Green Metropolis -- Why Living Smaller, Livng Closer and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability by David Owen, Riverhead '09, $25.95, 357 pages, ISBN #1594488827. Index, notes, no bibliography or illustrations.
While democracy seems to move one step backward for every two steps forward, progress does take place. When the Interstate Defense Highway System came on line a half century ago, only a few visionaries such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs seemed to sense the downside. In 1994, I wrote Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century (BasicBooks), whose prescriptive message was for government to lessen reliance on auto travel in favor of rails and public transit.
That solution sounds a bit quaint after reading David Owen's new book, heralding another advance in public awareness, and no doubt his thesis will be eclipsed in due time. While the notion of the carbon footprint had yet to be born when Getting There was published, it's central to Owen's thesis.
What I found most surprising was that Owen was this book's author. This humorously erudite New Yorker writer tends to write about family issues (see The National Bank of Dad) and his passion for golf, but in Green Metropolis waxes eloquent on a deadly serious topic. His thesis is arresting: that the most environmentally friendly community is not some Walden-like enclave in Missoula, Montana, but....are you ready? New York City! The key is its density, allowing people to live, work and recreate often without a car and with a minimum of energy expenditure.
Much of Owen's book is spent skewering suburbanites who buy a Prius, which somehow justifies their driving more, leaving a zero net effect on the environment; and who get a warm fuzzy feeling conscientiously sorting recyclables in their McMansion.
Owen's well-researched tome is full of examples not only from his experience but the experience of other authors, of how well-intentioned actions can have unintended consequences, that choosing paper over plastic may reduce hydrocarbons but may require use of land desperately needed for agriculture production for starving populations.
The irony is that David Owen and his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman, moved a generation ago from Manhattan to Washington, CT, a high-toned Litchfield County burg. We learn that at the outset of his story and wait....and wait....for him to explain why he doesn't move back to NYC if he feels so strongly. His answer is unconvincing:
"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."
In his defense, one must concede that since David and Ann both work at home, eliminating the need to commute, their collective carbon footprint is probably measurably smaller than the rest of us. But a point he makes a bit later on is probably more to the point: that self-interest ultimately reigns and that major lifestyle changes are unlikely to happen without major incentives.
That said, Green Metropolis is a valuable addition to the bookshelf where you keep your works on smart growth, sustainability, and suburban sprawl.