In the last century, three powerful forces—oil, cars, and suburbs—buoyed the American dream. Yet now, the quality of life in the United States is declining due to these same three forces. Our dependence on oil is a root cause of wars, recessions, and natural disasters. Cars consume an outsize share of our incomes and force us to squander time in traffic. Meanwhile, expensive, spread-out suburbs devour farmland—and in a vicious cycle, further entrench our reliance on cars and oil.
In Terra Nova, conservation ecologist Eric W. Sanderson—the national bestselling author of Mannahatta—offers concrete steps toward a solution. He delves into natural history, architecture, chemistry, and politics, to show how the American relationship to nature has shaped our past, and how it can affect our future. Illustrated throughout with maps, charts, and infographics, Terra Nova demonstrates that it is indeed possible to achieve a better world.
“Sanderson commendably outlines ‘a new way of life . . . designed to sustain American prosperity, health, and freedom for generations to come.’” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How the Sirens Sing
All these things have thus come to an end.
Homer, The Odyssey
First of all, you'll run into the Sirens.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book 12
On his long journey home after the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus came to an island where the goddess Circe advised him to avoid the Sirens, beautiful winged monsters whose irresistible song lured mariners to their death. Forewarned but undaunted, Odysseus sailed into peril anyway. His plan: He would listen but not give in. The wily hero packed his men's ears with beeswax and commanded them to tie him to the ship's mast. There he stood as they sailed into treacherous waters; the Sirens called to him, and he heard their song. As Circe had predicted, he longed to go to them, to cast away everything he held dear. He shouted at his men, ordered, then begged them to set him free, but the mast was strong, the rope held fast, and his men couldn't hear his pleas. And so Odysseus did not perish, but emerged on the other side of the Siren song wiser, saner, and prepared to complete his journey home.
Like Odysseus's less fortunate peers, Americans have been hearkening to a Siren call. Monsters have been singing to us for decades, and we have found their music persuasive, beautiful, and often irresistible, even though we know that it beckons us to our own destruction. Despite our best intentions, oil, cars, and suburbs have become the modern American Sirens.
You know the dangers well; they are in the news practically every night, and have been a generation or more. Oil brings us hatred from the people who have the wells; wars in the Middle East to protect the supply; economic shocks and cycles of unemployment, inflation, and foreclosure; poisoned air and waters; and a climate altered by carbon released from its millennial slumber underground. Cars isolate us in metal boxes, discourage us from exercise, expose us to accidents and sudden death, and squander our time on congested freeways, while each year requiring more roads to fragment the landscape, entomb farm fields, cleave neighborhoods, and drain our collective coffers in servitude to lifeless prairies of asphalt. Suburbs, originally conceived as garden cities, are criticized for their monotony, segregation, sprawl, outrageous property taxes, obsequious service to retailers, and aesthetic, social, and cultural barrenness, but in my book the problem with suburbs as currently constituted is that they require automobiles, and automobiles require oil: Suburbs force us to drive.
Oil, cars, and suburbs sing to us constantly and harmoniously. Their song bridges history and landscape to appeal to our identity as a free nation; we hear it on the television and we say to ourselves: We wouldn't be Americans without these things. So the trap is laid. A seduction composed of our own desires, the song is composed of the choices and actions of our parents and grandparents and sustained by our own choices and actions. These things — oil, cars, suburbs — are not monsters on their own, but only monsters as we have made them, and because of what they make us do.
They were never meant to be such a difficulty; they were intended to provide joy, freedom, and wealth. For most of the twentieth century, connecting these three buoyed the American Dream of a better material life for every generation. So successful was the combination that many Americans began to think oil-cars-suburbs was the American Dream, confusing means with ends. Yet it seems that these same means have now run their course: For the first time since the founding of the nation, the quality of life in America is in decline; the price, perhaps, of too much of a good thing.
Signs of an era's end are all around us, yet blithely we continue as Americans have done since the time of William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. The advantages of oil as an energy source are obvious and attractive — especially when it's cheap and abundant. Autos have been a mark of personal liberty for at least a century. A variety of interests represent the detached, single-family home on a cul-de-sac as the epitome of life's ambitions. Oil, cars, and suburbs sing to us all the time.
I have to say I have been caught humming the song, too. I'm a kid from the suburbs, like a hundred million others; gas stations, mini-malls, and sprawling ranch homes defined the landscape of my youth in northern California. Some of my earliest memories are of squabbling with my brother in the back of the family Ford on the way to the store or the swim club or the innumerable other errands for which driving was the only practical alternative. My family had a modest suburban house near a creek, constructed where an orchard had been. It was two miles from our house to the closest store, a long walk with groceries but just a quick jaunt in the car — whether it was Dad's Rambler, Mom's Ford, Dad's Mercury, Mom's Volvo, Dad's Acura, Mom's Subaru, or Dad's Lexus. I marked my youth by the cars my parents drove.
When I was in high school, my grandparents in rural Colorado offered to help me buy a car. Every young man needed a car, they said. That was especially true where they lived, where it was twenty miles in twenty minutes to the closest town. But I was more interested in my Uncle Larry's dusty and forlorn fifty-four–volume set of the Great Books of the Western World in the den. My grandparents thought I was crazy to spend Friday nights reading John Locke and Adam Smith; my brother and sister suspected it was a ploy to avoid carting them around town.
Later when I went to college at the University of California, Davis, I bought my own car, a beat-up, used blue 1977 Volvo station wagon. My friends and I affectionately named her Brünnhilde, leader of the Valkyrie. She took me home on weekends and let me escape to the Sierra Nevada mountains in a few hours; but around town, I discovered I rather liked to ride my bike. Davis was one of the few places in the country where the weather, terrain, and traffic engineering had conspired to make a bicyclists' paradise. Weeks would pass when the only transportation I needed, I provided by my own pedal power. It was a local freedom, but a sweet one nonetheless.
In the meantime, my parents' marriage ended and, eventually, my dad sold the house. I jokingly offered to take it off his hands in the early 2000s; the combination of his mortgage and his property taxes (kept low by Proposition 13 in California) was less than the rent for my one-bedroom apartment. Dad declined. In the end the house sold for twenty-four times what my parents had bought it for back in 1969, a goodly appreciation of 400 percent even after adjusting for inflation.
About the same time, I emerged from graduate school penury to take a job in New York City, coaxing my decrepit but beloved blue Volvo across the country. I almost left my bike behind, but at the last minute, threw it back in to discover when I reached the Bronx that there were bike lanes from the island where I lived to the green park where I worked, six and a half miles away. Though the climate wasn't as amenable to it, I found my Davis-like wheeled existence could be transplanted to the big city, too; in fact it was facilitated by how close everything was. Riding a bike in the Bronx meant paying more attention to personal safety but it worked better than I thought it would (especially when conjoined with subway trips downtown).
I came to the Bronx as an ecologist to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society (the Bronx Zoo's parent organization), a New York City cultural institution with a century-long dedication to wildlife and wild places around the world. My task was to bring technical aspects of modern geography into its global mission to save tigers, elephants, whales, gorillas, and other charismatic megafauna (the big critters everyone loves and can't imagine a world without). I knew more than a person rightly should about GPS, satellite imagery, geographic information systems, and other techniques spoken of mainly in acronyms. In graduate school, I had learned how to dig deep and patiently into data to see what patterns pertained and ask questions that led to questions that led to other questions. More than most disciplines, ecology thrives on complexity, and ecology in the service of conservation (a subdiscipline called conservation biology) pulls one rapidly into the domains of economics, society, and politics. It was — and is — exciting, heady work.
One of the first projects I undertook for my employer was to make a new kind of map of the world by combining computer-rendered versions of human population density (the number of people living in a place), land use (represented by agricultural fields and urban areas), roads and other transportation networks, and lights detectable by a satellite at night. We found that 83 percent of the earth's land surface was directly influenced by humanity according to one or more of these measures; 98 percent of the places where it's possible to grow rice, wheat, and corn had already been touched by humanity. Rolling off the plotter, the map seemed to blink with digital solemnity: The frontier was gone.
We called our map "the human footprint," but a better name might have been "the human tire track," after the numerous roads crisscrossing Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas. We electronically painted the map red, black, and purple where there were a lot of people, and forest green where there was the least human influence — in the wild places, the places that we were trying to save. The suburbs were easily identifiable by their pink fleshy color, inflammation around the wine-dark cities, one of many signs of a planet's domestication.
Against the Mast
Still I was lulled by the Siren song. Despite the "tire track," the traffic, the reports of climate change, the speeders on the parkways, the dreadful cost of car insurance, the dead animals on the road shoulder, the digits racing past on the pump — all of these seemed just the price that had to be paid for people to get to work, and since they were tallied on such different accounts, I hardly put them together. I didn't see oil, cars, and suburbs for the interlocking, mutually reinforcing system that they are, touching nearly everything I cared about in both my professional and personal lives.
Looking back, the moment that finally brought me to the mast, the shock that forced me to put the pieces together, was September 11, 2001, the day that planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and a farm field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks brought home to me the reality of the American presence in the Middle East and the hostility it had engendered. Our collective and my personal complacency shattered, no one could mistake the vengeance the American republic meted out in return, measured in warplanes and tanks, bombs and missiles, black operations, extraordinary renditions, enhanced interrogations, and drone strikes a world away. We spent trillions of dollars, sacrificed the health and lives of thousands of American soldiers, and killed or saw killed tens of thousands of others, not only in Afghanistan, which launched the terrorists, but also in Iraq, whose link to 9/11 was tenuous at best. Yet strangely, throughout a decade of death and mayhem, we left untouched the origins of Osama Bin Laden's wealth and hatred in Saudi Arabia.
I wondered why it all happened so. One fact stood out above the rest: American dependence on oil fields around the Persian Gulf. Presidents had been speaking of it since the 1970s, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, with hardly any effect. We said we would, and we did fight one overt war to protect that oil (the Gulf War of 1991), and we were clearly prepared to fight another, and we did. Oil — and the necessity of protecting it on the other side of the world at all costs — necessitated battling monsters.
But I wanted to know why. Why oil? Why there? With a kind of bookish patriotism, I started reading, and I started calculating. As you will have surmised, questions about oil transmuted into questions about cars and transportation, and those grew into other questions about suburbs and land use, what we value, how and why we value it, and who we are as a people and a country. Did I discover something that had never been said? No. Did I come to realize how much oil-cars-suburbs predicated the shocks and disasters of my time? Yes, I did. What I learned comprises the first part of this book.
In the process, I also learned to listen more carefully to the music of the economy. I heard in the Siren song two themes intertwined: a motif of energy and an anthem of profit, the twin currencies of the natural and human economies, respectively. I discovered that if I ever forgot one or the other in my search, I would quickly become lost in murky waters, drowned in minutiae, distracted by the schools of red herrings that confuse the otherwise ineluctable relationships among oil, cars, and suburbs.
If the first part of this book is an attempt to explain how the Siren song came to be and why it draws us so strongly to a doom we know but can't seem to avoid, the second half is an effort to describe a new way of life, a promise beyond oil, cars, and suburbs, designed to sustain American prosperity, health, and freedom for generations to come. Can you imagine? The daily news often seems so grim and intractable, and the monumentality of our investment in the current model so overwhelming, that many Americans have difficulty conceiving of another way of life. But other ways are possible, even preferable. The goal is to imagine a future without also having to appeal to some miraculous technological fix. Some marvel might be in the offing, but let's not depend on it for our nation's welfare and security. Rather, let us conceive how we can do better with what we already have, by making some rearrangements and banishing some old false presumptions about the way the world works. As we shall see, many of the solutions are already within our grasp; a new form of the American Dream is already being dreamt across a nation rooted in a land of wealth and opportunity.
But first we need to shake off the old nightmares. Think of this book as the mast on Odysseus's ship. Think of yourself as the cunning hero. Ready yourself to hear the Sirens sing. And then relax. My aim is not to make you feel bad for having to drive your car to work or for wanting a house with a garden out of town. Rather, this book is about eluding a trap that we have made together and that, together, we can unmake.
Let us dream of a new world: America after oil, cars, and suburbs.
An Ode to Oil
Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.
The Siren song begins with an ode to oil. Oil comes from nature. By nature I mean the interactions of soil and rock, air and water, energy and life, that characterize our verdant planet; and by natural, I mean the qualities of everyone and everything participating in the great congress of life, including you and me. When we burn oil, the products of combustion are released to nature, where they mix again with air, water, energy, and life. If we want to understand why our culture, politics, and economy are so dependent on oil, we first need to understand where it naturally comes from and where it naturally goes. We need to look up, to the sun and the sky.
The Celestial Campfire
The sun is the ultimate source of all energy on earth, whether it's used by grass in the fields, trees in the forest, or your car on the road. Though poets might prefer a more evocative comparison, astrophysicists liken the sun to a nuclear fusion reactor. Astronomers observe that the sun's diameter is more than one hundred times larger than the earth's, and it is unimaginably hot — nearly 15 million degrees Celsius at its center. Within that heat, the sun packs enormous pressure; the core is forty-three times denser than a diamond. Under these extreme conditions four protons slamming together make one helium atom through nuclear fusion. When that happens, about 0.7 percent of the mass of the protons is turned into energy (E = mc), and about 0.000000045 percent of that energy eventually comes flying in our direction in the form of sunlight. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's enough to power all life on earth, and more. In fact, the energy in sunlight arriving on earth contains about twelve thousand times more energy than humanity uses in a year.
Excerpted from "Terra Nova"
Copyright © 2013 Eric W. Sanderson.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I The Siren Song,
1 How the Sirens Sing,
2 An Ode to Oil,
3 Flexible Power,
4 The Cheap Oil Window,
5 Time for Space,
6 The Great American Expansion,
7 The Crescendo and the Crash,
Part II Terra Nova,
8 Holding Council,
9 Gate Duties,
10 Moving to Town,
11 Roads to Rails,
12 Invest in the Sun,
Part III Ramifications,
13 A Future,
14 Cost, Sacrifice, and Evolution,
15 Collateral Benefits,
Notes, Sources, and Elaborations,
Table of Unit Conversions,
Orders of Magnitude,
Index of Searchable Terms,