Conservation comes more naturally to some cultures. For example, in Japan wasting of resources is a moral issue. That makes it much easier and more effective for the Japanese to pull together without a lot of political squabbling when it comes to conserving energy. In 1979 the Japanese Diet passed the Law Concerning the Rational Use of Energy that led to a nationwide effort to decrease energy consumption through efficiency improvements and conservation. Japan proceeded with a period of tremendous economic growth but held energy usage way down compared to other industrial nations.

More recently, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster with consequent reduced energy supply, the Japanese tightened their energy belts even more.

On the other hand, the United States really hasn’t ever had much of a useful energy policy. And we certainly aren’t united over conservation efforts. Humvees and Prius hybrids blithely share the same highway. The issue of energy conservation is more of a matter of economics here, rather than one of ethics. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I know it hasn’t always been that way.

My father sharpened his single-edged razor blades by scouring them against the inside of a water glass. He wasn’t trying to save money; he just couldn’t stand to throw away the metal. We hadn’t heard of recycling, but we got our milk in bottles, which we washed and returned - the same with pop bottles. No Styrofoam cups, no plastic water bottles, and I don’t remember landfill being an issue. And yes, I actually walked or rode a bike to school.

Our electric consumption must have been low. No air conditioning (although some of the affluent had swamp coolers). There were few appliances, and most rooms only had one electrical outlet.

But in the last few decades most of us in the U.S. have been blessed (I guess it’s a blessing) with an abundant economy (at least until recently), highly affordable electricity and an overwhelming tide of consumer technology. Now we’re trying to figure out how to reduce waste and energy consumption, but only if convenient and economic. Those constraints require a greater dependence on technology and almost none on social morality.

Maybe the U.S. recession (which may turn into a double recession) will result in conservation and efficiency becoming more highly valued. Maybe not as much as money and convenience, that would be too much to hope for, but a cultural shift toward living a little lower on the hog, without government coercion, would be good for all of us, individually and as a resource-constrained nation.