Robert McLaughlin is a physicist at Stanford, whose essay in the American Scholar is headlined: The earth doesn’t care if you drive a Prius.” This is a misleading because McLaughlin is not really interested in policy or individual choice. He’s interested in writing about geologic time and how inconsequential humans are to it:
The great ice episodes were not the only cases of natural climate change, however. Six million years ago the Mediterranean Sea dried up. Ninety million years ago alligators and turtles cavorted in the Arctic. One hundred fifty million years ago the oceans flooded the middle of North America and preserved dinosaur bones. Three hundred million years ago, northern Europe burned to a desert and coal formed in Antarctica. The great ice episodes themselves were preceded by approximately 30 smaller ones between one and two million years ago, and perhaps twice that many before that.
What, if any, are the policy implications of geologic time as a perspective? We interventionists seem to think that we are changing the world, and we need to change it back. Honestly, can we support that idea when humans really are so much dust in the wind? Does McLaughlin’s recounting of geologic time strengthen the argument for intervention or weaken it?
One of the problems with this type of approach is that if you suggest the compact cities aren’t an effective climate strategy, you get labeled “pro-sprawl” as soon as the words are out of your mouth. One of my colleagues did it the other day: once I questioned whether compact development would have the intended effect, I got slotted, immediately, as somebody who opposes rail development (no, only wasteful ones) and who thinks tract housing represents the highest form of human freedom.
Instead, there are many reasons to think about changing urban design and urban form, and climate is only one of them. And if development is not an effective climate strategy; and if, as McLaughlin seems to be suggesting, there aren’t any effective climate strategies, then we should be discussing adaptation in development rather than prevention.