A culture of sustainability: the USA doesn’t have one and we need to get one

Five months ago I still lived in Freiburg, Germany. I was lucky enough to live in the world renown Vauban neighborhood (link). It is touted as a premier example of sustainable development encompassing innovative planning and building practices for environmental, social and economic sustainability including everything from Passivhaus design and natural drainage ditches (yes, the ditches are a big deal) for excess grey water. It was a level of sustainable living unlike any other. Every detail is considered to lower energy use, car use, increase livability and attract all segments of society. Its a true culture of sustainability, which extends well beyond the edges of the neighborhood and as it becomes a ubiquitous quality of German culture at large. It makes advocates of sustainability like myself giddy.

Two weeks ago I was in Chicago and tried to recycle a used plastic bottle. This seemingly simple task proved more difficult than expected. Hoping I’d be able to recycle it while getting coffee I was provided with a great anecdote that succinctly describes American views of sustainable practices and puts them in stark contrast with those in Germany: I asked the barrista if there was recycling and rather than explain there wasn’t they simply took the bottle from me, threw in the trash and made a remark about how it doesn’t really matter, because things wouldn’t get recycled anyhow. Not only was a basic element and widely accepted sustainable practice unavailable, my attempts to practice it were essentially scoffed at. I was sorely disappointed and desired to be back in Germany.


Fußweg and Fahrradweg in Vauban (Freiburg, Germany) with a small grey water ditch adjacent. Small wood and stone foot bridges connect the homes on the other side of the ditch to the main path. The tram line is one block to the left of this photo.

What I realized from this experience was that despite wonderful gains in the United States, we still have a long way to go before we catch up with some of our peers’ standards of sustainable practices.* This is more a reflection of a culture of waste. I don’t try to contend that this is a new idea, that there is a culture of waste in the USA, but rather if Americans better identify where and how we are being wasteful we can do more to change our habits and begin moving towards a culture of sustainability in truly visible ways; perhaps it would even be possible to see full scale developments such as Vauban at some point.

Its time that we go back to the very beginning and start by reconsidering some basic tenants of environmentalism and sustainable habits. Naturalism and conservationism, tree planting and recycling are all practices that deserve to move back into the conversation about environmental protection and sustainable planning again. It is impossible to develop and live within a culture of sustainability if a variety of practices and beliefs are not taken into account. Although its grand to promote bicycling and walking in cities, sustainable land use patterns and decrease sprawl none of that does any good if we are concurrently wasting materials and not doing every bit possible to live within the limits of the planet.

Indeed the term “reduce, reuse, recycle” is a plenty good reminder of how sustainable practices and living is a system of habits which positively reinforce each other. Reducing  consumption while increasing recycling is the easiest equation for less waste. That’s a simple example though. Consuming less land, less energy, driving less, wasting less food and so on, all of these reinforce other methods of environmental stewardship. For truly meaningful results though, we can’t live in a culture of waste of worse a culture in which some parts of this commitment to the environment are seen are more feasible or given more credence than others. Even if doesn’t all happen at once, at some point all methods must be embraced.

Information on recycling from the EPA.

Information on recycling from the EPA.

This is not to disregard progress being made in the USA though. The prevalence of energy saving products, more fuel efficient cars, compact florescent lightbulbs and an active conversation about how to improve our urban spaces are all commendable points. That doesn’t mean we live in a culture of sustainability though. From my perspective many of these efforts are done either to allow for other wasteful habits or they only happen because now its convenient to partake. We still don’t live in a culture in which we do things because we know its the right thing to do, but rather one in which its necessary to wait until we want to do it or are no longer inconvenienced when we do so. That’s the kicker. Whereas many European countries include comprehensive recycling plans many Americans still lack access to the simple service. It wasn’t until only the last few years that all Chicagoans served by the city had recycling bins in addition to trash bins.

Time now then to get back to the basics as a means to jump start sustainable initiatives. We need to create a culture of sustainability with a strong foundation and that includes actively doing simple things in our day-to-day lives and taking the time to remind ourselves not to forget about such things. Wind farms and electric driverless cars are glamorous and exciting and bring to mind images of sci-fi movies, but expecting such things to hold the answer to more sustainable lives is silly expectation. That is where I think we’ve gotten ourselves in the USA though: it’s easy to get starry eyed about something exciting, and lots of things can come off as more exciting than planning a tree, turning off the lights, recycling or putting in energy saving windows, but if we fail to make those the truly unwavering foundation of sustainable living patterns we won’t get anywhere. 

Let’s look back at some basic tenants of environmentally friendly and sustainable living and consider how those fit into our lives now. Over the next few weeks I will periodically be posting thoughts on recycling, naturalism and conservationism, energy and water use.