06 March 2011

Urban Environmentalism

For a class I'm teaching, I've been rereading Lawrence Buell's The Future of Environmental Criticism. Wonderful work, but this stuck in my craw:
...the possibility of 'sustainable' living in a fast-urbanizing world might seem out of the question. It is hard to quarrel with the proposition that 'sustainable city' is oxymoronic. The 'ecological footprint' of modern cities in Europe and America -- the amount of land required to produce the resources they consume in relation to the land they occupy -- is something like 200 times larger, on average.... Meanwhile, 'consumers in the high centers of industrial civilization can take for granted the continued supply of mink from the Arctic, teakwood from India and ivory from Africa, without being [held] in the slightest degree responsible for the environmental consequences of their lifestyles' (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997: 222).
Several things bother me here.

First, if you took all the people who live in a city and spread them out across a rural or suburban landscape in the configurations in which people now live in those places, I guarantee you the ecological footprint would only grow. In cities, people live in apartments far smaller than the average suburban or rural house. They share parks, playgrounds and pools, instead of having so many individual backyards for children to play in. They use public transit or simply walk to work instead of having to drive everywhere. These are just a few of the environmental economies enabled by urban living.

Also, smaller apartments means less stuff, period. Years ago, my cousin found an article someplace in which a city dweller was quoted as saying, "If I can't eat it or wear it, I don't buy it." Obviously, urban apartment dwellers use furniture and pots and pans and other durable goods ... but there's just less space for all that stuff than in a big house outside a city.

Second, it's by no means the case that no one who lives in a city has any sense of the environment. Just one example: No Impact Man. I could give you myself as a second example, but Colin Beavan has a lot more followers.

Third, the vast majority of city dwellers aren't buying Indian teak and African ivory and arctic mink. They're plugging along at or near subsistence levels, making things last as long as possible, making do with what they have, taking the train and the bus to work and school, and just generally moving through life with less individual environmental impact than they would if they lived in a house in the suburbs or even on a farm in the country.

Yes, urban environments are disconnected in some important ways from nature. But if you took all the people in the cities and spread them out, they would have an even larger environmental impact.