Eco without Effort: Sustainability in Spain

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When I tell a local Spaniard that I’m studying Environmental Sciences they usually respond with a look of confusion as to what it exactly means and why I would study such a thing. Then I get, “Plants? Why?” 

I struggle to explain that what I’m studying is closer to energy and sustainable forms of urban living, a concept that sounds so foreign to them. However, after seeing how the Spanish live, it all makes sense.

While Spain is a progressive country and is making significant efforts to become more and more modern, there are still several aspects of life here that are very traditional. In fact, there are many aspects of life in Spain that have existed for ages and are eco-friendly without trying to be.

A majority of people in Spain don’t own a dryer. Spending money on something to dry clothes seems wasteful when they could just leave it outside. It also is the only way of doing things that they have ever known. It’s the way their parents did it, their grandparents, and many before. So why fix a system that isn’t broken?

Along with most other European cities, everyone walks everywhere in Spain. Its practical and makes more sense than driving for most of the time. Spain’s old cities were set up in a way that is centralized around a town square and everything surrounds the area. Thus, most people live near the heart of a city or far out in a farm type land. The narrow streets are more conducive to walking than driving.

People take short showers here to conserve water usage and most buildings have centralized heating, not individual water heaters. Water is expensive and people are highly aware of the cost. The local grocery stores charge five cents for every plastic bag if you chose to use one and there are recycling containers next to almost every trash bin. So, there are attempts to be eco-friendlier that are done with sole intention. However, there seems to be a lack of awareness and education on environmental things. Yet, the average Spaniard has a lower carbon footprint than that of the average American. There doesn’t seem to be as much intention behind their actions as there is in the U.S. No one in Spain walks to class or puts their clothes out to dry with the purpose of changing the climate and reducing their footprint. In smaller towns such as Salamanca, the concept of environmental studies has yet to make its presence.

In the U.S, specifically in Wilmington, NC where I go to school, there is an overwhelming presence of environmental education and precaution. Most places won’t even serve you a plastic straw because of potentially harming sea turtles. All of these initiatives are done with the hopes that people will walk away and take their new knowledge and change their action. However, in Spain the lack of education and intention doesn’t translate to the action in Spain. While locals may be doing these behaviors to conserve water, money or just because it’s the only way they have been, they’re doing something right. The U.S. spends so much money on environmental initiatives and is constantly searching for the newest, most efficient systems. All this money and focus on the issues and few Americans willing to change behaviors in daily life. Perhaps we could take a note from Spain in doing things simpler and not fixing a system that isn’t broken.

This post was contributed by Andrea Maspons, a student from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is spending her spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in Salamanca, Spain.

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