Americans losing the drive to conserve

Fifteen years ago, Larry Gerber completed his dream home in Grafton, Ill. - a wood-burning, energy-efficient structure built mostly underground.

Today, the solar hot-water system is broken. Mr. Gerber can't find anybody to fix it. And he's feeling a little discouraged.

"There's no one saying [anymore]: 'Hey, you've got to save!' " he says. "I try to talk about this at the country club. I can't get much interest in it."

As in Grafton, so in the rest of the United States: The nation's drive to conserve has stalled.

After dramatic progress in the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans today are using more energy and paper than ever before.

They're buying bigger homes and more powerful vehicles. It's as if somewhere in the checkout line, America lost its conservation ethic.

There are intriguing hints the nation may recover that ethic sometime soon. Already, Americans buy more efficient cars, appliances, and plumbing fixtures than their parents had. But they buy more of them, which soaks up more resources. As a result, the US, which already uses one-quarter of the world's energy, is drifting ever closer to potential shortages.

Instead of an oil shock, environmentalists warn, it might be a series of water crises, such as this summer's East Coast drought, or heavy cleanup costs imposed by dirty air or global warming. Without more efficient use of resources, the US will be living on the margin.

"We've plateaued," says Sheldon Krimsky, urban and environmental policy professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "We're certainly a distance from ground zero, but we have a long way to go."

"We're moving closer and closer to living on the edge," adds John Wright, program manager for WaterWiser, the conservation program of the American Water Works Association. "I think you're going to see episodic crises brought on by droughts."

Falling fuel efficiency

Take driving. Between 1970 and 1990, the fuel efficiency of the average domestic car nearly doubled. Since then, the US has started slipping backward, thanks to the growing popularity of sport utility vehicles and light trucks (which are held to a lower fuel-efficiency standard). After peaking at 24.4 miles per gallon in 1991, average fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks has dropped one mile a gallon.

Americans also continue to burn more electricity and consume more paper - 21 percent more paper last year than in 1987.

Overall, the nation seems to be running in place. Between 1970 and the 1980s, the US made rapid strides in efficiency. By 1986, it took 31 percent less energy to create the same unit of economic output than it did in 1970, according to the US Energy Information Administration. But by 1996, there had been no further improvement.

Interestingly, the past two years suggest new gains. By 1998, it took 36 percent less energy to produce the same unit of output as in 1970. But federal analysts aren't sure whether the shift comes from structural change (it takes less energy to run a computer-based economy than one based on steel mills), the weather, or a new conservation ethic.

Another intriguing trend: For the first time since 1993, carbon emissions were down over the previous year - by 0.5 percent, even though its economy grew 2.5 percent. And this time, the decline in the greenhouse gas didn't come because of economic collapse but because of new efficiency standards and the removal of energy subsidies.

Recycling offers another bright spot: Although Americans consume more paper, more than two-thirds of that increase was met with recycled paper.

Water use seems to be leveling off too. Five years after peaking in 1980, the nation's water use fell 9 percent. And it has remained at roughly that level despite a 16 percent increase in population during the same period. The reasons: Water-saving toilets and showerheads save gallons while utilities are starting to change their rate structures. One-third charge higher rates per gallon the more water homeowners use.

But this year's drought in the Midatlantic states suggests that the system remains terribly out of whack, environmentalists and economists agree.

Because water is priced too cheaply, homeowners have little incentive to conserve it. Then when droughts occur, state governments have to step in to force extreme measures. New Jersey, for example, has banned all lawn sprinkling.

"Water policy is a carbon copy of the energy policy in the 1970s," says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. On average, consumers' water bills reflect only about half what the water is worth (the rest is paid through taxes or other fees), he adds. By deregulating prices, municipalities would save more water, he argues.

It's hard to scold Americans for their excesses when water, fuel, and other commodities are so cheap. In February, for example, the inflation-adjusted price of retail gasoline fell to its lowest point in at least 70 years.

"A conservation ethic is an illusion," says Mr. Taylor. "People don't conserve resources out of the goodness of their heart. For the most part, they conserve resources to save money."

Conservation a 'dirty word'

Even the idea of conservation has taken on negative connotations.

"Energy conservation is almost a dirty word," says Rozanne Weissman, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy. When the alliance, a business-government-environmental coalition based in Washington, examined public attitudes in 1997, it found consumers equated conservation with having to do without and being uncomfortable in one's own home. They far preferred the term energy efficiency.

"What we have is a consumer culture that values smart shopping," Ms. Weissman says. "The idea of energy efficiency is a smart-shopping decision." So the alliance has focused its energy-saving campaign on the money consumers can save rather than on benefits to the environment.

But many environmentalists argue that consumers do want to conserve. "I don't think it has disappeared," says Seth Dunn, research associate with Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "The problem is that there's a consumption ethic that's overwhelmed it."

Another challenge: The federal government no longer encourages conservation with tax credits and other inducements as it did in the '70s and early '80s. Meanwhile, several industries are fighting to repeal the energy-saving requirements the federal government has already enacted.

One of the strangest is US Rep. Joe Knollenberg's (R) of Michigan long-running battle to repeal federal water-saving mandates on toilets and showerheads. The fixtures have saved millions of gallons of water, but consumers, TV's "MacLaughlin Group," and even humorist Dave Barry have complained the toilets don't work as advertised.

It's not clear where the US will move next. If energy prices stay low and incomes continue to rise, the US may have conserved enough already, says Robert Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston. "We never lost the [conservation] ethic. [In fact] we've had too much of the ethic rammed down our throats through [government] coercion."

Some environmentalists think worries about global warming could spark a new conservation trend. But others remain skeptical. Conservation "is part of the value system beyond economics," says Arnold Brown, chairman of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, a trend analyst firm based in New York.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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