I just finished December's National Geographic, and this article on The City Solution
was really interesting. It reminded me of a discussion Dana and I had that didn't really work on twitter. (Because 140 characters isn't really enough to get into depth...)
She, and I hope she'll correct me if I misstate things, desires a "back to nature" "sustainable" lifestyle, on a farm with cows or chickens or whatever, and driving 30-50 miles to sell things at farmers markets or go to buy things she can't produce herself (or order over the internet).
To me, that's not sustainable in the sense of "if we keep doing this, we won't trash the environment any worse than we have already." The amount of fossil fuels burned to drive to market (assuming she doesn't retrofit the vehicle for biodiesel, which is something I know she's talked about doing; but then, where does the oil come from?) are in themselves unsustainable. Eating meat is pretty unsustainable
in and of itself. Granted, raising your own animals is less harmful than factory-scale farming, but then you only can eat your own animals or the animals of people who also have small herds (and there we go again with the driving a lot to get the food).
Traditional subsistence farming
(growing your own food and having enough to feed yourself and *maybe* trade with your neighbor who grows something else) is something we've gone technologically beyond, even if an argument
has been made in favor of something like subsistence farming. However, that essayist stretches the definition almost to breaking, and he sort of conflates subsistence farming with organic farming, which are not the same thing.
In a city, people use public transportation. Not everyone, of course, but in places like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, taking the bus or subway is often more convenient than driving. Many New Yorkers don't even own cars, for example. (Compare that to LA, which has notoriously shitty public transit and a massive car culture...and a smog problem.
) Things are close enough that you can walk to them: walk to the bus stop or train station, walk to the grocery store, walk to the kebab shop, walk to the pub. Or ride your bike.
Your food still has to get to you, but economies of scale (ie, one truck delivering 500 lbs of cucumbers) allow the CO2 emissions to be spread over more people.
If people live closer to their jobs and the things they need, or even a short walk and a train/bus ride away, the CO2 emissions are much lower. There was a graphic in the print version that I can't find online, comparing the national CO2 per capita emission averages to individual cities' per capita emissions. New York City had between half and a third the average US emissions.
Now, not everyone can live in cities, of course: there's not much in the way of farmland in a city. Many European cities have community gardens, where you can rent a square of dirt and grow stuff, but that's not a large enough scale to feed people. If we didn't have factory-farmed meat, and if Western culture weren't so focused on MEAT! EAT MEAT! MEAT THREE TIMES A DAY!!!
, that would take care of one major source of environmental destruction (hog lagoons
, for example) and free up land to be used for growing food for humans. There's really no reason to feed corn to pigs and cows, except that it's subsidized out the wazoo.
(Aside: subtherapeutic antibiotic use in farm animals as a means to make them grow faster is the worst fucking idea of all time, and fucking right it should be banned. But there's no chance in hell of that happening.)
If I have a conclusion, it's this: the American way of life is unsustainable (in the "killing the planet" sense). More people moving out into the far reaches, past the suburbs, in an effort to get "back to nature" or what have you, only hastens the day when oil runs out and increases greenhouse gases. We should be concentrating in cities of the European model (ie, with public transportation).