Solar panels plaster the steep roofs of antiquated brick cottages. Sleek sky-scraping wind turbines spin over pastoral farms while sheep and cattle mindlessly graze below. Electric trams packed with commuters squeal by ancient cathedrals. And everywhere you look, people are riding bikes – for transportation, for sport, for recreation.
Belgium is a unique juxtaposition of old and new: both the physical and the mental. At about 30,528 sq km, it’s a thimble of a country (which for many centuries was the knot in a tug-of-war between empires), and its size makes conservation of resources a ‘must.’
Els, the harbormaster at Gent’s downtown marina, explains that most of Belgium’s 11 million residents are eco-friendly thanks to education, public service announcements, and documentaries. The various governments and municipalities foster responsible living and environmentalism too, particularly since two ‘green’ political parties came into influence a decade ago and increased efforts to develop renewable energy sources.
Although people in this part of the world have been harnessing the power of the wind for centuries, the number of modern wind turbines has since increased, as has the installation of solar panels and improved insulation. Preferential taxes have helped the popularity of low-emission and fuel efficient vehicles, along with bike-to-work incentives – all to benefit air quality.
And Belgians can be downright religious about recycling. At the recent Gentse Feesten – a lively annual music festival celebrated in Gent for over 150 years – a lanky young man festooned with piercings and fashionably tattered clothes splits from the throng to deliver an empty plastic cup to the trash bin, then thoughtfully selects the right receptacle for recyclables. Belgium, in fact, boasts the best record in all of Europe for recycling batteries.
Cruising along the canals between Brugge and Gent, I pass homes that would be deemed tiny by North American standards, yet modest and efficient, they foster a sensibly minute carbon footprint. Many instead use outdoor living areas, and have lush gardens – fertilized, I learn, by the neighboring livestock. Nearly one in four has solar panels.
Els tells me Belgians accept the need for improved measures with the same combination of French joie de vivre, Dutch practicality, and Belgian perseverance that has sustained her culture for centuries.
“The old windmills are beautiful – the new ones are not,” she points out, “but they are necessary. We have new clean water laws we follow, because we know how bad things can be.”
“Things will continue to get better,” she says matter-of-factly, “because we know they have to.”