Learning to Live Less Wastefully

My mother grew up in the Depression, and it left a mark on her. For the rest of her life she was unable to throw away pretty much anything: the tiniest piece of ribbon or string, empty egg cartons, mismatched buttons, scraps of metal. Socks, it goes without saying, were darned as she had been taught to do by her mother, and which she in turn taught me. (I learned half the lesson: I am loathe to throw away old socks, but I’m not about to darn them either.)

 I wonder how many Americans under the age of 50 even know what “darning socks” means. Somehow, in the short space of time from the postwar period to the 1950s, when consumer culture really took off, we went from being a society forced by depression and war to live frugally, to not waste, to use, reuse, and repurpose nearly everything—to one in which almost everything was made to be thrown away.

 How did this happen, and what was lost along the way?

 I believe one thing that was lost was pride in not being wasteful. In fact in the succeeding years, things turned completely the other way.  People like my mother who lived through the Depression and who for the rest of their lives could not let go of the instincts they gained through that very formative experience, instincts that refused to allow them to waste anything, ever, were generally seen as one step short of being certifiably insane. A bit loony.  At best endearingly goofy. And so they—or their children—felt a bit ashamed of their habits: they were something to be understood, excused maybe, but emulated? Never.

But who’s really crazy? Our parents and grandparents, who learned how to make a little bit last a long time, and left less of a scar on the earth than we are leaving now? Or the succeeding generations, who have indulged in a kind of wild orgy of consumption, filling our beautiful world with landfills piled high with always ugly and often toxic “stuff”?

Meanwhile, in this contemporary world of ours, hanging freshly laundered clothes out to dry in the sunshine has come to be seen in many places as somehow low-class. What’s wrong with this picture?

By now at least many of us know better. We can see where the insanity is leading. But we can’t seem to figure out how to stop it. Is there any turning back, and if so, how would we begin? I’m pretty sure there is no easy answer to this question, but I’d love to know what other people think about it.

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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