Depression
Image Credit: Robert Hoge

Disposable take-home containers. Single use coffee pods. Fast fashion. Cleaning pads that hit the trash after one room. This type of convenience based consumption has become commonplace in American life. But for many of our parents and grandparents, this pattern of buy, use, trash, buy, use, trash would be beyond embarrassing; it would be treasonous.

By the culture that arose after the stock market crash of 1929, we would all be traitors. To our families, to our communities, and to our country. The crippling financial crisis of the Depression forced all people to think more deeply about the consequences of their consumption. Thrift became both virtue and necessity. Waste could not be tolerated. Sustainability had to be the model.

There was a focus, then, on making the very most of all of your resources. Knowing how to alter and mend clothing became a valuable skill that could ensure you got all you could out of a pair of pants. More families took advantage of the natural resources that surrounded them as they hunted, fished, and collected their own wood for cooking and heating. Simple, filling meals became the norm as a way to limit waste. Community gardens sprang up and people ate what was in season. The first thought if a pair of shoes became worn was of how to mend, not where to buy.

If some of the above ideas sound like relatively new concepts, then you’re in the same place I was when I started researching for this piece. Surely, community gardens and the trend toward local food were ideas that originated with the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. The ideas of the makerspace and the “right to repair” are relatively new concepts as well, right? The shift toward simple, non-processed, meals made fresh at home is most definitely a departure from America’s obsession with all things pre-cooked, fast, and easy.

All of these concepts have roots in the Depression era, if not further back in time. The ideas of sustainability then were undertaken out of economic necessity. Today, those same American ideals are being used out of ecological necessity. The movement toward buying locally grown, in-season food averts the monstrous carbon footprint of cargo ships bringing fresh limes, in December, to Boston. Our growing interest in repairing the things that we own, as well as buying quality goods to begin with, gets us away from the ecologically and morally troubling trend of importing cheap stuff made in developing nations. Cooking simple meals at home, our growing interest in “clean” and “natural” food, and a general aversion to fast food avoids the waste impact of all those carry-out meals. Same story with the trend toward reusable water bottles and coffee cups. There is even a movement among intrepid “invasivores” to only eat meat harvested from invasive species as a way to put food on the table while controlling the spread of these animals.

Those living through the Depression may not have been familiar with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but they did abide by “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do.” And while I would never hope that those measures of sustainability are necessitated again by economic turmoil, we can use that mentality to address our environmental woes. As our climate changes and our oceans fill with plastic, those waste reduction measures common in the Depression have been rediscovered to fight an environmental crisis global in scope.

So as municipalities pass laws to ban plastic bags and more of us carry reusable coffee mugs, don’t see these measures as a new wave of environmental liberalism. Rather, see them as the reemergence of patriotic thrift. We have become accustomed to convenience and disposability in our recent past, but these attributes are far from the core of our historic American identity. The ideas of consumption that older generations held can leave us personally fulfilled and keep both our individual and planetary homes tidy. The type of self-sufficiency and purposive consumption that we embraced in our past is, thankfully, an idea that we are starting to get back to.

After all, it’s the patriotic thing to do.

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