This book is a rare bird-one is almost tempted to say an "endangered species"-an attack on environmentalism.
Bernard J. Frieden is a professor of urban studies at MIT, an adviser to three presidents on the problems of urban housing, and a man who sees the country's major concern as improving the stadnard of living for the vast majority of people. For him, the kind of environmentalism being practiced in the suburban political arena is the antithesis of this goal.
"The talk of survival, limited resources, and austerity does not crimp the life-style of suburban 'environmentalists,' but only of the people they keep outside," says Frieden. "In attempting to justify its position on growth, (environmentalism) has begun to spread a new ideology of elitism through the country's political life . . . it supplies a ready rationale for the defense of privilege."
He draws his experience from three years he spent observing California suburban politics while writing a book on housing. Although his main concern was the way in which ths suburbs had persistently excluded the poor and minorities during the '50s and '60s, he soon realized that the new environmental rhetoric of the '70s was not simply aimed against the poor but against the middle class as well-everybody, in fact, who hadn't already achieved home-ownership. "Earlier the goal was exclusion-keeping out people of lower status," he writes in describing suburban politics. "Now the goal is freezing growth-keeping out everybody in order to hold on to what you have. Policies that freeze growth are a threat to families outside the suburbs who want to get in, but outsiders can do very little about these policies."
In order to document this argument, Frieden recounts the history of a half-dozen large suburban zoning fights around San Francisco where reasonably priced and environmentally benign developments were opposed by local people, and by floating environmental groups always ready to lend support, under the self-serving rubric of "environmental protection." The arguments never had much to do with the environment, he notes, but usually became a process where local opposition wore down the builder until he was willing to substitute a much smaller number of more expensive "estate" homes for a larger number of middle-income houses. Frieden is particularly chary of the Sierra Club, showing they are willing to use a variety of mutually contradictory arguments against growth as the circumstances allow. In the distant suburbs, the Sierra Club argues that housing produces long commuting trips that waste energy and pollute the environment. In the close-in suburbs, they say that new housing "bleeds the cities." But when housing developments were proposed in Oakland and San Francisco, they opposed them on the basis that they will "use up open space."
Many towns and cities have gone to ridiculous extremes to stop new growth. In Santa Cruz, a wealthy suburban county, a zoning ordinance was adopted which required all new houses in one particular area to be built on stiltss so that a local salamander could pass through on its way to mating rituals at a nearby pond. Naturally, nobody built any houses.
What aggravates Frieden most is that these affluent suburbanites are rarely willing to pay the costs that come with their own version of "environmental protection." Usually they persuade a state or federal agency to pick up the charges for preserving open space, or arrange elaborate tax exemptions which place the burden on larger pools of state and national taxpayers. In Marin County, for example, where residents decided to "stop growth" after only 7 percent of the land had been developed, the languid suburbanites duped the federal government into buying large tracts of seashores as a "recreation area." Then, when it came time to develop the area, they decided that the "fragile ecosystem" could not tolerate visitors, and succeeded in closing it off to almost everyone but themselves. (One town even put up roadblocks to keep out vacationers during the Bicentennial.) The same people also deliberately stalled development of their water supply to slow growth, and then watched as Marin County farmers had to truck in water at enormous expense during the 1975-75 drought.
Although written in an academic style that does not excite, this book is a sleeper-one of the first honest attempts to examine the self-serving uses to which the rhetoric of "environmental protection" have been put, and to examine the elitist and privilege-protecting logic they often veil. It is definitely a surprising new twist on a now-familiar issue.