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Sustainability — and donkeys — in Italy by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | April 26, 2014 Comments Off on Sustainability — and donkeys — in Italy by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

Unlike the then-largest carbon emitter on the planet, the European Union signed the Kyoto Protocol and met its initial target of achieving an 8% reduction in carbon emissions over 1990 emissions. It is now aiming for 20% reduction over 1990 emissions levels by 2020, using tools such as a carbon cap and trade scheme and ambitious programs for increasing energy efficiency and production of renewable energy.

Lots of basic lifestyle elements of life in Italy also help limit energy use and thus carbon emissions. Gasoline costs the equivalent of $8 or more per gallon, so cars tend to be small and fuel-efficient and a lot of people ride scooters. It is of course also easy to get around without an auto using subways in cities and the extensive train system linking almost every city of any size. And like gas, electricity is also expensive compared to the United States (especially electricity rates in the Northwest), so people are eager to adopt efficiency measures to save money. Most people live in apartments or houses that are much smaller than the average living spaces in the U.S., so Italians’ per capita energy use is generally lower than their American counterparts to start. It is also quite common to see solar panels on houses or even solar panel arrays in the middle of a rural landscape. Visitors notice measures such as hotels’ high efficiency light bulbs and motion sensors that turn off hall lights after you pass.

The Tuscany region has made sustainability one of its marquee policy initiatives. Siena asserts that it has the distinction of being Europe’s first “carbon neutral city,” achieving this goal in 2014 – a year ahead of its 2015 target. While calculations to substantiate its carbon neutral claim are not readily available, Siena officials cite as the basis for their success a combination of an aggressive energy efficiency policy for new buildings, efficiency retrofits for existing structures, increased use of renewables, and reforestation efforts. Emphasizing a sustainability turn in its agricultural heritage, Tuscany has a very active organic movement, with nearly 20% of its farms, groves, and vineyards now organically cultivated (and Italy as a whole leads Europe in acreage devoted to organic agriculture). The region also has a very strong “buy local” movement, made relatively easy by the agricultural abundance and myriad of legendary food products made in the area.

Interesting social forces are also affecting Italy’s sustainability efforts. The country has the lowest birthrate in Europe, so its population is growing slightly only due to immigration. While little or no population growth obviously means little increase in resource demands, many experts see social problems for the country in light of its demographic trends. An older population will require increasing – and some say economically unsustainable – expenditures by fewer younger taxpayers. Commentators in Italy have a chicken and egg debate over whether the country’s current economic woes – which mirror those of Europe in general – are the cause or consequence of Italy’s declining families. Regardless which view they take, prominent social critics portray the ultimate consequences of the country’s demographic situation in true Italian fashion. Ernesto Gallia della Loggia writes that “we have arrived at the end of a race that began a long time ago between a thousand hopes, but which now is ending in nothing.” Not to be outdone, Ricardo Cascioli asserts that “this is a crisis of identity for all Italian people, who have long stopped believing in the future and in life, and who therefore are condemned to a slow extinction unless a new factor intervenes.”

Our experiences in Italy and Tuscany did not necessarily suggest a society teetering on the edge of extinction. Italy and the other countries of western Europe will face economic and social challenges, but they are very resilient nations that have rebuild from much more dramatic setbacks in the past decades. And particularly in light of our experiences in Cambodia, it is easy to see that on a global scale, countries such as Italy can build toward a more sustainable society from a position of relative strength.

All of this was evident for us in a visit to a donkey farm, of all things. Giovanni had assisted us in setting up a bike trip starting in Siena. (Unlike Cambodia outside of the Angkor Wat area, Italy has both many things for tourists to see and do throughout the country, as well as the infrastructure to make tourism one of the country’s most significant economic sectors.) He also took us to see one of his side projects in the Tuscan hills above the town of Sansepolcro – an organic donkey farm of all things. Apparently farmers in Tuscany have been using donkey milk for many years for a variety of products. Today, since the milk is much more easily digestible by human infants than cow’s milk, Giovanni and a couple of partners are ramping up production for the niche market of well-off mothers who cannot nurse their babies but want to provide them with food that is healthier than commercial baby formula. The small coop is also experimenting with products such as donkey milk soap (though it may be difficult for Americans to say this phrase with a straight face, such specialty products are popular in Europe). The donkey farm was a popular proposal for the local community, which is trying to encourage environmentally friendly uses of former agricultural land that has been abandoned for years.

It was a stark contrast. Sustainability in Cambodia involves people simply trying to survive season to season on a subsistence basis, with a few able to afford tentative and long-shot forays into endeavors such as relatively primitive ecotourism; the impacts of climate change will be devastating there. On the other hand, sustainability in Italy involves investment in low carbon energy infrastructure and encouraging investments to develop niche industries that take advantage of fertile land that has been all but abandoned as the rural population declines. Climate change impacts will be much more moderate in much of Italy’s temperate and fertile landscape, and its urban residents will notice even fewer disruptions in their everyday lives. The country also has the political will and economic resources to make significant strides toward a more sustainable future.

Some of its naysaying experts notwithstanding, Italy’s long history – and continuing string of sustainability initiatives – is likely to continue well into the future.











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