Did you ever sit and fidget a bit not really knowing what was wrong? It happened to me just a few days ago and I should have known better. It was twilight, my first day in Germany. It was really dark but why were the lights off?
When we travel to other countries we see how others do things, and in so doing, get new perspectives on ourselves. From foreign travel I always learn as much about the United States as the other places.
My travels took me to Westphalia, deep in the heart of Germany, far from tourist tracks. Many in Bloomington-Normal have hosted a student from Illinois State University's partner school in Paderborn, so called because the shortest river in Germany, the Pader, boils up, or is born there.
Nearby is the 800-year-old small city of Ruthen. My wife finished college preparatory school there and they have a long term relationship with the Unit 5 school district. With family and friends to visit, I have returned to these places for 40 years now. Westphalia has a culture, sophistication and vibrancy that rivals Central Illinois. Sorry about that one! The people are genuine and there is always much to learn. This time it was about energy use and frugality.
In America, the Germans have read, gas is at $3 per gallon (the equivalent of 55 euro cents per liter), heading toward $4 with no hint Americans will become more frugal.
Gas has reached $7 per gallon in Germany, so there is no sympathy for the American plight. The cost of pothole-free roads is a big part of the price, but American wastefulness, they argue, drives world supply down and prices up. As Americans have for generations, Germans now refer to cars as "necessary."
And blame doesn't end with American fuelishness. Global warming through energy waste is next. European newspapers report Americans use 40 percent more energy per capita than other advanced industrial countries.
It is commonly believed the Americans have done more than their share to warm the globe over the last century and unless we (America, that is) mend our ways, doom is at hand. I am no global warming expert, but do know how Europeans feel and believe conservation is good business.
To understand German and European attitudes toward conservation and frugality, we need to look back a few decades. By 1980, Germany had recovered from the war; living standards, gadgets and conveniences were almost the same as here.
But look back a bit further, to the 1960s, to find a time when frugality was a necessity. At that time I had about 12 sets of relatives in the West and more in the East. Of these 12, not one had a telephone. Only two had a car, although one had a motorcycle with a sidecar. Most had one television; all had running water but only half running hot water. At that time, they thought of themselves as reasonably well off and living better than most people on the planet.
Getting back to the twilight hour. Germans feel it all adds up; every light costs money. Why waste electricity when you can still see? In America, with the first sign of twilight our houses are ablaze with light. That wastefulness makes Germans nervous.
Meanwhile, showers use a lot of hot water. The German way is to get wet, turn it off, put on soap and then rinse. Use it but don't waste it is the motto. All the Germans I know that have yards also collect rain water for their flowers and grass. Speaking of grass, I have never seen a German lawn, including the Mercedes headquarters, without a few weeds.
On our first days in Germany the temperature was a chilly 60 degrees. My sister-in-law thought she was generous to turn on the kitchen radiator a bit. My poor wife stood there shivering. The rest of the house was cold. Why heat the entire house when we only needed one room? Germans sleep under feather comforters and bedroom heat is seldom necessary. Each room is separately controlled. In home heating and cooling Western Europe, warmed and cooled by the Atlantic's gulf stream, has a geographic advantage.
What about alternative energy? Here, France leads the world. While Americans and Germans are skittish about nuclear power, the French have no reservations. Their schoolbooks proclaim that France is a great and rich country but is energy poor. Energy independence is critical to French greatness and security. The French bought the argument a generation ago and almost no fossil fuel is used to produce electricity.
The experimental answer around Ruthen - and McLean County - is wind farming. A friend said she finds beauty in the turning of the delicate arms of the mill. The jury is out on the long-term viability of wind power but one thing is clear: both areas have a new skyline.
Waste not want not also means recycling. Good citizens in America recycle. In Germany, everybody recycles. It is the law. Fines await those who put recyclables in ordinary garbage.
Finally, few Americans have heard of Westphalia or Paderborn, but all Germans dream of cruising Route 66. So if you are an average American having difficulty making ends meet, one of those Germans passing through the area might have a tip or two for you.
Carson Varner is a professor of finance, insurance and law at Illinois State University.