Book Review: The Conundrum

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. by David Owen. He eloquently calls out our lip service and feeble attempts at “saving” our environment. This is a great read, short but sweet and to the point, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in sustainability issues but does not take themselves too seriously. The basic premise is that efficiency doesn’t improve our environmental situation, as we have always improved efficiency.

“One of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language is ‘sustainability’.”

So what is the solution? Because so many effects are not directly linked to the cause, we will not take action until the Cuyahoga River is on fire, literally–this is not a judgement, just an observation. (See my post on how Cuba had to go oil-free practically overnight, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Movie Review: The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil)

“…attempting a truly large project is the only way to honestly access the actual obstacles to supplanting fossil fuels. Hype, huckersterism, and faulty arithmetic are easy to conceal when the focus is suburban rooftops.”

Owen discusses the problem with more efficient cars. A bigger issue than tailpipe emissions is arguably the infrastructure that focuses on moving cars, not people, and is completely dictated by the needs of the car and the large firetruck.

This is an awkward link (to the Google book), but a great illustration: A Tampa, FL, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit campaign in 2001, showing how much space cars take up, compared to how much space those same people would take up on a bus.

He closes with this:

“Those of us who are ‘enlightened’ on environmental issues earnestly wish for the world to consume and emit less-a radical transformation that we expect our own standard of living to survive.”

Most people who talk a good game about environmentalism (myself included) are the largest offenders. Authors wrack up frequent flier miles going on book tours to preach their cause, in the meantime most of the world does not travel, and less wealthy Americans save up to take a vacation or two a year.

Fun fact: Americans spend more on garbage bags than almost half the world’s countries spend on everything.

Reading this book may make you feel discouraged about any feeble environmental efforts that are actually controllable. Without a massive cultural action (like Wal-Mart customers demanding hormone-free milk), the illusion of control is a phenomenon that only begins to explain much of the neuroses of our time. Owen refers to the feeling of satisfaction we get when taking out the recycling, but only 10% of waste is post-consumer. This does not mean that we should not recycle, just that we have to check our smugness and hypocrisy if we really want to face our environmental issues.

Book Review Archive: Green Metropolis by David Owen

Each Tuesday, I’m posting book reviews that I did in the past for D+A Studio’s blog. I’m doing this because, well, I love to read, and a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues. Jeff Speck, author of Suburban Nation, has been referring to David Owen’s Green Metropolis on his tour for his current bookWalkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews. 

Based on the subject matter and publicity this book has received, it was practically mandatory that I read it, but I was not expecting much. I was very pleasantly surprised. Owen takes on pop conventional wisdom at every turn and takes the wind out of many environmental sails. The main argument of the book is that many of our attempts at being green (i.e. reducing our carbon emissions) are futile without striving for density, with Manhattan as the best American example. Slapping solar panels on a McMansion in a new greenfield development does not make a green building, says Owen, because the real environmental damage is the infrastructure that supports the sprawl, and the amount of driving it takes to live in a typical suburban town. The most important number in your car isn’t the gas mileage, he says, it’s the odometer.

“Oil is liquid civilization: we  are what we burn.”

Owen has some harsh words for the LEED system, mostly for contributing to what he calls “LEED brain,” which I summarize as forsaking common sense for racking up points for green building projects in order to gain recognition. He offers common sense tips for making a new home green, including build a small home on a small infill lot, thoroughly caulk and insulate it, and use efficient appliances. He says that many of these points, especially the importance of caulking and insulating, aren’t particularly glamorous or  photogenic like small residential wind turbines, which he thinks are “wasteful investments in inappropriate technology.” He quotes Thomas L Friedman’s latest book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” his chapter title “If it isn’t Boring, it isn’t Green” which Owen says is a reminder of the “dangers and temptations of LEED brain.” I can’t totally agree with this, as I believe there are exciting technologies that can reduce carbon emissions and great recycled products, but I have been accused of being a regressionist, and tend to think that green building is mostly common sense, and has been for all of human history until the industrial revolution, when we started to use brute force against nature instead of working with it.

Owen discusses the new Sprint Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, which has been recognized as a “green” building and has the typical green building rap sheet. Owen says:

“There is nothing truly ecologically enlightened about Sprint’s Overland Park campus, no matter how many so-called green features the individual buildings include, or how much recaptured runoff water the ground staff uses when irrigating the complex’s dozens of acres of lawn,  or many bicycles are (theoretically) made available  for trips between buildings, or how many trees the company has planted, or how many PETA-certified border collies are used to keep migratory birds from defecating around the edges of the man-made “wetland area”…The campus is a sprawl bomb, and the “open space” preserved on the property merely makes the impact worse.”

An office like this would be much more environmentally friendly if it were placed all in one office town in downtown Kansas City (where there is surely high vacancy), creating more critical mass in downtown which would allow for more efficient transit from the suburbs. He also has harsh words for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s headquarters in Snowmass, Colorado, which is also packed with sustainable features, but in a “thinly populated area,” meaning that employees have no other choice but to drive to work.

Oh, and I love the term “sprawl bomb.” I’m going to see if I can use it in a sentence soon.

The most interesting point that Owen makes is that the most critical environmental issues facing a city are not planting green roofs and trees, or allowing rain barrels and solar panels. He argued that the most critical environmental issues facing a city are law enforcement,street noise, resources for the elderly, crime, parks, and schools-the quality (or lack thereof) these things are what causes people to abandon the city for the suburbs, especially when they have kids. The more people stay in the city (and in turn the more children raised in the city) the higher the density and the tax base, and therefore the quality of life. Owen mentions cities such as Minneapolis where schools are being closed in the cities while taxes are being levied to build more schools in the sprawling suburbs. If services were better in the city, more families could stay and their kids could attend established schools–which not only saves money because the schools are already built, but these schools are more likely to be serviced by roads with sidewalks and public transit, obviously rare in the suburbs.

The question that lingered in my mind for most of the book, as I’m sure it does for most readers since Owen answered it at the end, is if he thinks Manhattan is so great, why doesn’t he live there anymore? He and his wife lived there for seven years before relocating to rural Connecticut.

The answer is, of course, not everyone can live in Manhattan. From my previous blog post, “Green Building Myths”: Per ca pita, rural areas have higher carbon footprints than dense cities like NYC, which is arguably the most important metric when considering what’s “green”. But a rural area may seem “cleaner” because of the lack of air pollution (which can be concentrated in cities), green spaces, clean water, and the general aesthetic and aromatic pleasantness that comes with a lower population density, like lawns, gardens, and contained trash. We need to understand these differences and strive to improve the undesirable aspects of city living while building on its virtues.

References: Sierra Club Challenge to Sprawl
Urban Land Institute Booklet (PDF): Higher Density Development: Myth & Fact

Related books I recommend:

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay