“Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we [Bern]”

I drafted this post on the 4th but took me a while to get it just the way I wanted it (and I’ve added to it since then).  Please excuse any now-moot time / date references.

Time. Is. Flying.

As a sweeping overview: [Last] Saturday was our first ‘day off’.  We slept in (relatively speaking) until 10:30am, read three Economist articles aloud over breakfast in the courtyard, and then biked to the water-sport rental shop down the road from the Villa on Lake Lugano.  Tito, the owner, was out to lunch when we arrived around 12:30pm (the Swiss do it right).  Because Kate and I were predictably antsy, we decided to swim across the Lake while we waited for him to return.  This, also predictably, turned out to be a larger endeavor than we’d anticipated.  We swam slowly and took an extended break on the other side before we swam back to the others.  By the time we were done, Tito had returned and the majority of our group was out in kayaks or on wind-surf boards experiencing various levels of success.  After a few more hours on the lake, a group of us biked further down the coast and stopped for gelato at a restaurant on the water.  After an extended sit, we biked back to the Villa (exhausted), ate dinner, and put ourselves to bed in preparation for our early train to Bern.

We left Riva Sunday morning at 8:15, made three train connections, and finally arrived in Bern around 2 pm.  I managed to read the majority of the Swiss CleanTech report in transit, and took the time to premeditate questions I had for the SD figures we would meet with with during our stay.

Once we arrived in Bern, we had the rest of Sunday free.  At Professor Hall’s encouragement we walked to the Aare river and a few brave souls (including Professor Hall) took a dip in the 14 degrees Celsius glacial water.  We then explored the Einstein museum, walked around the city, and ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in one of the city’s squares.  From there, we staked out a spot to watch the Euro 2012 final near the University of Bern.  Adopting the Italian influence of Ticino (the Canton of Riva San Vitale), we solemnly made our way back to our hostel after Spain’s definitive third goal (and subsequent win over Italy).

Monday morning we woke up early and ate a tasty breakfast at our hostel before we walked to the American Embassy to meet with a fellow Virginian, the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein: Donald Beyer.

Prior to our departure, Professor Hall provided our class with text documents of the Swiss Platform for Rio+20, the Swiss Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2012 – 2015, The Swiss Government’s Guidelines for Sustainable Development Policy, the Swiss CleanTech Report, and the outcomes of Rio+20 in order to prepare us for our three meetings  in Bern with the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, a few members of the Swiss Government, and a Ph.D candidate in Geography at the University of Bern (Universität Bern).  After engaging with these readings and reflecting on our intensive week-long SD crash-course at the Villa, I was eager to interact with, question, and learn from some of Switzerland’s key SD figures.


Before coming to Switzerland and before reading and discussing the material we covered in the first week of this course, what I knew about sustainability was largely conjecture.  I’d never taken a sustainability class, nor a class on the history, politics or environment of Switzerland.  In that regard, a lot of the material we covered in module 1 was new to me.  I’d heard the terms weak sustainability and strong sustainability, I knew a thing or two about Rawls and Utilitarianism, I’d heard about the elusive ‘green economy’, and I thought I knew what it meant for development to be sustainable; but I did not have a firm grasp on any of these concepts, exactly how they were connected, or why it was important that they were being talked about.  I knew Switzerland was at the forefront of the SD movement, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

The readings, lectures, and discussions throughout module 1 provided me with a solid base of knowledge about the history of the EU,  of “Sustainable Development”, and of Switzerland’s SD policies that our meetings in Bern and that the 2nd and third models built and will build upon.  I can now put a face to the name of the Kuznet’s curve, the steady-state economy, and the Coase and Pigovian Theories.  I can now articulate how all of these concepts and how many different ways of thinking are connected within SD, and how important it is to consider sustainability along with all other factors in policy making.  I’ve long felt like I understood this concept, but I didn’t know that it had a formal name (: integrated thinking).  I can now reference UNCED or the Brundtland definition of Sustainable Development, Rio +20, “Our Common Future”, and countless other SD documents, events, and actors and accurately refer to them within the context of the history of Sustainable Development.  Throughout the first week of this Sustainable Europe course, Professor Hall touched on every topic I could have asked him to plus some.  I was especially excited to have my topic of interest: philosophy, connected to sustainability in such a direct and meaningful way.  I am now generally more knowledgeable about the subject, and for this I intently read our pre-trip readings in anticipation of the opportunity our class had to interact with the people doing the acting in the present day sustainability movement in Switzerland in Bern.  It’s one thing to read a text about Sustainable Development or about Switzerland’s SD action plan / policies, but it is entirely another to get to critically read them knowing that you get to ask questions about what you’re reading to the people that wrote the text and that are implementing its posited strategies and solutions.

It is also one thing to read about a country’s SD programs, and quite another to experience them and the country for yourself.  The fact that this course is in Switzerland is like a science class lab: reading about a chemical reaction and then observing / creating that reaction.  Switzerland exudes sustainability in a way the States do not: it’s in the people, it’s in the air, it’s in the water.  Everything is very well planned and made to last.  In a way, Switzerland is the “precautionary principle” to the US’ “prove harm” principle.  The public transportation system is amazing and not only have I read about it, but I’ve also experienced it.  I’ve taken countless trains and buses, and I’ve ridden my bike almost every day I’ve been here.  I haven’t been in a car in weeks, and I’ve gotten everywhere I’ve needed to go seamlessly.  There’s no trash in the streets, I visited the oldest church in Switzerland (again, it was made to last), and I have generally lived and participated in the Swiss way of life (I’ve shopped (for food) almost every day!).  There is truly nothing like imersing yourself in the subject that you are studying.


Before we were given the opportunity to ask the Ambassador the questions that were burning in our minds, he gave us a short explanation of what they do at the embassy: (three main tasks) Diplomacy, economic development, and public diplomacy.  I was interested to learn that the main point of tension right now between the US and Switzerland is bank secrecy.  Essentially, US citizens hide their public assets in banks in Switzerland so they don’t have to pay taxes on it, and the US government isn’t so cool with this.  The US embassy and Switzerland are jointly working to bring down banks in Switzerland that take part in this (or, as Ambassador Beyer put it, “they bring / have brought themselves down”).

In terms of sustainability, the Ambassador said that their role at the embassy is to communicate the States’ SD progress and position to Switzerland.  As it turns out, we’re doing better than they think (and our SD approval rating is up from 4 to 14%!).  This came as a bit of a surprise to me.  As much as it may sometimes feel like we are running in place in the States (compared to other nations), it was encouraging to hear that we are making steps in the right direction.

As something of a corollary, I walked away from our meeting with the Ambassador with a better understanding of the institutional, geographical, political, and cultural differences of the US and Switzerland that make it hard to implement identical SD strategies, and the challenges that the US faces that Switzerland ostensibly does not.  As the Ambassador noted, the Swiss are very good at thinking about the long term and they are very good at following rules.  By contrast, in the States, decisions for now are often made at the expense of the future, and we were doomed from the start to be individualistic and rebellious – as we are a nation formed by rebels.  In Switzerland, the push for SD comes both from the top and from the bottom.  The Ambassador put it to us this way: In Switzerland, they sit down and talk for three years about policy decisions and end with a decision that both the right and the left (political wings) will agree to.  In the States, we have a majoritarian system where everything is win / lose and polarized.  If the left wants one thing, the right wants another.  In the States people go crazy if gas prices rise, while the Swiss people recently by referendum voted to increase the amount of tax they pay in order to keep their social security in tact / paying for itself.  In this way and in other ways, the Ambassador stressed the difference in the Swiss and American cultures, the importance of integrated thinking to sustainable policy making, and of the coordination between both the public and the private sectors and of the various levels of government.  The terms ‘green economy’, “precautionary principle”, and others came into play during our meeting, and it was neat to hear and see the concepts we’d spent a week studying come to life at the Embassy.   We learned in our meeting with the Ambassador that Switzerland is the number one investor in US industry, and Daniel, Professor Hall and I contemplated – would it be feasible for Switzerland to push the US towards CleanTech with its large market pull?

After a free-for-all lunch we walked a few blocks to the Government building where we met with several members of the Swiss government that have their hands in the Swiss SD pie: Daniel Dubas and Daniel Wachter of the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE), Stefan Ruchti of the Federal Office for the Environment, and Lorenz Kurtz of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.  Lorenz Kurtz took part in the Rio +20 conference in Brazil in June, and it was extremely interesting to hear him talk about his experience there and to hear his opinion about the progress that was made (as, many reports have criticized the conference for not covering much ground).

After our meeting with the American Ambassador, and after reading the Swiss Government’s SD strategy, I was the most curious to ask the Government representatives how they take their broad SD strategy outlines and turn them into specific policy directives, and if they saw any specific areas where the US could benefit from Swiss SD policies.  It’s quite possible I did not not phrase my questions in terms such that they could be answered, but it is also quite possible that it is not feasible to directly take Swiss SD strategies and implement them in the US.  Whatever the reason, I felt unsatisfied when the answers I received merely highlighted the difference in the Swiss / US political structures and cultures.  It almost boiled down to: the Swiss just do it.  Their society is structured in a different way, and its people are of a different mindset.  They, as government officials don’t impose policies and laws on the Swiss people without support.  It’s a top down and top up process, like the Ambassador had said.  If I had the chance to refine my questions after hearing the responses that I received, I’d like to ask, more specifically, what SD policies have experienced the most success in Switzerland, and just how those policies were initially brought about – was it through the market, was it organic, or was it driven by the government?  Or as my week’s emersion in integrated decision making has predisposed me to emphasize, was it a combination of the three?  The challenge would then lie in synthesizing this answer and creating a policy solution that could similarly benefit the US, despite its political and cultural differences.

Daniel asked the question we’d thought about on our walk from the American Embassy – whether or not Swiss market pull could have a significant effect on America in terms of CleanTech.  The answer to this question too, was somewhat disheartening: probably not.  America would have to change internally.

It would seem, Improvements aside, we still have a long way to go in the States.  While we certainly helped to kick off the environmental movement, we have now been surpassed by many countries in SD terms, including Switzerland.  I walked away from both Monday meetings thinking – what will it take for the US to shift its paradigm in order to adopt effective sustainability and sustainable development measures?  Will it take a disaster for us to change?

All things considered comparing two countries in terms of SD, just as with everything else, is complicated.  Switzerland is much smaller than the US, and it is a land-locked nation.  Water is their only real natural resource and as the glaciers melt, their situation becomes more dire.  Our political system and culture in the US is very different, and it we are to implement a successful SD policy / strategy, it will have to be tailored to our government and our social mindset – and realistically, this may mean that sustainability will have to become economically desirable to be implemented on a nationwide scale.

After our meeting with the Government we had the rest of the day free.  The majority of our class walked straight to Bern’s “Bear pit”.  There was some serious confusion about what exactly this bear pit would entail.  As it turns out, the bears are not kept in an actual “pit” any longer, but they now live on a grassy slope (next to the original pit) that is bordered at the bottom of the hill by the river, and at the top of the hill by a large fence.  I’ve posted pictures for reference.

The next morning we ate a second breakfast at the hostel, packed our things, and walked to Bern University to meet with Fabian Streiff, a Ph.D candidate in economic geography.  He presented his research on the photovoltaic industry in Switzerland to us, and then took questions.  To me, this was especially interesting and new as I am very unfamiliar with the technology side of sustainable development.  After our meeting with Fabian, we were given an informal admissions info session and tour of The University of Bern by Zoe Ghielmetti, the executive director of the International and National Relations office and her assistant, Flavio Caluori.  The differences in the US and Swiss education systems are fascinating to me, and the tour and presentation got me thinking about and interested in going to graduate school abroad.  In Switzerland, they have to know whether or not they want to attend University, and what they want to attend University to study at a much younger age than we do in the States.  Being as indecisive as I am, I felt lucky to have gone through the American public school system and perhaps given the opportunity to study abroad (or go to graduate school abroad) at a later age.

After our admissions session and tour we ate lunch in one of the University’s cafeterias and were then given free time to explore Bern until our train left at 3 pm.  Kate and I notably got a pair of delicious Brats on the way home.  We made it back to the Villa in time for dinner, and then spent time on the lake.  It’s amazing how after only two weeks, Riva feels like home.

We spent the majority of July 4th blogging and playing soccer on the field across the street from our Villa, said goodbye to Professor Hall, and welcomed Professor Hyra, his wife, and two kids: Avery and Barrett the same day.  Since Thursday, we’ve been intently studying mixed-income neighborhoods, gentrification, and comparing housing policies in the US and France with Professor Hyra.

I wouldn’t say my understanding of sustainable development changed during our meetings in Bern, but the experience changed the way I think of the US and Switzerland and SD solutions, and further emphasized the importance of integrated decision making.  The trip, and our classes in Riva thus far have made me truly thankful for (and value) the diversity of backgrounds represented within our class of 14.  We are all majoring in different things, and we each add our own knowledge base to our collective discussion pot.  More on that soon.

Happy [belated] 4th from Switzerland!  I’ll post tomorrow (really tomorrow this time) about this most recent weekend’s excursions in Maggia, Como, and Lugano!


(Photo credits: Kate and Rachel)

Kate and I swam to the other side of Lake Lugano (and back!)


More Bern

Watching the Euro 2012 Final near the University of Bern

Government conference room

The Bear Pit from across the river

Bear pit from above

University of Bern


Leave a comment

July 9, 2012 · 3:37 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s