Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Big-Box Swindle

Before I write anything else, let me plug a book well worth reading: Stacy Mitchell's Big-Box Swindle. The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses, available at independent local bookstores such as Odyssey Books, South Hadley, and Food for Thought Books, Amherst.

In my last post I railed against our government subsidizing road-building, because the subsidies constitute a huge donation of our money to the fossil-fuel and auto industries and to the other corporations that benefit from sprawl. Big Box Swindle takes a hard look at the many ways policy-makers have served as the little helpers for the mega-retailers, diverting public resources to the private sector, in particular those parts of the private sector that do the most to impoverish our sense of community and humanity.

On the subject of Big Box Swindle, and picking up where my last post left off, let's remember that when politicians talk about "investing in roads and bridges" they are talking about laying down more bitumen, or asphalt. Bitumen is a form of petroleum composed of ancient algae and other living things. Millions of years ago, while alive, these plants and creatures absorbed sunlight. Unleashing the energy from that ancient sunlight releases CO2 that has been stored underground since the days long before our early shrew-like ancestors were dodging the dinosaurs.

Refining, or cracking, the bitumen requires heat from other fossil fuels and releases more ancient CO2 into the twenty-first century atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming. If mining and refining bitumen is damaging the climate, why do it? Because bitumen is so profitable. In addition to blacktop, the fossil-fuel industry can use bitumen to produce gasoline and a culture based on car-worship needs both; gas to put in the cars, and asphalt to drive them on.

One simple sentence from an article in, the site for Construction Industry News, explains why the price of bitumen is volatile and why it accounts for about a quarter of new road costs:
As oil prices have gone up refineries have found it more economical to crack bitumen for further oil, meaning there is less of the material available.
So whether it's turning the bitumen into gas or into asphalt, the industry makes a profit. For so long as we keep buying its products, it simply can't lose. The only people who lose out are those of us who need a liveable climate for ourselves and our children. While that would seem to include the people who run the fossil-fuel industry and their enablers in the world of policy-making, there's no getting around those short-term profits.

By the way, the nearest source of bitumen is the Alberta oil sands, where the fossil-fuel industry is committing what some environmentalists have called the biggest environmental crime in history. I don't have the stomach to dwell on the enormity of the crime, so please click the link in the preceding sentence if you're curious as to where the blacktop on your street comes from.

To summarize, investing in new roads and bridges means extracting more bitumen, enriching the fossil-fuel industry, perpetuating a car-centric culture, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, cooking the climate, and leaving our kids a planet unfit for human habitation. Which is one way to spend our money, I guess. But I believe there's a better way, one that allows us to look our kids in the eye.

Instead of subsidizing the corporations that got us into this mess, we can invest in cooperative independent businesses and local organic farms. We can oppose the land-use laws that encourage sprawl and, instead, enact better bylaws. We can stop building new roads and start reviving the old natural trade arteries, our waterways. We can stop buying power from the polluters and start generating our own power locally through wind, solar, and micro-hydro. We can relocalize and turn our communities into resilient, self-reliant transition towns, ready for a post-carbon era.

That's better than another WalMart, right?

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