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Reducing Gasoline Consumption Key to Stopping Arctic Oil Production

platform feeding car Seattle activists’ spirited campaign to stop Shell from exploratory drilling in the Arctic is grabbing world headlines and focusing attention on the climate impacts of exploiting the Arctic’s enormous petroleum resources.  Opponents of Arctic drilling cite sound science projecting that the exploitation of Arctic oil will push global temperatures well over the 2o C threshold for a livable planet.

Shell defends its drilling in the Arctic as necessary to meet growing demand for gasoline.  And demand for gasoline is growing.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Americans used, on average, 375 million gallons of gasoline every day in 2014, and are projected to use even more in 2015, despite a more fuel efficient fleet of cars and a much better selection of electric cars.  In 2013, Americans used more petroleum than China, India, France, and Germany combined.

The consumption of gasoline is ultimately financing the exploration and drilling for oil.  Without the steady cash flow provided by growing consumption of gasoline, enormously capital-intensive projects such as Arctic oil exploration would become financially untenable and grind to a halt.

The reduction of oil consumption scarcely registers for climate activists.  Other than supporting politically unfeasible carbon taxes, the environmental community has essentially no program to reduce gasoline consumption, the real driver behind the quest for more oil production.

What would a program to reduce gasoline consumption look like, especially if carbon taxes are, for now, off the table?

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Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

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How can deeply ingrained civic habits be changed?  How can the pessimism inherent in collective action problems be overcome?

Antanas Mockus, upon becoming mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 1995, confronted Bogota’s epidemic levels of traffic fatalities with a unique blend of statistical analysis, street and performance art, and civic education.  Statistical analysis told Mockus that the key to reducing traffic deaths (and improving traffic circulation) was getting drivers to stop before reaching crosswalks and getting pedestrians to only cross in crosswalks.   Rather than hiring legions of traffic police to write tickets to drivers and pedestrians who violated these norms, Mockus hired 40 made-up street mimes to stop cars and buses from entering crosswalks, and to poke fun at offenders of crosswalk rules.  The streets became a massive stage for lighthearted education about traffic norms, with jay-walkers,  crowds on the street, and the mimes all engaged in the performance, and television and other media drawn to the spectacle and amplifying its message. Bogota pedestrians and motorists adopted the norms promoted by the mimes, and traffic deaths began to fall, successes widely reported by the media. The mimes proved so successful that Bogota’s ranks of mimes increased to 400, and traffic deaths in the city plunged by more than 50%.

The injection of mimes into Bogota’s traffic mess has become a famous example of “cultural acupuncture”–a shot of art/culture used to change behavior and heal social problems.

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