In 2004 David Owen wrote an article for the New Yorker called "Green Manhattan" that remains, along with Ian Frazier's first excerpt from Great Plains and Anthony Lane's review of Showgirls, one of the pieces I remember best from that magazine, both for its style and its "Oh my god, of course!" contrarian punch. The article began:
My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day.
The utopian community was Manhattan.
Owen's new book, Green Metropolis, begins, a few slight edits aside, in the very same way, and in both the article and the book he goes on to expand on the point, with devastating glee, that the ideal environmental community is not a rural enclave outfitted with solar panels and a half-acre garden but the dirty, crowded, masterfully efficient metropolis of New York City, in which the only time you see green is when you're following the signs to the 4, 5, or 6 subway lines. The comparative statistics are stunning (bucolic Vermonters, for instance, use three and a half times the gas and four times the electricity of New Yorkers), and easy to comprehend once you think about them. Not only don't Manhattanites drive (they consume gasoline at a rate last seen in the rest of the country in the mid-1920s), they live in small spaces, which encourages them to keep and consume less, they don't have lawns, which means they use less water and pesticide, they rely on the most efficient mechanized transportation system known to mankind (the elevator), and instead of letting heat escape through their roofs and walls, they share it with the neighbors who crowd around them.
Sprawl is the enemy, and Owen argues that it's driven as much by a desire for the standard "green" vision of a proximity to nature and a distance from other people: "Sprawl," he quotes one environmentalist as saying, "is created by people escaping sprawl." None other than Thoreau, he argues, helped set this "American pattern for creeping residential development," and Jefferson was
the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational home improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello.
Owen has relatively few solutions in mind--he's doomful about our oil supplies and caustically skeptical about the prospects for alternative fuels, and his main antidote to sprawl and energy consumption is, with little exaggeration, to make driving more irritating. And he admits with cheerful but still somehow depressing honesty that he's part of the problem too: he and his family moved out to rural Connecticut years ago, and he knows how appealing the countryside ideal is. But what's most heartening about the book is that while many proposed environmental solutions involve either mild, incremental steps that can't possibly thwart such a massive threat or drastic societal transformations that seem impossible to achieve, Owen's proposal is actually standing right in front of us, a century-old utopian experiment lived by millions of Americans each day: "be more like Manhattan." --Tom