Creation care, “practical love,” and the American suburbs

One evangelical leader is asked about caring for the environment as a Christian imperative and they connect the issue to the American suburbs:

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If you play the visionary, what must the church or mission agency do now to prepare for the coming changes? How will they take the gospel message to the world?

Much of what we will have to do is practical love, not just suburban evangelism. I don’t know how leaders of World Vision, SIL, Compassion International, or TEAM should change their strategies—but they must be talking about this. Do the analysis, and anticipate the threats.

Will “practical love” be necessary also in the suburbs?

As environmental impacts ramp up, more and more people will discover they are vulnerable. On the West Coast, the Colorado River is running dry. An entire swath of the country is or may soon be on water rationing, and I don’t know how to deal with that. We are not as protected from environmental impacts as we think we are.

Supply chain issues are affecting cellphones and new cars, but what happens when it hits the grocery stores? Trace it back, and you will discover that there were no apples, because the pollinators were absent. This brings it home, but by then, it will be too late.

I see two connections to suburbs in this discussion:

  1. There is “suburban evangelism” and this contrasts with “practical love.” To address changes in the environment, “suburban evangelism” may not be enough.
  2. The environmental issues will eventually come to the suburbs. Suburbanites might feel like they are protected by a certain level of wealth and distance from immediate dangers, but environmental change will find them.

In other words, there is a particular way of Christian faith that aligns with suburban life. Right now, that faith does not regularly intersect with climate change or environmental issues.

A much larger, and related, question: what about suburban faith does not line up with addressing climate change and other important social issues? (I have some thoughts about this: I have an analysis titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical Christian Books about Suburban Life” in this book.)

Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

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Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

The importance of the globe’s five biggest forests

A new book outlines the outsized role of the five remaining big forests in the world:

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All forests can help, but large forests are of supreme importance for the climate. The five largest ones left—the megaforests—include boreal forests in Russia and North America, and the tropical forests in the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea. Intact forests are 20 percent of the tropical total and store 40 percent of the aboveground forest carbon in the low latitudes. New research led by Sean Maxwell, of the University of Queensland, and 11 collaborators suggests that the carbon benefit of intact tropical forests is six times greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have estimated to date. That’s because in the years after a big forest is broken up by roads or farms, its edges dry out and winds whistle through, blowing over big trees. Fires invade it more readily, and overhunting eliminates animals that disperse seeds. And on top of all the carbon vaporized from the space actually deforested, over the next several decades the climate will be stuck with 14 metric tons of extra carbon per acre that the lost tropical forests would have absorbed had they remained standing…

This experiment began in 1979. It ended up with five plots measuring two and a half acres, four at 25 acres, and two covering 250 acres. Matching control plots in continuous forest were also established. By 2002, the project had produced a simple answer about fragmentation: Large intact areas are very important, the larger the better. Even the 250-acre reserves were too small for forest-interior bird species, half of which vacated these patches in less than 15 years. The edges were hotter and drier, with great mats of desiccated leaves from trees either dying or losing foliage to wind. There were more vines, thicker undergrowth, and fewer mushrooms.

Species that need continuous tree cover decamped. Black spider monkeys, for example, who move fast through large areas of forest eating fruit from widely spaced trees, abandoned all the forest fragments immediately. They stayed in nearby continuous forest. Howler monkeys, by contrast, are leaf eaters and not particularly choosy. They remained in all the fragments. The white-plumed antbird, so named for the spiky crest between its eyes, could not persist in the fragments. Antbirds follow raiding ant armies and eat the bugs flushed out by the lethal column. Though 250 acres is sufficient territory for one ant colony, each colony marches only about a week per month. So, to avoid going hungry for weeks at a time, the white-plumed antbirds need to follow several colonies on a rotating basis. The 250-acre fragments were at least three times too small for the birds. No antbirds means no antbird droppings, which deprives shimmering blue-and-black skipper butterflies their sustenance. They left too…

Big forests are a linchpin in a planetary system. They are vivid stages for stories about energy and matter that we describe severally with our physical, biological, and chemical sciences, but are really a single story whose intricacies and meaning we don’t fully understand. Orchid bees make Brazil nuts, feed agoutis, take carbon from the air, breathe water back into it, make clouds that make rain a hundred miles away that feeds a stream, where a catfish, having migrated from the mouth of the Amazon, is caught by an otter or by a person, surrendering its protein to enliven the woods. The bee makes all these things, and these things make the bee.

One takeaway from this research: the way trees and nature are often treated in urban and suburban settings does not fully grapple with the larger impact of trees and forests. Isolated pockets of green are not necessarily bad but there is a difference in scale between those possibilities in more densely settled locations and large unbroken forests.

Another interesting aspect to consider is the human interaction with these large forests. Coming off reading the The Dawn of Everything, the shift to agriculture and living in larger cities in metropolitan areas did really create a divide between certain natural settings where humans could thrive and what became the settings for much of human activity.

This book also reminded me of this January 2022 piece on a man who has explored the old growth forests of New England and how much this differs from many contemporary experiences with trees and forests.

McMansions as part of a world ruined by climate change

A new art exhibit includes McMansions in the imagery of a world after the negative effects of climate change:

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When Josh Kline debuted his “Climate Change” series at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the slick sci-fi work looked a little smug. The New York-based artist, who at 43 has pieces in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, is known as a political fantasist with a dyspeptic view of life under capitalism. A recent series of dirty, resin-soaked American flags shaped into televisions, for example, is meant to critique Fox News.

Even so, Kline’s apocalyptic vision of warming seas for the biennial had outdone itself for corporate-chic confidence: a series of 12 greyscale photos of emblems of U.S. power — San Francisco skyscrapers, the front desk of Twitter’s headquarters, a statue of Ronald Reagan — partly submerged in water in plexiglass cases and lit with medicinal ambers and greens. Pumps recirculated the water over the prints, erasing them slowly, like the washer in a darkroom or a hotel water feature or, maybe, liberal tears. The message was propagandistically clear: climate change is real; the water is rising; turn back the tide while you still can.

Now, three of these flooded works appear at LAXART, a nonprofit project space in Los Angeles, as part of Kline’s new exhibition, “Adaptation.” In this setting, they seem less declarative, more hunkered down. The relentless combination of time and trickling water soaks the photographs with an aura of romantic decline. A Silicon Valley McMansion’s peaked roof peers through a curtain of cloudy fluid in “Luxury Home, Los Altos Hills.” A white patch of blight creeps up from the bottom of “Deck, Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Menlo Park.” In “432 Park Avenue, Manhattan,” which depicts a supertall residential tower that may be more an investment storehouse than an actual home, a little scummy foam jiggles on the water’s surface.

Kline’s earnest warnings about the effects of climate change are still blunt — the immediate greed of energy and tech and lifestyle companies will still doom our civilization, if not the world, to a watery end. (In fact, the artist doubles down: the back room also features “Consumer Fragility Meltdown,” 2019, a soy wax model of two commercial buildings slumping and sweating on a heated steel table.) But as each image breaks apart, Kline’s message also erodes. Ambivalence creeps through the gaps. Then, when the emulsion has been rinsed away, the print is replaced and the cycle begins again.

McMansions are often connected to climate change and concerns about the environment. This can happen in two ways. McMansions themselves are the problem: they take up a lot of land, they require a lot of resources to build and maintain, and they exist in part due to a sprawling, car-dependent social arrangement.

The second way of linking McMansions and climate change is to use the symbol of McMansions as indicating larger concerns about sprawl, pollution, land use, and environmental destruction. McMansions are an easy target for an era in the United States revolving around consumption, the use of resources, and limited action regarding consequences. It is less about the individual dwellings than it is about an ethos or an era without regard for environmental consequences.

Put that McMansion in Silicon Valley and perhaps the symbol is even more potent: in a time of technological and lifestyle changes, people lived in these environmentally destructive homes in one of the wealthiest and most influential parts of the United States.

The ongoing tactic of social movements blocking roads

I saw news earlier this week about efforts by climate activists in Germany to draw attention to their cause:

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Climate activists on Wednesday blocked roads leading to Germany’s three biggest airports, gluing themselves to the ground before police arrived.

Members of the group Uprising of the Last Generation said they wanted to disrupt cargo and passenger traffic at the airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin.

The group has demanded that the government take measures to end food waste. It argues that throwing away vast amounts of usable food contributes to hunger and climate change.

Past protests involving the blocking of roads and ports have drawn criticism from officials across the political spectrum.

The last sentence in the portion above is telling. This particular technique draws criticism from all sides because it effectively complicates one of the most important assumptions of Western life: drivers should be able to get where they want with minimal disruption.

It may be one thing to have a crowd or protest so large that it takes over streets and roadways. It is another matter to more deliberately block main arteries and highways. Residents depend on these, truckers depend on these, emergency vehicles depend on these. Whether it is Black Lives Matters protestors or truckers in Ottawa, Canada or climate change activists, interrupting the normal flow of people and goods “works.”

I put “works” in quotes because it is less clear that this tactic leads to significant change. It may draw attention and disrupt daily life. If it angers many of the people who might align with the movement, is this helpful? Is media attention the primary focus? If governments find ways to clear roadways – and many communities have guidelines about applying for permits to hold parades/rallies/protests and this includes where these can take place – is this a win in the end?

I would not expect this tactic to go away soon.

Perhaps large houses are not bad if they are designed well or used correctly?

The top concern about McMansions is their size. Yet, a house that is big is not necessarily a problem. See this recent example of resilient housing from New Urbanist architect Andres Duany:

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He then scrolled through building prototypes, developed in partnership with architect Korkut Onaran. For affluent families, Duany proposed a multigenerational alternative to McMansions, resembling the walled courtyard houses found in Latin America, Europe and Asia. These compounds’ walls protect against wind, rain and storm surge. Clusters of eight or so walled compounds would surround a central green that could be used for vegetable farms, exercise facilities or a small schoolhouse. Resilient adaptations such as backup generators, solar panels and water purification facilities would come standard. The goal, Duany said, was to design communities that could be “partially self-sufficient” in the weeks after a disaster.

Here, the large home has several advantages compared to McMansions. First, it is designed by architects. McMansions are often said to be mass-produced by builders who want to maximize profits, not aesthetics (outside of an impressive – though often jumbled – facade). Second, the home can hold a multigenerational household. If a larger family inhabits the larger home, it is not just an empty McMansion that impresses people passing by; the space might actually be used. Third, the large home is part of a community intended to stand strong in the face of the effects of climate change. McMansions are criticized for their poor building construction – possibly limiting their ability to stand up to storms and other issues – and are often in sprawling areas.

An argument could be made that large houses in general should not be promoted. Even if you have the resources, who needs a home larger than 4,000 square feet, let alone the mega mansions of the truly wealthy? For example, the Not So Big House suggests smaller but customized homes would work better for residents. Tiny houses explicitly reject the bigger is better logic.

But, if bigger houses are still going to be built – perhaps some will say they need them for entertaining or large families or for particular uses that take up a lot of room – they could be done in a way that makes them less like McMansions and more like large versions of well-designed, built to last homes. Indeed, McMansions receive a lot of negative attention even as there are plenty of supersized homes – true mansions – that might also be worth rethinking.

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

aerial photography of gray houses

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Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.

Addressing “green gentrification”

As American cities develop land in ways to combat climate change, researchers have examined who benefits from the new development:

Fighting climate disasters is a good idea for the planet, but can have unintended consequences for neighborhoods. “In order to construct a green, resilient park or shoreline, we get rid of lower-income housing … and behind it or next to it, you’ll have higher-income housing being built,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who co-wrote an article about green gentrification in December’s PNAS. It can get even worse, she says. Hardening one neighborhood so that water can’t flow inland there means the water goes somewhere else. “The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door,” she says.

That’s double jeopardy. And it turns into triple jeopardy, thanks to economics. New amenities plus new luxury housing drive up local housing prices, which drive out working-class and poorer residents. “The question is not only what Boston is facing, which is middle-class gentrifiers with a slightly higher income and education. It’s über-rich people who end up taking over cities until they are unable to fulfill their direct functions,” Anguelovski says. The gentrification wave is its own kind of economic apocalypse. If it hits, none of the people who make a city work—teachers, police officers, health care workers, bus drivers—can afford to live there. “Or it becomes so important from an economic standpoint, so desirable and hardened with infrastructure that entire buildings are empty—purchased by real estate funds or individuals from the Middle East or Russia,” Anguelovski says.

The problem that cities face is the difference between physics and real estate. Climate change happens on the scale of decades or centuries; real estate development and politics happen on fiscal and electoral timescales. “I get it. Green space is great, and while it may not be much of an improvement in terms of climate adaptation, it’s good for people’s well-being and quality of life,” says Ken Gould, an environmental sociologist at Brooklyn College and coauthor of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. “Does it sequester much carbon? Not really. It’s fine. But you have to manage the real estate markets, because markets left to themselves, when you put in an amenity, are going to generate development.”…

Obviously, cities are facing more and more climate-related hazards. It’d be policy malpractice to not get ready for them. “It’s not too difficult for a city to make green infrastructure investments in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, but the housing side needs to kick in,” says Constantine Samaras, an energy and climate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “The people who live in these underinvested neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood with bike lanes and green space. It’s up to city policy to make sure they can stay.” The trick is to build new housing while not uprooting people who live in the old stock—so that everyone benefits from the protection against disaster, not just a wealthy, lucky few.

This sounds like a twenty-first century version of urban renewal programs in American cities. In the name of the good of the whole community – now to protect neighborhoods and cities against environmental risks – lower-income housing is removed and the land eventually ends up in the hands of wealthier residents and property owners.

The sociological literature on urban development would suggest this is not surprising. Through a variety of means, leaders and wealthier people find ways to procure desirable land and profit from them. Redevelopment, whether undertaken to improve properties or make places greener, tends to benefit those who move into the neighborhood, not the ones who have been there a long time.

As is noted in the portion above, what is good for real estate and property values may not be good for the community even though the changes themselves – such as putting up barriers to water or creating more green space – would be welcome. At least now, the American system tends to privilege the real estate side, not the community improvement and well-being side. What could be done to limit the real estate market for the good of the city? Which city leaders will lead the way in arguing that green improvements should not be tied to market forces?

Altering mortgages to account for climate change threats

A new Federal Reserve report considers how the consequences of climate change might affect mortgages:

The housing market doesn’t yet factor in the risk of climate change, which is already affecting many areas of the U.S., including flood-prone coastal communities, agricultural regions and parts of the country vulnerable to wildfires. In California, for instance, 50,000 homeowners can’t get property or casualty insurance because of the increased risk to their homes.

Yet for now, no mortgage lender, portfolio manager or buyer of mortgages takes into account climate-induced floods, except to determine if a house sits in a 100-year floodplain at the time the mortgage is issued, said Michael Berman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Once lenders and housing investors do start pricing in such risks, “There may be a threat to the availability of the 30-year mortgage in various vulnerable and highly exposed areas,” Berman wrote in a recent San Francisco Fed report. He predicts lenders could “blue-line” entire regions where flood risks are high — a reference to redlining, the practice of refusing mortgages to minorities…

Said Cleetus: “My biggest fear, honestly, is that the markets will get out ahead of our policies, and we see a situation where property values do start to decline, and small communities that rely on a lot of property tax revenue won’t be able to deal with it.”

It will be interesting to see who (1) pursues this as a competitive advantage and (2) how federal policy plays into this. In a quest to get ahead of the rest of the market, could someone come up with a unique mortgage for areas with more climate change risk? Discussions about whether federal money should be used in places prone to natural disasters has been going for decades (see Hurricane Sandy or discussions about resilient cities).

Much of the article focuses on how the lack of mortgages in certain areas would lead to decreased property values and then a downward spirals as communities would not be able to generate as much tax revenue. This could also work the other way: imagine communities where only the really wealthy can live because they do not need traditional mortgages. They could come in and gobble up real estate with lowered values. Either way, the result could be increased inequality in affected areas.

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:


Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.