Sunday, December 13, 2009

David Owen’s Rules for Urban Environmentalism

1. Live smaller: The average American single-family house doubled in size in the second half of the twentieth century. Oversized dwellings permanently raise the world’s demand for energy, and they encourage careless consumption of all kinds. In the long run, supersized houses are no more sustainable than S.U.V.’s or private jets, no matter how many photovoltaic panels they have on their roofs.

2. Live closer: The main key to lowering energy consumption and shrinking the carbon footprint of modern civilization is to decrease the distances between the places where people live, work, shop, and play. The steady enlargement of the American house was accompanied by the explosive growth of low-density subdivisions and satellite communities linked by networks of new highways and inhabited by long-distance commuters. Living closer to one’s daily destinations, Manhattan-style, reduces vehicle miles traveled, makes transit and walking feasible as forms of transportation, increases the efficiency of energy production and consumption, limits the need to build superfluous infrastructure, and cuts the demand for such environmentally doomed extravagances as riding lawnmowers and household irrigation systems.

3. Drive less: Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; 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). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.