Baby Steps on the Environment

Earth's inhabitants got a welcome surprise in the past year: Greenhouse gas emissions shrank thanks in large measure to the sluggish economy. David Owen, author of "Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability," published this month by Riverhead, urges Americans to keep moving toward a lifestyle that depends less on massive energy consumption.


The carbon footprint of the human race has done something that not even optimistic environmentalists would have predicted a couple of years ago: it has gotten smaller by a significant amount. A study by the International Energy Agency has found that carbon dioxide emissions declined by about 2.6 percent during the past year, worldwide, the first real reversal in decades.

The primary cause wasn't a sudden greening of the human consciousness; it was the ongoing global recession, in combination with the record rise in the price of oil in 2008.

The reason isn't hard to understand. The biggest emitter of manmade greenhouse gases has always been robust economic activity, and during the past year we've had less of that. Closed factories don't pump carbon into the atmosphere, and unemployed workers drive fewer miles and keep their furnaces turned down.

Our carbon footprint shrank because a host of worldwide economic emergencies forced us to cut back on many activities that make it expand.

To people who worry about climate change, even to mention a relationship between economics and emissions can seem traitorous, since it sounds like an argument that an oil-company executive might make.

To people who don't worry about climate change, the same relationship seems to demonstrate the folly of doing anything at all.

But it's really neither, and the I.E.A. study should be considered a sign of hope. After all, it shows that we know how to cut our output of greenhouse gases, using technology we already understand.

The spike in oil prices in 2008 had a long list of environmentally beneficial effects. It pushed down oil consumption and vehicle miles traveled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, and increased public transit ridership--all hopeful developments, even though the price of gasoline here in the United States never got higher than about half of what it was in most of Europe.

Yet the reaction, by American consumers and politicians, was mainly to demand that something be done, and soon, to push the price back down.

Americans are good at solutions that involve more: a new car, a renovated kitchen with a bamboo floor, a bigger house with a windmill on the roof, a better-tasting chicken.

We're not so good at solutions that involve less. We need to reduce the size of our living spaces, shrink the distances between our daily destinations, and reduce our century-old dependence on automobiles, no matter what they use for fuel. The recession pushed us in that direction.

Can we now find the will to continue on our own?

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 29, 2009; 5:31 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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