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A sustainability travelogue

Reflections and lessons learned from studying environmentalism abroad

Fall 2016 | By Madeline Fischer

While studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, Madeline Fischer documented her experiences in a blog series for the Nelson Institute titled Bringing Bæredygtighed Back (bæredygtighed means sustainability in Danish).

UW-Madison student Madeline Fischer
Madeline Fischer

An environmental studies and life sciences communication double major, she compared the environmentally sustainable practices and policies found in northern Europe to those of the United States.

“Living in a country like Denmark gave me an insight that I never would have acquired if I hadn’t studied there,” Fischer wrote in her final post. “Not only did it allow me to give context to otherwise abstract terms like sustainable development, but it also showed me how important community is to implementing these kinds of initiatives.”

The following excerpts reflect segments of Fischer’s journey. View her full blog series.

All photos and text below by Madeline Fischer. See a map of locations where other environmental studies students have studied abroad, and let us know about your study abroad experience; write to


Synonymous with sustainable

February 9, 2016
From a café in downtown Copenhagen

I had never left the United States before I embarked on my journey and stepped off the plane in Denmark, where the only things familiar to me were my suitcases.

Everything is different, but different is good. Through five semesters and at least half a dozen environmental studies classes, my professors have given me extensive knowledge regarding environmental science, ethics and the history of the United States’ relationship with the natural world. Through all of these classes, one common theme has presented itself time and time again: when it comes to preserving natural resources, other countries are better.

This is why I found it necessary to leave my home country to pursue knowledge that could only be found in more sustainable societies, like that of Denmark. In my short week exploring this country I have already seen how the ways of handling consumption, waste and transportation have been developed to make the easiest option synonymous with the most sustainable one. Plastic bags are not provided at grocery stores; public transportation (bus, train or metro) can take you anywhere within the city and to many places outside of it; and bikes are everywhere and oftentimes the most efficient mode of transportation.

Copenhagen Denmark



March 4, 2016
Malmö, Sweden

The study abroad program in which I’m enrolled gives me and my classmates two opportunities to travel outside of Denmark for our core course, Sustainable Development in Northern Europe. During our first trip, we traveled to southern Sweden, specifically to Malmö, Lund and Röstånga – filled with 100 percent renewable-energy-run communities, permaculture-based elementary schools, waste facilities that make energy out of trash to heat homes, and enough national parks to keep all of the nature-loving Swedes occupied.

To me, a true sustainable society is one that has been created with sustainability at the forefront of every decision regarding how to build, power and maintain that society.

The western harbor of Malmö, Sweden, fits this definition. An industrial coastline area turned residential, the shore is lined with tall, white, modern apartment buildings, guarding the smaller, more warmly colored single-family homes from the harsh ocean winds.

Touring this area during the middle of a weekday meant that most people were at work, giving the community an especially utopian, if not eerie, feel, as if we had just stepped into a futuristic world where energy based on fossil fuels was a thing of the distant past.

Turning this old industrial area into a modern “green” hub is exactly the kind of sustainable development that could be pursued anywhere in the world.

Malmo Sweden



March 31, 2016
Berlin, Germany

If you are looking to reduce your footprint and minimize your waste as a consumer, the grocery store might not be the best place to start – unless you happen to live in Germany. Original Unverpackt (pictured below, at right), an entirely packaging-free grocery store located in downtown Berlin, is one of the first of its kind to exist anywhere in the world.

The concept is simple: you bring your own bags and containers and pay for the food by weight. If you happen to forget your bags, there are enough burlap bags and glass jars of all shapes and sizes to go around. The store itself isn’t all that big, but the message it’s sending to consumers and business owners around the world is monumental: food packaging isn’t necessary.


May 9, 2016
Samsø, Denmark

Samsø, 112 square kilometers of mostly cultivated farmland, is an island with two major exports: wind and potatoes. With 10 offshore turbines and 11 on land (pictured below, at left), this little island produces 110 percent of its needed energy from the wind.

"Samsø’s story can inspire
communities everywhere.
No matter the political views
or socioeconomic status of
a region, sustainable energy
sources and infrastructure
can be implemented to make
an area sustainable, both
environmentally and economically."

The excess 10 percent is a source of revenue for the island, and some is even exchanged for medical attention (the island lacks a hospital). This surplus also equates to all 3,806 residents of Samsø each having a carbon footprint of negative 12 tons.

In 1997, Samsø won a contest sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy, granting the community the opportunity to become the first island powered completely by renewable power, as well as Denmark’s showcase for sustainability. But without any funding from the government, tax breaks, or technical expertise, it was unclear how this small island with its roots in agriculture would eventually become a destination for sustainability-minded people throughout the world.

Through many community meetings and some free beer, Soren Hermansen, a Samsø native, cultivated a positive attitude around this new source of energy and effectively convinced the islanders to trade their oil-burning furnaces for regional heating systems powered by straw and wood chips, and to give up small tracts of farmland to begin erecting turbines.

Samsø’s story can inspire communities everywhere. No matter the political views or socioeconomic status of a region, sustainable energy sources and infrastructure can be implemented to make an area sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

Samso Denmark and Berlin Germany



June 9, 2016
Madison, Wisconsin

As Americans, we seem to share a common paradigm that if you want to be successful in the sustainability sector, it’s in your best interest to move to a country that already has its foot in the sustainable door.

See a map of locations
where other environmental
studies students have
studied abroad.

This idea changed for me, however, when I was visiting an eco-village outside of Copenhagen with my sustainability class. After touring the community, my professor asked, “Should I move to a place like this, or move somewhere that isn’t as sustainable and help them make more eco-friendly decisions?”

Immediately, I connected this to my relationship with the United States. I could easily move to a place like Denmark or the Netherlands and join sustainability initiatives that are already in place, or I could go back to the states and begin these initiatives in a place that arguably has much more impact on the future of our planet than these smaller countries.

I think I’m going to choose the latter.

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