The Environment


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In 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book that first raised the alarm about widespread toxic chemicals in our water, she unwittingly launched the American environmental movement on a dangerous course. There is no way she could have known what would happen, but people didn't like to be told that their country was threatened from within. Americans had won World War II, repelling a terrible threat from abroad, and were keeping the Soviets at bay. They liked the new industrial economy that was bringing rising affluence, suburbs, and cars, and many didn't like to hear it disparaged.

The chemical industry took quick advantage, vilifying Carson. A pattern was established, one that would increasingly brand those who issued environmental warnings as troublemakers or spoilsports--or as anti-American. Even as environmental decline accelerated, the industries whose products were contributing most heavily to the decline were booming, enriching their managers and shareholders.

So it was that American kids of the late 20th century, taught by a generation that had enjoyed unprecedented income growth and material wealth, never got a chance to learn an essential truth about life: that the environment is not just a world of remote rain forests or endangered species unrelated to their interests in the latest music or clothes, but rather is the basis of all the material well-being with which they were growing up. In high school, very few got to learn that the hydrological cycle and carbon cycle are global processes without which there could be no soccer, sex, or rock and roll . . . or great books, friendships, or plans. A survey taken at the end of the century found that the average American could identify more than 1,000 corporate logos or brands, but knew only 10 species of plants. Kids grew up in the 1980s and 90s far more knowledgeable about products than about life.

During those years, leading scientists tried to get the public's attention, but their message--that something had gone dangerously wrong with the American dream--went unheard. Like Rachel Carson before them, they grew increasingly concerned about what they perceived to be a massive denial.

In 1992, a gathering of 1,670 of the world's most accomplished scientists issued an extraordinary document, the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity. It summarized the ways in which the fast-growing human population and its expanding industries are destabilizing the Earth's life systems, and it concluded, 'Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.' The warning was signed by 104 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences--a majority of all those living. Yet most Americans never heard about it.

Three years later, climate scientists from around the globe issued a warning that greenhouse gases generated by the growing number of cars, furnaces, forest fires, and coal-fired power plants appeared to be causing a rise in the Earth's temperature that could act like a planetary fever--melting polar ice, bringing more frequent and more destructive weather disasters, precipitating massive flooding of coastal cities, causing crop-killing droughts, and disrupting ecosystems everywhere. These warnings, too, were vilified by business and political leaders and largely ignored by the media, which, by then, were not only caught up in the economic euphoria of the time but were financially dependent on the commercial advertising of the very industries whose products the scientists implicated in global climate change.

By the late 1990s, environmental organizations were aware of a disturbing truth: The harder they worked at warning the public, the more persistent the destructive trends seemed to be. By the end of the century, the number of environmental organizations in the country had climbed into the thousands, and they had achieved thousands of legislative and regulatory victories. Yet the membership of these organizations constituted only a small minority of the American population, and meanwhile, all the major environmental trends--habitat destruction, global warming, biodiversity loss, and groundwater pollution--were continuing to run in the wrong direction. While the U.S. Clean Air Act succeeded in reducing smog over cities like Los Angeles, for example, the most destructive air pollution problem--the concentration of climate-altering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere--got steadily worse. Denis Hayes, who had founded Earth Day in 1970, asked at one point, 'How can we have won so many battles, yet be so close to losing the war?'Bringing Concerns Home

As the 20th century came to an end, those of us who have been laboring for environmental causes began to understand that we would have to find a very different way to reach the hearts of our fellow citizens. It was painful to admit that our efforts had failed. Those of us who had tried to warn that continued ecological decline could dangerously destabilize the world were labeled as prophets of gloom and doom, and the label stuck. We could not get rid of it. But then we began to realize what, in retrospect, we should have seen much earlier. Like many epiphanies, it is a simple truth: In a world that has been wracked by fear--of nuclear war, AIDS, anarchy, gunfire in schools--the way to move people to action is not to give them something more to fear, but to give them something to embrace.

As the new century dawns, there are unmistakable signs that this has begun to happen. Suddenly, we have the makings of a powerful new strategy for transforming public consciousness. The new strategy begins with a focus on where people live--their homes. This, in itself, is a departure because to the extent that environmentalists have tried to appeal to people's positive impulses in the past, they have talked of pristine rain forests, coral reefs, and wild rivers--places far outside most people's day-to-day experience. Anyone who is immersed in the stressful routines of domestic arguments, screaming kids, demanding supervisors, defective products, computer viruses, road rage, and too much TV violence might well wonder: What does a threatened rain forest or coral reef have to do with me? Why should I make sacrifices for those, when I have to deal with all this?

What environmental educators will eventually need to emphasize is that the deteriorating condition of the living planet has everything to do with the rising stress of everyday life because they're both being driven by the same phalanx of forces. The growing dominance of large global corporations that drives the deforestation of Malaysia to provide export income for Malaysia's ruling class while supplying cheap lumber for Japan's consumer class, for example, also provides the cheap gasoline from Venezuela or Nigeria that drives the expansion of U.S. suburbs and the rising stress caused by traffic congestion and lost time. But this is all terribly, fatiguingly complicated.

So it makes sense, for now, to expend less effort on warning of those distant phenomena that in the past few years have driven half a billion people from their homes in far-off places. Those phenomena may account for much of the anxiety we feel in our homes, but the connections are too circuitous to be explained in any way that can compete with the nightly news flashes about the latest celebrity scandals and plane crashes. Instead, the goal should be simply to show, by example, how satisfyingly different everyday life can be when it is reconnected to the life of the planet from which our homes, not to mention our families and ourselves, are made.

To begin, we can show that a good home is not just a box and a good neighborhood is not just rows of boxes connected by strips of pavement. A good home is an extension of the people who live in it. If it is identical to all the others on its street, glutted with mass-produced furnishings and wired to consume large amounts of electricity without the occupants having a clue about how that electricity was made--well, that house is quite a lot like a person who consumes large amounts of junk food without having the slightest curiosity about their ingredients. If the house is built according to a developer's plan that makes no accommodation for local topography, flora, soil, sunlight, climate, and culture, it reflects an apparent willingness by the inhabitants to exist disconnected from whatever lies outside their door.

Around the country, however, there are now scattered enclaves of homes that have been built with great attentiveness to their relationships with the world around them. Many use the energy of their immediate environment--wind or sun--to provide heat, cooling, and light, with as little dependence as possible on fuels that have been extracted by some environmentally invasive oil-drilling or coal-digging operation. These houses are built largely of local materials such as stone, adobe, or sustainably harvested wood. They are free of toxic glues, paints, and carpet fabrics. They make ample use of natural shade from trees or low-powered fans rather than energy-intensive air conditioning. They are equipped to conserve water and recycle waste. They are architecturally pleasing, often individually designed to suit the personalities and lift the spirits of their occupants.

Relatively few Americans live in such places today, but those who do have generally found their lives changed. Living in a place that allows its occupants to be more conscious of the functions of rain, sunlight, and photosynthesis--of the great hydrological and carbon cycles of which both the house and the people who live in it are part--has a far more uplifting effect on environmental resolve than reading about new amendments to the Clean Water Act.

As more ecologically distinctive homes are built, they will generate ripple effects in public consciousness in a way the hardest-won legislative changes rarely do. It is those ripples, spreading across the economy, that will create a sea change in our patterns of behavior and thought. As homes change, so will neighborhoods. Those changes in turn will start a cascade of changes in the industries that build and fuel the American infrastructure, and as that happens, new kinds of employment and a new sense of purpose and spirit will emerge. Here is how it can work.

A New Form of Community

The first ripple effects of the new ecological houses or apartment buildings are their effects on the surrounding neighborhoods. People who want their homes to be in harmony with their surroundings tend to build or renovate in places where others of similar inclinations are doing the same. As clusters of such homes are established, whole neighborhoods appear and more are planned.Implicit in this clustering is an understanding that ecology cannot exist without community because no person or thing can live long in isolation. In Littleton, Colorado, for example, there is a neighborhood quite different from the one that was home to the two teenagers who massacred their high school classmates in 1999.

The area where the two alienated boys resided was described by Louis Polycarpou, a graduate of Columbine High School (where the killings occurred), in the Washington Post.. What impelled him to write, he said, was hearing all the news reports about how the massacre had devastated 'the community,' and how 'the community' would pull together in its grief. He was struck, he wrote, because this was 'not a community.' It was a place where expensive new houses had been built on the edge of a prairie and then occupied by people who had come from other places and knew nothing about either the prairie or the people who lived next to them.

Yet, not far from that neighborhood is the neighborhood of Highline Crossing, where houses are not isolated from each other but gathered in congenial clusters around common parklike areas (in lieu of separate front yards) and a common house for periodic shared meals and other community events. That kind of interactive arrangement offers a much greater opportunity for social and environmental connection than the tract of isolated houses where the two teenagers lived--and then ended--their lives of quiet desperation.

Ecologically designed neighborhoods are typically arranged in such space-efficient clusters, sharing communal playgrounds, gardens, ponds, toolsheds, and meeting places as well as green space. Moreover, the land use has been carefully planned so that motor vehicles have only limited access and are never allowed to dominate. In some of these communities, homes, workplaces, schools, parks, and shopping are all within walking or bicycling distance or within easy reach by public transit. For the growing number of Americans who will live in such places in the coming years, auto commuting will be unnecessary or infrequent. For the occasional times cars are needed, car-sharing systems will be available. Instead of one car for every two people (the U.S. ratio in 2000), we will be able to get along quite happily with one car--most likely a silent electric one--for every 10 households or so.

Imagine the reactions of the growing numbers of Americans who will have occasion to visit such neighborhoods in the coming years. They will notice that homes built with natural materials are quite pleasing, in a way that structures made of synthetic materials rarely are. If electricity is provided by solar or wind power and in-village transportation is provided mainly by human legs, it will be surprisingly quiet in the neighborhood--no heat-pump motors disturbing the peace, no whining leaf blowers or revving SUVs. The air in the houses will be surprisingly fresh because there will be no particle-board floors or petrochemical carpets emitting toxic fumes into the rooms. Because shade trees will be abundant, windows will be left open whenever the weather is temperate. No tailpipe fumes will drift in.

Because ecologically efficient neighborhoods are designed to minimize travel distances, people will do more walking or bicycling than they did where they lived before, and therefore they will be more physically fit. With more people moving between home, work, and school on foot, more spontaneous exchanges will take place and more people will strike up friendships with neighbors. As a result, there will be more sharing of tasks--watching the kids, running errands, fixing things, dealing with crises. Less will be done by service people, more by the people next door. And less money will be spent on stuff that just sits in the garage or closet. In one of these new communities, 10 houses may share one push lawnmower. It won't be needed much, because most of the neighborhood will be landscaped with native plants and some of the land will be left wild.

Visitors will be impressed with how relaxed life is in this place. That's not to say that it will be utopian or without tension and conflicts. Globally, the 21st century will likely be a time of enormous tensions. But here, with much of the noise, pollution, clutter, hazard, haste, and road rage removed, life will be noticeably different than elsewhere. People will be less numb. They will be more conscious of their bodies, their houses, and their physical and social surroundings.

So the first step in transforming consciousness is accomplished in a very simple way. It's not necessary for people to be hooked by a passion for exotic rain forests, tigers, or whales. If you simply care about whether you feel in harmony with your home, the essential connection has been made.

The psychological effect of this strategy is to activate a latent yearning for community. The economic effect is to create a market for the satisfaction of that yearning. Visitors will realize that they, too, want to live in a place like this. Suddenly, they will see a way out of their alienation. It's an alienation that has been variously attributed to the blights of suburban homogeneity, media violence, parental permissiveness, broken homes, or the spread of big-box stores. But what all these add up to is a loss of community. And what that almost always entails is a loss of connection with the living environment--a sense of place--on which all community depends. As the word spreads about places like this, their real estate values will rise and the whole economy will begin a tectonic shift.

New Forms of Power

The second ripple effect takes place in the energy and transportation economy. As the value of compact, green, car-free neighborhoods increases, the value of more highway-dominated, chain-store-riddled areas will decline. The demand for oil--for asphalt, gasoline, lawn chemicals, cosmetics--will also decline. The great oil companies of the 20th century will face a momentous choice in the 21st: either slide into decline or metamorphose into renewable-energy companies. Car makers, after decades of stubborn resistance, will finally retire the internal combustion engine in favor of fume-free, silent electric cars and scooters made entirely of recyclable parts, and many people will stop driving cars altogether or drive only for occasional outings. Most parks and wilderness areas will be closed to motor vehicles.

New Sources of Food

The third ripple will transform the great industries of agriculture and food. The demand for oil as an input to agriculture, too, will decline as the market for organic, non-genetically engineered produce takes over and the use of pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizer wanes. Farmland, experiencing a renaissance, will no longer be marginalized in the American mind as physically dusty, socially backward, biologically homogenous, and monotonous. A farm will become a place of rich diversity--of vegetables, fruits, grains, small herds of sheep or goats, fishponds, patches of forest and wetland and meadow that provide habitat for wild pollinators, soil microbes, and songbirds. This transformation will come about in part because agricultural experts will find that vast expanses of a single crop are too vulnerable to disease in a world where genetic and species diversity are in free fall. But it also will come about because on farms, as in urban communities, people will find variety more attractive than sameness.

So farms will shuck their hayseed stigmata and lose the deadly sameness that impelled so many of their restless young to drift off to the cities. Farms come to be seen as exciting new frontiers of discovery about the coexistence of Earth's wild and cultivated life--a coexistence at the root of civilization and critical to human survival. Farmers will no longer just produce food or fiber; they will conduct botanical and biodiversity studies, set up seed banks, and raise their children in places where kids can listen to bullfrogs and catch lightning bugs. On farms, as in towns, it is the pleasures of a variegated and unpolluted environment, rather than the fears of a ruined one, that get people to embrace life rather than shut it out.

New Attitudes about Consumption

Perhaps the most important ripple is the one that affects personal consumption, which ultimately determines what kinds of industries we will have and what their impact on the environment will be. The new communities will help people achieve a heightened sense of their biological origins and interdependencies by providing a less compartmentalized and mediated kind of daily routine. There will be less need to live your life in vinyl-lined or wallboard boxes, moving from box to box--from apartment to car, car to elevator, and so on.

This liberation, in turn, will help break down the artificial mental compartmentalization of modern life, in which the car salesman knows nothing about the effects of greenhouse gases on climate even though his product is a major producer of those gases, because his department is sales, not climate. (In a Dilbert cartoon strip, America's favorite lower-middle manager, Dilbert, complains to a colleague, 'This product would melt the polar ice caps and doom humanity.' She replies, 'That's okay.' He says, 'You're part of humanity.' She replies, 'No, I'm in marketing.')

With people getting more oxygen into their brains and clearer light to see by, life becomes less fragmented and discouraging, more hopeful and whole. As preoccupation with shopping and consuming recedes, the American mind will open to other values. By the second or third decade of the century, we will fully embrace the idea that the environment is our greatest earthly asset--and is indispensable to all our other assets.

Making the Ripples Real

For those who have watched the relentless bulldozing, burning, paving, and polluting of our planet with growing distress, it is reasonable to question whether this ripple-effect strategy is anything more than an idealist's dream. But, in fact, those ripples are already well underway--in the United States and in many of the other countries that have long looked to us as a country of great innovation and imagination. More than 200 ecologically designed cohousing communities have been built or are under construction in the United States. They are just one manifestation of a much larger emerging 'new urbanism' movement, which has brought renewed emphasis to designing neighborhoods that are responsive to the needs of local people and their living environment rather than to the escalating demands of global commerce. In the energy field, the wind turbine industry is now growing even faster than the personal computer industry. In agriculture, writers such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder are leading a vigorous movement to turn back the ecological ravages of multinational industrial agriculture, and to bring new vitality to the culture of locally managed, ecologically conscious stewardship--and they are succeeding. Organic produce has become the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the world. Green building is booming. The ripples are increasing and the signs are now unmistakable: A sea change is coming.Ed Ayres is editor of World Watch magazine and author of God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future.