Energy-addicted U.S. can learn a lot from Europe

We still chill buildings as if they're housing penguins.

A few days before we flew to Barcelona last month to attend a wedding, international headlines filled with news that truckers had blocked roadways leading to Spain's major cities, leaving some store shelves bare.

The wildcat strike passed, and the wedding went off without a hitch. But the independent truckers' protest – and subsequent efforts by Spanish farmers to block roadways in protest – bear testament to the pain inflicted by diesel fuel prices that have passed $8 a gallon and continue to climb.

That's right, $8 a gallon.

Gasoline prices in Europe are even higher, roughly 1.5 euros per liter for regular in the French countryside last month or about $8.50 a gallon. But petrol, as it's called, has always cost a lot more in Europe, in large part because of much higher taxes at the pump.

And even as protest strikes rippled across Spain and edged into France, Europeans had taken conservation measures that in the long haul leave them better-prepared than Americans to deal with the energy crunch ahead.

Sure, the message is getting through in the States, too. When my wife, Kathy, and I put down a $500 deposit for a new Toyota Prius (48 m.p.g. in town) in June, we were told the wait would be three to six months. Gas-guzzling SUVs, meanwhile, are piling up on American car lots – mini 21st-century replicas of deserted Rust Belt steel mills a few decades ago.

Still, in stop after stop in Spain and France this summer, we saw signs that people routinely conserve in ways Americans have not yet begun to figure out.

When we rented a cottage for a week in the village of Pennautier, France, near the Disneyesque restored castle of Carcassonne, our British landlady informed us that we could only use the dryer after 9 p.m., part of an economy plan that lowers electric usage and bills. We also have rented places where water is only heated at night, and throughout France lights in public bathrooms are often triggered by motion sensors. Even those decades-old timed lights in the hallways of smaller European hotels – the butt of American jokes about groping through pitch-black corridors – now seem eminently practical rather than quaint and amusing.

Throughout Europe, air conditioning, too, is a carefully meted-out commodity. Our three-star Paris hotel offered us a single setting – low. (Alas, Paris's crowded subway offers no AC at all.) Though Time columnist Joe Klein notes that air conditioning accounts for just 4 percent of Americans' energy addiction, he adds, "I'd like to see both candidates call for an immediate 5 degree F. thermostat adjustment, just to get the conservation ball rolling."

Even as Americans queue up for smaller cars, they're well behind the French. These days in Paris, it seems every third car along the Seine is a sawed-off – and gas-efficient – Smart car, about the length from front bumper to back taillights of your two arms stretched wide. Those without any car can rely on Paris's new rent-a-bike system.

Throughout the city, residents and guests can grab a bike at one location, compliments of what seems a simple credit-card prompted trigger, and return it to any of dozens of other locations. The first half-hour, the instructions noted, is free. Each evening we watched as the streets filled with young and often fashionable bike riders, as likely pedaling in high heels and dress slacks as in jeans and sandals.

None of these measures, of course, have taken the sting out of gas prices twice as high in much of Europe as what Americans are paying for at the pump today. But perhaps if Americans, who still use more energy per person than any country in the world, took note and took action to follow suit, prices here and there might at least stabilize.

Yes, three decades after we chose to ignore the warning shot of the 1970s energy crunch, Americans are finally looking to smaller cars again. But we can do more. We still chill buildings as if they're housing Antarctic penguins instead of lightly clad humans. And in many offices and public buildings, we still don't bother to turn out the lights at night.

So as we grouse at the president, Congress, the oil companies and just about anyone else paying too little heed to our growing pain, perhaps Americans should remember that conservation can – and should – begin both in our homes and in our towns.

Let's think globally, then act locally. Our European friends have been doing that for a long time.

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

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