How Far Behind is the US in General, and Disney in Particular?

Culture Shock

With apparently ever-increasing globalisation most of us have an expectation that we can travel to other Western countries and find facilities and a culture similar to our own – after all, a McDonald’s Big Mac bought in Paris is recognisably the same as one from New York.

Occasionally, though, we find things to be suddenly different from what we expect. The difference is marked because it is not just a different food or architecture. It is marked – a culture shock – because it arises from very different assumptions about how a culture should be. I had such a feeling twenty-five years ago when, as a member of the British armed forces, I moved into married quarters in Germany. For the first time ever I encountered a culture with sustainability as a core value – we found recycling facilities all along our street, and were given full instructions on how to recycle our waste as part of moving in.

Such an approach was entirely absent in the UK, there we were still wondering whether we should consider starting to recycle some waste, and so returning to the UK felt like going back in time. Of course, since then the UK has caught up, at least to a large extent. For example, there are weekly collections of plastic and metal/can containers, of paper and cardboard, of glass, and of food waste, plus fortnightly collections of garden waste.

I write this as I approach the end of a vacation in Disney World and Florida, having experienced another such step back in time. Things are so far behind here it has been another culture shock. We last visited twenty-five years ago and it seems that the culture in general and Disney World in particular are virtually unchanged over that time.

Conspicuous Consumption and Pollution

It began with our accommodation – a lovely rented villa in a community estate in Davenport, half an hour outside Orlando. It’s huge and well-appointed with a very nice small pool and patio. However, it feels like living in a ‘consumption machine’. I write this in the open-plan kitchen/lounge area. Behind me upstairs the air conditioning system rattles away providing welcome cooling throughout the house – but it seems to be on permanently, 24/7, set to a temperature of 76°F (24°C). The energy consumption must be enormous, but its controls are locked away so we don’t have the choice to turn it off and save energy.

Behind me just outside the wall is the monstrous pump and filter system for the pool, whirring away. In front of me is a massive fridge which almost never goes quiet. Later today we’ll have men coming round making noise along the road (strimmers, leaf blowers, etc.). This evening we’ll have the sprinklers coming on to disturb our sleep. Not just carbon pollution, but noise pollution seems to be an accepted part of life here.

Even the cars of our neighbours coming and going seem inordinately loud, and why must they beep their horns every time they lock the doors? Everything is just so noisy (in this house we even watch TV in the same large living space as the dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer). The whole concept of noise pollution seems alien here, as though it were something to be embraced rather than avoided. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to try and get some peace and quiet. Yet in the UK people put a premium on quietness whether it’s buying a quiet car (such as an electric) or a house in the country – here the preference seems to be for cars and houses that are as big and noisy as possible.

The big irony, of course, is that the massive carbon footprint of this house is entirely unnecessary. A big chunk of it is for air conditioning because of the powerful sunshine here, yet it is precisely that excess of solar power that could be powering the house with solar energy for free. Instead, it is using fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions to try and offset the energy being dissipated on the roof. I’ve only seen one house in the area with solar panels, and I noticed that precisely because it was an isolated example in a sea of blank rooftops.

Part of that irony is that we have solar panels on our home in England, even though we are at a much higher latitude than Florida and so get correspondingly less solar energy. Nonetheless, even with our supposedly cloudy and rainy climate the panels produce more than half the energy used by the house over the course of a year. In Florida a similar setup could potentially power the entire house, and with some left over going into the grid to reduce its overall footprint, or used to fuel an electric car.

It was good to see that our housing estate had a weekly recycling collection, even if it was just a mixed box (and many of our neighbours’ wheelie bins were overflowing with cardboard boxes and other items that could have gone in recycling).

No Leadership From Disney

So on to Disney. Over the last two weeks we have visited Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studio and Animal Kingdom twice each, and Epcot and the Typhoon Lagoon water park once each. We had a good time on the roller-coaster and other rides, and at the various shows. However, it felt like very little had changed in the last quarter century.

A tram with its diesel exhaust just a few feet from waiting passengers (Image: T. Larkum)

After parking up we were transferred to the park entrances via vehicles referred to as ‘trams’. While in Europe that name implies electric trolley buses, and given their workload and fixed routes these vehicles could have been electric, it was immediately obvious they were not. You didn’t have to get very close to them to hear the roar and smell the nauseous and toxic fumes that gave away that they were powered by massive diesel engines. And this, in the 21st century, and with half the passengers being young children.

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