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European Green Cities - part of a networkBy Elisabeth Rosenthal, originally at Yale Environment 360 blog

The average American produces three times the amount of CO2 emissions as a person in France. A U.S. journalist now living in Europe explains how she learned to love her clothesline and sweating in summer.

It was late and raining this summer when I approached the information desk at Stockholm's Arlanda airport to inquire about how best to get into the city center. "The fastest is the train, but there are also busses," the guide said.

"Are there taxis?" I inquired, trying hard to forget the reminders on the Arlanda website that trains are "the most environmentally friendly" form of transport, referring to taxis as "alternative transportation" for those "unable to take public transport."

"Yes, I guess you could take one," he said, dripping with disdain as he peered over the edge of the counter at my single piece of luggage.

I slunk into the cab, paid about $60 and spent the 45-minute ride feeling as guilty as if I'd built a coal-fired plant in my back yard. (Note: The cabs at Arlanda are hybrids.) Two days later, although my flight left at 7 a.m., I took the Arlanda Express. It cost half as much and took 15 minutes to the terminal. 

European Green Party is strongEurope, particularly northern Europe, is more environmentally conscious than the United States, despite Americans' sincere and passionate resolution to be green. Per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. were 19.78 tons according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which used 2006 data, compared to 9.6 tons in the U.K., 8.05 tons in Italy, and 6.6 tons in France.

Why have Americans made so little headway on an issue that so many of us feel so strongly about? As a U.S. journalist traveling around Europe for the last few years reporting on the environment, I've thought a lot about this paradox.

There is a fair bit of social pressure to behave in an environmentally responsible manner in places like Sweden, where such behavior is now simply part of the social contract, like stopping at a stop sign or standing in line to buy a ticket. But more important, perhaps, Europe is constructed in a way that it's pretty easy to live green. You have to be rich and self-absorbed, as well as environmentally reckless and impervious to social pressure, not to take the Arlanda Express.

In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don't. If nearly everyone is carrying a plastic bag (as in New York City) you don't feel so bad. But if no one does (as in Dublin) you feel pretty irresponsible.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. has had the good fortune of developing as an expansive, rich country, with plenty of extra space and cheap energy. Yes, we Americans love our national parks. But we live in a country with big houses. Big cars. Big commutes. Central Air. Big fridges and separate freezers. Clothes dryers. Disposable razors.

That culture — more than Americans' callousness about the planet — has led to a lifestyle that generates the highest per capita emissions in the world by far. Per capita personal emissions in the U.S. are three times as high as in Denmark.

But even as an American, if you go live in a nice apartment in Rome, as I did a few years back, your carbon footprint effortlessly plummets. It's not that the Italians care more about the environment; I'd say they don't. But Europe's environmental consciousness certainly has its own blind spots.  The normal posh apartment in Rome doesn't have a clothes dryer or an air conditioner or microwave or limitless hot water. The heat doesn't turn on each fall until you've spent a couple of chilly weeks living in sweaters. The fridge is tiny. The average car is small. The Fiat 500 gets twice as much gas mileage as any hybrid SUV. And it's not considered suffering. It's living the dolce vita.

My point is that the low-carbon footprints depend on the infrastructure of life, and in that sense Europeans have an immediate advantage. To live without a clothes dryer or AC in the United States is considered tough and feels like a sacrifice. To do so in Rome — where apartments all include a clothes-drying balcony or indoor rack, and where buildings have thick walls and shutters to help you cope with the heat — is the norm.

In many European countries, space has always been something of a premium, forcing Europeans early on to live with greater awareness of humans' negative effects on the planet. In small countries like the Netherlands, it's hard to put garbage in distant landfills because you tend to run into another city. In the U.S., open space is abundant and often regarded as something to be developed. In Europe you cohabit with it.

Also, in Europe, the construction of most cities preceded the invention of cars. The centuries-old streets in London or Barcelona or Rome simply can't accommodate much traffic — it's really a pain, but you learn to live with it. In contrast, most American cities, think Atlanta and Dallas, were designed for people with wheels. 

Still, I still marvel at some of the environmental strategies I've witnessed in Europe.  In old Zurich, for example, to discourage waste and reduce trash, garbage collection has long been limited to once a week (as opposed to three times a week in much of New York); recyclables like cardboard and plastic are collected once a month in the Swiss city. Since Zurich residents live with their trash for days and weeks at a time, they naturally try to generate less of it — food comes with no packaging, televisions leave naked from the store.

As I nosed around the apartment of a Swiss financial planner, she showed me the closet for trash. A whole week of her life created the same amount as the detritus of one New York takeout Chinese meal. 

Likewise, in Germany, I've seen blocks of townhouses that are "passive" houses — homes so efficient they do not need to be heated. And an upscale suburb that had banned cars from its streets; you could own a car, but it had to be kept in a garage at the edge of town where parking spaces cost over $30,000 a year, meaning that few people owned cars and those who did rarely used them for small daily tasks like shopping. 

More from Yale e360

The New Urbanists:
Tackling Europe's Sprawl

In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development — mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.

Both were upper-middle-class neighborhoods, but I was struck by how different these German suburbs felt compared to their U.S. socioeconomic counterparts. Houses are smaller, and few are detached. A passive house has to be under 2,000 square feet and basically box-like in order to make it energy efficient. "If someone feels like they need more than 2,000 square feet to be happy, well, that's a different discussion," a passive-house architect said. 

Many Americans regard these kinds of approaches as alien, feeling we could never go there. I'm not sure. The Europeans I meet in these places are pretty much just like me, inclined to do the right thing for the environment, but insistent on a comfortable life. 

There is nothing innately superior about Europe's environmental consciousness, which certainly has its own blind spots. In Italy, where people rail against genetically modified food, people routinely throw litter out of cars. In Germany, where residents are comfortable in smaller energy efficient homes, there is still a penchant for cars with gas-guzzling engines and for driving fast on the autobahn. 

I believe most people are pretty adaptable and that some of the necessary shifts in lifestyle are about changing habits, not giving up comfort or convenience. Though I initially railed about the hassle of living without a dryer or air conditioning in Rome, I now enjoy the ritual of putting laundry on the line, expect to sweat in summer, and look forward to the cool of autumn.

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Comment by: sacha davilak (Jul-10-2011)   Web site
I happily disagree the being green has been limited to one side of the political divide.

The spirited political discussions right here are a good example that efficiency, conservation, and awareness are alive and well on both sides of the political spectrum.

In fact, conservation is one of the few areas that even the extremists on both sides meet. You could have an ultra conservative rancher working hand-in-hand with a left fringe liberal jointly opposing a project to take land and put up a shopping mall or the like.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-5-2009)   Web site

An electric clothes drier is convenient, of course. So are ready meals, supermarkets, cars, air conditioners and throwaway plastic cutlery. They may not be so convenient for the Pacific islanders whose home will soon be underwater. Or for our grandchildren, adapting to life in a much more hostile world.

I don't want to seem to be ganging up on you, PT. You changing your washing habits is not going to change the world. A green audit of my lifestyle would also turn up lots of ways it could be more environmentally friendly.

In the end, however, if we in the rich world can't put up with a few hardships now, others are going to pay a very high price.
Comment by:  speeva (Sevdalina Peeva) (Oct-5-2009)   Web site

I think a few generations of american architects and city planners then should be sent to the courts for causing material and nonmaterial harm to occupants of houses and apartments they created; as well as for major contribution to pollution of air and GHG-emissions. Maybe coal giants paid for their education?
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Oct-5-2009)   Web site

You asked a good question, Sevda. Yes it is true, most apartments in USA have no balconies. It would be nice to have one. The clotheshorse is a good idea for a few items at a time, but it does not provide for sun and wind except through a window, and the wood floor needs to be covered, and what about the smell of wet clothes? It seems a clothes drier is my path, for now.
Comment by:  speeva (Sevdalina Peeva) (Oct-5-2009)   Web site

Do apartments in USA lack balconies? It is simple to attach two metal tubes at the walls and put wires or ropes between ...

When laundry dries by sun and wind it smells better than if it was dried inside the rooms and excessive moisture is avoided.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-4-2009)   Web site

Where can you hang laundry in your apartment?

On a clotheshorse?
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Oct-4-2009)   Web site

A good idea. After all, we had one "artist" who hung hundreds of cloths all over our Central Park, and hardly anyone complained.... I hope it was organic cotton Christo used.

I do something else -- taking train, walking, and biking. I feel healthier and better rested when I do that. Anyway, where can I hang laundry in my apartment?
Comment by:  speeva (Sevdalina Peeva) (Oct-4-2009)   Web site

To replace dryer with clothesline is most easy step for greening of everyday routine of a household. Why should be shame to hang up clothes that are shown anyway everyday in public?
Let me give some useful tips how to make it properly:
1. In front row should be placed blouses, shirts, T-shirts, towels
2. On the second line - trousers, skirts, pajamas
3. Than hidden behind all of this here go underwear and socks.
4. Always should be paid attention to length of cloths and colors
5. Lines should be kept well tensioned in order to withstand the weight of washing and to look neat.
Follow these simple steps and you will give to pedestrians and your neighbors something like art-installation every day :-) while go green.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-4-2009)   Web site

A fine list PT. I noticed the caveats, but who'd have thought Belize would top it!

Going by your list (with land use change - eg, deforestation and reforestation - for the year 2000), the world average (per capita CO2 equivalent emissions per year) was 6.8 tonnes. This is too high, hence the dangers of global warming.

The challenge for each of us is not to get to the level of the Danes (12.5t) but below that of the Azerbaijanis (6.8t). For Americans that means more than a two-thirds reduction in emissions; Belgians have to cut their emissions by more than half.

We can start by doing the easy things (smaller car, changing lightbulbs, turning down the heating or cooling) but we shouldn't kid ourselves: serious lifestyle changes are needed if we're going to beat global warming.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Oct-4-2009)   Web site

Good obsevations, WH. And here is a list of country GHG emissions with and without land use change:

Chart of GHG emissions per capita in 2000 and 2005
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-3-2009)   Web site

Interesting article. Thanks.

It's certainly true that it's easier to do the green thing if others around you are doing the same. One thing that struck me when I moved from the UK to Mexico was that many Mexicans are ashamed to hang their washing out in public. Why this should be is a mystery (a class thing, perhaps?), but apparently the USA is more like Mexico than the UK in this respect.

The article seems to suggest that Americans can cut their carbon emissions without suffering a reduced standard of living. That's true and a good message. Getting to the levels of Europeans, however, is only half the story: Europe too needs to cut its emissions if we're to avoid catastrophe. (It is already doing this in order to meet its Kyoto obligations, but will need to do much more.) We all have to start somewhere and some of us have further to go than others.

My experience of the USA is almost entirely second hand but to add to Elisabeth Rosenthal's comparison of the European and American publics I'd like to suggest a comparison between European and American environmentalists. Rosenthal flew to Stockholm. While plenty of Europeans fly, few European environmentalists do. If there's a green conference being held they'll see if they can get there by train, bus or bike. If they can't, they won't go. I'm not sure this is true in the USA, and certainly isn't true of Al Gore!

Finally, a comment on the statistics. France has low per capita carbon emissions in part because of its nuclear programme. (We all know that nuclear energy has many other drawbacks.) And while Americans emit a lot of carbon, I understand that (per head) Luxembourgers emit even more. (Qataris are the worst culprits.)

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