Via, by by Hank Green on 07/12/2009

Busses are greener than cars, and apartment buildings are greener than houses. But is a 747 greener than a Cessna? Is an interstate greener than Route 66? Is a 55 inch flat screen greener than a 20 inch tube television? Is a cruise ship greener than a pontoon boat?

There’s been some focus on going green by going bigger recently. But often, efficiency just becomes one more pathway to profligate waste. Let’s take interstate highways as an example here, since they’re both the solution to and cause of so many of our problems.

Let’s say you wanted to move a 100,000 cars from one city to the next city before interstates. The gridlock would have been tremendous. Cars would have idled for days, travelling at low, inefficient speeds with start and stop traffic that would have wasted a huge amount of gasoline. With interstates, those 100,000 cars can speed along a seven lane highway at efficient speeds without ever tapping the breaks. Highways are much more efficient.

Of course, before Atlanta had seven lane highways, no one was driving 60 miles to work every morning. The waste per mile driven has dropped dramatically, but much more dramatic is the rise in miles driven. In the end, interstates led us to build our cities in an extremely unstable way that I believe is responsible for a great deal of the current economic turmoil in the world, not to mention an unstable global climate.

This story re-plays itself over and over again. Technology lets us build more efficient televisions, so we make them gigantic. Technology allows us to build the Airbus A380, with room for 853 passengers, by far the most efficient plane per passenger mile, and suddenly a billion more people can afford air travel. Technology allows us to build a cruise ship that holds 6,300 passengers, transporting them with 30% less fuel per passenger, and there are 6,300 people eating crab cakes and surfing on artificial waves on a boat that’s too big to dock anywhere in Europe.

Bigger is greener when you’re replacing needs that were met inefficiently elsewhere. If you’re getting someone on a bus instead of in a car, or in an apartment building instead of a house, that’s greener. But if you’re creating new and exciting ways for people to over-consume efficiently or, worse, unsustainable infrastructure that will only lead to an unstable future for our world, then bigger is better for someones wallet in the short term, but bad for us all in the end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *