The Durning Point

For urban ecologist Alan Durning, pavement is as important as parkland


| July-August 1996



Not long ago, ecologist Alan Durning and his Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch (NEW) released a study that showed that people who move to the suburbs in search of safety are actually in more danger of death or injury from traffic accidents, thanks to increased commuting, than they were from the inner-city crime they had fled.

For Durning, this is a profoundly ecological point. Unlike wilderness-only environmentalists, he believes that it’s just good sense to consider cities and their suburbs part of the sense of place that underlies ecological awareness. Of course, NEW, which Durning founded in 1993, looks beyond Seattle and its suburbs to the entire bioregion, from Northern California to southeast Alaska, working the local angle in international environmental issues. Its painstakingly researched reports—like last year’s analysis of the Northwest’s contribution to global warming—show area residents and lawmakers the interplay between global and regional ecology.

Tall, thin, with clean-cut hair and a startlingly boyish face, the 31-year-old Durning looks too young to be a think-tank director and author of three books—including This Place on Earth (which will appear in October ‘96). Yet from his first days as a Worldwatch researcher in 1986, Durning has demonstrated a gift for taking the long view of important environmental issues. Says Denis Hayes, co-founder of Earth Day: “Alan identifies problems when they’re still small dots on the horizon, rather than locomotives 100 feet away.”

Durning’s first book, How Much Is Enough? (W.W. Norton, 1992), a well-reasoned critique of the cult of consumption published on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, struck a chord with activists and mainstream readers. The book was translated into seven languages, and Durning soon found himself a regular guest on talk shows and the global lecture circuit. Yet something was missing. Intellectually, Durning was increasingly dissatisfied with the environmental movement’s virtual dismissal of the urban environment. He also discovered that being a globe-trotting ecological evangelist began to wear thin. On a lecture trip to the Netherlands in 1993, Durning says he realized that he was tired of “constantly telling people in other cultures what was ‘wrong’ with their society and government. I felt an almost visceral need to feel like I was part of what I was working on.”

So Durning came home. In 1993 he, his wife, Amy, and their three children moved back to his hometown of Seattle, where he founded NEW. Since then, he and a small paid staff and volunteers have been documenting the cost of doing business as usual and offering governments, citizens, and businesses “catalytic” alternatives. NEW’s proposals range from the ambitious—replacing the sales tax with a “carbon tax”—to the provocatively simple: reconnecting individuals to the community by building front porches. But the dominant theme is the development of an urban ecology. “Deep ecologists like Wendell Berry write beautifully about ‘place,’ and about how, if we can reconnect to a particular place, we can regain an immediate sense of responsibility for our natural environment,” Durning says. “But they’re always writing about rural or wilderness areas. Most people are in cities and suburbs. So what does ‘place’ mean for us?”