How did we get into this eco-mess? Try an experiment with me.

Looking around our urban landscape
WELCOME, Dr. Allan Schnaiberg! I’m pleased, this week, to introduce a friend and scholar in environmental economics and sociology. Allan spent 35 years at Northwestern University trying to
understand the roots of the big problems ahead of us right now. He’ll share several stories this week that help us see new connections between our lives and the challenges we’re facing. Plus, he’s inviting us to try an ongoing experiment with him! Here is his first piece … (And we’d really like to hear what you’re thinking.)

    (If you’re just joining our series, here are all links to all of the parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

Stepping outside
A
s our new president prepares to take office, he confronts two major
problems: warming and cooling.
    Global warming poses threats to agriculture, weather, land use and our own survival. The second challenge is our economic
decline – a “cooling” rather than a warming trend. While both have
been on US government agendas for some time, these problems have ballooned in the past year.

    OurValues.org writers already have examined the cooling crisis, especially the plea by the Big
Three U.S. automakers for federal bailouts. There are certainly
sympathetic supporters for this, including auto workers and auto suppliers. Equally vehement are those who oppose such
bailouts as favoring “Wall Street” over “Main Street”.

    But think about this: Both groups are limited in their worldviews and values. I’m inviting you to
step back with me and look at the social logic behind expanded automobile
use over the past century — and its eco-logic.
    So, think about your own reactions as we step back for a moment and look at how we’ve reached this point. At the end, I’ll tell you about an experiment I’d like you to try.

    Automobiles are a wondrous source of geographic mobility. As Lewis
Mumford noted more than 50 years ago, autos permit random movement. The car was an especially valuable innovation in U.S. rural life,
because of the great distances between farm families. Our situation was different than the European pattern where farmers lived together in villages and their lands were dispersed outside of town. By the 1920s in America, auto ownership in New York City had stabilized and then declined, because the density of New York allowed people plenty of mobility by walking and public transit.

    The social value American placed on their autos actually was higher in rural areas than in big cities. Why? One reason is that
Americans initially thought there there was less to see and do, and fewer people to interact with, in rural areas. Imagine if we had stopped expanding our use of autos in that era!
    Of course, Americans eventually began to fantasize about rural life and that’s what drove the creation of suburbs. So, we welcomed superhighways that gutted our central cities to allow mass relocation of our middle class into
“pristine” suburbs.

    Ecologically, though, we destroyed thousands of acres of
prime farmland, natural reserves, and historic structures in our
major cities. We polluted our air and water, and increased our
energy dependency — and created the roots of global warming from the
carbon dioxide produced by our engines. We made matters worse by destroying rural forests that
would have absorbed some of our pollution.
    There were many negative forces shaping our decisions, including racial and class bias. But we tended to overlook these motives and our corporations and governments lent their resources to this mass migration of urbanites to a newer, more homogeneous, and “cleaner”
environment than our cities seemed to offer.

New York City Flatiron Building
    That may not be the end of the story of American migration. “New urbanism” is a movement calling for reverse migration and there are good reasons to support this idea.
    What we are discovering is that there is no “there, out there” in suburbia. Modern gated communities are no substitute for the rich and diverse qualities of historically built cities. We may be able to
walk within a gated community, but there is little of interest to walk
to! That’s especially true when comparing most suburban areas with the architectural miracles, ethnic communities and landmarks we find in big cities. Many of the new suburban parks pale in comparison to some of the wondrous urban parks designed by visionaries like Frederic Olmstead and Daniel Burnham.

    If you’re nodding your head as you read this — or shaking your head skeptically — I’d like to suggest an experiment. Take a walk or ride your bike through a neighborhood built before World War II in your city, or a city near you. Keep your eyes open.
    If you’re strolling, you might want to bring your dog along on a leash as a good excuse for dawdling as you look around the neighborhood.
    Then expand your base over time by foot and public transit. Repeat this day after day for a while.
    I bet you’ll get hooked on this means of exploring your corner of the world.
    And you’ll be leaving less of a carbon footprint as you go.

    Now, before you leave this Web page, do one more thing, please: Click on a Comment link and tell me how this story matches your own assumptions about our situation here in America today.
    Please, add a Comment, even if it’s brief. Or, if you prefer, drop us a quick Email.

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