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The "Lifestyle" Taboo

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. But, that said, Elizabeth Rosenthal's essay on living in Italy and seeing firsthand why per-person CO2 emissions there are only half what ours are was interesting to read:

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.

(Granted, it doesn't hurt that Italy also generates more than half its electricity from natural gas, rather than coal.) Rosenthal also looks at a few policies in Switzerland and Germany that have made people marginally more conscious about conserving energy, even though they're probably not any more distressed about the fate of the planet than we are:

In old Zurich, for example, to discourage waste and reduce trash, garbage collection has long been limited to once a week (as opposed to three times a week in much of New York); recyclables like cardboard and plastic are collected once a month in the Swiss city. Since Zurich residents live with their trash for days and weeks at a time, they naturally try to generate less of it—food comes with no packaging, televisions leave naked from the store.

As I nosed around the apartment of a Swiss financial planner, she showed me the closet for trash. A whole week of her life created the same amount as the detritus of one New York takeout Chinese meal.

Likewise, in Germany, I’ve seen blocks of townhouses that are "passive" houses — homes so efficient they do not need to be heated. And an upscale suburb that had banned cars from its streets; you could own a car, but it had to be kept in a garage at the edge of town where parking spaces cost over $30,000 a year, meaning that few people owned cars and those who did rarely used them for small daily tasks like shopping.

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.

Now, the "pain-free" tack isn't delusional. There've been plenty of studies about how we can knock out an enormous chunk of our greenhouse-gas emissions simply by employing smarter energy-efficiency measures—that is, using less energy to keep doing things we've always done. Better insulation for homes. Energy-saving TVs and fridges. Hybrid vehicles. Recycling waste energy from factories and power plants (I have a print piece this week on some of the insane inefficiencies in the power sector). Painless measures that don't require anyone to ditch their car in the outskirts of town or sport drenched armpits in the summer or make any wrenching lifestyle changes. But will those changes alone—along with new, low-carbon energy sources, of course—allow us to curb emissions enough to avoid drastic climate change? I'd like to hope so, though it's possible that they won't. So who wants to make that argument in public?