This article by the late Lee Schipper appeared in the pages of World Streets several weeks before his death, at far too young an age. And here four years later, as we continue to struggle to find ways to make our sector less catastrophically destructive and more people- and climate-friendly, you will find that his tough words and uncompromising arguments are every bit as relevent today as they were back in 2011. Why, one might ask, are we so very slow to learn?aThe editor. World Streets, Paris. 3 August 2011.
Our old friend and long time colleague Lee Schipper is sitting in a hospital bed in Berkeley California today, and since your editor is stuck in Paris and can’t visit him, we thought that while he gets his strength back we would reach into our and others archives and publish a series of pieces to celebrate his deep knowledge of all that World Streets is about, his excellent judgement and his world level communications skills. (And if you have something by Lee that you would like to share with our readers as we wait for him to swing back into action, please send it on.)
Somebody organizing a conference in the coming months on the future of transport in cities called in this morning to ask me, for the nth time in the last two decades, why is it that what appears to any thinking person as an excellent, even more than that, vitally necessary concept such as sustainable development in all of its many forms is proving so notoriously ineffective — to the extent that despite all the articles and books published, conferences held, agencies created, university programs, scientific progress, and even convincing real-world innovations, actions and projects, the bottom line indicators of our gross UNsustainability (greenhouse gas production, climate change and its devastating impacts, continuing mindless resource bulimia, etc.) continue to progress steadily in the wrong direction. By many indicators we seem to be getting smarter, at least at the leading edge. So why are we losing the war?
I hesitated to roll this around in my mind and then told my respected colleague that I would have to have a second cup of coffee and stare out into space a bit, and promised to ring back in an hour or so if that was okay by her. (It was.)
In the context of ongoing work on a new book, “Toward a General Theory of Transport in Cities”, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the starting point for policy and political decisions in the field often described as “urban transport” absolutely has to open up with considerations not of vehicles and infrastructure, technology and entrepreneurship, nor even of people and cities, but on the very bottom line our starting place must be climate and GHG emissions. And the other half of the climate coin is energy, and in fact equity.
So may I suggest that this could be a good time for us to have another look at Illich’s incisive and important 1974 book “Energy and Equity”. And I ask you, how do you think these remarks and views stand the test of time? We need to bear in mind the political (Vietnam, Cold War, Allende, voter registration, 1968, etc.) currents of the time, along with the Oil Crisis, Club of Rome, The Limits of Growth, etc., discussions, concerns and panics of the early seventies. But none of this detracts from the singular vision that this exceptional observer and finest of men has given us.
So here you have it. The whole thing. Print it out. Mark it up. Share your thoughts. Let me take a single phrase from the book to get the ball rolling: “Participatory democracy postulates low-energy technology. Only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology.” (And this almost two decades before the phrase “sustainable development” first appeared on the radar screen. So off we go through the looking glass and into the future with Illich as our guide!)
Working notes for June 5th Master Class presentation to the IFPEN-School Paris
Summary: The thesis of this presentation is (a) that the combinations of technologies, operations and institutional arrangements which today define the transport sector are so grossly inefficient, inappropriate and so thoroughly locked into the system, that only a major paradigm change will be capable of shaking them up. Our unexpected good luck is (b) that such a tectonic pattern change is currently in full swing. However, as often happens, they are not broadly spotted or understood. And (c) this opens up an unexpected and most welcome opportunity.
There can be no doubt that (d) our uppermost public policy target today has to be the planetary emergency (global warming, resource depletion and species extinctions). Tragically (e) the reality of present practices is that this message has still to get through. Under these circumstances the imperative first step is to become aware of it and then to seek its implications, which is in fact the goal of this presentation.
In the case of our sector, (f) the critical link between transport and climate is energy, and this from two strategic perspectives. First (g) the enormous and as yet largely untapped potential for major near-term advances, at relatively low cost. Even more decisive is the enormous near-term potential of the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in the transport sector. This is the lifeline of the future of our planet, no less. And the message should be taken to the December UN COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris.
The climate/transport link transits directly via the energy sector. Conceptually the relationships are very simple. Reality is of course quite another thing.
Our immediate emergency target (climate change, resource depletion, and species extinctions) is to find ways to combine technologies and procedures which will allow us to virtually eliminate carbon-based fuels and impacts in a necessary short amount of time.
Paris. Pollution alert emergency measures. 23 March 2015
We would be foolish, we would be irresponsible beyond pardon, if we do not start by understanding and accepting that the world climate emergency is the most important single policy issue of our time. All of our decisions and actions from this points on must be tempered by the planetary challenges that threaten us today: climate change, resource depletion, and species extinctions.