Conservation Station: Lessons from the Depression Era Show Things that Were Once Necessity Now Protecting Earth

By Stacy Martin on June 18, 2012 from Conservation Station via

As I proceed through my 40s and my nephew (born in 1992) just announced his engagement to his longtime love, I realize just how fortunate I am to be my age.  Well, not exactly for the “number” itself, but for, what I consider, to have been the perfect years to be born.  I know, most people think they were born in the perfect years, but here is what I base my thinking on: (1) I didn’t have to experience life during the depression, but grew up with a lifestyle and lessons to learn from it; (2) I know life without many modern technologies (excluding television – although vividly remember the turning dial to tune the TV to one of the 3 major networks; and the telephone – again remembering the rotary dial and being confined to an area the cord would reach); and (3) playing almost always involved your imagination and being outdoors (no matter the temperature).
Most importantly, my family had longevity so all 4 of my grandparents lived until they were in their late 80’s and my Grandma Thatch until she was 98.  They lived the “Great Depression” of the 1930s and both my parents were born in those years.  My Dad, the youngest of 3, actually lived as a toddler with my grandparents’ neighbors (who didn’t have children of their own) because they could afford to feed and provide for him during that time.  Although the Great Depression was over well before I was born, it was never out of the minds of my parents and grandparents who raised us with the idea “you just never know when it could happen again.”  Don’t get me wrong, my parents were extravagant at times, but not of a “showing off” attitude, but of an “I’ve worked hard and deserve it” attitude.  Thus, I feel very fortunate to have learned some valuable lifestyle lessons from my grandparents/parents which I now know are also practices that help protect the Earth for my children.
I recently read an article on by Molly Wright that discussed the lessons her mom learned from the Depression.  These are also the lessons I grew up with:
Lesson #1: Living on less is a good thing! During the Depression rationing was required and purchases were generally made only for things absolutely necessary. These days it feels like if you live frugally then people assume you must be in a bad financial situation.  It seems that if you aren’t keeping up with the latest trends (whether it be clothes, birthday parties, dining out, etc.), then something must be wrong.  I’m not judging people who choose to live that way (my husband might be one of them), but the fact is the landfills are filled with unwanted and outdated items.  I grew up with 2 older sisters and still to this day wear all of their hand-me-downs.  When I do go shopping for myself, which is rarely as a mom, then I was taught to choose the basics that never go out of style and always buy off-season from the clearance rack.  I cannot fathom spending more than $30 (and that is a stretch) for a pair of blue jeans, yet I know people who spend over $200 for a pair that probably won’t be “in style” next year.  The Depression lesson – live on less – is practical for this era too, although very difficult to preach in what has become such a disposable world.  So if you absolutely must have numerous pairs of sunglasses to wear with just the right outfit, or you must have the latest mobile device because your old one is outdated, then PLEASE DONATE and not discard.  An old motto comes to mind – “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” or something like that.  If you don’t know how to donate or get rid of what you don’t want, then ask around or do a little research.  Keep it out of the landfill!
Lesson #2:  Reuse or Repurpose! Get the most out of everything and anything you can.  This was invaluable during the Depression as a way to save money.  My Grandfather used to always tell the story of his packed lunches for work.  He and his buddies at the Firestone plant would have contests to see how many days they could use the same wax paper (used to wrap their sandwiches) for their lunch.  We still have his black lunch box and thermos he used.  Now, it is required that if your child brings a lunch on a field trip everything must be disposable – brown bags, disposable drinks, etc.  The garbage and waste of food alone on one field trip with first graders today would make my grandparents cringe, I did myself.  I love all the websites today that show ways to reuse and repurpose just about anything.  You can type in any product and find some way to reuse or repurpose it.  For example, did you know that you can use dryer sheets to remove hard water stains or lint from the dryer as a great fire starter on your next camping trip?  How about toilet paper rolls for storing extension cords or holiday lights?  You can decorate just about any container with Contact™paper to make a vase or gift box (see pictures). The internet is loaded with great ideas for any products.  Next time you go to throw something out, try to find some way to reuse it (foil or Ziploc bags can be washed) or give it another purpose.  This goes for food as well.  My Dad hated leftovers, but if the leftovers were disguised into whole new meals then he was none the wiser.  My Mom could make a Sunday chicken dinner last for 4 more meals.  Today, I love the challenge of re-creating meals from leftovers.  We save money reusing and repurposing items and the result, again, is less waste for the landfill.
Lesson #3:  Less Waste Means More Saving! This seems easy enough to understand:  wasting less electricity = lower electric bills; wasting less water = lower water bills; wasting less food = spending less at the grocery store.  Saving money, if you had it, during the Depression was necessary, therefore you had to cut down on waste.  However, today, people don’t always associate cutting down on waste as a way to save money.  Saving money is important, although not always necessary for some people, and utilities and products are taken for granted.  Even bulk retailers and fast food eateries today take advantage of this notion.  Although it may seem like you are saving money when you buy things in bulk or as part of a value pack, especially food, but in fact tons of food gets wasted because it goes bad before it can be eaten or there is just too much to eat and thus your money and the food is wasted.  When I think of this I think of my Grandmother.  Whenever we went to Sunday dinner at my Dad’s parents, my Grandmother never had enough mashed potatoes for everyone – we loved her mashed potatoes!  When she bought food for dinner she purchased 1 bag of potatoes and cooked 1 potato for each adult and ½ potato for each child attending dinner.  We used to always beg her to cook more, but she always replied with “never buy or cook more than you need (need being the key word)”.  I’m starting to understand why my Dad hated leftovers; he never had any growing up.
The same is true for electric and water. I don’t think anyone worries that one day electric and water won’t be available, but what if the cost gets so high people cannot afford it?  The more water and electric consumed, the more costly it is to cleanly and efficiently produce them.  Electricity was not necessary to survive during the Depression, but more of a luxury and comfort.  My mom still has the kerosene lamps her family used every evening to light their house in our living room.  Of course they are strictly decoration now, but they always served as a reminder to her not to waste electricity.  Can you imagine today not being able to afford electricity?  Today’s world is electric!  One of the biggest drains of electric in the house today are chargers (each house averaging 4 or 5 chargers).  Chargers for phones, games, I Pads, Kindles, etc. continue to drain electric after charging is complete and even when not in use – they must be unplugged completely.   Think about your house today.  When the electricity goes out, many people don’t have landlines for telephone service and no way to charge their cell phones; preparing food is next to impossible if you don’t have gas; and forget about e-mail, television, X-box, etc.  Kids today could last a couple hours in the dark by candlelight thinking it’s pretty neat, but any longer than that most kids wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.  I remember the snowstorms without power for weeks; sleeping by the fireplace, playing cards with my sisters, eating beans out of a can (we had an electric stove), and Jiffy pop or marshmallows (if we had them) as a treat in the fire. 
Now maybe you can understand why I feel fortunate to be my age – your kids wouldn’t, but you might.  I certainly hope I don’t ever have to experience a time like the Great Depression, nor do I want my kids to experience it, but if we don’t take these lessons and learn from them I am afraid of the disastrous results.  Living today is not done in fear of another Depression, but living today should be done to protect the Earth and avoid any type of crisis.  So use these lessons every day.  Before you make that next purchase ask yourself if it is really necessary; before you throw out that next piece of trash think if there is another way to reuse it or repurpose it; and before you leave the house think about unplugging your chargers.

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