Does that title surprise you? Earth Day 1970 marked a turning point in American society. It made everyone more environmentally conscious. But in many ways, earlier generations lived greener lives than we do. And we don’t have to make huge sacrifices to return to some of their habits.
During the Depression, people couldn’t afford consumer goods. During the Second World War, the government banned the manufacture of many consumer good so factories could produce war-related products for the military.
After the war, with soldiers returning and eager to start families, factories ramped up production of consumer goods. Unfortunately, they made more of them than American consumers could buy. With most of the rest of the world having to rebuild infrastructure after the war, there was no export market.
The federal government began to urge people to spend like American families had never spent before. Frugality seemed like a condition imposed by now past conditions. In just a few years, we went from a nation of savers to a nation of wasteful consumers. We got used to a number of conveniences that, frankly, cost more than we can afford now. We pay the cost not so much in direct money, but in poorer health and the cost of waste management.
Instead of years of deprivation, think of the prosperous 1920s. That generation surely wasted less than ours! Probably no one can follow all these suggestions, but everyone can do more than one.
Cook meals at home
And grocery stores devote considerable space to prepared foods and mixes. Fewer and fewer people, it seems, know how to plan a meal and prepare it from scratch.
Restaurant food is loaded with sugar, salt, and fat. Portions tend to be larger than anyone ought to eat at one sitting. Restaurant meals, therefore, cost more than a home cooked meal. They are on the whole less healthy, so people who eat out too much will likely have additional doctor and hospital bills.
And restaurants contribute a disproportionate amount to food waste.
Cooking isn’t difficult. Master a few very easy techniques, and you can prepare a varied menu made from fresh ingredients.
Pack your lunch
From the time I was in first grade most of the way through graduate school, I took a sandwich for lunch. I got so tired of sandwiches that I went for about ten years without voluntarily eating another one.
My freedom from sandwiches came the first time I discovered a microwave oven in a break room at one of my jobs. I could cook whatever I wanted and then nuke leftovers for lunch.
People who go to restaurants for lunch not only face all the disadvantages of excessive restaurant food I have already described. They spend an inordinate amount of time driving to a restaurant and standing in line—or worse, sitting in the drive-thru lane. Once they get their food, they don’t have time to enjoy it.
Grow your own vegetables
I hesitate to make this suggestion, as I have a brown thumb and have proved my incompetence. But gardening has so many proven benefits besides providing fresher and less expensive vegetables than you can find in the store. Being outdoors long enough to tend the garden has its own benefits.
Eat less meat
I get tired of environmentalists who consider anyone who eats meat morally inferior. No one has to become vegetarian, let alone vegan, to take care of the planet.
That said, many people eat more meat than is healthy, and too few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Besides the health risks of excessive meat consumption, meat comes with embedded water and energy costs. The animals that provide the meat have to eat. So farmers have to grow food for them. Plus, flatulent cows and sheep release more than a quarter of global methane emissions.
Meat costs more per serving than plant-based foods. Smaller servings of meat and an occasional meatless meal will save you money, help you be healthier, and have a smaller impact on the environment.
Don’t replace, fix
Our grandparents and great grandparents didn’t throw things away when they started to wear out or broke. They had them repaired.
Nowadays, with planned obsolescence, it’s harder and harder to find anyone both capable of fixing things and willing to do it. Manufacturers of our electronic gadgets contribute an outsized share of products that too soon become junk that can’t be fixed.
But I have seen a lot of nice furniture out with the trash because, say, a chair has a broken leg.
With some effort, we could fix more of what wears out than we do. Either learn the techniques to fix things ourselves or find someone else who can do it. And if you’re tired of that chair anyway, give it to Good Will. It will get fixed, and someone else will be happy to have it.
And clothing? Everyone should know how to sew on a button and do other basic mending.
Waste not, want not
Today, we might not know we want something until the first time we see it advertised on TV. Then, some of us just have to have it. That doesn’t mean we’ll actually use it when we get it. It sits around and gathers dust until we decide to get rid of it.
Of course, people who lived through the Depression and World War II couldn’t just go out and buy stuff on whim or impulse. But neither did their parents and grandparents in more prosperous times.
Reject single-use products
One way we waste a tremendous amount of money, raw materials, and landfill space is with products we use once and then throw away. That includes a lot of packaging. Why go to the store and buy trash of you can choose minimal packaging.
Instead of buying bottled water, get a stainless steel water bottle. Chances are that bottled water is some city’s tap water anyway.
Someone invented single-serve coffee makers and all of a sudden we’re awash with empty coffee pods. At least water bottles are recyclable.
Take reusable bags to stores so you don’t have to take one of their plastic bags. And when you buy bulk potatoes, apples, carrots, and much other produce, just put them directly into the cart instead of a plastic produce bag.
It’s amazing what we can easily do without: paper cups, paper napkins, paper towels, paper plates, plastic table service, and more.
I could go on. Even with LED bulbs, having lights on when you’re not using them wastes electricity. We can unplug plenty of other things when we’re not using them, too. We can get clotheslines or drying racks instead of using a dryer.
As long as society is exploring new ways to live sustainably, let’s go back to some of the old ways before we forget them entirely.
Borax, vinegar, soda. My photo
Woman cooking. Some rights reserved by Steven Depolo.
Restaurant kitchen. Source unknown.
Soup. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Broken chair. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Plastic bags. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons