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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Green Metropolis

David Owen. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009. 357pp.

Owen's thesis is deceptively simple: New York City, especially Manhattan, is the best available model of a sustainable human life.  Because they fail to recognize this, Owen argues, environmentalists and green-minded consumers have been marching off in the wrong direction, bringing us all that much more quickly to the edge of environmental disaster. 

There are advantages to this kind of simplicity.  From this perspective, Owen offers a number of compelling and sharp-edged critiques of popular delusions about sustainability and environmental responsibility, including the anti-urban, back-to-the-land proclivities of modern environmentalism (18-21), the false hopes of solar power (239-245) and hydrogen (260-262) as sources of alternative energy, the local-food movement (300-305), hybrid cars (99), argon-filled windows (247-255), recycling (296-297), and the frenetic green consumerism embodied in such phenomena as "LEED brain" (230).

This last could use some explanation.  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a program of the U.S. Green Building Council, through which buildings may receive one of four levels of certification on the basis of a tabulation of points.  Solar panels, water recycling systems, and suchlike all receive points.  The problem, as Owen sees it, is that the program sets up perverse incentives.  The designers and owners of a building may glory in its LEED certification even if the building embodies terrible inefficiencies. Many a LEED-certified building stands alone on a remote suburban or exurban lot, accessible only by car. The point system also feeds the consumerist delusion that we can find our way to sustainability by the mere accumulation of more and more high-tech gadgets. (The term, "LEED brain," comes from a 2005 article by Auden Schendler and Randy Udall.)

There is a great need for this kind of critique, a sure-handed demolition of delusions and false hopes to make way for clearer thinking about our current situation. And yet, as I have suggested, the seeming simplicity and clarity of Owen's view is deceptive: he floats his thesis on a raft of assumptions so problematic that Owen himself has trouble maintaining them for the length of the book.

Owen assumes, for example, that the only "environmental problem" that matters is that of sustainability, and the sole measure of sustainability is per capita energy consumption. This, coupled with the common assumption that "the environment" is whatever and wherever humans are not, and with the assumption that humans are basically irrational and have to be forced by circumstance to behave responsibly, leads Owen to some very peculiar conclusions.

For example, Owen admits freely that life in dense urban centers has its "drawbacks," including crowding, pollution, and vulnerability to one kind of disaster or another (30-31). He makes it clear, however, that these are not environmental problems, because they are not primarily concerned with resource depletion or climate change. Whatever inconvenience or ugliness or risk urban dwellers must bear is simply negated by the built-in efficiency of dense urban life: it is, by that fact alone, "green."

There is some validity to this point: density can yield efficiency, no question.

The problem is precisely that efficiency is not the only goal worth striving for, and not the only measure of environmental value. Yes, efficiency and density can be good, all else being equal.  But, as Owen himself admits, all else is not equal.

To see the perversity of Owen's reasoning on this point, consider the following claim, from a discussion of why efforts to reduce traffic congestion in New York City are misguided:
Most people, including most New Yorkers, view such clogged streets as an urgent environmental problem, since the cars seem to just sit there, spewing exhaust. But traffic jams like those actually generate environmental benefits, because they urge drivers (and cab riders) either into the subways or onto the sidewalks (122).
What Owen misses here is that traffic congestion and exhaust are environmental problems in a crucial sense: they are problems in the environment that actually matters to people, the surroundings in which they pursue their day-to-day activities.The benefits Owen touts may accrue to future generations, or to those (like Owen himself) who may get away with living in rural and suburban places a little bit longer, but it is the people living in the city who are "urged" (Owen elsewhere uses the term "forced") out onto the sidewalk to suck the fumes from all that traffic . . . much of it generated by people who drive in from the surrounding suburbs.

To the best of my recollection, Owen never once even mentions asthma, let alone the terrible toll respiratory illness in general can have in urban areas.

At this point in the book, then, Owen seems to be saying that we should be willing to sacrifice our health, our security, and our contact with aesthetically satisfying landscapes - such as that surrounding his own home in rural Connecticut - for the sake of "built-in" - and hence compulsory - reductions in per capita energy consumption.  He is also saying we should not try to improve the urban environment itself if such improvements run counter to the paramount goal of energy efficiency.

This is one vision of sustainability, perhaps, but it raises a terrible question: If the requirements of sustainability always trump human well-being, why should we bother with sustainability?  In other words, once we have made all the sacrifices required for sustainability, as Owen defines it, would the resulting way of life be worth sustaining?  Even more terrible is the question: If the requirements of sustainability always trump human autonomy - if we must be "forced" to be sustainable - who will decide how we ought to live?

As noted, however, even Owen has trouble maintaining these assumptions through the whole book.  In the last few paragraphs, he raises again the question of how cities may be made more livable for actual human beings.  "Somehow," he concludes, we have to change the direction of new development toward greater density.
For American cities, that will mean first understanding and then extending the benefits of population density and the thoughtful mixing of uses, as well as acknowledging that in a dense city the truly important environmental issues are less likely to be things like the carbon footprints of apartment buildings than they are to be old-fashioned quality-of-life concerns like education, culture, crime, street noise, bad smells, resources for the elderly, and the availability of recreational facilities - all of which affect the willingness of people to live in efficient urban cores rather than packing up their children and fleeing to the suburbs.  Issues like those can be tough for traditional environmentalists to come to terms with, because they don't feel green: Where are the organic gardens and the backyard compost heaps? (319)
It's not yet clear from this passage in what sense Owen sees "quality-of-life concerns" as environmental issues: they may be environmental issues in the primary sense, in that they involve the everyday surroundings of urban dwellers, or they may be environmental issues in a more derivative sense, in that they make it easier for people to make the needed sacrifices to lower per capita energy use.  The latter reading would be consistent with Owen's thesis, but I would take the former, primary sense as being more useful for people who are trying to decide where to live.

The problem of human autonomy and political legitimacy persists right up to the end of the book, however. Owen writes:
environmental solutions that depend solely on willpower are doomed to fail.  Plans that are designed, instead, to harness and direct human nature - such as the instinctive human aversion to going broke - are far more likely to succeed as long as the incentives remain in place. (317)
Even better, he says, are landscapes where the incentives are built-in, where living arrangements themselves "force residents to do the right thing automatically, without encountering their conscience or emptying their wallet" (317-318).  Owen does not address the question of who will be designing those plans or those living arrangements. He never touches the question of whether this can be done democratically, or whether there must be some kind of elite technocracy involved.

There are a handful of secondary assumptions that run through the book, which further bedevil the coherence of Owen's argument. One of these is that moral judgments concerning sustainability are to be cast entirely in black and white: a practice or a way of living is either "environmentally friendly" or it is "an environmental disaster" - a label Owen applies dozens of times in the course of the book.  Surely, we can and should be more nuanced than this.

Another assumption, stated explicitly at the beginning of the second chapter, is that "every serious discussion of the environment . . . is ultimately about oil" (49) . . . except, apparently, when it's about coal (70).  This claim reinforces Owen's single-minded obsession with energy efficiency.  What he misses, though, is a wider view of energy in relation to human projects, where sunlight and soil fertility are more fundamental to an understanding of what kind of human life will be sustainable in the long run. This, however, would cause him to pay real attention to agriculture and to the claims of new agrarians, whom he would lump together with Thomas Jefferson as a bunch of anti-urban zealots who would push us that much faster toward environmental disaster (19).

The focus on oil also causes him to miss - until the very end of the book - the crucial role of population in these matters: we cannot even begin to discuss the sustainability of human civilization until we begin to grapple with the fact that there are nearly seven billion of us on the planet.  And yet, it is only on the fourth-to-last page of the book that Owen writes:
A huge and often unmentioned [indeed! - RK] issue underlying all our environmental problems is the issue of population.  There are too many people in the world, and too many more are on the way . . . Every one of the world's environmental problems is made worse by increases in the number of humans, and, most of all, by increase in the number of Americans, since U.S. residents - whether manufactured locally or imported from abroad - have the largest carbon and energy footprints in the world. (322-323)
And that, aside from a brief comment about how fraught with political peril are discussions of human population, is that.

Surely a problem so "huge" and so vexing should have more play than a single, late paragraph in a book that purports (in its subtitle) to provide "the Keys to Sustainability."

Finally, there is the question of Owen's own status as the owner and resident of a house in rural Connecticut.  He freely admits that he lives there in part because the suburban ideal is seductive (24), and he refers to the pleasures and paradoxes of exurban life from time to time throughout the book.  So, after all his arguments about forcing people to be efficient, he justifies his decision to remain there with a cringe-inducing bit of tortured logic:
If Ann and I left Connecticut tomorrow and moved back into the Manhattan apartment we rented as newlyweds, we might hugely reduce our personal environmental footprint, but we would leave humanity's environmental footprint unchanged, because in order to move we would have to sell our house and our cars and most of the rest of our possessions to other people, who would continue to use them - and life, on balance, would go on as before.  The world would be no better off than if we had found a Manhattan family similar to ourselves and simply swapped residences, furniture, and utility bills.  The residences, furniture, and utility bills would be in different hands, but they would still exist: there is a difference between changing one's own circumstances and changing the circumstances of the world.  As long as two-hundred-plus-year-old houses in small New England towns continue to exist and be inhabited, it's probably not a bad thing for them to be inhabited by people like us, since we work at home and therefore don't have to drive anywhere to work. (316)

Because sustainability is a function of broad systems rather than of individual dwellings or individual actions (another assumption, stated on page 40), he as an individual is absolved of responsibility for any but the most superficial palliative changes in his lifestyle.  And when his efforts fall short, as did his brief project of adding insulation to his old New England house (317), he can shrug it off with a rueful smile: "What do you expect? I'm only human!"

How convenient

It does not hurt, I suppose, that he is not "forced" to suck car exhaust all day, even though he generates enough of it himself driving to golf courses with his friends. But therein lies the duplicity of his argument: why ought not his "human nature" to be "harness[ed] and direct[ed]" toward the vision of sustainability he would impose on others (317)?  If he is really correct in his reasoning, and if environmental disaster looms, why should small New England towns be allowed to continue to exist?

Concerning other popular delusions of environmentalism - recycling and local food in particular - Owen writes: "our ability to make self-serving rationalizations can be breathtaking" (298).

Indeed.

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