IT WASN'T AN energy-careless excess of air conditioning that suddenly chilled our blood in Wednesday's awful heat. No, it was a little something our paper printed from the Los Angeles Times - a story about how the Carter administration is considering a plan to mobilize the nation's youth as energy-inspectors. The key paragraph went like this:
Under the voluntary program, high school students or other youths would start outside a house, checking off energy problems on a government-prepared list. The volunteer would then knock on the door to tell the occupant his or her outside energy conservation score and offer to go through the inside of the house to complete the survey.
Among the things these young folks would be checking would be the pressure in your car's tires, the quality of your weather-proofing, and so forth.
We were not surprised to read that the White House was aware that "people could misconstrue [the program] to be like Hitler's youth." Actually, our own first impression hovered somewhere between the 13-year-old Chinese cultural revolutionaries of another age and that swell gang from "Lord of the Flies." Yes . . . we understood that the whole thing was to be "voluntary." But, when you get right down to it, what's so voluntary about having somebody's else's kid poking around your premises, inspecting your weatherstripping and busying himself with your car tires - uninvited? Maybe it is an advance over the day when you would have had to suppose the kid was about to steal your hubcaps. But when you've said that, it seems to us, you haven't said much - especially since you would also have to reckon with the physical threat to young energy inspectors from guntoting citizens who will suppose that hub-cap stealing or something more felonious is actually what's afoot.
In defense of the plan, it has been pointed out that here and there around the country Boy Scouts are already at work on a similar survey, that nobody would be turned in for anything, that the information wouldn't be sent anywhere, that generally the program would only be a way of providing energy-saving hints to grateful householders and that it would, in any event, also provide a fine and bracing dose of moral uplift to the young people involved. In addition, Greg Schneiders, the White House man in charge, points out that reporting of the plan has skewed its intent, made a local voluntary thing sound like a national lockstep mobilization and given tentatively considered features of the plan an aspect of settled policy. For instance, he insists it is not fixed that the young energy-doctors would do their preliminary outdoor diagnosis without the consent of the would-be-patient.
That is good news, and we can only hope that mild and moderating influences will prevail. For our part, however, we still don't see why communities can't be left alone to figure out their own idividual ways of helping householders to calculate the prudence of their energy expenditures. Not to put too fine a point on it, it occurs to us that there might even be jobs there - for youths and adults - who would be retained by a local jurisdiction to answer the questions of people who solicit help in taking the measure of their own energy use and misuse. Our problem is with the concept of kid-inspectors going from door to door and passing judgment on whether the waterlevels in Mrs. McGillicuddy's toilet tanks are in the national interest. We are reassured to learn anyway that whatever the White House has in mind at the moment, it isn't quite that.