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"I Believe in Conservation as Long as You Do It": A Commentary

By Merrie Spaeth

Dallas, TX – Listeners don't hear the titles of my commentaries, but this one is called "I Believe in Conservation - As Long As You Do It." KERA's literate listening audience is aware of what's happening in California and New York in terms of electricity shortages, and we're all aware of what's happened to gas prices.

Vice President Dick Cheney, when he unveiled the President's energy plan, seemed to be pooh-poohing conservation, saying it "may be a sign of personal virtue, but it's not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." That triggered a huge debate. The argument seems to be about development OR conservation. Common sense says it's both.

Seems to me neither political party wants to have much of anything at all to do with conservation. Americans use twice as much energy per capita as Europeans do. And whether it's electricity or water, the awful truth is we're wasteful - appallingly, carelessly wasteful.

Howard Geller of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says, "Americans think they have a god-given right to cheap energy." Thus the gas-guzzlers. I myself drive a Jeep, so I'm hardly fuel-efficient; and I never remember to turn off the sprinkler system, so I'm the culprit lawn and garden expert Neil Sperry refers to when he nags at people not to overwater lawns.

Here are our choices. First, the voluntary way: Dallas has made it somewhat easier to recycle, but only 19% of households can put their recyclables out for pick-up, and the City couldn?t even give me an estimate of how many people take advantage of that. And have you seen any publicity urging people to recycle more? And it's still terribly inconvenient to try to dispose properly of things like paint and batteries - which harm the environment.

Some estimates are that we could cut energy and other use as much as 10%, just by following common sense rules, running major appliances at night instead of peak energy periods, and so on.

Now, to encourage people to do this, the real muscle comes with incentives and disincentives. Incentives are things like tax credits for installing energy-efficient lights - which Californians are finding out can be 50% more efficient! Disincentives are things like paying more if you use more, paying more if you use electricity or other utilities during peak hours. Real disincentives, of course, are taxes. You already know a large part of what you pay for a gallon of gas is for taxes - and politicians of both parties are allergic to talking about taxes. Me, too.

What can personal responsibility accomplish? Actually, a lot. One recycled aluminum can produces enough power to run a TV set for three hours. Amory Lovings, a west coast writer who usually disagrees with me about everything, is right when he says there are a number of inexpensive, low-budget, common-sense conservation techniques, which would help. The question is, do we want to do them? Or only argue about ideology?

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant in Dallas.