Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Green Metropolis" Provides Reality Check on Planetary Sustainability

Aren't cars that get better gas mileage or run on electricity good for our planet?  What could be better than a glittering new corporate campus designed and built from the ground up with the latest environmental certifications, with half of the formerly pastoral site left as permanent open space?  David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability eviscerates conventional wisdom by demonstrating that many "sustainable" technologies and practices have the effect of accelerating consumption of natural resources by reducing costs, removing obstructions to consumption, allowing us to spread out further and, of course, making us feel better about what we are doing. 

For example, automotive technology that gives us more miles to the gallon is the economic equivalent of reduced gas prices, making it easier to drive more.  Additional highway lanes that reduce congestion make it easier for us to commute longer distances from employment centers in return for bigger houses and yards.  Too large an open space in the middle of a walkable area can drive people into their cars.  Even the extension of a commuter rail line to the periphery of a metropolitan area can lure families from the city center to a lifestyle much richer in resource consumption. 

Owen's answer is density.  The Green Metropolis is none other than New York City, of which the borough of Manhattan is the epicenter of the sustainable lifestyle.  In New York, much of what appears unnatural or unpleasant is actually good for the earth.  The congested streets and expensive parking make cars less popular.  Outrageously expensive housing and land makes people do without a lot of stuff fashioned from petrochemicals, and makes thirsty private lawns a rarity. Population density makes delivery of virtually all services more efficient, including food distribution; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; transportation, health care, education and the like. 

American cities of the nineteenth century and earlier were sources of pollution and communicable illness, as are many cities in developing countries today. But New York, like all modern cities, has made substantial progress in sanitation and environmental stewardship.  So a hundred-year-old New York City skyscraper is much more resource-efficient than a new suburban tract development or corporate campus.

This is a difficult message to deliver.  Most families dream of a house of their own, with private space for their children to play.   Even the author moved with his wife from the city to semi-rural northwest Connecticut after seven years of marriage, spreading out into a house, multiple cars, and a garage filled with unused goods past their prime. 

So what is to be done?  Owen advocates steps that would make dense living more attractive, such as better schools, public safety and public transportation in our cities, and the judicious application of resource-efficient technologies.  For example, highly efficient mini-cars may be part of the solution in rural areas where people are already spread out, but they shouldn't be advanced as an alternative to urban mass transportation.  Alternative energy technologies such as wind and solar only make (unsubsidized) sense in certain parts of our country, so a national scheme that includes substantial investment in transmission facilities makes a great deal of sense as well. 

Owens casts excessive resource consumption as a market failure requiring government leadership, citing historical examples like the Easter Island civilization.  Certainly, if developed countries like the US cannot provide convincing leadership, climate change and resource scarcity will be exacerbated by the giant economies of rapidly developing nations, most notably China and Russia.  The book ends on a sobering note, with a vignette that demonstrates the difficulty of changing American culture.

Owen delivers his message with color, wit, and personal honesty, making for an engaging read.  But what do you think?  What is the best way to get world society to live more efficiently? 

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