The Assumption of Inconvenience

98195646_33aa7b2071.jpgThe secret of European eco-friendliness? Maybe not. Photo: romerican/Flickr

Early this week, I noticed a number of my favorite bloggers linking to this Elisabeth Rosenthal essay
at Environment 360, on the mysterious greenness of European nations.
The average American, as it happens, produces about twice as much
carbon dioxide each year as your typical resident of Western Europe.

Rosenthal attributes much of this difference to behavioral
factors relating, it seems, to Europeans’ unique tolerance of
inconvenience. She writes:

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 the normal Italian poshy 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.

She later adds:

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.

What
makes this particularly remarkable is that she opens the essay by
discussing an experience she has in Stockholm, in which she insists on
taking a taxi from the airport, which ends up being much slower and
more expensive than the train.

Brad Plumer frames the piece as a fascinating read in light of the "lifestyle taboo," writing:

It’s not considered the height of political savvy here in the United
States to point out that European lifestyles are greener than our own.
Don’t expect that line in an Obama speech anytime soon. Too many facets
of European life—the cramped apartments, the clotheslines for drying
laundry—would likely strike suburbanites as inconvenient, burdensome,
or even downright primitive…

Rosenthal wonders whether similar measures could fly in the United
States: "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." Maybe so, but this sort of talk still tends
to be taboo in mainstream U.S. green circles. Josh Patashnik wrote a terrific piece for TNR

last year on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brand of "pain-free
environmentalism" in California—it’s all just peachy to talk about
swapping out coal-fired plants for solar-thermal stations, but ixnay on
trying to rein in suburban growth or coax people into smaller homes.

I see several problems with Rosenthal’s essay and with Brad’s framing
of it. One is that it’s not really correct to attribute the huge gap in
per capita emissions between America and Western Europe to the charming
European habit of drying their clothes on clotheslines.

As
Brad notes, power sources play a major role, whether one is talking
about greater use of natural gas, the French nuclear industry, or
Iceland’s geothermal capacity.

Climate is extremely
important. Western Europe is fairly temperate relative to much of
America (and especially compared to the dirtiest parts of the country).
In the same way, Californians are much greener
than Texans, thanks to the moderate conditions along the heavily
populated Pacific coast, which reduce the number of days on which home
heating or cooling is needed.

But there are lifestyle issues
involved, particularly where transportation and land use are concerned.
And contrary to Rosenthal, it isn’t that Europeans have opted for
inconvenience. Rather, they have chosen different conveniences, as her
Stockholm air train anecdote makes clear.

It is incorrect to
say that an overabundance of land drove America to sprawl, and to
drive. The Netherlands is dense of necessity, of course, but in Britain
and France and Germany there is ample countryside, which might easily
be home to sprawling subdivisions.

But Western Europeans
have largely chosen not to encourage such growth, opting instead to tax
gas at high rates, invest in transit, and protect center cities from
the threat of urban freeways.

I think it is very
difficult, objectively, to demonstrate that their choices have produced
ways of life that are clearly less convenient than American lives. It
is clear that Europeans tend to have better health outcomes than us,
and they die in car accidents at much lower rates, and of course
they’re enjoying levels of wealth similar to our own while producing
half as much carbon.

The obvious retort to this line of
thinking is that perhaps that’s all true, but like it or not America is
now sprawling, and any effort to make the country greener by pursuing
European land use and transportation options would be very difficult.
In a similar vein, it is argued that attempts to push Americans into
such a life via gas taxes or carbon prices would wind up being very
painful.

But this is not quite right. As I have pointed out before,
America will more or less need to build itself all over again by 2050
in order to accommodate population growth. Just because most of America
is currently sprawling doesn’t mean that most of the America built
between now and mid-century has to look the same.

It’s also
not clear that increasing the push factor on households has to be
especially painful. Taxes on drivers can be levied in a progressive
fashion, if some revenues are used to fund transit options while others
are refunded to lower and middle income households to help offset the
added cost of driving.

Congestion tolling would mean
higher government revenues and reduced driving, but it would benefit
rich and poor alike. As with tax revenues, tolls could be used to
provide a cushion against the increased cost for lower income families
and increased investment in transit. Higher income households (which
will tend to place a greater value on work hours lost to congestion)
would enjoy a speedy ride into the office.

If the federal
government worked to address limits on urban growth in green cities
like New York and San Francisco — limits which also serve to make
housing in such places extremely expensive — then America could grow
denser and greener by improving access for middle-income households to
some of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the country.

Perhaps
not all of the policy changes needed to reduce America’s carbon
footprint will be a walk in the park, but efforts to improve land use
and transportation decisions are likely to be some of the most
benefit-rich aspects of the climate change fight (as you’d think most
people would realize, given the obvious pain of congestion, high gas
prices, driving fatalities, and isolation among those unable to drive,
among other things).

This storyline — that changing
lifestyles to enhance walkability will be painful — makes it harder to
pass good metropolitan policies and easier for politicians to fall back
on the lame argument that Americans simply won’t tolerate anything
other than the sprawling suburban patterns which have dominated new
development in recent decades.

And by reinforcing the idea
that some of the most promising and least painful policy changes that
can be made are unlikely to "work" here in America, writers and
politicians alike ensure that more of the hard job of cutting emissions
will fall to the parts of the economy where there are no good
alternative options, and where change will be painful for households.

Rosenthal’s
essay is odd yet revealing. She instinctively attributes European
greenness to practices Americans would dub backward, while pretending
that the very convenient and green transport options she finds are
built, and presumably used, by Europeans based on some peculiarity in
their culture that we lack.

But we could build trains! In
any given legislative sessions bills are introduced that would move the
country toward the level of convenience Rosenthal enjoyed in her train
ride to the Stockholm airport. It’s just that they don’t pass, because
"it’s not considered the height of political savvy" to embrace those
policies, because Americans seem to think that their American-ness will
render such conveniences inconvenient.

"Trains won’t work
here," because "Americans love their cars," and so high quality rail
lines aren’t built, and so Americans continue to drive. And then we sit
around wondering what it is about the European character that makes
them enjoy using clotheslines so much.

  • DLM

    Of course, there are many varied reasons that Western Europe developed a lower carbon emission lifestyle that the US. But one key factor you touch on briefly is energy prices. Gasoline is expensive, parking is expensive, electricity and heating are expensive, etc. Cultural factors will hold for a while. But financial incentives will drive cultural habits, development planning, transportation options stronger than nearly anything else.

    Energy prices in the US are artificially low because many associated costs are hidden in other revenue streams (taxes). Raise prices on energy and lower income/payroll/sales taxes. Even if you don’t divert some of the new tax to transit, etc. priorities will begin to shift. Meanwhile, consumers will send less of their money to large multinationals extracting resources overseas and will instead spend money on local businesses, promoting employment and enterpreneurship. Sounds like American values to me.

  • Brent

    I second the energy price comment. I never saw Americans act so environmentally responsible as they did last summer. Gasoline at $5 per gallon did what years of CAFE standards dithering never could; it got people to sell their SUVs and drive fuel efficient cars.

  • Mary

    I agree with your article. Public policy is going to be a piece of the puzzle. I really think change that sticks comes from the people up. For example as more of us use clotheslines and clothes drying racks or ride our bikes for transportation instead of recreation. These are all movements that are starting with the people and the government is just now starting to fund bike lanes and just starting to legislate right to dry laws.

    I believe each of us need to just START being more aware and changing our own behaviors. Leading by doing.

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