PBS to America: Fight Global Warming, Drive an SUV
In 2005, PBS came out with a widely promoted documentary narrated by Alanis Morissette called "Global Warming: The Signs and the Science." For people interested in learning more about the topic of global warming and climate change, this DVD is widely available. Being produced and distributed by a well known and highly respected organization, serves to set public opinion on causes and remedies for climate change.
I rented this DVD recently in an effort to learn more about the issue, but I came away feeling that the video does little more than tell suburban Americans that there is nothing problematic about a way of life precariously dependent on massive energy inputs and carbon outputs. But it doesn’t stop there. The video actually demonizes an antidote to sprawl, our own tightly knit, pedestrian-oriented urban environment and other cities as well.
First off, the documentary was sponsored by Toyota, and they have an ad for the Prius at the beginning. Great, a global warming video sponsored by a car company. "Perfect," I thought. "I am sure that won’t warp the message at all."
The video starts out noting the effects of humans on carbon emissions. Morissette says, "Unfortunately, modern lifestyle demands energy. And without question, the United States is the biggest economy, the biggest energy consumer and the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world." This is a true statement, but it is not because of what is being shown on screen when she says it.
What quintessential image did the director choose to illustrate American energy consumption? A Wal-Mart parking lot? A seven-lane traffic choked freeway? McMansions on the prairie? Nope. They went with the Manhattan streetscape.
Times Square is about the most atypical half mile stretch in the entire country. A visual of a Wal-Mart parking lot would have been more not only more typical of the U.S. landscape, but more representative of an energy-hungry environment. But it would have hit too close to home to the average viewer. It’s easier to demonize something in a far-off big city that few people can relate to.
Here on Streetsblog I need not go into the many inherent energy efficiencies represented by Times Square’s transit-oriented, land-saving, heat-and-air-conditioning-saving density (pdf warning). All too often, directors looking to fill the screen with images of human activity succumb to the temptation of showing the busiest possible image, regardless of how environmentally friendly it is, and in the process damaging the cause of limiting carbon emissions through efficient land use. Sure, energy is expended and carbon emitted in Times Square, but far less than in the equivalent amount of sprawl that is not shown. The result of the overlay is that people get a sense that New York is the cause of carbon emissions, when in fact its existence saves huge amounts of carbon emissions and land clearance from happening.
Not only is New York cast as the root of the problem, it is presented as the last place you would want to be in a world facing global warming. Laurence Kalkstein of the University of Delaware, describes the important and real problem of urban heat islands this way: "Think of the way people live in urban areas like Paris. A lot of concrete. Very little green space. No-one lives in individual homes. Everyone is crammed together."
This is the typical American anti-urban bias coming out all over again, this time with a veneer of environmentalism. "Gosh!" it makes one think, "Better move to a place where you have a green yard or at least a marina."
Then, with an image of the Manhattan skyline on the screen, Kalkstein lays it out explicitly, in breathless prose: "In every way imaginable, a northeastern U.S.-type urban setting is probably the worst you can possibly imagine for heat-related mortality. And I might even add, even worse than in most third-world cities."
The answer for the urban heat island effect is implementation of green roofs, NOT depopulating the city center and leaving the poor to suffer its consequences while the rich and middle class bulldoze more green countryside to build more sprawl. But the inclusion of this piece in the documentary serves to reassure the largely suburban viewership that they have made the right choice. Phew!, at least I don’t live in the unsafe and terrifying city.
But the documentary isn’t through bashing New York. They interview a bike messenger, Paul LoMarca (phonetic spelling). Do they let him explain that cycling is a zero-emissions mode of travel that is more practical in an urban setting? Nope.
Amid visuals of Paul sliding through traffic and sounds of someone breathing painfully into a Darth Vader mask, he says, "I can see in the air at certain times of day when I’m riding. This haze of smoke on certain avenues where there’s idling cars and traffic jams."
They interview a bike messenger for a movie about climate change, and that’s what they come up with? Of all the incredibly strong points that a bike messenger could have made about sustainable transportation, they chose to have him make a point (unpleasantness of car emissions) that could be said about any place where people drive, but they focus on the community where fewer people drive per capita than anywhere else.
Someone watching this segment would be deterred from riding a bike in New York. At least, then, there’s the other inherently urban sustainable mode of transportation, the subway. But that’s no good either. It’s going to get flooded.
To top it all off, they do a section on environmental justice, as an activist from Detroit gives a bus tour to a some students. In this section, about the siting of polluting facilities in poor neighborhoods, the directors were probably trying to do the right thing. But the section ends up scaring people away from cities further, thanks to Morissette, who says, "In inner-city neighborhoods, bad air and heat waves have killed, and will kill again!" and "While inner-city dwellers are more at risk than most, climate change is affecting people’s health all over the world."
So the message to suburban America is clear: stay where you are. Embrace your inner escapist. There’s no need to change your lifestyle patterns.
So restoration of tight-knit communities with walkable, bikable and transit-oriented neighborhoods is not the solution. Then what is the solution to climate change?
We learn about an academic contest in the desert to find a better motor, or as the participants put it, "a split parallel hybrid electric … parallel diesel electric hybrid … free transmission parallel hybrid … hydrogen fuel cell powered … ethanol electric hybrid … diesel electric hybrid … hybrid diesel electric vehicle with a … modified four-liter … with a small internal combustion engine and a powerful electric motor." At any rate, there are still a few issues that have to be worked out. Hmm.
But once these problems are solved, the way to fix climate change is to have better SUVs. Nowhere does the video present the fact that the inefficient and sprawling landscape of U.S. suburbia is a major contributor to climate change. Rather, the video encourages sprawl by presenting the environmentally friendly city as the problem and as a place you wouldn’t want to be.
The key to reducing global warming emissions starts with reducing emissions from motor vehicles. And a key to that is to reduce driving by encouraging transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly land use patterns like those here in New York and other cities (which happen to be land use patterns that preserve farmland for farming and forests as forests). This video, while explaining "what you can do" to reduce global warming emissions, says nothing on the subject. In fact, it presents urban bicycling as unpleasant and cities generally as pollution-saturated places of energy gluttony.
The message from this video is clear: Don’t ride a bike. Don’t ride the subway. Don’t live in a place where you can walk to work or live in a spacially efficient dwelling.
Oh, and by the way: Buy a Toyota.