Neil Young, Environmentalism, and LA

Just a quick post; working on some longer things, one of which will hopefully be ready later this week.

I’m finishing up reading Neil Young’s book, Waging Heavy Peace. Not exactly your normal land use and transpo fare, but there are interesting lessons everywhere. The book, like Young’s music, does what it wants and is sort of all over the place, but there’s a couple things that stick out in my mind.

First, Young was of course part of the hippie dream, and caring about the environment was a huge part of that movement. It’s something that’s still a huge part of his character; for example, the home page on his website talks about smog in China and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, like I tweeted about Randal O’Toole’s backstory (fighting to stop the USFS from clear cutting national forests), the relationship between environmentalism and cities has always been uneasy. US environmentalism is not just about preserving nature, but about the right to be among nature and enjoy it on one’s own terms. Young’s automobile project – converting a 1959 Lincoln Continental to run on biomass – is typical of that view: that you should be able to have your cake and eat it too. That’s not always the case. Dense cities, which inherently require individuals to surrender some connection with nature and share space with others, are not a natural complement to that type of environmentalism.

That brings me to the second notable thing in Young’s book – the City of Los Angeles. It isn’t explicit, but if you pay attention it’s there. Young moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and formed Buffalo Springfield, playing at clubs on the Sunset Strip and trying to get exposure to the Hollywood-based music industry. The band members, along with many of their musical contemporaries, lived in rented houses in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon.

Stop and think about that for a second. A 21-year old with no money moved from Canada to Los Angeles. . . and rented in Laurel Canyon! And he didn’t even have a green card until 1970! That’s what cities are supposed to be about: providing that type of opportunity for anyone. It only worked because Young and many like him could afford to be near the strip and Hollywood, where matching in the music industry was taking place. Affordable housing in the IE wouldn’t have helped. To provide opportunity for all, the city has to be affordable for all. And that’s the biggest challenge facing LA today.

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