Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book review: Green Metropolis

A book review from the Greenhabilitator...

Mr. Greenhab and I have always been city-folk. In our younger days we were actually known as The Downtown Browns. We lived in a loft in downtown Denver where we could walk just about anywhere, including work.

A few years after we started "going green" as they say, Mr. Greenhab and I found ourselves in a position to move. With one child, two more on the way, and a desire to be closer to nature, we started looking for houses with an acre or so of land. We weren't intentionally looking in the boonies, but that's where we ended up: a place in the mountains with 3+ acres, a barn, and a forest full of wild animals. We were in heaven.

Now as we approach 2 years of living here we're starting to fall out of love with the bitter cold winters, the high electric bills, the long drive to get anywhere, the lack of cultural diversity, etc. Our kids go to one of the top 3 schools in the state, which is a huge plus, but we're really starting to feel a pull back to the city.

When I saw David Owen's book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability mentioned in a magazine I requested it at the library right away. I wasn't consciously thinking it at the time but, now that I stop to ponder it, I suppose I was hoping for a well-written book that would tell me "You need to move to the city. It's more sustainable for the following absolutely true reasons, which are backed up by scientific evidence."

That's not exactly what I got though.

In short, I feel about Green Metropolis the same way I felt about Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods -- agree with many of the ideas, hate the way the book was written.

In Green Metropolis, the author seems to want to convince you not only why "living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability" but also why New York City is the best city ever. I understand that he lived there, so that's where he draws a lot of his knowledge, but perhaps giving examples from some of the other cities he mentions (like San Francisco, for example) would have made him seem less obsessed with NYC.

I actually found myself daydreaming at one point, wondering who bad-mouthed his city so much that he erupted and spewed out this book. It seemed to be written in haste without much organization, as evidenced by the fact that Owen brings up the same points again and again. Much like my review of Louv's Last Child in the Woods, I think Owen's points could have been addressed clearly and pointedly in 30 well-organized pages, rather than 300 rambling ones.

As much as I disliked Owen's writing style, I could certainly see many of his points - people in NYC live in smaller spaces, consume less, use less electricity, they take mass transit or walk everywhere. Business in NYC are greener because their employees take the subway to work, they're all in the same building which is built up (as opposed to sprawling out). It all makes sense.

One of the things that really got under my skin when reading this book is that Owen seems to be one of those people who knows everything. The guy at work who, when you see him coming, you pick up the phone and pretend to be talking to someone. The guy you never want to have a conversation with because he'll point out how wrong you are about everything from global warming to what you had for lunch.

Owen brings up the Rocky Mountain Institute - "one of the most respected environmental organizations in the world" - the goes on to tell us how it's really an environmental nightmare because it's not near an airport. He brings up the LEED certification program and tells us why it's flawed. He talks about everything from HOV lanes to locavorism, then tells us why they are ridiculous.

What I haven't figured out is this: Is Owen really one of those guys who thinks he knows more about everything than anyone else? Or does he facetiously poke at every idea we have about sustainability to get us to at least think about the other side?

Meaning: As environmentalists, we think that being a locavore is a good thing. It allows us to know where our food comes from, we're able to support local farmers, or grow our food ourselves, we become less dependent on others and more self-sufficient, we avoid the environmental impact of shipping our food from other countries...the list goes on and on.

BUT... I have to wonder, does Owen really just want us to look at locavorism (or any other idea) with a more critical eye to see the potential down (or "brown") side? Instead of seeing an HOV lane as something that helps to ease traffic congestion and idling time for cars, should we be looking at it as something that eases traffic, making people happy to keep driving their cars instead of taking public transportation?

Owen definitely makes some good points and observations in the book. It was just his know-it-all attitude that was such a turn off to me.


Julia (Color Me Green) said...

i feel you...there is nothing i hate more than reading a badly written book and thinking, how did this person get away with publishing this, when there was so much that could have been said in a more intelligent way. i live in nyc and would like to move out to the country someday but am having a hard time swallowing the reality of returning to a car culture, so i would also like to see some research on the environmental benefits of city vs country.

Mike Vandeman said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

For the rest:

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I agree that it's probably more sustainable to live in NYC, but it's definitely not more sustainable to live in Raleigh, NC. I live right downtown, and I might as well live out in the country for as much as I have to drive. This book sounds interesting, but too bad it didn't compare more cities. Plus, I think it's unfair to say one is absolutely better than the other. Both city life and country life have their sustainable benefits.

morrison_jennifer said...

I think you can go "green" in just about any environment. My husband and I live in Phoenix, land of sprawl, and chose an area that was already developed, as opposed to new construction, because it was very close to work. We weren't specifically thinking green, we were thinking about time, time that we didn't want to spend commuting. It takes my husband about 5min to get to work. Our son's preschool is right here too, 5 minutes for me in the morning. The supermarket is a mile up the road as is the church and a movie theatre. There are 9 city parks within 4 miles of my house and there is a running path a half a mile away. The drawback is that the house is small for Phoenix, but then I just save money in the summer on AC. So it doesn't really matter where you're talking, you can still make good choices for the location you're in.

Kellie said...

@Erin, It's worth a read if you have nothing else really exciting in your line up. It will definitely make you look at things a bit differently.

@Jennifer, ITA that "you can still make good choices for the location you're in." Well put! After all, there just aren't that many big cities like NYC or San Fran. We obviously can't all live there!

An interesting side note that I forgot to put in my blog post is that the author now lives in rural Connecticut and says that it wouldn't make a difference if he moved back to NYC because someone would just buy his house and his car and replace him in his rural life so he might as well stay there.

I think that was the icing on my "I can't believe I read this whole book" cake.


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