Our Locations in France

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Are the French More Environmentally Conscious than Americans?

The statistics indicate that the average French person does a lot less environmental damage to the planet than the average American. As an example, in 2006 per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. were 19.78 tons compared to 9.6 tons in the U.K., 8.05 tons in Italy, and 6.6 tons in France (according to statistics compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists). A quick glimpse of everyday life in France lends credence to the statistics. When I look out my window in a typical French town I see people walking to local markets stocked with food produced locally, people riding their bicycles to work (regardless of the weather), and densely packed homes. I see mostly empty streets with small fuel-efficient cars, which are not used on a daily basis, parked along the street. (It is hard to imagine a day when most Americans do not use their car at least once.) Every few minutes, I can see buses going down a thoroughfare that is two blocks away. Most of the houses are comfortable, but significantly smaller than comparable American homes. There are very few suburban housing developments suburban office parks, or suburban shopping centers.

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
So if the French love consumption just as much as Americans and they have the wealth to buy whatever they want, why doesn't France look like suburban Houston or Los Angeles?

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) 
Although the French profess to distrust their government just as much as Americans, they nonetheless allow the government to implement urban planning that makes it more convenient to walk, ride bicycles and use mass transit than to drive a car to work or to shop. As a result, it is inconvenient to live in a new suburb built on former farmland. For the most part, French urban planners seem to have resisted the urge to build Soviet style apartment complexes or conduct American style "urban renewal" projects. Almost all new projects include a mix of residential and commercial space. Although the current crop of American urban planners probably are just as good as their French counterparts and they produce really great plans, most of the time urban planning seems to be ignored in the United States. If you don't believe me just attend your local zoning variance hearings where developers proposing projects inconsistent with the urban plan routinely prevail.

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)
All homes seem to be designed to last for centuries and constructed with high quality materials. The French are appalled to learn that most American homes are made of 2x4s with hollow walls and a vinyl, brick or stone veneer. American homes seem relatively flimsy in comparison to their French counterparts which generally have solid masonry floors and walls, and a slate or tile roof. I have yet to see a home in France that has vinyl siding or a roof with asphalt shingles. New homes are densely clustered even when they are located in a rural area which makes it easier to walk, bicycle or use mass transit.

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.

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