Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muddied Waters of Environmental Policy in the European Union and United States

Scene near Salzburg, Austria
Photo by Laura Gallant
A striking memory I retain from my experience studying abroad in Austria during the academic year 2008-2009 is the purity of nature throughout the country. I recall deep rivers that were literally crystal clear, as if poured from a tap. I was impressed by the emphasis placed on recycling in the dorm and at the university, and the way my fellow Austrian students reused items. I recall a claim on an advertisement stating that the bus fleet in Vienna was (paraphrased and translated) “the most environmentally friendly in the world”, before I recall being aware of a high emphasis being placed on green campaigns for transportation systems in my area of the United States. Being exposed in Europe to much environmental rhetoric, I was also sometimes exposed to accusations from Europeans about America’s reputation for not practicing environmentally friendly techniques. Hearing emphasis regularly placed on being environmentally friendly, and the promotion of this as a highly esteemed value, I thus came home with an impression, and a bit of uncomfortable embarrassment, that Americans might not be as concerned with the environment as our European colleagues. At a local level in the United States, I saw this understanding emphasized by the large cars on American roads, the lack of convenient recycling programs in many localities, and the glaring lack of crystal clear streams. Yet after a stimulating presentation on October 7, 2011 by Professor Robert Pahre in the EU Center’s EURO 596 course, it seems I too may have adopted a stereotypical and polarized view of the United States and the European Union. In the end, through listening to Professor Pahre, I gained reinforcement of a broad life lesson beyond a better understanding of environmental policies in Europe and America.

In Professor Pahre’s lecture, and as discussed by Alberta Sbragia in “Environmental Policy: Economic Constraints and External Pressures”—a chapter in Policy-Making in the European Union, edited by Helen Wallace and William Wallace and published by Oxford University Press—it became clear that environmental policies differ between the local levels and the central government level. I also learned that local interest in environmental concerns does not always translate into strong and clear measures on environmental policy by the central government, and strong interest in environmental policy within the central government does not always mean that it will be important at a local level. While Professor Pahre described the US system as delivering long term, positive success in environmental policies, such as preserving national parks, he also explained that emphasis on the environment was not an initial goal of the EU and thus the EU often lacks a central agency by which to control environmental policies. In the European Union today, it apparently is often unclear which branch should decide or oversee environmental decisions and when these decisions should be made (Pahre, lecture), and different environmental goals among member states often muddle implementation of policies made in Brussels (Sbragia, 305). Having held the view that environmental issues were important in Europe, this confusion and disagreement that apparently accompanies environmental policies in the EU surprised me. During my time abroad, I had assumed that if environmental factors were so important at a local level in European nations, they would surely be strongly supported and accepted within the EU level as well. What I learned instead, from Pahre’s lecture, was that the image and separation that I had clearly outlined in my head, could actually be a dangerous stereotype of all of Europe and America as two clearly separate groups.

I realized that I had only seen part of the European picture in my Austrian experiences. As Sbragia mentions, Austria is a country known for its “high environmental standards” (p. 297), as I saw manifested in my personal experiences in the country. Considering images I saw, such as that pictured above, it is clear why Austrians would want to preserve the beautiful natural landscape entrusted to them. But judging from examples presented in Professor Pahre’s lecture and the Sbragia chapter, it appears that not all member states of the EU have these same environmental standards. Pondering this fact, I then began considering my experiences in the Untied States. Upon asking Professor Pahre about the differences I noticed between the United States and Europe, I gained an answer that caused me more thought. Professor Pahre’s answer was that, as Americans, we do also experience a similar variation of emphasis on environmental policy among areas in the United States, with perhaps more national policy being directed and emphasized in the Western states, due to the larger areas of land there. With our stronger central policies, as discussed by Sbragia and also by Pahre, it becomes clear that Americans do have some clear standards in place for environmental work. Pahre continued by adding that we in the Midwest may not have a clear sense of the strong role that environmental policies play in these Western states, because so much of our news is written from the view of those in the Eastern states, where environmental policies may not be as numerous, due to the smaller land mass in the Eastern states (Pahre, lecture). Thus, it appears that my understanding of American environmental policy again was strongly affected by my judgment based on experiences in one particular place, among one particular group of people.
Whether or not the environmental policies in one part of the world or another are correct or better than the other, I was reminded that day, perhaps more importantly, of an even broader lesson that is crucial in the study of any group of people. In class I was reminded again of the danger of stereotyping a group of people into one definition, and that neither the people and governments residing in the member states of the European Union, nor those in the states of the United States can be considered to be identical in opinion. I was reminded again that, though enjoying similarities, the European Union and the United States are not identical to each other, and cannot always be compared. Instead one should enjoy proudly the varied historic, geographic and demographic processes that have created both the United States and European Union to be what they are today. Finally, I was reminded that, ironically, when considering human relations, it might actually be best to avoid that “crystal clear” stereotypical grouping of people and instead accept the beautiful, muddied waters of individual variation.

Laura Gallant is completing her M.A. degree in Communication, with an emphasis on International and Intercultural Communication, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated with her B.A. in Communication and in German-Commercial Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December 2010. During the academic year 2008-2009 she studied abroad with the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program in Vienna, Austria, completing courses at the University of Vienna and the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her research interests include communication between universities and international students. 


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