On the greening of America

Or at least my slice of it.prius.jpg

In this era of global regret about global warming, my sense of the environmentally correct has grown more acute. I inevitably come back to the United States and notice the ways in which Americans are confronting the issues: the proliferation of hybrid (gas-electric) cars, the emphasis on buying local/seasonal/organic food, the increasing use of reusable shopping bags, etc etc. I’m conscious that I’m from one of the more progressive-minded and financially comfortable regions of the country (the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.), but I’ve been surprised by the number of Toyota Prius hybrids I see driving around and the crowds at local farmers’ markets. The U.S. may have one of the more egregious environmental records in the world, but I’m seeing hopeful behavior–at least in my neighborhood.

When I moved to Madrid two years ago I lauded what I saw as an environmentally efficient society. Many people don’t use clothes dryers, cars are small (tiny compared to American cars!), more waste is recyclable (in the States there are many restrictions on what one can recycle, especially in terms of plastics), the use of buses and trains to travel is very widespread, and so on.

But I’ve realized that though these things are environmentally sustainable, they are bred of necessity more than anything else. To put it simply, there’s no space for big cars in Spain, and they would be so expensive to fuel that they would be beyond most people’s means. There’s not much room in people’s pisos for clothes dryers and the weather is good enough in most parts of the country to air dry clothes fairly rapidly. Europe is generally green, but maybe it’s because it has to be.

In terms of agriculture, Spain is fortunate to be a medium-sized country that cultivates a large variety of crops, meaning produce does not travel terribly far within the country, which we all know is good for carbon emissions. But not much of that produce is organic: while productos biológicos have made some inroads they are largely limited to small specialty stores and are far from entering the mainstream. In addition, one of the largest agriculture-producing regions is the desert-like Almería, which cultivates under a blanket of plastic. The “sea of plastic” that has come to symbolize the southeast corner of Spain is not environmentally sustainable or natural: they’re growing tomatoes in winter for heaven’s sake, and they’re not growing them in soil.greenhouses.jpg

Whereas in the United States there’s a growing acceptance of the need to “buy local” and “buy seasonal,” modern Spain has let that old-fashioned practice fall by the wayside in the face of better technology (year-round greenhouse cultivation in a desert). Seventy percent of the crops cultivated in Almería are for export.

I don’t intend to make any judgments here about environmental policy, but I do believe that, at least in some parts of the U.S., we are seeing a grass roots movement towards a sustainable future and it gives me hope.

3 Responses to “On the greening of America”

  1. 1 madridgirl Monday, 10 September, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I think you´ll find, if you read the EU environmental policies concerning member states, that many of those things you´re passing off as “necessity” are in fact due to environmental policies set in place within the last 20 years. I’m quite shocked that someone could even suggest that the United States has stronger environmental protection laws (or grassroots movements) in place. Perhaps it’s the grassroots movements that are there because they have to be, in response to US Environmental policy.

    As for the organic food, firstly I think you are seeing a “trend” in america that doesn’t reflect the reality of most of middle america. Honestly, most people do NOT eat organically. Further, those that do can afford to do so. You Whole Foods/Wild Oats or just run of the mill grocery organic food is expensive. The biological technology debate aside, I think Western European agriculture standards are higher than those of the USA, ie. “more organic”. Even simple things, like in Spain it’s illegal for restaurants to serve ground beef that is higher than 17% (I think that’s the exact number). The same standard in the US is about 23%.

    Finally, I just flat out don’t agree with being able to “buy things year round” here. I used to live in Houston. I could find any vegetable or fruit I wanted any day. Here that is not the case. I’ve had to retrain my inner chef to think seasonally, something I never had to bother with in the US, even when shopping at Whole Foods.

    :) good controversy inspiring post, by the way.

  2. 2 graeme Monday, 10 September, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    I read somewhere that Spain is one of the biggest producers in Europe of organic produce…it just doesn’t get produced for the Spanish market. In the UK for instance the major supermarkets sell organic produce, and given the short growing season there they have to look elsewhere to get it. Unfortunately the plastic sheet production is killing off variety here, compared at least to ther countries in the Mediterranean.

  3. 3 Katie Monday, 10 September, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    @ madridgirl: I never suggested that the United States has stronger environmental protection laws. In fact, I never even mentioned “laws” in the post. What I do note are my personal observations in the part of the U.S. where I’m from. The grassroots movement stems from people who are conscious of the environment and are not satisfied that the government is doing enough.

    @Graeme: You’re right about the organic production. I assume it doesn’t end up in Spain because there’s less demand for it there than elsewhere. I ask myself why would there be less demand? Are crops in Spain already grown with fewer pesticides? Do people just not care? Or would they be too expensive to care anyway?

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