Green Metropolis is an odd book. It is well-written and engaging. Owen has a knack for finding the interesting or shocking trivia and incorporating it into his larger point. It also suffers a serious problem of repetition. Each major and minor point is repeated, sometimes in every chapter.
I found myself liking the book much more as it progressed. In the beginning, the tone is pedantic, and I was hung up on the repetition and the hypocrisy of Owen.
Owen, by his own admission, drives far too much, and contributes to sprawl. Yet, instead of moving back to New York City, he merely tells all of us that we ought to be living somewhere like New York City ourselves.
He rants about zoning laws because they reduce the density of towns and make mass transit and walking less desirable. Yet he is the chairman of the zoning commission of his village.
Even after he hits his stride halfway through Chapter 3, the pedantry and the repetition can make this book hard to plow through.
Despite these problems, Owen makes some important points, such as what is sustainability, what is true environmentalism?
Most of the products, technologies, and practices popularly touted as sustainable are not sustainable at all. Driving a gas-electric hybrid is more environmentally benign, mile for mile, than driving a Hummer, but hybrids are not sustainable, because they require petroleum and the world’s supply of petroleum is finite.
After demonstrating that Americans, children especially, are spending less and less time outdoors, he writes:
Is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves. In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or for the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wilderness on TV than fly to it in an airplane and drive across it on a motorbike.
Or, when it comes to green buildings, is it better to build a LEED certified building on virgin land, or to build a skyscraper in Manhattan? Owen plumps firmly for the latter, showing how it is not counter-intuitive. He makes the point that most green building certification is done for show, and that too little is done, even of otherwise qualified buildings, because of the time and expense involved.
Owen’s favorite theme is showing how supposedly environmentally friendly policies can backfire and actually be worse for the environment. From mass transit to jaywalking, from green buildings to outdoor activities, to solar power, he shows how people’s first instincts, and even best intentions, can lead to the exact opposite of the outcome desired, and more environmental degradation. On eating local food, he writes,
I, too, greatly prefer the produce I purchase at farm stands and farmers’ markets, in comparison with the stuff that’s usually available at my grocery store, but the idea that such a preference is in any sense “sustainable” depends on arithmetical sleight of hand. The distance that a particular food item travels between its grower and its ultimate consumer is not an accurate measure of the amount of energy that was required to put it on the table; far more significant factors are: how it was grown, how it got where it was going, and what else was traveling with it. The California raspberries I purchase at my grocery store have a smaller carbon footprint than the local raspberries I picked recently at a farm just a couple of towns away, because the California raspberries crossed the country in a shipment containing tons of other produce, and therefore represent a minute expenditure of fuel per berry, while the local raspberries were obtained by my wife and me during a thirty-mile round-trip in a car whose only other cargo was ourselves.
If you read this book, please look past the repetition, the unnecessary wordiness, the cramming of multiple topics into single chapters, to what he is trying to tell us. We need to think much more carefully about how we use our resources, and the messages (good and bad) we send to each other about our resource use. Each individual must do that, and government must also do that. If we, and the rest of the world, can balance those incentives and disincentives, and our perpetual desire for independence and maximizing our possessions, then perhaps we, or our descendants, can find ourselves in a sustainable world.
cross-posted at Citizens for Sustainability