You can tell a movement's gone mainstream by the way people talk about it: "I'm not a feminist, but . . . " say countless converts to women's rights. Now, opponents of sprawl have followed suit, and with similar catchwords: "I'm not a tree-hugger, but. . . . "
Take Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who promised to fight sprawl and did. Just after he was elected a year ago, he created an agency with strong powers over zoning, roads and transit in Atlanta's 13-county area. And how did he explain himself to Newsweek last summer? "I'm no tree-hugger . . . my pitch to the business community is, this is about money for schools and cities to grow the state."
Or consider "Challenging Sprawl," a report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, beginning with these quotes: "An `unrelenting pathogen . . . sucking the marrow from our cities and towns.' `A strange collection of objects flung across the landscape.' `It creates the conditions for social decay and behavioral pathology.' " These words, the report says, "come not from tree-hugging environmentalists, but from a businessman, a real estate developer and a clinical psychologist."
Sprawl presents big, practical problems, and its opponents are now seeking practical, market-oriented solutions -- though their effort to get the market on their side is so far incomplete.
First, though, the problems: Sprawl is expensive. Roads go unrepaired in one part of the state even as they're built pell-mell elsewhere. Sound school buildings fall into disuse while new ones are put up across town.
Sprawl is also inconvenient. Atlantans drive an average of 36.5 miles round trip to work daily, according to that Newsweek article. In Dallas, the commute is 29.5 miles; in Los Angeles, 20.5.
And sprawl is greedy with resources: Between 1972 and 1992 Michigan lost farmland equal to all the land in Maryland, according to the National Trust report. Minnesota is losing an average of 74 acres a day. Ninety-five percent of California's original wetlands are gone. Every day in Florida, 450 acres of forest and 410 acres of farmland are cleared. And water tables under Dallas-Fort Worth, says the Cato Institute, have dropped 492 feet since 1960.
This lavish use of resources is part of a national penchant for gobbling things up and throwing things away, says Susan Strasser in "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash." Americans have come to believe, she told a Washington audience recently, that "there are whole realms of . . . what we `deserve' in our relationship with the material world."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last summer reported that between 1970 and 1996, America's suburban population grew more than four times faster than its central-city population, and the cities were left behind to atrophy.
Here is another battleground for anti-sprawl forces. As Jonathan Barnett, planner and author of "The Fractured Metropolis," said recently at the National Building Museum, "Cities have begun to put themselves back together." Cleveland's revitalization, for example, "demonstrates that there is still a future for these old urban centers." With utilities and roads in place, development in cities also is cheaper than on new land.
But if the anti-sprawl forces are counting on the market to help them, they're missing something crucial: cheap gasoline. A recent survey of urban experts by the Fannie Mae Foundation named "interstate highways and the dominance of the automobile" as the No. 1 influence shaping American cities during the past 50 years.
And the gasoline that fuels it all is flowing freely. The Environmental Protection Agency reported last week that new vehicles' average fuel economy has fallen to its lowest point since 1980 -- 23.8 miles per gallon for 1999 models. The biggest contributor to the increased fuel usage, said EPA, is the continued shift from cars to sport utility vehicles. They're the hottest sellers on the U.S. market and are about to take a 50 percent share of it.
Choosing fuel-efficient cars, said EPA Administrator Carol Browner, can "save drivers at least $1,500 in fuel costs and avoid more than 15 tons of greenhouse gas pollution over the life of the vehicle as well as help reduce dependence on foreign oil." But when a gallon of gas costs less than a cup of gourmet coffee, where's the incentive?
The "I'm not a tree-hugger, but . . . " folks have gone mainstream, and their numbers and strength are growing accordingly. But as long as the market pulls for gasoline usage, theirs will be an uphill struggle.