The greatest betrayal in human history happened almost 2,000 years ago last night. While nothing we can do would ever sink to the depths of Judas’ act of betrayal, he nonetheless set a standard that others have occasionally and ingloriously followed in the centuries since: betrayal of the very thing you supposedly loved, cherished, or were sworn to protect, such as parents that molest their own children, teachers who abuse their students, preachers who misuse those who have come to them for counsel and comfort, and police who commit crimes. Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has joined the infamous ranks of those who betray what they were sworn to protect. Ironically, this is all coming to light in the days leading up to Earth Day.
What is the EPA’s nefarious act? Their very reason for existence is to protect the environment, as their name clearly professes. Yet their Kansas City office has done the unthinkable: they are shamelessly abandoning their offices in a compact, mixed-use, and walkable location downtown, and moving miles out into the suburbs to a place that is completely unwalkable and auto-dependent. Others have written capably about the particulars of this move, including Kaid Benfield so I won’t repeat their points... please read them to satisfy yourself... Kaid’s rant is a must-read.
Let’s instead consider the larger issue of why they did it. Are Kansas City’s EPA staffers so dark-hearted as to be equal to child molesters, corrupt clergy, and dirty cops? Of course not. Most of the staffers there probably view their jobs with a high degree of idealism. But if we give them the benefit of the doubt on their intentions, then how do we explain their actions? How is it that they don’t understand that suburban sprawl is America’s greatest environmental nightmare... by far?
As we have discussed, sprawl is cancer of the city. Sprawl creates places that are completely inaccessible by anything other than cars. Matter of fact, it’s so bad that every time you change an activity you have to drive. At home, and going to work? Gotta drive. At school and going shopping? Gotta drive. At work and going to eat? Gotta drive. And over the past 40 years, our increases in driving have far outstripped industry’s ability (even with government insistence) to make more efficient cars. Hybrids only serve to salve our conscience if we keep driving more.
Sprawl creates places where you can’t possibly shop for your daily necessities within your own neighborhood, because zoning codes prohibit shops there. Sprawl also fosters the creation of gated subdivisions, which are the worst possible thing you can do if you want to build a securable place. So three of the four foundations of sustainable places (accessible places, serviceable places, and securable places) are essentially made impossible by sprawl.
How could the EPA, of all people, possibly not get it? There are two closely-related reasons, in my opinion. Gizmo Green is the proposition that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability. But it simply isn’t so because increases in our consumption consistently outstrip industry’s ability to increase efficiency. Simply put, if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. Sustainability isn’t something you get by going shopping. It’s something you get by thinking (and then acting) differently. So the second closely-related reason is that sustainability isn’t something “they” do... it’s something we do.
Unfortunately, the EPA has been so focused on Gizmo Green solutions for so many years that their Kansas City office appears to be completely oblivious to the fact that Gizmo Green is only a small part of the solution. They’ve done great work attacking the causes of pollution from industrial sources. They now regulate many types of activities with the intent of reducing environmental impact. But the lion’s share of what they do is based on cleaning up the gizmos on the supply side... it’s no wonder they’re wearing Gizmo Green Glasses!
The bottom line is that today, on Earth Day 2011, it’s high time to begin taking a more holistic view of sustainability that goes far beyond our tools, and focuses on everything else about us as well... including the sprawl we inhabit and the auto-dominated lifestyle it forces upon us.
But this shouldn’t be a one-day confession of shortcomings... as a matter of fact, I wondered publicly last year whether Earth Day might be a symptom of our disease? We can’t beat our collective breasts and then go and do the same thing again. The only way to make the change last is to make it enticing. We seldom do the things we ought to do, but frequently do the things we want to do. Sustainability must be something we’re enticed to do, not something we’re compelled to do.
What should EPA Kansas City do? They should lead the way by first changing their plans to abandon a more sustainable place in favor of sprawl. Then, they should broadcast the story of why they changed their minds and were enticed to stay in a place that is more sustainable. It won’t solve everything, but it will show some leadership in something we’re sorely missing today: the story of the things we want to do that make us more sustainable.
Saturday, April 23, 2011 - 12:29 PM
Great point Steve... It was a perfect post for Earth Day. This is an unbelievably irresponsible move by the EPA and suggests that even the people working within the organizations that are supposed to 'get it' just don't 'get it.'
Unfortunately, I think many people have tuned out of the 'green' 'sustainability' movement due to all of the hypocrisy on the part of the organizations and businesses that claim to be 'green.' In all honesty, I think the new urbanist movement is one of the only movements that has been 'green' for the right reasons while not trying to exploit it's own 'greenness.' I think there's an opportunity for the NU movement to bring in the environmentalists who feel disenfranchised by the 'green' movement. I know it's happening already but I think it needs to be explored more.
Saturday, April 23, 2011 - 01:00 PM
I think you have clearly articulated this Ultimate Betrayal. I personally FEEL betrayed by their action.
Sunday, April 24, 2011 - 07:52 AM
Mike, I believe you're exactly right about the New Urbanism... the only question will be whether the NU reaches out to the people you've identified.
Sunday, April 24, 2011 - 06:42 PM
Thank you for the post. Very glad that I took time to read your thoughts today!
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - 07:28 AM
Thanks, Chaden! I appreciate that.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - 10:34 AM
"How could the EPA, of all people, possibly not get it? There are two closely-related reasons, in my opinion. Gizmo Green is the proposition ...."
What is the second reason?
Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 10:41 AM
I wouldn't go that far... it's just an office space, use email.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - 10:54 PM
Speaking of the EPA, I actually came across an article today that I think you may or may not have seen already, but it sheds a pretty good light on the current situation with the EPA and the “Haze Plan” that some seem to be pushing. Either way, it just came out in the Albuquerque Journal and is ranked as one of the top current articles regarding the EPA, so I thought I’d share it with you nonetheless. If you’re up for a glance, here’s a link.
Have a good one!
Thursday, May 5, 2011 - 08:45 AM
Alan, the second closely-related reason is that sustainability isn’t something “they” do... it’s something we do.
Thursday, May 5, 2011 - 08:50 AM
I hadn't seen that, Pierre... thanks for posting the link! I would also take the position that the EPA should not be the only avenue for challenges, but for a different reason made obvious in this post: if they don't understand the implications of location, then they obviously have the Specialists' Disease of getting so focused on one aspect of what their work that the lose the big picture.