To become a conservation-minded planet requires action on the societal scale, such as devising more sustainable patterns of settlement, but also calls for individual awareness of how daily actions impact the environment. While the rhetoric of green is with us, habits are slower to change, as are environmental insights beyond the sound bite.
For example, “Cities are less consumptive than suburbs” is a frequently invoked slogan against our sprawling instincts, but it may not be the best way to make individuals appreciate how their actions burden resources wherever they may live. Urban advocates are convinced that the carbon footprint of city dwellers, on average, is substantially lower per capita than that of suburbanites—Manhattanites presumably being better stewards of our environment than Long Islanders. Considerable research supports this, yet it remains counterintuitive to many people who, for example, see few lights on past midnight in their suburban subdivisions, while Manhattan glows all night long. And although people in the city no doubt buy fewer lawn mowers, it is not clear that individual city dwellers consume fewer material goods than others at similar economic levels living on the periphery of cities. Urban density is more efficient than sprawl, though at its extreme—say in the slums of Caracas or Mumbai— density is not an indicator of a high quality of life, despite vastly reduced carbon footprints.
Increasingly, we expect wise environmental stewardship from public and corporate leaders, yet we harbor varying intuitions when it comes to the consequences of specific habits and dwelling choices, not to mention hopes for technological ingenuity. Take Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s endeavor to build the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Its enormous cost is funded by selling more barrels of oil, whose consumers—mostly us—do not for the most part put it to carbon-neutral uses, an irony that tends to go unnoticed as we await Masdar’s completion. Small steps, which cumulatively would eliminate a large share of carbon emissions, are as necessary as grand urban ambitions.
It’s a good idea to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, and to turn off lights more frequently and turn them on more reluctantly. The upgrade to better bulbs was made possible by technological ingenuity, as industry devised more efficient lights. But turning these lights on and off more responsibly requires us to modify our habits. In combination, such a one-two punch of product innovation and awareness of use is essential for an ecologically minded future. By contrast is this not-uncommon logic: Purchase a more fuel-efficient vehicle and end up driving more miles, or at least drive as much as before, at less cost. A fuel-efficient vehicle (a social priority) that spends more time in the garage (an individual’s decision) would be better still for the environment, urban or suburban. Some intellectuals are ready to proclaim the gap between conservation and indulgence to be narrowing, and that environmental sustainability and material consumption are no longer at odds. The evidence for this is slim. Affluence still seems to produce an abundance of effluence. Can an affluent culture become less consumptive or learn to consume mostly “green” things? This is not a trivial question: More stuff generally requires more energy to produce, and in turn produces more waste. While society will mandate energy conservation and recycling innovations, reducing consumption at the household scale would be helpful, too. Again, greater reciprocity between individual action and cumulative societal impact would lead to more sustainable settlements.
To this end, individuals should be asking themselves questions such as: Does my morning’s extra-long hot shower have some relationship to ecological urbanism? One carbon footprint–lowering initiative for both city folks and suburbanites would be to shut off water heaters regularly. Consider the impact of 100 million American households, each maintaining 60 to 100 gallons (or more) of hot water constantly. How many of us even think of turning the switch off prior to a weekend escape?
Society will demand and produce more efficient water heaters; maybe those heaters will even turn themselves on and off. But quicker showers using less hot water on occasion would further help the environment. This is not a call for sloppier personal hygiene or for denying the pleasures of a hot shower. It is a reminder that individual decisions are as important to an ecological urbanism as greener master plans.