Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Full Costs of Transportation: A Case for Picking and Choosing

While reading the chapter called, “The Full Costs of Transportation" in Sustainable Transportation[1], there were several problematic concepts that were difficult to support. For the sake of writing space, I’ll narrow it down to two key areas within the article. These two areas were land loss and military security/involvement.
                The views on land loss and the value of land have an overarching anthropocentric point of view. According to the article, “Most land increases in value when it is made more accessible; conversely, land that is inaccessible is not of much interest to society as a whole” (Black, 104). This severely ignores the fact that land cannot be deemed less valuable just because it is not developed or accessible. For example, the Mt. Hood National Forest is not wholly accessible (at least not by roads) to human beings, yet we still view its existence (and its inaccessibility) as valuable because it contributes to biodiversity, the trees offset some of our carbon emissions, and it is a pleasant area to explore during any given season. These are just a few of the numerous benefits of land that remains undeveloped. I’m aware that it is difficult to monetize its value if it’s not developed, but that is no reason to completely leave it out of the equation.
                The question of military involvement is, no doubt, a challenging topic to tackle. However, the chapter stated, “…aggressive actions of one country against another (e.g. Iraq against Kuwait) is something that the international community cannot condone and therefore must undo…Our view is that military security costs, even in behalf of secure petroleum shipments, should not be viewed as component of total transport costs” (Black 107).
My main concern with the first statement is that if the international community took full responsibility for halting violent actions of one country against another, we’d be involved in significantly more global conflicts than we are now, and in some situations we’d be on the other side of the conflicts. Is it out of the question to say that the international community picks and chooses the conflicts to get involved in based on the interests involved? We’ve had several years of war in Iraq to secure our energy investments but there have been two major wars [2] involving several African countries that have resulted in a death toll in the millions. Where was the international community then? It is completely understandable to say that we cannot be involved in every conflict (nor do I feel that we should strive to do so), and sometimes, we aren’t exactly effective in our efforts to quell violence and war.
 However, to argue that being involved in conflict is just part of being a “superpower” without taking into account the reasons why we’re there (as opposed to other places) is ignorant and paints an inaccurate portrayal of the costs being incurred for the sake of accessing petroleum.

Thanks to Brett Lezon for editing!

1 Black, William R. Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions. New York: Guilford Press, 2010. Print.
2 “The Second Congo War,” Wikipedia.


  1. Two good points, Haley! Black definitely doesn't speak for everyone in the field. To your first point, environmental economics has developed some powerful tools to measure the option and non-use value of undeveloped land. So, even if we leave out non-human, "intrinsic" value, we can and should consider best estimates of land we consider using for transportation. Your implicit point that perhaps we shouldn't stop at just human values is well taken, even if the odds of a more holistic consideration of costs isn't likely anytime soon.

    Can you imagine a fuel surcharge to fund certain defense spending? Economically sensible--those who ultimately benefit would bear the costs, but politically and maybe even morally shaky. The costs might be substantial though. I've seen estimates of up to $10B/yr or $0.30/gal for defense spending tied to domestic oil consumption. Other studies have found additional impacts on the economy from oil price volatility in the same ballpark.

  2. I agree that it'd be morally shaky. As much as I'm a huge proponent of making gasoline more expensive to discourage people from purchasing it, the costs of that endeavor fall on the wrong people: those who are most dependent on it without the resources to pursue alternatives.

    The costs should fall on the commercial/industrial sector as they are the ones that responsible for the majority of traffic on the road (employees driving to work). But how do you impose a surcharge on huge companies as a way of discouraging gasoline consumption? Some companies have found ways to incentivize their employees into commuting alternatively (Pfizer, Google, etc.), but many powerful and wealthy companies would rather just pay the surcharge than deal with the complication of providing resources to employees to make it a more accessible option.


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