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Monday, April 7, 2008

Gore’s “We” Campaign: Not Far Enough

posted by on April 7 at 11:47 AM

The blog Smart Growth Around America has a smart post addressing one of the most glaring deficiencies in Al Gore’s $300 million Alliance for Climate Protection (AKA the “we” campaign): It focuses on small-scale, individual “solutions” (changing your light bulbs, inflating your tires, etc.) while ignoring changes that are harder to do but more effective—like driving less and moving to a dense, walkable community.

With one-third of our emissions generated by transportation, where we choose to live has quite possibly the largest ramifications on our own personal emissions. So it’s discouraging that the most well-known climate advocate running the most well-funded climate advocacy campaign doesn’t see encouraging more people to live in places where they have to drive less as an obvious — and simple — solution.

BeyondDC, while like us hopeful for the success of the campaign, also expressed their disappointment in the lack of mentions for smarter growth, walkable neighborhoods, public transit, or related options in an open letter to Al Gore:

You spend plenty of time talking about techno wizardry and new sources of energy, but we pored over your solutions page and find nary a mention of anything about changing our gluttonous driving-based lifestyle. You have a whole section titled Cutting fuel costs on the road, but in the entire piece the message “drive less” is nowhere to be found.

Tucked way down deep below whole chapters about minor subjects like light bulbs, properly inflated tires, and residential air filters, there’s a single sentence about public transportation and a passing reference to walking to work, but that’s the extent - a single sentence and a passing reference. Nowhere on the entire We Can Solve It site is there any mention about living in a walkable, urban community. Nothing about the damage caused by sprawl. Searches on your site for “transit“, “walkable“, “downtown” and “suburban” come up completely blank.

Perhaps Gore and the team are hesitant to be perceived as telling people where and how they should live. But they shouldn’t be. As Growing Cooler shows (and the recent NPR story highlights especially), making a big dent in our emissions is as simple as meeting the radically underserved demand for compact, walkable, connected places where driving may be one of only several options.

Having looked at the “we” web site, my own assessment isn’t quite so harsh—the site does mention commuting by bike, and it notes the need for “innovative leadership,” which could be read as support for smarter growth management policies, among other things—but for such an enormous effort, it would have been nice to see some bolder suggestions than “turn down the thermostat.” Riding the bus to work, moving to a denser community, and having fewer kids would be a start.

If you want Gore’s campaign to stand up for transit and smart growth, drop them a note here.

RSS icon Comments


Proposing that in order for the developed world to get greener folks need to be "moving to a dense, walkable community" is not really that simple for the vast numbers of people who presently own or rent in suburbs. Look at the current rates for condos and apartments in the denser core. The average family cannot afford a 3 bedroom condo or townhouse. Many single people can't even afford apts in town any more. then, what are we to do with all of that housing stock once it has been moved out of? suggesting that people "just move" is as unsustainable a proposition as a Stalinist 5 year plan. It just won't work.
Who's going to pay for it and how?
I am very much for a greener, more sustainable mode of living, in fact, I see it as imperitive, but sweeping, unworkable proposals do not qualify as solutions.

Posted by inkweary | April 7, 2008 12:18 PM

Off topic: "We" are annoyed that they have people reading the text that's written on the page. "We" think that the person speaking should have something new to add, or don't display the text until after the talking head gets through. "We" hate it when people read the text on slides.

On topic: "We" need to realize that global climate change is just one piece of the pie (dammit, Will in Seattle has me obsessed with pie now) and that economic problems, wars, disease, and the disparity between the rich and the poor are also contributing to our doom. "We" need to look at whole systems, not just pieces if "We" hope to make lasting, positive changes.

Posted by PopTart | April 7, 2008 12:21 PM

Because it's totally reasonable to expect people just getting by in a $175K condo in Renton to move to a $400K condo in Capitol Hill in the name of driving less, of course.

Posted by tsm | April 7, 2008 12:23 PM

Why deride practical near term solutions like turning down the heat, changing light bulbs and keeping tires properly inflated?? What's the matter - they don't cost a huge amount of money so therefore they're not legitimate energy saving actions? Of course there has to be lot more big cuts - but these small actions are things people can do today. Get real - not everyone has reasonable bus service - so far, no one can demonstrate that the planned light rail reduces emissions - and horrors! buses emit greenhouse gas emissions.

Isn't it smarter to get messages across to people that they share responsibility for reducing emissions no matter what their situation?

Posted by Fish | April 7, 2008 12:33 PM

I think the bigger problem here is agenda pushing. Activists are ALWAYS doing this shit. At war rallys, there are always 25 different agendas being pushed, many that don't have to do with the main topic.

I agree that people living in dense areas is good, but honestly can't the activist community take one collective second and just support something? Is it always an all or nothing option? Why can't you just support a large effort to help your cause.

I would imagine the reason there is no mention of dense communities, is that it just isnt realistic. Honestly, people like the suburbs. THEY DO. And trust me, some enviromentalist telling them to move to the city will turn them off saving the environment. People need to start small.

Just be happy more focus is on it, and there are ACTUAL PRACTICAL TIPS for the everyday person who likes having a yard and coul-de-sac.

Posted by Original Monique | April 7, 2008 12:34 PM

The sorts of proposals put forth by politicians, even very well-intentioned ones like Gore, are noticeably lacking in any concrete ideas about the sorts of systemic reforms that would address the issues of our auto-centric culture. Every single greenwashing campaign I've seen so far seems to be largely about recycling and turning off light switches, basically feel-good measures that put all responsibility for change on individuals and ignore the fact that substantive changes need to take place at a societal level.

One person can turn off their lights when they leave the house but they can't build a functioning commuter rail line or engineer a walkable city.

The sorts of reforms you are talking about would require a massive public investment not seen since the New Deal. Naturally politicians are more likely to propose "solutions" that let governments off the hook.

All the curbside recycling and plastic bag taxes in the world will not halt the rapid onset of devastating climate change. The changes that need to take place go far beyond what even legions of well-intentioned individuals can accomplish with these sorts of minor lifestyle adjustments.

Posted by flamingbanjo | April 7, 2008 12:39 PM

"underserved demand" = left-wing-speak for "almost nobody wants this, but they should want it"

Posted by David Wright | April 7, 2008 12:40 PM

When you hand an average person a list of Things They Can Do To Be Greener, and the first two directives are "Take the bus that comes way down the street from you three times a day, following an unreliable schedule" and "Squeeze your family into an itty-bitty condo that costs way more than your current home" .. well, how far do you think that campaign will go?

Posted by missive from the Dept. of Functioning Brain Cells | April 7, 2008 12:50 PM

You know what? I'm not rich. And yet I manage--somehow!--to live in the city (South Seattle, not Renton), take the bus, bike to work when it's nice out, and live without a car. I can do it because my bus comes more than three times a day (seriously - can you name ONE bus in the city that comes less than once an hour?) AND--again, somehow!--I'm not "squeezed into an itty-bitty condo." I'm not saying all this to suggest I sacrifice horribly to have a greener lifestyle--rather, that it's really not that difficult, and I'm super tired of all the Seattle people who say "well, that works fine for some people but it's impossible to do here" any time ANYONE suggests that anything about their lifestyle could stand to change.

Posted by ECB | April 7, 2008 1:06 PM

Bottom line: if you want suburban folks to choose to move to dense, walkable urban environments, you've got to provide places that fit their needs, and that they can afford. That's just not available right now on the scale that's needed.

On the other hand, no matter what kind of community you live in, you can still turn down the thermostat, install air filters and use efficient light bulbs.

Posted by Hernandez | April 7, 2008 1:08 PM

Gore's carbon calculator is also weak. I produce almost no carbon emissions. Of course it didn't bother asking me about my consumption of food or other goods, only my direct consumption of energy. Stoopid.

Posted by keshmeshi | April 7, 2008 1:10 PM

@9: it's not that it's IMPOSSIBLE, it's that most people don't want to do it. The lifestyle you describe, as comfortable as you are with it, is wholly repellent to most people in this country. I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about all the people who live here and everywhere else. Have you seen them? Get out and drive around sometime, as a fact-finding mission.

Posted by Fnarf | April 7, 2008 1:14 PM

ECB, I too manage to live in town on a budget and also ride the bus, as do many other people. But I do not have 2 or 3 children who go to different schools and all of that and neither, I believe, do you.
My comment is general, not just about Seattle. It requires more than a desire to fix the environment to move millions of people. Where are the plans, the economic support, the infrastructure? Anyone can move, yes, but we single, childless folks do not have the same issues as families so we cannot prescibe how they should live.

Posted by inkweary | April 7, 2008 1:24 PM

Gore is right.

The biggest changes are from the people who waste the most.

If someone in the suburbs in say CA who drives two hours each way to work, gets 5 mpg better than they did before, it helps a lot more than the change someone in a city makes.

Changing lightbulbs is something that you can do - and save money at. Every bit helps.

Societal changes take longer.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 7, 2008 1:31 PM
I can do it because my bus comes more than three times a day (seriously - can you name ONE bus in the city that comes less than once an hour?)

And yet you posted a mere few days ago about how bad Metro service was getting, for fuck's sake. Even that poor level of service is better than what some other areas of King County, as well as many other urban areas, have available.

I'm super tired of all the Seattle people who say "well, that works fine for some people but it's impossible to do here" any time ANYONE suggests that anything about their lifestyle could stand to change.

You're not just talking about changing "anything". You're talking about people making very significant changes in their lifestyle, some of which are very economically disadvantageous and stressful, in the name of each making an infinitesmally small dent in our collective carbon footprint - and all of which is for naught if the rest of society can't be trusted to do the same. Surprisingly, people don't jump to respond. Go figure!

Until public policy addresses the underlying free-rider problem here, and infrastructure advances make it economically feasible for people to make changes in the lifestyle we've been subsidizing for years, change will never, ever, ever happen, and your finger-waggling will be in vain.

Posted by tsm | April 7, 2008 1:32 PM

@2 - I'll buy you some pie sometime.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 7, 2008 1:37 PM

The suburbs exist, and aren't going away. But we do need to stress density and move away from focusing on the automobile.

So we're going to have to build density in areas that are currently sprawling. Rather than telling people to leave their single family homes, we need to stop building new single family homes, retain those we already have, and start infilling with dense developments in the suburbs.

To get there, we need broad policies that properly account for the full costs of sprawl. The big things we need are a carbon tax and/or cap and trade, combined with transit investment to encourage transit-oriented development. If costs are accounted for, you don't need to mandate any specific choice--the properly regulated market will enable people to make the right choices without government micromanagement.

People don't want to give up suburbia because hidden subsidies make suburbia a great deal. This masks a parallel disinvestment in cities. The underlying dynamic is social, economic, and cultural segregation. Collectively, cities have been starved of attention and the result was cities not worth living in and suburbs divorced from reality within their own social bubble. That's not sustainable even if people wish it were so. It's better that we embrace the change that is already occurring and plan for it, rather than wait for everything to fall apart.

Posted by Cascadian | April 7, 2008 1:47 PM

As the author of the linked post, I'd like to clarify a few things:

I am completely in favor of Gore's campaign, and am greatly in favor of anything that helps get the message across to everyone that we all have a part to play, and that everyone should do what they can to change the equation.

Everyone should do something, but no one can do everything.

If everyone fills their tires and turns down the thermostats, but no one reconsiders where they live or trying to cut down on vehicle emissions by simply driving less, we will just incrementalize ourselves to death.

Our point in the original post, was all about supply and demand. ECB captured the gist of it very succintly:

"Bottom line: if you want suburban folks to choose to move to dense, walkable urban environments, you've got to provide places that fit their needs, and that they can afford. That's just not available right now on the scale that's needed."

If you read more than just the quoted portion above, the post was all about a just-published book called Growing Cooler, that exhaustively documents how simply meeting the pent-up demand for more compact, walkable places (whether a downtown condo, or a house in Ballard) will do more to cut emissions than all the other suggestions combined.

As far as those in-town places being tiny and overpriced, that's exactly what you call underserved. As the DC suburbs here tank and housing growth creeps to a standstill out there, neighborhoods in the city near public transit, shops, and other destinations are retaining their value. It's no big mystery why..

As our national demographics shift towards a majority of unmarried, childless folks (and seniors - covered in Growing Cooler), we are poised for a coming time of massive overbuilding in the large-lot suburbs if we DON'T change our patterns.

It's not going to be easy to change the regulatory framework so that it's easier to build more compact, walkable places. But the demand is there, and meeting it will take a huge chunk out of our emissions.

Someone else said this is a ridiculously complex and difficult undertaking. Bold, even. Isn't that what the we campaign suggests to be proposing? Bold steps? That's all we're asking them to do.

Posted by Steve | April 7, 2008 1:48 PM

OK. So everyone needs to live within walking/biking distance of work. My husband works all over the place - he does construction - mostly in Seattle or the Eastside, sometimes in Tacoma or even Olympia. I work in Burien. Where are we supposed to live to be politically correct? I should add that my adult stepson, who goes to college in Auburn and works all over the south end, lives with us.

Are we supposed to divorce and live in separate housing so we can each walk to work? Nothing uses up as much resources as separate dwellings. Shared housing is also a way of reducing one's impact.

But really, if you want to actually have a positive impact on the environment, stop breeding. That does more good than anything else. I had myself fixed when I was 31 (I have no kids) and you can't blame me for the two stepkids; he had them before I met him.

Nothing any of us does will be more harmful than reproducing.

Posted by Geni | April 7, 2008 1:56 PM

"Everyone" doesn't need to live anywhere in particular. And we're certainly not suggesting that. But I think it's reasonable for people who want to live somewhere that doesn't require a 15 minute drive to get a gallon of milk to have an affordable option, don't you?

The NPR story linked in our post was a great example. A woman and her daughter got tired of traffic and spending all day in the car, so they moved into a new project downtown in Atlanta where they could walk places, really just because they wanted to do it and that was it. There were some tradeoffs in space, but any loss was outweighed by what she got in return.

Interestingly, she had no concern whatsoever for the environment, she just "wanted her life back." So she got it back, and boom, she cut her emissions by a third.

It's all about personal choices, and a lot of people who want to live somewhere walkable and accessible, don't have that as an option, because of the fact that demand is outstripping supply. So they end up in the status quo of the suburbs.

No comment about reproduction, though. ;)

Posted by Steve | April 7, 2008 2:12 PM

@16, thanks--I like everything but banana cream.

@17 I agree with you, the suburbs do exist and for some of us living in the suburbs of Seattle is actually closer to our work than living in Seattle. So how do we bring change to the suburbs, given they won't magically vanish overnight?

@19 on remaining childless, unfortunately some people aren't getting the memo about having less kids. There is a movement in the US right now called the "quiverfull movement." They advocate having a large family of "godly" children. And, I read an article a few months back that said the latest status symbol among NY investment banker types is having MORE children because it shows they have the money to support a larger family.

Posted by PopTart | April 7, 2008 2:26 PM

@21 I live in a suburb myself, and commute to another suburb--by bicycle. Before I bought my house (a modest 1959 rambler) ten years ago, I lived in an apartment off Madison and 25th and took the 520 bridge to work. I didn't realize how much certain aspects of suburbia would rankle until I'd been here a while. Luckily, my neighborhood is relatively walkable, and likely to become more so given the planned developments.

But what's needed is better transit that isn't focused solely on Seattle proper, new dense developments near that transit, and better regulations to discourage bad developments in unincorporated areas nearby--either fix it at the county level or make sure the suburban cities annex those areas). There's also some lingering anti-city attitudes in the suburbs among some people, but that's changing. The urban-suburban divide just antagonizes people and slows down the change that's needed. Change the tendency to think in polarizing, zero-sum terms, and you remove most of the obtacles to pursuing better development options.

Posted by Cascadian | April 7, 2008 2:46 PM


"Underserved demand" actually means there's lots of existing demand, but not enough supply. That's why there's a dearth of affordable walkably urban housing. It's expensive because more people want it than there are such units.

Why? Because in most of America it's illegal to build walkable urbanity, thanks to crazy zoning, wrongheaded taxes, and sometimes counterproductive "environmentalists" who are actually NIMBYs.

It's up to politicians to *change* those laws and taxes so that the market is capable of prodiving the existing demand for urban living. And it's up to activists to tell politicians why that's necessary.

Posted by BeyondDC | April 7, 2008 4:28 PM
"Underserved demand" actually means there's lots of existing demand, but not enough supply ... It's up to politicians to *change* those laws and taxes so that the market is capable of prodiving the existing demand for urban living. And it's up to activists to tell politicians why that's necessary./blockquote>

Absolutely. But until policymakers act on this, any efforts at voluntarily encouraging the general public to bear nontrivial personal costs - e.g. moving to more expensive urban housing, or taking forty-five minutes out of every work day to walk and wait for public transit instead of commuting by car - in the name of less carbon output are quite likely to fail.

Posted by tsm | April 7, 2008 4:51 PM

Ugh, blockquote failure.

Posted by tsm | April 7, 2008 4:52 PM

It's a bit of straw man to say that the only choices people have are "more expensive urban housing, or taking forty-five minutes out of every work day to walk and wait for public transit instead of commuting by car." That may be the choice for some, but certainly not for all.

As BeyondDC says (and you agree), changing the policies and systems and filling out the market are key. But right now, at this very moment, there are thousands and thousands of people all across America deciding where to move — to rent or to buy. And they will make that decision based on what matters to them.

They may find, just as I did with a little prompting, that while my apartment in DC proper is more expensive than something out in the suburbs, I actually have more money still in pocket from the opportunity cost of time saved each day by virtue of my sphere of travel being so much smaller, and the tiny fraction of our budget we now spend on transportation. I went from spending 1/3 of our income on transportation, to less than 10 percent by virtue of my location close to most of my daily needs and with great transit access. That's more money to spend on housing (or anything else.)

That's one very specific case, but it's a faulty assumption to think that no one can move to smartly-located places until the policymakers change things. Both can happen now. We can pressure the system to change, and we can make personal choices, some of which turn out even better for us in the end.

It's different everywhere you go, but it's certainly not as black and white as small, expensive and inconvenient in the city VS. big, cheap, and convenient in the suburbs.

Posted by Steve in DC | April 8, 2008 7:12 AM

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