Bacteria that eat waste and poop petroleum

What in the world? We’re talking about

the genetic alteration of bugs — very, very small ones — so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

The story in The Times of London is a great read and may challenge some of your assumptions — Is oil really a non-renewable fossil fuel, or is formed by abiogenic processes? Also, the story notes plenty of hurdles that need to be cleared before you can pour bug excrement into your gas tank, especially the problem of large-scale production:

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.

The best byproduct of high fuel prices has been the opportunity to discuss issues like New Urbanism, sprawl and our nation’s exclusively automotive transportation network. But what if oil supplies suddenly blossom? If peak oil is a myth, or if it can be averted, will our hopes for renewed cities be in vain?

I hope not. Although it seems some New Urbanists are almost happy that oil prices have gone through the roof, we should not place all of our bets on that happening. Our arguments in favor of true, good cities should be able to exist even with dollar-a-gallon gas.

— Hat Tip: Douglas Wilson

Philip Bess: Cities shaped by love

In an essay with the provocative title, “Bring me my arrows of desire: cities shaped by love,” Gayle Doornbos writes a review of Philip Bess’s book, “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred.”

For those who are unaware, Bess is a Notre Dame architecture professor who spoke to a Fort Wayne audience about urban design and sustainable development last month.

Doornbos begins her essay with dreams: Where do you dream of living?

Here are excerpts:

Bess’s gambit challenges us to reevaluate the current state of our cities, how we think about urbanism and the suburbs, and our visions of the good life. For him, a vision of the good life is paramount. It is not enough to merely have good design. Philip Bess argues that good city-building cannot be reduced to design. Good design aids flourishing and can reflect flourishing, but it cannot by itself create sense of community, a neighbourhood, or even a good city. …

… Bess’s work calls us to restore Christian thought about the city in a time when Christians have appropriately fought for justice in cities but neglected to develop sophisticated frameworks about the specific structure, design, policy, and theology that constitutes a good city. Finally, we must recapture the old Christian idea that architecture shapes the fabric of a city — it is not inconsequential to faith or to building community and place — belonging and identity in a broken world. Community, belonging, and cities must aspire to reflect this vision of good city life. “Our greatest cities,” writes Bess, “are products of love. Cities should be shaped and driven by the dream of a world made new.”

Read the essay here.

Also, Books & Culture magazine reviews his book here. Below is an excerpt:

Designs for a good urban experience, Bess explains, would take into consideration the ecological, economic, moral, and formal well-being of a neighborhood. Whether on the outskirts of a city or in the urban core, each neighborhood would enjoy “a walkable and mixed-use human environment wherein many if not most of the necessities and activities of daily human life are within a five- to ten-minute walk for persons of all ages and economic classes.” Such neighborhoods would embody the best social and aesthetic features of historic urban life, and to bring this vision to fruition would be to occasion human flourishing. Good urban planning is good theology.

Read the Books & Culture review here.

Photo courtesy of calm a llama down

Is highway spending “conservative”?

And is public transit spending “liberal”?

I’ve been working my way through “Suburban Nation,” and although I consider myself politically conservative, I find this pro-city, anti-sprawl book conversational and convincing. But I might be in the minority among my conservative brethren.

Critical reviews of “Suburban Nation” at Amazon.com call the authors “socialists,” “elitist” and “neo-liberal.” Ouch. But my question is: Why is it “conservative” for city dwellers to help subsidize highways for suburban dwellers, but “liberal” for suburban dwellers to help subsidize transit within the city?

Under the heading “The Automobile Subsidy,” the authors of “Suburban Nation” say:

“government subsidies for highways and parking alone amount to between 8 and 10 percent of our gross national product, the equivalent of a fuel tax of approximately $3.50 per gallon. … The cost of these subsidies — approximately $5,000 per car per year — is passed directly on to the American citizen in the form of increased prices for products or, more often, as income, property, and sales taxes. …

“Because they do not pay the full price of driving, most car owners choose to drive as much as possible.”

The authors compare our current situation to Stalin’s Gosplan,

“a Soviet agency that set arbitrary ‘correct’ prices for many consumer goods, irrespective (sic) of their cost of production, with unsurprising results.”

Can anyone point me to anything that would prove or disprove the authors’ contention that our highways are heavily subsidized way beyond what the government gathers in fuel taxes? Because if the authors are right, then who is conservative, and who is liberal?

— Photo of Markham Bridge in Portland, Ore., by Auraelius on Flickr

Quotes on sprawl from ‘Suburban Nation’

I’ve been reading “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream,” and have been appreciating the authors’ analysis of suburban planning. Who knows if I’ll agree with their solutions.

Here are some quotes from the beginning of the book:

Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next.

Why the country’s planners were so uniformly convinced of the efficacy of zoning — the segregation of the different aspects of daily life — is a story that dates back to the previous century and the first victory of the planning profession. At that time, Europe’s industrialized cities were shrouded in the smoke of Blake’s “dark, satanic mills.” City planners wisely advocated the separation of such factories from residential areas, with dramatic results. … This segregation, once applied only to incompatible uses, is now applied to every use.

The problem with suburbia is that, in spite of all its regulatory controls, it is not functional: it simply does not efficiently serve society or preserve the environment.

So far, I can recommend the book. It’s certainly written at a reasonable level for the interested layman.

Photo by Millicent Bystander on Flickr

New Urbanism lecture on YouTube

Here’s a well-thought-out lecture on New Urbanism by Andres Duany, author of Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream — a book I happen to be reading right now and enjoying very much.

This lecture is posted in nine parts (often chopped up in the middle of words). All nine pieces of the lecture can be found here.

Also, you can read an excerpt from Suburban Nation here. I’ll be posting about the book as I read through it over the coming weeks.

Hat tip: URBNBLGR