The European Recipe for Sustainability: Sex and Food, Not Stuff


Random thoughts 010
My husband and I were supposed to pick up our new Prius yesterday.  Ha!

We'd taken our time shopping for a car, too, after the leaf spring on my beloved old Isuzu SUV broke in early December.  

Earlier this week, I was walking my daughter home from school and idly thought, "If we were Europeans, we wouldn't be buying a second car."  

Of course, if we were Europeans, there would be excellent mass transit to every sleepy little village in the vicinity.  But we're not.  Still, we do live in a walkable city, albeit a small one of 25,000 people.  We've been doing just fine over the last two months splitting one car between two adults, using the occasional taxi and a rental car once when my husband needed to travel for work.  

I know about Europeans, because my mother is one.  And when I first went to spend a summer with my Aunt Rose in Germany at the age of 11, I was shocked by the austerity of her life compared to the suburban splendor in which I lived.

Rose shared her ancient house with her in-laws.  Actually, they shared the top floor.  The bottom floor was broken into two apartments and rented out.  Frugality ruled.  There was no telephone in the house. There was one bathroom for seven people.   There was only one car, and no competition for it, since Rose had never learned to drive.  Rose did not have a closet full of clothes.  She had housecoats for everyday, and for special occasions, a few superbly fitting dresses custom-made by a local dress-maker.

DId Rose feel as if her life were nunlike?  Absolutely not!  There was a giant vegetable garden full of gorgeous produce in the backyard.  There was a beer garden in town for socializing, with bands and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. She had an amusing extended family, and my cousins regularly showed up unannounced in the afternoon for coffee and the excellent cakes she baked. Rose's husband Fritz was not only the handsomest man who ever lived, but also so dryly funny that he made us kids laugh our heads off.

In New Jersey, my family had two big luxury cars and a sprawling house with velvet couches. Rose, on the other hand, had some quality I'd seen very little of to that point.  Let's call it happiness.

Despite the intervening 40 or so years, austerity is still the flavor of domestic life in Europe.  The houses and apartments are small, utilitarian, under-decorated, impersonal.  They use a fraction of the energy of our places.  Appliances are not important.  Clothes are important, but quality trumps quantity.

An interesting essay by Elizabeth Rosenthal in Yale Environment 360 argues that Europeans' greener lifestyles are explained not by a lack of interest in creature comforts, but a different definition of what comfort really means.  She points out that in France, the per capita carbon footprint is a third of that in the United States.  She doesn't mention nuclear power, which clearly explains part of the gap, but there are also fewer cars and smaller houses.

In France, they have excellent food and complicated sex lives.  In the United States, we have granite countertops and whirlpool tubs and a steady rain of brown boxes from online vendors.  You choose.  Which group of amenities is more meaningful?

I think it's entirely possible that we Americans are at the beginning of a transition to a more austere, whirlpool-free, European-like domestic style.  We've got severe economic problems. Thanks to an almost unbelievable lack of political leadership over the last ten years, we're doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions. Add in some spiking oil prices, possibly a continuing decline of our industrial base, and maybe a climate catastrophe or two, and we may well have to live far more simply in the near future than we do today.

Of course, gardeners are by definition wise about happiness.  We'll probably bear up a lot better under enforced simplicity than, say, recreational golfers.  We might even enjoy the lack of pressure to shop and consume (as long as nobody tries to tell us not to spend a fortune every season ordering bulbs from Brent & Becky's). 

My husband and I called the Toyota dealer yesterday afternoon and explained that regarding the Prius, we've decided to just …wait.  Not for trustworthy brakes.  But for proof that we really need the car.


  1. Thank you, Michele! I, too, had a mother born in Romania who took me at age 11 to Germany to visit my relatives there. My grandparents lived with my aunt and uncle in one small apartment. We took the train everywhere (even to Italy to visit my brother who was stationed there with the Navy). Our American way of life in comparison makes me understand the phrase “ugly Americans.” Thanks for the reminder that the simple pleasures are often the most rewarding. Peace on the garden path, Patty

  2. Years ago, at various times, our family played host exchange students from Spain and Germany. All three boys spoke of differences like you’ve described, but they certainly lived the American suburban lifestyle with gusto while they were here. That’s youth, I suppose, and the adventure of living in a foreign place. In the years since, conversations with them and with the parents who visited, come to mind now and then, and I’m struck again by how very unsustainable this and that part of our American lifestyle is. Sometimes I’m ashamed. Sometimes that memory is just the push I need to change one small thing to do better in my own little part of the world.

    Thanks for adding another reminder to my memory box.

  3. That was a wonderful vision. Great food, great clothes, small homes. I recently downsized from basically a mansion, to a little bungalow that I can walk to work and downtown from. It was because of a marriage break down, but still, I love my little house, and the walk-ability of my new location. There is great joy to be had from the simple things in life. I do wish we had better public transportation here between the small towns. There is no way I could do without my vehicle.

  4. I watched Food, Inc. the other night and wondered what it would take for Americans to be happy with meat every other day or so rather that at almost every meal, or what they’d be willing to give up to pay for $3 eggs or grass-fed beef. It will take a big scare, indeed, to change the behavior of people who can have almost anything we at any time. Kudos to you and another 1-car family.

  5. Great post. The Husband and I are a one car family. We’re fortunate to live within walking distance of a train station that The Husband can use to commute to work. During the warmer parts of the year I can bicycle to the grocery store, the hardware store, the farmers market, in fact all over the small suburb where we live. It took a little adjusting but we’re happy with our one car life style. Good luck with your one car experiment!

  6. I don’t think public transportaion is as good as it was 30-40 years ago in all parts of Europe. At least not in England according to Bill Bryson in one of his hilariously funny books. Trains to not go to every little podunk town. We live pretty sparse compared to the “average” American lifestyle, but not as sparse as Europeans. What I remember about living there for 3 months in the late 1970’s was the bathing. You did not shower every day. You sponged bathed. There are a lot of things I could do without, but showers are not one of them.

  7. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Germany.When we visit family it’s obvious that some things are changing,specially with the young german people,an overwhelming majority now have drivers licenses,for instance.But the one thing my brother said sticks with me:Americans live to work,Germans work to live.Maybe it is that simple.

  8. The houses and apartments are small, utilitarian, under-decorated, impersonal. They use a fraction of the energy of our places. Appliances are not important. Clothes are important, but quality trumps quantity.

    Maybe in some places in Europe, but not all. England seems to still be fond of fast fashion, mediocre public transport and overstuffed houses. They may save on heat but they rely on public transport because gas is 6 pounds per liter. Maybe if our gas really spiked we’d see a change.

  9. We’re a one car household as well, but we don’t have kids yet so I’d imagine it’s slightly more complicated when your schedule includes additional dependent people.

    We live small compared to most of our friends & family. As it happens, we are as happy as anyone, even without all the newest stuff. It carries over into my gardening as well – I don’t get the newest introductions every time, I buy stuff on sale. I am perfectly happy to buy small or start from a cutting and then wait for the mature plant. It’s part of the gardening process and I enjoy that.

  10. Thank you! Yesterday, while writing a post on keeping indoor citrus, I realized that my concept of luxury had really changed over the past 10 years. A scant supply of Meyer lemons ripening in front of a sunny kitchen window sounds more extravagant (and appealing) to me than a home whirlpool hot tub.

  11. Your European relatives have great resources.

    E.M.Forster used ‘resources’ sooooo curiously in a novel I went to my 6″ thick Webster’s dictionary.

    A wealthy character was described as having no ‘resources’. How could that be? The character had no interests, hobbies, nothing to amuse or interest herself with. A shallow fool.

    Indeed. Forster gave her a terrible end.

    Your relatives have great resources. Austerity? No. They are rich, indeed.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  12. I’ve been trying to live like this nearly all my adult life. I didn’t get a car till I was 28 and had a job an hour’s commute away. Quality of mass transit and job needs have dictated how many cars my partner and I have–I so loved the one-car era!

    This year, I have decided not to buy any new clothes. I buy good quality, and feel I have enough. I recently did buy cross-country skiis. They will last many years and have already brought me so much joy. I try to be wise about what I buy…and yes, bulbs and plants are high on the list, as is good food to cook at home!

    As an aside, this way of life allows us to save about 40% of our net income in various accounts.

    I’d love to hear what “stuff” other folks prioritize.

  13. Awesome, awesome post. Having lived on both continents, I totally agree with your thoughts. The motto I live by, that so many people don’t seem to understand is:

    Less is more

  14. I was reading a column by a journalist back from a stint in China. The biggest luxury to him, being back in the US, was not a car, whirlpool tub, or anything like that–it was being able to go outside and see living trees, plants, grass, and blue sky. Where he was in China was so polluted, paved over, and filthy there were no living plants outdoors. They had all died. Food for thought.

  15. We’re a one-car couple, too. And it’s a 91 Corolla that we intend to replace as soon as the repairs cost more than the car is worth–but that keeps not happening.

    Of course, it helps that I work at home and our bookstore is walking distance.

    We rent a car to go out of town, which is not only cheaper than buying a second car, it lets us get whatever sort of car we need for the kind of trip we’re taking. And once in a while we have to call an airport shuttle or something like that, but very rarely. Works for us.

  16. The less ‘stuff’ I have, the less I have to worry about. And the less space I take up, in terms of housing and my carbon footprint.

    George Carlin’s bit about “stuff” was spot-on, of course.

  17. Not all American houses have granite counters and whirlpool tubs of course but it is fairly representative of bourgeois American life, yes? I lived in Europe for a formative period of my life and it’s plain that it rocked me deeply. I never refrigerate my eggs, for one thing, or hard cheeses. And I like good bread and wine, and walking.

    But I hear you on the one/two car thing. I kind of think my 18 year old VW is kind of like an aging pet who, one sad day, I will have to put down! It won’t be replaced as only one car is really needed by this family.

  18. We reluctantly made the choice to replace my partner’s car last winter because our life is *almost* completely transit-able. So now we use the car only for the almost – like the one night a week she works until very late in a scary part of (the next town.) We’re trying to keep our mileage under 200 per month. Some months it’s under 100. You get used to things and stop taking them for granted. Still – it’s a disappointment to have to own a car at all for such little use.

  19. What a gorgeously written post–so very evocative and meaningful. I enjoyed just rolling the sentences around in my head. Maybe you could come talk to my writing students? Nebraska ain’t so far.

  20. I enjoyed this post.

    My father is Dutch, and my mother was an American. I lived in Holland in the late 1970’s for two years as a teenager. I didn’t think this had much impact on me, but my eldest daughter and her best friend tell me my values are very European.

    From reading your post, I guess that’s truer than I thought, and I feel more “normal” knowing this.

    I have always hung my clothes on a clothesline. I can’t imagine not doing it. (My relatives in Holland hung their clothes out, too.) I didn’t learn to drive nor did I buy a car until I was 32.–I took the bus or walked. I don’t watch TV much (have never seen an episode of Survivor or American Idol). I’m not interested in buying new clothes or going on long shopping sprees and/or wearing tons of make-up or having long or fake finger nails. I own five pair of shoes and two purses. I wear the same clothes until they wear out. I can afford just about anything, but I don’t buy much. Yaa!!!-I’m normal, just not for America. 😉 Laura

  21. Anne(in Reno), true about the Brits! I’d forgotten about them. No austerity there on the household front. They are, of course, the geniuses of the world when it comes to decor, inside and out.

    In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski talks about how the British developed their rather unique domestic style. I don’t remember the full argument. But the fact that the truly powerful people always lived in the country on their estates, rather than gathering in London, had something to do with it.

  22. Great post! Too bad about your Prius though, that may be an over reaction. We love ours and have never had any problems.

  23. We too, wanted to go with one car but didn’t think we could function. The economic down-turn forced us to turn in the keys on our BMW lease and survive with the Honda Civic. It’s been 8 months and even with 2 teenage sons, it has worked out beautifully! The best thing we’ve ever done. Fortunately we live in a community where both my husband and I can walk to work and our sons to school.

  24. Great post. Great perspective. i agree that gardeners may make transitions more easily, more readily than those unfamiliar with any activity involving self-reliance.

  25. Great post. We too have noticed the difference between European living and what we take for granted here in the States. We have friends in Scotland whom we visit, and they us. Traveling in the UK as well as France and Spain, we have been struck by the fact that a) housing is built largely of stone or brick and b)renovation usually consists of reconfiguring the original space within the original footprint.

    One friend living in the small town of Peebles, Scotland, encountered 2 foot thick stone walls when she wanted to enlarge a couple of doorways. Back in the day, folks needed protection from border raids as much as from the elements!

    In return, our visiting European friends (and I apologize to the Scots for labelling them ‘European ‘LOL) are always amazed at how ‘huge’ our house is (a very modest 50 year-old wood-frame, west coast ranch style dwelling of maybe 1800 square feet). They also scratch their heads to see 99% of the houses here built of wood.

    Whenever we spend any time in Europe or the UK, we too come home shaking our heads sadly at the short-sightedness and pure wastefulness of building from such short-term materials.

    Many years ago, some new acquaintances visited our home for the first time, and as they looked around, they commented that it was very ‘Euro’. At that time we had not been abroad so we were a bit mystified. We asked what they meant, and they said something about the small rooms, books lining the walls, and minimum of ‘stuff’. We didn’t really get what a compliment it was until we started traveling overseas.

    On the car issue…… we downsized from two cars to one several years ago. We live within walking/bicycing distance of work and basic shopping needs. There are only 2 of us, no kids, so this is relatively easy. However, the reaction by some people who hear this is interesting.

    I work at home and my husband works less than a quarter mile away (in a bike shop we own). People say things like ‘you are lucky you live so close to work’ — but the reality is, we chose to do this, by, in our case, moving our business closer to our house. Not every job is amenable to doing this, but it was a choice, one that a lot of people never consider.

    BTW public transit is pitiful in our town. A small local bus service was voted down time and again by local taxpayers. The many wealthy retired people didn’t think they needed it, and the less well-off who did need it, either didn’t vote or weren’t populous enough to make up the difference. A forward-thinking city council finally took matters into its own hands and funded a ‘starter’ transit service that has staggered along, to faint praise and loud criticism for the past few years. Selfish brick-heads are everywhere!

  26. This post reminds me of those people who talk about “the good old days.” There was a reason why my maternal grandparents left Germany. My grandfather and grandmother both almost died of malnutrition and starvation as teenagers during WWI and wound up being far shorter than they should have been. BY SEVERAL INCHES. Yes, there is no major wars or starvation in Europe now, but even after WWII ended, my grandparents had no grand illusions to life back in Europe.

    I also worked for a Germany high tech company, and heard from people who grew up in Germany, lived in the U.S. and then went back to Germany, that though they may have missed some of the cultural aspects of town markets and shopping daily, the found that after a while spent in America that they missed the cultural freedom – freedom of speech, religion and a much less conformist society. They talked about the embracing of diversity in this country. One woman, who was born here, grew up in Germany and moved back as a teenager told me that to change jobs in Germany is a process requiring many months waiting for people fired to vacate jobs and months notification to leave jobs. Yes, there is more job security, but mobility on employment is severely restricted.

    There is a reason why our parents, grandparents, etc. came here. Don’t romanticize life in Europe. Yes, they may not be focused on having “things” in their homes, but when your tax rate is so high you have very little expendable income and eating out is a rare event (yes, I know Germans who told me this as well), growing your own food sometimes becomes a necessity, not a casual past time.

    Yes, towns may be more compact and walkable, but these towns in Europe have been settled for MANY centuries (or a millenium or more), not decades or a century or two, as may be on the East Coast. Also, America’s population is 300 million people on 3.74 million sq. mi., Europe’s is 830 million on 3.93 sq. mi. They have over twice the density on the same amount of land.

    If you like the aspect of a garden full of fresh vegetables, then embrace that tradition. Gorw a garden, live in an area with higher density and better public transportation systems. But try living in Europe and let’s see if you start to miss some of the reasons why so many millions of people try to immigrate to this country. Even a month in Russia living with the natives in the summer of 1990 gave be a greater appreciation of why I live here and not there.

  27. San Francisco has, I think, decent public transportation (relatively speaking), but some (many?) of the people who ride it are unbearable to sit next to even for a short time. I’ve come to think of public transportation as something for people who enjoy pain. I do hate to say it, but having my own car has really enlarged my life.

    I suppose you’re painting our economic future rather positively. I mean, we’ll have to make the best of it and you’ve zeroed in on how. Personally I’m very depressed about the future if and when I think about it. China will not stop loaning us money; they’ll just raise the interest rate. We’ll be slaves to our debt. Does Europe owe anyone billions of dollars? It seems like a very different context to me.

  28. This woman on Flickr is really interesting, “These Days in French Life”. She’s from Los Angeles and lives the slow life in rural France with her husband and daughter. She’s lived for a couple years spending very little money on anything. Very nearly everything is used, bartered, grown, or found. And the photography is amazing.

  29. When I was younger and had five young children I loved the view I had of myself with a family in an old Victorian house or farmhouse (I moved a lot) but now that I even have 2 GREAT granddaughters we are preparing to downsize. In our case that means getting rid of lots of paper and books, and kitchen gear. There is pain but I am looking forward to it.

  30. I agree about the dangers of romanticizing ‘euro-ness’. Visiting Spain for the first time, I was both attracted to and repelled by all the small little shops I walked by in the villages, which were both owned by and lived in by the same families for generations. Shop downstairs, family upstairs. Kids, parents and grannies. As much as I admired this arrangement — and the sight of everyone walking, walking, walking everywhere (the paseo, a wonderful tradition we could use in this car-crazed country), and the knowledge that everything one needed really was available without a car — I also felt a kind of claustrophobia when I tried to imagine living there, myself. To think of being the oldest son and therefore, being cast in the role of shoemaker or butcher or _______ and spending my life in X village.

    Americans & Canadians come from a mixed stock of second (landless) sons, religious fanatics looking for sanctuary, social failures and bankrupts, war refugees, as well as idealists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and those who couldn’t face running the family shoe shop a single generation longer. All of these people took the chance, more or less voluntarily (not those who came as slaves, obviously) on something different. We come of a pretty independent gene pool. Even the Native Americans wandered over into the unknown lands via land bridge, or boat.

    Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said something like: ‘Travel will make you wiser, but not happier.’ I would hope that when we travel and see things we admire about another place, we bring it home and integrate it in order to make our place — wherever it is — better, richer, more nurturing, economical, etc. And of course, better for all of us (earth included).

  31. Generalise much? cmon we dont all live in cold little boxes eating gruel wishing we lived in America. European life and culture is far richer than in the ‘new world’, it stands to reason as we’ve been around longer. You could definitely do with less crap in your lives. Did’nt think id be commenting like this as i came here to garden rant for some musings on garden design! oh well

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