Our trip to Bern was the icing on the cake to finish up our first module of Sustainable Europe Study Abroad. The capital city had beautiful sites and grand history that we explored for two days in addition to three meetings including with US Ambassador, a handful of important officials, like the Director of Environmental policy for Switzerland, and finally a tour of University of Bern with Fabian, a PhD graduate student. I was able to take the research on Green Economy that I had done for my presentation as background for these meetings. In all the meetings Green Economy was an important aspect of what was discussed whether about transportation with the Ambassador, nuclear power and other energy sources with government officials.
Walking around Bern I was struck by the sheer quality of the city. The quality of the buildings lined up in every color framing the streets that had a canopy of wires powering the electric train that dominated the right of way. I could tell that the spaces were hand crafted rather than built up over time. The trains system was so prevalent that is gave a stark contrast to many American cities where the car rules the street. As unsightly as the web of electrically wires are the German architecture and the efficiency of the train in the city overweighs the aesthetic part. The trains allowed for an example of a more Green Economy as they do not emit carbon dioxide and they move lots of people efficiently. They do not compromise resources with growth. To discuss such solutions further in our meeting created a well rounded perspective.
On a very rainy July second the group was fortunate enough to meet US Ambassador to Switzerland Donald Beyer. A Virginia man himself, we all had an instant connection and welcoming feeling at the Embassy in Bern. Through Mr. Beyer’s stay in Switzerland his observations of the countries structure and attitude towards sustainable development influenced his view of American government’s system and development programs. He discussed with us the polarization of political parties in America and how if they could only come together and communicate pressing needs whether environment, economic, or social maybe all could work together in consolidated groups to move forward on an agreed agenda so issues and solutions can be identified. He also emphasized the wonderful transit system that connects the small country with the densely populated areas. Personally I found was he discussed very insightful and made me reconsider our ways of development in the states precede.
Our second meeting in Bern was one of the more intimidating but turned out to be one of the most informative. Just look at the room where we had the presentation and Q&A! We met with people that are so highly involved in Swiss sustainable development, including Stefan Ruchti (FDFA), Lorenz Kurts (FDFA) and Daniel Wachter (DETEC), that to listen to their views on Switzerland’s direct route to a green economy was very interesting. The officials highlighted the fact that energy efficiency is a main component for nuclear power plants scheduling to shut down. The worry of both our group and the panel of officials was what will compensate for what energy will be lost? The panel explained that they did not have obvious answers such as wind power or solar since Switzerland does not have that type of power like Germany where high power wind comes off the ocean. I was intrigued by the special development group that we spoke to that had only six members but which integrated issues about transit, construction and planning all in one so the parts can be designed together instead of in isolation. In the U.S. there is no such thing as a special development board, however, there is definitely a need for a group such as this to communicate and weave all parts of sustainable development into an integrated machine.
Before I started this Sustainable Europe study abroad course I had very little knowledge of what sustainable development entailed. I just thought it was an effort to use renewable materials so that future generations could live as well as we do. To my pleasant surprise, sustainable development is much more multidimensional and encompasses a much broader scope of issues. These are critical matters regarding, among others, global economic changes, employment, innovation and the environment in the context of theories of development, trade, technical and organizational innovation, and job creation. I have always accepted the sprawling neighborhoods that branch out of U.S. cities, but what if we could start building in a more sustainable way so that less land is used per household and commercial and residential structures are mixed. I know if the U.S. had a train system like Switzerland the use of cars would decrease dramatically. I see at least one large obstacle. What works in a small place may not automatically transfer to a much larger place. The U.S. has more land and cities are much farther apart causing a significant challenge for implementing a train system.
The trains would just be the beginning. Glimpses of Switzerland’s approach showed me that the future of U.S. development needs to change at its very foundation to shift to sustainability. Everything that goes into making a great society, including being a good citizen of the global society, needs to be altered altered to not only grow our economy and the well being of people, but to support our environment as well.