Environmentalism: England vs. America

When I was in England a couple of months ago, my innkeeper and I were talking surrounded by the mild fall night outside of the main building.  Across the garden lie another building – he and his partner shared an apartment on the bottom and the top was let out by some long-term residents.  He pointed up to the apartment, which was unnecessary as it was like a blinding beacon in the darkness.  “We call that the American house,” he teased me.  “You can see it a mile away.”  Sure enough, every light on the top floor was on while the innkeeper’s place showed only faintly by a singular light from one room.

Throughout my trip I had noticed the lack of artificial illumination in the English night.  I was annoyed and inconvenienced by this – as I walked along the village streets, there were no bright street or house lights on to make me feel secure.  Only a few dim lights and the moon guided my walk to the neighborhood pub – at a couple of points I actually had to feel my way along the stone walls and hedgerows.  It had been almost as much on the unlit major motorways.  Is England so much poorer than America that it cannot afford proper lighting? I wondered as I tripped into the dark mud.

So I asked the innkeeper why English towns are so dark at night.  “English people find it very – unbearable – when too many lights are on.”  he was being careful with his words although their meaning was not lost on me.  “For example, it is one of the most obnoxious sights to fly over an American city like New York or Los Angeles.  It’s quite blinding.”

The negative connotations of the word “environmentalist” are still very prevalent in the US, although the tides are starting to turn.  If someone labels themselves as an environmentalist here one conjures up images of the tie-died, stoned hippie hugging a tree and shouting angry nonsense about spotted owls as the loggers approach.  But in the UK and the rest of Europe, using resources irresponsibly or in an extravagant way is not a sign of wealth but intrinsically viewed as a sign of waste and greed.  There is no need to put a label of “environmentalist” on someone who drives a low-emissions vehicle – it is viewed as normal and sensible to want to make as small of an environmental footprint on the Earth as one can.

Despite our countries’ common histories, I’ve thought of several reasons why we might have such different worldviews.  Consider the implications of these facts: the US is a very large, relatively isolated young country founded on individual rights and capitalist principals.  I love my country fiercely for these very same reasons, but there have been some disadvantages to all that wealth and independence.  When settlers first came here resources were abundant – it seemed impossible that the richness of our land might some day run out on us, yet here we are.  While England began taking their environmental lesson to heart during the industrial revolution, ours is just starting to sink in.

In the recent film An Inconvenient Truth, a surprisingly approachable Al Gore rips to shreds the fallacy that global warming is part of a natural cycle and after hitting us with fact after indisputable fact calls it a “moral issue”.  At first this might seem either laughable or a tired cliche, but just take a moment to think about what this means:

Just for a moment, throw out everything you believe about religion and morality (or the lack thereof).  And pretend that it was you – in a moment of insane genius – who created the beautiful universe.  And in this universe you created beings, gave them free will, and surroundings that had everything they needed to survive.  As you looked into your petri dish of budding new life, what would you wish for your inhabitants?

My answer is clear.  I would think very little on trivial things like sexual rules and if it was necessary to eat fish on Fridays.  But I would care deeply about two matters:

1) I would want the residents of my world to love each other and be happy.

2) Similarly, I would want my beings to be kind and loving to the world I had created for them.

According to that last idea, I’m a sinner.  Through the years I’ve taken a lot of care to treat others with kindness and I do think that most of the time – even with my foot-in-mouth disease – I do pretty well.  But as I have been going about my life feeling all smug and superior morally, with my gas-guzzling SUV and our outrageously high energy bills I’m committing horrific crimes against humanity each and every day.

And just as my eyes had to adjust themselves when I moved from the cloudy, dim light of Seattle to the bright sunny days of the desert area I now live, I’m sure my eyes can adjust the English night if that’s where we end up living.  And along with sharp night sight, I hope England can adjust my heart to see more clearly as well.

Although I’ll never be an angry tree-hugging enviro-nazi, I’m slowly taking steps to rectify my sins.  As I go I’ll be writing about them here along with the usual ramblings about whatever I feel like talking about at the moment.  Follow along.  And if you care to, maybe we can change our lives – and our world – together.


1 Response to “Environmentalism: England vs. America”

  1. 1 Virginia Tech: the bigger issues « AmericanMum Trackback on April 16, 2007 at 1:52 pm

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