Tuesday, August 28, 2012


“People will not look forward to posterity,” said the English statesman Edmund Burke, “who never look backward to their ancestors.”  

Burke’s words ring truer than ever today, when many of the world’s most fortunate inhabitants behave as if they were the only ones who ever mattered, or ever will.
Although many of our ancestors have been pictured as heavy-handed exploiters of the environment, at least they had the excuse of ignorance.  Nor were they quite as wasteful as we might imagine:  None other than the English aristocracy of the seventeenth century, for example, routinely used salvaged stone, iron, lead, and glass in the construction of their manor houses.  Closer to home, our Yankee predecessors well knew the value of materials such as lumber, glass, and hardware, since they were obliged to either laboriously produce them on their own or import them at great expense from abroad.  It wouldn’t even have occurred to early Americans to waste containers such as crates, barrels, and bottles, which were purposely well crafted to be reused time and again. 

Ironically, it was the unmatched prosperity of the post-World War II era that gave rise to the concept of the disposable society.  With a booming economy and material goods aplenty--not to speak of persuasive corporate advertising--Americans bought into the idea that the world’s resources were essentially unlimited, and that throwing things away and buying new ones made better economic sense than conservation.  

As if disposable consumer goods were not enough, we now have disposable architecture as well.  A century ago, buildings were constructed to stand for many generations.  By the late twentieth century, this expected lifetime had withered to about 30 years.  It’s not uncommon to see commercial buildings demolished after a decade of use, and sometimes even less.  

Particularly short-lived are the sort of gimmicky buildings thrown together by briefly booming commercial chains--whether muffler shops or pizza merchants--whose fortunes often end up declining just as swiftly.  Service stations and other businesses prone to market fluctuations appear and disappear with equal frequency.  Given such dismal odds for survival, such structures are often built as flimsily as usage will allow, to be thrown away when we’re finished with them.

In the meantime--and for the same shortsighted economic reasons--substantial and beautifully constructed old buildings continue to be destroyed, squandering a vast and irretrievable investment of labor and material.  

It’s easy to blame corporate greed and moribund institutions for such policies, and to be sure, they deserve a share of the blame.  Yet conservation begins with the individual, in the way we respect our finite resources and the energy required to put them to use. 

Take something as mundane as running hot water.  It’s a relatively recent amenity, one which our great grandparents would still have considered a genuine luxury.  Today, we use it as casually as if it rained down from heaven--using a torrent of hot water when a trickle would do.  Yet think about how long it takes to heat a kettle of water on the stove, and you can appreciate how much energy is literally going down the drain when you take that steamy twenty-minute shower.

Does all this mean we should wallow in guilt and deny ourselves the kind of luxuries our good fortune affords us?  Maybe not.  But at the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to bear Burke’s words in mind.  Now and then, we might look back to see just how much we’ve come to take for granted.  And now and then we might try looking ahead, and think to save a little something for the world we leave behind.