Image credit: Chelsea Bay - with thanks!
I'll admit to being a little nervous about writing this post. As a foreigner, it's rarely wise to start bashing your host country, especially when you genuinely love it as I do. But having written my expatriate treatise on 5 Green Things I Love About America, I thought I should keep it balanced. Because, believe it or not, America still has some way to go before it can call itself sustainable. (And you thought Obama had fixed it all already...)Before I go too far down this road, I should note that every country has its positives and negatives. If I where an American living in the UK, I could find just as many things to rant about—be it litter, vandalism or a woefully lackluster sense of entrepreneurialism. But I'm not an American in England, I'm an Englishman in North Carolina. And I do think the eyes of an outsider can be useful in casting a critical eye over a culture. I just hope Glenn Beck doesn't know where I live. And if he does, I hope he doesn't have friends in US Customs and Immigration.
So here goes. My top 5 un-green things that drive me crazy about The States.
Dependence on the Motor Car
It's an obvious one, but critical. I've always been amazed at how hard it is to get around this country if you don't drive. Sure, there are planes and buses for the long trips, and there are individual cities that are reinventing mobility, from New York City's new bike lanes to Portland's low car diet, but this country needs a national overhaul of transit. And it needs it fast. Of course, Obama's plans for massive high speed rail upgrades will help, but they are still a drop in the ocean if the US is ever to have a transportation system to match much of the rest of the world. And contrary to what the wingnuts will tell you, this isn't all about global warming or saving the polar bears either. Once oil starts running low, and gas prices start rising, this country could find itself in serious crisis. It's time to start planning for an America without oil. It's going to be a pretty different looking place.
The War on the Clothes Line and the Love of the Dryer
I'm not sure I know anyone in the UK with an automatic dryer (though they do exist). And I'm not sure I know anyone here without one. Part of the issue is space—British houses are small, so it's hard to find room for a dryer and a washing machine. Another part is cost—electricity costs a lot more in the UK. But can that be the only reason for the divide? Let me be clear, I'm not anti-dryer. I own one myself, and I use it. But if I can dry for free in the sun, save emissions, and make my clothes last longer, it seems crazy to me not to do it.
There does seem to be a shift back in the other direction—with people asking whether clotheslines really lower property value, but I find that even folks who have a clothesline here tend to use the dryer more than they need to. But really, what can be a more calming, pastoral scene than lines of washing blowing in the wind?
Mistrust of Government
Now for the deeper cultural divides. I find it hard to get my head around the hostility evident toward any kind of government intervention in people's lives. Actually, that's not true—folks expect the government to maintain roads, fund firefighters and lock up (street) criminals, but heaven forbid that government might also have a role to play in building decent mass transit (see above), or putting a price on pollution and carbon, or punishing corporate environmental crime. This is one of those cultural gaps (along with the whole Second amendment thing, not to mention health care) that I find almost impossible to understand. Whether it's a result of the famous 'frontier mentality', or the fact that many folks came here to escape tyranny, I don't know. But I can't for the life of me understand why Government should not help build a sustainable country. In fact, I see every reason why it must.
Bigger is Better
I thought it was a cliche before I came here, but there really is a love of the large in The States. From giant refrigerators to 'green' McMansions, bigger is better has become a way of life for many. But there is evidence of a backlash here too. With Hummer dealers switching to Smart Cars, and micro-compact homes coming to America, maybe even 'big' has gotten too big for its britches.
Sure, there are plenty of vegans out there who will tell me that any kind of meat is a) murder, and b) utterly unsustainable (see the comments on my post about urban farming and backyard slaughter, for example). But assuming, for now, that most countries will continue to consume meat for some time to come then I sincerely hope they don't follow America's example on how to raise it. While European farmers are hardly perfect, mainstream farming in The States seems to have gone as far down the road of unsustainability as (I hope) it is possible to go. From rBGH-laden cows to corn-fed cattle that produce weirdly sweet-tasting meat, something has gone decidedly wrong in the US meat industry. Luckily, here too there are signs of change. With farmers rediscovering bison meat, the USDA certifying grass fed beef, and even organic fast food becoming increasingly available, maybe the days of cheap, unpleasant meat are on their way out. And with low meat diets on the rise, and even vegan competitive eating becoming popular, a more fundamental shift away from animal protein as the center of our cuisine may even be underway.
So there we have it. 5 things that have been bugging me that I just had to get off my chest. I make no claim to unique insight as a foreigner (there are plenty of Americans that have raised these same criticisms), and I make no argument that my country is any better. Every nation I know of has a long way to go before we can claim sustainability as our own. But the sooner we cast a constructive yet critical light on all of our cultures, the sooner we can start doing something about it.
And, once more, please remember to also check out 5 things I love about the USA. I'm no hater.