Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Green Metropolis

The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability
© 2009 David Owen
357 pages

Green is probably not the word that comes to mind at the mention of Manhattan, but to David Owen, few places on Earth are as environmentally friendly as the heart of New York City. Its towering skyscrapers and elevated train lines are in fact the very image of verdant. Such a contention is at the heart of Owen’s surprising take on sustainability and environmentalism, his approach as practical as it is counter-intuitive. Owen uses the lens of economy to reveal weaknesses of conventional environmental thinking while demonstrating that the most practical solution to making the most of our energy reserves is to live more intelligently together – in cities.
Owen establishes his work’s prevailing theme early on, declaring, “Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or a technology.”  All of our efforts to be environmentally responsible, to greenwash our lives, are insubstantive when examined against the way we routinely waste energy on a day to day basis, living as we do spread out in suburbs and making virtually every trip in a car. It’s not the Hummer’s gas mileage that makes it an environmental disaster, Owen writes, but the fact that owning a car encourages us to drive it all the time. In fact, he views the rising popularity of SmartCars as a disaster waiting to happen, because such efficient machines will only encourage us to drive more, putting delaying the real change we need to make…which is driving less, living closer, and moving out of our sprawling ranch homes and McMansions into something more sensibly-sized.  
Green Metropolis is a smartly-constructed book. After putting forth his premise, Owen establishes why adaptive thinking on our parts is required. In “Liquid Civilization”, he points out that the entirety of the global economy and our lives is based on burning oil or converting it into products like ever-ubiquitous plastics. Until the mid-20th century, however, only a fraction of the Earth’s population demanded the use of those oils –Europe, the United States, and their colonies, or the “western world”.  Resources were thus relatively abundant, and we have been positively spoiled by the surfeit, so much to the point that we have invented dozens of brands of disposable cups, spoons, forks, and plates that are meant to be thrown away after one use…presumably, because we can’t be bothered to wash a dish. But the days of plenty are over. Now the entire world is demanding a once exclusive lifestyle, and over a century of chronic use has sharply reduced available supplies of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, the Chinese and Indians seem intent on  making the same mistakes that Americans did in regard to transforming their urban landscapes to make full use of the car, expanding the reaches of the automobile and ever-deepening their dependence on and use of, oil.
The Green Metropolis' argument's primary strength is that its proposed solution is both simple and fundamental. It doesn't require us to do anything we weren't doing already until a temporary bout of prosperity made us lose our collective minds -- people have lived in cities for thousands of years. City-dwellers don't make an effort to be "green": they simply live the way they're use to living. Efficiency is built into the fabric of the place, and that makes the eco-urbanist argument especially appealing to me because I've started to suspect that human beings are too short-sighted to put up a meaningful fight in any other way. This approach to environmentalism doesn't require Constant Vigilance, which I suspect is an impossibility -- it only requires us to return to our senses. Not only this, but returning to proper urbanism will provide immediate, short-term results, which are apparently the only thing we grasp. Restructure the suburbs -- make them walkable, increase density -- and we can add value to the urban landscape  and to our lives. We can free ourselves from fiscal disaster and chronic stress. The problem is motivating ourselves to start making the move.
The Green Metropolis not only makes a strong argument, but it leaves us with room for thought, challenging us to reconsider the way we live in terms of this kind of efficiency. Two areas where Owen especially provoked me were in traffic and food. We might believe that buying local food is more energy efficient, but the sad fact is that the big-box boxs have local grocers beat. I have seen this argument offered by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid as well, who did demonstrate to my satisfaction that a tomato from the supermarket is more "Green" than one from a local farm. However, I still buy from the farmer's market, because the issue of food is more complicated than energy efficiency:  I prefer supporting local economies, for instance, and have an aversion to food products that are more 'product' than food. After considering Owen and Dunning, I can't completely condemn the US food market, but neither can I condone it. We have much to consider, and the answers are not simple.

Suburban Nation, Andres Duany et. al
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
Your Prius Won't Save You, David Owen
Interview with David Owen on his book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

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