Is Modern City Living Sustainable?

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This isn’t a touchy-feely sort of question where we all decide to grow our own tomatoes and “save the planet.” Rather, this is a raw, from-the-gut question that I have been wondering for at least 20 years. And I don’t mean simply environmental sustainability, either. I mean sustainable health-wise, psychologically, in the face of a possible disaster/attack, etc.

I have commuted to New York City to work on-and-off for said 20 years using mostly the subway. Let me tell you what it is like to go into Manhattan on the subway day after day, and what you find when you get there.

I. THE TRAIN

First, unless you work off-hours or live at the “early stops” of a particular train, you are going to enter a very crowded rectangular metal box. People “pack” into that box, sometimes pushing each other, oftentimes extremely close to your body. It is not uncommon to have the train completely full of people, sitting but mostly standing, so there is not one spot left that is not taken up.

This scenario has always seemed to me to be unnatural and disturbing; something that humans normally would be absolutely horrified to encounter; something that the human body and psyche would automatically shrink away from. But we—at least, city dwellers—are taught that this is “just the way it is.” And in order to cope with such an unnatural and disturbing situation, we learn to just “shut off” our minds for the duration of the trip, whether it be for 20 minutes, an hour, even an hour-and-a-half on slow days.

Now, like I’ve said, I’ve been doing this regularly for large uninterrupted chunks of my life. And it has been an absolutely toxic experience. I’ve witnessed many fights on the train (often for the reason that one person was perceived as invading the personal space of another), screaming matches, and even had a young woman literally faint on top of me. People are often cranky and dead-eyed on a rush-hour train; they are daily putting themselves in a deeply unpleasant, unnatural environment for a human, but then just “choke it down” as “just the way it is.”

The crowded subway train at rush hour is also, in my opinion, one of the places most vulnerable to terrorist attack. We’ve seen it in other countries. I had often wondered, as my train shot through a dark sooty tunnel, what would happen if an explosive device went off? We would be trapped underground, probably in the dark, probably in a crowded metal box filled with enough smoke to kill us right off the bat? Or what it went off while we were on the bridge? Where is the security to counteract this possibility? Outside of a few “bag search” tables at the larger stations, I don’t see a lot.

The “answer” here is not a police state. Rather, the very beginning of the answer is to admit that the whole initial scenario of the humans packed like rats in a metal box is dehumanizing and unhealthy. The beginning of the answer is to admit that the overcrowding in the city is unhealthy. The beginning of the answer is to question the very foundations of an economy and job-market that crams so many humans into such small spaces—boxes and boxes and boxes—every day.

II. THE STATION

Now you get off the train and walk into one of the larger stations in Midtown. This station is absolutely filled with filth…soot, trash, rats, and an obviously crumbling infrastructure. And that last one is the big one for me. The infrastructure clearly needs an overhaul, from the trains themselves, to the leaking ceilings of the stations, the rusting and rotting beams, and the falling tiles. We’ll come back to the idea of infrastructure shortly.

Then there are the homeless and mentally ill people clearly physically and psychologically suffering within the station. Very obvious physical distress, such as sitting on the floor with swollen legs filled of actively bleeding sores; screaming into the air; literally half-naked (sometimes just wearing a filthy blanket); and so on. Our medical, mental health, and homeless services are inadequate and process these people like an assembly line. We distract ourselves with our phones and shopping and we have learned to just “tune them out”—we learn to shut down our humanity in the face of incredible suffering.

III. THE STREET

Now you’re on the street, ready to walk to your job. All around you are huge billboards and screens blasting advertising messages at you. The ads are everywhere: on the taxis, the buses, the trash cans; ads on top of ads. Multiple huge screens broadcasting content simultaneously. Everywhere: messaging. Messages, calls to action, requests for you to purchase items. Sometimes they do not even communicate a coherent message. Sometimes, they just communicate a “feeling,” a feeling one party or another desires you to have.

I found all these advertisements and messaging to be overwhelming. And I guess that is because I am “weak.” Why did I stop and even notice them at all? Did I not learn to maintain that total mind shutdown I had in the train? But I cannot help but feel the sum total of all that messaging—messaging that is often sharply materialistic, violent, and/or full of empty sexual imagery—to be harmful to the average person’s psyche. Not harmful as in perhaps getting your leg cut off, but harmful more like a constant fever that compromises your body over a long period of time.

The streets are more filthy than the subway station. It smells. There are often fetid, wet pools of indeterminate fluid by the gutters. A bunch of storefronts are shuttered; they’ve been shuttered for a while now, and home to people who lay amongst a series of papers, boxes, old clothes, and empty fast-food containers. Sometimes a person, semi-clothed, will just lay unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk; the rush-hour commuters nimbly stepping over them.

You notice that many parts of the city seem to be literally crumbling—crumbling. It’s that pesky infrastructure again; it seems the city is falling apart almost as fast as new structures can be put up. But maybe the crumbly bits can all be turned into more banks.

Depending where you are, you might see police/army-types dressed in full armor gear holding huge automatic weapons and guarding this or that. Like everything else, you are supposed to get used to this. This is supposed to be normal. To question any of this, that you’ve encountered in your trip to the office job, would perhaps denote that you are neurotic in some way (don’t worry—pills will fix that!).

Then there is the noise from the constant construction in the city, the alarms and sirens, the constant rumble of bumper-to-bumper traffic—I admit, I’m able to tune a lot of that out. Rather, consciously I’m able to tune it out; I suspect my nervous system feels differently; the nervous system, the body, knows the real score.

IV. THE OFFICE

Now you get to the office. Here is the cubicle you will spend much of the next 8+ hours in. You will be facing a computer monitor (or more; at my last job I had two), with harsh overhead lights blaring over you. Outside, the drone of construction continues. You will sit there, and continue to sit there, and continue to sit there; as the hours tick by, you will drink more and more coffee to stay awake. Sweets and snacks are everywhere, thoughtfully provided. Sugar and caffeine fuels you, keeps you productive as you force your body into the contortions of a work cycle that is completely unnatural to it.

Maybe you will go out with everyone to one of the fast-food joints near the workplace; it would be the easiest way, and social to boot.

The office will exhaust you; and you can’t be sure why, because you more often than not didn’t do much physically at all. It was all typing, multitasking, sitting in meetings, delegating. WHY ARE YOU SO TIRED???

But as you trudge back to the train, squeezing yourself in for the trip back, you feel like you just want to collapse. But not enough to turn down that invitation to the bar. A drink would be nice; at least a beer. A drink will help you sleep; and you’ve been having a lot of insomnia lately too. The drinks will help.

And if you get sick from all that stress and all those sugars and fats and physical inactivity and heart disease and pre-diabetes and anxiety attacks and electrical sensitivity and unexplained allergies that started all of the sudden and copious after-work drinks and all the pounds you put on? Well, that’s why you are paying for your health insurance with that big chunk of your check they take out each month! That’s why you’re working this “stable” job (assuming your employer doesn’t suddenly stop paying you and acts like you killed their dog when you follow up on your paycheck)!

So when you get sick from going to your job, you can afford to get medical care…you dummy!

V. IT’S JUST NOT SUSTAINABLE

Modern city life can be poison to the human; poison in terms of stress, air quality, noise pollution, and overall health.

The modern large city—as it stands now, at least in the U.S.—is not sustainable; it is too overcrowded, dirty, noisy, and foundationally unstable. It has sold its soul for ad sales; it shoves the most vulnerable of its citizens literally in the trash. And it runs on a financial model that is quickly becoming obsolete in the face of a vastly different future; is often situated in areas that will be impacted the most by climate change and natural disasters; is the biggest target for attack and terrorism.

And the only hope for the modern city? The only “improvements” I see are more luxury structures built for the rich; literally, whole “environments” constructed to shield them from the reality outside. Perhaps, once the AI take much of the service & clerical jobs, there will not be as much a need to have so many commute in; perhaps the cities, closed-off from most of the rabble, can regain their former glory. Maybe.

But for me—for my life—there has to be a better way. And I’m not idealizing the “countryside” or anything like that because I know there are a lot of problems and epidemics happening in rural regions of the U.S. as well.

I’m just saying—the very first step we can take towards really fixing a situation is to face it & call it like it is. I feel in my gut that the modern city as we know it is not sustainable; I don’t feel New York City is a sustainable place. I don’t see things lasting decades from now just as they are; they are going to have to change. The city must change, or I must change and be away from the city.

And the worst thing you can do is to be in an unhealthy environment—an environment that is not healthy for the human body or soul—and keep telling yourself it’s “OK.” And taking this anti-anxiety pill and that beer and keep telling yourself it’s “OK.”

When it’s not OK, it’s not OK.