Monday, October 19, 2009

Green Metropolis

Do cities have something to teach the country about being green? New Yorker columnist and author, David Owen, sure thinks they do.

In his recently released book, Green Metropolis, Owen attacks the purported anti-urbanism of the modern American environmental movement, arguing that big cities are far more sustainable than the suburbs or the countryside. In fact, Owen claims, New York City is the most environmentally sustainable and responsible community in the United States. Owen points to some obvious consequences of a highly concentrated, compacted population:

New Yorkers drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption.

According to New York Times book reviewer, Elizabeth Royte, the book "challenges many cherished assumptions about easy-on-the-earth country living, though many of its revelations may not be revelatory to hardcore carbon counters, or to anyone who read Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article from which this book sprouted." Royte notes that the book "has a lot of fun at the expense of sentimental pastoralists" and she wonders about the small ecological measures these pastoralists take on a daily basis, giving the example of a "hybrid-driving country dweller with her triple-paned windows, backyard composter and geothermal heat pump?"

Fuhgeddaboudit, Owen practically shouts: she’s still driving to work, to school, to shops and the post office. He doesn’t care if she’s powered by French fry grease or the juice of photovoltaic panels: “Wasted energy is wasted energy no matter how it’s generated.”

Green Metropolis maintains that real sustainability is achieved only if Americans live smaller, live closer, and drive less. Owen focuses in large part on the automobile, "which not only burns damaging fossil fuels but encourages us to spread out and, paradoxically, destroy open space." He advocates making driving more expensive and more unpleasant in an effort to deter people from using vehicles, even suggesting that the creation of energy-efficient cars (Toyota Prius, we're talking about you!) is counterproductive since such vehicles allow people to drive further, cheaper. Traffic jams? Ecologically beneficial, claims Owen.

Many traditional efforts extolled by environmentalists--protecting open space, locavorism, backyard composting installing solar panels and triple-paned windows--simply do not pass muster under Owen's theory of sustainability. In a Times magazine interview, Owen claims that Americans are great at "green consumerism," buying things that minimize their carbon footprint, but that these efforts dodge the real sacrifice required to achieve a higher level of sustainability.

Time magazine: What about the changes we do make — hybrid cars, solar panels — do they help at all?

Owen: We are very good at solutions that involve buying things. "Oh, I'll buy a hybrid." "Oh, when I redo my kitchen I'll use bamboo flooring." But when it comes to actually cutting back, to real deprivation and sacrifice, it's like, "No, forget that."
Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that Owen completely fails to practice what he preaches by residing in (what he would deem) ecologically-unsustainable small-town Connecticut. In an interview, that strikes me as slightly disingenuous, Owen argues that moving from his rural home would provide no change in the carbon footprint of the human race:
There’s a difference between changing one’s own circumstances and changing the circumstances of the world. If my wife and I moved back to Manhattan tomorrow, our personal carbon footprint would shrink, but the carbon footprint of the human race would be unchanged, because in order for us to move we’d have to sell our house and cars and everything else to other people, and life would go on as before.
One critic believes that there is "an important story there, one that suggests either he does not fully believe what he wrote or that he believes it but also believes that other things are more important."

What's more, in addition to living in precisely the type of community he bemoans, Owen actually drives his car the mere three miles to his nearby golf course. I guess when it comes to actually cutting back, to choosing a bicycle over a vehicle for a short trip down the road, an action that might amount, to some of us, as a real, albeit small, sacrifice, it's like, "No, forget that."


camp said...

As someone who is guilty of idealizing the notion of moving to the country I'm struck by recent evidence I've encountered that city living is often greener than any other alternative. My personal goal of Five Acres and Independence has been challenged.

While it doesn't sound like Owen makes the most compelling argument or advocate - I'm working my way through Stewart Brand's new book Whole Earth Discipline and it's quite good in this area. I didn't expect to find anything on rurality in it but the subject turns out to be central to his thesis of finding practical ways to avoid global climate crisis and the social devolution that he see accompanying it. I'm not yet finished but the basic idea is that cities and slums are salvation - they are places of great innovation and resource efficiency. Perhaps it'll be worth a follow up post once I finish it.
This post also reminded me of the recent movie & book No Impact Man. I found the family and the content to be compelling and inspiring. Putting the ethic in to practice in their daily life - "being the change you wish to see" as Ghandi said.

tcruse said...

These are interesting concepts and it makes me want to read the book. However, it is disheartening to hear that the author doesn't seem to practice what he defeatist and uninspiring to argue 'well, any individual changes that I make won't make a big difference on the grand scale - so why bother?'

I'd never really stopped to analyze why cities might be more environmentally sustainable than other settings but it makes sense that it all comes down to the car. I sometimes tend to think of cities as big, dirty, energy suckers. However, it’s good and about time they’re starting to focus on their compactness, walkability and centralized services, and realizing that they can afford to make changes toward green-efficiencies.

However, I don't think I'd totally discount the sustainability of countryside living as the author might do. Maybe cities are more sustainable and efficient than suburbia, where people seem to live in their cars they drive them so much. But perhaps the old-school farmers still have something to teach the city dwellers. Those who grow their own food and are resourceful re-users and recyclers, who may not need to drive to town every second for something the way suburbanites do - true countryside livers - might be sustainable in their own right.

I agree that making driving more expensive might help speed up a fix for our addiction to driving, but on the other hand, it undoubtedly would create an unfair disadvantage for those living in rural areas who must drive to town to get essential services. What is the solution if these people can't drive? Make them all move to cities (evacuating rural America completely?) or build new cities up in the middle of their farms? At first read, I agreed with the line “Wasted energy is wasted energy no matter how it’s generated.” But I think you have to take energy efficiency step by step. People aren't going to change their entire lifestyle in an instant (no matter how much we wish they would), so it seems that Owens should appreciate any steps that people (urban, suburban or country-dwelling) take to decrease their carbon footprint. All the small changes might add up to a significant difference. And perhaps after enough change, people will learn to truly cut back on some things.

Maybe cities are making a lot of progress toward sustainability - especially as their trendy, green-savvy residents demand changes – but I think they still have a far way to go to becoming truly efficient. I often wonder what the purpose is of leaving ALL the lights on in every single office building in these big cities. Yes, nighttime skylines are pretty to look at, but is it really worth expending all that energy, night after night, week after week, month after month...?