One of the joys of visiting the United States is having a chance to check out the alternative press. This summer, while in Vermont (which some say is a state, and some a state of mind), I picked up a free copy of “Green Living: A Practical Journal for Friends of the Environment.”
Skimming the ads, I was reminded how readily the alternative and the mainstream mingle in the U.S., and how accessible alternatives are. I’m not just talking organic cotton futons, compassionate psychotherapy and comfortable shoes. Phone companies, banks, construction firms and auto repair shops all boast environmental concern.
The magazine also contained an interview with Jan Lundberg, a former oil-industry insider and now an antiroad activist, so I tucked the magazine away for later.
Last week the Lundberg article came to mind when I saw the Newsweek (Sept. 10) cover story: “Koizumi vs. the Machine: Can he stop builders before they pave over Japan and bury the economy?”
Newsweek writers George Wehrfritz and Hideko Takayama take a revealing look at the politics and excesses of public works projects that have marred Japan’s postbubble landscape, and they characterize the problem this way: “Since the early 1990s the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has attempted to grow Japan out of its longest recession in postwar history through the creation — at taxpayers’ expense — of grandiose dams, bridges, railways and roads, plus countless smaller public-works projects.
“To prime the nation’s economic pumps, successive LDP administrations have funneled billions to good-old-boy construction companies and dodgy public corporations. The dubious result: widespread environmental degradation and public debt surpassing even Weimar Germany’s in magnitude.”
The construction industry accounts for 9 percent of Japan’s GDP, according to Newsweek, compared to 5 percent in the EU and 1 percent in the U.S. Half a million construction firms employ 6.6 million workers, one in 10 workers nationwide.
Cut off the pork, and unemployment will skyrocket. Let it flow, and Japan could find itself insolvent. (In light of the economic and political climate, Moody’s Investor Service last week warned it may downgrade Japanese government bonds).
No one knows whether Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi will be able to break this spiral that fleeces taxpayers and enriches politicians and construction firms. But it will be broken, if not by fiscally responsible policy changes then by a crippling depression.
Either way, Koizumi is in for a rough ride. LDP hardliners and traditional bureaucrats drive a one-speed policy — “fast-forward spend.” Innovation is crucial. Perhaps the prime minister could use some policy proposals that would make his own appear downright conservative: suggestions from someone who is truly an outsider.
In that respect, Jan Lundberg is definitely out there. Lundberg is against roads. We have too many roads already, he says, and new ones displace thousands of people each year. In the U.S., he tells Green Living, “more land is devoted to cars than to housing,” and road construction consumes 6,070 sq. km annually.
Derrick Jensen, who interviewed Lundberg, reports that Lundberg has not owned a car in 11 years. In 1997 he tore up his driveway and put in a garden.
Lundberg “grew up around the oil industry,” according to Jensen. He and his father ran Lundberg Survey, Inc., “a company that collected statistics on gasoline prices and industry trends.” In 1973 they began publishing the Lundberg Letter, which became the No. 1 trade journal in the oil industry, and is still widely cited in the media.
Lundberg’s sister, Trilby, now runs the journal, but Jan quit the family business after his father died in the ’80s. He switched gears and began exploring energy conservation. Today he lives in California, where he battles against road building. He also heads the Sustainable Energy Institute ( www.culturechange.org ) and crusades for dismantling our “waste economy.”
“The U.S. subsidizes roads and cars by more than $300 billion per year,” according to Lundberg, and “state and federal expenditures on highways and major roads total more than $160 million a day.” As an example, he cites the Cypress Freeway in Oakland, Calif., which cost taxpayers $1,378 per cm. Some freeway.
What do we get for our taxes? Lundberg notes that traffic in New York City moves across town at an average of 9.6 kph, “slower than in the days of horse-drawn buggies.” Cities here in Japan fare no better.
Asked what a moratorium on road building would do, Lundberg argues it would quickly free up money for “public transportation and making cities more walkable.” Downtown areas could be refurbished for housing, streets lined with trees, and empty lots replaced with gardens and parks.
“Cities can be pleasant places,” he adds.
In fact, if Koizumi decides to take innovation mainstream, he could reduce the budget and improve the quality of life. One obstacle remains, however. Plant nurseries and landscapers in Japan just don’t have the cash needed to funnel votes to the LDP. So do your part for change: Buy a tree, and pay someone to plant it.
Tomorrow, a three-day “Fujiesta” begins in Narusawa Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, at the base of Mount Fuji. The event will let people and groups network on environmental and social issues. There will be hiking, swimming, horse riding, barbecues and live music. Workshops will be held on organic food, buying eco-goods in Japan, environmental activism and women’s issues. Discussions will be in Japanese and English, with interpretation available. Individuals and families are welcome.