It's a dream many urbanites have, to one day move out of the city to a small, rural town or even to the country. We'll lead the simple life, live off the land, take the time to get to know our neighbors, maybe even get to know ourselves. We'll get in touch with nature, improving the environment as stewards of the land. We've read Walden, so we'll know what to do.

Such dreams are important, because they help us cope with the sense of alienation that we feel living in a city. In the short term, at least, they keep us going. The question is whether these dreams are sustainable. Can we find peace by moving to Walden Pond?

If you've guessed from the title of this essay that I don't think that an exodus of sensitive individuals to the countryside is a solution that can work in the long term, you're right. I understand that such a position can be disturbing -- it destroys the hope that we have held of an eventual escape to better place. You may therefore prefer to dismiss what I have to say and to keep your dreams alive, but I believe that it is in the interests of your own emotional well-being for you to read on. Please don't give up on me yet. I promise to bring you through to the other end of the tunnel.

Take a minute to think through the consequences of moving to the country to get back in touch with nature. What would you have to do? First, you'd have to find a place to live. Is a house already available? Perhaps, but it might not be to your liking. Maybe there aren't any houses for sale in the area you want to live. You've noticed that demand for real estate is on the rise as other people who share your ideas try to move into country.

So what now? Well, it looks like you'll have to have a house built for you. How about on the top of that hill overlooking the pond? Yes, that would be a great place for a house, but first you'll have to make a few changes. There needs to be a long, wide road cut through the woods to the top of the hill so that the necessary machinery and materials can be brought to the site. You'll need water and electricity too, and that means cutting down more trees. Don't worry, you'll get part of the money from the sale of the wood.

What with the rain and all, that road is getting pretty muddy, so it looks like you'll need to lay down an asphalt surface. Asphalt has lots of oil in it, so it's pretty resilient to the effects of water. You'll need to repave it every few years, but I guess you'll cross that bridge when you come to it.

Of course, the stream that you'll cross to get to the house will have to be reworked. It can go under the new road in a culvert. You'll just have the contractors move a little bit of dirt around to build up the banks, put the metal tubing in, and seal it up with whatever that black stuff is that they use for that. Did you see that oily film that's coating the stream's surface? It's probably from some environmentally ignorant neighbor that lives upstream. You'll have to talk to him about cleaning up his act.

Okay, now what about sewage? You're out in the country now, so you'll have to put in a septic tank. That means bringing in a backhoe and digging a big hole next to the house - right where that big sugar maple that you were planning to tap for syrup is standing. Isn't there some other way? Well, you could use an outhouse. Nah, put the tank in.

You notice that pond and the meadow that lead down to it are looking a little bit different than they did last year when you first looked at the place. Was that gully there? It looks like it might work its way up to the foundation of the house. What would best prevent that from happening - a containing wall or drainage pipes? Down below the gully, the pond isn't as clear as it used to be. The water is so muddy you can't even see the bottom. You don't want it to fill in, so you'd better have it dredged.

It took a lot of work, but you're finally ready to move in, and it was worth it. Just look at this place! You can look out at the pond through the window right from your breakfast table. Anything could be moving around out there - raccoons, deer, little birds, construction equipment. Construction equipment!?! There they are, the same people that you hired to build your house, over on the other side of the pond, cutting down trees and digging a basement. How dare they? Don't they have any respect for nature?

Maybe one neighbor won't be so bad. Besides, you're not actually here that much. You still work in the city, driving for 45 minutes each morning and evening. Isn't it odd how much traffic there is now on that little country road? It would be faster if they widened it to a four-lane. At least the air that comes through your open window is fresh, except when those trucks come by. Don't they realize how much gas and motor oil they're using? How wasteful!

You take that road a lot - on weekends as well as to go to work. The thing is, there really isn't a lot to do where you live, so you go back into the city whenever you need to buy something or just to have fun. That little town just down the road really could use some more shops. Not much, just maybe a movie theater or a video store, a coffee shop, a restaurant or two, and a bigger grocery store. That would make life a lot easier.

Well, as luck would have it, a few new stores move in on the edges of town. In fact, a gas station is built on a little piece of land that has been cleared right next to your house. Across the road from the station is a sign saying that a Wal-Mart will be coming to that location soon. Now that makes you angry. You've heard about how stores like Wal-Mart drive small-town shops out of business. But, it would be kind of convenient.

Can you see where this is going? That small town has grown all the way out to the edge of your property in what used to be the country. More and more people are moving in, just like you did, to get away from the city. This really bothers you, so you think about what to do next. You could get involved in the town's government, advocating a preservation of its "rural heritage". More and more, though, it seems like a hopeless case. So, you decide that you're going to leave, get away from it all, by moving out into the country.

Does this story sound familiar? It should. It's the story of the sprawl of the cities, the suburbanization of the country. In the last 50 years hordes of city dwellers, many well-meaning, have invaded the countrysides. Trying to escape the problems of urban life, they ended up bringing those problems along for the ride. Again and again, nature has been shoved aside by those people moving to the country to get back in touch with nature.

Surely it doesn't have to be that way, you say. We've learned our lessons. We're environmentalists! This time, we'll do the job right. Well, I hate to be negative, but it seems to me that filling up the countryside with people inevitably hurts the environment, even if the people who fill it up are environmentalists. Environmentalism isn't just a political idea. To misquote Forrest Gump, environmentalism is as environmentalism does. An environmentalist who has trees cut down, increases pollution, takes a long commute to work, and fosters the expansion of urban settlements (yes, it's true - suburbs became urban a long time ago) is no environmentalist at all. Moving to the country from the city is an environmentally destructive act, no matter who it is that does the moving. If they really want to help, environmentally-sensitive urbanites are going to have to stay put, confronting their own involvement in the destructive habits of city life.
So, do you have any better ideas, Mr. Know-It-All?

As a matter of fact,

I do.

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