Our future will demand new lifestyles

How long could this city keep operating if the recent gas shortage was repeated for a longer period, say … the rest of our lives? How long could we keep our veneer of civilization before the kind of aggressive, selfish behavior we saw last month at gas stations became the norm?

What do you think a future without worrying about gas might be like? And how could we get there?

Despite cynical rhetoric about oil deposits – deliberately designed to mislead – no matter how much we drill there is not enough oil to support America's lifestyle much longer. Answers demand new thinking, not to keep using oil and hope someone else solves the problem.

One can make a reasonable case that to buy time to work toward long-term solutions, we should tap U.S. oil deposits that can be accessed without destroying natural ecologies or human economies such as endangered species, fishing grounds and coastal tourism. But even if we do so, no oil from those wells will hit the market for nearly 15 years.

Moreover, it's clear that if we mess up our planet for short-term gain, our future becomes bleak. To avoid dumping a worn-out world into our grandchildren's laps we must work toward a future that is more sustainable in terms of our finite resources.

All this year, my e-mail has revealed plenty of folks in Charlotte think concern for the future is a “socialist plot.” However, those of us blessed (or cursed!) with a wider perspective know that once past the peak of global oil production, situations such as September's shortages could become the norm. Common sense and decency suggest we should take effective action now, while we still have time.

The key lies in our ability to make better choices about where and how we live and move around. We need to craft lifestyles that make sense for us economically while doing as little harm as possible to the city and planet. The challenge is to do this willingly, before change is forced on us by market and environmental circumstances we can't control.

This problem is made more difficult because there aren't many opportunities to live a sustainable lifestyle in Charlotte. Its urban form provides two alternatives: a few compact neighborhoods where walking, biking and transit are convenient and attractive choices; or many spread-out developments where driving is the only way a family can operate.

At present we can afford either option. But the dispersed pattern will become less affordable and more environmentally problematic in coming decades. Should we keep putting taxpayer money toward the infrastructure of new and widened roads to prop up this lifestyle? Should not our precious taxes be used in more cost-efficient ways, to support patterns of living that are more sustainable?

People should be able to live the lives they choose, to the best of their abilities. But they shouldn't expect taxpayer handouts to support a way of life that uses more than its fair share of resources and creates environmental burdens for future generations. If someone wants to live in rural Union County and drive to Charlotte every day, that's their choice. But they shouldn't expect others' taxes to pay for bigger roads for their convenience.

We will need more housing and employment opportunities in new and retrofitted neighborhoods that have a mix of uses and different housing types, are walkable and served by transit. U.S. neighborhoods can return to the traditional form of 100 years ago, before the car became king.

Here's a political platform in time for the election: Scarce public funds should go only toward infrastructure that increases people's opportunities to live sustainable lifestyles, which reduce our carbon footprint and don't steal the future from generations to come. Unsustainable developments must pay for themselves.

Is that a change you'd vote for?