Earthkeeping in the City

By Zoe Matties – Manitoba Program Manager

It is easy to understand the need to conserve creation when you are surrounded by forests and streams and farmlands, but what about when you’re surrounded by skyscrapers and asphalt and row upon row of houses? This latest A Rocha Talks started a conversation around caring for creation as an urban dweller. 

In North American culture we tend to consider nature as opposite to civilization. We’ve often said nature is where humans are not. But in the book of Genesis humans are created as an intrinsic part of creation. Throughout Scripture all the residents of our earth home, plants, animals, and humans, share a common, intertwined past and future. Today, we see creation flourishing and languishing alongside humans in forests, alpine meadows, parks, suburbs and cities. Given that over 70% of Canada’s population and 55% of the global population lives in cities, city life has an enormous impact on the earth.  

This conversation brought together three people seeking to address this challenge in their own lives. Andrea Santos is a nature enthusiast, scientist and former A Rocha Brazil staff member. She now lives in Vancouver and is learning about life in the Pacific Northwest. Paul Loewen is passionate about technology and reducing carbon emissions. He lives in Winnipeg and plans to own an EV within 3-5 years–if people still own their own vehicles by then. Teresa Prokopanko loves dirt and hopes you will too! She works for the Green Action Centre as a Compost Program Coordinator, and lives in Winnipeg with her husband and toddler daughter.

We had a fruitful conversation touching on how we make decisions in our daily lives, on our dreams for the future of cities, and on practical ways we can learn to care for creation within the city. We had way more questions from the audience than we were able to address in the talk. Paul has graciously taken a look at your questions about electric vehicles, and I’ve added his answers below. There is also a list of resources, including a link to the slides from Paul’s presentation, at the bottom of the blog.

Q and A with Paul and Zoe

The speakers have each referenced “ecological conversion,” which is a new concept for me. Can you please expound on it, and maybe identify what practical steps denote such a conversion? 

Zoe: “Ecological conversion” is a term coined by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si. He writes, “The ecological crisis is… a summons to profound interior conversion.” By that he means a turning towards a way of being that includes the flourishing of others and the earth. He writes that the first step toward this conversion is repentance of the ways that we are complicit in harming others and earth, and a heartfelt desire to change. In my opinion the best way to gain that desire to change is to get to know and learn to love the place around you. We are motivated to care for what we love and we love only those things that we know and experience. For more info on this topic, check out this blog post on The Art of Paying Attention.

I’ve heard that 95% of electricity in Manitoba comes from hydro generation, which seems awesome. In order to generate this, dams have been built, disturbing ecosystems through flooding and violating the rights of Indigenous peoples who live on those lands. Any thoughts regarding this smear on Manitoba’s “clean” energy?

Paul: I think it’s important to draw a distinction between a few things here. First, “clean” likely is intended to mean CO2-free. In that case, hydro is clean. If it’s intended to mean renewable, then it’s also clean. If we are looking for non-environmentally-impactful, then we’re chasing a unicorn. That is, energy use is, by definition, extractive. We cannot use an external energy source without changing something in that ecosystem. So, on a spectrum, I would argue that hydro is cleaner than any fossil fuel, but still environmentally destructive–and absolutely violates the rights of Indigenous peoples. For this purpose, I would argue that we should stop producing dams. The global energy sector will shift predominantly to solar + wind. There are also some in-line hydro options now. These go beneath the surface of a river and do not create a lake. I don’t expect these, however, to take a massive portion of the energy sector. Many forms of renewable energy will co-exist, but solar + wind + storage will dominate. Inasmuch as these do impact ecosystems, we need to be intentional with placement. But the amount of solar needed to power our society is not that large (as a land area).

I love the passion you have Paul for the EV.  Honestly, while I’d love to see fewer parking lots and living in Long Island, NY way less cars, it’s such a part of our lives to “own” a car.  How do you see this conversion will occur for individuals especially ones who are older and who “Uber” occasionally, but which it is not a part of their DNA like with younger people?  Also, do you have an idea of how this would work in rural areas or even suburbs where mass transit barely exists and there are so many individuals with different needs? 

Paul: You’re right that Ubering is a part of the DNA of the younger generation in a way it isn’t for others. Since the ‘60s and onward, cars have been pitched as freedom. This internalized message will take some time to overcome. There will be a few factors that tip the scales:

  • The economics. Owning a car will simply become prohibitively expensive. Likely only rich people or people with specific use cases will retain ownership. A contractor, for instance, that wants her tools to remain in her vehicle at all times. The economics will shift for a few reasons:
  • EVs are cheaper to “fuel” and maintain.
  • Drivers are roughly 2/3 of Uber’s cost. Uber is currently around $2.50/mile. Removing the driver means it’s likely to cost less than $1.00/mile. For reference, owning a vehicle costs roughly $0.70/mile. We usually don’t realize it because the cost doesn’t come at the point of use. It comes once a year when we pay for insurance, do maintenance, or weekly when we fill up for gas. If we had a meter ticking in our car every time we drove we’d drive a little differently. Bringing the cost of a robotaxi to cost-parity-per-mile totally gets rid of the incentive to keep a vehicle.
  • Insurance. More than government incentives, insurance will rapidly force people towards self-driving cars. It will become “risky” to drive yourself, and your insurance will scale proportionally with how much you’d like to drive on your own.
  • The use-case. When you purchase a car, you try to think of all the possible ways you’ll use it in the next decade. This is why there are so many massive vehicles on the road: we want to be able to go to work, take 6 kids, and haul a 4×8 sheet of drywall. When cars are autonomous you’ll make the decision for the type of vehicle that moment. Need to go to Home Depot? Call up a truck. Need to go somewhere with friends? A van. Need to go to work alone? A two-seater will suffice. For the first time, vehicle size will match vehicle use.
  • The convenience. No more parking. It’s that simple.
  • The down-time. What if commuting could be a time to rest, meditate, read, or catch up on Netflix?
  • The safety. Especially as people age, having a reliable and safe vehicle will convince many.
  • The time-savings. Imagine going to sleep and waking up 1000km away, ready to start your day on vacation.
  • Note: I think it’s likely, over time, that autonomous cars will have a higher speed limit on highways.

As far as rural goes, autonomous robotaxis will be the first thing to get there! Public transportation isn’t really viable in small towns–the big vehicles and the cost of a driver are prohibitive. Similarly, Uber’s costs would be too high in a small town: the driver would spend too much time sitting idle. Without the driver, autonomous cars are not a drain on the bottom line if they’re not being used.

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the rollout and implementation of EVs?

Paul: Yes. The pandemic has done a few things:

  • The market has shifted–clean energy company stocks are seriously on the rise. This is giving them access to greater capital and they are able to accelerate their plans. Similarly, fossil fuel companies are dropping like rocks. This makes them financially unsustainable. Some companies are literally taking on debt to pay their dividends. I expect to see fossil fuel companies and traditional auto manufacturers starting to collapse in the next five years.
  • Smaller companies have been more nimble, and don’t have a bunch of sunk costs holding them back.
  • Traditional manufacturers have slowed the rollout of EV programs, largely because they’re incredibly expensive and they’re already feeling the financial implications of the pandemic. I think this will speed up their demise.

I love the shared autonomous future… but practically, who cleans out all these autonomous cars (after my or other’s kids throw fishy crackers all over them)?

Paul: Autonomy is a much harder problem–if we can solve that, we can solve cleaning and disinfecting cars. I expect that while the cars charge there will be businesses that spring up to take care of the vehicle. They will take a cut of the costs. Riders will also be on camera, and they will be rated. Damaging a robotaxi will result in reduced access or higher costs to the user.

Looking for more resources?

Supplemental

Sustainable Cities and Why They Matter

UN Sustainable Development Goal of Sustainable Cities and Communities

The Future of Parking Lots Video

Slides from Paul’s Presentation

XKCD Webcomic on Climate change

Chart on rising world temperatures

Are Electric Cars Really Better for the Climate Podcast

Green Action Centre Composting Resources

Merlin Bird App

Books

Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants – William Dietrich

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and Christian Faith – Eric O. Jacobsen

The Supper of The Lamb: a Culinary Reflection – Robert Farrar Capon

God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation – Jonathan R. Wilson

Food and Faith: a Theology of Eating – Norman Wirzba (but any other book from him is also great!)