The embarrassing, but not hopeless, state of sustainability in America

I don’t think anywhere in the world would the statement “Americans live unsustainably” be challenged.  It is one of the many negative stereotypes that plague the reputation of the United States.  The almost total disregard modern American culture has for the environment is embarrassing when compared to what I’m seeing in Germany and that is considering the strong history of conservation in the USA and the glory of our natural heritage.  What makes it all the more embarrassing though is to see the extent at which German culture and life is simply becoming sustainable on a day-to-day level.

While it’s hard to compare two country’s that have taken such different regarding the environment, what I’m seeing here is really starting to hit home how far the USA has to come to start catching up with the best of our environmentally conscious peers, but hopefully, being left behind doesn’t hinder our efforts, it just provides us with some great models.

The German national train system, Deutsche Bahn (DB), much like airlines, publishes a monthly magazine for riders to read on their journey: mobil: Das Magazin der Deutschen Bahn.  The December issue was a particularly “green issue” and included an article on different programs and initiatives found across the country to increase green living and sustainability.

The article entitled “Geht doch!” (01.2013, Pg. 64-65) outlined the following programs: the most ambitious seems to be Munich’s “Bus zu Fuß” (bus to foot) initiative to increase the number of people who walk and bike as a major form of transportation.  Although this seems pretty everyday, the program includes participation by 40 companies in Munich and even a surprising push not only to get people to bike and walk to buses and trains, but to just abandon them all together if they don’t need them.  The thinking being that since even those efficient and sustainable forms of transit require energy it is better not to even use those if it isn’t necessary.

Meanwhile in Hamburg the S-Bahn (Schnellbahn or fast-train) is run entirely with eco-power and the buses are being converted to hydrogen-powered models.  Freiburg has long been working to end it’s car-oriented planning policies, and in Berlin Deutsche Bahn and the city and region’s mass transit system are rolling out a pilot program that introduces the BeMobility transit card that includes the DBRegio trains, Berliner S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses and car-shares under one fare-card, thus encouraging mass transit use through convenience.

Groan.  While I realize that there are potential pitfalls to some of these plans, the scope, ambition, and outright new level they take things too really makes things at home look truly embarrassing.  While we’re still investing in highways and the automobile industry, arguing about building giant oil pipelines, fracking, and drilling offshore our German peers are do the above.  We can’t even keep our existing mass transit infrastructure in a state of good repair, let alone attempt to expand it. (That doesn’t include the outstanding exception of LOS ANGELES!)

Let’s now talk about our Dutch peers: the BBC recently published a piece about how the Dutch government is experimenting with using available geothermal energy to heat bike baths during the winter.  The piece “Dutch try heated cycle tracks and glow in the dark roads” from 8 January 2013 also highlights experimental glow-in-the-dark bike lanes so fewer streetlights are necessary in the future (you know, to save energy).

The Dutch government is doing this.  The DUTCH!!!  If you know anything about Dutch it’s probably it probably includes something to do with bikes (amongst other things).  So yes, the Dutch are

A statue of HM, Queen Beatrix ON A BIKE!! Even the Queen uses them.
A statue of HM, Queen Beatrix ON A BIKE!! Even the Queen uses them.

already good at using bikes.  A little less than 1/3 of all daily trips in the Netherlands are by bike, and in cities that is closer to 2/3.  Fun Fact: there are 18 million in a country of 16 million people.  And yet despite the highest bike use in the world, the government still wants to do more and increase bike trips by an additional 20% (putting average nation-wide bike use at over 1/3 of all trips).

Chicago only this past month installed it’s first (approximately 1 mile long) protected bike lane.  This is where we are at in comparison to the Dutch.  Again: groan.

Now I realize this is a tricky comparison.  Bike use is as about ingrained into Dutch culture as the language, while Americans are fighting a culture in which the car is king, so the bike lane installed in Chicago is an achievement.  What is making me groan though is how clearly it has become to me that we’re falling horribly behind.

Yep, this all looks pretty hopeless doesn’t it?  With all honesty, I sometimes think it pretty much is, but(!) I only sometimes think that.  Like I said, some of the comparisons I am making are both good and bad.  Germany’s high-speed rail network is simply a more realistic and logical way of getting people around than high-speed rail is in parts of the US (it would be very difficult to build an efficient line from Denver to Salt Lake City for example).

ICE high-speed trains in Germany are clean, fast, and efficient.  Cuts more than 1 hour of trips between Hamburg and Berlin.
ICE high-speed trains in Germany are clean, fast, and efficient. Cuts more than 1 hour of trips between Hamburg and Berlin.

While I think that there is some hopelessness at play though for the US and its ability to finally start changing towards a more environmentally sustainable path, I think there is also a lot of hope here for us too.  In fact, I think despite what is happening on my side of the Atlantic should not make environmentally conscious Americans groan and moan and be jealous, it should inspire us to look boldly into the future.  We’ve had a great example of what can be set out in front of us, and I say we follow that lead.

It’s not just us either who are waiting for Americans to jump on board with choosing to live sustainably, Europeans are waiting as well, and excitedly.  In a feature article I wrote for the Daily Cardinal two springs ago (wow, I feel old), one of the people I interviewed explained to me about the anticipation in Europe for the day America gets excited about sustainability.  The reason for that is in Europe, as she explained, there is a feeling that when Americans do things, they always do it big, and that an American investment in sustainability would be a huge boon for everybody—all over the world.

In many ways the environmental movement began in the US, and was later adopted by Europeans, after much (realistically most) of their natural heritage was lost to history and industrialization.  Only in the last 50-75 years has it really started to gain momentum here.  It is because of the odd paths that history takes us down that bring us to where we are now, and like we have so many times in our history, I think it is now again time that Americans look back to Europe, the Old World, the lands of our origins, in order to get back to our green roots.