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Roots of Green

Roots of Green

I don’t know the origins of the online conversation excerpted below, but it lists a few of today’s environmentally costly conveniences. With my farm background, I can take the green story further. My mother’s parent’s farm was pretty self contained – no water except from their outdoor cistern which collected rainwater from the house roof, no indoor plumbing, no electricity until 1940, not much need to go “to town” for food except for coffee, sugar, flour and occasional luxuries like hot sausage. For me as a young kid in the 1940s, all that was fine, and I loved herding the chickens, fishing, and exploring. My mother’s feelings were different; for her the simple farm life she grew up in represented hard work, few material comforts, and stress from economic uncertainty. She left her parents’ farm, after getting a college education and marrying, and fashioned a city career as a feminist leader and attorney.

I look around at my middle-class urban lifestyle and see consumption levels that are unsustainable, but I’m not going back to the farm either. The prices we pay for the goods we consume should include the full costs of those goods (or in economic parlance including all negative externalities), including climate damages caused by greenhouse gases generated in the goods’ production, delivery and use.  A phased-in carbon tax would move us towards full cost pricing, and higher market prices  would reduce consumption of hydrocarbons and of the goods they help produce.   Full cost pricing may not take us all the way  back to sustainable consumption levels, but it would be a good start.

Excerpts from the online story:

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.”

The young clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”  The senior politely agreed, then added:

“Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over.

“Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags, that we reused for numerous things, most memorable besides household garbage bags, was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our schoolbooks.

“We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building.

“Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throwaway kind. We dried clothes on a line, – wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

“Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

“We drank from a water fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

“Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances.”

Like my mother, most people who lived in the much-lower-consumption 1930s probably would not want to go back to that lifestyle, but I also bet they would not want to experience the emerging world that exponentially-increasing consumption is producing.

Image by Safekidda at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (1)

  1. Nancy L. Ruder Thursday - 14 / 06 / 2012
    My mother couldn't wait to leave the farm with its kerosene lanterns and outhouse, the flooding and the drought. She became an engineer, the first woman in her family to go to college. She didn't lose the frugality that came with growing up in the Great Depression. Now we receive constant messages that our duty as citizens is to buy more and more to grow the economy and help businesses create jobs so we can buy more and more... It's not enough to make me want kerosene and outhouses, but the time has arrived for a major rethinking.

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