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I recycle a reply to a meme about past ecological virtue - Input Junkie
January 5th, 2012
10:49 am

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I recycle a reply to a meme about past ecological virtue
The meme, found on facebook:

Checking out at the grocery store recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment. I apologized and explained, "We didn't have this green thing back in my earlier days." The clerk responded, "That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations." She was right about one thing -- our generation didn't have the green thing in “Our” day. So what did we have back then…? After some reflection and soul-searching on "Our" day here's what I remembered we did have.... 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 repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn't have the green thing back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day. Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- 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. But that young lady is right. We didn't have the green thing back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. 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. Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she's right. We didn't have the green thing back then. We drank from a 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. But we didn't have the green thing back then. Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. We did as we were asked BECAUSE WE RESPECTED OUR PARENTS But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then? Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smarty-pants young person can add to this...

I'm not sure when or where the ranter is talking about.

Here's what I remember from the 60s (I was born in '53), growing up in a middle class suburban family.

Paper grocery bags, which were thrown away. Milk (at least for the earlier part of my childhood) was delivered by a milkman to an insulated box by the house. I think he picked up empty milk bottles.

My family didn't use beer, and very little soda, so I don't know what policy would have been.

We *still* don't have escalators in every business and commercial building, and claiming that we do moves the meme towards "get off my lawn" territory. Elevators were probably less common, but a lot of that is accommodating people who have physical problems. As I recall, where I lived, buildings were pretty flat. There were stairs at school, and commonly used.

Clothes were dried on a clothes line, and I'll note that wind-dried sheets smell better than drier-dried. However, not everyone has as much room as you get in a suburb, nor do I think treating people's time as worthless is a good heuristic.

I rode a bus to school. I was carpooled to activities. A car was used to get groceries-- walking would have been possible, but annoying for getting substantial amounts of groceries.

One tv in the house, with what I'd call a medium-sized screen. I think the meme writer is talking about some time which is considerably earlier. We had more than one radio.

There was a blender and mixer in the kitchen, but I think no other powered appliances. Using them wasn't common, but it wasn't a moral issue either.

I don't remember shipping fragile items, but newspaper is a reasonable guess. Of course, these days, fewer people get newspapers at all. Also, plastic bags full of air are more commonly used than styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap, and a good thing, too. Those peanuts are hard to corral.

Electric lawn mower, though one of the neighbors had an engineless mower.

Not everyone did physical work as part of their job. My dad was a CPA, and it's not like he was the only person at the time with a sedentary job.

Fair point about the water bottles.

Back in the day, we used the phone book to find things. Mostly a less efficient method (see also driving around to find stuff rather than looking it up on line). I admit that phone books are distributed to people who don't use them, and that's something of an ecological fail, but I can't make it into a moral issue about the general public. Perhaps I should try harder.


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From:sartorias
Date:January 5th, 2012 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Coke bottles used to be returned--we kids used to scavenge them, in order to get those pennies. (I assume other soda pop bottles could be returned, too, I just don't remember them.)

We also had those yearly paper drives, where families would haul a full year of paper products to the school grounds, all neatly bundled with scratchy twine, and cans and rags, and schools would get credit for them, which I guess was traded for playground equipment and the like.

In my neighborhood, we also had one pair of shoes for the year, and maybe clothes enough for a week (though you took off your dress when you got home and got into playclothes, so the dress could be reworn). Everything got hung on the lines and air dried, then ironed.

There wasn't as much waste as now, most definitely--though in other regards pollution was hideous.
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From:malkingrey
Date:January 5th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
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I'd guess, based on some of the details (push mowers, handkerchief-sized tv screens, ubiquitous bottle deposits, clotheslines as the standard for domestic laundry) that the original poster was referring to a time in the early to mid nineteen-fifties.

Other details -- like the ALL CAPS bit about respecting parents, which more or less came in from nowhere -- may have accreted to the rant at some stage of its transmission.

A more accurate refutation, depending upon the relative ages of the shopper and the annoying salesclerk, would have been to point out that Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring came out in 1962 and the first Earth Day was in 1970 -- to name just a couple of incidents of importance to the early history of "the green thing."
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From:dcseain
Date:January 5th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
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I remember having fun reading the bits of newspaper used as packing -- that was back in the day when a newspaper very much reflected where it was from, before the modern homogenization of news. I remember dairy delivery to my grandparents' house, which they finally cancelled in 1990; that service was still available in Cleveland until fairly recently.

There used to be more public drinking fountains, and more public clocks. Verizon no longer issues phone books be default here in Virginia, which is a good thing. I actually did use the phone book to find something in the last 2 years, after failing to find it online.
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From:redbird
Date:January 5th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC)
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Fewer things follow smooth one-directional paths than we tend to think; you wouldn't have to go much further back to find people complaining about how wasteful lawns are when you could be growing your own vegetables, for example. New Yorkers don't live in apartment buildings because we're trying to be green, we live in them because a lot of people want to live in a small area, but it turns out that putting 100 families in a building with lots of internal walls rather than 100 buildings, or even attached or semi-attached houses, saves significant energy because less heat escapes to the outside.

You're absolutely right about the elevators: back in the day that this person was ranting about, we didn't have even the number of accessible buildings we do now, the disabled were mostly expected to stay out of sight. I suspect the quoted person wouldn't appreciate being told that s/he should spend the rest of her life in one room, or at most the ground floor of her own home, rather than expect elevators, escalators, or buses that are designed to be easy to get on and off.
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From:tod_hollykim
Date:January 5th, 2012 06:01 pm (UTC)
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When I was a kid, I do remember Long Branch, NJ had a recycling center. Took newspaper, bottles, cans, and aluminum. Paper got about a penny a pound. Glass and tin cans about 3 cents I think. Aluminum was the best because that was between 5 & 10 cents.

But the recycling center was on land where they got around to building the new city government town hall sort of thing. So it closed down.

But yes, all soda bottles were recycled. You got a nickel for them. Not all areas, but most.

I remember the milk man delivering milk, eggs, and butter. I remember mostly paper grocery bags. And having to drive to the store, because it was not in walking distance and we'd stock up with a lot of groceries. No just one or two days worth of stuff.
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From:dichroic
Date:January 5th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
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We did drive less when I was a kid - because I grew up in a city (yours, in fact) with good public transportation. People in Philadelphia still drive less than people in Houston or Phoenix. The other thing is, when I was a little kid (1970-ish), milk, vegetables and pretzels/potato chips were all delivered, in trucks which came down our street. First the milk stopped, then the fruits and veg, then Charles Chips went away. Even when I was in high school (early 1980s) there was a fruit and vegetable truck that parked a couple blocks away every weekday and sold a good variety of stuff.

Now I live in the Netherlands where people bike a lot more and own fewer cars. It turns out that having an infrastructure (the awesome bikelane system here) that supports environmentally sound choices actually does impact people's behavior.

My husband did grow up returning bottles - but he was in Oregon, where they still do that because you get actual money back for them. Again, infrastructure.
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From:redrose3125
Date:January 6th, 2012 01:23 am (UTC)
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Yeah, New York state here, 5 cents per bottle or can for most of my life.

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From:captain_button
Date:January 6th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)
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tl;dr, but my dad did get beer in big returnable bottles. And we got the milk in returnable bottles in the insulated box thing too.
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From:richardthinks
Date:January 6th, 2012 07:33 am (UTC)
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I'm guessing that even in the 50s a lot of this was either memory of the parents' lifestyle or features of life that were rapidly phasing out across the country. You know how this story goes: the US lead the world consumer revolution because it controlled half the world's money in 1950 and had built an unrivalled industrial base on the back of a Keynes-meets-command economic model. Thrift then waste were just economic phases, each as nationally necessary in its time as the other. FWIW, growing up in England I was significantly behind the American boom and got to see it as an alien imposition, so I've done my share of railing against big cars and out of town shopping centers, and as late as the 1990s I was still buying shoe polish for my boots-that-would-last-a-lifetime, even though most of my contemporaries had moved over to disposable trainers in the previous decade.

I see this rant (in my not-quite-Marxist way) as an epiphenomenon of changing consciousness, related to the phases of grief. It's located somewhere in between denial and rage, and it's called deflecting blame. "Greening" requires changing habits, which always means disconfort/sacrifice, at least in the short term (ask any software user how much they like your new interface in the first week of use), and sacrifice always generates resistance, deflection and procrastination. That's what this is. Note how the whole screed starts by asigning the role of blame to a younger generation, then takes over that role.
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From:nancylebov
Date:January 6th, 2012 08:06 am (UTC)
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Does this have any overlap with the idea that outrage is so much fun that it's addictive?

I leave open the possibility that there could be useful analysis about what people tend to be outraged about, but I'm not sure that the total amount of outrage varies all that much.
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From:tahkhleet
Date:January 6th, 2012 09:51 am (UTC)

muddy analysis

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So many things pop to mind....
( 1 ) How as affluence rises, so does energy and resource consumption. People in her era didn't value convenience less, they simply had fewer spectacularly efficient or effective avenues to spend their money in pursuit of that convenience.
( 2 ) There are a wide variety of cultural and demographic concerns that affect how "green" different groups in a given nation will be. In particular, best green practices rely on extensive organized study and usually a strong bureaucracy. As well intentioned as people can be, they don't have the time or expertise to really learn what they should be doing or the motivation to get really hardcore about it. (not that governments don't err, but afaik, the "greenest" nations are are bureaucratic European ones?)
( 3 ) So far, we mostly cherry pick for "green" measures for the ones that are cheapest. If we as a society were serious, we'd levy a new tax and start tearing down large, old buildings and rebuilding them in vastly better insulated (but not hermetically sealed airtight!) forms. Some huge % of the national energy budget goes to heat wasted on old buildings. It's more efficient for energy loss to just raze the building and rebuild (over the long run), but for the average planning horizon the average business comes out ahead just eating the high heating cost.
( 4 ) For lighting and probably at least a few other major consumption categories, if we get more efficient at using resources in some manner, we usually just use that resource more broadly (like a tv per room)so green doesn't help a lot on a lot of stuff
( 5 ) A lot of "green" measures aren't such, or are even environmentally adverse. There's frequently no useful standard for such claims
( 6 ) Recycling isn't nearly as useful as its made out to be. Reduce is the most important leg of the "reduce, reuse, recycle trinity" yet it gets nearly no attention. 403 told me that actually, recycling plastics in the current system consumes more energy than it saves...the efficiency of recycling a lot of materials is quite marginal. The thing about cleaning out milk bottles for example, given the chemicals needed to wash and such it's energy wise cheaper to just smash, slag and recast them...because milk is so dirty it's very hard to get the glass back to good as new cleanliness given the assumptions they have to make about how much bacteria is in the bottles.
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