Archived Opinion

Reduced energy use is natural part of Euro life

op scottWe were nearing the end of our European summer vacation with three other families from Western North Carolina when we pulled into Interlaken, Switzerland on a Saturday evening. As I looked around at the neat mountain chalets on the outskirts of town, it seemed they were all dark, almost as if they were closed up for the season. The entire town, it seemed, was on dim.

In fact, it was just another example of the European success at using less energy and reducing their carbon footprint. They were using smarter light bulbs and fewer of them. Most of the businesses in town did the same, except for a couple of the high-end hotels. In the apartment where we stayed, we had to go up three flights of stairs. The only switch for the stairway lights was on a timer, so it was impossible to accidentally leave the light on. Interlaken is a tourist town, but it just didn’t seem as garish as most American cities of the same type.

Traveling is an unending lesson in comparison and contrast, in discovering what is different about other cultures. We in the states are often compared to Europe in terms of industrialization. Europe and the U.S. are the two places on earth where there is a huge middle class and very few people go hungry. But according to a late 2006 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, annual CO2 emissions in the U.S. were 19.78 tons per person compared to 6.6 tons per person in France. Other European countries were almost as low.

Europeans don’t act superior about their reduced energy use, and I would argue that most Americans are just as passionate about taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. The truth, though, is that as soon as you step off the plane in any European country, it is simply much easier to begin reducing your carbon footprint. The place is just set up to use less energy.

We all know about how much better mass transit is in Europe, and it no doubt helps that nearly all of its cities were built before cars were around. Buses and trains are omnipresent. Once you have arrived in a small European town or a large city, there is simply no need for a car. It is not uncommon to see middle-class, elderly women walking what seems a mile or more to the market with bags, and then walking home with a full load. They’ve been doing it their entire lives and have carved out the time in their busy lives to make that trip.

Those grocery store plastic bags we all know and hate? In the Italian town we visited, you had to buy them at the grocery store. They were only pennies, but it was gentle reminder to bring your own bag. The great majority of shoppers did just that.

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Once we got those groceries back to the rental house, it took much longer before we had cold beer fit to drink. The refrigerators just aren’t as cold, at least not in the places we stayed. I didn’t do any research, but I suspect that was by design.

We stayed in three different rental places during our trip. Two of them had washing machines for clothes. None of them had a dryer. We simply hung clothes on a line, over outdoor chairs, over windowsills, etc. Whatever it took.

Perhaps most noticeable are the bicycles and scooters. Europeans take advantage of two-wheel transit, especially young people. In Italy and France, it seemed young men and women everywhere started out life with a scooter instead of a car.

From toilets to the use of natural light, things are just set up so that less energy is consumed. I don’t know if there is a lesson here. With Europe’s current economic woes, many Americans look across the Atlantic with a disdain for the socialist societies with huge safety nets that have been built — at least partially — on the back of our military might.

One place those European counties have been able to save money on, it seems, is energy use. These Europeans have contributed less than we Americans to making the oil-producing countries of the Middle East fabulously wealthy. Something about that feels good to me.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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