Cities and Environmentalism

Cities can look like dirty places with no greenery or living plants among the concrete, asphalt, and towering buildings. At the same time, however, cities can be much more efficient and environmentally friendly than rural or suburban places. I live in the Western US and we expend a lot of energy just to move things from one place to another. A lot of the energy we produce just goes into moving water around. For us to get from our homes to our places of work can require a lot of driving by ourselves in a car. And because the West has so much open space, we have built large neighborhoods with houses spaced out from one another, requiring more concrete for sidewalks, more asphalt for roads, and more copper for electric lines.

 

The amount of resources needed to build suburban and rural connections between people is much greater than the per capita need within cities. As Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz write in The New Localism:

 

“The linkage between culture and cities also has to do with environmental sustainability and how its associated values translate into imperatives to re-purpose legacy places. Cities are ideal places for environmental stewardship, which is important to the culture: urban dwellers are not as car dependent as people in the suburbs, and urban life can be more energy efficient. Urban dwellers can use public transportation, walk, or ride a bicycle to work. Thus urban civic activism based on retrofitting the older built environment emerged in concert with an environmental ethos.”

 

I live in Nevada which is a state with a lot of rural space. I live in one of the two major metropolitan regions, but in the smaller of the two and toward the outskirts of town where the suburban starts to give way to the rural. I currently have an incredibly long car drive to work. The people I live around generally don’t seem to be as worried about environmental concerns, or if they are, then like me they may chose to ignore them or to accept living with a feeling of guilt because our way of life is in some ways very costly and resource demanding. The challenge is that it is hard to change and do much about our environmental impact, and we like our space, our quiet neighborhood, and our affordable homes.

 

People who live in the middle of a city don’t have as many of the same barriers to living a more energy efficient and environmentally considerate life as I do. When car reliance is less pronounced, it is easy to go without a car and decry the damage done by cars to our environment. When you spend less time in traffic and have more ability to use your time, you can engage in more pro-social and pro-environmental movements. Given the state of climate change, this is a positive aspect to cities. People can live more efficiently and be more inclined to advocate for a more environmentally considerate way of life. A shift in what we view as a good life (away from the picket-fence-two-car-garage-and-a-dog-in-a-yard to a life of greater connections in a city with less individual space) is a change in values, and is something that is leading to a revival of city centers and urban societies across the country. As networks and connections matter more and more, living close to people and having more interactions is becoming more valuable than having one’s own space and things.

 

Another important aspect in Katz and Nowak’s quote is the focus on rebuilding and re-purposing. Cities have existing infrastructure that needs to be updated as people move back into and begin to redifine their cities. This gives cities the chance to establish themselves as cleaner and better versions of what they have always been. The way that streets, buildings, and open spaces are used can be reimagined during this transition, allowing them to become more environmentally sustainable and more economically inclusive. This helps reduce the overall carbon footprint of city residents and helps them become places where people can actually live, work, and enjoy their time.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.

 

In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

 

Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.

 

This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.