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If You Really Love Nature, Don’t Live Anywhere Near It

Almost universally, people living in urban locations have a much smaller environmental footprint.

Ironically, not the home of a nature lover

I used to share an office with an older man, a nature lover. He put in a full career working for the government as an environmental engineer and was just counting the days until his retirement. His dream was to move 30 miles south of the city, right on the lake, a famous migratory spot and thus a favorite site for birding. There was nothing wrong with his dream, per se, and it’s a fairly common and simple one, almost clichéd, for members of his generation. Nature lovers often seek to literally own a piece of it, to behold it by living life within its depths. Many have dreamt of catching a glimpse of deer grazing in the backyard over morning breakfast or hearing the cry of a hawk at night.

Who doesn’t love those things? They hold a natural, almost primitive, appeal. But the sad irony is, the best thing for the birds, hawks, and deer might have been if my coworker had stayed far away.

There is an ever-growing recognition among a new generation of environmentalists that living close to nature might not be the best way to celebrate and protect it. In fact, the most environmentally friendly lifestyle available (at least for those who don’t work in the agricultural sector) happens to be the opposite: living far away from purest nature, in cities.

Almost universally, people living in urban locations have a much smaller environmental footprint. One extremely important reason is that urban dwellers drive far less. If you live on the edge of a birding lake, chances are you can’t walk to the store, or anywhere really—and forget about catching a bus. Daily drives, and relatively long ones, become a practical necessity for fulfilling almost every need. Not only do city dwellers have more sustainable options for getting around, but they also tend to live in smaller, more energy efficient homes.

Those are the major reasons a UC Berkeley study found that people living in large, densely populated cities had carbon footprints about half the size of those in suburbs. This pattern emerges with remarkable regularity in every metro area throughout the United States. Glance through these maps at Berkeley’s CoolClimate Network, if you doubt it. From Portland to Milwaukee to Raleigh, people who live near downtown drive less and have smaller carbon footprints than those living “close to nature.”

And the pattern intensifies as the size of the city increases. The greenest U.S. city—New York City—is not typically the type of place nature lovers idealize. But perhaps they should. New York residents consume about a quarter of the gasoline of those living in the “green” state of Vermont, writes David Owen, a leading climate expert at Yale Environment 360. And New Yorkers use less than half as much electricity as the average American.

The key to New York City’s superior per-capita environmental performance is its population density, Owens writes. As it turns out, living close to other people—not nature—makes sustainable living more practical. Manhattanites, for example, commute by foot, bike, or public transit at 10 times the rate of the average American. New Yorkers also live in smaller homes, which tend to be more energy efficient. Those smaller homes have the added bonus of reducing overall household consumption; there are literally just less rooms to fill with products made with petroleum and shipped from China.

“In a paradoxical way,” Owens writes, “environmental groups have been a major contributor to residential sprawl, for organizations like the Sierra Club, whose anti-city ethos has been indivisible from its mission since the time of John Muir, have fueled the yearning for fresh air and elbow room which drives not only the preservation of wilderness areas but also the construction of disconnected subdivisions and daily hundred-mile commutes.”

At the end of the day, living close to nature is very often (though not always) just another consumption choice for Americans. And it might be the biggest one of all, because of all the other tangential consumption activities it engenders.

Indian spiritual guru and nitrous oxide enthusiast Osho captured the moral dilemma, when he said, “If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up, it dies and ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.”

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