Author: David Owen
Title: Green Metropolis: why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are keys to sustainability
Publication Info:Riverhead Books, c2009.
Owen makes a very compelling case for cities as the most environmentally friendly places to live and work due to the efficiencies of living closer, sharing resources, and reducing travel with New York City as the key example. I’m already sold on the idea but he piles on the evidence for his theory in a way that I hope convinces other people who have the ingrained idea of cities as dirty places. He also takes on the pastoral vision of many environmental movements and “LEED brain” where new construction is rewarded for fancy add-ons that are not good for the environment especially when compared to simple renovations of existing buildings. I’m less sold on his opposition to things like the locavore movement which is as much built on nutrition and local sustainability as environmentalism. He’s also opposed to vertical agriculture because he thinks it would interfere with the connectivity of cities, but I think they’d fit in perfectly replacing underused light industrial and warehouse districts that already exist in cities like New York. I’m also not sold on his cop-out argument for continuing to live in a drafty farmhouse in suburban Connecticut where he believes if he moved to New York someone less environmentally aware would occupy his current house. Nits picked, I still think this book is a great argument for an idea whose time has come.
“Jefferson…embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational self-improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello” (p. 25)
Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging. Most so-called environmental initiatives concerning automobiles are actually counterproductive, because their effect is to make driving less expensive (by reducing the need for fuel) and to make car travel more agreeable (by eliminating congestion). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.
The near certainty is that, for many years to come, what the market will replace oil with is not something better (such as nuclear fusion, which, at the very least, is decades or generations away) but something considerably worse (such as low-grade coal, China’s main fuel, which makes oil’s carbon footprint and pollution profile look demure), and that ordinary market forces, rather than leading us inexorably toward a golden future, will most likely entice us to compound our growing troubles by prompting us to invest heavily in the energy equivalents of patent medicines (such as shale oil and ethanol). Sometimes, the invisible hand goes for the throat.
Recommended books: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser, The cul-de-sac syndrome : turning around the unsustainable American dream by John F. Wasik, The death and life of great American cities by Jane Jacobs, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.