Greg Mews: peak oil and happiness

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Urban planner Greg Mews writes:

Imagine if you had to pay $2.50 for a litre of fuel, an incredibly high mortgage or rent, your children are overweight, your parents are socially isolated and suffering from depression, food getting more and more expensive because we rely on cheap fuel to service our supermarkets. The government unable to help with these issues because they are dealing with the immediate priorities of an ageing and unhealthy population and most of the budget goes straight to hospitals and road infrastructure.

Hold on we are just about to go down that path!

Let me tell you why we are on the way to such a state here in the ACT:

  • As we are close to a peak on global conventional oil production the result will be extreme oil price volatility.
  • The building industry finds it very hard to meet affordable housing targets under current conditions and in terms of rent we have the highest prices in Australia.
  • According to the ABS in 2010, the health care costs in the ACT are increasing 11 per cent per annum, which is currently higher than any other jurisdiction in Australia.
  • The proportion of people who are overweight or obese increased from 48.7 peer cent in 2004 to 67.8 per cent in 2008 and the contact outside of a household declined by 16.4 per cent between 2002 and 2006.

So are we happy?

I am sure you can still remember a time where we were able to be able to play in the streets, cycle down to the corner shop to get some milk or walk to the park near by and meet friends. If you can remember this or a similar scenario I am sure you would think of these as happy times… but how does this compare with now?

Happiness equals meeting your own personal needs. Our wants and desires are described in the “Hierarchy of Needs” devised by Abraham Maslow and represented by a pyramid. The needs from the bottom to top include physiological needs, safety needs, love/ belonging needs, esteem needs leading up to the how where self-actualisation needs sit.

According to Lorna Walker, a leading sustainability consultant, in the last century we managed to provide for needs at the physiological and safety level, yet we must not forget the importance of these needs as they are the foundation stones upon which we build the higher needs: social needs such as provided by social inclusion, self esteem and self-actualisation through spontaneity and innovation. The built environment plays an important role in delivering not just people’s rights, but also considers their needs.

So what can we do to stop these current developments in the ACT? We can create places and spaces that reduce our reliance on the automobile and a more integrated planning approach and street spaces would be a great start.

Remember back in the days when children used to play in the streets? These streets were perceived as safe. Paul Tranter and other researchers have shown that reducing road speeds in neighbourhoods will ultimately create more effective speeds and enable safer environments. Increased travel time is usually caused by traffic lights or in rush hour, when many people are using the car. Therefore let’s sacrifice a little speed and car dependence and increase the effectiveness for more happiness in our neighbourhoods.

Professionals including health, engineers, planners, landscape architects, architects and psychologists should join forces to deliver actions toward the common need for ‘happiness’!

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