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Column: Cities: the key to living sustainably in the 21st century

Hayden Lewis

Nov. 13, 2012

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

When it comes to living more sustainably, people are bound to be reluctant, and understandably so.

After all, it’s decidedly essential in light of our climate crisis. But what kind of hippie-weirdos actually want to adjust their lifestyles of preference, especially when the environmental benefit of doing so isn’t readily observable? And besides, the whole concept seems futile — if we’re in so deep already, how could our individual actions possibly have an impact on climate change at this point?

Sadly, this unhealthy ethos is all too common among Americans today, and it must be transcended. When we consider the kind of large-scale social adaptation that is necessary for our species to overcome climate change, any resistance is otherwise exposed as inherently shallow, serving only to the lowest of our human facilities.

Still, some people go as far as to paint sustainable living techniques as incompatible with society in general, claiming that driving less or reducing consumption or recycling are just impractically small solutions to an immense problem.

But contrary to (somewhat) popular belief, you don’t need to be some Thoreauvian and live off the land and grid to be sustainable. In fact, the key to living sustainably, practically and productively in the 21st century could be the exact opposite: live in a city.

I know what you’re thinking: “Cities … What? Aren’t those, like, by definition, the least environmentally healthy places on the planet?” Allow me to lay down a few base statistics.

Right now, our world’s human population is about 7 billion; by 2025, that number is predicted to be closer to 8 billion; and by 2050, it is estimated we could be living in a world with 9 billion other human beings.

With these statistics at hand, the next logical question is, “Where will this rapidly increasing population possibly live?”

In answering that, let’s consider the expansion of the U.S. urban population since the 1950s, when 64 percent of our population lived in cities. By 1980, that number had jumped to 74 percent, and currently 82 percent of people in the U.S. live in cities. By 2050, that number is estimated to reach 90 percent.

This trend toward a booming society of dense city dwellers will likely be a great thing for two main reasons. For one, greenhouse gas emissions will generally decrease since city dwellers have been proven to emit fewer greenhouse gases on average than those living in rural or suburban towns.

And secondly, with an increase in dense cities, there will be a subsequent increase in social and economic productivity, resulting in a better, more innovative world for us all. As renowned city scientist and former Santa Fe Institute President Geoffrey West puts it, “Cities concentrate, accelerate and diversify social and economic activity. … The bigger cities get, the more productive and efficient they tend to become.”

And as far as density and health concerns go — since I know there are plenty of city skeptics out there — the notion of rural or suburban communities being healthier than urban communities on average is entirely baseless. Sanitation, clean water and waste disposal were indeed egregious health issues in colonial America, but times have changed and so have the quality of our cities, which are now perhaps the healthiest places for 21st century Americans to live.

This is not only due to the fact that fewer greenhouse gas emissions mean a healthier environment for us all, but also because city dwellers on average have better access to health care, are more physically active and are less likely to be obese than those living in rural or suburban towns.

But admittedly, even with the imminent growth of urban populations, individual sustainability practices are still not enough to adequately address climate change. That is not to say we don’t need to consume less or migrate to more urban environments — we certainly do and certainly will have to, but we must not let these passive actions substitute for more direct ones.

Sweeping initiatives toward more renewable energy development need to be made if we are to combat climate change at all. And because politicians have been markedly silent on the issue, mainly due to their puppeteering of the fossil fuel industry, the responsibility ultimately lands in the hands of the citizen to make their voices heard by voting or otherwise.

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