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, earlier this year, a California congresswoman introduced a bill that would effectively ban the sale of all incandescent bulbs nationwide by 2012 (it’s worth noting that one of the bill’s most enthusiastic backers was Philips Lighting, the world’s biggest producer of compact fluorescent bulbs).

However well-meaning this kind of edict might be, it utterly fails to harness the power of self-interest that, for instance, a well-designed tax credit might. Instead, it simply breeds popular resentment and widespread attempts at circumvention. Rest assured, it wouldn’t be long before people were buying cases of 100-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 stuff 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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