Earth Day in New York

I’ve been thinking about the rather odd fact that by living in the heart of Manhattan I am actually living the “greenest” American lifestyle. Strangely, it turns out that when you live in a crazily dense metropolis such as ours, you consume remarkably little energy.

You walk everywhere (or otherwise, mainly taking the subway), you don’t own a car, you carry your groceries home from a place right around the corner, to which goods had been shipped efficiently in bulk (at low energy cost per consumer), the heat to warm your apartment in winter also warms the apartments around you (rather than dissipating out through a roof) – the list of energy savings from densely packed living goes on and on.

It would be, quite literally, impossible for anyone owning a car and a house, no matter how conscientious or responsible, to achieve as eco-friendly a lifestyle as the average New Yorker obliviously going about life in Manhattan.

This situation highlights an odd contradiction between perception and reality. In our society you don’t get “goodness” points for making the best choices – you get those points for having the best attitude about your choices. Nobody pats Manhattanites on the back and says “Hey, way to go – thanks for helping to save our planet!” Because they know Manhattanites aren’t working for it. We happen to live in a highly earth-friendly way compared with other Americans – but there’s no effort going on.

And sure enough, I confess to feeling no sense of accomplishment about my naturally green lifestyle. I do sometimes feel bad for all those millions and millions of people in the U.S. who don’t get to live in Manhattan. But for entirely different reasons.


10 thoughts on “Earth Day in New York”

  1. Two points to consider. Imagine that you are an eco conscious person, but that you are somewhat financially constrained. Moving to Manhattan is likely a tough choice, because even though it is so green, the cost of living is extremely high.

    Second, although the average Manhattanites day to day eco friendliness is quite high, it’s easy blow say, more than half of the CO2 savings from a year worth of car usage with a single trip to India (Assuming 12000 miles per car per year [1], 15000 miles round trip from NY to Bombay [2], double CO2 efficiency with flying instead of driving [3]).

    From personal experience, my girlfriend will go to amazing lengths minimizing usage of all kinds of consumer products, and then will make 2 trips to the UK in 3 months without really thinking about it. It’s really a false optimization, all of the work she did is for naught compared to planning and compressing the two trips to the UK into a single trip.


  2. you’re adding some green to your naturally green lifestyle with your food choices though. that’s a big accomplishment, I’d say 🙂

  3. Ken – as an engineer I can’t agree to what you are saying here:

    “It would be, quite literally, impossible for anyone owning a car and a house, no matter how conscientious or responsible, to achieve as eco-friendly a lifestyle as the average New Yorker obliviously going about life in Manhattan.”

    That might be right, if you don’t live in a low energy house, if you drive a SUV or even two, if you are not used to things like energy saving, insulating of houses, so that you neither heat the neighbour apartment nor just the outside.
    That might be right if you don’t think about, where your electricity comes from. How big is the part of renewable energy?
    That might be right, if we don’t talk about how much energy the old fridge is eating, the laundry dryer, etc…

    All I want to say it is a very complex to compare the energy balance of life styles, especially if you try to include all the costs.
    Not owning a car, walking and using public transport is good, but blowing out your energy with an inefficient heating or living in a badly insulated house, might just kill your energy savings again.

  4. Yes Dagmar, it’s possible for a Manhattanite to manage to use more energy than a person who owns a house and a car, but it would take a lot of effort – it’s not something you can do simply by being oblivious. I was talking about the average Manhattanite, not the statistical outlier who goes out of their way to consume a far larger than average amount of energy.

    The house and car turn out to be huge consumers of energy – the individual homeowner starts out at a huge disadvantage. We can always find outliers on any graph, but it’s that average per capita that we should be concerned about. The larger point is that a very densely populated metropolis consumes far less energy per capita than do other populations. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It just happens to be true.

    The following article, written a few years ago, does a good job of laying out some of the underlying reasons for this:

  5. Thanks for the link.

    After reading this article what you say becomes another perspective, what you say is right for the US.

    And you are right we should be more concerned about the “Total energy consumption per capita”. I had a look at some OECD numbers – in my short research I only found numbers from 2005 – we end up with:
    Hong Kong 2,603.0
    Europe 3,773.4
    Germany 4,187.0
    Singapore 6,932.0
    United States 7,885.9
    Luxembourg 10,137.8
    measured in Kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person.
    All those countries have a quite different density of population.
    And when I look at those numbers above I can’t follow your point. If the OECD number are right, I can’t see a general relation between the density of population and the “Total energy consumption per capita”. 🙂

  6. If population density bears an inverse relationship to energy use per capita, then the large per capita contribution from a highly heterogeneous nation such as the U.S. would be associated mainly with the large percentage of its population which does not inhabit a densely packed area like NYC. The relationship is likely to be non-linear, so we’d have to look at the actual plot of per capita energy use versus population density before we could, for example, properly interpret aggregate figures for the U.S. versus Hong Kong.

  7. Sally, I agree that it looks like a lot of A/C if you look at it per square mile. But if you look at it per person, a much smaller number of cubic feet of air are required to cool each person living in an Manhattan apartment than are needed to cool each person living in an individual house. Also, the cooled-down air in each apartment helps to amortize total cooling costs, since the walls between adjoining apartments remain cool.

  8. well, perhaps things have changed, but my summer memories of manhattan include walking past air conditioned stores with their doors wide open, blasting cold air onto the sidewalk.

  9. Ah yes, those were the days. Back then we were a rich nation, and could throw air around like it was, um, air. 🙂

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