The Environment

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.

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