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Major Cities - Environmental Friend or Foe?

Many environmentalists celebrate the environmental benefits of densely developed urban centers. Urban living reduces the scope of humanity's footprint on the earth in many ways. Not only do cities fit more people on less land, but urban density generates tremendous economies of scale that lead to greater energy efficiency and other material savings. There are environmental costs of density, to be sure. Air pollution tends to be higher in more densely populated areas, and the concentrated pollution flowing from dense areas will, in some circumstances, be more likely to overwhelm nature's inherent absorptive capacities. Nonetheless, environmental activists have long championed dense urban growth over the dominant alternative of suburban sprawl.

Environmentalist gadfly Jeremy Rifkin challenges this consensus in today's Washington Post. Rifkin argues that urbanization, combined with population growth, comes at a terrible environmental toll; "our burgeoning population and urban way of life have been purchased at the expense of vast ecosystems and habitats."

The flip side of urbanization is what we are leaving behind on our way to a world of hundred-story office buildings, high-rise residences and landscapes of glass, cement, artificial light and electronic interconnectivity. It's no accident that as we celebrate the urbanization of the world, we are quickly approaching another historic watershed: the disappearance of the wild. Rising population; growing consumption of food, water and building materials; expanding road and rail transport; and urban sprawl continue to encroach on the remaining wild, pushing it to extinction.
I am not much of a Rifkin fan, largely due to his Luddite view of modern technology, and I don't entirely accept his analysis. Nonetheless, I think this article is worth a read.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Bailey on Rifkin on Cities:
  2. Major Cities - Environmental Friend or Foe?
LTEC (mail) (www):
I don't think the article is "worth a read".

For one thing, it is not against "urbanization" at all. It is against having a lot of people with a high standard of living, and he confuses this issue with that of urbanization. He never even suggests, let alone makes an argument for, an alternative to urbanization such as suburbanization or ruralization.
12.17.2006 1:04pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):

Not only do cities fit more people on less land, but urban density generates tremendous economies of scale that lead to greater energy efficiency and other material savings. There are environmental costs of density, to be sure. Air pollution tends to be higher in more densely populated areas, and the concentrated pollution flowing from desnse areas will, in some circumstances, be more likely to overwhelm nature's inherent absoprtive capacities. Nontheless, environmental activists have long championed dense urban growth over the dominant alternative of suburban sprawl.*.

*Someone has to pay for it. My property taxes have gone up 35% in the last 5 years to maintain what appears to me to be a status quo, not an advance in improvements.

And, does the push to urbanize trump the individual? In other words, does the process render the individual diminished in the wake of efficiency.

Nature aside, politically, urban areas call the policy throughout an entire state- I live in NY, and if there's a "problem" in the five boroughs, somehow it becomes the responsibility of everyone in the state- a guy living in the Adirondacks has to wonder why he's being held to higher taxes and further restrictions for a situation he didn't create; nor is "the problem" a problem where he lives.

I wonder, too, in an increasingly urban setting, what happens to property ownership- actually owning what you live in, and the potential to do so.
12.17.2006 1:07pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Nature aside, politically, urban areas call the policy throughout an entire state- I live in NY, and if there's a "problem" in the five boroughs, somehow it becomes the responsibility of everyone in the state- a guy living in the Adirondacks has to wonder why he's being held to higher taxes and further restrictions for a situation he didn't create; nor is "the problem" a problem where he lives.

I can't speak to the state of New York, but on the national level it's interesting to note that precisely the opposite is the case. Because of the way the system is designed, rural voters tend to actually have more power per voter than urban ones, particularly in the Senate. Not surprisingly the money works the same way, tending to flow out of urban areas into rural ones.

So, when you are wondering why your property tax has gone up, part of the reason is probably that much of the economy generated in your city goes to pay for things in rural areas, like farm subsidies.

The real curiosity is that it's the rural areas, as opposed to the urban ones, that tend to have a more substantial shrink government movement. I think regardless of whether you want to cut or increase government spending, that fact is fairly perplexing.
12.17.2006 1:43pm
TJIT (mail):
Rifkin has written an interesting polemic. It would be useful if he actually gave some evidence that linked urbanization and the bad things he talks about. It would be even more useful if after producing such evidence he had some policy suggestions to fix the problem.
12.17.2006 3:05pm
TJIT (mail):
Michael Benson,

I think the money flow to rural areas is somewhat distorted by the presence of many military installations in rural areas. The rural areas offer lots of space and not many neighbors to complain when things go bang.

I would suspect more people in rural areas (more then residents of urban areas) are either self employed, or have to interface directly with the government to do business, or have seen first hand some of the unintended bad consequences of government policy.

I think seeing government in action is what drives the shrink the government movement in rural areas.
12.17.2006 3:14pm
Heffalump (mail):
Hmmm Can't live in the city, can't live in the suburbs...I guess they'll be building those moon colonies any day now.
12.17.2006 3:15pm
Bottomfish (mail):
Humans, in their perverse way, will go on multiplying and we have to find somewhere to put them. (Global planners are perhaps not human.) By packing them in the cities, we leave more presumably unspoiled open space, which everyone thinks is a good thing. Hence the "Smart Growth" movement. (Al Gore proposed that smart growth should be subsidized by giving people subsidies for buying their houses near a commuter rail line.)

As far as I can see, the majority of the people, at least in the US, do not seem to mind sprawl and want more single-family houses on individual plots of land. Even in the superblue State where I live, proposals to build multi-unit dwellings always arouse hostility. The same people who want to preserve open space in their communities also complain about property taxes. Of course, if more dwelling units were built, there would be a bigger tax base so that property taxes would not need to increase so much.
12.17.2006 3:35pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Jeremy Rifkin is perfect for those who who would be unintelligent enough to agree with Lewis Mumford if only they were intelligent enough to understand him.
12.17.2006 4:13pm
Ricardo (mail):
People want single-family homes for themselves but as the growth of exurbs shows, people also greatly appreciate open space. Which of these Americans give more weight to, I don't know.

I think it also remains a bit of a mystery as to people in rural areas are much more anti-government than urbanites. The average New York City resident may commute on government-operated trains every day, use government provided public parks, walk on government-built sidewalks and pay huge amounts in taxes (especially high-earning professionals). Rural residents have considerably less contact with government on a daily basis and don't pay as much in taxes as they have lower incomes.
12.17.2006 4:49pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
TJIT:

think the money flow to rural areas is somewhat distorted by the presence of many military installations in rural areas. The rural areas offer lots of space and not many neighbors to complain when things go bang.

This is really an interesting way of trying to frame the issue. It makes it sound as if the government puts in installations in rural areas either against their will, or without consulting them. But, in fact, military spending is one of the lucrative government contracts that representatives fight for. Those military installations provide major sources of employment, particularly in regions that don't have other good sources of income.

You seem to be trying to write out military spending as not significant. But it certainly is significant.

I would suspect more people in rural areas (more then residents of urban areas) are either self employed, or have to interface directly with the government to do business, or have seen first hand some of the unintended bad consequences of government policy.

That all sounds like a ton of guesswork to me. I live in a city. I see the unintended bad consequences of government policy every day. Indeed, I see them every time I get on the freeway.

My limited experience of having lived in 3 cities, and a town of about 3,000 doesn't fit with your suggestion. Perhaps you are right, but I'm not particularly compelled to believe you sans evidence.

I think seeing government in action is what drives the shrink the government movement in rural areas.

That's a way of putting it that I'm guessing fits more with your ideology. IE, people who actually experience the government works will hate it. It also strikes me as circular reasoning. I think the conclusion you want to reach about the effects of government spending predetermines your analysis of how people react to government spending. It could be correct, but I'm not seeing much in the way of evidence provided to support it besides your assumption that people will react negatively to seeing how the government works.
12.17.2006 4:54pm
Bradleyjg:
Re: New York State
Look at the money flows to and from upstate New York. The guy living in the Adirondacks is being HEAVILY subsidized by the taxes paid by residents of the New York portion of the NYC metro area. There are all kinds of tricks used to justify these subsides - such as locating jails in obscure upstate areas and then counting the prisoner population for the purpose of per capita spending allocation. Same thing with SUNY. The largest colleges are all in rural areas drawing money, in the form of taxes and tuition, from downstate. That doesn't even get into the enormous amounts of money we are asked to spend every year on some harebrained scheme to "revitalize" upstate.

If New York, south of say Poughkeepsie were to detach into it's own state it would be among the wealthiest in the union. Rump upstate New York would have an economy comparable to the rest of the rust belt.
12.17.2006 5:28pm
Matt Tievsky (mail):
Note that, near the beginning of the column, Rifkin signals his disapproval for the advances that made possible the drastic reduction of human mortality rates--which in turn is what led to the population explosion.

I've researched Rifkin before. I think what he's really getting at is that he'd be happy to see a great portion of the human race die off.
12.17.2006 7:41pm
Oren Elrad (mail):
^^^ 100% correct. For those interested in some serious research into how much large cities are getting *****ed by the feds, see

PDF
Tax Foundation

Only five blue states were net recipients of federal subsidies. Only two red states were net payers of federal taxes. That should tell you something right there.
12.17.2006 7:57pm
Parvenu:
I can't say that I saw anything of interest in the article after reading it, either, and there were definitely some statements that were both conclusory and counterintuitive ... my personal favorite:
Harnessed by the steam engine and later the internal combustion engine and converted to electricity and distributed across power lines, fossil fuels allowed humanity to create new technologies that dramatically increased food production and manufactured goods and services. The unprecedented increase in productivity led to runaway population growth and the urbanization of the world.

No one is really sure whether this turning point in human living arrangements ought to be celebrated, lamented or merely acknowledged.

Seriously?! "No one is really sure" whether we should be glad we left the Middle Ages behind us? I, for one, am one of those "no ones" in Rifkin's thinking; I am glad of the Industrial Revolution. You have to have a certain unique perspective to think that humanity was, on net, better off in 1800 than today.

The other major misconception that Rifkin suffers is the myth of static "carrying capcity." I refer here specifically to this quote: "Try to imagine 1,000 cities of a million or more just 35 years from now. It boggles the mind and is unsustainable for Earth," based on the current tally of 414 such cities. The problem with this is that it assumes that there will be no improvements in civil infrastructure over the next 35 years. The natural carrying capacity of the planet is not a fixed number; if it were, we would have passed it long ago. However, this is one case where man has the advantage on nature (if we believe that man and nature are fundamentally distinct, something that I don't take as a given ... we just do a somewhat better job of moulding our natural habitat than do beavers and nesting birds and so on). New York City as it currently exists could not have existed in 1900. Many of those cities that passed 1 million over the past 30 years would not have had the requisite infrastructure 30 years ago, and many of those next 500 cities likely to pass 1 million don't have the infrastructure in place today to handle it, but those that want to become major cities will invest in that infrastructure.

I think he also spends far too much time lambasting the curse of fossil fuels. Maybe it's just trendy to be attacking fossil fuels today. However, many other inventions have played equal or greater parts in the development of our cities: electricity and refrigeration, first and foremost. In fact, fossil fuels may be more responsible for people leaving the cities (for the suburbs) than for the cities themselves. If the federal government did not spend literally hundreds of billions every year subsidizing highways (or even just spent roughly equally on road and rail), our land use patterns would look very different now (assuming a starting point in the Eisenhower administration when the superhighway system was introduced).

The superhighway system is probably actually the largest continuous redistribution of wealth from urban to rural areas. You might see pockets of large defense spending in rural areas, but those are relatively few and far between compared to highways; in addition, there are also a fair number of military installations fairly close to cities, too. Speaking for Ohio Wright-Patterson AFB is just on the outskirts of Dayton and Rickenbacker AFB was just on the outskirts of Columbus (still is, just now as an intermodal cargo hub).

Final thought: Who could possibly think this a relevant point?
Our species now consumes nearly 40 percent of the net primary production on Earth -- the amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis -- even though we make up only one-half of 1 percent of the animal biomass of the planet. This means less for other species to use.
Should this at all influence our consumption habits? Of course we consume more "primary production" than non-agricultural animals (i.e., every other species). A large amount of that "plant organic matter," however, is matter that we grew ourselves, and we're hardly under any obligation to share it with the deer and squirrels.
12.17.2006 8:03pm
Oren Elrad (mail):
^^^^ Was meant to refer to Bradleyjg's post but I was too slow.

Matt - there are plenty of us (scientists, mostly) that would like to see the human race find a sustainable population of, say, 2 billion. We do not favor people "dying off" nor do we favor draconian measures that interfere with human rights (e.g. one child policy).

We want common-sense family planning, especially in the third world. This doesn't even have to be contraception/abortion. Just increasingly the literacy rates among females reduces the birth rate considerably. Ironically enough for the OP, birth rates vary inversely with population density so cities act against population growth. If humanity started having 2.0 children per family that's a 5% population decrease right there. We'd be down to 2 billion in less than thirty years.

There are very few rational reasons to favor large population growth when so much of the world's resources are being destroyed and so much of the world lives in abject poverty (what's worse is that the growth is all in the third world places that are poorer and less ecologically sound).
12.17.2006 8:05pm
TJIT (mail):
Michael Benson,

You said
The real curiosity is that it's the rural areas, as opposed to the urban ones, that tend to have a more substantial shrink government movement. I think regardless of whether you want to cut or increase government spending, that fact is fairly perplexing.
and I threw out a couple of thoughts on what might be the cause of it. Apparently you don't like my ideas so I'm curious what you thoughts are on the root cause of the shrink government movement in rural areas.
12.17.2006 8:11pm
Oren Elrad (mail):

Maybe it's just trendy to be attacking fossil fuels today. However, many other inventions have played equal or greater parts in the development of our cities: electricity and refrigeration.


Energy is energy and virtually all of it comes from fossil fuels. None of it runs without fossil fuels.


Should this at all influence our consumption habits? Of course we consume more "primary production" than non-agricultural animals (i.e., every other species). A large amount of that "plant organic matter," however, is matter that we grew ourselves, and we're hardly under any obligation to share it with the deer and squirrels.


No but we displace other living things (mostly plants) to make room for the fields. Primary production is a largely a zero-sum game (with a funny twist in the form of fossil fuels that allow us to borrow extra production from the past). Interesting side point, a fallow field produces at least twice the productivity of a fully fertilized modern agricultural field (in the case of the Great Plains, probably much much more elsewhere).
12.17.2006 8:13pm
Parvenu:
Matt - there are plenty of us (scientists, mostly) that would like to see the human race find a sustainable population of, say, 2 billion.

So you seriously believe, as a scientist, that the problem is too many people, not too little science? I have trouble believing that the world was only really meant for a third of its current population. I would guess that the planet could hold many times its current population, given the exponential growth in carrying capacity occasioned by modern technology, the growth of which seems to show no sign of slowing.

Also, I don't think your numbers can possibly be accurate on this point: "If humanity started having 2.0 children per family that's a 5% population decrease right there. We'd be down to 2 billion in less than thirty years." Considering that 2.1 births/woman is replacement rate, that seems like a massive swing for the difference between 2.1 and 2.0. Also, I found at least one study suggesting that "if average TFR [Total Fertility Rate] declines to 2.0 children per woman, then population will be 8.9 billion persons by 2050 and will continue to grow." I spent about fifteen minutes on Google and found nothing to the suggest that 2.0 children/woman would yield a 67% decline in such a short time.

I think there are very strong rational reasons to favor large population growth, as long as it occurs alongside capital growth. The Malthusian perspective still appeals to some people, but there is very little evidence that the world is really running out of carrying capacity.
12.17.2006 9:13pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
I wonder about Rifkin's "facts" such as "The Sears Tower in Chicago alone uses more electricity in a single day than the city of Rockford, Ill., with 152,000 people."

Hard to believe that one. And even if true, so what?

Overall it strikes me as a confused article. Well-meant and with only the best of intentions but rambling and with no conslusions except the obvious such as "the future is full of problems."
12.17.2006 9:16pm
Oren Elrad (mail):
(1) My point is that, with technology we have /right now/, 2 billion seems like a sustainable number. I just don't see see any normative reason to prefer a population of 6 billion over 2 billion, especially considering that those 2 billion would likely lead much better lives.

That number isn't set in stone, and as technology matures (this is more of a tech problem than a science problem), so too will the number of people we can support.

(2) Also, I'm retarded. I meant 30 generations, not years! That's a big mistake, I know.

The math, if you are interested - assume a 5% fatality rate (as suggested by 2.1 being the break-even) then each generation yield .95 times the last generation. In N generations we have

P(N)/P(0) = (.95)^N

In 13 generations, the population will be about halved.
12.17.2006 9:46pm
Randy R. (mail):
Bradley:

The funny thing is that I'm originally from Buffalo, an economically depressed part of New York State. There, there are many people who are obsolutely convinced that their high taxes are used to support NYC. They think that they would be better off if NYC were to form it's own state.

This is so incredibly bizzare, I am left speechless whenever anyone makes this argument. I try to explain to them that one square block of Mid-town Manhatten is pays more in property tax than the entire Buffalo area.

But it just goes to show that everyone thinks they suppor everyone else unfairly.
12.17.2006 9:49pm
bbeeman (mail):
It occurs to me that there may be a considerable amount of self-selection involved in the lower tolerance of rural residents for big government. I'm one of those who has moved from the urban environment to a rural area, and a surprising number of my neighbors are cut from the same cloth. I have little tolerance for environmental policy written by urban dwellers who have never spent much time in or near the country, and who utterly fail to grasp the issues involved in living out of the urban environment.

I find Rifkin largely incoherent and inconsistent. And most of the studies involving net federal cash flows not only fail to adjust for location of military bases, but also do not account for federal land ownership.
12.17.2006 9:59pm
Oren Elrad (mail):

I have little tolerance for environmental policy written by urban dwellers who have never spent much time in or near the country, and who utterly fail to grasp the issues involved in living out of the urban environment.


Whether or not we grasp the "issues", the majority of Americans (and a super-majority of city-dwellers) are in favor of strong environmental policies. Your contempt (and likewise for the current administration's) for the stated preference of that majority certainly does not help your argument.

Applying these sort of litmus tests for policy decisions is absurd. For instance, we could just as well say

"I have little tolerance for policies regarding gay marriage written by resident of the bible belt who have never spent much time in or near the company of gays, and who utterly fail to grasp the first thing about homosexuality"

or

"I have little tolerance for policies regarding the war on terror written by resident of the middle of the country who have never spent much time in or near any actual terrorist target, and who utterly fail to grasp the first thing about risk analysis"

Some of my friends from NYC were just aghast at the 2004 election being decided on the basis of the War on Terror and gay marriage. They marveled at residents of rural Ohio voting over terrorism and gays. It's a crazy country.
12.17.2006 10:44pm
Truth Seeker:
I'm surprised anyone has any interest in reading Rifkin today. Didn't he make a big enough fool of himself in the 1970s and show enough of his disdain for the human race to discredit anything he says?
12.17.2006 10:44pm
TJIT (mail):
Oren Elrad,

You said

Whether or not we grasp the "issues", the majority of Americans (and a super-majority of city-dwellers) are in favor of strong environmental policies.
Grasping the "issues" is rather important. Not grasping the "issues" makes you likely to support environmental policies that sound good but have devestating negative environmental impacts.

A good example is the accelerating environmental destruction caused by the current biofuel policies . Biofuel policies that those that are uninformed on the "issues" believe protects the environment. A policy pushed by farmers and large grain processing companies, and supported by well meaning people. These well meaning people are concerned about the environment, want strong environmental policies, but unfortunately, they don't grasp the "issues". They are getting a strong environmental policy, unfortunately it is strongly environmentally destructive policy.

What About the Land?

quotes from the linked article.

Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a "green" fuel.


Tad Patzek, a professor in UC-Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who's known primarily as a critic of corn ethanol, says what's happening in tropical ecosystems is much more serious than the biofuel situation in the U.S. "We've already destroyed the prairie, and the topsoil in the Midwest is going, going, gone," Patzek says. "But the expensive noise we're making here is being translated there into the total obliteration of the most precious ecosystems on earth."
We would have a lot more effective environmental policy if people grasped the "issues" instead of just relying on that warm fuzzy feeling they get when someone tells them that strong environmental policies were in place.

I suspect the results would make both you and bbeeman happier.
12.17.2006 11:44pm
TokyoTom (mail):
Jonathan, the real reason to note Rivkin's article are his statistics about the percentage of primary production that mankind now consumes. We are eating creation out of house and home, simply because that's our biological imperative, coupled with organization genius that creates new technologies to consume resources once inaccessible, and exacerbated by the fact that newly accessible resources in many cases are not effectively owned - leading to "tragedy of the commons" over-exploitation. Rent-seeking by major exploiters also effectively trips up political efforts to coordinate mutually acceptable approaches to international common resources.

Aldo Leopold said that "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds". Maybe it is good not to have too much knowledge about the biological wealth and ecosystem services that we are losing globally as a result of ineffective property rights, and remain smug with the wealth that capitalism and private property create?
12.18.2006 12:22am
Parvenu:
I meant 30 generations, not years! That's a big mistake, I know.


All right, fair enough; but 30 generations x 25 years (low end) per generation means you're talking about 750 years! That's an impossible time horizon. Consider that all of our technology today is so advanced that it would seem supernatural to someone of the year 1250, and then consider that most of that technology was developed in the last 250 years. Considering that technology seems to be progressing in generations (perhaps even faster than human generations now, at least in some fields), and you're looking at technology 20-40 generations beyond anything in our world today. At some point, planning for the future runs into insurmountable barriers of the unknowable.

In addition, the point I was trying to make is that you can't say with any certainty that "those 2 billion would likely lead much better lives;" in fact, there's a very good chance that they would in fact be worse off. It's incorrect to say that there would be the same amount of resources available, only divided up among a third as many people, because you would be eliminating a tremendous amount of human resources from the world, both their labors and their knowledge, as well as their potential. Malthusians miss the point that humans themselves are resources as well as consumers of resources, and that technological progress has enabled us to develop more efficient and sustainable ways of harnessing the planet's resources, not just ravaging them. The world produces more food per capita now than ever before, and more energy per capita as well, and both of those trends look to continue over the long term. Institutional failures by third world countries, not overconsumption by first world countries, is the primary cause of the illusion of overpopulation. This is why you can have countries extremely rich in natural resources that nevertheless have very low standards of living--Congo, Zimbabwe--and others where natural resources are in short supply but where standards of living are nevertheless high--Japan, Israel, Singapore. North Korea is not starving because they farmed too much for too long; it's because they haven't used the resources they have effectively. That's a human failing, not a natural resource failing.

It's not how many humans you're dealing with; it's how you're dealing with them that matters.
12.18.2006 12:58am
Oren Elrad (mail):

I suspect the results would make both you and bbeeman happier.


Absolutely. I cringe at homeowners that clearcut their land because they may contain soon-to-be-declared-endangered birds. Same for cutting down forests to produce biofuels. I'm all for sane, effective and less shrill environmental policy (although, when phrased like that, only Dick Cheney and James Watt could oppose, it's the details that count). My only concern is that this rhetoric ends up being used to justify Cheney-esque evisceration of environmental laws in favor of wealth-extraction.

My larger beef with your post was that you made it sound like us city-folk ought to just buzz off and leave environmental policy alone. Perhaps that was a misreading.
12.18.2006 1:52am
Oren Elrad (mail):

The world produces more food per capita now than ever before, and more energy per capita as well, and both of those trends look to continue over the long term.


That's just factually incorrect. Humanity is drawing down energy resources in the form of fossil fuels and using that fuels to create artificial fertilizers that prop up agricultural output (c.f. Born-Haber process). We are not producing energy we are expending it! The only energy that we are really producing are coming from nuclear, wind and solar, hydro, tidal and the like (<10% of US energy production, probably much less worldwide). The rest was here before we were.

The rest of your post, however, is well taken and I should revise my position. What I'm looking for is a sort of current-level balance. Right now, we are outstripping our resources at a very high rate and we ought to pare down birthrates until the situation stabilizes. As technology progresses we can reevaluate this stance.
12.18.2006 2:01am
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
We know how to reduce population growth--live in cities and improve the standard of living.
12.18.2006 9:48am
A.C.:
Back to the original question --

What you tend to get from the country are primary products... food, fiber, and raw materials. Those things also tend to get processed in the country these days, but we are still talking about basic consumer goods. These have to be transported to urban residents.

What you tend to get from the city are services... finance, government, education, and the arts. Some of these affect rural residents without any actual transportation, and the others aren't the kind of thing you can move. If a rural resident wants to see a Broadway play (or act in one), she has to go to New York.

Even if rural and urban residents consumed exactly the same amount of both rural and urban products, it seems that the rural residents would get charged with the environmental costs for both. So I'm not sure you can make the case that an urban lifestyle is better by limiting your accounting to the resources consumed in the city itself. Most of a city's resource consumption would seem to involve the things that get made elsewhere and trucked in, so the bulk of the environmental damage takes place elsewhere. Only the last phase of transportation and the waste disposal problem happen in the city itself, but isn't the city in some way responsible for all the other steps the products go through along the way?
12.18.2006 10:28am
Aleks:
Re: It's incorrect to say that there would be the same amount of resources available, only divided up among a third as many people, because you would be eliminating a tremendous amount of human resources from the world, both their labors and their knowledge, as well as their potential.

Human knowledge does not have to disappear when individual brains holding that knowledge disappear. That's what books, and other more recent innovations in knowledge technology, are good for. Also, the "human potential" inheres in the race as a whole. As long as our numbers are great enough so that the entire population does not have to engage in subsistence labor, geniuses will be forthcoming, albeit at a random and quite unpredictable rate. However neither ancient Athens nor Renaisance Florence were very populous (compared to any modern major city); the latter in fact has lost a major fraction of its medieval population to the Black Death. But both did quite well at producing genius. Indeed, the world of 1930 (population = c. 2 billion) had an abundant share of genius and innovation too. A population of two billion would not be hopelessly stupid.

Re: It's not how many humans you're dealing with; it's how you're dealing with them that matters.

Well, yes indeed! See my very point above.
12.18.2006 11:17am
Gordo:
It's funny to see an anti-urbanist and anti-smart growther such as Jonathan Adler tout (albeit with reservations), Jeremy Rifkin's article. It's the classic case of strange bedfellows: the far right property rights pro-sprawl crowd combine with the far left "humanity is a cancer on the planet" crowd to attack the middle ground.

Two other comments:

Rifkin's diatribe may be more appropriately aimed at the sprawling fetid awful third world conglomerations that have sprouted up, such as Lagos, Nigeria, Kinshasa, Congo, Mexico City, Mexico, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

One positive aspect of urbanism, at least in more prosperous nations, is that urban dwellers tend to have fewer children. Which makes Rifkin's luddism even more logically perplexing.
12.18.2006 1:54pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Rifkin is full of it. The heavy "ecological footprint" he decries is the result of higher standards of living and population growth, not urbanization. The concentration of people in urban areas has allowed huge areas formerly devoted to agriculture to revert to wilderness. There are more beavers east of the Appalachians now than there were in 1800.

Besides which, pre-technological societies were quite capable of wreaking eco-havoc. Neither deforestation, nor overgrazing, nor soil exhaustion, nor species extinction, require fossil fuel consumption.

I don't think Rifkin would be so uncertain about whether the invention of fossil-fuel-driven technology was to be celebrated if he had spent the last twenty years performing grueling physical labor for 60 hours a week just to avoid starving or freezing.
12.21.2006 2:12am