Lately I have been saving water. I don’t let the water run while I’m doing dishes. I turn off the shower when I soap up. I don’t pour water down the drain when I can use it for feeding my plants. If I save a gallon a day, that’s 1 percent of my monthly usage.
Americans use more water per capita than any other nation. Every time we flush the toilet, we use as much water as the average person in the developing world employs for an entire day’s cooking, cleaning, and drinking. In parts of our own country, water shortages are an increasing problem. Maybe I can learn new habits to reduce my daily water usage, and make a personal contribution to a national problem.
But I also have been wasting water. I forget to turn off my sprinkler. I put a small load into the washing machine. Probably I squander 10 gallons for every gallon I save. Besides, most water usage in the US goes for the production of electricity and agricultural irrigation. Only about 10 percent of the water used in the U.S. goes to our homes. Now my attempt to save water seems like a drop in the bucket. How can my puny efforts to save a few drops make any difference in the global problems of resource shortages?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that saving a few drops of water, or gasoline, is a waste of time. But that’s the wrong way to think about the bigger issue of conserving resources. Just because I haven’t figured out how to stop wasting water, is no reason not to reduce where I can. We cannot demand that industries and farmers reduce their usage unless we also are prepared to make changes in our lifestyles.
It’s not just a question of fairness — we need to understand how our daily lives are based on the consumption of resources at a level which cannot be sustained. Whether we are considering water or petroleum or electricity, we will not be able to keep using the world’s resources as we do today. If we don’t find ways to reduce consumption gradually, our children and grandchildren might be faced with critical shortages.
We don’t know how to do this. In fact, American per capita usage of both water and gasoline has declined very slightly since 2000. But it’s not enough to just stop increasing, we have to begin serious reductions. My experiences with water usage show me that it’s not easy.
Our use of resources is a set of daily habits: How we wash dishes, how we buy vehicles and drive them, how we turn lights on and off. It’s also about how we consume products. It takes twice as much water to produce the food for a meat diet as for a vegetarian diet. Every pound of beef requires over 1,000 gallons of water to produce, while a pound of potatoes or apples needs less than 100 gallons.
I’m not suggesting that we all become vegetarians. I don’t want to give up my morning shower. But if we learn more about water usage and begin to change our habits, we will be better able to figure out how to bring our consumption in line with our resources. Meanwhile, a few simple steps can make a difference: Turn off the tap while brushing teeth; wash fruits and vegetables in a bowl, instead of running the water; sweep, rather than spraying down, the driveway and sidewalk; wash only full loads.
If we begin to think about what we pour down the drain, what we toss into the trash, we can gradually develop less wasteful habits, as families and as a nation. Then our grandchildren will still have fresh water and we’ll be better stewards of our beautiful earth.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).