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    The Environment

    In 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the
    book that first raised the alarm about widespread toxic chemicals
    in our water, she unwittingly launched the American environmental
    movement on a dangerous course. There is no way she could have
    known what would happen, but people didn’t like to be told that
    their country was threatened from within. Americans had won World
    War II, repelling a terrible threat from abroad, and were keeping
    the Soviets at bay. They liked the new industrial economy that was
    bringing rising affluence, suburbs, and cars, and many didn’t like
    to hear it disparaged.

    The chemical industry took quick advantage, vilifying Carson. A
    pattern was established, one that would increasingly brand those
    who issued environmental warnings as troublemakers or
    spoilsports–or as anti-American. Even as environmental decline
    accelerated, the industries whose products were contributing most
    heavily to the decline were booming, enriching their managers and

    So it was that American kids of the late 20th century, taught by a
    generation that had enjoyed unprecedented income growth and
    material wealth, never got a chance to learn an essential truth
    about life: that the environment is not just a world of remote rain
    forests or endangered species unrelated to their interests in the
    latest music or clothes, but rather is the basis of all the
    material well-being with which they were growing up. In high
    school, very few got to learn that the hydrological cycle and
    carbon cycle are global processes without which there could be no
    soccer, sex, or rock and roll . . . or great books, friendships, or
    plans. A survey taken at the end of the century found that the
    average American could identify more than 1,000 corporate logos or
    brands, but knew only 10 species of plants. Kids grew up in the
    1980s and 90s far more knowledgeable about products than about

    During those years, leading scientists tried to get the public’s
    attention, but their message–that something had gone dangerously
    wrong with the American dream–went unheard. Like Rachel Carson
    before them, they grew increasingly concerned about what they
    perceived to be a massive denial.

    In 1992, a gathering of 1,670 of the world’s most accomplished
    scientists issued an extraordinary document, the World
    Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.
    It summarized the ways in
    which the fast-growing human population and its expanding
    industries are destabilizing the Earth’s life systems, and it
    concluded, ‘Human beings and the natural world are on a collision
    course.’ The warning was signed by 104 Nobel Prize winners in the
    sciences–a majority of all those living. Yet most Americans never
    heard about it.

    Three years later, climate scientists from around the globe issued
    a warning that greenhouse gases generated by the growing number of
    cars, furnaces, forest fires, and coal-fired power plants appeared
    to be causing a rise in the Earth’s temperature that could act like
    a planetary fever–melting polar ice, bringing more frequent and
    more destructive weather disasters, precipitating massive flooding
    of coastal cities, causing crop-killing droughts, and disrupting
    ecosystems everywhere. These warnings, too, were vilified by
    business and political leaders and largely ignored by the media,
    which, by then, were not only caught up in the economic euphoria of
    the time but were financially dependent on the commercial
    advertising of the very industries whose products the scientists
    implicated in global climate change.

    By the late 1990s, environmental organizations were aware of a
    disturbing truth: The harder they worked at warning the public, the
    more persistent the destructive trends seemed to be. By the end of
    the century, the number of environmental organizations in the
    country had climbed into the thousands, and they had achieved
    thousands of legislative and regulatory victories. Yet the
    membership of these organizations constituted only a small minority
    of the American population, and meanwhile, all the major
    environmental trends–habitat destruction, global warming,
    biodiversity loss, and groundwater pollution–were continuing to
    run in the wrong direction. While the U.S. Clean Air Act succeeded
    in reducing smog over cities like Los Angeles, for example, the
    most destructive air pollution problem–the concentration of
    climate-altering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the
    atmosphere–got steadily worse. Denis Hayes, who had founded Earth
    Day in 1970, asked at one point, ‘How can we have won so many
    battles, yet be so close to losing the war?’Bringing Concerns

    As the 20th century came to an end, those of us who have been
    laboring for environmental causes began to understand that we would
    have to find a very different way to reach the hearts of our fellow
    citizens. It was painful to admit that our efforts had failed.
    Those of us who had tried to warn that continued ecological decline
    could dangerously destabilize the world were labeled as prophets of
    gloom and doom, and the label stuck. We could not get rid of it.
    But then we began to realize what, in retrospect, we should have
    seen much earlier. Like many epiphanies, it is a simple truth: In a
    world that has been wracked by fear–of nuclear war, AIDS, anarchy,
    gunfire in schools–the way to move people to action is not to give
    them something more to fear, but to give them something to

    As the new century dawns, there are unmistakable signs that this
    has begun to happen. Suddenly, we have the makings of a powerful
    new strategy for transforming public consciousness. The new
    strategy begins with a focus on where people live–their homes.
    This, in itself, is a departure because to the extent that
    environmentalists have tried to appeal to people’s positive
    impulses in the past, they have talked of pristine rain forests,
    coral reefs, and wild rivers–places far outside most people’s
    day-to-day experience. Anyone who is immersed in the stressful
    routines of domestic arguments, screaming kids, demanding
    supervisors, defective products, computer viruses, road rage, and
    too much TV violence might well wonder: What does a threatened rain
    forest or coral reef have to do with me? Why should I make
    sacrifices for those, when I have to deal with all this?

    What environmental educators will eventually need to emphasize is
    that the deteriorating condition of the living planet has
    everything to do with the rising stress of everyday life because
    they’re both being driven by the same phalanx of forces. The
    growing dominance of large global corporations that drives the
    deforestation of Malaysia to provide export income for Malaysia’s
    ruling class while supplying cheap lumber for Japan’s consumer
    class, for example, also provides the cheap gasoline from Venezuela
    or Nigeria that drives the expansion of U.S. suburbs and the rising
    stress caused by traffic congestion and lost time. But this is all
    terribly, fatiguingly complicated.

    So it makes sense, for now, to expend less effort on warning of
    those distant phenomena that in the past few years have driven half
    a billion people from their homes in far-off places. Those
    phenomena may account for much of the anxiety we feel in our homes,
    but the connections are too circuitous to be explained in any way
    that can compete with the nightly news flashes about the latest
    celebrity scandals and plane crashes. Instead, the goal should be
    simply to show, by example, how satisfyingly different everyday
    life can be when it is reconnected to the life of the planet from
    which our homes, not to mention our families and ourselves, are

    To begin, we can show that a good home is not just a box and a good
    neighborhood is not just rows of boxes connected by strips of
    pavement. A good home is an extension of the people who live in it.
    If it is identical to all the others on its street, glutted with
    mass-produced furnishings and wired to consume large amounts of
    electricity without the occupants having a clue about how that
    electricity was made–well, that house is quite a lot like a person
    who consumes large amounts of junk food without having the
    slightest curiosity about their ingredients. If the house is built
    according to a developer’s plan that makes no accommodation for
    local topography, flora, soil, sunlight, climate, and culture, it
    reflects an apparent willingness by the inhabitants to exist
    disconnected from whatever lies outside their door.

    Around the country, however, there are now scattered enclaves of
    homes that have been built with great attentiveness to their
    relationships with the world around them. Many use the energy of
    their immediate environment–wind or sun–to provide heat, cooling,
    and light, with as little dependence as possible on fuels that have
    been extracted by some environmentally invasive oil-drilling or
    coal-digging operation. These houses are built largely of local
    materials such as stone, adobe, or sustainably harvested wood. They
    are free of toxic glues, paints, and carpet fabrics. They make
    ample use of natural shade from trees or low-powered fans rather
    than energy-intensive air conditioning. They are equipped to
    conserve water and recycle waste. They are architecturally
    pleasing, often individually designed to suit the personalities and
    lift the spirits of their occupants.

    Relatively few Americans live in such places today, but those who
    do have generally found their lives changed. Living in a place that
    allows its occupants to be more conscious of the functions of rain,
    sunlight, and photosynthesis–of the great hydrological and carbon
    cycles of which both the house and the people who live in it are
    part–has a far more uplifting effect on environmental resolve than
    reading about new amendments to the Clean Water Act.

    As more ecologically distinctive homes are built, they will
    generate ripple effects in public consciousness in a way the
    hardest-won legislative changes rarely do. It is those ripples,
    spreading across the economy, that will create a sea change in our
    patterns of behavior and thought. As homes change, so will
    neighborhoods. Those changes in turn will start a cascade of
    changes in the industries that build and fuel the American
    infrastructure, and as that happens, new kinds of employment and a
    new sense of purpose and spirit will emerge. Here is how it can

    A New Form of Community

    The first ripple effects of the new ecological houses or apartment
    buildings are their effects on the surrounding neighborhoods.
    People who want their homes to be in harmony with their
    surroundings tend to build or renovate in places where others of
    similar inclinations are doing the same. As clusters of such homes
    are established, whole neighborhoods appear and more are
    planned.Implicit in this clustering is an understanding that
    ecology cannot exist without community because no person or thing
    can live long in isolation. In Littleton, Colorado, for example,
    there is a neighborhood quite different from the one that was home
    to the two teenagers who massacred their high school classmates in

    The area where the two alienated boys resided was described by
    Louis Polycarpou, a graduate of Columbine High School (where the
    killings occurred), in the Washington Post.. What impelled
    him to write, he said, was hearing all the news reports about how
    the massacre had devastated ‘the community,’ and how ‘the
    community’ would pull together in its grief. He was struck, he
    wrote, because this was ‘not a community.’ It was a place where
    expensive new houses had been built on the edge of a prairie and
    then occupied by people who had come from other places and knew
    nothing about either the prairie or the people who lived next to

    Yet, not far from that neighborhood is the neighborhood of Highline
    Crossing, where houses are not isolated from each other but
    gathered in congenial clusters around common parklike areas (in
    lieu of separate front yards) and a common house for periodic
    shared meals and other community events. That kind of interactive
    arrangement offers a much greater opportunity for social and
    environmental connection than the tract of isolated houses where
    the two teenagers lived–and then ended–their lives of quiet

    Ecologically designed neighborhoods are typically arranged in such
    space-efficient clusters, sharing communal playgrounds, gardens,
    ponds, toolsheds, and meeting places as well as green space.
    Moreover, the land use has been carefully planned so that motor
    vehicles have only limited access and are never allowed to
    dominate. In some of these communities, homes, workplaces, schools,
    parks, and shopping are all within walking or bicycling distance or
    within easy reach by public transit. For the growing number of
    Americans who will live in such places in the coming years, auto
    commuting will be unnecessary or infrequent. For the occasional
    times cars are needed, car-sharing systems will be available.
    Instead of one car for every two people (the U.S. ratio in 2000),
    we will be able to get along quite happily with one car–most
    likely a silent electric one–for every 10 households or so.

    Imagine the reactions of the growing numbers of Americans who will
    have occasion to visit such neighborhoods in the coming years. They
    will notice that homes built with natural materials are quite
    pleasing, in a way that structures made of synthetic materials
    rarely are. If electricity is provided by solar or wind power and
    in-village transportation is provided mainly by human legs, it will
    be surprisingly quiet in the neighborhood–no heat-pump motors
    disturbing the peace, no whining leaf blowers or revving SUVs. The
    air in the houses will be surprisingly fresh because there will be
    no particle-board floors or petrochemical carpets emitting toxic
    fumes into the rooms. Because shade trees will be abundant, windows
    will be left open whenever the weather is temperate. No tailpipe
    fumes will drift in.

    Because ecologically efficient neighborhoods are designed to
    minimize travel distances, people will do more walking or bicycling
    than they did where they lived before, and therefore they will be
    more physically fit. With more people moving between home, work,
    and school on foot, more spontaneous exchanges will take place and
    more people will strike up friendships with neighbors. As a result,
    there will be more sharing of tasks–watching the kids, running
    errands, fixing things, dealing with crises. Less will be done by
    service people, more by the people next door. And less money will
    be spent on stuff that just sits in the garage or closet. In one of
    these new communities, 10 houses may share one push lawnmower. It
    won’t be needed much, because most of the neighborhood will be
    landscaped with native plants and some of the land will be left

    Visitors will be impressed with how relaxed life is in this place.
    That’s not to say that it will be utopian or without tension and
    conflicts. Globally, the 21st century will likely be a time of
    enormous tensions. But here, with much of the noise, pollution,
    clutter, hazard, haste, and road rage removed, life will be
    noticeably different than elsewhere. People will be less numb. They
    will be more conscious of their bodies, their houses, and their
    physical and social surroundings.

    So the first step in transforming consciousness is accomplished in
    a very simple way. It’s not necessary for people to be hooked by a
    passion for exotic rain forests, tigers, or whales. If you simply
    care about whether you feel in harmony with your home, the
    essential connection has been made.

    The psychological effect of this strategy is to activate a latent
    yearning for community. The economic effect is to create a market
    for the satisfaction of that yearning. Visitors will realize that
    they, too, want to live in a place like this. Suddenly, they will
    see a way out of their alienation. It’s an alienation that has been
    variously attributed to the blights of suburban homogeneity, media
    violence, parental permissiveness, broken homes, or the spread of
    big-box stores. But what all these add up to is a loss of
    community. And what that almost always entails is a loss of
    connection with the living environment–a sense of place–on which
    all community depends. As the word spreads about places like this,
    their real estate values will rise and the whole economy will begin
    a tectonic shift.

    New Forms of Power

    The second ripple effect takes place in the energy and
    transportation economy. As the value of compact, green, car-free
    neighborhoods increases, the value of more highway-dominated,
    chain-store-riddled areas will decline. The demand for oil–for
    asphalt, gasoline, lawn chemicals, cosmetics–will also decline.
    The great oil companies of the 20th century will face a momentous
    choice in the 21st: either slide into decline or metamorphose into
    renewable-energy companies. Car makers, after decades of stubborn
    resistance, will finally retire the internal combustion engine in
    favor of fume-free, silent electric cars and scooters made entirely
    of recyclable parts, and many people will stop driving cars
    altogether or drive only for occasional outings. Most parks and
    wilderness areas will be closed to motor vehicles.

    New Sources of Food

    The third ripple will transform the great industries of agriculture
    and food. The demand for oil as an input to agriculture, too, will
    decline as the market for organic, non-genetically engineered
    produce takes over and the use of pesticides and petroleum-based
    fertilizer wanes. Farmland, experiencing a renaissance, will no
    longer be marginalized in the American mind as physically dusty,
    socially backward, biologically homogenous, and monotonous. A farm
    will become a place of rich diversity–of vegetables, fruits,
    grains, small herds of sheep or goats, fishponds, patches of forest
    and wetland and meadow that provide habitat for wild pollinators,
    soil microbes, and songbirds. This transformation will come about
    in part because agricultural experts will find that vast expanses
    of a single crop are too vulnerable to disease in a world where
    genetic and species diversity are in free fall. But it also will
    come about because on farms, as in urban communities, people will
    find variety more attractive than sameness.

    So farms will shuck their hayseed stigmata and lose the deadly
    sameness that impelled so many of their restless young to drift off
    to the cities. Farms come to be seen as exciting new frontiers of
    discovery about the coexistence of Earth’s wild and cultivated
    life–a coexistence at the root of civilization and critical to
    human survival. Farmers will no longer just produce food or fiber;
    they will conduct botanical and biodiversity studies, set up seed
    banks, and raise their children in places where kids can listen to
    bullfrogs and catch lightning bugs. On farms, as in towns, it is
    the pleasures of a variegated and unpolluted environment, rather
    than the fears of a ruined one, that get people to embrace life
    rather than shut it out.

    New Attitudes about Consumption

    Perhaps the most important ripple is the one that affects personal
    consumption, which ultimately determines what kinds of industries
    we will have and what their impact on the environment will be. The
    new communities will help people achieve a heightened sense of
    their biological origins and interdependencies by providing a less
    compartmentalized and mediated kind of daily routine. There will be
    less need to live your life in vinyl-lined or wallboard boxes,
    moving from box to box–from apartment to car, car to elevator, and
    so on.

    This liberation, in turn, will help break down the artificial
    mental compartmentalization of modern life, in which the car
    salesman knows nothing about the effects of greenhouse gases on
    climate even though his product is a major producer of those gases,
    because his department is sales, not climate. (In a Dilbert
    cartoon strip, America’s favorite lower-middle manager, Dilbert,
    complains to a colleague, ‘This product would melt the polar ice
    caps and doom humanity.’ She replies, ‘That’s okay.’ He says,
    ‘You’re part of humanity.’ She replies, ‘No, I’m in

    With people getting more oxygen into their brains and clearer light
    to see by, life becomes less fragmented and discouraging, more
    hopeful and whole. As preoccupation with shopping and consuming
    recedes, the American mind will open to other values. By the second
    or third decade of the century, we will fully embrace the idea that
    the environment is our greatest earthly asset–and is indispensable
    to all our other assets.

    Making the Ripples Real

    For those who have watched the relentless bulldozing, burning,
    paving, and polluting of our planet with growing distress, it is
    reasonable to question whether this ripple-effect strategy is
    anything more than an idealist’s dream. But, in fact, those ripples
    are already well underway–in the United States and in many of the
    other countries that have long looked to us as a country of great
    innovation and imagination. More than 200 ecologically designed
    cohousing communities have been built or are under construction in
    the United States. They are just one manifestation of a much larger
    emerging ‘new urbanism’ movement, which has brought renewed
    emphasis to designing neighborhoods that are responsive to the
    needs of local people and their living environment rather than to
    the escalating demands of global commerce. In the energy field, the
    wind turbine industry is now growing even faster than the personal
    computer industry. In agriculture, writers such as Wendell Berry
    and Gary Snyder are leading a vigorous movement to turn back the
    ecological ravages of multinational industrial agriculture, and to
    bring new vitality to the culture of locally managed, ecologically
    conscious stewardship–and they are succeeding. Organic produce has
    become the fastest-growing agricultural sector in the world. Green
    building is booming. The ripples are increasing and the signs are
    now unmistakable: A sea change is coming.Ed
    Ayres is editor of World Watch magazine and author of
    God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future.

    Published on Oct 9, 2007


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