None So Blind...

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 26, 2006

Imagine wrapping a blindfold around your eyes, stuffing plugs into your ears, and then attempting to pull a wagon full of people down a busy street. Your passengers try to warn you that you're about to stagger in front of a moving car, but you ignore their warnings, insisting that they're being alarmist and defeatist and that you know what's best.

Things are about to go badly for you and your passengers.

It's surprisingly hard to pin down a definition for a living organism, but a necessary part of any useful definition is the ability to perceive feedback from its internal state and its environment, and to respond appropriately to preserve internal cohesion. In fact, it's a truism that if an organism loses the ability to perform either of these functions, it will not survive very long.

This is true of all dynamic, living systems. Cities, no less than bacteria, must be able to recognize and respond meaningfully to their environments, both internal and external. Cities that cannot - or will not - do this are doomed to decline and eventual dissolution.

In this context I ask: Will Hamilton get so bogged down in peak oil claim and counter-claim that its ability to respond to its environment and plan accordingly is paralyzed?

So far, the signs are mixed.

On the one hand, City Council voted last year to hire Richard Gilbert, an energy consultant with excellent credentials, to assess Hamilton's long-term planning strategy in the context of peak oil: specifically, the likelihood that gasoline will hist $4 per litre and that natural gas will hit $2 per cubic metre.

On the other hand, Mayor Larry Di Ianni has publicly dismissed the threat of peak oil on more than one occasion, choosing to believe that "technology" will solve any problems that might arise and that "we'll see more air travel rather than less" in the future.

Similarly, John Dolbec, CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, has actually gone so far as to claim, "we regard the whole peak oil thing as a red herring brought forward by people who are against airport development."

Of course, the real "red herring" here is the ridiculous claim that peak oil is just a tactic of aerotropolis opponents.

Let me go on record with the following: 1) I think peak oil is a legitimate concern, based on compelling evidence; therefore 2) I think aerotropolis is a lousy idea.

I wish it were obvious that claim 2 follows from claim 1 and not the other way around, but Di Ianni, Dolbec, and others who have hitched their wagons to the airport development panacea apparently have too much political and emotional baggage attached to their beliefs to let environmental feedback - what we normally call "facts" or "evidence" - get in the way of their chosen course of action.

This is a common refrain. In fact, it seems that the more compelling the evidence against a course of action, the more stubbornly its proponents refuse to brook any dissent.

Even Dana Robbins, the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, recently lamented, "Anyone, it seems, who dares question the wisdom of the day in our city becomes fair game for vilification."

Of course, an unwillingness to listen to feedback vastly increases the likelihood that an organism will not be able to respond appropriately to it.

Amazingly, the fiercest rejection of peak oil is coming from Hamilton's business community. Businesses are supposed to be driven by feedback - i.e. market signals via prices - and ought to recognize the economic necessity of understanding the economic environment and responding appropriately to benefit from that understanding.

The smart money in the global investment community certainly understands this and is flowing into investments that will thrive as fuel prices continue to rise.

Those dinosaurs who have not adapted their business models to rising fuel costs are already struggling to catch up from behind.

Is Hamilton a living, dynamic organism, able to recognize environmental cues and plan accordingly? Or is it a dying breed, too slow and stubborn to recognize what's going on around it?

We'll find out soon enough.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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