Where to begin…
In the past three weeks I have learned one thing about sustainability in Europe: It is deeply ingrained in the culture, almost to the point where they do not know of any other way. It is a place where a move toward sustainability is not in order. They have already arrived.
In the States, we find ourselves wanting to move towards more sustainable practices. Many have ditched their gas-guzzlers for hybrids or have moved back to the city to reduce the morning commute. Some might bring their own bags to the grocery or change their light bulbs to fluorescent. Whatever the case may be, it is certain that sustainability is gaining popularity in the U.S. One day, I hope it rises to the level of European standards because here, things are much, much different.
Transportation is a big issue surrounding the ideas of sustainability and energy use. In Scotland and throughout Europe, getting around without a car is easy . In Amsterdam, more than a third of the city travels by bicycle. Imagine your morning commute across the city on the seat of a bike, riding next to the canals, sun and wind at your face. Romantic. Amsterdam may be an exception, as it is a very flat place. However, I have seen a hell of a lot more bikers here than in the States.
Another way of getting around with ease is public transportation. The bus system here in Edinburgh is unbelievable. You can get to any corner of the city by bus and having a bus pass is the best tool in terms of accessing all of what Edinburgh has to offer. The buses are prompt and the routes are logical. It can be said that Edinburgh would not operate efficiently without its fantastic public transportation (bus) system.
If you want to leave the city, you can always hop a train. The train system here is also fantastic. There are a number of rail systems (ScotRail is Scotland’s own system. BritRail is another) connecting the entire island. Basically, you can get anywhere in on the island in 5 hours or less. No cars, no gas stations. Just a few pounds and a ride through beautiful scenery. This is energy efficiency at its best.
However, if you really need to drive, you can always get a car. Good luck finding a pick-up truck or a giant SUV. The cars in Europe are tiny and only manual transmission. This means less gas, less money spent at the pump, and less harmful emissions in the air. Sure, you might have to sacrifice the feeling of riding in an armored tank, but at least your pockets won’t be hurting. What is really interesting about cars in Europe is that you will often see American cars (Fords, Chevys, etc.) that you have never seen in America. Take this Chevy for example:
Have you ever seen anything like that in the States? Its a Chevy! I bet that thing gets well over 40mpg. But why don’t we see more cars like this zipping around our streets? Is it the American mentality? Is bigger really better or are we just simply unexposed to the smaller option?
Another thing I’ve noticed in terms of energy use and sustainability is appliance size. My program director, Dr. Geoff Buckley, is staying with his wife and three children in a townhouse on the west side of the city. The group has been over a few times for dinner and I have always taken note at the size of the appliances in the house. The refrigerator is no bigger than what we would call a “mini-fridge”. The oven is the size of a microwave. The washer fits nice and eloquently under that counter in the kitchen as well. No dishwasher. No dryer. Small appliances.
Bathrooms are another interesting evidence of sustainability in Europe. The first one I used was in the University’s library. I was amazed by this:
Conservation and sustainability has even made its way into the bathroom. Unbelievable. The concept here is simple: if you think you need to fully flush the toilet, please do so. If not, simply press the small button and you are doing your part in saving the world. But I don’t think Europeans think that way. I think that it is a part of their culture to be sustainable and to use less energy. They don’t know any other way.
All of these examples boil down to one thing: conservation of energy. You don’t need to spend much time in Europe to understand that they take their energy use very seriously. Perhaps us Americans can adapt some of these techniques. Maybe then some of our energy problems will disappear.
It will require a paradigm shift, however. We live in a culture of consumption. Big Macs, big houses, big cars. But thats our culture. Europeans are opposite. Thats whats makes it their culture. Have I seen the light? Perhaps. I know that when I return home I will think of energy use much differently. It is frustrating, however, that it takes a trip to Europe to see the better way. It shouldn’t be that way.
One day, I think America will move to a more sustainable, energy efficient lifestyle. It may take drastic measures or (hopefully not) a catastrophic event to lead us in that direction, but I am confident that it can happen.