Thursday, April 28, 2011


I feel the need to clarify my last two posts.

I intended them tongue firmly planted in cheek, but sometimes that kind of thing doesn't transmit across the internets.

A#1, I think suburbs can be green. I just personally prefer to live in cities. Which can be (in some cases) not so green. So.

A#2, I don't think yards are bad or un-green. Nor Yosemite, nor pot smokers. Ritual suicide on the other hand? Not a huge fan. I'm agnostic on Oprah.

So where do I think you should live?

I think you should live where you are happy. Really, truly happy.

Because the truth is, I think there are some decisions we have to make about ourselves and our lives and we can't make them from a martyr-for-the-Earth point of view. We make them because they are the right decisions for us.

The problem becomes when we fail to recognize that. When we fail to recognize how our own internal preferences shape how we think. Then we become smug and say things like how cities are so sustainable and how awful suburbs are. And we believe we are superior because we live in cities.

And that's just b.s.

I can guarantee you, no one writing an article about how cities are more sustainable than suburbs is someone who REALLY wants to live in a suburb but is living in a city against their will because they think it's better for the Earth.

Mostly, when we make sweeping generalizations like suburbs are better than cities or that cities are better than rural areas, we're just validating our own personal preferences. Because the truth is that there is no way for me to say what is better for you, Joe Schmoe.

Live where you are happy, and do your best, okay? Or do as good as you can considering we are all messy, imperfect beings. (Let's not talk about the sheer volume of plastic in my trash can now.)

Hope that clarifies things.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

What does Green Mean?

Ever since my last post on sustainable cities, I've been thinking ... what does sustainable mean anyway? What does it mean to be green? What is the point of Earth Day?

Heavy stuff?


A lot of people associate being green with nature. One person on Jenn's original post about the suburbs versus cities argued that cities might be less green because they lacked yards to grow food or for children to play in.

Which made me wonder: is having a yard a green attribute?

The reality is that greens have a fairly incoherent relationship with well ... greens. By which I mean, ya know, trees, and shrubs, and grass, and dear little woodland creatures.

Let's take yards. Yards are considered wonderful because they allow us to grow food and allow our children to play in nature. Enviros will take pictures of their gardens, their fruit trees, their flower bushes to show the world the beauties of nature. Yay yards! Let's build more yards!!

But wait! Before we rush out to build yards! We must remember that yards are terrible because they require so much water. Lawns are a waste of such a precious commodity. Also, gardens hardly constitute "nature" because they are human constructed. Rows of heirloom tomatoes aren't "natural." Nor are those peas growing on that human-built trellis. Yards are not nature!

No, to find nature, we must go to Yosemite. Or Yellowstone. Or some other national park. That's where NATURE is.

Except, that's not nature either! Look at all those stupid campers sitting there. They are destroying the nature with their ENJOYMENT of it. Look at them smugly sitting on that log. They are SITTING on NATURE.

Nature is somewhere else. Somewhere where humans have never been. The real nature, the nature we need to save, is actually the nature we've never seen. Because if we see it, WE RUIN IT! Do you hear me?!!! We must save it from us!! STAY AWAY FROM THE NATURE!!!

Actually, maybe those lawns aren't so bad. But maybe instead of lawns, we could just let our yards run wild. Except that, hmmm, then it might become "nature" and our kids couldn't play there. Alternately, it might become filled with tumbleweeds and the local high school kid might smoke pot back there.


Is pot nature?

Ultimately, this gets carried forward to the inevitable conclusion, which generally results in ritual suicide because, let's face it, there'd be a lot more "nature" around if humans were all dead.

Kidding. About the ritual suicide.

But the truth is, there are greens who do think there'd be a lot more "nature" if the human race went extinct.

Personally, I think there would be a lot more of somethings ... certainly there are some species that would multiply without humans and there are others that would probably die off without us.

But as for nature?

Well, I'd argue that "nature" is a human construct. Without humans, there is no nature.

The truth is that from the moment humans first roamed the Earth, we have had an impact on the non-human world. We shouldn't aim to separate ourselves from our world for a multiplicity of reasons, and honestly, we CAN'T separate ourselves from the world.

We are humans. We are nature. And, as Oprah would say, if we want to love and protect nature, we are going to have to learn to love ourselves as part of nature first.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Defense of the City

A couple days ago, Jenn wrote a post asking whether cities were so much more sustainable than suburbs?

And of course it got me thinking.

The first thing I thought was, well, it depends.

Which is pretty much the obvious answer and also my knee jerk response to just about everything. (I must be so annoying to read with my, oh well, it's complicated, and my, oh, what we really need is institutional change. Blah dee f**king blah, can't I say anything definitive?)

The truth is, that sure, some suburbs can be sustainable. And if you want to live in a suburb, you should do it, and do your best in your situation.

But eff it. I don't feel like writing the, "Cities are great, but suburbs are fine too," post. So instead, I want to write a post about why cities are awesome. Because I live in a city and I think everyone should be like me. Validate me, internets!!

I've lived in cities for most of my adult life. I adore cities. I think everyone should want to live in cities because cities are where the cool people (meaning me) live. Truthfully, though, none of the four cities I've lived in has been perfect, sustainability wise, nor has my behavior been perfect in any of said cities.

In Los Angeles, the weather is great meaning that you rarely turn on the heat or the a/c. But of course the public transit sucks so you drive everywhere,

In London, the weather is pretty wet and miserable so the heat is on more often. On the other hand, the public transit is great.

New York is both cold AND hot meaning a/c in the summer and heat at night. Plus, I'm sorry, but New York is TERRIBLE about waste. Forget about composting, no one seems to even recycle.

San Francisco is a green mecca with temperate weather and industrial city-wide composting. But the public transit still isn't great. And also, sorry, but San Francisco just isn't that awesome a city compared to LA, London, or New York.

But there are many ways in which almost all cities excel. Most cities, though not all, have good public transit. Cities pack lots of people in dense areas. And contrary to what some people have argued, cities also have places to garden (our neighborhood has two community gardens within walking distance), places for kids to play (they are called parks and playgrounds and they are better than backyards, fer reals). In some cities, you even have space, or rather "space." You are rarely going to get a five bedroom house in the city (unless you are a gajillionaire) but in some cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can buy actual houses. You will have to sell your right kidney on the black market to pay the down payment, and your master bedroom will be the size of a medium-sized walk in closet in suburbia, but you will get your house, maybe even with a garden and a deck for your dog to lay on.

My point is that cities (where I live) is awesome (I am also awesome.) Plus, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, people's happiness is greatly affected by short commute times. But overall happiness is actually relatively unaffected by having more space. So if living in a city reduces your commute, but living in a suburb gives you more space, you might want to think about the city over the suburb.

But if you recoil at living in a city and love the suburbs? Then, find a suburb where you can be happy (ideally one with SOME public transit and one that is not TOO far from your work) and don't worry about it. Because in the end, when people claim that cities are more sustainable or suburbs are more sustainable or farms are more sustainable?

We're often just trying to validate the preferences we already hold.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Risks of Parenting

I've been mulling over a post that Erin wrote a while ago about cherry picking science. In it, she admitted that though she sometimes can't believe that people don't trust the science behind climate change, she doesn't always trust science herself.

Even among those of us who love science, our relationship with it can be quite fraught.

Consider this article from the LA Times which notes that children using a rear-facing car seat until age 2 are 75% less likely to die or suffer serious injuries in a car crash. In spite of this seemingly overwhelming evidence, the article notes that many parents have chosen to ignore the recommendations and are placing the car seats in a forward facing position.


I can't speak for all those parents, but there are several possible explanations.

One is that they are either scientifically illiterate or don't understand the risk as my friend Abbie suggested when we recently debated this on Facebook.

The other is that they do understand the risk, and have decided that it's minimal enough that they choose ... to risk it.

Now the latter might seem like a pretty absurd position to take given that the research shows that your child is 75% less likely to die in a crash if they are facing forward. 75%! That's huge, right?

Well ... sort of.

The reality is, your child would be 100% less likely to die in a vehicular car crash if you never put them in a car. But most people wouldn't consider that. It's too difficult, too inconvenient, too absurd.

Life involves risk. Everything we do involves risk. Driving to work. Drinking a beer. Eating a hamburger (you could get mad cow, dontcha know?) Having sex. Flying on a plane. No matter how you try, you will never live a life that is 100% risk free. And frankly, sometimes it's better not to try. Because to try to live a life with as little risk as possible ... well you could do it, but would you be really living at all?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities in 2010 dropped to their lowest point since 1949, when there were a LOT, LOT fewer cars on the road. Now according to the American Association of Pediatrics, there are roughly 5,000 deaths in the U.S. among children and teenagers due to traffic fatalities each year.

The AAP doesn't break down those deaths, but according to some 2003 data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 1,500 children under fifteen died in 2003 due to traffic accidents. And among one to three year olds, the number of children dying annually from traffic accidents has declined from 1993 when about 600 children 1-3 year olds was killed to roughly 400 in 2003.

Are 400 deaths a year 400 too many? Yes. Are those 400 deaths utterly horrible for the parents involved? Yes.

But considering how much we Americans drive, it seems that dying in a car accident is a relatively uncommon event for 1-3 year olds.

Now, as Abbie argued, keeping a child rear facing an extra year is pretty painless. So, in some senses, why not keep your kid rear facing an extra year? Even if the likelihood that your kid is going to die in an accident is small, why take the risk?

And I'll be honest. Knowing all the numbers, if I were a parent, I think I would probably opt to keep my kid rear facing until they were two.


The problem with parenting is that it seems to be a world filled with little (and gradually diminishing) risks. Yet it always seems like even those little risks are too big to take chances.

Yes, it's true that your child is unlikely to be kidnapped. But why take the risk and let them play outside on their own?

Yes, it's true that you are EXTREMELY unlikely to get listeria. But why take the risk and eat unpasteurized cheese when pregnant?

Yes, it's true that some germs are probably okay for your kid. But why take the risk when you can Purell, Purell, Purell?

Ultimately, life comes with risk. It just does. And the sooner we can accept that, the better. So if some parents think that keeping their kid in a rear facing car seat for another year is too onerous, I understand.