Drop in the Bucket

If we want to preserve the environment and enhance our future quality of life, "conservation" must not be allowed to become a dirty word.

Colorado almost made that egregious mistake. At one point, it was the only state in the union to ban individuals from using barrels to collect rain water for recycling purposes. The policy was particularly senseless, given Colorado's semi-arid location.

Who then could possibly object to such a worthy conservation effort? Colorado farmers, that's who. They feared collection barrels would rob them of the typical downstream runoff on which they depended for maintenance of their crops.

A Colorado State University study put their concerns to rest. It found that limiting each individual to two 55 gallon barrels in which the contents could only be used for irrigation proved to be a "drop in the bucket" compared to the amount of water that normally flowed to farmers. The study concluded that permitting Colorado citizens to recycle scarce water in barrels, usually placed on roofs, would not decrease surface runoff to downstream users by "any detectable amount".

Common sense ultimately prevailed, and the Colorado State Legislature's reversal of the ban went into effect on August 10.

Legislative mandated low-flush toilets and energy-saving lightbulbs have also taken their lumps despite their contribution to the cause of conservation. Opposition has stemmed from ideologically-rooted objections by conservative republicans, who maintain that conservation should be voluntary. Congressional lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to slash funding for consumer incentives to convert to low-flush toilets. They argued that it was better to let market forces decide if the low-flush toilet made sense rather than have the government impose a minimum standard.

Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky, ranted against any restrictions on individual consumers' freedom to choose. Conservation in his view should never be an involuntary proposition.

The same thing with government mandated conversion of incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient fluorescent ones. Congressional Republicans attempted to block funding for enforcement of the transition. Again, the rationale was opposition to restrictions on the consumer's freedom to choose.

But conservation in the long run affords better protection of individual freedom by preserving resources that if severely depleted, would result in Draconian constraints on use.

Moreover, although conservation has much to recommend it, it doesn't always come naturally, thanks to the ingrained acquisitive side of human nature. Sometimes, a regulatory impetus is needed to steer begrudging individuals into immediate cutbacks that pay big dividends down the line.