This essay appeared as a guest column at UNP's blog, Behind the Book, on August 20, 2018
Summertime is the traveling season and this month thousands of tourists are visiting the places I describe in my book, The Five-Ton Life. These are low carbon communities that happen to have a unique place in American history and look just great. Myself, this time of year, I am more likely to visit the opposite extreme of The Five-Ton Life, maybe the mansions in Newport Rhode Island or, from my kayak, the exterior of huge new houses going up in Potomac Maryland. A lot of these buildings are in otherwise scenic places and not that easy to avoid.
My favorite mansion, Mount Vernon, is not large by today’s standards, but impressed many a visitor in the 18th century. A contemporary visitor, Samuel Powel, wrote in 1787, “The view down the River is extensive & most charming. In a word this is altogether the most charming seat I have seen in America.” The estate was the site of many activities that provided wonderful examples for the future. In her book, A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington, University of Nebraska Press author Adrienne Harrison writes about how George Washington’s diaries centered upon agriculture, not his personal life, and he eventually owned 32 volumes of the British scientific periodical, Annals of Agriculture. Washington was a conservationist in many facets of his life extending as well to his restraint in house building and fuel use.
The current president of course is a different story. One of his smallest personal residences, the Trump suite at Trump Tower stands at 10,996 square feet according to a Forbes magazine investigation. When seeking serenity (or not) the president can retreat to Seven Springs, his house in Bedford New York, which sprawls into some 50,000 square feet. The south Florida residence and hotel, Mar-a-Lago surpasses 100,000 square feet, all told. Mar-a-Lago in particular calls to mind the scale of the houses of the 18th century British aristocracy, a housing concept that America’s first president rejected out of hand. The upper strata of British society made an out-sized contribution to the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, which was by far the highest in the world at that time.
It would be an interesting exercise for someone to calculate the carbon footprint of Donald Trump’s personal residences, including all the extra jet fuel for moving between them. I personally am passing on such an undertaking but given the square footage involved, I think it’s reasonable to call it The Five Hundred-Ton Life! Those five hundred metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions would be the personal side of a presidential tenure that has opened up new areas for oil drilling, withdrawn from the Paris Accord, appointed anti-conservationists and anti-regulators to head relevant agencies and departments, and more recently is striving to gut auto fuel efficiency standards.
Mar-a-Lago happens to be sited in a part of the country that sees many hurricanes. Its elevation is close to sea-level and even NOAA’s conservative scenarios of sea level rise under climate change place at least some of the immediate surroundings of the buildings under water. George Washington’s two-hundred-year old house, on the other hand, sits on a high bank along the Potomac River. The estate has the advantage that it is relatively invulnerable to flooding under even the more alarming scenarios of sea-level rise. When I think of the tourists of the future, and the likelihood of seeing a preserved beach-front property in Florida, or conversely, an unpretentious wooden building in Virginia, I reckon I know whose legacy is more likely to endure.
As someone interested in the cultural side of our climate change challenge, as well as the regulatory, I ask myself: What will be the long-term influence of the current president on the choices that Americans will make in the coming years? Will we find myriad examples of new buildings, imitating Mar-a-Lago in their design, smaller versions of the pinkish-toned Mediterranean villa? Or more significantly, will the current president’s policies and personal example serve to drive up the size of new house starts, or will it do the reverse?