PBS to America: Fight Global Warming, Drive an SUV

In 2005, PBS came out with a widely promoted documentary narrated by Alanis Morissette called "Global Warming: The Signs and the Science." For people interested in learning more about the topic of global warming and climate change, this DVD is widely available. Being produced and distributed by a well known and highly respected organization, serves to set public opinion on causes and remedies for climate change.

I rented this DVD recently in an effort to learn more about the issue, but I came away feeling that the video does little more than tell suburban Americans that there is nothing problematic about a way of life precariously dependent on massive energy inputs and carbon outputs. But it doesn’t stop there. The video actually demonizes an antidote to sprawl, our own tightly knit, pedestrian-oriented urban environment and other cities as well.

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First off, the documentary was sponsored by Toyota, and they have an ad for the Prius at the beginning. Great, a global warming video sponsored by a car company. "Perfect," I thought. "I am sure that won’t warp the message at all."

The video starts out noting the effects of humans on carbon emissions. Morissette says, "Unfortunately, modern lifestyle demands energy. And without question, the United States is the biggest economy, the biggest energy consumer and the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world." This is a true statement, but it is not because of what is being shown on screen when she says it.

What quintessential image did the director choose to illustrate American energy consumption? A Wal-Mart parking lot? A seven-lane traffic choked freeway? McMansions on the prairie? Nope. They went with the Manhattan streetscape.

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Times Square is about the most atypical half mile stretch in the entire country. A visual of a Wal-Mart parking lot would have been more not only more typical of the U.S. landscape, but more representative of an energy-hungry environment. But it would have hit too close to home to the average viewer. It’s easier to demonize something in a far-off big city that few people can relate to.

Here on Streetsblog I need not go into the many inherent energy efficiencies represented by Times Square’s transit-oriented, land-saving, heat-and-air-conditioning-saving density (pdf warning). All too often, directors looking to fill the screen with images of human activity succumb to the temptation of showing the busiest possible image, regardless of how environmentally friendly it is, and in the process damaging the cause of limiting carbon emissions through efficient land use. Sure, energy is expended and carbon emitted in Times Square, but far less than in the equivalent amount of sprawl that is not shown. The result of the overlay is that people get a sense that New York is the cause of carbon emissions, when in fact its existence saves huge amounts of carbon emissions and land clearance from happening.

Not only is New York cast as the root of the problem, it is presented as the last place you would want to be in a world facing global warming. Laurence Kalkstein of the University of Delaware, describes the important and real problem of urban heat islands this way: "Think of the way people live in urban areas like Paris. A lot of concrete. Very little green space. No-one lives in individual homes. Everyone is crammed together."

This is the typical American anti-urban bias coming out all over again, this time with a veneer of environmentalism. "Gosh!" it makes one think, "Better move to a place where you have a green yard or at least a marina."

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Then, with an image of the Manhattan skyline on the screen, Kalkstein lays it out explicitly, in breathless prose: "In every way imaginable, a northeastern U.S.-type urban setting is probably the worst you can possibly imagine for heat-related mortality. And I might even add, even worse than in most third-world cities."

The answer for the urban heat island effect is implementation of green roofs, NOT depopulating the city center and leaving the poor to suffer its consequences while the rich and middle class bulldoze more green countryside to build more sprawl. But the inclusion of this piece in the documentary serves to reassure the largely suburban viewership that they have made the right choice. Phew!, at least I don’t live in the unsafe and terrifying city.

But the documentary isn’t through bashing New York. They interview a bike messenger, Paul LoMarca (phonetic spelling). Do they let him explain that cycling is a zero-emissions mode of travel that is more practical in an urban setting? Nope.

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Amid visuals of Paul sliding through traffic and sounds of someone breathing painfully into a Darth Vader mask, he says, "I can see in the air at certain times of day when I’m riding. This haze of smoke on certain avenues where there’s idling cars and traffic jams."

They interview a bike messenger for a movie about climate change, and that’s what they come up with? Of all the incredibly strong points that a bike messenger could have made about sustainable transportation, they chose to have him make a point (unpleasantness of car emissions) that could be said about any place where people drive, but they focus on the community where fewer people drive per capita than anywhere else.

Someone watching this segment would be deterred from riding a bike in New York. At least, then, there’s the other inherently urban sustainable mode of transportation, the subway. But that’s no good either. It’s going to get flooded.

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To top it all off, they do a section on environmental justice, as an activist from Detroit gives a bus tour to a some students. In this section, about the siting of polluting facilities in poor neighborhoods, the directors were probably trying to do the right thing. But the section ends up scaring people away from cities further, thanks to Morissette, who says, "In inner-city neighborhoods, bad air and heat waves have killed, and will kill again!" and "While inner-city dwellers are more at risk than most, climate change is affecting people’s health all over the world."

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So the message to suburban America is clear: stay where you are. Embrace your inner escapist. There’s no need to change your lifestyle patterns.

So restoration of tight-knit communities with walkable, bikable and transit-oriented neighborhoods is not the solution. Then what is the solution to climate change?

FutureTruck.

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We learn about an academic contest in the desert to find a better motor, or as the participants put it, "a split parallel hybrid electric … parallel diesel electric hybrid … free transmission parallel hybrid … hydrogen fuel cell powered … ethanol electric hybrid … diesel electric hybrid … hybrid diesel electric vehicle with a … modified four-liter … with a small internal combustion engine and a powerful electric motor." At any rate, there are still a few issues that have to be worked out. Hmm.

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But once these problems are solved, the way to fix climate change is to have better SUVs. Nowhere does the video present the fact that the inefficient and sprawling landscape of U.S. suburbia is a major contributor to climate change. Rather, the video encourages sprawl by presenting the environmentally friendly city as the problem and as a place you wouldn’t want to be.

The key to reducing global warming emissions starts with reducing emissions from motor vehicles. And a key to that is to reduce driving by encouraging transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly land use patterns like those here in New York and other cities (which happen to be land use patterns that preserve farmland for farming and forests as forests). This video, while explaining "what you can do" to reduce global warming emissions, says nothing on the subject. In fact, it presents urban bicycling as unpleasant and cities generally as pollution-saturated places of energy gluttony.

The message from this video is clear: Don’t ride a bike. Don’t ride the subway. Don’t live in a place where you can walk to work or live in a spacially efficient dwelling.

Oh, and by the way: Buy a Toyota.

  • Clarence

    Aaron,

    Nice piece of dissection. Of course I see this crap all the time when I see other videos which is why I think I will never stop doing the stuff I do – because we constantly have to battle people that put out this kind of misinformation…

    Flashback over 50 years ago, check this little baby out sponsored by GM: http://www.archive.org/details/GiveYour1954

    It will leave you aghast.

    Poor Alanis, I am sure she thought she was doing the right thing.

  • Someone needs to expose the Prius myth. Here are some rough figures off the top of my head:

    To stabilize world climate, we must reduce the world’s per capita CO2 emissions to about 1.5 tons per year (from all sources, including personal sources, such as your car and heating your house, plus the CO2 emitted to manufacture and transport the food and products you buy).

    A Prius emits 2.5 tons of CO2 per year, if you drive as much as the average American (based on the fact that the average American car emits 5 tons and the assumption that a Prius emits about half as much as a car).

    Therefore, a Prius emits almost twice as much as your total per capita emissions should be – if you drive as much as the average American.

    Assuming that half your emissions are personal and half from the products you consume (as they are now), a Prius emits three to four times as much as your total personal emissions should be – if you drive as much as the average American.

    Obviously, in addition to buying Priuses, we should drive much less than the average American now drives.

  • Thanks Aaron, this was a nice comedy break on a Friday afternoon. Future Truck…so beautiful…so wrong.

    Living in dense urban areas is perhaps the most environmentally friendly way to live a modern lifestyle.

  • brent

    Thank you for this- very insightful. I am glad Alanis did this project. It really exposes the real reason the “music industry” has ceased to be relevant and is collapsing financially (not because of illicit downloads). Her types are not about challenging the system- they are about embracing it and making a free Toyota on the side. She is a Beverly Hills puke motoring around in her SUV all smug because she is changing the world with her environmentalism. Don’t knock NY Morissette you dumbass!

  • ddartley

    Freaking out. I will keep in mind that I haven’t actually seen the docu, but I’m pretty much outraged at the insidiousness of both the message and its origins. Thanks, Aaron, for the good work.

    Tell the following to everyone you know; put it on all your own personal blogs; make it your e-mail signature; pass it on to leading environmentalists and their organizations, and enlightened politicians that it might be picked up as a national slogan: “Cities are better for the environment.”

    This story suggests to me that people like Sbloggers and their readers have conversing under an assumption that most people already know that, but this story says to me that concise word (“cities are good/better/the answer,” etc.) needs to get out there.

    I’m going to write to Laurence Kalkstein and PBS, and will even try Alanis, if there’s something like a “contact Alanis!” link on her website, in the hope that they might make some public statement opposing the twisted message they’ve (maybe unwittingly) promoted. It would be nice to see some of them promote the notion that population density is far more energy efficient and far less polluting than suburbs, and that specifically because of climate change considerations, the US ought NOT generate more sprawl, and ought not create more demand for CARS! Quite the opposite in both cases; the US should encourage populations to condense more, and encourage demand for public transportation!

    I encourage you guys to contact those people too. Who’s Alanis’s agent?!

  • crzwdjk

    “In every way imaginable, a northeastern U.S.-type urban setting is probably the worst you can possibly imagine for heat-related mortality.”
    Except that’s patently not true. The worst setting I can imagine for heat-related mortality is a sprawling suburban-oriented city like Phoenix, built in an environment where without air conditioning life would be literally impossible for half the year.

  • PBS is becoming increasingly commercial and increasingly disappointing. I feel like the past few years have brought it a mere step away from commercial television, and that is really quite depressing.

    Documentaries and reports like this make me feel hopeless when it comes to changing peoples minds about how we can live in this world.

  • This is unbelievable! I’d be interested to hear a response from PBS… or at least that professor. Not that they could say much of any use.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    A condensed version apparently appeared in theaters (including the Regal Ewok on 42nd Street), and came out on video this week:

    http://www.thegreatwarming.com/

    None of the many reviews reprinted on the website mention Manhattan; maybe that’s part of what was cut. Or maybe it just went under their radar.

  • geoffrey

    Toyota has a prom^H^H^H sponsorship spot on PBS’Newshour depicting a vehicle as
    witnessed from the drivers seat driven at a ..um.. shall we say “spirited” pace
    on a serpentine circuit. At one point a cyclist is seen virtually riding on top
    of the shoulder stripe. I as a cyclist would consider this in itself to be uns
    afe but the spot seems to infer that is where “Toyota” expects cyclists to ride.
    Our video goes on to depict the vehicle passing the cyclist on a bend with a s
    olid centre line without crossing the line. This would infer the motorist did
    not allow the three feet in passing a cyclist as presently required in at least
    eight states.
    Is Toyota by virtue of depicting the entire course of action from the drivers se
    at encouraging drivers to drive too fast for conditions and unsafely (illegally
    in a number of jurisdictions) around cyclists?

  • AD

    crzwdjk, you’re absolutely right. I imagine NYC or Philly or Boston would be preferable to Phoenix or Las Vegas or Miami during a heat wave. Kalkstein’s statement is absurd. I guess he gave himself an out with that word “probably.”

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