Thursday, June 20, 2013


As the child of Depression-era parents who still save old bits of string, used gift wrap, and the flimsy plastic trays from candy boxes, I  too am mentally incapable of seeing things go to waste. 

This confounding compulsion to conserve goes well beyond the usual household flotsam. When I’m dining out, not only do I feel guilt at leaving a few bites of food on my plate--I feel even worse when the guy at the next table leaves half his steak dinner to be thrown out. 

I ‘m always annoying my wife by rushing around turning off lights, because in the back of my mind I imagine how much oil, gas or coal is being burned to keep that bulb lit for no reason. Likewise, I shower under a relative trickle of hot water because it bothers me to think of all that hard-won energy literally pouring down the drain. Come to that, I keep my water heater set so low that I can shower with only the hot water valve turned on. 

As an admitted basket case in compulsive conservation, though, I feel entitled to say that I’m getting pretty sick and tired of having the government tell me exactly how, what, and where I’m supposed to conserve. 

I’ve got nothing against well-crafted energy-efficiency regulations such as California’s Title 24, which for the most part leaves designers plenty of latitude provided they meet an overall energy budget. On the other hand, some government micromanagers just want to issue marching orders--for example, the recent legislation that effectively bans the sale of all incandescent bulbs nationwide over the next few years. It's worth noting that one of the most enthusiastic backers of this legislation was Philips Lighting, the world’s biggest producer of compact fluorescent bulbs. One wonders if Phillips will be as quick to endorse a future ban on CFs in favor of light-emitting diode technology, which is even more efficient.

However well-meaning the government's energy-saving edicts might be, they utterly fail to harness the power of economic self interest that--for instance--a well-designed tax credit might. Rather, draconian measures of this kind simply breed popular resentment and widespread attempts at circumvention. Rest assured, it won't be long before people are buying cases of hundred-watt  bulbs out of the back of some hooligan’s van. 

Enlightened self interest is a far better motivator than laws that attempt to dictate a social conscience. Hence I have to trust that the mindless consumerism that’s overtaken America in the last couple of decades will eventually be reversed by the same old-fashioned capitalist forces that created it. 

There are already glimmerings of this trend. For example, as photovoltaic panels continue inching their way toward economic viability, more and more of us are looking into their use--not because we’re pious, but because we’d love to tell our local utility to shove it. Ditto for the idea of owning a hybrid car that keeps us slightly less in thrall to our well-fed friends at the oil companies.

Such developments, modest though they are, make me believe that all Americans will eventually see the economic sense--if not the philosophical beauty--of cherishing everything Mother Nature gives us. Not because some law demands it, but because we’d be crazy to do otherwise.

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