I grew up around people who had endured war and privation multiple times. My grandfather often spoke of the hardships of a depression that occurred during his boyhood. This was before the dawn of the twenty first century just as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of America. Grandpa always insisted that while the Great Depression that began at the end of the nineteen twenties was bad, it was nothing compared to the horrors of the economic collapse of his youth.
Grandpa recalled seeing Coxey’s Army on its march to Washington D.C. and told of how people from his little slice of America joined the rag tag group in the hopes of brining about change in the economic distribution of wealth. He told us stories of people literally starving who were reduced to stealing just to keep their families alive.
Grandpa was well-versed in how to navigate a depression like the one that took place when he was the head of a family. He talked about how resourceful he and everyone else had to be to keep a roof over their heads and provide food for the table. This might mean traveling to Mexico to purchase fresh produce and then selling it for a small profit along the roadside. Survival was a family project where everyone did his or her part to bring in funds and conserve whatever bounty they might gain.
I once knew a man who was a bit older than my own parents who was hardly able to mention the depression without growing emotional. His family had barely subsisted on a lean diet of beans and cabbage. The experience was so vividly horrible to him that he would never again eat beans. The very thought of them make him nauseous.
The Great Depression left such a mark on the people who experienced it either as children or adults that they tended to be strict savers for the rest of their lives lest another such moment come along. They were so frugal that they would set aside bacon grease to use instead of bottled oil. They had a universal tendency to reuse things like tin foil which they would wash and then smooth out for as long as it remained intact. They turned out lights that were not necessary, often sitting in the dark if they did not need illumination to read or to walk about the house. A constant commandment from my youth was the admonition to turn off the lights whenever I left a room
I suppose that I was influenced by the older generation that constantly reduced their footprint of consumption on this earth. I was taught to never throw away food, but to recycle it in different kinds of recipes. I used cardboard boxes to store my toys which necessitated only two medium sized containers at most. I grew up without air conditioning and even followed the unspoken rule of turning off the fans and any cooling unit whenever the temperature was amenable to just opening the windows and letting nature do its work. I took for granted that nobody needed more than two pairs of shoes, one for daily use at school and another for dressy occasions. The same went for the wardrobe that hung in my closet. I could rotate through every article that I owned in under a week.
Of course I became spoiled when I left the tutelage of my mother and set out on my own. Little by little I adopted a more profligate standard of living. First came two cars for the family, a relatively unknown luxury for my parents and grandparents. Then came a bigger variety of shoes and clothing. I found myself filling my refrigerator with delicacies and extravagance. My single television multiplied into viewing spaces more than one room. I began with a small house the size of the one where I grew up and advanced to a home with more rooms that I will ever use in a single day. My air conditioner whirs away without rest all summer long.
My idea of cutting back when things are a bit expensive would amuse my elders because in their minds I would still be living in a time of unimaginable consumption. Buying a chicken and using it in multiple ways would not negate the fact that I might purchase a steak that they would never have considered putting into their shopping cart. My willingness to forgo expensive cups of coffee or tea from a drive thru would not impress them as sacrifice because they were of the inclination to reuse a tea bag more than once or make their coffee thinner by using fewer grounds to prepare it. They would wonder why I get exactly what I want at the grocery store and then balk at the cost rather than choosing less expensive albeit edible substitutes. They would have stayed at home most of the time instead of griping at how much gasoline costs. They would have made the sacrifice without even thinking because the tendencies to make do and spend less seemed to be baked into their DNA.
Of late I have found myself feeling a bit guilty about the ways that I have abandoned the examples of the adults who taught me how to live a good life without lots of things. I’m attempting to relearn how to conserve money and resources, but my bad habits have endured for so long that it is a bit like trying to lose weight. I take two steps forward and three back on far too many days. I’ve been attempting to find ways to just stick with what I have and be inventive with how I use things.
I think it is just as crucial to pull back on my expenditures for the purpose of saving money as it is to conserve resources to save the earth. I really don’t need all of the things that I sometimes buy. With looming food shortages in many areas of the world caused by the pandemic and droughts and wars I need to remind myself that I can provide healthy meals without meat or large helpings. I can begin a determined transition back to the deliberate attempts to conserve that my parents and grandparents once followed.
I think that many of the ills of our current society have derived not so much from particular policies of government as from our own addictions to privileged ways. We take our riches for granted and and seem to think that our destinies should always lead to more money and more possessions. I have been as guilty of that way of thinking as anyone. Now I question the folly of gifting ourselves with luxuries just because we have become accustomed to doing so. Perhaps the current times are reminding us that we have a duty to preserve all of the people of the world and all of its precious resources for those who will come after us. Our legacy must be to stem the tide of conspicuous and profligate consumption that has become our taken for granted way of living.
There is much to be learned from the past. If our ancestors were willing to navigate hard times with creative sacrifices then surely we can do the same. For now I am going to try.