Written by John Michael Worsham
Last semester I spent three months in Madrid, Spain on the Furman Spanish Department’s Madrid study away program. Upon my arrival – despite a lack of sleep, jet lag, and my host mother Teresa’s rapid Spanish – one of the first things I noticed was a drive to conserve resources. During the quick tour of my new apartment, Teresa was sure to point out some of the most important rules: turn off the lights when you leave a room; turn off the tv when you aren’t watching it; if you get hot, open the balcony door; if you get cold, we have more blankets; when you’re taking a shower, wet yourself down, turn off the water while you soap up, and rinse off – do not take more than 10 minutes; turn off the water while you brush your teeth. Almost everything centered on saving water and energy. At first, I was surprised and impressed by Teresa’s eagerness for wisely managing her resources, but as time progressed, I realized it was simply a Spanish thing.
Unlike Americans, the Spanish have thousands of years of self-sufficient practices built up from ancient times. The Pre-Romanic celtiberos (and the later Catholic kingdoms) established an early culture of self-sufficient villages. The Romans developed the peninsula as an agricultural hub for the all-important triada of wheat, wine, and olives. The Arab conquest brought ingenious, efficient architecture and the practice of the open-air market for everyday needs. Furthermore, Spain’s history as a confessional state under the Catholic Church (really until the late 1970s) instilled a sense of frugality and modesty, especially in older generations. All of these influences – Spain’s agricultural, daily market, self-sufficient, and Catholic roots – have led to the development of a take-what-you need culture. As opposed to the American tendency to buy and consume much more than possibly needed – and getting it from whatever sources possible – the Spanish seem to always use just enough at just the right time. At meals, we almost always finished everything that was cooked – nothing went to the refrigerator to sit for weeks until it spoiled. Fruit was bought fresh from local sources only during its natural growing season; if an apple or banana had spots or bruises, it was still considered perfectly edible. Grocery shopping was done every few days (if not daily) to avoid buying more than was needed. Local markets like the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid make this not only possible, but also extremely easy. Cooking oil was saved after each meal and stored away for future use. Bread was fresh baked from the panadería down the street, and almost nothing was processed or packaged. Laundry was done in compact, efficient washers, and always hung on a clothesline to dry (or set out on the radiator on especially wet days).
But it didn’t stop at home life. There seemed to be a push toward conservation and smart use of natural resources on the national level as well. In the face of a severe national shortage of water, local governments have levied high taxes on water and electricity use to discourage waste. Vast quantities of state money have gone toward improving the efficiency of irrigation in the dry, but for some reason agriculture-dependent south, and water transfers from water-rich states to dry states have been put on hold until the dry states can demonstrate responsible management of their own resources. In terms of renewable energy, proponents of green energy have taken advantage of Spain’s expansive, sparsely populated countryside, constructing wind and solar farms at every turn.
For one reason or another, the American ethos of over consumption barely has a foothold in Spain. Despite the recent appearance of shopping malls (that still pale in comparison to American malls) and fast food restaurants (even KFC), the Spanish people still prefer to only consume what they need. A home cooked meal with fresh, local ingredients, a brisk walk to work in the morning, and a quick shower every few days is more than enough for a comfortable life on the Peninsula.