Letter to Ramez Naam – Cofessions of an Urbanist
Thanks for the lecture last night in AP’s class. It was definitely the most informative session on climate change I have ever attended. I’d love it if you could send me the slides.
As I was leaving I have to admit I was feeling a bit disoriented. I’m a Master of Urban Planning student. I like compact cities, active transportation, walkable environments, free-market land use, subsidized mass transit. I’m also a white millennial who grew up on Vashon Island and I can’t help loving things that are hand-made and sustainably sourced. I lived in Paraguay in the countryside for two years and I really love certain bits of technology – refrigeration, the internet, stereos and buses are nice – but find a lot of our American lifestyle overburdened with superfluous junk. It means we have to work all the time to afford to buy everything we think we need and it creates distance between us.
I’ve looked at climate sustainability as the underlying justification for my intended career in urban planning as well as my lifestyle habits and choices. In a world of carbon pricing we would need to learn to live more cheaply, closer together, locally, throw away a little less, share a little more. Excess would be less of a birthright, solo driving in cars would not be considered the default mode of transportation and we would not devote so much of our land to freeways, subdivisions and golf courses. All my fantasies for how I would like to see society transform were basically justified in service of reducing carbon emissions.
Your lecture and the defeat of I-732 (I gathered several hundred signatures and canvased for the initiative) really seem to collapse that fantasy. I agree with most everything you said and you obviously have data to back it up. I was excited by the drop in solar prices, but I was dispirited when I realized it meant we’re probably not going to learn how to live better with less and instead just make excess more sustainable and cheap. If electric cars become cheaper and more popular than internal-combustion cars, vehicle miles driven will continue to increase, with freeways, gridlock, low-density suburbs, traffic violence, toxic storm-water runoff, parking minimums as ubiquitous as ever.
It does make sense to me how conservatives would automatically oppose climate action as it has been identified with things that liberals like us like. Especially as it has become identified with the things that urbanists like me really like, such as mass transit and apartments. It has always bothered me that so many liberals seem fine with smug actions to seemingly wash their own hands of climate change without structurally changing anything. I do it too. The more I am comfortable living without a car, the more a carbon tax would actually benefit me at the expense of the person who drives a big truck because it is identified with their way of life. Of course conservatives are going to oppose a tax that is levied on their way of life.
So, I want to thank you for coming in and for your excellent lecture and for the work you did during the I-732 campaign. I remember listening to the Stranger podcast where you debated someone from Sage or Got Green and just nailed it. I was in Denmark at the time and followed the campaign a little bit obsessively. It seemed so good and rational and a way to push society to transform in the ways I’d like. I suppose I also ought to thank you for pouring some cold water on the selfish vision that my ideal world is also the world as it should be to reduce climate change. That’s how it always goes with grand visions. I can still justify low-car living on the grounds of health, safety, economy, and local environmental impacts, at least.
Ian Crozier Master of Urban Planning | Class of 2017 University of Washington