I’ve noticed a trend among a great deal of the environmentalist movement to long for a return to nature in the most literal sense: moving away from the cities and resuming an agrarian existence. I’m an environmentalist as well (tomorrow’s headline: Sun Rises In East) and this bothers me for a couple of reasons. It seems to me, in fact, that making cities denser would be better for the environment than permitting the population to disperse.
Primo, the more people there are in a smaller space, the easier it is for them to share resources, and the more of a population base there is for environmentally-sound large-scale alternatives such as public transport, recycling programs, and what have you. To be blunt, if you live on a farm, you can’t practically choose not to use gasoline. If you live in a big city, you can.
Secundo, I don’t see how we could disperse the population over a wide area without taking over even more wilderness than we already have. By contrast, if we were to move towards a more centralized idea of city planning, I wager we would be able to greatly reduce the amount of wilderness we sprawl over. Q: Is there a difference between cutting down a forest to put in an industrial farm and cutting down a forest to put in a subdivision?
Tertio, I’m not really sure that cities would have as much of an effluent impact as a widely-dispersed population. It seems to me that if you are going to pollute, you might as well do it all in one place.
In my Canadian Cities course the other year, we reviewed some historical evidence that the last time that there was a major cultural movement against cities, based on their being physically, environmentally (and morally) harmful, combined with an advocacy of a literal return to nature, the result was the spread of suburbs, which seem to me to be possibly the least environmentally sound option of the three.
I think that since cities are the nodes of civilization, it will be easier to provoke a mass movement towards more responsible environmental behaviour in an urban context than outside of one, and that adapting the cities to a more environmentally sound existence (in particular, reducing the use of motor vehicles) will be much easier and more environmentally effective than trying to disperse the population.