The Greatest Generation was also the greenest

Home » Blog » Community » The Greatest Generation was also the greenest

When I have thought about the society-wide changes that may be needed to prevent climate change or cope with energy shortages—growing our own food, consuming less, bicycling—I have tended to think of aspects of the‘60s counterculture. From now on I will think of the actual transformation that took place back when my parents were teens, during WWII.

Too many of us, in other words, talk green but lead supersized lifestyles–giving fodder to the conservative cynics who write columns about Al Gore’s electricity bills. Our culture appears hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels, shopping sprees, suburban sprawl, and beef-centered diets. Would Americans ever voluntarily give up their SUVs, McMansions, McDonald’s, and lawns?

The surprisingly hopeful answer lies in living memory. In the 1940s, Americans simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home. My parents, their neighbors, and millions of others left cars at home to ride bikes to work, tore up their front yards to plant cabbage, recycled toothpaste tubes and cooking grease, volunteered at daycare centers and USOs, shared their houses and dinners with strangers, and conscientiously attempted to reduce unnecessary consumption and waste. The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history.

The above is from Home-Front Ecology: What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world, an article by Mike Davis in Sierra magazine. Davis is most famous for his book City of Quartz (a “fiercely elegant and wide-ranging work of social history [in which] Los Angeles is both utopia and dystopia, a place where the last Joshua trees are being plowed under to make room for model communities in the desert . . .”).

So, yes, a transformation can be done–it has been done. That is encouraging. On the other hand, it was done as part of total war. The foes were militaristic fascists bent on world domination. Powerful incentive. And there was an end in sight, which isn’t the case with the problems we face today. We should also recall that after the war ended, the troops and the folks at home went on a consumption spree. That never stopped.