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Please begin with an informative title:

"Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history.... It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift." – Industrial designer J. Gordon Lippincott, 1947.
There’s an essay that’s been circulating around the internet – perhaps you’ve already come upon it in your email or you’ve seen it posted and reposted ad nauseum on Facebook; if you haven’t, you surely will – that has me just itching for an opportunity for rebuttal.

This ubiquitous glurge - those syrupy sweet mass emailed stories that generally end with "Pass this along to as many people as you can!" - tells the story of an older woman shopper’s encounter with an obnoxious young cashier. The woman makes a case for the Greatest Generation as the Green Generation, but the subtext is inter-generational hostility and self-congratulatory moral superiority. At the very least the story reeks of a foul smugness, at worst it’s a bald-faced lie, not because it tells an untruth but because it deliberately fails to tell the complete truth. Even more insidious, at the heart of the essay lies an anti-green motif and a right-wing faux nostalgia for a past where environmental stewardship was the product of necessity, not of design.

Herewith the complete essay with my own addendum:

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."

She was right -- our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

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. So they really were truly recycled. But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

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. This was to ensure that public property - the books provided for our use by the school - was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able to personalize our books on the brown paper bags. But too bad we didn't do the green thing back then.

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 throwaway 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 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.

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 forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smart-ass young person.

That’s where this chest-puffing inspirational story ends, but that’s not the whole story. Here’s what they conveniently left out:

“Of course,” continued the older woman, “after we were done patting ourselves on the back for saving diapers and razors, we belched coal dust into the air from our homes and factories. We put phosphorus in our detergent and lead in our paint to make our things shinier, and sprayed DDT on our fields and orchards to rid us of bugs and birds. Our industrial and agricultural waste we dumped in the river to let nature wash it away.

Smoke-choked Pittsburgh, 1940
Maine's Androscoggin River clogged with industrial waste, 1930
“We threw our garbage in dumps and landfills, and when those grew too big or too noxious, we loaded that garbage onto barges to be dumped in the ocean. Out of sight, out of mind, am I right?

We invented celluloid, Bakelite and other synthetic materials because we were running out of animals whose horns and bones we could carve into billiard balls and hairbrushes. In fact, it was my generation who invented the whole artificial, disposable culture of convenience I was just crabbing about. From frozen foods to chemical preservatives to spray cans that put a continent-sized hole in the ozone layer, we cheerfully bought into anything “new and improved” that relieved us of the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, daily grocery shopping and having worn-out things repaired.

“We turned our prairies into pavement, our rolling hills into strip mines and our green forests into factories and mills. Then we went abroad and razed the rainforests to make rubber tires and fan belts to keep our machines running.

“When someone like Henry David Thoreau or John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt or Rachel Carson implored us to conserve our land and our water for future generations, many of us laughed and said, let those future generations fend for themselves, we’ve got railroads and highways to build, oil wells to drill and toxic waste to dump. To us, if you were overly concerned with how we were polluting the earth and sky and water, you were not ‘green’, you were a damn hippie.  

“I guess what I’m saying is that every generation could have done - and still can do - a better job in preserving and protecting our environment and that no generation has a monopoly on virtue.”

To which the young cashier replied, “Now you're getting it, Grandma. Have a nice day!”


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