Why New York City Is Greener Than Vermont

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Bo Zaunders / Corbis

Passengers rush out of a subway train in New York City

New Yorkers, take heart: your city is a den of dirt and grime and gluttony no more. According to David Owen, author of Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability, the Big Apple is actually the greenest city in America. Residents of New York City walk more, drive less and leave a significantly smaller carbon footprint than people living anywhere else in the U.S. — even Vermont. Owen talks to TIME about the wastefulness of rural life, the reason local produce isn't environmentally friendly and the one good thing to come out of the 2008-09 recession.

How is the city greener than the country?
When we move people closer to one another and their daily destinations, they become less dependent on automobiles, and energy consumption goes down. New York City residents are by far the biggest users of public transit in the U.S. But things have to be close enough together to make using a subway or bus worthwhile. Where I live in Connecticut, everything is so spread out that there's no way I could take a bus. It's much easier for me to use a car.

How has the car changed the way we consume energy?
In 1949 only 3% of American households had more than one car. Now there are more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers. When we think about cars we tend to think only of the energy they consume directly, the gasoline. It's certainly significant, but the truly problematic form of energy consumption related to cars is what they allow us to do, which is spread out. We get oversize houses that require huge inputs of water and energy. They let us live 50 or 100 miles away from the place where we work. They require us to build roads, waterlines, power mains and sewage systems out to all these outposts we've created. We have this extraordinarily redundant infrastructure we've built because cars have let us do it.

So how do we fix that?
To get people out of cars, you have to make their communities denser and also make driving distasteful in one way or another. New Yorkers don't drive, because it's extraordinarily frustrating to have a car in Manhattan. New Yorkers look at the traffic jams and think, We need to get these cars moving — they're sitting there spewing exhaust. But in fact, traffic jams are environmentally beneficial because they're the reason you go down into the subway. If the cars were moving, you'd be in one of them.

In Green Metropolis, you talk about how corn grown for biofuel raises the price of corn used for food. You also say that eating locally grown food isn't practical for everyone.
Locavorism as a consumption preference makes sense. Right now where I am, locally grown apples are coming up. Peach season just ended. I enjoy eating that stuff. But the environmental argument doesn't hold up. I watched a documentary about Portland, Ore., and in it there was a woman who drove her minivan 25 miles to a local farm to buy a few days' worth of produce. So that's a 50-mile round trip for maybe 10 lb. of groceries. Whatever sense of environmental sainthood she felt was vastly outweighed by the energy of using an entire minivan to collect a few days' worth of produce.

Portland, Ore., and Vermont pride themselves on being eco-friendly, but you argue that they're not as green as they think. How so?
Everyone thinks of Vermont as the greenest state in the country. But if you took the population of New York City, all 8.2 million people, and spread them out so that they had the same population density as Vermont, you'd need a land area equivalent to the six New England states plus New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Environmental impact is higher per capita in Vermont than it is in New York City. They use more electricity, more oil, more water. The average Vermonter burns 540 gal. of gasoline per year, and the average Manhattanite burns just 90. Only 8% of American households don't own a car. In Manhattan, it's about 77%. Backyard compost heaps notwithstanding, Vermont's environmental impacts are greater.

How do you get other people to live more like people in Manhattan?
The only way that these things happen is through economic incentive. When the price of oil hit its peak in 2008, the global carbon footprint did something I don't think that it had ever done before: it went down. The way to reduce people's consumption of fossil fuel is to create a disincentive for them to consume it.

What about the changes we do make — hybrid cars, solar panels — do they help at all?
We are very good at solutions that involve buying things. "Oh, I'll buy a hybrid." "Oh, when I redo my kitchen I'll use bamboo flooring." But when it comes to actually cutting back, to real deprivation and sacrifice, it's like, "No, forget that."

So buying a hybrid isn't really that helpful?
Hybrid cars require less fuel. They lower the cost of driving for the person who owns that car. When you make a useful item less expensive, the natural economic reaction is not to use less of it. It is to consume more.

Basically, we're screwed.
The one real, solid, measurable environmental impact we've had was caused by high oil prices and the recession. There's nobody who would say, "We need recessions!" but from an environmental point, it's a relatively simple disincentive that causes people to cut back. But how do you cut back without putting even more people out of work? Without bringing the economy to a grinding halt? That's the challenge. There's this idea that we'll revive the economy with green alternatives, but that's harder to pull off than we think. You can't just swap one form of consumption for another and expect to come out ahead.