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Why Europeans Are Kicking Our Butts When it Comes to Living Green

In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don’t.

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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 the 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. 

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.

 
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