Biology in the News Explained

A tale of two lifestyles, sustainable vs. self-destructive

I have now spent relatively large chunks of time (a month or more) living in three different European countries: The Netherlands, England, and Germany. It’s becoming clear that unsustainable energy and food policies have painted the U.S. into a corner relative to these other countries. Although the U.S. is currently in better shape economically at the moment than Europe, that could easily change any time in the near future. Given that the course of American health and energy problems has a huge amount of inertia and given the current highly dysfunctional state of politics in this country, the U.S. is heading for a rude awakening, and probably pretty soon.

There are several major differences between lifestyles and policy shaped by government in Europe and those in the U.S.; all together they spell out that Europe is on a much more sustainable path with regard to resource use and health than the U.S. Europe is in a very different place from the U.S. in terms of transportation, food distribution and waste, and health (especially obesity). Europe’s solutions to these problems are much more sustainable over the long term.

For example, public transportation is well known to be much more comprehensive in European cities than American cities of equivalent populations, and this probably has a lot to do with population density. For comparison, here are the population densities in all cities with between 1 and 2 million people.

The obvious American outlier is Philadelphia; it is surely no accident that it is the oldest city on the list, founded two hundred years before industrialization and cheap oil. (Without Philadelphia, the American average density is 1,291.)

It is impossible to serve a large portion of the public with public transportation at such low densities. Thus, Americans have much lower access to public transportation, increasing our dependency on cars. Obviously one reason for this is that the U.S. simply has more land to use; Europe has higher population density because it has a much smaller area. In addition, most European cities were built before industrialization, and thus were not designed to be dependent on cars and cheap oil.

But current government policy continues to support this trend. For decades, gasoline has been two to four times as expensive in Europe, due to taxes. This encourages use of other modes of transportation than by private automobile (and helps to fund them). European cities also have superior bike-path systems; they are crowded with bikes as a result, and the benefit is twofold, as many more Europeans save energy and are in better physical shape by using bikes as their primary transportation mode. In fact, it is standard policy in German cities for employers to offer employees either a parking space or fully funded public transportation. Many choose the latter.

As Europe has progressed toward government policies which discourage the most wasteful vehicle use, the U.S. has done exactly the opposite. Americans howl with outrage when gasoline gets over $3 per gallon, while it costs as much as $10 per gallon in Europe (e.g in Norway, right now — note prices in euros/liter; the average here translates to about $8 per gallon). But if we had the will to implement it, government price control would have an effect on Americans too; at the $4 threshold, which we first saw in the last year of Bush’s presidency, Americans began to drive a lot less, even without a good public transportation system. Not only would price controls keeping U.S. gas at a minimum of $4 per gallon save fuel and make us healthier (reducing those easily walkable car trips that Americans routinely take without a second thought), but it is argued that greater stability in gas prices is better for national security and business planning, and thus would help the economy as well.

Oil is a finite resource, being consumed at exponentially greater rates now that China and India are taking their piece of the pie, and Europe is in a much better position than the U.S. to transition away from it.

Another striking difference between American and European lifestyles is in how we produce and store food. The amount of food wasted in America, even as Americans (let alone the multitudes in other countries) go hungry, is nothing short of appalling. And it is wasted for exceedingly idiotic reasons.

First, fresh produce is often a money loser for supermarkets because the profit margins are lower than for packaged, processed foods, and because most throw fruit and vegetables out at the first sign of a blemish. Of course, the USDA grading standards ensures that produce that is found to have the slightest amount of damage before it leaves the farm is thrown out before it even makes it as far as the supermarket.

(As an aside, it is instructive to do a spot perusal of the pdf documents at the above USDA site listing standards for produce. After checking several, and doing searches on the words “appearance”, “damage”, “taste”, and “nutrition”, I found dozens of instances of the first two, and exactly zero of the last two words. Not only do these standards contribute to huge amounts of wasted food (not to mention huge amounts of tasteless and nutritionally devoid food), but they encourage very high levels of pesticide use. They have also made it more difficult for organic products to compete by getting Americans used to unrealistic, even unnatural fruit and vegetable appearances, so that we are assumed to be squeamish about the slightest sign of insect damage.)

Why do supermarkets even bother to sell produce then? Because it gets people into the store. While everyone likes the look and idea of fresh produce, once in the store most people buy primarily packaged foods. (If you don’t believe this, just take a moment next time you are in a supermarket checkout line to see how much fresh produce relative to packaged food is in everyone’s carts.)

American consumers end up throwing out enormous amounts of food as well, and this is where another important comparison between the U.S. and Europe comes in. Americans have giant refrigerators and freezers, and are encouraged by pricing to buy in bulk perishable items such as dairy products and meat, and some produce that can be bought bagged such as potatoes, apples and oranges. Buying milk by the quart just isn’t cost-effective given its price by the gallon. So Americans stuff their refrigerators full of bulk food, much of which spoils before we eat it, because we feel compelled to “save” money by buying the larger size. (This surely also contributes to higher-than-adequate portion sizes at home.)

In European cities, you would be hard pressed to find milk containers of more than one liter (about a quart). Larger quantities of items don’t tend to be cheaper, and refrigerators are much, much smaller, half the size or less of the average American fridge. But it’s not a problem, because there are grocery stores everywhere, probably within a ten-minute walk of most homes, and so people go to the store much more often, and just buy what they need for the next few meals.

The one American city I have spent time in that is the most similar to this model is New York. Doubtless there are several others that at least in parts of the city, have similar access to groceries. Most or all of these cities are either pre-industrial in age or much larger than 2 million. But the chart above provides the telling data that American cities smaller than that are very low density compared to European, and thus in addition to weak public transportation, do not provide a grocery store every few blocks. In essence, in the European model, consumers are not made responsible for food storage as they are in the U.S., and much less food is wasted.
But the role of government in policies that reduce waste is strong. The European Union is taking positive steps to reduce food waste further. (They also are way ahead on recycling: in Germany, all plastic packaging is sent back for recycling. You don’t have to hunt around for miniscule numbers to figure out which things you can recycle, you just put everything from potato chip bags to yogurt containers in there, and all plastic bottles go back to the store for deposit.) The U.S. government is not only ignoring the fact that we throw out 40% (almost half!) of our food, but if someone in it tried to propose any measures, he or she would surely be accused by the tea party of violating our constitutionally protected right to waste whatever we feel like.

(As another aside there is also much reduced consumption of plastic bags in Europe now, at least in Germany; one very quickly learns the habit of bringing reusable shopping bags to the market because you have to pay for store bags. This is clearly a much better way to reduce bag waste than the feeble efforts by American grocery stores to credit customers 5 cents or even just 1 cent per bag they reuse, which means hardly anyone bothers. Fortunately though, some states, e.g. California and Hawai`i, are finally taking steps on their own to eliminate plastic bags and the huge amount of litter they cause.)

A free market is good at a lot of things. It allows many people to prosper economically over the short term, but it is clearly terrible at promoting any sort of path toward sustainable energy use and health. The great majority of businesses, particularly large corporations, have one metric that matters to them — the quarterly profits report. Planning for the long term is almost nonexistent, because it doesn’t make any money now. This is one of the main functions, even responsibilities of government, to steer society in a direction that will keep future generations healthy and happy. The EU is far short of true socialism, despite what its detractors say, and although there is always more to be done it has been quite successful in nudging people toward lifestyle choices that make them healthier and help to reduce waste of energy.

By contrast, right now the American political system seems incapable of addressing problems that will arise in the next month, let alone the next decade. It wasn’t always so. But while there are clearly some historical reasons why each region ended up on its current trajectory, the EU is making the most of an opportunity to imagine a better future. The U.S. though is clearly headed for a hard fall in the decades to come. The part of the government telling us how to eat healthily and exercise can’t even convince the part providing obscene subsidies for processed (but not fresh) food, let alone can we wave a magic wand and turn exurbs dependent on cheap oil into energy-efficient cities. Although there are lots of small steps we could take to head off disaster if there were a modicum of political will, instead it looks like the crazy End Times crowd may actually get their self-fulfilling prophecy.

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