To be an Environmentalist, You Need to Understand What Helps the Environment

I’d been putting this off for a while now, but I finally finished Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and I just wanted to say a couple of things. Now, book reviews aren’t really my forte so I don’t want to say a whole lot about the book—you should read it instead!—besides that it’s really good and brings to a brighter light a lot of important questions and prescriptions regarding urban public policy at a time when the populations of the world are undergoing some fairly radical shifts in terms of geographic distribution.

If I could boil the book down to its most important takeaway, it’s this: per capita carbon-dioxide emissions are negatively correlated with density, so keeping in mind that continued improvements in standards of living throughout the world are very likely, living in incredibly big cities is the most environmentally friendly thing we can do.

An interesting thing about this is that it’s always understood either as the most obvious or most wrongheaded thing you could say from an environmental standpoint. That is to say there is a lot of wrong and bad environmentalism out there. A prime example being the opposition to denser development and barriers to new construction in some of our most productive metro areas in the country—basically a lot of terribly unjustified NIMBYism. Another being the Thoreausian view of surrounding yourself with nature, living in vast, horizontally dispersed arrangements—this being something that we actively promote through numerous policies.

As for the former: when it’s overly difficult to build new housing in an area (which could include any number of zoning regulations, overly liberal preservation regimes, or simply riling up the neighbors for whatever reason) the demand for that housing doesn’t just go away. And that’s important to remember when you’re someone living in, say, Santa Clara County, who considers themselves environmentally conscious and raises hell when some developer tries to build some townhouses or condos nearby. The people who would have loved to live in those units now have to live in some place where the climate isn’t as conducive to low-carbon living. These people will need to run the AC in the summer and the heat in the winter and drive their cars to work instead of riding public transit, emitting loads more carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere doing so. It’s not just Santa Clara either, where the supply and demand for housing is so stunted that the median home price is close to $800,000; it’s innumerable cities that many people want to live in but are unable to because they’re priced out by lack of supply.

All that being said, we have a long way to go and a lot of hurdles to clear in order to make environmentally friendly living more accessible. But we need to get make it so because, as Glaeser points out, it’s going to be rather difficult to persuade newly middle-class Indians and Chinese that they should live in a socially responsible way and not foolishly sprawl while we are still doing it. And it’s imperative that they do this the right way because global emissions of greenhouse gases are going to skyrocket if not. 

The short version of all this is that the fight to get people to realize that there is such a thing as a natural environment that should be protected has, for the most part, been won in the United States. Now it’s time to expend resources on selecting the ideas and policies that actually provide environmentally beneficial outcomes in the aggregate. The way we arrange ourselves spatially is going to continue playing a large role in that discussion.

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