Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Parisian environmentalism

Paris is famously clean. Water is run through the streets at regular intervals, sweeping away all of the dust, dirt, and detritus of the city streets. It is one of the things that makes Paris a beautiful city to live in -- how can something so old be so clean?

Except dog poop, that is. People seem better about this than they used to be, but it is still somewhat unpleasant to walk out your door and see a cocker spaniel delivering a four-pound package on your sidewalk. But then you look up and see an immaculate park, maintained 40 hours a week by Djamel, who sweeps leaves from the walk and asks you if the city's free wifi is working.

It must be less obvious to hotel dwellers just how differently people in Europe actually live in relation to their consumption. When you walk into my building, the foyer is dark except for a few shots of light from an upstairs window. That's when it is daytime -- at night it is almost pitch black. You walk about 10 steps to a faintly glowing light, which turns on the stairwell lights for about three minutes. Run, 6th floor dwellers!

(Actually, there's an elevator, but people only take it when they have luggage. That's part of the environment too -- getting some exercise.)

The apartment too is designed to minimize consumption. You can shut off the hot water heater with a simple switch next to the front door -- and Patricia asked me to do this, daily. You can shut off the electricity to the entire apartment if you leave. You can see how much energy you are consuming every day on a meter right next to that. In Rome, I was able to calculate exactly how much my utility bill would be for the month that I stayed there.

The kitchen has a hot plate instead of a stove, and it can only be turned off by pulling the plug from the wall. The microwave is always unplugged when not in use. The small lamp that is temporarily replacing the overhead light only shuts off when unplugged. No vampire electricity use here.

The fridge is the size of two dorm fridges, and my God, the freezer area -- I can barely get my meaty paw in there without touching ice. Getting the tray out is like the world's worst game of Operation.

As a result, you shop more often and buy less stuff. Space in the fridge is a precious commodity that cannot be wasted with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Max from 2007. Drink it or dump it. There's recycling of course, and you only separate glass, which is nice.

Space in the apartment is limited of course. There are no closets, and only a few shelves. Thus anything you want to consume in the future has to look pretty when not in use.

Are Europeans better environmentalists than Americans? I don't think so, actually. I think they are nudged to be. Energy costs are simply much higher than in the U.S., and so people have looked for ways to reduce their consumption. Space is limited, and the culture values quality over quantity, not to mention living more of life in public spaces. (A wonderful topic for another post, actually.)

Europeans also generally have far less disposable income than Americans, due both to taxation and less income disparity in general. A new full professor in Paris makes only slightly more than I did as a new assistant professor, and this is considered only mildly regrettable. But they spend much less, both because of the consumption factor and because social security provides many things that Americans pay directly. (The welfare state is another fantastic topic.)

Americans are definitely moving in this direction, with their Smart Cars and house timers and solar doo-dads. But more change will likely come from simplicity.


At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Cynthia said...

Will you be posting any photos? Am enjoying your blogging!


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