Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Openness to New and Different Ideas

An advantage of being my own boss is that I can set my own blogging schedule.  And change it when I wish.  I had intended to write today about rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.  And then to return to bicycling for some concluding thoughts.  But thinking about my last post on climate change brought to mind an old family anecdote that seemed pertinent.  The story was also pertinent to urbanism.  And so this post muscled its way onto my calendar.

It was perhaps the summer of 1972.  I was doing Saturday errands with my father and sister, probably in a 1965 Mustang.  My sister repeated something that that one of her teachers had said.  That the world might be pumping the last oil by the year 2000.  And that a new energy source then would be required.

As we now know, improved drilling technology has pushed back that date substantially.  But we also now know that oil is a finite resource.  For 1972, the teacher’s comments, even if somewhat inaccurate, were remarkably foresighted.

My father was an engineer.  He gave great weight to data and to proven ways of doing things.  But he was also willing to consider new realities.  To the end of his life, he was looking at alternative operating schemes for rail transit that would allow greater speeds.  And he was suggesting that seismic codes were flawed because they gave insufficient weight to the greater amplitude, slower arriving waves.

Despite the openness of his mind, he immediately dismissed the suggestion by my sister’s teacher about the end of oil.  So did I.

Neither of us had a background in the oil industry nor any other reason to reject the possible end of oil.  Instead, our rejection was based solely on the unthinkability of the idea that oil might someday be exhausted.

After all, we were out for a Saturday drive in a car that was filled with 29 cent per gallon gas and was getting 15 miles to the gallon.  And we were accustomed to the freedom of that way of life, to which oil was essential.  The end of oil was unfathomable.  Heck, the idea that gas might someday cost more than a dollar per gallon was perhaps equally beyond our conception.

But we were wrong.  We had joined legions of our predecessors in rejecting what we couldn’t conceive.  The problem is that nature doesn’t give a whit about what our minds find to be beyond the realm of comprehension.  It cares only about its own innate logic.

To get past the failures of our imagination, we look to science.  Science can help decipher the logic of nature, including secrets which will startle and amaze us.  It’s likely that my sister’s teacher had been reading about scientists who were beginning to ponder the future of oil.

Science doesn’t always get it right, at least at first.  It took thousands of years of increasingly convoluted rationalizations about the earth being at the center of the solar system before Copernicus and Galileo began to convince the world otherwise.  (The photo above is of the university where Galileo worked on his theory.)  Nor are new theories always accepted gladly.  Galileo paid dearly for challenging the accepted wisdom.  But science and the truth it revealed eventually triumphed.

And now the world of science is telling us that our climate may be changing, likely because of our own fossil fuel consumption.  It isn’t certain that climate change will ultimately be proven correct.  It’s possible that it’ll be found completely wrong.  It’s more possible, even probable, that it’ll be found mostly right, but with adjustments needed.  Regardless of the outcome, science is working toward a better understanding of our world.

And yet many are choosing to reject that theory.  Some of those probably because they can’t conceive of making the lifestyle changes that climate change would require.  I understand.  I was there in 1972.  But that makes the attitude neither right nor beneficial.

Urbanism, although not a science, also runs into the question of whether a new reality can be conceived.  Many of us were raised in suburbia, perhaps hearing tales from grandparents who were thrilled to have moved from the city to a small bungalow near a trolley line.  Accordingly, we grew up with a definition of success that included ever larger homes on ever larger lots.  And that’s okay.  As long as you’re willing to pay the price, your dream can be whatever you want it to be.

But the suburban dreams of many have come to include an unwillingness to remove the market obstacles to the urban lifestyle that is now attractive to others.  And that not’s okay.  A willingness to acknowledge the possibility of new and different realities is a good thing for science.  And a good thing for land use.

Incidental observation: It’s fascinating to note that the initial rejection of Galileo’s model of the solar system was based on an unwillingness to conceive that mankind wasn’t at the center of all things.  Conversely, much of the opposition to climate change is based on an unwillingness to believe that mankind is powerful enough to affect the earth’s climate.  Our estimation of our place in the universe has changed dramatically in a few centuries.

Follow-Ups and Scheduling Notes

Petaluma Urban Chat: As a reminder, the next Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, November 13 at the Aqus Café.  We gather at 5:30.  Feel free to join us for an unstructured discussion of urbanism, local politics, and whatever other vaguely related topics may arise.

Urban Chat has selected “Curbside Chat” by for a shared reading.  Discussion will likely begin in December.  The booklet is available as a free download on the StrongTowns website.  But if anyone would prefer a hard copy and doesn't like buying ink for a home printer, we can coordinate the printing of multiple copies at a local print shop.  Let me know if you’re interested.

Nate Silver: A few posts ago, I repeated a tweet by New York Times columnist Nate Silver about the rebound of New York City after Hurricane Sandy.  At the time, Silver was being disparaged for his computer model of the presidential election.  His critics were arguing that he was biased and that his accurate prediction of 49 of 50 states in 2008 was one-time fluke.   I defended Silver, whose work on baseball and politics I’d always found to be fair and objective.

Despite the sniping, Silver did well in the now-completed 2012 election.  If Florida continues to go the way that it’s leaning as of this writing, Silver will have gotten all fifty states correct, improving on his already fine results from 2008.

I’m not arguing that accurate election prognostication has great social value.  It’s far more important to pick the right candidate than to correctly divine which candidate will win several weeks in advance.  But the partisan and unfounded brickbats thrown at Silver are another illustration of the unwillingness of some to grasp new ways of viewing the world.  And that is never a good thing.

Plus, Silver’s new book, “The Signal and the Noise” offers valuable insights about building consensus on subjects such as urbanism in the 21st century.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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