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  July/August 2007
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Home-Front Ecology
What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world
By Mike Davis
July/August 2007

DOES THIS GENERATION OF AMERICANS have the "right stuff" to meet the epic challenges of sustaining life on a rapidly warming planet? Sure, the mainstream media are full of talk about carbon credits, hybrid cars, and smart urbanism--but even so, our environmental footprints are actually growing larger, not smaller.

The typical new U.S. home, for instance, is 40 percent larger than that of 25 years ago, even though the average household has fewer people. In that same period, dinosaur-like SUVs (now 50 percent of all private vehicles) have taken over the freeways, while the amount of retail space per capita (an indirect but reliable measure of consumption) has quadrupled.

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. Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans "to change from an economy of waste--and this country has been notorious for waste--to an economy of conservation." A majority of civilians, some reluctantly but many others enthusiastically, answered the call.

The most famous symbol of this wartime conservation ethos was the victory garden. Originally promoted by the Wilson administration to combat the food shortages of World War I, household and communal kitchen gardens had been revived by the early New Deal as a subsistence strategy for the unemployed. After Pearl Harbor, a groundswell of popular enthusiasm swept aside the skepticism of some Department of Agriculture officials and made the victory garden the centerpiece of the national "Food Fights for Freedom" campaign.

By 1943, beans and carrots were growing on the former White House lawn, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and nearly 20 million other victory gardeners were producing 30 to 40 percent of the nation's vegetables--freeing the nation's farmers, in turn, to help feed Britain and Russia. In The Garden Is Political, a 1942 volume of popular verse, poet John Malcolm Brinnin acclaimed these "acres of internationalism" taking root in U.S. cities. Although suburban and rural gardens were larger and usually more productive, some of the most dedicated gardeners were inner-city children. With the participation of the Boy Scouts, trade unions, and settlement houses, thousands of ugly, trash-strewn vacant lots in major industrial cities were turned into neighborhood gardens that gave tenement kids the pride of being self-sufficient urban farmers. In Chicago, 400,000 schoolchildren enlisted in the "Clean Up for Victory" campaign, which salvaged scrap for industry and cleared lots for gardens.

Victory gardening transcended the need to supplement the wartime food supply and grew into a spontaneous vision of urban greenness (even if that concept didn't yet exist) and self-reliance. In Los Angeles, flowers ("a builder of citizen morale") were included in the "Clean-Paint-Plant" program to transform the city's vacant spaces, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden taught the principles of "garden culture" to local schoolteachers and thousands of their enthusiastic students.

The war also temporarily dethroned the automobile as the icon of the American standard of living. Detroit assembly lines were retooled to build Sherman tanks and B-24 Liberators. Gasoline was rationed and, following the Japanese conquest of Malaya, so was rubber. (The U.S. Office of the Rubber Director was charged with getting used tires to factories, where they became parts for tanks and trucks.) When shortages and congestion brought streetcar and bus systems across the country near the breaking point, it became critical to induce workers to share rides or adopt alternative means of transportation. While overcrowded defense hubs like Detroit, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., never achieved the national goal of 3.5 riders per car, they did double their average occupancy through extensive networks of neighborhood, factory, and office carpools. Car sharing was reinforced by gas-ration incentives, stiff fines for solo recreational driving, and stark slogans: "When you ride ALONE," warned one poster, "you ride with Hitler!"

Even hitchhiking became an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. Drivers were encouraged to pick up war workers stranded at bus stops and soldiers heading home for furloughs. In Colorado, the Republican Party vowed to save rubber by having all of its candidates in the 1944 elections hitchhike to campaign rallies. In Hollywood, a starlet in revealing tennis shorts won editorial praise for helping a stranded serviceman catch a ride home. Emily Post, America's mandarin of manners, frowned on such roadside seductions and emphasized a modest etiquette for snagging a ride: It was "bad form to jerk the thumb when hitchhiking"; instead, a woman should "display her defense identification tag." She also warned that "these 'rides' are not social gatherings and conversation is not necessary," although many baby boomers are undoubtedly the result of wartime ride sharing.

One of the major films of 1942 was Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, a pessimistic chronicle of how modern corporate capitalism and the automobile had destroyed the easygoing horse-and-buggy world of the late 19th century. Yet aspects of that world, including even the horses and buggies, were reborn under the auspices of wartime austerity. To the delight of children as well as elderly people who still mourned the passing of the urban horse, grocers and delivery companies circumvented the rubber shortage by hooking up Old Nellie to a wagon. Suburbanites in Connecticut and Long Island began to "break their saddle horses to harness," the New York Times reported in May 1942, adding that "harness makers are doing a brisk little trade and horse-drawn carriages are coming out of hiding."


Photos, from top: National Archives, Library of Congress, National Archives, Library of Congress; used with permission.

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