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Book Review of: Green Metropolis

What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability

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Review of Green Metropolis, by David Owen (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

I am truly impressed. Thank you, David Owen, for an outstanding book. Well done.

Green Metropolis was a pleasure to read. It's exhaustively researched, objectively written, and masterfully composed. I was shocked to see that the author works for a newspaper, as my experience has been that such authors can't distinguish between fact and fiction. Not only does Owen make that distinction, but he blows away commonly held misperceptions and explains why the reality is the way it is.

This book is a "must read" for anyone who might be tapped to pay for the proposals now floating around Washington, DC (that would be us lowly taxpayers, for example).

Owen made only two technical errors in this book. I think the going rate for most "green" books is well into the double digits. That's because most authors of these books don't have a quantitative background and can't analyze information. Owen, despite not having an engineering degree, has no problem here.

The first error he made was on page 148. Here, he says the fuel waste of cars stalled in traffic jams is eliminated by a hybrid. This isn't true. His rationale is the engine is off. The energy waste is merely delayed in this situation, rather than eliminated. While the car is sitting there running from battery, it's still consuming power. The car may be creeping forward, which is going to make a draw on the battery. But even if it's perfectly motionless, it's going to be powering the air conditioning, car computers, entertainment system, GPS, lights, etc.

To charge that battery back up, and every bit drained will have to be replaced, the engine must run to spin the generator. During the charging phase, the generator has a load on it. The engine has to burn enough fuel to supply that entire load for its duration. This will be above and beyond what it burns for other uses while running. In other words, you get lower gas mileage as long as you're charging that battery. The more depleted the battery is, the longer that duration. Remember, there is no "free energy." The battery only stores energy, it doesn't produce it.

The author correctly notes elsewhere that hybrids haven't lived up to their hype. Any hybrid is carrying around extra weight and has extra bearings and other surfaces that create friction losses. Again, no "free energy." Presumably, there's a net energy savings but this isn't always the case. As Owen points out, the real savings come from not driving in the first place. Or just driving a whole lot less.

The other mistake is he somehow failed to miss the real reason behind compact fluorescent lighting laws. The laws requiring these have absolutely nothing to do with saving energy, because CFLs don't normally save energy and in their typical usage actually waste it. The degree of waste soon to be mandated by law is probably enough to light a medium-sized city.

In a typical residential application, CFLs cause a net waste of energy versus using incandescents. The purpose of the CFL legislation is to satisfy the lobbyists who buy CONgressmen so they can go back to their employers saying they got a law passed mandating that people buy more expensive products that they would not otherwise buy. Any member of CONgress who voted for the impending CFL legislation simply did not practice minimum due diligence before voting. We actually pay these people?

It doesn't matter that CFLs waste energy versus what people are now using, or that CFLs are a mercuryhazard that future generations will have to clean up. This whole CFL scam is a disgusting money grab.

Fluorescent lighting is widely touted as energy-saving. In a typical commercial or industrial application, this is true because those lights are on all the time. Once they've been on long enough to  make up for their startup inrush current and resulting energy loss, they start to use less total energy than incandescents. I ran calculations on one particular fluorescent some years ago and came up with four hours. After it's on for four hours, its total energy use at that point equals that of the same size incandescent and from that moment forward its higher running efficiency means a savings in energy. Anything under four hours means that running the incandescent saved energy. Numbers vary depending on many factors. It could be much less time using some other lamp/ballast/fixture arrangement, or it could be even more time.

CFLs are, due to their design compromises, far less efficient than standard fluorescents. So perhaps we're looking at double that 4 hour window (I don't know the number, but it's got to be worse when the entire system is less efficient). I can't see where you could possibly use a CFL in a home, unless you routinely waste energy by leaving lights on and wish to continue that practice. Rather than install CFLs, just shut lights off when you're not using them. It is almost certain that you will not save energy using CFLs in your home.

Many of the "green" books make recommendations, like CFLs, that actually waste energy. Owen doesn't do this and his actual recommendations make sense. He addresses the underlying causes, rather than proposing some bandage for the symptoms. He doesn't engage in theory or push some scheme to sell stuff that actually wastes energy. He looks at examples of what works and why.

This book really does deliver on what it promises. Today, such a delivery is a minor miracle. Departing from the current standards (such as they are) in works on today's issues, the author ensured this book's content is actually relevant to its title and subtitle. This book also is exceptional because the author doesn't use the book to position his personal beliefs as canonical or even factual. He does express those, but in a respectful way instead of a deceitful or, as is often the case, delusional, one.

Interestingly, the author is from the (sprawling) metropolis in which I currently reside. His opinions happen to ring true with me, not because he snuck them in (he didn't) but because I have seen the same things for myself.

Will this book help you personally reduce your energy footprint? Maybe. Its real value lies in helping you understand the actual picture we are looking at, and the horrendous costs of government policies that propose one thing but actually accomplish the opposite. When tax schemes like "carbon trading" get touted as somehow beneficial, you know we are in trouble. Such schemes merely divert resources from solving problems to gaming the system.

It's rare that poor public policy is rescinded, no matter how destructive it is. For this reason, we can't let these crazy schemes become law.

As an example, consider a decades long problem: Daylight Carnage Time. Misnamed "Daylight Savings Time," this horrendously bad public policy has a very clear track record of producing significant jumps in the amount of death and dismemberment on our highways and in our factories every time we change the clocks. Even office injuries jump dramatically.

The reason is obvious (sleep deprivation), the costs are immense, and the human suffering is extensive. In addition, there is a measurable productivity drop with each clock change, and it lasts for about the same three weeks as the death and dismemberment problems just mentioned. Yet, CONgress refuses to abandon this barbaric infliction of pain on the citizens it misrepresents. Are they insane, or do they just hate their fellow citizens?

As another example, Sarbanes-Oxley produced competitiveness-hampering costs resulting in layoffs. CONgress told us this was a small price to pay for cleaning up corruption. Since SOX was passed, we've had AIG and other egregious examples of corruption, proving that SOX doesn't work and therefore has no upside. Yet, the downside is immense. SOX should be repealed, and if it were then millions of laid off people could be rehired. We're still waiting.

So, it's quite refreshing to see a book that deals in fact and logic instead of propaganda and furthering of an ideology that money grows on trees and the laws of physics can be suspended if you have onerous enough government policies or if members of CONgress are sufficiently "lubricated" by lobbyists.

This book consists of six chapters covering 323 fast-paced pages, 22 pages of abbreviated research notes (amazing, but true!), and an index.

Chapter One, More Like Manhattan, introduces us to the energy-saving, pollution-reducing benefits of a dense urban setting. As you may have guessed, the example is Manhattan. The author points out that people walk all the time in Manhattan. That is quite true. And it explains why, in my opinion, it is a showcase for beautiful women. On every visit to Manhattan, I have been struck by the sheer numbers, both relative and absolute, of beautiful women. The reason is that walking lifestyle, which has built-in benefits for health, fitness, and appearance. Owen didn't touch on that benefit, but focused on the energy savings. And those savings are immense. The statistics he presents are impressive.

Chapter Two, Liquid Civilization, looks at how we have built most of our infrastructure around the automobile and thus around oil. This chapter holds the key to understanding why we consume as much water and energy as we do, and why our property taxes are so outrageously high (yes, renters pay these taxes also--landlords must raise the rent to cover these).

The next three chapters build on the first two. They look at embodied efficiencies, embodied inefficiencies, and common myths about energy savings. The book ends with the sixth chapter, which looks at what lies ahead. As with most mega-trends, there's a fine line between cynicism and reality. By presenting Dubai as an in-depth example of a failure in progress (double meaning intended), the author helps paint an accurate portrait.

As bleak at the current situation and future look, this book left me feeling upbeat at its conclusion. Partly, that's because of the high quality of the writing and research. And I think partly it's because the author so clearly cut through the propaganda pushed by today's mudstream media.

Rather than look to exotic, costly solutions, there are things we can all do now. We suburbanites can, for example, use organic methods for our lawns (I am successfully using these methods myself, only rarely needing to water or use chemicals and even then using very little). Because of my mostly organic lawn tending, I share my yard with an abundance of wild animals.

Other things such as combining trips, car pooling, etc., also reduce waste. I often go a month or more between stops at a gas station. When my garbage goes out to the curb, it contains very little packaging material because I shop mostly in the produce aisle (and thus eliminate medical expenses as well). You'll find ideas like this either mentioned outright or hinted at. Anyone can examine personal usage and reduce it.

The most profound change, according to Owen, would be transforming our sprawling cities into dense urban areas. But as he points out, we aren't going to tear up a continent and re-do things. There are things we can do, and he discusses these in a realistic manner.

My recommendation: get this book. Read it, then make a calendar notation to read it again a few months from now.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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