Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Urban Highways, Biodiversity, and the Velvet Worm

Today's show is about the widening of the Caversham Valley Highway and what affect it will have on the velvet worm, the peripatus, in whose habitat the road will now extend.  The peripatus is a very important scientific discovery: there is a great deal of international interest in the entomological community over the possibility that this creature represents a whole new phylum, and it has been suggested to be the missing link between worms and arthropods.  It looks like it may have been the first creature to walk, though on the whole very little is known about these very rare and secretive little things. Whatever those debates, though, it is certain that the peripatus represents a genetic structure that has remained virtually unchanged for somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500 million years.  To put that in some perspective, the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, and the Tuatara, the ‘living fossil’, has been around for 225 million years. 

Many of the South Island peripatus live in a chunk of privately owned property beside the Caversham Valley Highway, which is slated for four-laning starting this year, and where I was invited to go along on friday afternoon. Dave has been managing his property for 25 years to be amenable to peripatus populations, and the result is an incredible tangle of native bush and exotic implants, and a lot of bush lawyer, which also helps house one of the most extensive bird populations on the South Island.  

Ok, so let’s talk about the NZTA plan to make a two-lane road into a four-lane one, add an overpass, and increase the speed limit from 50 to 60 km/h.
First of all, widening the roads worst idea ever.  Though the plan does call for cycling lanes and sidewalks as well as a wider, faster highway, the priority of the NZTA is to the speed and capacity of the roads, by their own admission, and that makes it significantly less safe or enjoyable for people who are not in cars.  If you’ve ever ridden your bike in the lanes that run down the one-way south of the octagon, you know that just painting some lines on the side of an urban highway does not make a safe ride.  Street must be planned and constructed to move as many people as possible, not just to move cars as fast as possible, and that means fewer cars moving more slowly, in narrower lanes, with more people on foot, bikes, and public transportation.  This emphasis on speed and capacity points to this very American equation of physical mobility with economic prosperity, an assumption which has always been deeply flawed and is now becoming downright dangerous.
And the issue they are trying to address, the reduction of traffic and congestion, will not be solved by adding more lanes. All research points to the fact that more lanes means more traffic, that the traffic will inflate, like gas, to fill the available space.  More lanes means faster moving traffic, which means greater distance between cars, which means they take up more space, which means that more lanes did not mean more space.  Seattle has just completed a massive study of the phenomenon, if you’re interested in the first hand research.  So basically all this will accomplish is to make a moderately uncomfortable urban road into a much faster-moving, equally congested four-lane urban highway.

Even if you don’t buy the arguments about the social damage caused by such isolation that a culture of driving imbeds, or the damage to the environment caused by ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels, or the aesthetic issues that big highways through the middle of towns are stupid and ugly, there is always the cost.  It’s a completely backward financial decision to emphasize private car use over public transportation, which costs a fraction of road maintenance, especially in an economic situation like the one we find ourselves in now.  We are short of funds and resources, and you’d think it would be in almost everyone’s best interests to use those remaining to us in the most significant, valuable, impactful way possible – which I would argue would be laying down lines for a national rail system and commissioning a bunch of trains built from New Zealand factories.    NZTA is spending 4.5 billion over 3 years to upgrade the national highway system, and is simultaneously cutting the public transportation budget from 1.7 to  .8 % of the road transport budget.  Building a rail network would create jobs, at least as many jobs as does the commissioning of roadworks, and the product we’re left with is not a dangerous relic of a bygone era that we just refuse to see our way around.

For Dave Randle, this is really about the importance we assign to urban biodiversity.  Dave wants the peripatus fight to be a flagship for a new discussion about local stewardship for urban conservation, and as I’m all about making things abstract, for me it raises questions about how we even begin to talk about urban biodiversity in a culture which still privileges humans over nature.  Part of this fight, at least implicitly, is about debunking this outdated notion that humans and nature are two separate conversations, and more and more often, that they are opposed to one another.  Cities exist in nature – reliant on and informed by the geography, climate, and biodiversity of the place they grow up.  Urban conservation activists, Dave Randle among them although I don’t think he would phrase it in this way, seek to actively induce a paradigm shift away from this duality of human and nature.  You hear this kind of rhetoric a lot in American politics, and increasing here as well: "My opponent cares about polar bears, I care about the people."  So that conservation regulations and emissions caps are talked about as being anti-people, that they are job-killers, as though there is some kind of impermeable separation between polar bears and people, and that any concern for one must necessarily come at the expense of the other. Of course we are part of nature; we are interconnected with everything else on the planet, we eat the food that grows from the ground, we breathe the air and drink the water, and just because we also invented iphones doesn’t mean those facts become irrelevant. 

I’m inclined to see this, as i’m inclined to see so many of our modern ills, as an issue of economic philosophy – Richard Heinberg mentioned that one of the more subtle and sinister aspects of modern capitalism is the conflation of nature with capital.  When economics first emerged as a discipline, the market was agreed to have been made up of labour, capital, and land, indicating all natural resources.  At some point around the beginning of the 20th century, nature became subsumed under capital, so that we ceased to view natural resources as an economic pillar in their own right and began to see them as having value only as capital – that is, when they were extracted and sold.  Greater attention to urban conservation and biodiversity could encourage us to revisit our place in the natural world and address our deeply flawed assignations of value at the same time.

Ecological restoration and conservation needs to be about changing the way we interact with nature – it’s not about leaving nature alone to take over the cities, which are wholly terrible and destructive things.  There is no such thing as a zero-impact existence – indeed nature would not function if there were.  It’s self-defeating and absolutist to talk about zero carbon, or to believe that all human interaction is inherently destructive – conservation is as much about responsible management as it is about treading lightly.  Ecological sustainability does not require the removal of humans from the environment, it depends upon the restoration of our actual physical relationship with the rest of the natural world.
More people live in urban than rural areas for the first time ever in history, and urban natural areas are the way those people can still have some connection with nature.   Life in concrete can be dehumanizing, having access to a place where nature thrives in the midst of all represents a way to maintain respect for the local watershed, soil conditions, agriculture – knowledge leads to respect which leads to pride, which leads to more people caring about the place they live.  That can only make that place better and better to live in.

It probably comes as no surprise that I would advocate for a local, community movement of restoration and conservation of urban and semi-urban biodiversity.  As with most other issues I talk about on this show, I do believe that the solution is increased interconnectedness, or at least increased awareness of it, to combat the narrative of hyper-individuality and isolation that we’ve been taught for years.  We require stronger community network which, in the concise words of the San Francisco urban biodiversity group Nature in the City:
-         physically stewards our natural areas and local biodiversity,
-        educates the public about local nature and our interconnectedness with the global environment,
-        advocates for stronger legal ecosystem protection and more comprehensive ecological restoration, and
-        embodies a healthy culture of proactive, positive and restorative ecological stewardship, which becomes how we humans interact with our environment.
We learned that we were separate from nature, so that we came to see ourselves as separate from nature.  It would be just as simple a process to learn that we are connected to each other, and to nature, so that we come to see the natural world as an extension of ourselves.  That is how we will come to live sustainably and harmoniously, and no other way.

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