My mom was born in 1929..my dad in 1937. Despite the 8-year age difference, they shared a common generational characteristic…they were raised during hard times. My mom was born almost exactly one month before Black Monday – the start of the Great Depression. My dad was born during the Recession of 1937, considered one of the worst recessions of the 20th century. They grew up during WWII, a devastating era which left those on the home front fearing for loved ones overseas, taking on new roles and responsibilities never imagined and experiencing major rationing of, what was once, everyday goods.
During WWII in particular, conservation was not just considered a necessity, it was considered patriotic. Conserving energy, and food, and recycling and salvaging scraps became a way of life since so many materials were scarce due to our nation’s desperate efforts to prepare for war. The government issued ration cards which dictated how much a household could purchase and consume in a given period of time.
With limited supplies of labor and fuel, harvesting and transporting food to market became extremely difficult. The government encouraged Americans to plant Victory Gardens to help feed their families and others in the community. Nearly 20 million Americans took shovel to dirt and produced 9-10 million tons of fresh vegetables.
Businesses were not precluded from war time efforts. From 1942-1945, Ford Motor Company was required to dedicate all of its resources to building up America’s war arsenal. In these years, Ford built war planes, tanks, jeeps, aircraft engines and needed parts…and no domestic cars.
Growing up, I remember my parents were forever conserving and re-using. It was ingrained in their minds that waste was not only inefficient and costly, it was unpatriotic and senseless.
My brothers, sisters and I were brought up to turn off lights when we left the room, eat leftovers, eat more leftovers, waste nothing, and learn to love hand-me-downs. I still remember my mom folding and breaking down non-recyclable materials so that they took up less room in the trash can. I don’t remember her throwing out anything of worth and yard sales were great opportunities to purchase used goods that could be put to good use.
My parents weren’t cheap. Well, they were what I would call frugal. They weren’t necessarily environmentalists either though I do recall my mom’s concerns over the destruction of the rain forests. My parents were just taught in childhood that waste was wrong.
So fast forward to today when waste is actually encouraged. Not only do we not conserve energy, we actively waste it. We needlessly expend it by purchasing large inefficient vehicles; building exorbitantly large houses; buying tons of worthless stuff. We waste food, we waste energy and we waste raw resources.
In the relatively short time between my parents’ childhood and the modern childhood, waste has become a way of life. Consumers are the new hero. We are told that consumption is what keeps our economy moving, growing…we are told that consumption is patriotic.
So we consume and we consume some more. If we can’t afford something, we buy it with credit. Instant gratification and continued consumption.
So at what point do we conserve? At what point does conservation become patriotic again?
When we’re fighting wars for oil, an American flag magnet on the back of an SUV is the most patriotic we can muster? When Americans are starving from lack of nutrition, we industrialize and over-process our farms instead of growing real sustainable foods? When we are facing the greatest calamity of our times — climate change — we continue to burn the dirtiest fuels we can find even though cleaner alternatives are accessible and in our reach?
Consumption has plagued this nation for the last several decades – our endless quest for more has resulted in Americans acquiring huge masses of debt, the loss of millions of acres of land, the fighting of wars for more energy resources, and the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other emissions into our atmosphere. It has not made our nation as a whole stronger – instead, it has made only a few richer.
Americans need to consider what is really important. Is it stuff that makes us happy? Or is happiness the stuff that really counts?