Why do the French rank so much better than Americans on most environmental metrics? There are some simple answers, such as the fact that a high percentage of the electricity in France is generated at nuclear power plants and that there are very few coal-fired power plants. The French also tend to drive smaller, more fuel efficient cars and live in smaller homes. But none of these facts really gets to the root cause of why the French are so much better than Americans on most environmental metrics. Why do the French choose to drive small cars, use public transit and live in small houses? Why did they choose to build nuclear power plants?
Are the French really more environmentally conscious, or is their behavior the result of other causes. At first glance, the typical French person does not seem to be more environmentally conscious than the typical American. They appear to enjoy comfort and conspicuous consumption just as much, or more, than the typical American. However, high energy prices, bike and pedestrian friendly cities, and excellent mass transit options make it more convenient to shop at local food markets and leave the car in the garage. Furthermore, they have a long tradition of buying food at local shops and markets.
I've asked a lot of different people in France about whether the French are really more environmentally conscious or whether their behavior has other motivations. Some suggest that high energy prices and peer pressure cause Europeans to do more to protect the environment than Americans. The prevailing (somewhat cynical) theory expressed by the French about themselves in my unscientific survey is that the French would make exactly the same choices as Americans if they lived in America. These pessimists point to increasing suburban sprawl in France (which is mild by American standards) and the popularity of the (relatively rare) massive new suburban shopping centers being built in the middle of farmers' fields as evidence that France is becoming less environmentally conscious.
I've included a few pictures of our local example of a new greenfield shopping center - known as the Atoll - which is designed around the car and built next to a freeway in the middle of nowhere. This shopping center consists of a one kilometer circle of big box stores with a massive parking lot and a couple of fast-food restaurants in the middle. Judging by the crowds, the French love it. There is even a McDonalds although the concept of getting your food at a drive-through window is still pretty alien to the French. When we visited the Atoll last Saturday, there were cars overflowing the parking lots and dense crowds in the stores. It seems that there is some truth to the idea that if you offer the French an American-style suburban shopping center they will shop there, even if they profess to be offended by it.
|The Atoll - rising like an alien spacecraft on the lush fields of Anjou|
|The interior of the Atoll|
My theory is that the root cause of why the French rank higher on most environmental metrics is that the French have a good compromise between free enterprise and government planning. For the most part, the French don't have the option of shopping at suburban shopping centers and it is more convenient to walk to a local store.
|Futuristic exit / entrance into middle of the Atoll |
(the beautiful green grass is fake)
There is another factor. The French seem to value quality over quantity. For example, most French people seem to purchase high quality clothing and wear the same outfits frequently as opposed to having a closet full of cheaply made clothing that is seldom worn. Perhaps it is because of the small size of most homes, but the French don't seem to purchase a lot of junk. Unlike America, there is little need for mini-storage facilities to store all of the junk that won't fit in the home even though the French generally have less storage space in their home.
French food also reflects the importance of quality over quantity. As a nation, they seem to have consciously made the choice to have high quality locally grown food knowing that it will cost more than factory packaged food and beef fattened in massive feedlots. We have yet to encounter an all-you-can-eat buffet in France.
|New upscale housing development in the midst of farms |
(note that there will be 42 lots on 3 hectares -
about 5.7 houses per American acre)
Although French homes tend to be smaller than there American counterparts, the French do not seem to envy our large homes. When I show French friends pictures of typical American homes, they ask what we do with all of the space and whether it is a burden to clean such a large house and maintain such large yards. They express concern about being tied down by having to clean and maintain a large house.
There is a lot that we Americans could learn from the French. While we will not be able to redesign our cities overnight, we can all start living a little more simply with a little less stuff. If we did that perhaps we might get our average CO2 emissions down to only double the average French CO2 emissions.