Common Sense Planning for Global Warming


The following is nonstop brainstorming from a morning just before Thanksgiving, 2007.


Transport: Start adjusting to the consequences of smaller, slower automobiles.  a) Think twice about widening streets and highways.  b) Restrict zones of urban sprawl—suburbs with large lots—“starter castles” interspersed with farmland.  c) Arrange “universal” public transportation as existed in the early days of the age of the automobile.  I remember that in the 1930s Indianapolis had radiating tracks to surrounding cities up to about 50 miles dedicated to high speed “street cars” (they looked like street cars but traveled 60 miles/hour).  Fortunately,  “Rail  to  Trails”  has  preserved  some  of  the  appropriate  rights  of  way.  d) Subsidize the development of truck trailers with their own additional set of flanged wheels so that they can be strung together as trains.  Pave among the tracks in freight yards of large cities where truck tractors can maneuver to deliver these trailers locally after a long rail journey.  These measures will reduce highway congestion and save much fuel (and also justify our restraint in widening highways).  Two generations ago a pilot trial of these trains between Louisville, KY, and Memphis, TN, was successful technically.  e) Put more bicycle lanes on city streets and provide safe bicycle parking for commuting factory workers.  Some San Francisco suburbs already have bicycle lockers at commuter rail stations. f) Arrange communal auto and small truck ownership—some co-housing developments already have this.


Buildings: Tighten efficiency standards of building and appliance codes—even “shoot ahead of a moving target” by making these codes temporarily too stringent and only cost-effective at some future date or, better yet, use a carbon tax to motivate the change to the new regimes promptly.  Incidentally countercurrent air-to-air heat exchangers permit ventilation with very little lost heat.  The Japanese have even invented one with a paper core that passes water vapor but no other components of air.  Promote co-housing with its many efficiencies such as common areas for laundry and entertaining. Improved social support is an extra freebee.


Counterproductive activities: Figure out some way to limit excessive packaging especially of food because it wastes material and landfill space (saran wrap and its ilk also require energy to produce).  b) Create a new category of activities which are not quite legal and not quite illegal.  Into this category place fossil fuel consuming recreational vehicles (and, incidentally, tobacco, marijuana, other currently illegal drugs, and probably distilled spirits and gambling).  “Commercial free speech” could no longer be invoked to promote these. Gradually expand this category to include more items such as junk food and jet skis (woops, they are already included under recreational vehicles).  Does food need to be advertised at all other than where to buy it?  Incidentally, we must rise above the classic academic economists’ concept that economies must grow continuously (without limit?!) in order to be healthy—this is even mathematical nonsense; neglecting human population growth is also mathematical and social nonsense.


Agriculture: a) Develop perennial food crops to reduce the fuel use of annual tilling and planting (not to mention reducing soil erosion).  See < > b) A carbon tax will of itself encourage use of local fresh foods in season by the added transportation costs of long distance transport.  c) Phase out ethanol production from corn—the fuel value of the ethanol approximates the fuel used in producing it.  Biofuels should not be made from any needed annual (food) crops and certainly are no substitute for efficient use of energy especially because using even all of our cropland for raising biofuels would replace less than half of our current petroleum consumption. Some biofuel production could easily be coordinated with flood prevention, which also has some bearing on sustainability and global warming as we have been discussing because of increasing frequency of extreme climatic events.  The past performance  of levees  and other engineering structures  have provided  only scant relief.  Obviously we cannot suddenly begin to stay out of trouble the way the primitive people of Asia have done—building their villages on hillsides.  So let us plan a long campaign with the first steps being:

1)      Permit no new construction in flood plains anywhere along rivers and their major tributaries.

2)      Permit only minor repairs of flood damage during a few centuries of transition.

3)      Require that insurance payments for flood damage cover only replacement on higher ground.

4)      Encourage (or require) incorporated villages and cities to purchase conservation easements of undeveloped land on high ground sufficient to replace the at-risk structures in their jurisdictions.  Eminent domain could be invoked if needed to implement this option.

5)      As more and more of the floodplain of the entire watershed reverts to undeveloped status, put the avoided costs of maintaining levees and other flood prevention costs, no longer needed, into sinking funds to subsidize moving surviving undamaged structures from the flood zones to hasten the final goal: retaining almost all floods in the restored natural flood plains throughout the watershed.  An added advantage: temporarily retained floodwaters upstream prolong the period of discharging it downstream.  This will reduce the height of all future flood crests (from Thoughts about New Orleans and Katrina on ). 

6)      It will be best to plant the newly undeveloped floodplain with perennial crops that do not require harvest during a narrow window of time.  This will prevent erosion of freshly cultivated areas during untimely floods.  Switchgrass or woody plants for biofuel production would serve this purpose very well indeed (and perhaps perennial sunflowers for biodiesel).  All sources of cellulose can produce various fuels—even hydrogen.


Social Psychology: My brainstorming seems to be leading to a broader question as mentioned above: how can we restrict advertising of products and activities that are worse than useless to society?  Refraining from promoting these things is a more gentle change than trying to prohibit them especially since they have recently been so seemingly legitimately prevalent.  So we need the new category of activities and products that are neither legal nor illegal. Incidentally, the absence of tobacco advertising on TV is actually voluntary on the part of all tobacco companies, suggested by them in return for stopping very effective anti-tobacco ads by the cancer society--a good step, but not a very strong  precedent for our new program.  What shall we call the new category?—the big bang to stop global warming--not good enough! Would quasi-illegal work better?


As we make the transition to a sustainable economy that does not trash the planet, many less obvious new ideas will emerge (and no doubt some even better ones for initial application).  The above is merely a plea to get the public and their representatives started brainstorming.  How do we persuade the public to get their minds around these questions and begin to change their attitudes and everyday decisions?  This morning of brainstorming is a step in that direction along with getting in touch with our representative in congress. 


John A. Frantz, MD, NASW

November 20, 2007