Per Capita Davis: The village roundabout is a cautionary tale

By From page A4 | August 21, 2014

In my last column I argued that “sustainability,” unlike “taxes,” is not a four-letter word. Apparently I was wrong, at least insofar as some in the city of Placerville are concerned.

Along comes a story in my morning newspaper that planners in that burg have proposed roundabouts as traffic improvements in their downtown. The rationale is that appropriately designed and placed roundabouts increase road capacity by as much as 50 percent and reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions from autos idling at stop signs or lights.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. In response, some citizens qualified an initiative for the ballot that would prohibit the city from building a roundabout, or anything that looks like one, and, according to the article, further “require a public vote on any project — such as a subdivision or commercial development — if it contains a road with such potentially offensive curvature.”

Why, one might wonder, would roundabouts be such a burning public issue? Some apparently see anything that makes traffic move more easily as a dangerous precursor to additional development that the city Mothers and Fathers are trying to sneak into the community.

Others, including some associated with the local Save Our Community organization, see a more dangerous conspiracy. Quoting from the news article, “She blasts the effort as misguided ‘smart-growth stuff’ handed down by the United Nations under a 1992 framework known as Agenda 21. It recommends that nations develop sustainability with urbanized living and minimal environmental footprint.” Heaven forfend.

To be fair, not everyone is on board with this particular analysis and we should wait to see how the vote comes out this November, but clearly, for some, “sustainability” is a four-letter word representing a global conspiracy under direction of the nefarious United Nations.

There is no doubt there’s a well-funded campaign to cast doubt on climate change and its partner in crime, “sustainability.” Sometimes the message is that climate change is a hoax, a huge conspiracy orchestrated by scientists who want grant money. Other times it’s more along the lines of “OK, climate change is happening but humans are not the cause of it so don’t waste time or money doing anything about it.”

This campaign, largely funded by those with an economic interest in the fossil fuel industry, has created a polarization around the issue that has paralyzed the political establishment, most notably the U.S. Congress.

What on Earth is happening here? One likes to think that Albert Einstein’s quote about policy formation and the role of science is apropos: “To the village square we must carry the facts. From there must come America’s voice.” Why is it that agreement on the facts is so hard to achieve?

One reason, as Bill Nye The Science Guy points out, is that science and scientists are not universally respected. According to a PEW Research Center opinion poll, a large percentage of Americans don’t accept evolution but are instead of the conviction that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Similarly, more than a quarter of us disagree that there is “solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades.” The list goes on and the scientific illiteracy suggested by statistics such as these does not auger well for a reliance on facts in policy formation.

So, for those of us who accept the science, how do we effectively communicate with those who don’t? How do we break through the policy polarization?

Scientific literacy is certainly one key. Only about 25 percent of Americans will go to college, so most of the science they learn will be in high school, junior high or grade school where local school boards have most of the say in terms of curriculum. It’s a column for another day, but suffice it for now to say that a lot of high schools, including many in California, are not teaching science at all and in many states those that do have a science curriculum teach that evolution is an unproven theory and that humans have little to do with climate change.

Another key approach has been to point out that 98 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is largely the result of human activity. Thus far, this argument doesn’t seem to be getting much traction among those who deny or are skeptical of climate change.

A friend recently forwarded an article from the New York Times titled “When Beliefs and Facts Collide.” The author cites studies that conclude, “identity often trumps the facts.” It’s not that people are not aware of the science; awareness is basically the same among persons of all political and religious persuasions. It’s just that the science, or the fact that scientists agree, is not determinative if it’s in opposition to religious or political views.

The writer suggests that we find people who identify with groups that don’t accept the science but who have themselves come to do so, and encourage them as spokespeople. Along these lines, I hear the pope has recently stated it’s a sin to destroy the planet. It’s a starting point.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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