The appeal of Eric Sanderson’s book Terra Nova is how he peels back the layers of a brave new world “After Oil, Cars and Suburbs.”
In the first part of Sanderson's book, he offers a concise history of America through his lens of modern family guy, resident of the Bronx, conservation ecologist and son of two CPAs.
Raised in rural California, Sanderson traverses the complex geography of how we built a dependency on oil, cars and suburbs (later, he offers a vivid picture of how we move to the future). What you get from Sanderson is both a glimpse of the good life and some tough love for America—it’s time to live closer to our means, and each other.
The window has shut on the era of cheap oil that powered the Great American Expansion of 1940-2000, Sanderson explains.
“The economy feasted on a delectable menu of oil and land. Each new house was a profit center...Despite the surging economy, joy did not reign everywhere.
“As the population was diluted across the landscape, the old cities began to rot, cut off from their source of power: People.”
Sanderson notes that we crossed a comfortable “commute horizon”—or density of jobs that can be reached within 30 minutes—in 2006. He proves it by showing how 90% of the buildable land (within 20 miles of downtown) for the 15 most productive cities was already built by then. The financial collapse of 2008 precipitated a reexamination.
In the second part of the book, he describes in great detail the environmental case for putting our energy (sun), transportation (trains) and house (in town) back in order.
To live sustainably Sanderson suggests the U.S. economy needs to start charging a “gate duty.” Essentially we need to tax carbon and natural resources consumed (front gate) and in the waste we dump (back gate). Sanderson has some neat charts showing the dollar figures for the finite supply of land, air and water if we were paying the true cost for their use.
Gate duties will be paid by those who use the most. In exchange, corporate taxes will be deemed redundant. There will be fewer distortions in the market place. Instead of some costs, damage to the environment, the price we pay for goods and services will put a new emphasis on quality of life and health. In exchange for paying the “true” cost, Sanderson suggests we eliminate the sales tax, which is regressive anyway.
Gate duties will spur innovation as consumers choose products and services that recycle and reward efficiency. The economy will be more equitable as the subsidies disappear for the big companies; the playing field will be leveled for the small, artisanal producers, supporting an American tradition of makers.
“We will have to adapt to a finer-grained kind of economic life, characterized by a larger number of small exchanges rather than a few larger ones...we will need to become accustomed to buying what we can conveniently carry or push in a cart or pack into a pannier bag on the bike. Bigger things will have to be delivered. All of this will take more time. and the pace of life may seem to slow at first. We will bump into each other more, and spend more time chatting.”
Oil, coal and natural gas, of course, will be charged a gate duty and prices at the pump will rise (to probably $5/gal) to reflect pollution and damage from mining and drilling. Historically, the government gave speculators all of nature for free.
The thought of spending huge sums to maintain a driving habit will be less appealing.
This new way of living will become vital to stopping climate change. In the chart, Transportation Energy, a side-by-side comparison of “microwaving” energy used per modes shows how an electric car powered by the sun with four people ride sharing is super energy efficient. For maximum efficiency and benefit to both environment and supportive land use through density, a streetcar can’t be beat.
In Terra Nova, frequent transit systems will move people because it will be the most reliable way of getting around. Our taxes are split $182 billion on roads and $51 billion on on transit. Sanderson suggests we flip those arrangements around.
“After only a few years’ worth of spending the money we already spend on roads, everyone in the country could have access to a streetcar, assuming that they inhabited happier, healthier, moderately denser locales than where most people currently live.”
Americans are very mobile, so, those who can afford to move should find strong incentivizes—for what Sanderson deems “New Town” zones where density, walking, biking, transit bring us closer to work or a neighborhood butcher, baker and solar panel maker. Parking spaces will no longer make economic sense. Other market distortions that favor cars over more sustainable modes of transportation will evaporate.
Toward the end of the book, in the chapter marked The Future, he finally sets down his most convincing case, drawing a picture of retiring from working life, moving via train (and shipping his stuff with a neighborhood electric vehicles and rail) to a life well lived.
“In this new world, we will be feeling better and living longer. The generally pro-motor, anti-exercise, drive-through-window lifestyle practiced in America today has made many of us overweight.
"I hope liberals will love Terra Nova for its openness and rationality, its emphasis on an assertive public, its equilibrating effects with regard to power and income and its relief for the planet. Conservatives will support it for its emphasis on sustainable economic growth, its mechanisms for using markets to advantage, its opportunities for independence and personal choice, and because it respects the oldest traditions of all, the traditions of nature.
"If we pull this off, then generations of Americans—indeed generations of the world, billions of lives yet to be lived—will come to thank us.”