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.