Monday, July 7, 2008


Many people worry about their carbon footprint, a fine worry, and one that hopefully turns to action. In recent days, the comment that urbanites emit less carbon than country folk has come up as a supposedly easily apparent observation. And, though I won't challenge this notion directly, I want to offer some observations that may throw into doubt this conclusion. I do this because we all have dirty feet, and because, by so completely denigrating country living, people avoid it, we lose a connection to soil and place, and in its place leave a fully mechanized industry of huge, corporate farming enterprises, and a huge chunk of our humanity.

First is the organization of our infrastructure. Transportation is the largest emitter of carbon in the United States, as Americans have developed an urban-oriented, individualistic, consumer-based infrastructure. This means that all roads lead to LA, or NY, or SF, and they are all roads, not railroads or canals. It also means that the places these roads lead to are not plazas, churches, or city halls. They are stores.

This layout means that many folks, whether city or country, have to drive to get to these places. Country folks, though they may have a longer drive into town, do not have as many stopping points, and they often arrive during off-peak traffic hours. This should at least lead to questions about the true transportation footprint of country vs. city living.

Other additions to the carbon footprint come as a result of our extensive, car-based urbanization. Croplands, designed to accommodate this urban focus, are almost exclusively monocultural, which means that they are grown as single, huge swaths of one plant. These crops are harvested, trucked to processing facilities typically dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of miles away, in cities. They are processed using tremendous amounts of energy, packaged to avoid spoilage or damage, using even more energy, and shipped, yet again, to stores in urban centers all over the country. This used to be the most efficient use of resources, but, as is seen in air pollution and fuel prices, the efficiency equation is rapidly changing. People in the cities do not, themselves, drive out to get food, they rely on these highly processed, heavily packaged units to get to them. Whose carbon footprint is this?

Granted, country folks eat this food, too, thereby adding to their carbon footprint. But, country folks have the benefit of easier access to local food, and they often take advantage of it. Few people in the countryside surrounding Sacramento buy tomatoes during the Summer. It is said that people in the country lock their doors only in July and August, so as to avoid yet another zucchini. Oftentimes, city people do not have the option of food grown in their backyards. They are forced to rely on a very dirty system.

Next, consider the city's physical structures: Miles of heat-absorbing and -emitting asphalt, concrete and plastics; asphalt-shingled roofs, open to the sun (because you have to cut your tree limbs over the house to get your insurance); water typically pumped from miles away (20% of California's energy goes to pumping water, and 2% goes to pumping water from the Delta to Central and Southern California); and millions of people forced to hit the road to escape these concrete jungles for recreation in the countryside.

If we had to alter our country's infrastructure to greatly diminish our carbon footprint, what might it look like? It's interesting to note, but the Jeffersonian fantasy, a nation of small, landed farmers looking out for their community, may ultimately be the best carbon choice, too. Even just small starts, like gardening to pick up a percentage of food costs, can cut down on carbon emissions.

These observations aren't meant to disregard the carbon footprint of country folks, or even to completely counter the claim that rural living is more carbon-intensive. We all, urban and rural, need to readjust our travels, meals, and entertainment. In the meantime, try to buck the carbon trend by buying locally grown food directly from farmers at farmers' markets, and, if you live out there or have a backyard, grow some of your own food. If you grow food for a living, make a larger percentage of your land available for local markets. And always remember, when you are doing your part to cut your carbon emissions, that the suburbanites are the real problem. Heh, heh.

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