Today, thoughts about cities, farms, and
consumption. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The other night I sat in a
meeting of environmental historians. They spoke of
cities and farms. They agreed that cities increase
consumption. Finally, I rose to object. Cities
don't increase consumption. They reduce it.
It seemed so obvious to me -- yet they did not
agree. So let me try it on you. How do cities
relate to consumption?
Clearly, we consume more goods and energy per
square mile in a city than on a farm. But
consumption per square mile isn't important. What
kills us is consumption per person. Both our
population and the goods each of us uses are
rising. Put the two together, and we stress our
Island Earth very seriously.
So how do the people of New York and Tokyo use
their resources? They ride mass transit. They live
and work in centrally heated buildings. Centralized
dining wastes less food. City dwellers carry out
every function of daily life more efficiently. The
huge power plants that supply cities are far
cleaner per kilowatt hour than wood-burning stoves
or kerosene lamps.
That efficiency has a sad side effect. The poor go
to cities. The efficiency of cities makes survival
possible for those least able to consume.
Yet on another level my historian friends are
right. Cities are the great bazaars of our society.
We display our wares in cities. They are where our
wants are stimulated. A farmer might own the same
television I do. He might drive a larger car.
Cities drive us both to want those things.
You see, cities and farms are not separate things.
They're different faces of the same large system.
Neither could survive without the other. Neither
would even exist without the other. The city-farm
system expresses what we are. Our machines and our
poetry -- our music and our thoughts -- are shot
through with imagery of cities and farms.
Cities and farms together lead us to consume more.
On the other hand, the very size of cities
constantly pushes us to reduce waste.
The real cause of consumption is not the city
itself. It's our childlike craving for novelty and
freedom from constraint. Those forces have always
driven technology. I suppose they always will. An
adult takes time to savor what he has. But a child
demands more. And that's why cities sometimes look
more like Dante's vision of Hell than the
latter-day Edens they can become.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds