Could existentialism be the key to tackling climate change?

An existentialist: Jean Paul Satre (left), with film director Jean-Luc Goddard, in 1971. Image: Getty.

The evidence of human-induced climate change is clear. At minimum, climate change will cost us dearly due to the economic impacts and lives lost from the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. At worst, it presents an existential threat.

Living in North American cities often means heavy reliance on the automobile. Many planners have been calling for changes to how we develop our cities. They hope to reduce automobile use and its environmental burdens, especially carbon emissions that are a factor behind climate change.

When it comes to urban planning, the question is not so much how to physically plan our cities and suburbs differently: there are many well thought-out planning tools and techniques already. Rather, the question is how to convince both the public and our politicians to implement change.

Planners and politicians have pitched public transit and cycling infrastructure projects as a matter of increasing choice to a weary public still largely dependent on cars. We built our cities around the car. So it would only seem fair that we should now make provisions for those that choose alternate ways of getting around.

But how can we expect broad reductions in car use from the approach of pitching expanding choices to the public, when clearly, our consumption behaviour needs to be changed and limited?

An unexpected resurgent philosophical movement, existentialism may provide some assistance. This philosophy emphasises the dynamic between individual choice and collective impacts.

These choices are at the core of public policies of all sorts. To counter the damage of carbon emissions, we need to change the guiding philosophy behind approaches to address climate change in cities.

The failure of market-driven individual choice

Like most aspects of our lives, planning is shaped by philosophies of how we think the world works, or ought to work. It is perhaps not surprising then that the rhetoric of increasing choice has become more prevalent in recent years.

After all, we live in an age that values individualism and where market-driven views of the world have become more dominant. People are increasingly depicted as consumers, as opposed to residents or citizens, and increasing consumption choices is seen as inherently beneficial.

Unfortunately, pitching alternatives to the car as a means to increase our choices will likely undermine the success of carbon emission reduction initiatives. Public transit and bike lanes are often implemented to help attract new residents with pre-existing preferences for these transport modes into previously declining or otherwise struggling neighbourhoods.

This shift contributes to what has become called “green gentrification”. That is the displacement of people with lower incomes to more car-oriented suburbs due to the growing demand for housing in areas with alternative transportation infrastructures.

The possibility of broad reductions in emissions is limited not only because of the displacement of communities but also because these new projects do not serve the large share of the population currently living in low-density suburbs. Anyone may “choose” not to participate in reducing their emissions. A change in the way we view choice may help, and this is where existentialism may hold some potential.


A collective conscience

Existentialism is a philosophy that became popular in the 1940s, emphasising individual freedoms in the face of Fascism. The root of existentialism as a philosophy is often attributed to the ideas of Husserl, Jaspers and Heidegger. The philosophy became more explicitly defined through the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and in particular Jean-Paul Sartre.

Existentialists are often seen as highly pragmatic, which makes it an appealing philosophy for an applied discipline such as planning. Existentialism focuses on questions about the ways we experience life. Individual freedom and the ability to question are two fundamental existentialist axioms. Our existence is determined, from an existentialist view, mainly by our actions, although it does also acknowledge constraints we cannot control.

Existentialist philosophy has seen a bit of revival in recent years. For instance, the immense success of Sarah Bakewell’s book, At The Existentialist Café, named one of the Top 10 books of 2016 by the New York Times, suggests a renewed appetite for existentialist ideas. One reason for the revival may be the congruence between existentialist ideas about individual freedoms and our growing individualistic society.

But, importantly, existentialism also includes a collective conscience. As Sartre noted: “Am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions?”

In other words, the philosophy argues that individual freedoms cannot be preserved if all individuals are completely free to choose their actions. The reference point for making decisions then becomes the impact our individual actions would have on society as a whole if everyone else modelled their actions after ours.

Reduce your carbon emissions now

If existentialism is making a comeback, it may provide precisely the philosophical fodder planners, and other policymakers, need to help the public understand why solving collective problems, such as climate change, may require restricting some choices and not only creating new ones.

If everyone continues to drive carbon-emitting cars, current and future generations will face severe restrictions on their own choices because of the impacts of climate change.

In an increasingly individualistic society, a philosophy that helps us validate our personal freedoms all the while emphasising our collective responsibilities holds great potential to provide meaning to a large number of people.

The evidence is abundant. We can still reduce some of the effects of climate change by collectively agreeing to reduce carbon emissions now. But the rhetoric of expanding choice is not going to get us there.

Existentialism may provide a new underlying philosophical justification for why people should care about the collective in an age of growing individualism. Well, new-ish, at least.

The Conversation

Markus Moos, Associate professor, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.