“I’ve got a few hours before my next pick-up, so I can take you all the way downtown. Where do you need to go?”
That was James, the burly, bald and chatty driver, who picked me up outside of the Fairfax County Government Palace, er, Center, in a black SUV with tinted windows. My mind flashed forward, I’m climbing down--and it is a long way down--from the back seat of this black behemoth, James is holding the door open, I’m alighting on F Street and striding self-importantly into the Museum. The caption in my mind’s eye read “green curator chauffeured to museum in gas-guzzling SUV.” Another example of hypocrisy among the greenerati.
“No thanks, I’m really a mass-transit kind of person. You can just drop me at the next Metro station.”
That was me, demurring. It’s just not in my nature. So I leapt out at West Falls Church--not Vienna as planned because James was having too much fun playing movie trivia quiz with his increasingly self-conscious passenger--and assumed my usual position: stand on the platform, ear buds in, Washington Post in subway fold origami, strangely content to wait for the train. Truth is I was already feeling pretty guilty...*
I had been invited by the Fairfax County Restoration Project to open a day-long workshop with a talk on what other communities can teach us about green. It was held at the Fairfax County Government Center, a center of government business for sure, but not, itself, in the center of anything. I asked the organizers about the best way for a carless individual to get there and they immediately offered to send a car for me...all the way to my door in the District. While black Lincoln Town Cars are ubiquitous in the Kalorama neighborhood, it just seemed a little over the top. Besides, how on this bruised and abused earth could I travel that way to talk about sustainability? Instead, I was picked up at the Vienna Metro in, yes, a black LincolnTown Car and dropped at the palace gate.
It was a small but engaged audience, led by an energetic and committed woman trying to effect immense cultural change in the paradigmatic American suburb, one backyard at a time. I gave a version of the talk I’ve been giving to public groups all year, pulling out a few favorite anecdotes, and cheering on the transformative forces of density, public transportation, sidewalks, diversity...and even as the words were coming out of my mouth it dawned on me that this was probably not what they thought they were going to hear. They had come, I suspect, to hear about how to preserve their watersheds and green spaces by not developing, how to live righteously outside the city on curvy boulevards without sidewalks and keep the evils of urbanity at bay. As I referenced Leo Marx and his critique of our Arcadian fantasies, I realized that is exactly what Fairfax County is: an Arcadian fantasy, the green component of which is entirely due to chlorophyll.
Things got more interesting during Q&A. When someone in the audience asked what communities around the DC area I thought were good models of green behavior, I immediately said Arlington County. Oops. That’s like telling the Redskins that maybe they should look at the Cowboys’ offense as a model. A woman asked how a citizenry can begin to make change. “What should we ask for?” she said. “Truly viable public transportation, sidewalks, density at transit stations, mixed-use zoning,” I offered, while a polite silence settled. Then a self-described “practical man” asked how all these efforts, Greenburg Kansas in particular, were paid for. “Greensburg,” I began, “has insurance money but also foundation money, as it’s being seen as a demonstration”...then I, filled with frustration at the lack of reality in the Virginia governor’s race regarding taxes, gave the straightest answer I could:
“Taxes, that’s how. Higher taxes. If we want thing to get better, we have to pay for it. Let’s be honest, you can’t get something for nothing. So, personally, I am ready and willing to pay taxes for the things that are important, and these issues are important.”
It felt good to say these things out loud. I’m not running for office, and I don’t even live in Virginia, so it took no special spine to do so, but it still felt good. This was not my choir, but I was preaching. Then I climbed into my waiting SUV and was whisked away.
*I was feeling guilty because I could have taken transit all the way. Had I boarded a train at Dupont Circle at 7:15, changed to Orange at Metro Center, gotten off at Vienna in time to catch the 7:56 Fairfax Connector #623, I could have arrived at the Government Center about an hour later. The $5.10 fare would have been a comically small percentage in dollars, carbon, and human labor of my Town Car/SUV adventure. Why didn’t I do it? Was it because they offered a car? Because I could? Because I was the speaker, and that made me special? Or because it was just so much easier? For those who have a choice, like I did, it’s too easy to choose the car. For those who don’t have a choice, well, they don’t have a choice.