Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability
Green Metropolis, by David Owen.

I think I was expecting a slightly different book than what I got. The synopsis as I understood it was that he'd explain why compact cities are actually the ideal form of ecological living. Manhattan is his heaven - mainly because apartments are thermally efficient and don't take a lot of space, it's easy to live and commute without cars, and lots of people take advantage of things that pollute in efficient ways. The suburbs and rural areas, to him, are terrible because you're required to drive everywhere, houses are inefficient, there is a lot of wasted space and resources, and the infrastructure required to support people so spaced out is very inefficient.

These are all great points, but he ends up ignoring and too easily brushing aside some huge points pertaining to the inherent wastefulness of cities and some of the benefits of quieter, simpler living.

However, his larger point that he makes repeatedly in the book is that the steps we usually take or try to take to reduce our carbon footprint, be less wasteful, increase efficiency, etc, all actually are worse for the environment than not doing so. He starts with the familiar critique of recycling (it doesn't actually do much, the act of recycling is a panacea that makes us feel good, the process requires a lot of energy, and it allows us to consume at high levels) and then applies essentially the same argument to installing solar panels or wind turbines, planting trees, eating local foods, driving hybrid cars, installing high tech efficient windows, hydrogen fuel cells, and dozens of others. Many of these criticisms could be good points, and it makes you truly think about what we're trying to do when we talk about "saving the planet." However, he stays in the gloom by not recommending anything that he'd consider actually useful. He doesn't go much beyond insulation, consuming less (which he acknowledges is useful up to a point but becomes impossible as the asymptote approaches the line), living in apartments, not driving at all, and telling other people not to live outside of cities. Yes, he writes this book and then justifies his own life in northwestern Connecticut in an old house with multiple cars.

He also dislikes DC - apparently when he stayed in a hotel downtown he asked the bellman for walking directions to a building about a mile away. The bellman said he should take a cab, and from that he concluded that everyone in DC must drive cars, never walk, and live in a city with too-short buildings that aren't set up well for walking. Suuure. I walk all the time, see people walking all the time, rarely drive, and see much fewer cars on the streets than I do in Manhattan. Also, we live in an apartment building.

He also goes to Dubai and Beijing and rightfully laments that such new development proceeds in a manner that ignores what will happen when oil becomes prohibitively expensive. It's truly a shame that new development can't be built around more comfortable, sustainable living - that driving seems to be a status symbol and therefore new cities are developed in such a way as to make the drivers' lives easier.

It's not an uplifting book, but it's a great read - he treats the science with respect, and even if I'd guess his politics run a little libertarian, he doesn't get into the nonregulation weeds too badly. I'd love to read an honest book of his recommendations, or if he'd just want us to follow Jimmy Carter's advice and turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater.

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