Sunday, July 09, 2006

The House and Car Will Do Us In

Talk about something unpopular to talk about! Not just one but the two cornerstones of the American Dream criticized at the same time. But it's not me who is attacking them but they who are attacking us.


Here's the way I slipped into that subject. My friend decided to calculate her ecological footprint both before and after she gave up her car and moved into an apartment. Before, she was costing the Earth 27 acres. After the move she was down to 8 acres. For those not familiar with the "ecological footprint," that’s the area of land required to keep one person, one family, one city, one country – one whatever sustained as typically functioning. It includes acreage for food, building materials, energy, actual residence and work place land occupied, and counts meat eating as requiring more land than vegetable eating. Add it all up and that’s your particular “ecological footprint.” It takes a quarter of the whole planet Earth to keep just the 4.5% of its people called Americans going in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. One typical American city, presently “requires” in the range of 200 times its land area for its support. And an individual can require one acre to stay barely alive or require hundreds to jet about having fun in distant places and “living big.”

It wasn’t always thus. Cars didn’t exist 150 years ago and in traditional villages and older cities, many or most homes were “attached” dwellings – row houses or apartments. In Medieval times, as everyone knows, workshops and stores were downstairs and residences upstairs, with everyone walking easily about the whole community to market, school, administrative center, church, plaza, nearby farms and country for hunting and roads out to the next community. This walkable world was augmented by horse. The modern world was overwhelmed by cars. More to the point, the recent city was radically reformed to fit the speed and size and other demands of the car while people consciously thought of themselves as escaping into the controllable, amassable suburbs in houses with front, back and side yards. The comeuppance is that our car-city lifestyles demand enormous acreage for sustenance and beyond the acreage are the other changes that that particular kind of city is exacting on the whole Earth.

This is a highly unpopular subject to broach and has incurred enormous wrath, denial and stonewalling in my career promoting ecocities. Talk about restoring creeks and saving energy with insulation and better light bulbs and everyone loves me. Talk about getting out of the car and into an apartment and all hell breaks loose – or people figure it’s more effective to silently turn their backs and walk away. Can it really be, those fearing change in their own lives more than collapse of society say, that the car and the typical house are the largest cause responsible for the catastrophe’s we see coming in climate change, species extinctions, and the end of cheap energy?

Yes indeed, that seems to be the case. Ignore it and you ignore a clear and present danger because the evidence is mountainous. I even read in yesterdays San Francisco Chronicle that the CO2 going into the atmosphere (mainly from the cars we use to get to our widely scattered energy swilling separate houses) is causing the acidification of the entire World Ocean and portends extreme danger at the bottom of the food chain for all marine organisms; this in addition to global warming. In today’s paper was the article about collapse of amphibian populations world wide due to small climate change incubating a deadly fungus that kills 100% of all amphibians it infects. It has extinguished 122 species in the last 25 years. Say experts in the field, 427 species – at least one third of all existing species – are “critically threatened” by this partnership between climate change, the fungus and, I add, the everyday house and car. See? Who wants to hear that?

Meantime, I’m part of a group of city staff members of a here-in un-named city looking at what it can do to respond to raise awareness of the implications of climate change and produce a strategy for reversing the drift toward the climate/energy/extinctions catastrophe. The city’s energy officer said he kicked around the figure the Mayor’s office proposed – a target of an 80% reduction in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 – in his department and they erupted in laughter. Ridiculous! No way! To get that kind of reduction you’d have to be talking “clean coal” to replace oil, or “safe nuclear.” Never mind that there may be no such thing as “clean coal” or “safe nuclear” in anyone’s future – their record, with all past efforts, is contrary to that notion and has already seen many decades of invested time and energy.

This “climate change” committee, however, has said cars are a problem, but sought ways to avoid directly discussing the subject of actually giving up cars and moving from houses to apartments – but notice something: my friend’s shrinking ecological footprint.

To move from a house and car to an apartment with a bicycle, backed by transit, saw no less than a 70.4% reduction right there. And that is without “green building” features, solar energy design or any other of the many eco-architecture, clustered buildings and opens spaces promoted by ecocity theory. And that’s to ignore the record of best practices in actually building pieces of the ecocity that can be identified in cities all around the world. There’s your 80%. It can be done. People just don’t want to think about how to do it. And it can be done beautifully, with style and grace, with nature rebounding and agriculture retuning as we roll back sprawl.

If we don’t start thinking like that, the house and car will do us in.

More to the point, they have already started. I hope we can wake up in time. We need a redesign of our cities as the first line of defense of what’s getting to be what’s left of our future.

1 comment:

Karen/NY said...

Richard,
Thanks for doing this. Please keep writing ....

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