Framing the Carbon Question
I just got back from a work trip to NYC, during which I spent time with some amazing graduate students. They are all working on projects that involve regarding art in the context of contemporary philosophy. Heady stuff, and heartening to attend to the ways they struggle to precisely frame their concerns.
Perhaps because we turned, again and again, to the question of how to “frame” their various topics, that heuristic also affected how I responded to the city. Put simply, I started wondering how to frame a city when measuring its carbon footprint. How do analysts decide what to include and what to exclude?
In Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, he identifies the burgeoning mega-cities in the developing world as auspicious, in environmental terms, and suggests that they may well be more sustainable than rural communities. Probably he is right. He has spent a whole lot of time thinking carefully about just such issues. Certainly he is right that it’s more efficient to run the electricity and water to a million people in an itty-bitty area than it is to run it all over the countryside. And far more people live in co-housing situations in cities, which are typically smaller as well as denser than rural homes. Plus, if one needs to truck in food, then it makes sense to truck a lot to a few places than a little to a lot of places. And city folk have fewer children than country folk, which is environmentally beneficial, since the planet is already straining under the demand of humans for meals, especially for meaty meals. These are familiar claims, and they all generate data that is captured in typical models for measuring carbon footprint.
But one morning, as my taxi crept along Madison Avenue in rush-hour traffic, I heard a radio announcer say that New York had been the number #1 tourist destination in the US in 2010—with a whopping 45.25 million visitors. Of those, he boasted, 8.6 million came from abroad. And that got me wondering about how visitors, and the things that compel them to visit, get factored into the measurement of a city’s carbon footprint.
In calculating the carbon footprint of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, an assessment would typically include the hours that the building is open, the amount of floor space, the energy used for heating/cooling/lighting, the water used, the paper used. But how to calculate the amount of energy used by the patrons to visit, the amount used by the artists in generating the work on display, the amount used in transporting that work safely? If a visitor to the city came specifically to see the John Baldessari show, for example, should the entire carbon footprint of that visitor’s trip be amended to that of the Met? Or a portion, perhaps based on the amount of time she actually spent at the museum? Right now, it gets measured as part of her personal carbon footprint—but that seems a bit inegalitarian. Like what insurance companies call an “attractive nuisance,” the Met and other delightful places draw us, and thus we expend more CO2 than we would if those attractions were not there. Even if all of the carbon footprint is not reallocated to those institutions, it seems that the burden ought, somehow, to be jointly acknowledged.
And what of those shops on Madison Avenue? Many visitors come to New York expressly for the couture. The high-end retailers create (or cause to be created) both the goods to temporarily satisfy those cravings, and also the deep desire for such goods that (psycho-ideological engine that it is) can never be satisfied. Where to circumscribe Hermes’ or Chanel’s carbon footprint? Does it include the years of effort and energy that go into becoming a designer? Does it cover the energy output for creating samples? How about for the production costs of actual goods? Does it include the extra cost of the checked luggage full of new purchases carried home by the happy consumer? The midnight oil burned by whomever alters said new purchases so they’ll fit a non-model’s body? What of the energy expended by shoppers to get there, or to visit the satellites such stores have opened all over the country?
Trying to define this framing line reminds me of the scene from The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda schools Andy about the extent to which “high fashion” apparently pervades all sartorial options, no matter how remote they may seem from that category . If the aesthetic reach of Madison Avenue extends to outlet malls, general stores, and sidewalk carts, then does that mean its carbon footprint does too?
Flip as these questions may sound, I mean them mostly sincerely. The individual’s carbon footprint in industrializing nations is increasing rapidly. Why? Because folks are acquiring the financial capacity to eat more meat and buy more consumer goods. And even though the new sprawling mega-cities in those nations offer more efficient infrastructures than do rural areas, they also depend upon generating cycles of desire and innovation that make yesterday’s goods seem so, well, yesterday. As such cities outstrip the dominant cities of today, New York among them, one can only assume that analogous spheres of influence will extend outward, pulling visitors into their urban orbits, and increasing the carbon dioxide output in ways we can’t yet measure.