Self-Indulgence and the City


I would never consider anyone an environmentalist for the simple fact that they live in an urban area.  I wouldn’t call myself such for residing where I do, and I would never expect otherwise from anyone else.

But, David Owen, in his well-reseached book Green Metropolis, makes a convincing argument that “New York City is the greenest community in the United States.” We drive less, we live closer, we live in tighter spaces, we walk more, we use more public transportation, we use less electricity–so on and so forth. His claim soon seems so obvious. He writes:

Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address.

This argument that our rural lands–once thought wild, untouched, environmentally sound and desperately in need of preservation–hide behind a facade of naturalness the environmental havoc they actually reap, echos that which William Cronon foregrounded in a provocative but highly influential paper called “The Trouble With Wilderness.” When the paper was first published, Cronon suffered harsh criticism from environmentalists and ecologists stuck in the modernist mode of thinking of the environment with their distinct anti-urban bias and championing of the supposed sanctuary that is our virgin rural lands. Today, this argument seems to quickly be gaining support.

However, there is a fundamental flaw in Owen’s claim. Extracting New York City from the country that surrounds it is faulty logic, it’s an artificial thought experiment that might make a city-dweller feel good, but lacks meaning in the larger reality. It is a synchronic analysis for a condition that is obviously diachronic.

The island of Manhattan, like the English isles, would never exist were it not for the vast empire from which resources they extract. The environmental problem transcends city and state lines. Metropolises rely on rural land for their sustenance, quite literally, and require fuel to get it to them. It’s too self-indulgent to think these compact, condensed, walking/eco-friendly cities sprouted up from nowhere and took no environmental toll in their making, not to mention, their sustaining.

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