IT'S COMMON knowledge that everything is going to hell: James Cagney is dead, lawyers are breeding and our president has said that "approximately 80 percent of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation." No wonder we despair, as we march glumly in antinuclear rallies, shivering in the acid rain, all we want is one good example of the power of human imagination to deliver us from the darkness.

So here's one.

It happened in 1960 on the Dutch island of Curacao in the West Indies. At the time, it was a largely unspoiled spot -- a place where a tourist could stay in an undiscovered hotel, drink a beer and watch the geckos gambol.

But while the visitors had roofs over their heads and lager in their stomachs, native islanders suffered from a chronic housing shortage and a swelling tide of empty beer bottles. Returning and refilling the bottles, the usual practice in 1960, was not economical because Curacao was too far from the bottling plants back in Holland.

But Alfred Heineken had an idea. Heineken, head of the giant Amsterdam brewery that bears his and his ancestor's name, had noticed the surplus of beer bottles when he visited the island as part of a world tour of his company's distribution outlets. Suddenly, he realized that the beer bottle problem and the housing shortage were each other's solution. No one knows exactly what he said when the light dawned, but it might have been: "Ha! I'll make a bottle that can be used as a brick!"

When he got home to the Netherlands, he set young architect John Habraken to the task. "They came to me because I had a reputation as being crazy enough to try it," said Habraken recently. He's now 57 and a professor of design methodology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "I thought it was a nice idea, and a very interesting design problem."

Habraken discovered that glass bottles, especially the thick-walled returnables of the day, were surprisingly strong building materials if oriented vertically, and his early designs took advantrage of that characteristic. The first prototypes were also self-aligning and interlocking, which eliminated the need for mortar.

But soon other forces were tugging. The folks from the bottling plant claimed that some of the better structural designs took too long to make. When you're making millions of bottles, an extra half-second of forming time can be costly. Perhaps more important, the marketing people were unhappy. "They thought the thing did not look like a beer bottle," said Habraken, "and that was true."

So in the end the WOBO (for WOrld BOttle) was compromised. The final design looked like a normal though squarish beer bottle, but in construction it had to be laid on its side, the weakest orientation, and it required a special silicon-cement mortar. About 60,000 green-tinted WOBOs were cranked out, but to no one's surprise the anemic "smart bottle" was a bust. The only thing ever built with it was a small shed with a corrugated iron roof, erected on the Heineken estate near Amsterdam. "Just a hut, really," said Habraken with a tinge of regret. "That was pretty much the end of it . . . I understood from the start that it was a long shot."

Still, it was an important episode, if only because tragedy may serve to illuminate the ideal. The execution had been a mess, but the concept remained unscathed. And somewhere along the way, the concept also got a name -- "second use."

THE IDEA of squeezing more useful life out of an item after it has fulfilled its basic function was, of course, an old American tradition long before it had a name. Frontier families pushed manufactured products through dozens of incarnations: tin cans lived on as cookware; grain sacks became curtains; Sears, Roebuck catalogues met useful ends in outhouses.

In this century, increasing affluence seems to to have dulled the passion for second use, but some examples are memorable. As a kid, I knocked back endless glasses of Kool-Aid in what had once been a Welch's jelly jar -- it had been specifically designed to live again as a drinking glass. Many more second-use items, while not so consciously designed, were just as effective and popular. Old underwear became cleaning rags, old tires became swings, newspapers returned as garbage can liners.

After all, there's no denying the validity of the idea. As Juvenal said, "Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another," and nature is heavily into second use. Tree leaves, for example, spend the summer providing food for the tree through photosynthesis. In the fall, when the tree goes into dormancy, the leaves fall and break down to protectd the roots from erosion and provide humus for the coming year's growth.

It's illuminating to imagine what would happen if tree leaves suddenly lost their "moonlighting" capability, if they only fed the branches, then dropped uselessy to the ground. The system would work for a few years, but eventually the tree would be swallowed up in its own waste.

It's a bizarre image, but you don't have to be Rachel Carson to see that American society increasingly resembles that second tree. Jelly jars are now exclusively jelly jars (a Welch's spokesman says the jar-glass was phased out in 1977). A strange, semipermanent item called teh Handi-Wipe has at least partially supplanted old underwear. Hanging an old tire from a tree will bring the neighborhood commission down on your neck. And newspapers, instead of lining trash cans, are now confined with the rest of the garbage inside custom-designed, virtually immortal plastic sacks. While we may -- to our credit -- drop off glass jars or newspapers at the local recycling center, the overall benefit is smaller than it could be. Society demands an energy-intensive smashing, shredding, melting, pulping and remolding so the product can return masquerading as a first-use item. The distinction between "useful" things and "garbage" is thus maintained as carefully as the Maginot Line.

In his 1974 best seller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig recounts how he ran afoul of this modern attitude. He wrote of a conversation he had with a companion whose motorcycle handlebars were loose:

"You're going to have to shim those out," I said.

"What's shim?"

"It's a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines."

"Oh," he said. He was getting interested. "Good. Where do you buy them?"

"I've got some right here," I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.

He didn't understand for a moment. Then he said, "What, the can?"

"Sure," I said. "Best shim stock in the world."

I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.

But to my surprise he didn't see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.

As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had the nerve to propose repair of his new $1,800 pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse with a piece of old beer can!

BRITISH architect Martin Pawley, a second-use advocate who has built durable and surprisingly beautiful houses out of beer cans, plastic bottles and discarded tires, would not be surprised at this. In his books (one of which is called Garbage Housing), he laments our new tendency to see "the end of one use as the end of all uses," an attitude that he thinks "only disaster or poverty can overcome."

He may be right -- certainly, disaster and poverty do breed inventive second usage. In her 1973 book, Fire in the Lake, Frances FitzGerald wrote of the enormous differences in the viewpoints of Americans and Southeast Asians. "For the Americans in Vietnam," she says, "it would be difficult to make this leap of perspective, difficult to understand that while they saw themselves as building world order, many Vietnamese saw them as producers of garbage from which they could build houses." Indeed, several American visitors to Vietnam in 1974 noted that the plastic-covered wire originally used as an electrical barrier across the Demilitarized Zone had been woven into colorful purses sold in the marketplace of Quangtri.

But perhaps, somehow, the second-use habit can be instilled in a population through measures short of war and want. Certainly, Alfred Heineken's comfort did not prevent him from making a unique connection, a rational, voluntary reaction to challenge.

Americans produce 180 million tons of municipal waste a year, and it may be that as we watch the endless stream flow out our back doors, we can find in our hearts a trace of guilt, a twinge of sympathy for our children, who may find landfills overflowing and resources scarce. Deep down, there may be a bit of the second user in all of us, and if the ethic ever catches on, its rallying cry is ready: People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw away bottles.