The Federal Government of Germany has what looks like a straightforward strategy for sustainability. The strategy is summarized into Ten Golden Rules. Its introductory remarks thus says:
“The national sustainability strategy is not intended to be a theoretical or academic paper. It seeks to provide practical guidelines to help politicians and society as a whole align their actions to the imperatives of sustainability. Rule of thumb: Every generation must solve its own problems rather than passing them on to the next generation. At the same time it must make provision for foreseeable future problems. This applies to conserving the natural resource base on which life depends, to economic development and to social cohesion and demographic change.”
Sustainability may be an idea that is quite a challenge to wrap one’s head around, especially if the intention is to translate the concept into actionable measures now rather than later. My recent visit to Berlin and Frankfurt showed me that far from being an esoteric concept, sustainability could actually be a mainstream ethos. On this trip, a sustainable lifestyle meant thoughtful consumption of resources, not necessarily making do with less, but focusing on what’s more important.
Public Transport Bias
Berliners impressed me as having an almost ideological preference for public transport. On arriving at the Tegel Airport, the advice was to take a combination of bus and train rides to our hotel. Asked about taxi service, the unanimous response was “No, it’s very expensive!” It did not seem to be a problem that we had with us heavy suitcases and an assortment of carry-ons.
The Berliners we met were generous with directions, both right or wrong way. Like superheroes, they would pry open the train door when they see you fail to board the train that you thought was the right one. Also, they will carry your pieces of luggage up dozens of steps of what seemed to be a climb to the Acropolis of Athens.
We reached our hotel in the south side of Berlin, after about three hours of intense commuter experience. What was meant to be one train transfer took about five, with the route complicated by the fact that one train stop was actually closed for repairs. However, it was an opportunity to see how an efficient public transport system that, combined with the residents’ willingness to walk, makes for an impressive lifestyle. With over 4 million residents, traffic congestion seemed so mild.
Efficient Use of Space
Staying at the Dorint Adlershof-Berlin Hotel could easily make an American feel too cozy. It was rather disappointing when one realizes that free Wi-Fi service was available only at their business center, which consisted of one desktop computer at the hotel’s lobby; when coffee is available only if you shell out €3 a cup; when there are no brochures on local attractions and restaurants (instead one is told to contact the local tourist bureau). On the other hand, the customer does enjoy drinks in cups and tumblers that sing. The austere services and space limited physical and carbon footprint, while possibly increasing profitability.
Proactive Waste Reduction
At the Kaufland Supermarket near the hotel, where we savored traditional German deli food and delicate pastries, it was interesting to watch how shoppers minimize waste generation. They bring their own grocery bags, bag their their own purchases, and redeem their empty beer bottles. Eateries offered real, non-disposable tableware.
In Frankfurt, we had the luxury of being hosted by friends at their apartment located in a quiet and quaint town of Rödermark in Nue Isenburg. The young couple’s hospitality and graciousness were so heartwarming. They insisted that we use their master’s bedroom. Their only requirement was for us to leave our shoes outside their bedroom, and outside their door, if possible.
They took extra care in what and how much stuff and food to bring into their apartment, since the cost of waste disposal significantly goes up with the amount of waste generated. Our hosts mentioned that they can easily save €50 by taking time to redeem empty bottles. They don’t drink any alcoholic drinks, so potentially households that consume alcohol will save much more by redeeming empty bottles. The incentive to recycle is real. Theoretically, it’s possible to eliminate paying for waste pick-up services.
Smart Urban Planning and Housing
Housing accounts for much less footprint per household in Germany than in the U.S. as residents don’t seem to mind living in multi- family buildings. Home ownership is not much of a dream; most residents rent their homes.
Our hosts in Frankfurt’s suburb work about fifteen minutes away by car. With their son going to a school where his mom teaches, there’s less driving required. Flexibility in the husband’s work schedule allows him to prepare their breakfast and pack their lunches. While eating out is an option, it’s never the default meal practice. Since the family prefers not to have television, mealtimes are full of conversations.
A few blocks from the building is the main street, which is also the way to the forest park and playground. Traffic is light; buses are popular for many residents. At around noon, many school children walk home. I didn’t see teenagers hanging out in public spaces. How this community could keep their teenagers invisible was intriguing.
Mine may have been an experience of an idealized lifestyle. However, it’s always nice to be reminded that sustainability can be real in some pockets of this world full of breathing, consuming, living human beings. Of course, it can be argued that there are macroeconomic disadvantages to sticking to an austere lifestyle. But for the hotel owner, it could mean satisfying the profit incentive, as well as giving the customer a feel-good experience of reduced human footprint. For the grocer, encouraging their customers to bag their own purchases allows their customers to be mindful of the amount of stuff and waste they could bring to their homes. For the restaurant owner, offering non-disposable plates, silver, and tumblers may just be a matter of taste, but it allows customers to enjoy their food, even as their waste generation is reduced. If sustainability is not about making rational choices about consumption, if it’s not about balancing economic, social, and environmental goals for current and future generations, what would it be about?