With the Grain
Spoken Softly
Whose Asphalt Is It?
Land use decisions in rural areas are made largely by individual landowners, with little consideration for long-term fuel demands. Can any culture afford traveling this path? What does society assume when we promote isolated residential developments? How may citizens act now toward reducing dangers, both economic and environmental?


Driving Nature Out: Whose Asphalt Is It?

(Western Michigan University, Earth Day, 1992)

"The public believes our Bill of Rights guarantees unleaded at $1.06 a gallon."
US Secretary of Energy James Watkins, 1992

Two warnings about today's subject: first, we can't consider any part of the environment without considering all of it. Although I can keep returning to the topic of energy, I won't start there, and won't end there. We also need to talk about air, water, wildlife, health, and all the rest.

Second, when we talk about energy policy we are really talking about military policy, foreign policy, trade policy, economic policy, and so on.

Energy policy is not being set in the White House, nor on Capitol Hill, nor by Exxon, Mobil, GE, GM, OPEC. They certainly contribute to the entire scheme, and respond to short-term political and economic pressures, but they don't make long-term commitments. The most significant long-term commitments in US energy policy are now being made by realtors. If that doesn't scare you, it should.

So I won't be challenged later, let me read from last month's Enterprise, published by the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce. A plan is in the works to buy blighted property on Kalamazoo's north side for industrial redevelopment. It would reclaim some contaminated sites, bring jobs back into the city, improve the efficiency of public transit, and restore viability to much of the existing housing stock on the near north side. The clean-up will be expensive, though, so a Realtor asks why we should pay so much:

"Right now you can go outside the city and build a nice new building on environmentally clean, green space, with roads and utilities in place."
I give the Chamber a great deal of credit for documenting this bizarre sort of thinking.

Let's start back a hundred years or so, in a rural area fifteen miles from Kalamazoo (such as Paw Paw, Plainwell, Galesburg, or Schoolcraft.) At that time, most square-mile sections (of 640 acres) contained at least one and perhaps a half-dozen homes. Most homes were constructed using stone from surrounding fields, and wood from neighboring woodlots. The vast majority of energy needed to construct the home came from horses and humans, and perhaps a little waterwheel at the mill. Some energy came from a distance in the form of hinges, nails, and panes of glass--a small cartload at most.

Society had good reason to provide that energy input: the families in these houses would in turn provide society with food and fiber for generations to come. The families grew much of their own food, and traveled for their shopping by foot, on horseback, or perhaps by mass transit--that is, by train. The energy input (a little kerosene now and then) was far outweighed by the photosynthetic return: from farmland came corn, milk, apples, grapes; from wild land came furs, meat, or wood products.

Now let's leap forward to 1992.

A couple decide to buy a home. (I'm tempted to name them Petra and Lee, as a little petroleum joke, but let's just say a couple.) They have been taught by fancy real estate ads and designer digests that they don't want a house downtown near work, or a real renovation opportunity on the North side: they want a new house in the country, where that farm used to be, fifteen miles from town. Let's add up the energy it takes to get them into their new house.

Their realtor will drive them all over the county in a Lincoln or a Bonneville getting 12-mpg, maybe 30 gallons worth of gas all told. Once they choose a spot, they'll make twenty more trips in their own 15-mpg mini-van just to show their friends and talk it over with builders and get themselves excited: another 50 gallons. Next will come a series of 5-mpg bulldozers and other rigs to carve things up, then cement trucks and lumber deliveries all the way across the county: 100 gallons. Now the contractors or crew or inspectors will start showing up each in their own 10-mpg Dodge Ram pick-up every day for three or four man-months: 500 gallons. Of course, the couple has to make the trip out every night to check on things, so they add another two gallons a day. We can very easily see a thousand gallons of gas going into the process, or about a hundred barrels of oil.

Now, keep in mind all the energy embodied in the structure itself. Many tons of concrete disappeared into the ground: that's about as energy intensive a product as one can imagine. First, grind stones down to the consistency of baby powder, then haul thousands of pounds of it around the countryside. The aluminum siding is equally energy-consuming to produce, although a lot lighter to truck the last thousand miles to the site. The real energy transport costs are the yellow pine framing from Georgia, the redwood deck and cedar trim trucked in from an old-growth cut 3,000 miles west. The mahogany paneling shipped from Indonesia... The roof covered with asphalt... The insulation and carpeting and plumbing made mostly of petrochemical-based plastics... The electrical systems containing hundreds of pounds of plastics and highly refined metals. You still need hinges, and nails, and glass...

The same materials are already standing downtown, in the form of an empty home for sale (probably by the same realtor!), where buses go by on the half-hour, a five or ten minute walk from groceries, school, and work. That house is going unsold. Our forefathers cut stands of virgin softwoods and hardwoods from that very land, in order to build that house. Now we're arguing about whether to cut the few remaining stands in the Pacific Northwest, in order to duplicate that downtown house to suit Petra and Lee's vanity.

When I bought my first house, I asked about buying a house on the North side of Kalamazoo, and my realtor told me that I didn't want one. I bought one anyway. He has gone on now to be in charge of economic development for a small city in western Michigan, where I suspect houses on the "North side" are going unsold.

Now let's talk about the energy policy commitment.

What you must realize about rural counties and townships and villages is that the local politicians view gravel roads as a nuisance. They want them all paved, with barrel after barrel after barrel after barrel of oil. This is another entire day's subject, but suffice to say that even when the residents oppose paving, it still happens. Then every few years, the crews come back and spread liquid asphalt over the entire surface again, to keep it in shape. Every snowy day, they send out more 5-mpg trucks to drive every mile of road, because Petra and Lee and all the folks in new houses have to drive into town to work. None of the farmers need to go anywhere.

This brings us the energy policy commitment. We spent a few hundred barrels of oil to build that house. Now the real problems start: the family begins to live in it. One or often two people must go back into town every day to work. They add another trip several times each week for shopping, a movie, a meal, or other event. They won't walk (or even bike) that 15 miles. They drive: they have no choice, nor will they ever. Planners say we need at least 25 jobs and homes per acre to make a mass transit system pay for itself. The rural density at this point is perhaps less than one person per acre.

Add to this that the kids must be driven or bused to school, that friends and family must drive to visit, that deliveries of mail and packages must come more miles. We can easily tally forty gallons of gas (or equivalent) more than would be required for a family downtown, each and every week. That comes to some 200 barrels of oil per year, per new house. In an average rural county such as Van Buren, which is adding well over 200 houses a year in unincorporated areas (that is, away from services) this represents a commitment to provide 40,000 barrels of oil each year, just for transport to and from new houses, and to provide it indefinitely.

To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, over 8,000 people (about twelve percent) of the people who live in Van Buren County work outside the county, most of them in Kalamazoo. The rural houses stand empty all day, downtown Kalamazoo stands empty all night, and traffic gets worse and worse.

I have to mention specifically the remarkable costs to the rest of the environment. The lands converted to rural housing are lost forever to farming, although some are absolutely the finest agricultural land on the planet. Unique combinations of weather, and slope, and soil are lost permanently. The fragmentation of the agricultural community means that even the remaining farmers have to drive further for materials, have fewer friends to help with work and equipment, and eventually will be forced out of business by complaints about noise, or odor, or dust, or simply by the skyrocketing taxes on their land. So, we may not eat. Our realty policy is that we may not eat.

Of course, wildlife habitat is fragmented as well, and often turned up and replaced by big green, chemical-intensive lawns. We lose any species that require uninterrupted forests, or quiet, or wetlands, or dark, or clean water. We also generate opportunities for raccoons and opossums and starlings and deer, and other species that simply don't need the help, or that prey on less common critters.

Speed kills. A state Audubon Board member mentioned to me recently that in one birdwatching session he saw three red-headed woodpeckers, a pretty good day--but two of them were dead at the roadside. Of the sixty state-protected turtles I have removed from traffic lanes in the past three years, over one third were dead; this doesn't include all those turtles too badly pasted to identify by species.

The list of energy costs is endless: new school buildings in the middle of nowhere, and empty schools downtown; houses with paved driveways hundreds of feet long, though paving repairs lack in the city; new rural sewage treatment systems, while city services see declining fees; power and phone lines scattered over larger areas; inefficiencies of pumping water from individual wells; and the resulting disincentive to reduce use of that 'unlimited' supply of water.

There are a few basic problems here, and a few ways to solve them.

First, we have to recognize the scope of the problem. Over three percent of all land in Van Buren County is dedicated to automobile use (it's over 4.5% in the city where that realtor works now). American cities and campuses like WMU often use as much as half their land for roads, parking, drives; some cities such as Los Angeles use even more.

Second, we have to ask the people who build and maintain and fund the roads to be more responsible. Collectively, county and state road commissions are among the largest requestors of wetland fill and dredge permits. They spend billions of dollars on more roads, but won't focus that enormous effort and those environmental costs into light rail or other solutions. They could keep their jobs and their budgets, but they're afraid of the change. They cut down all the roadside trees in order to avoid liability for accidents; they need to recognize the more profound liability of encouraging growth in auto traffic, and so do our state legislators.

Finally, we have to drop this fantasy that building a little house here and there does no damage. Realtors argue that they're just meeting the demand for housing. They don't seem to do anything to respond to the demand for prisons, or for X-rated movie houses, because they don't want to be associated with that. They should be just as reluctant to support the single family invasion of rural America.

There are a few things you can do to help. If you live in town, go to the planning and other commission meetings and promote redevelopment, mass transit, zoning for infill construction, restoration, anything that makes use of existing infrastructure. One concept with a lot of potential is Urban Growth Boundaries, areas around a center city where the city won't permit sprawl. Learn to speak their lingo, all the Tax Increment Financing, and Commerce Department stuff, so they'll pay attention. The professional planners themselves know all about it, but they need to be reminded of the benefits. They need to hear about what wonderful press they'll receive.

If you live in a rural area, go to their planning and other board meetings and make them aware of all the benefits of growth management. Many of them are part of the problem, but others' hearts are in the land, and some of them will listen.

I would promote one other idea which may be difficult under the law, but has great potential. Often a developer asks for permission to build many houses scattered across a large parcel of land. The neighbors all oppose it very emotionally, and the local board always approves it anyway. The energy of that opposition should be put into negotiating a way to put the houses closer together and permanently protect some of the land, or other natural land. The local officials can get in enormous trouble trying to negotiate this; it's rather illegal for them to do. Private citizens, however, can propose this sort of solution, and press for it, and may be able to get the developer to realize the benefits.

Two final words:

I must say I know a few realtors with a strong ethic, and a real awareness of environmental issues. They are a tiny minority, but I thank them for trying.

I live in the country: I bought an existing house, I don't drive anywhere unless I have to, perhaps once or twice a week. Most of my driving is to meetings to talk about this issue and try to change things. I hope you'll all put your energy into the same process.

© 1992 WTG All Rights Reserved.
With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

...head home now!
Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die