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A Guilty Planner


Futurists used to be more optimistic:

It's my business to help Canadians understand and adapt to a future that is different from the past. I am a 21st-century city planner.

Along with fellow futurists, I advocate less vehicle travel, more cycling and transit use, smaller cars and sensible energy consumption. The terms "eco-density," "high-occupancy vehicles" and "environmental footprint" are common currency.

By day I'm committed to radical societal change. But my lifestyle is suspect because I really like to drive. Mostly by myself. Pedal to the metal. Wide-open spaces. No boundaries. Zoom, zoom, zoom.

It doesn't matter whether the vehicle is turbocharged, comes with a GPS or has leather seats. It just needs to be peppy and have a tight turning radius. It's about the essential pleasure of driving, regardless of make, model or colour.

I understand the disconnect between the extravagant past and our frugal future. My lifestyle is unsustainable and I need to change my patterns. But I subtly resist the shift.

The writer believes she is admitting to a guilty pleasure. She is behaving badly by her standards but is able to rationalize her sin. She’s held captive by her society. The free-ranging motoring past is ingrained in her psyche as much as in the development patterns she works to change.

She is actually admitting to something more significant. Arrogance. She believes she is gifted with knowledge of the future. And she knows it will suck. Her yearnings must be compromised. There will be no oil someday, and thus there will be no motorcars.

Because we all know nothing other than oil can power an auto, right? Wrong. Thus she makes another admission, to short-sightedness. She is building cities around a set of assumptions that are ludicrous.

Obtaining oil, and pollution resulting from its use, are merely current costs of personal transportation. The cost used to be finding hay and shoveling manure. In a few decades, the costs will certainly be different. I do not predict what they will be, but they’ll almost certainly represent an even smaller fraction of what the average person earns. Thus points the arrow of history.

As a planner, her weak assumptions become foundation for new development patterns that look almost exactly like how people lived a century ago. You know, before technology relieved the problems that come with millions of people crammed together in festering urban poverty.

Her goal is to move society back to those glory days and prolong the suffering for generations. At least she lives as an example, using rose-tinted glasses to transform wasted time into a symbol of virtuousness:

Walking to and from my office - about an hour's hike each way - I enjoy every minute. But maybe I'm a little too smug about saving several litres of gas and burning a few extra calories.

Trouble is, once a person is in good health, there are no extra calories. To keep walking, she has to eat more. Humans are really not that efficient at turning food energy into motion. And food production represents pollution similar to what she thinks she is eliminating by her motor-free commute. That’s a third unintended admission: failure to recognize unseen consequences. Seems like a really, really important shortcoming, she being a professional planner and all…

There may be hope for her. She does believe driving can be, “pure pleasure.” On that, at least, we agree. My version of the future, where motoring costs less and pollutes less, seems more attractive than hers, in which human yearning must be curtailed. I’m pretty sure she would rather live in my future than I in hers.