouraged in order for efforts to combat climate change to be successful are not necessarily those which he believes need encouraging (he needs to read, for example, The Rebel Sell). Yet for all of the flaws which I believe make Urban Meltdown not very good as a book, it nevertheless served to alert and remind me of what is really at stake with regard to climate change. Everything comes with a cost, and it will be paid for, but if those of us who have incurred the cost have the power to avoid paying it right away, it is simply paid for by those who do not have that power, which means that, in the end, it is the natural world paying the price. But of course we will be paying for it anyway, with interest, for we are inseparable from nature; no matter how much we can manipulate or control it, we are, in the end, at the mercy of the world in which we live.
So much, then, for Urban Meltdown. I encourage you all to get your hands on a copy and read it. For all that you will have to do some sorting to separate the wheat from the chaff, I think that you will find that Doucet makes several important points and provides warnings that we can no longer ignore.

2 comments:

  1. Websites such as Skeptical Science and RealClimate are good sources to fill in the gaps in Doucet's arguments with regards to climate change as they refer to the scientific literature in climatology.

    On my view, based on your commentary Doucet does a much better job in his criticism of just-in-time systems, especially inasmuch as they are deleterious when applied on a society-wide scale or to public institutions such as hospitals or schools, than he does in his treatment of climate change.

    I'm pretty certain very few climate scientists will agree with the possibility that our emissions will result in an atmosphere incapable of supporting complex organisms any time soon (unless a business-as-usual emissions scenario plays out through to 2200 or beyond and no attempt at carbon sequestration occurs). But it is certainly reasonable to suggest, given that our current atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has not been seen in some tens of millions of years, that the end result once the climate system stabilizes will not be very hospitable.

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  2. I agree; Doucet's analysis is better when he focusses on such things as have a direct effect on the quality of life in cities, which, I suppose, should not come as a surprise. Mind you, climate change will undoubtedly have - I should say, undoubtedly does have - a direct effect on the quality of life in cities!

    I should say that I took a bit of a wrong turn here; perhaps it would have been fairer to Doucet had I quoted from his book the numerous passages in which he does comment on how climate change is presently having a direct and deleterious effect on cities, although in my last direct quotation from his book I did make such reference.

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