Every time I get a chance to travel outside of the U.S., I'm struck by two things. First, most people really like Americans. The second is that most people are really scared about what our country might do to them.
We're like a big lumbering giant, giving the world a cold every time we cough. I think most people outside the U.S. give us credit for generally good intentions, but not so much for understanding our own power and how it impacts others.
That was clear a year ago when I was in Stockholm representing Madison at the first European Green Cities Network conference. The main thing people at the conference wanted to know was why Americans didn't take global climate change more seriously.
I offered a long rambling answer about the need to drive more in a spread-out country, and how that leads to a dependence on and even a lore about the automobile that doesn't exist quite so much in Europe. And then there's a stronger sense of individualism that makes us less inclined to communal solutions like sharing transportation. I found myself making excuses and defending my country when, if I was actually in my own country, I'd be pretty hard on my own countrymen.
If anything, things are worse a year later. As we get into a presidential election year, the only thing we hear about climate change is from the Republican candidates who trip over one another trying to explain why they're not sure they believe in it. President Obama doesn't talk about it much at all anymore.
Meanwhile the rest of the developed world along with the rapidly-developing nations of China and India are taking strong steps to confront the problem. Europeans already contribute about half the greenhouse gasses per capita as Americansm while enjoying roughly the same standard of living. A good story on this was published last Sunday in The New York Times.
As Americans, we need to better understand how much we matter. So, I was happy last week when I was invited to the 25th anniversary celebration of Madison's sister city relationship with Arcatao, El Salvador. We have eight other sister cities or 10, depending on how you want to count it.
These relationships help us connect to the rest of the world and give us a better understanding of the people in it. Sometimes there are specific deliverables, like the work done on mental health with our sister city of Obihiro, Japan, or the solar center idea that comes from Freiburg, Germany.
But more often, it's just relationships among people that build up over years of working together.
So credit Mayor Soglin with increasing the city budget for this worthwhile program from $5,000 to $12,000. It's still not much, but it's something. I had actually cut the budget in hopes that we could build private sector support for the program, but that didn't happen.
I'm still hopeful that someday it will. In most of our sister cities, the whole community and especially the business community is involved in the program. They see it as valuable because they see us as powerful. We need to begin to see sister cities as valuable, because we recognize that with outsized power comes outsized responsibilities.