The Assumption of Inconvenience

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 politicans 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 instinctually 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.