Book Review: 'Green Metropolis' by David Owen

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 20, 2009


Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, And Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability

By David Owen

Riverhead. 357 pp. $25.95

The deservedly respected journalist David Owen spent a lot of time in recent years patrolling the environmental beat, doing research for the excellent book we now have before us. Last year, for example, he attended an energy seminar at a scientific conference in New York, and he did not find it a cheer-inducing experience:

"One side effect of attending such events is the feeling of despair that inevitably comes from hearing well-informed people speak about global environmental problems. The challenges are so great that knowledge, paradoxically, can be incapacitating: the more you learn, the harder you find it to believe that a noncatastrophic resolution is conceivable."

This is also, unfortunately, an unintended side effect of reading "Green Metropolis." Owen's style, here as in his 13 previous books, is cool, understated and witty; it does not appear to be in his nature to be alarmist. But this is a thoroughly alarming book, perhaps all the more so because Owen is so matter-of-fact: The facts alone are so discouraging that no rhetorical flourishes are necessary to underscore their urgency.

One's initial impression is that Owen approaches the environmental crisis from a positive angle. A former resident of Manhattan who has lived for many years in a rather remote Connecticut town, Owen finds in New York City, Manhattan in particular, a model that the rest of the country could profitably emulate. A city of "extreme compactness," New York "is the greenest community in the United States." The "average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-1920s," and "eighty-two percent of employed Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot," which is "ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for workers in Los Angeles County." It all derives from being a very crowded place:

"Manhattan's density is approximately 67,000 people per square mile, or more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole and roughly thirty times that of Los Angeles. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, enables most of them to get by without owning cars, encourages them to keep their families small, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into."

In that paragraph, alas, are the two words that make the rest of Owen's chronicle so depressing: "cars" and "sprawl." You can't have one without the other, and the rest of the country has both in amounts so vast as to make a "noncatastrophic resolution" of the nation's (and thus the world's) environmental challenges almost entirely unlikely. "The real problem with cars is not that they don't get enough miles to the gallon," Owen writes. "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). What we really need, from the point of view of both energy conservation and environmental protection, is to make driving costlier and less pleasant."

And if you can find an American political or business leader who's willing not merely to say that but to act on it, your eyes are a lot keener than mine. Americans love their cars and the independence they permit, though anyone who thinks it's truly independent to be stuck in a Washington commuter jam has a very strange definition of the term. Speaking of which, Washington does not fare well in Owen's analysis. It is indeed "a city of restrained proportions and stirring metropolitan vistas." But "ecologically . . . it's a mess," because Pierre-Charles L'Enfant's design turned out, once the automobile arrived, to encourage sprawl rather than urban density. Though Owen should have acknowledged that it is indeed possible to live a Manhattanite existence in the heart of the city -- from my apartment on Logan Circle I can, and do, walk to almost everything I need or want, and my car can stay in the driveway for weeks at a time -- the essential truth of his criticism is beyond debate. This is a city in which driving is encouraged and walking discouraged.

It is also the city in which is concentrated much of the power to take more than token action on the environmental crisis. But on both sides of the political aisle there is virtually nothing except pandering to our love of cars and placating the various industries and special interests that profit from them, which means just about every industry and special interest in the country. Six decades ago, as the United States headed into World War II, Americans had been steeled by the Depression and were prepared for the sacrifices the war demanded. Now, by contrast, they have been made complacent and selfish by a half century of self-indulgence at an unprecedented level of extravagance. There is no reason to believe they are ready to change the way they live, even as the world grows ever closer to the day when the oil binge ends. Owen writes:

"All the exasperatingly difficult environmental challenges we face today, large and small, are consequences of the explosive growth, during the past century or so, of the increasingly complex apparatus of modern civilization, and that growth has been engendered and nurtured and driven and amplified by oil, without which it could not have occurred. Most of the major environmental problems we currently face are the result of oil's prodigious abundance during the twentieth century; most of the problems we will face going forward will be the result of oil's increasing scarcity and cost during the twenty-first."

Scientists are feverishly at work trying to figure out what can replace oil, which seeps into every corner of the national and global economies -- think plastic, for starters, and the prodigious waste of it in American packaging -- but as Owen points out, scientists working with oil got us into much of the fix we're now in. The environmental model that Manhattan offers -- "live smaller," "live closer," "drive less" -- is "an invaluable template for efficiently arranging a growing global population in a time of shrinking access to a broad range of natural resources, but how to apply that template remains a frustrating mystery, at least to me."

No one can wave a wand and turn the environmental disasters of some cities across the country into instant Manhattans, with tall apartment buildings densely situated, efficient mass transit and zillions of pedestrians. The much more likely prospect is that we will just keep stumbling along, indulging ourselves and closing our eyes to reality until it crashes in on us -- sooner rather than later -- with highly unpleasant and probably calamitous consequences.

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