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Intercultural exchange

A call for real leadership

by Will Swanson
Will Swanson from California spent the first half of last year as an intern at the editorial office of D+C/E+Z. His stay in Germany was funded by the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), a programme that allows 75 young Americans to get first-hand experience of Germany and 75 young Germans to do the same in the States. In Germany, the programme is managed by InWEnt. Though Will Swanson was fascinated by Germany’s environmental achievements, he argues that more needs to be done. [ By Will Swanson ]

After collecting my bags at JFK Airport in New York, I waited on a bus. I hadn’t set foot on US soil in a year, and I felt strange in my homeland. For more than 30 minutes, the bus engine was kept running for no reason. The air-conditioner hummed as refrigerated air escaped through open doors. This would never happen in Germany. Why were the cars so big? Where were recycling bins with four separate compartments?

No, the USA had not changed much in my absence, I had. Exchange programmes like the CBYX are celebrated for instilling cultural sensitivity. Just as interesting as being immersed in a foreign culture, however, is to return home and suddenly see one’s own culture from an outsider’s perspective. I’d like to return the favour and offer a short glimpse at Germany from an outside view.

Germany is an exciting place for young Americans worried about the environment and embarrassed by the inaction of our nation. The ease of commuting and traveling by rail was inspiring. I am from California, where life without at least one car is unthinkable for most households. Along the way, I never tired of seeing the wind turbines dotting the countryside.

In Germany, even mundane details of life evince concern for the environment: multi-use bottles, efficient household appliances, recyclable plastic packaging. Bike lanes seem ubiquitous and there are no free bags at grocery stores.

Even as I admire what Germany had achieved, I wish it had gone further. In spite of remarkable progress, the German lifestyle is unsustainable on a global scale. There is a gap between the kind of leadership the world needs and the kind of leadership we’re getting from the industrial world’s climate champion. During my internship at D+C/E+Z, this gap became impossible to ignore. As I learned more about the myriad problems developing countries face, Germany’s climate efforts gradually lost their special lustre. Compared with the near-hopeless conditions experienced by many people in the world, the impediments to progress towards carbon neutrality in the rich world seem small.

All summed up, Germany does not differ from other rich nations. They all implement energy policies according to the mantra: “Do as much as possible, but don’t threaten voters’ comfort or convenience”. Considering how far the global comfort-balance is tipped in the rich world’s favour, I think we „Northerners” must afford a little discomfort.

Underneath the German wind-turbines I admired and alongside the train tracks I rode, cars raced down highways with no speed limit. If Germany wants to lead on climate protection, why not pass stricter car-traffic legislation? The multi-use bottles I coveted were typically filled with mineral water, even though high-quality tap water was readily available. The odds were high that, when I encountered a piece of recyclable food packaging, it would be attached to a piece of meat, despite that diet’s huge carbon footprint.

These matters may seem petty, but millions of trifles add up to significant problems. Moreover, the implicit assumption is that we are entitled to small luxuries, despite the harm they do. This is symptomatic of an underlying unwillingness to accept full responsibility for the cumulative global effect of our daily routines.

Perhaps this criticism is hard to swallow from an American. In terms of global warming, we Americans are the world’s worst per-capita offenders. I readily concede that our history of inaction is indefensible. However, I am worried that my country will not change unless other nations show the kind of leadership that would force us to accept our responsibility. Based on my experiences, I think Germany and its partners in the EU can provide that kind of leadership – but first they must realise that real leadership means more than simply outperforming one’s peers.