Monday, October 12, 2015


Back when Americans had to do this to get hot water,
we didn't waste a drop.

Since the late nineteenth century, Americans have been blessed with a whole series of domestic conveniences, from central heating, to electric lighting, to hot and cold water at the turn of a tap. Alas, on the down side, these marvels have also played havoc with our longstanding national trait of Yankee thrift—for at the same time they've made our lives immeasurably easier, they’ve also made us immeasurably more wasteful. 

Take the simple case of hot water. Back when Americans were obliged to chop wood, stoke a fire, and lug buckets of scalding water around just to prepare a warm bath, we still appreciated what a luxury hot water is, and how difficult it is to obtain. Yet as soon as that same warm bath involved nothing more than opening a tap, we fell headlong into the pattern of oblivious and wasteful use that’s still with us. Even in this increasingly green-centered era, many of us still treat hot water as if it were a gift from heaven.

Turn a dial, and the house gets warmer.
We don't see where the energy
comes from, or how much it takes.
It’s ironic that the very ease of turning on a light, turning up the heat, or leaving the car idling in the driveway has made Americans oblivious to the rate at which we use energy and natural resources. As well-meaning and as nice a bunch of folks as we are—and I mean that quite sincerely—we nevertheless manage to consume far more energy per capita than any other nation on earth. Our thrifty Yank forefathers would no doubt be ashamed of statistics such as these:

•The United States makes up about one-twentieth of the world’s population, yet we gobble up about one-fifth of the world’s energy.

• Every day, Americans consume over 18 million barrels of oil—enough to fill about a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools. Per capita, this is over twice as much oil as our British cousins use daily, and over ten times the amount used by the average Chinese in spite of that nation’s phenomenal industrialization. (<>)

• Americans use an average of 1,363 watts of electricity per person—again, about double the electrical energy used by the average Brit, despite our relatively similar standards of living, and well over three times the energy used by the average Chinese.

• And at the other end of this orgy of consumption, we throw away some 250 million tons of trash, only about a third of which—contrary to popular myth—is recycled (<>).
If we're serious about leading the green movement,
we can't be the world's biggest pigs.

There is, it seems, such a thing as being too comfortable. None of us like to think of ourselves as wasteful, and yet the above statistics irrefutably tell us otherwise. 

Of all the peoples on the globe, we Americans still remain best equipped to invent, to innovate, and to attract new ideas in the responsible and sustainable use of the world’s resources. We also purport to have a social conscience and the will to exercise it. If we really mean to set an example to the world without being hounded for our hypocrisy, we can’t afford to be the biggest pigs on the block.

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