Since the late 19th 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. Yet, in a way, these marvels are also the worst thing that could’ve happened to 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. As long as 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 haplessly 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.

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 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 1/20th of the world’s population, yet we gobble up about one-fifth of the world’s energy.
  • Every day, Americans consume more than 18 million barrels of oil — enough to fill about 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to statistics from Per capita, this is more than twice as much oil as our British cousins use daily, and more than 10 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 is recycled. Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

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. Yet if we really mean to set an example to the world without being hounded for our hypocrisy, we can no longer afford to be the biggest pigs on the block.

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