Green Manhattan “the New Yorker”

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GREEN MANHATTAN
Why New York is the greenest city in the U.S.
By David Owen
Published in The New Yorker

10/18/04

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and
unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian
environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite
contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the
extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a
dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot,
and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because
space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our
electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day.
The utopian community was Manhattan. (Our apartment was on Sixty-ninth
Street, between Second and Third.) Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think
of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and
diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it’s a model of
environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest
community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most
devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless
burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The
average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t
matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United
States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work
by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in
general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is
more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fiftyfirst
in per-capita energy use.
“Anyplace that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an
environmental disaster—except that it isn’t,” John Holtzclaw, a transportation consultant
for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “If New Yorkers
lived at the typical American sprawl density of three households per residential acre, they
would require many times as much land. They’d be driving cars, and they’d have huge
lawns and be using pesticides and fertilizers on them, and then they’d be overwatering
their lawns, so that runoff would go into streams.” The key to New York’s relative
environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan’s population density is
more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half
million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to
be wasteful, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energyefficient
residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts
of land for the rest of America to sprawl into.
My wife and I had our first child in 1984. We had both grown up in suburbs, and
we decided that we didn’t want to raise our tiny daughter in a huge city. Shortly after she
learned to walk, we moved to a small town in northwestern Connecticut, about ninety
miles north of midtown Manhattan. Our house, which was built in the late seventeenhundreds,
is across a dirt road from a nature preserve and is shaded by tall white-pine
trees. After big rains, we can hear a swollen creek rushing by at the bottom of the hill.
Deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional black bear feed themselves in our yard. From the
end of our driveway, I can walk several miles through woods to an abandoned
nineteenth-century railway tunnel, while crossing only one paved road.
Yet our move was an ecological catastrophe. Our consumption of electricity went
from roughly four thousand kilowatt-hours a year, toward the end of our time in New
York, to almost thirty thousand kilowatt-hours in 2003—and our house doesn’t even have
central air-conditioning. We bought a car shortly before we moved, and another one soon
after we arrived, and a third one ten years later. (If you live in the country and don’t have
a second car, you can’t retrieve your first car from the mechanic after it’s been repaired;
the third car was the product of a mild midlife crisis, but soon evolved into a necessity.)
My wife and I both work at home, but we manage to drive thirty thousand miles a year
between us, mostly doing ordinary errands. Nearly everything we do away from our
house requires a car trip. Renting a movie and later returning it, for example, consumes
almost two gallons of gasoline, since the nearest Blockbuster is ten miles away and each
transaction involves two round trips. When we lived in New York, heat escaping from
our apartment helped to heat the apartment above ours; nowadays, many of the Btus
produced by our brand-new, extremely efficient oil-burning furnace leak through our
two-hundred-year-old roof and into the dazzling star-filled winter sky above.
When most Americans think about environmentalism, they picture wild, unspoiled
landscapes—the earth before it was transmogrified by human habitation. New York City
is one of the most thoroughly altered landscapes imaginable, an almost wholly artificial
environment, in which the terrain’s primeval contours have long since been obliterated
and most of the parts that resemble nature (the trees on side streets, the rocks in Central
Park) are essentially decorations. Ecology-minded discussions of New York City often
have a hopeless tone, and focus on ways in which the city might be made to seem
somewhat less oppressively man-made: by increasing the area devoted to parks and
greenery, by incorporating vegetation into buildings themselves, by reducing traffic
congestion, by easing the intensity of development, by creating open space around
structures. But most such changes would actually undermine the city’s extraordinary
energy efficiency, which arises from the characteristics that make it surreally synthetic.
Because densely populated urban centers concentrate human activity, we think of
them as pollution crisis zones. Calculated by the square foot, New York City generates
more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than most
other American regions of comparable size. On a map depicting negative environmental
impacts in relation to surface area, therefore, Manhattan would look like an intense hot
spot, surrounded, at varying distances, by belts of deepening green.
If you plotted the same negative impacts by resident or by household, however,
the color scheme would be reversed. My little town has about four thousand residents,
spread over 38.7 thickly wooded square miles, and there are many places within our town
limits from which no sign of settlement is visible in any direction. But if you moved eight
million people like us, along with our dwellings and possessions and current rates of
energy use, into a space the size of New York City, our profligacy would be impossible
to miss, because you’d have to stack our houses and cars and garages and lawn tractors
and swimming pools and septic tanks higher than skyscrapers. (Conversely, if you made
all eight million New Yorkers live at the density of my town, they would require a space
equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey.)
Spreading people out increases the damage they do to the environment, while making the
problems harder to see and to address.
Of course, living in densely populated urban centers has many drawbacks. Even
wealthy New Yorkers live in spaces that would seem cramped to Americans living
almost anywhere else. A well-to-do friend of mine who grew up in a town house in
Greenwich Village thought of his upbringing as privileged until, in prep school, he
visited a classmate from the suburbs and was staggered by the house, the lawn, the cars,
and the swimming pool, and thought, with despair, You mean I could live like this?
Manhattan is loud and dirty, and the subway is depressing, and the fumes from the cars
and cabs and buses can make people sick. Presumably for environmental reasons, New
York City has one of the highest childhood-asthma rates in the country, with an
especially alarming concentration in East Harlem.
Nevertheless, barring an almost inconceivable reduction in the earth’s population,
dense urban centers offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world’s most
discouraging environmental ills. To borrow a term from the jargon of computer systems,
dense cities are scalable, while sprawling suburbs are not. The environmental challenge
we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s non-renewable resources, is not
how to make our teeming cities more like the pristine countryside. The true challenge is
how to make other settled places more like Manhattan. This notion has yet to be widely
embraced, partly because it is counterintuitive, and partly because most Americans,
including most environmentalists, tend to view cities the way Thomas Jefferson did, as
“pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” New York is the place
that’s fun to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. What could it possibly teach
anyone about being green?
New York’s example, admittedly, is difficult for others to imitate, because the city’s
remarkable population density is the result not of conscientious planning but of a
succession of serendipitous historical accidents. The most important of those accidents
was geographic: New York arose on a smallish island rather than on the mainland edge of
a river or a bay, and the surrounding water served as a physical constraint to outward
expansion. Manhattan is like a typical seaport turned inside out—a city with a harbor
around it, rather than a harbor with a city along its edge. Insularity gave Manhattan more
shoreline per square mile than other ports, a major advantage in the days when one of the
world’s main commercial activities was moving cargoes between ships. It also drove
early development inward and upward.
A second lucky accident was that Manhattan’s street plan was created by
merchants who were more interested in economic efficiency than in boulevards, parks, or
empty spaces between buildings. The resulting crush of architecture is actually
humanizing, because it brings the city’s commercial, cultural, and other offerings closer
together, thereby increasing their accessibility—a point made forty-three years ago by the
brilliantly iconoclastic urban thinker Jane Jacobs, in her landmark book “The Death and
Life of Great American Cities.”
A third accident was the fact that by the early nineteen-hundreds most of
Manhattan’s lines had been filled in to the point where not even Robert Moses could
easily redraw them to accommodate the great destroyer of American urban life, the
automobile. Henry Ford thought of cars as tools for liberating humanity from the
wretchedness of cities, which he viewed with as much distaste as Jefferson did. In 1932,
John Nolen, a prominent Harvard-educated urban planner and landscape architect, said,
“The future city will be spread out, it will be regional, it will be the natural product of the
automobile, the good road, electricity, the telephone, and the radio, combined with the
growing desire to live a more natural, biological life under pleasanter and more natural
conditions.” This is the idea behind suburbs, and it’s still seductive. But it’s also a
prescription for sprawl and expressways and tremendous waste.
New York City’s obvious urban antithesis, in terms of density and automobile
use, is metropolitan Los Angeles, whose metastatic outward growth has been virtually
unimpeded by the lay of the land, whose early settlers came to the area partly out of a
desire to create space between themselves and others, and whose main development
began late enough to be shaped by the needs of cars. But a more telling counterexample
is Washington, D.C., whose basic layout was conceived at roughly the same time as
Manhattan’s, around the turn of the nineteenth century. The District of Columbia’s
original plan was created by an eccentric French-born engineer and architect named
Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who befriended General Washington during the Revolutionary
War and asked to be allowed to design the capital. Many of modern Washington’s most
striking features are his: the broad, radial avenues; the hublike traffic circles; the
sweeping public lawns and ceremonial spaces.
Washington is commonly viewed as the most intelligently beautiful—the most
European—of large American cities. Ecologically, though, it’s a mess. L’Enfant’s
expansive avenues were easily adapted to automobiles, and the low, widely separated
buildings (whose height is limited by law) stretched the distance between destinations.
There are many pleasant places in Washington to go for a walk, but the city is difficult to
get around on foot: the wide avenues are hard to cross, the traffic circles are like obstacle
courses, and the grandiloquent empty spaces thwart pedestrians, by acting as what Jane
Jacobs calls “border vacuums.” (One of Jacobs’s many arresting observations is that
parks and other open spaces can reduce urban vitality, by creating dead ends that prevent
people from moving freely between neighborhoods and by decreasing activity along their
edges.) Many parts of Washington, furthermore, are relentlessly homogeneous. There are
plenty of dignified public buildings on Constitution Avenue, for example, but good luck
finding a dry cleaner, a Chinese restaurant, or a grocery store. The city’s horizontal, airy
design has also pushed development into the surrounding countryside. The fastestgrowing
county in the United States is Loudoun County, Virginia, at the rapidly receding
western edge of the Washington metropolitan area.
The Sierra Club, an environmental organization that advocates the preservation of
wilderness and wildlife, has a national campaign called Challenge to Sprawl. The aim of
the program is to arrest the mindless conversion of undeveloped countryside into
subdivisions, strip malls, and S.U.V.-clogged expressways. The Sierra Club’s Web site
features a slide-show-like demonstration that illustrates how various sprawling suburban
intersections could be transformed into far more appealing and energy-efficient
developments by implementing a few modifications, among them widening the sidewalks
and narrowing the streets, mixing residential and commercial uses, moving buildings
closer together and closer to the edges of sidewalks (to make them more accessible to
pedestrians and to increase local density), and adding public transportation—all
fundamental elements of the widely touted anti-sprawl strategy known as Smart Growth.
In a recent telephone conversation with a Sierra Club representative involved in
Challenge to Sprawl, I said that the organization’s anti-sprawl suggestions and the
modified streetscapes in the slide show shared many significant features with
Manhattan—whose most salient characteristics include wide sidewalks, narrow streets,
mixed uses, densely packed buildings, and an extensive network of subways and buses.
The representative hesitated, then said that I was essentially correct, although he would
prefer that the program not be described in such terms, since emulating New York City
would not be considered an appealing goal by most of the people whom the Sierra Club is
trying to persuade.
An obvious way to reduce consumption of fossil fuels is to shift more people out of cars
and into public transit. In many parts of the country, though, public transit has been
stagnant or in decline for years. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority
and Department of Transportation account for nearly a third of all
the transit passenger miles travelled in the United States and for nearly four times as
many passenger miles as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority combined.
New York City looks so little like other parts of America that urban planners and
environmentalists tend to treat it as an exception rather than an example, and to act as
though Manhattan occupied an idiosyncratic universe of its own. But the underlying
principles apply everywhere. “The basic point,” Jeffrey Zupan, an economist with the
Regional Planning Association, told me, “is that you need density to support public
transit. In all cities, not just in New York, once you get above a certain density two things
happen. First, you get less travel by mechanical means, which is another way of saying
you get more people walking or biking; and, second, you get a decrease in the trips by
auto and an increase in the trips by transit. That threshold tends to be around seven
dwellings per acre. Once you cross that line, a bus company can put buses out there,
because they know they’re going to have enough passengers to support a reasonable
frequency of service.”
Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the United States and one of the fastestgrowing
among the top ten, yet its public transit system accounts for just one per cent of
the passenger miles that New York City’s does. The reason is that Phoenix’s burgeoning
population has spread so far across the desert—greater Phoenix, whose population is a
little more than twice that of Manhattan, covers more than two hundred times as much
land—that no transit system could conceivably serve it. And no amount of browbeating,
public-service advertising, or federal spending can change that.
Cities, states, and the federal government often negate their own efforts to nurture
public transit by simultaneously spending huge sums to make it easier for people to get
around in cars. When a city’s automobile traffic becomes congested, the standard
response has long been to provide additional capacity by building new roads or widening
existing ones. This approach eventually makes the original problem worse, by generating
what transportation planners call “induced traffic”: every mile of new highway lures
passengers from public transit and other more efficient modes of travel, and makes it
possible for residential and commercial development to spread even farther from urban
centers. And adding public transit in the hope of reducing automobile congestion is as
self-defeating as building new highways, because unclogging roads, if successful, just
makes driving seem more attractive, and the roads fill up again. A better strategy would
be to eliminate existing traffic lanes and parking spaces gradually, thereby forcing more
drivers to use less environmentally damaging alternatives—in effect, “induced transit.”
One reason New Yorkers are the most dedicated transit users in America is that
congestion on the city’s streets makes driving extraordinarily disagreeable. The average
speed of crosstown traffic in Manhattan is little more than that of a brisk walker, and in
midtown at certain times of the day the cars on the side streets move so slowly that they
appear almost to be parked. Congestion like that urges drivers into the subways, and it
makes life easier for pedestrians and bicycle riders by slowing cars to a point where they
constitute less of a physical threat.
Even in New York City, the relationship between traffic and transit is not well
understood. A number of the city’s most popular recent transportation-related projects
and policy decisions may in the long run make the city a worse place to live in by luring
passengers back into their cars and away from public transportation: the rebuilding and
widening of the West Side Highway, the implementation of EZ-Pass on the city’s toll
bridges, the decision not to impose tolls on the East River bridges, and the current
renovation of the F.D.R. Drive (along with the federally funded hundred-and-thirty-ninemillion-
dollar Outboard Detour Roadway, which is intended to prevent users of the
F.D.R. from being inconvenienced while the work is under way).
Public transit itself can be bad for the environment if it facilitates rather than
discourages sprawl. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is considering
extensions to some of the most distant branches of its system, and those extensions, if
built, will allow people to live even farther from the city’s center, creating new, nondense
suburbs where all other travel will be by automobile, much of it to malls and
schools and gas stations that will be built to accommodate them. Transit is best for the
environment when it helps to concentrate people in dense urban cores. Building the
proposed Second Avenue subway line would be environmentally sound, because it would
increase New Yorkers’ ability to live without cars; building a bullet train between Penn
Station and the Catskills (for example) would not be sound, because it would enable the
vast, fuel-squandering apparatus of suburbia to establish itself in a region that couldn’t
support it otherwise.
On the afternoon of August 14, 2003, I was working in my office, on the third floor of
my house, when the lights blinked, my window air-conditioner sputtered, and my
computer’s backup battery kicked in briefly. This was the beginning of the great blackout
of 2003, which halted electric service in parts of eight Northeastern and Midwestern
states and in southeastern Canada. The immediate cause was eventually traced to Ohio,
but public attention often focussed on New York City, which had the largest
concentration of affected power customers. Richard B. Miller, who resigned as the senior
energy adviser for the city of New York six weeks before the blackout, reportedly over
deep disagreements with the city’s energy policy, told me, “When I was with the city, I
attended a conference on global warming where somebody said, ‘We really need to raise
energy and electricity prices in New York City, so that people will consume less.’ And
my response at that conference was ‘You know, if you’re talking about raising energy
prices in New York City only, then you’re talking about something that’s really bad for
the environment. If you make energy prices so expensive in the city that a business
relocates from Manhattan to New Jersey, what you’re really talking about, in the simplest
terms, is a business that’s moving from a subway stop to a parking lot. And which of
those do you think is worse for the environment?’ ”
People who live in cities use only about half as much electricity as people who
don’t, and people who live in New York City generally use less than the urban average. A
truly enlightened energy policy would reward city dwellers and encourage others to
follow their good example. Yet New York City residents pay more per kilowatt-hour than
almost any other American electricity customers; taxes and other government charges,
most of which are not enumerated on electricity bills, can constitute close to twenty per
cent of the cost of power for residential and commercial users in New York. Richard
Miller, after leaving his job with New York City, went to work as a lawyer in
Consolidated Edison’s regulatory affairs department, spurred by his thinking about the
environment. He believes that state and local officials have historically taken unfair
advantage of the fact that there is no political cost to attacking a big utility. Con Ed pays
more than six hundred million dollars a year in property taxes, making it by far the city’s
largest property-tax payer, and those charges inflate electric bills. Meanwhile, the cost of
driving is kept artificially low. (Fifth Avenue and the West Side Highway don’t pay
property taxes, for example.) “In addition,” Miller said, “the burden of improving the
city’s air has fallen far more heavily on power plants, which contribute only a small
percentage of New York City’s air pollution, than it has on cars—even though motor
vehicles are a much bigger source.”
Last year, the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C., held
a show called “Big & Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century.” A
book of the same name was published in conjunction with the show, and on the book’s
dust jacket was a photograph of 4 Times Square, also known as the Condé Nast Building,
a forty-eight-story glass-and-steel tower between Forty-second and Forty-third Streets, a
few blocks west of Grand Central Terminal. (The New Yorker’s offices occupy two
floors in the building.) When 4 Times Square was built, in 1999, it was considered a
major breakthrough in urban development. As Daniel Kaplan, a principal of Fox & Fowle
Architects, the firm that designed it, wrote in an article in Environmental Design &
Construction in 1997, “When thinking of green architecture, one usually associates
smaller scale,” and he cited as an example the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain
Institute, a nonprofit environmental research and consulting firm based in Snowmass,
Colorado. The R.M.I. building is a four-thousand-square-foot, superinsulated, passivesolar
structure with curving sixteen-inch-thick walls, set into a hillside about fifteen miles
north of Aspen. It was erected in the early eighties and serves partly as a showcase for
green construction technology. (It is also the home of Amory Lovins, who is R.M.I.’s cofounder
and chief executive officer.) R.M.I. contributed to the design of 4 Times Square,
which has many innovative features, among them collection chutes for recyclable
materials, photovoltaic panels incorporated into parts of its skin, and curtain-wall
construction with exceptional shading and insulating properties.
These are all important innovations. In terms of the building’s true ecological
impact, though, they are distinctly secondary. (The power generated by the photovoltaic
panels supplies less than one per cent of the building’s requirements.) The two greenest
features of 4 Times Square are ones that most people never even mention: it is big, and it
is situated in Manhattan.
Environmentalists have tended to treat big buildings as intrinsically wasteful,
because large amounts of energy are expended in their construction, and because the
buildings place intensely localized stresses on sewers, power lines, and water systems.
But density can create the same kinds of ecological benefits in individual structures that it
does in entire communities. Tall buildings have much less exposed exterior surface per
square foot of interior space than smaller buildings do, and that means they present
relatively less of themselves to the elements, and their small roofs absorb less heat from
the sun during cooling season and radiate less heat from inside during heating season.
(The beneficial effects are greater still in Manhattan, where one building often directly
abuts another.) A study by Michael Phillips and Robert Gnaizda, published in
CoEvolution Quarterly in 1980, found that an ordinary apartment in a typical building
near downtown San Francisco used just a fifth as much heating fuel as a new tract house
in Davis, a little more than seventy miles away. Occupants of tall buildings also do a
significant part of their daily coming and going in elevators, which, because they are
counterweighted and thus require less motor horsepower, are among the most energyefficient
passenger vehicles in the world.
Bruce Fowle, a founder of Fox & Fowle, told me, “The Condé Nast Building
contains 1.6 million square feet of floor space, and it sits on one acre of land. If you
divided it into forty-eight one-story suburban office buildings, each averaging thirty-three
thousand square feet, and spread those one-story buildings around the countryside, and
then added parking and some green space around each one, you’d end up consuming at
least a hundred and fifty acres of land. And then you’d have to provide infrastructure, the
highways and everything else.” Like many other buildings in Manhattan, 4 Times Square
doesn’t even have a parking lot, because the vast majority of the six thousand people who
work inside it don’t need one. In most other parts of the country, big parking lots are not
only necessary but are required by law. If my town’s zoning regulations applied in
Manhattan, 4 Times Square would have needed sixteen thousand parking spaces, one for
every hundred square feet of office floor space. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s
showcase headquarters has double-paned krypton-filled windows, which admit seventyfive
per cent as much light as ordinary windows while allowing just ten per cent as much
heat to escape in cold weather. That’s a wonderful feature, and one of many in the
building which people ought to copy. In other ways, though, the R.M.I. building sets a
very poor environmental example. It was built in a fragile location, on virgin land more
than seven thousand feet above sea level. With just four thousand square feet of interior
space, it can hold only six of R.M.I.’s eighteen full-time employees; the rest of them
work in a larger building a mile away. Because the two buildings are in a thinly
populated area, they force most employees to drive many miles—including trips between
the two buildings—and they necessitate extra fuel consumption by delivery trucks,
snowplows, and other vehicles. If R.M.I.’s employees worked on a single floor of a big
building in Manhattan (or in downtown Denver) and lived in apartments nearby, many of
them would be able to give up their cars, and the thousands of visitors who drive to
Snowmass each year to learn about environmentally responsible construction could travel
by public transit instead.
Picking on R.M.I.—which is one of the world’s most farsighted environmental
organizations—may seem unfair, but R.M.I., along with many other farsighted
environmental organizations, shares responsibility for perpetuating the powerful anti-city
bias of American environmentalism. That bias is evident in the technical term that is
widely used for sprawl: “urbanization.” Thinking of freeways and strip malls as “urban”
phenomena obscures the ecologically monumental difference between Phoenix and
Manhattan, and fortifies the perception that population density is an environmental ill. It
also prevents most people from recognizing that R.M.I.’s famous headquarters—which
sits on an isolated parcel more than a hundred and eighty miles from the nearest
significant public transit system—is sprawl.
When I told a friend recently that I thought New York City should be considered the
greenest community in America, she looked puzzled, then asked, “Is it because they’ve
started recycling again?” Her question reflected a central failure of the American
environmental movement: that too many of us have been made to believe that the most
important thing we can do to save the earth and ourselves is to remember each week to
set our cans and bottles and newspapers on the curb. Recycling is popular because it
enables people to relieve their gathering anxieties about the future without altering the
way they live. But most current recycling has, at best, a neutral effect on the
environment, and much of it is demonstrably harmful. As William McDonough and
Michael Braungart point out in “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,”
most of the materials we place on our curbs are merely “downcycled”—converted to a
lower use, providing a pause in their inevitable journey to a landfill or an
incinerator—often with a release of toxins and a net loss of fuel, among other undesirable
effects.
By far the worst damage we Americans do to the planet arises not from the
newspapers we throw away but from the eight hundred and fifty million or so gallons of
oil we consume every day. We all know this at some level, yet we live like alcoholics in
denial. How else can we explain that our cars have grown bigger, heavier, and less fuelefficient
at the same time that scientists have become more certain and more specific
about the consequences of our addiction to gasoline?
On a shelf in my office is a small pile of recent books about the environment
which I plan to reread obsessively if I’m found to have a terminal illness, because they’re
so unsettling that they may make me less upset about being snatched from life in my
prime. At the top of the pile is “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil,” by David
Goodstein, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, which was published
earlier this year. “The world will soon start to run out of conventionally produced, cheap
oil,” Goodstein begins. In succeeding pages, he lucidly explains that humans have
consumed almost a trillion barrels of oil (that’s forty-two trillion gallons), or about half of
the earth’s total supply; that a devastating global petroleum crisis will begin not when we
have pumped the last barrel out of the ground but when we have reached the halfway
point, because at that moment, for the first time in history, the line representing supply
will fall through the line representing demand; that we will probably pass that point
within the current decade, if we haven’t passed it already; that various well-established
laws of economics are about to assert themselves, with disastrous repercussions for
almost everything; and that “civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in
this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.”
Standing between us and any conceivable solution to our energy nightmare are
our cars and the asphalt-latticed country we have built to oblige them. Those cars have
defined our culture and our lives. A car is speed and sex and power and emancipation. It
makes its driver a self-sufficient nation of one. It is everything a city is not.
Most of the car’s most tantalizing charms are illusory, though. By helping us to
live at greater distances from one another, driving has undermined the very benefits that
it was meant to bestow. Ignacio San Martín, an architecture professor and the head of the
graduate urban-design program at the University of Arizona, told me, “If you go out to
the streets of Phoenix and are able to see anybody walking—which you likely
won’t—they are going to tell you that they love living in Phoenix because they have a
beautiful house and three cars. In reality, though, once the conversation goes a little bit
further, they are going to say that they spend most of their time at home watching TV,
because there is absolutely nothing to do.” One of the main attractions of moving to the
suburbs is acquiring ground of your own, yet you can travel for miles through suburbia
and see no one doing anything in a yard other than working on the yard itself (often with
the help of a riding lawnmower, one of the few four-wheeled passenger vehicles that get
worse gas mileage than a Hummer). The modern suburban yard is perfectly, perversely
self-justifying: its purpose is to be taken care of.
In 1801, in his first Inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said that the American
wilderness would provide growing room for democracy-sustaining agrarian patriots “to
the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson didn’t foresee the interstate
highway system, and his arithmetic was off, in any case, but he nevertheless anticipated
(and, in many ways, embodied) the ethos of suburbia, of anti-urbanism, of sprawl. The
standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by
grass, is a mini-Monticello. It was the car that put it within our reach. But what a terrible
price we have paid—and have yet to pay—for our liberation from the city.

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