Concept Into Practice: Sustainability Discussions in Bern

For the past week, I have been living in Switzerland while discussing the different aspects of sustainability. Going into this program, I had an understanding of the concept and had taken classes on global environmental issues, which discussed some of the same ideas, but this week I have learned much more. After establishing a broad framework of sustainability from the professor, the students had a chance to learn one specific topic and explain it to the rest of the class. I researched and explained the idea of closed-loop thinking, which I had heard about in the past, but this allowed me to look further into the topic and gain a better understanding of the theory. Closed-loop thinking involves the idea of producing no waste and creating a continuous cycle for both biological and technical nutrients. William McDonough and Michael Braungart discuss this topic in the book Cradle to Cradle. The other topics discussed in presentations were ideas that I had heard of, but I learned more about each topic through my classmates. It was interesting to see how different people conveyed different ideas through either a power point, a video, or just a discussion. It broke up the idea of sustainability into smaller parts, but were presented in a way that allowed me to put the pieces together in the end. Each topic related back to the framework that we learned on the first day and expanded the meaning even further.

After spending a couple days discussing the various sustainability concepts, we traveled to Bern, Switzerland for three different meetings. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and were given time to explore the city on our own terms. That afternoon, some of the people in the program jumped into a freezing river while it was raining outside, while others, including myself, took pictures and walked around the shopping district. We spent the night in a hostel watching the Euro Cup 2012 Final where Spain beat Italy and then rested up for the next day.

View of the river in front of the city of Bern

Monday morning we attended our first meeting with Donald S. Beyer Jr., the United States Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. He has served as the ambassador since 2009 and works with a team of people from both the United States and Switzerland. Beyer works in three areas: diplomacy, economic development, and people to people relations, which all help to build a relationship and friendship between the two countries. He began the meeting by introducing himself, but wanted to dive right into the sustainability conversation and listen to our questions and ideas. I was impressed with the way he talked to us because he was straight forward with his answers, but was down to earth, which made the conversation enjoyable. We started off by talking about Switzerland’s take on sustainable practices and learned how both the government and the people want to achieve a high level of sustainability. The government makes an effort by taxing heavily on the price of gas in order to have funds for public transportation and the people accept this by using the trains and bicycle lanes provided for their use. Beyer also talked about the mentality of the people in Switzerland and how they are responsible, efficient, and orderly, which translates into no trash on the ground and being proud of their cities. We talked about the United States’ short terms approaches to sustainability compared to Switzerland looking into long-term solutions. The Swiss people build cities to last centuries and invest in train tracks instead of highways to reduce the use of cars traveling from city to city. Cantons, which are member states in Switzerland, communicate with one another when developing, which allow the country as a whole to move forward together. This idea of shared power is one idea that we discussed should be integrated in the United States when talking about sustainable solutions.

Train Station located in the center of Bern

We went from the embassy to a government meeting where we sat down with two people from the Federal Office for Spatial Development, one person that was at Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and one person from the Federal Department for the Environment. We started off the meeting with a presentation from the Federal Office for Spatial Development that outlined the Switzerland Strategy for Sustainable Development from 2012 to 2015. The goals and challenges for the strategy were presented along with the idea of “green” economy, which was talked about at Rio+20, which made a renewal commitment of the Rio Declaration of 1992. The guidelines included taking responsibility for the future, and incorporating sustainable development into all areas of policy throughout the government. The officials talked about Switzerland’s progress on several of the goals, but took note that they had work to do for others. After the presentation, we sat around a table with the same four people to ask questions about their approach to sustainable development. The conversation started with communication and how the Swiss government has taken measures to involve cantons, cities, and people in the strategy process. In developing the recent strategy, there were meetings between representatives from the different departments and agencies in government along with the leaders in sustainable development. We talked about how the Sustainability Development Strategy was not just one report, but involved debating between groups and integrating the government with the cities. Our conversation moved to the idea of a “green” economy and how the government wanted to involve social equity and ecology in sustainable development, but also ensure growth in the economy. After the meeting, I began to think about my research on closed-loop thinking and how that idea puts the environment and equity before the economy. If I had thought about that in the meeting, I would have asked them what they thought about closed-loop thinking and if they believe it could be a long-term solution to achieving sustainability in Switzerland?

Monday afternoon, after our two meetings, we walked to the bear pit on the edge of town where we saw the historic bear pit from the 1800’s, but also saw four bears that live beside the river in captivity. That afternoon was filled with more sightseeing and having a treat at one of the local chocolate shops. After talking to the ambassador about the people in Switzerland, I noticed how clean the streets were and the amount of people riding public transportation instead of driving cars. It was interesting hearing about people from the ambassador’s point of view and then experiencing the city for myself, which was surrounded by those same people.

View of the Bear Pit at the edge of the city

The third and final meeting was with people from the University of Bern, who took us on a tour of the campus and told us about the education system in Switzerland. Before our tour, we met up with a graduate student, who has been researching the photovoltaic industry. He showed us a presentation that discussed the usage of photovoltaic cells to produce energy through solar panels and talked about how the idea has been evolving since the 1970’s. In today’s world, there have been several research and development programs looking into photovoltaic cells and it has become an important topic for countries in sustainable development terms. After the presentation, we were introduced to the University of Bern by taking a short tour of the campus and eating lunch in one of the cafeteria areas. I learned how different higher education is in Switzerland compared to the United States because everyone that wants to go to college in Switzerland are able to and most of the tuition is paid for by taxes. The people that decide to attend a university must decide at an early age and have a specific major in mind before going. I also found it interesting how most people either commute to school or rent an apartment in the city because there are little to no residence halls on the university campus. It was a different feeling being at the University of Bern compared to Virginia Tech.

The main building we visited at the University of Bern

Although the trip to Bern was quick, it helped me understand more about sustainability because I was able to see it in practice. Listening to the government and the ambassador talk about the people of the city, the use of public transportation, and the importance of the environment was interesting and informative, but seeing those ideas in reality helped put everything into perspective. On the train to Bern, I saw first hand how the houses are integrated into the land and how density plays a huge role in development for Switzerland. I watched people in the city use public transportation and bicycles to move from place to place and was able to experience the education system. Being immersed in the city brought the classroom ideas to real life and concept into practice.

View from the train ride to Bern

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