We Americans have many good traits, but our astonishing proclivity to waste is not among them. The strange thing is, I don’t think that a single one of us intentionally sets out to be wasteful — it’s just that we don’t seem to give it much thought. This, alas, amounts to the same thing.
We weren’t always a wasteful culture. For our Yankee forebears, conserving resources wasn’t just a moral imperative — it was something you did to stay alive. Even our more recent predecessors, chastened by the Great Depression, well knew the value of conservation. But the unmatched prosperity that followed World War II changed us as a people. It convinced us that, with our new wealth, we could have anything we wanted in limitless abundance.
Ironically, the fact that Americans now have such unfettered access to the world’s resources is probably the very thing that makes us fail to value them anymore. Take something as simple as water: We open a tap, and by gosh, it just flows out, sparkling clean and pure enough to drink. We don’t need to think about the effort and expense that are required to make that magic happen, so we take it for granted.
And in the average household, even though every drop of water is pure enough to drink, we pour nearly half of it onto the dirt in our yards, and flush another one-sixth of it down our toilets. (See the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories’ illuminating breakdown of average domestic water use.)
We’re profligate with hot water for the same reasons. But consider how much time and energy it takes to heat a pot full of cold water on the stove, and by extension, you’ll realize how much energy is literally going down the drain during the average long, hot shower.
We’re a culture that loves technical solutions to gnarly problems, and we like to think that science is going to come riding to our rescue, magically making the problem of diminishing resources go away so we can preserve our lifestyles just as they are. Improved technology does hold one of the keys to conservation, but unless we acquire more respect for our resources as well, technology alone won’t save us.
An example: The very best new hot water heaters are up to 97 percent efficient, thanks to a whole slew of technical improvements. But how are they marketed to the American consumer? Their manufacturers entice us — quite successfully — by promising "unlimited hot water for unlimited hot showers," negating the whole purpose of higher efficiency.
The same irony holds for other efficient new technologies. Science can do its part, but the fact remains: A high-efficiency light bulb that’s burning needlessly or a super-efficient furnace that’s heating an empty house are exactly zero percent efficient.
A hundred-odd years ago, when you had to work a freezing pump handle and chop a pile of cordwood in order to warm a little bath water, you wouldn’t dare waste a drop. There’s no less effort involved today — it’s just that we no longer see who and what does the work for us. We’d waste a lot less if we did.