Sierra Magazine

When Uncle Sam Wanted Us

To Vice President Dick Cheney, conservation is just "a sign of personal virtue."In World War II, it was every citizen’s duty.

By Paul Rauber

Despite war and rumors of war, turmoil in the Middle East, and energy crises at home, missing from the national dialogue has been talk of "conservation," let alone personal sacrifice. Instead, in the aftermath of September 11, President Bush urged the American people to go shopping. He also renewed his push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This approach was welcomed by industry; Ron Zarella, president of General Motor’s North American division, concluded that "GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles."

In other times of national crisis, citizens have willingly sacrificed for the common good. During World War II, people were encouraged to plant "victory gardens," to conserve rubber, paper, aluminum, tin cans, toothpaste tubes (for the small amount of zinc they contained), sugar, coffee, and even kitchen fats (the glycerin was used for ammunition). Drivers were limited to three gallons of gas per week, leading to the formation of carpools or "car clubs." Leon Henderson, head of the Office of Price Administration, the agency in charge of rationing, rode a "victory bike" to work—and was criticized for it, because new bicycles were supposed to go to those in the armed forces or war industry. All these conservation campaigns were publicized through a series of remarkable posters produced by graphic artists organized as "Artists for Victory." Click here for a small sampling of their work.

The reasons for conservation have changed since then: Sources of natural rubber, for example, are not in enemy hands, and terrible explosives can be made without kitchen fat. But oil is still central to our current situation: One of al Qaeda’s root grievances is the presence of American troops guarding the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and Iraq would be a minor power without its vast oil reserves. Isn’t there something more patriotic we can do than buy a new SUV?

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