The Little Bits of Green That Make the Tree Beautiful

Berlin has begun transforming itself into a much more environmentally friendly city. (©
Berlin has begun transforming itself into a much more environmentally friendly city.

There are many ways to study the world around you: through science, mathematics, literature, anthropology, philosophy etc. Environmental Science is one of those ways–a way to study the earth’s past, its present, its future, and our relation to it. When I originally thought of Environmental Science, I imagined a lot of graphs and statistics depicting levels of CO2 in the air, but while that is a part of it, there is so much more to learn. I could never have been passionate about graphs or statistics, but when I began to study Environmental Science in my senior year of high school, I learned about how I personally could have an impact on the world and this is what interested me most. The graphs of methane bubbles in the earth didn’t motivate me to become more environmentally friendly as much as learning how to identify birds did. Learning Environmental Science is about finding what connects you to the world around you and why you should protect it. After all of the information and class and lectures and vocabulary, something that has stuck with me most from my studies was the case of Germany.

This past decade, Germany has produced the most ambitious environmental plan the world has ever seen. Planning to address problems ranging from industrial emissions to new sustainable developments, Germany has made progress towards creating a more environmentally friendly and aware country and world. The country surprised the whole world when the UBA, Germany’s Federal Environment Office, claimed that Germany would have zero net emission of CO2 by 2050. However, while the execution of such a plan will prove to be very difficult, cities such as Hamburg and Münster, as well as others all over Germany have been named some of the greenest cities in all of Europe. With world-wide advances in science and technology, now is the time to make the big changes necessary to keep the world a beautiful place. However, big changes aren’t all that can make a difference. Here I would like to begin to address many of the smaller changes Berlin’s citizens have made in order to create a more environmentally friendly city.

It all starts with the small things.

While zero net emissions is extremely ambitious, particularly requiring a complete change in the agricultural business (reducing Germany’s overall consumption of red meat and dairy products), small changes are noticeable throughout Berlin. Shoppers are widely encouraged to bring their own shopping bags rather than take a plastic one for groceries, and organic and local foods can be found at the same prices as non-organic foods, making them much more accessible. Even here at Bard College Berlin, the insistence on local and organic foods and a decrease in waste in the cafeteria makes the small differences that are essential to a more environmentally friendly world.

A change in transportation.

We all have to get places, whether it’s to the store, to work, to school, to a café, or to a club. Transportation is a constant influence on our lives, and here in Berlin an effective mode of more environmentally friendly transportation has decreased emissions from cars in great amounts. Per capita, Berlin has the fewest cars in all of Germany due to its public transportation system.[1] The S and U-Bahn services run consistently throughout the day, allowing Berliners and travelers alike to maneuver throughout the city without contributing to a larger ecological footprint. Berlin also has the cleanest buses in the entire EU; their cleaner energy and emissions are subsidized by the German Environment Ministry and have been meeting the EU emission standards since before they were even put in place in 2008.[2] While this is not something people typically think about, students ride the buses every week, some daily, in order to get to other stations or reach their destinations in the city and through this they are supporting a cleaner mode of transportation.

Biker friendly.

Berlin is one of the most biker friendly cities in all of Europe, along with Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  Since reunification, the German capital has undergone what can be called a cycling revolution. Even in 2008, 13% of all city trips taken by Berliners were taken on bicycles, and the number continues to grow.[3]The city has invested large amounts of money into biking infrastructure and programs, continually promoting further growth regarding biker friendly roads, lights and communities.

A different kind of cycling.

Bicycling is not the only kind of cycling that Berliners do, they also recycle! As all native Berliners know, and as all visitors soon find out, when you finish your drink, whether it’s a water bottle or a beer, you don’t throw it into the nearest trash can, you leave it standing out of the way on one of the sidewalks or streets. In this way, people can collect the bottles or cans and turn them in for a deposit, which increases recycling while also providing money for those who may need it. The deposit machines can be found outside or around many different grocery stores, such as our nearby REWE, or you can also look up when you have spare bottles. From the site, you can call a number and someone who needs the bottles will come and collect them from you.[4] The initiative was recently taken at Bard College Berlin to provide a space for placing any cans or bottles that can be recycled so that people can take them in large quantities to collect deposits. Each dormitory kitchen also has a separate container for plastics and paper, making it easy for students to sort their trash and reduce the size of landfill materials.

Getting bigger.

There are a million and one ways to make environmental changes, from turning off lights in your home to making entire buildings sustainable. But what does it mean to have a sustainable building? Like what Germany hopes to accomplish with the entire country regarding emissions, each building in turn can have zero net emissions. In order to achieve this, buildings can install solar panels and other means of sustainable energy, improve the walls and windows in order to preserve heat, use LED (Light Emitting Diode) or Fluorescent lights, and increase water efficiency. Germany’s parliament buildings in Berlin, situated along the Spree, have been constructed to embody this sort of building efficiency.[5] Biofuel generators produce the electricity and heat in the buildings and the extra heat produced is stored to be recycled in the winter. When the Reichstag came under reconstruction in the 1990s, the dome was designed to reflect natural light and the heating and air-conditioning is fueled by the renewable energy source of rape seed oil.[6] Even in our own dormitories the motion activated lights save energy throughout the night and when students are out of the dorms, allowing the lights to stay off until needed.  Not only is preserving light energy more cost effective, but it also decreases the amount of pollution from the coal, fuel or gas used to produce that energy.

The parks.

Studies show that interaction with nature before the age of 10 is necessary in order to foster a proper appreciation for the environment in a person. Even though Berlin is a large city, children still have the opportunity to have their experiences with nature. One of the many things people living in Berlin, or even just visiting Berlin, have the chance to appreciate is the large amount of green. There are more than 2,500 parks and gardens throughout Berlin, covering almost a fifth of the city in trees.[7] Not only does this increase the quality of life in Berlin, it also means that these areas need to be taken care of in the midst of an urban setting. The Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment is working on decreasing pollution in areas labeled as “priority areas” and looking at each location individually to see how soil, air and water pollution can be lowered if not eliminated. These “priority areas” most often include areas with nonrenewable resources that need the most protection.[8] So, in order to keep Berlin the beautiful, green city that it is, we can all do our part in lowering pollution levels by saving energy, not littering, and particularly keeping our water clean.

What can we do?

While Berlin is certainly making an effort to be as environmentally friendly as it can, there is always room for improvement. Small changes even on our school campus can lead to a bigger, positive impact. Things from providing a better composting system, to making the sinks in the dorms more efficient, or to providing bikes that students would be able to rent can be a good start. However, protecting the environment is not about having to cut back or miss out on some of the things you may enjoy, it’s about appreciating what is around you and working together to preserve it. So, if you have the chance, go take a walk in the park, or go bird watching, or go for a bike ride and enjoy the world that needs you as much as you need it.

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