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There You Are

03/06/08 5:55PM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT, who says that modern enviromentalism - launched in the suburbs in the 1960s - has spread far and wide.  

(SHUTKIN) It wasn't long ago that people who cared about the environment fled America's dirty, industrialized cities in droves for the green meadows and forested dales of the suburbs. Rachel Carson, with her landmark 1964 book Silent Spring, became the symbol of what some have called the secular religion of the white middle class.

What a difference a few decades make. Owing to a better understanding of the correlation between land use and environmental harms like habitat destruction and air pollution, the suburbs, defined by their car-dependent subdivisions and single-use zoning, have become the new anti-heroes of environmentalism, a fate once reserved exclusively for big cities, big corporations and backwater states like Mississippi. It's a stunning swing of the green pendulum. It's also wrong.

Today, every environmentalist is a self-proclaimed urbanist. Whereas in the 1960s and 70s the watchwords were endangered species and wilderness and the M.O. was protecting places from human encroachment, today its the opposite. The mantra is density, mass transit and green buildings and the approach is all about environmentally sound development. Simply living in the suburbs is, by todays definition, a problem, with the suburbs portrayed as the root of a host of ills.

The problem with this shift in attitudes is not that urbanism is a bad environmental strategy. The problem is that, as the mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say, Wherever you go, there you are.

Environmentalism doesn't necessitate a particular development geography. New York City, for example, while a paragon of density and public transit, is also home to some of the nations most blighted neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, rural states like Vermont, with all our forests and farmland, cherish our green reputation. The trouble is, all that green is somewhat misleading.

Vermont drivers travel more miles per capita than any other Americans, save for our country cousins in Wyoming. Meanwhile, lacking any real urban centers and with a small population, were hardly a model for the rest of the country, over 80 percent of which live in highly urbanized, metropolitan zones, the very thing most Vermonter's decry.

Then there are suburbs like Stamford, Connecticut. With a major transit center and dense, mixed-use downtown on the one hand and a forested landscape, beaches and parks on the other, Stamford has the makings of an environmentally friendly community, at least no more or less so than its urban and rural counterparts.

The key to a green future is not to demonize the places that most Americans call home, but to acknowledge that sustainability begins and ends with each and every one of us, wherever we live. In other words, environmental virtue is not the product of place but of people, because where ever we go, there we are.
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