The Land of Chocolate, Fries, and… Environmentalism? Thoughts on Environmental Differences Between Northern Europe & the US

21 Feb
“Donc les Américains s’occupe de l’environnement maintenant?” (So, Americans care about the  environment now?) my Belgian friend’s father dryly asked me when I told him that I was very involved in environmental issues at my college in the U.S. The embarrassment and inexplicable desire to protest criticisms of the United States when asked a question such as this one is a sentiment that I, and many Americans abroad, are all too familiar with. I tried to explain to him while it’s true that we unfortunately have an infrastructure and lifestyle that does not favor green living, and there are a myriad of issues with our consumption and policy, there is also a magnificently growing environmental movement that more and more people are being inspired by every day. We soon moved on to other topics of conversation that engaged the entire room, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the manner in which he so condescendingly responded to my description of the efforts that Smith and other American institutions have been making. Indeed, there are stark differences in the manner in which Europeans and Americans regard the environment and issues surrounding it, differences that portray the United States in a pretty unfortunate light. But are these portrayals correct? Is Europe really “better” than the U.S.?

The simple answer is yes. A person’s carbon footprint is on average lower in Europe simply by living there. First off, their towns and cities are much closer together than those in the United States, so people do not have to travel the same kinds of distances that we do in the U.S. Gasoline is also much more expensive there, costing the equivalent of about $8 per gallon, and in some places as much as around $10 (4). This cost, in itself, makes people more likely to use public transport. In addition, public transportation -particularly trains- are commonly used because they are relatively inexpensive and widely accessible. In Belgium, for example, a city, town, or even village without a train station is basically unheard of. In many places in Europe, particularly Northern Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, biking is the most common mode of  travel for short distances. In these countries, cities and towns are built to accommodate biking. Houses also tend to be much more efficient, many built “up” rather than “out”. The average carbon footprint in the EU is less than half the size of that of a North American. (U.S.: 19.74, Belgium: 10.88, France: 6.5*, The Netherlands: 10.5, Denmark: 9.8, Germany: 10.2) (1) This is not to say that Europe is without faults on the environmental front, however. These countries, often glorified for their environmental stewardship, still have a lot of work to do.

The EU can often “hide” its carbon emissions because they are not being emitted in Europe. The large population and demand for high-energy food (imported goods, animal products), particularly in Northern Europe, makes the carbon footprint of these countries skyrocket. For example, when the amount of international cropland necessary to feed the Belgian population is counted, Belgium becomes one of the ten countries with the largest environmental footprint. (2) Convincing anyone who is a heavy meat eater to switch to a less carbon intensive, plant based diet is difficult. Asking Northern Europeans to give up their charcuterie, cheese, and imported delicacies? It would be easier to get a wild tiger to be vegetarian. As with the U.S., most of the goods used in Europe are produced overseas. The pollution that goes into making goods sent to Europe are not generally calculated into their carbon footprints. Europeans buy just as many clothes, tools, office supplies, electronics, and beauty products as we do.

1623755_10151938730901270_1400589827_n                             An entire store dedicated to (energy intensive) cheese.

Europe is, however, in a better position to adapt to an environmentally friendly infrastructure than the United States. While one reason is that the infrastructure they have in place is already much greener, an even larger one is the mentality of most Northern European countries. My friend, who has family in Denmark and frequently travels there, told me an interesting story about the first time she saw a theater piece in Copenhagen. When the piece ended, everyone began to clap. She clapped along with them, as she normally would, but after a few seconds of clapping she began to notice something. Everyone in the theater had started to clap in unison. Everyone’s hands were coming together at the same time, increasing in speed and intensity together, and eventually fading out in unison as well. She said it was one of the strangest things she had ever experienced. It was not just the theater- it is how people clap in Denmark. Though I never experienced it in Belgium, it is apparently common in other European countries as well. I don’t know if there is any true correlation between this cultural trait and a general group mentality, but it is true that in Europe both individuals and governments are much more focused on the collective than here in the United States. This norm of communal thinking bodes extremely well for tackling challenging environmental issues, where group cooperation is key. Americans are generally much more focused on personal freedoms and the right to give as little as possible to others, all while driving a gigantic truck. Our overarching, culturally perpetuated notion that the solution to any problem is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and strive for individual success is a backwards and harmful approach to this global crisis. Not everyone is stuck in this mindset, however. As I previously said, the U.S. has been making great strides in many cities: small-scale farming is taking off, there are huge green initiatives gaining strength every day, and people are generally becoming more environmentally conscious. It does, however, make large-scale environmental policy more complicated and arduous. It is simply much easier to make significant policy changes in smaller, more socialist countries.

Another difference that I have noticed in the past few years is that it seems as though Americans like to make a big deal of things: instead of quietly changing infrastructure and policy because we know that it is the best decision for our future, we feel the inexplicable desire to broadcast the “incredible changes” we are making (no matter how small). This is especially apparent in the manner in which universities, organizations, businesses, and even individuals treat the process of “going green”. While many European institutions will simply make changes because they know it’s the right choice, and will only share those changes with the public by minimal advertising or via an information page about environmental efforts, a similar institution in the U.S. will do all of that plus an educational campaign and a party. The United States does not do anything quietly, a quality that makes us appear rather juvenile to our European counterparts. As I attempt to explain to my Belgian friends that there is an incredible fossil fuel divestment campaign that is sweeping the country, that everyday there are grassroots organizations gaining strength, and that the government and universities often financially support efforts for people to study environmental issues, I know that momentarily I will hear the retort that will silence all of these nice efforts: “yet you still can’t seem to sign the Kyoto Protocol”. Sorry, America, no amount of student organizations and creative advertising can get you out of that one.

Of course, both continents have an incredible amount of work to do, as we are responsible for having disproportionately destroyed and consumed the resources of this planet for the past few centuries. I truly believe that what we need is a combination of American spunk and European ethic. Many American citizens have a youthful, excited appetite for change that does not exist in the same way in Europe. In Europe, however, the government has the dedication and realistic outlook to make actual change. For example, Germany, which currently gets 23% of their electricity from renewable sources is moving toward the goal of 80% renewable energy by 2050. The original plan had been fairly reliant on nuclear energy, but after the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately made changes in the country’s energy plan. As Peter Almaier, the federal minister for the environment, nature conservation, and nuclear safety said, “We are changing profoundly and completely a structure that has developed over  150 years”. (5) I would say that the United States needs a bit more of this diligent attitude. As is the case with many issues, there are problems to be solved everywhere and there is no single right answer. I personally hope that in the coming years the United States will take a few hints from European environmental policy and make necessary changes. For this to be possible, we will have to move beyond environmental responsibility for show and towards environmental responsibility for survival; we have no choice.

*France has much lower emissions because the majority of their electricity comes from nuclear energy

– Savannah Holden, ’16







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