Green Generation

I read recently that Americans use more energy than just about anyone. It really upset me, because I like to think of myself as every environmentally conscious: I recycle, I buy organic products, all that stuff. But I still heat my apartment and drive my car, and it seems that that’s enough to make me an enemy of the planet! I don’t know what to do about it, though. Any tips?

It’s true that we Americans use more than our fair share of energy. As a country, we waste roughly two-thirds of our energy – yes, that’s waste, not misuse. Even if we weren’t wasting so much, though, we’d still be using more than many other people. The average American uses 303 million Btu of energy per year, dwarfing the worldwide average of 75 million Btu.

Is it all because of wasteful habits? Well, no – not all of it, anyway. Americans are lucky to enjoy a pretty high standard of living, for instance, which means larger homes to heat – and heat them we must, because many of us live in places where it snows or gets very cold at night. Americans are also more reliant on their cars than citizens of many other countries: the rural and suburban areas in America rely on cars to get to and from work, the grocery store, and just about everywhere else, and cars are far less efficient than buses and trains when it comes to energy use. More densely populated countries, like those in Western Europe, earn better marks for green habits thanks in part to their use of mass transit.

So Americans are wasteful, but we also over-consume because of the way our country and our culture is structured – as you’ve discovered, not all of our waste comes about through negligence or conscious choices. But having assuaged our guilt, let’s not ignore our responsibility: whatever the causes, America’s energy use is hurting our planet, and fixing it will take both personal changes and large-scale shifts in technology and policy.

Let’s start with the personal. Nobody is asking you to stop heating your apartment – least of all the providers at John Duffy Fuel, a New Jersey-based fuel company that helps its neighbors get the comfortable, warm homes they want. But the pros there told us that there are plenty of ways to get that same comfort while being more efficient. Insulation is key, particularly when it comes to doors and windows – in the world of heat, drafts are waste. And you can also turn down the heat at night – when you’re asleep, you won’t notice.

The big changes, though, may have more to do with the energy itself. The biodiesel creators at SeQuential are one of the many companies turning restaurants’ cooking oil waste into futuristic fuel that can power cars and heat buildings. Wind, solar, and other renewable and natural sources of electrical energy are coming down in cost and increasing in efficiency, and experts hope they will someday supplant more wasteful methods for generating power. And policy-makers have slowly (if unevenly) made greater demands of the auto and energy sectors while providing new incentives to those developing alternative fuels.

Is it enough to trim the United States’ hefty share of worldwide energy use? Will these improvements change the rest of the world, too? It’s too early to say for sure, and time may be of the essence. But these challenges can be opportunities for people like you, who care about the environment and want to see a better world. You don’t have to feel guilty about living in a wasteful country – but you should use your frustration to make a difference by donating to charities, pursuing a relevant career, or simply making personal changes or lobbying your government representatives.

“You have to hold yourself accountable for your actions, and that’s how we’re going to protect the Earth.” – Julia Butterfly Hill

Tell us what you think.