We are re-sharing essays submitted to ‘The Reflection Pond,’ the opinion section of this past year’s ISEE newsletter. This submission was part of s series on Covid-19 and Environmental Ethics.
THE PERILS OF DESTINY: AN IMPORTANT LESSON OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
by Phil Cafaro
The current global pandemic, devastating as it is, has the potential to teach people some useful environmental lessons, if we’re willing to pay attention. One is that commercializing wild animals and selling them in unhygienic “wet markets” is an invitation to epidemiological disaster. Another is that the current global economy is toxic: when this novel coronavirus drastically ratcheted back economic activity, fish returned to Venice’s canals and New Delhi residents breathed easier and could once again see the Himalayas.
Perhaps the most important environmental lesson COVID-19 can teach environmentalists is that increasing the density of human populations is not the answer to our environmental problems. Even in normal times, excessive density harms people’s physical and mental health. During a pandemic, density can quickly turn deadly. Stories from France to India to Brazil have detailed how difficult it is for people in crowded cities to practice safe social distancing. For poor slum dwellers, living packed in one or two rooms and sharing communal water sources and toilets, it is literally impossible.
In recent years, “smart growth” advocates in the U.S. and Europe have been saying that increased density is the key to creating more ecologically sustainable societies. Fill in those unused city lots with more houses and office buildings. Re-zone detached, single-family housing areas to allow apartments. Re-zone areas designated for three or four-story apartments to allow six or eight-story ones. Build in! Build up! Yes, in my backyard! Smart growth will supposedly allow us to continue to grow, creating environmental efficiencies, while leaving land outside designated growth areas to remain for wild nature.
Such an approach is bound to fail. All those people crammed into cities still need resources from the countryside. So, in fact, more city-dwellers do not translate into more land left to nature, but instead to more land developed to grow food and host energy infrastructure, more wetlands filled in and more forests managed intensively—and more second homes built out in the country for those rich enough to afford them. As our cities, towns and populations grow, we inevitably take more resources from other species and gobble up habitat they need to survive.
Similarly, density’s touted environmental “efficiencies” turn out to be less than valuable than advertised. It’s true that New Yorkers have some of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the country, due to more mass transit use and apartment living—a function of high density. But the metro area generates the highest total greenhouse gas emissions of any similar area in the country—a function of its excessive population. When YIMBYs urge Americans to get with the program, like NYC and San Francisco, and embrace denser development, they really are urging us to increase our overall greenhouse gas emissions. As a consolation prize, we will get to virtue signal that our per capita emissions have gone down. But it is total emissions that ultimately count when it comes to climate disruption.
In the same way, from an environmental perspective, what matters is overall water consumption, overall demand for food, overall land paved over in concrete, overall air miles flown. More people mean more of all these environmental stressors. Children in New York have higher asthma rates than children in less populous parts of the country, since higher population densities lead to worse air pollution. Year in and year out, that takes a toll on many kids’ ability to live a normal, healthy life. It doesn’t matter if per capita particulate emissions are lower in NYC than in smaller cities and towns—NYC children’s lungs are still worse off because of the crowding, with emissions from many persons per unit area.
None of this means that sensible zoning, alternating denser with less dense areas and undeveloped areas, is not necessary for effective environmentalism. But increased density should not become an end in itself, or a substitute for setting limits to human demands on nature. It should not become an excuse for more population growth in places like California that are already groaning under excessive human numbers. Then “smart growth” becomes a way for clever people to continue to do dumb things: a bait and switch tactic to hide the fact that we continue to damage the environment. That’s the path humanity treads today, as climate disruption, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and other ecological stressors driven by excessive human numbers threaten the entire planet. The evidence is clear that this path is not sustainable.
Phil Cafaro is Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and former ISEE President.