Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Does Urbanization Reduce Environmental Consciousness?

The world is urbanizing. I'm almost done writing a book on the environmental consequences of this trend. My "Green Cities" book explores whether urban growth mitigates or exacerbates local and global environmental indicators such as air pollution and greenhouse gas production.

I've thought about a variety of ways that urbanization affects the environment but today the New York Times has an article suggesting a pathway I hadn't thought about.

Dr. David Suzuki, a zoologist turned environmental activist, has this to say;
"Even though Canada has a lot of wilderness, 85 percent of us live in cities," he said. "We don't understand ecosystems."

He makes this point with anecdotes and examples anyone can understand. For example, he recalled, when he wanted to do a television program about air pollution, he waited for a smog alert day and took a film crew to a hospital emergency room. "It was packed with old people and children," he said. "What blew us away was how many of these people were being driven to the hospital in an S.U.V. Because they live in a shattered world, it never occurs to them that the way they live is creating the problem."

Dr. Suzuki said he used to urge people to think globally, act locally. "That was a mistake," he says today. "When people think globally, they feel helpless."

Instead, his Nature Challenge outlines 10 simple steps - like eating meatless meals one day a week or using nontoxic lawn products - and urges Canadians to commit to three of them."

IF I understand what Dr. Suzuki is saying he is suggesting that urbanites are "disconnected" from nature. This sounds like a testable proposition. My son and I enjoy watching his videos that show "where our food comes from". As a lifelong urbanite, this was news to me.

While Dr. Suzuki's general point has some merit to it, farmers are major polluters in the United States. Ample Nitrogen use, chemical fertilizer and disposing of animal waste. I have not seen an analysis of who has a larger day to day "ecological footprint"; the urbanite or the farmer?

7 comments :

elhuevon said...

As you probably know, those that live in dense EC cities with well-developed infrastructure have the smallest "ecological footprint" of any group of Americans. They use the least water, gas, and land on a per capita basis. I haven't seen estimates for total pollution (waste production), but I imagine that it is still lower on a per capita basis than either the farmers you mentioned or those that live in subarban and exurban rings...

hrh said...

I don't know that you're using the word "footprint" correctly. An "ecological footprint," as I understand it, takes into account the environmental impact of all of the activites that we pursue in a given day, including eating. Now, if we're thinking about who is the proximate cause of the pollution, I think your definition is correct: a secretary, bus driver, accountant, etc. cannot by virtue of his or her occupation generate as much pollution as a farmer. But each of those people eats - and so gets the end result of that "nitrogen... chemical fertilizer and [disposal] of animal waste." (Not so much chemical fertilizer if he eats only organic food). Isn't footprint accounting done at the end product, i.e. he who eats it? (Hence the urging people to give up meat one day of the week - less of a food footprint) But if your point is that farming uses a lot more chemicals than lawn maintenance, well, yeah, but I think that blaming the "footprints" of farmers for our collective "footprint" depends on an idiosyncratic definition of the word.

Dano said...

I'm confused over your argument, Matt.

What does farmer's nitrogen pollution have to do with the testability of urbanites' eco-consciousness? Anyway, there are many factors involved in your question: what kind of farming, what product, how far the product gets shipped (shifting markets make this factor tricky), yada.

Perhaps you can look at the Kaplans' 'nearby nature' and 'attention restoration theory' work to gain some insight for yourself as to whether urbanites are disconnected from nature, the original proposition.

Best,

D

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