In the current moral panic about consumption — whether it’s sugar, fat, fast food, nicotine, caffeine, prescription drugs, water or petroleum — we have a rather vague perception of where we are and how exactly we got to this point. That’s why I found the discussion about school cupcakes, over on Sean Kirst’s blog last week, to be quite illuminating: when and how, precisely, did American kids turn into such wanton snackers? And can we really figure out a way past our present lifestyle if we don’t know how we wound up with it?
If you’re contemplating candlelight dinners of freshly harvested radishes (the whole “singing kumbaya in the dark” thing; not that singing kumbaya is itself bad, on the right occasion) and feeling like you just can’t do it, why not just — for starters — attempt to dial it back to the lifestyles your family lived ten, twenty, thirty years ago? These lifestyles are within living memory. But perhaps they’re forgotten in the imperative to get back to an “Earth-based” ancestral lifestyle that we are separated from by several generations. Maybe the absolute first steps we need to retrace, lead back to ways and people we personally remember. The tools for change may be in your own basement.
The difficulty we have in this approach is that, according to the American Dream, we’re supposed to be living “better off” than our parents and grandparents. It may be easier to idealistically dream about going “back to the earth,” but going “back to the backyard” feels like such a letdown, a failure even. (Who in the middle class is really content with raising their family in a house the size that their parents grew up in?) And the new, improved Green American Dream tells us we’re supposed to be living “more consciously” than they did. But your parents and grandparents didn’t think hard about sustainability; they just did what they did. Isn’t sustainable living supposed to be more transcendent than using your grandpa’s non-electric mower to work on one part of the lawn this afternoon? (Aren’t we supposed to be living on organic farms and not mowing lawns at all, or living in ecologically sound urban utopias? Isn’t the suburbia of our fathers supposed to be evil?)
Sometimes it’s necessary to make a clean break with the family past. If Grandpa drove a gas-guzzling T-Bird after he got done push-mowing the front lawn, by all means don’t run out and buy a Hummer. We have the advantage of hindsight, however — we can leave out the bad things they did, and remember to do the good things they did.
Are there any habits you remember your parents or grandparents having that now seem to make good ecological or health sense? (You might want to first see if you have the will to commit to doing those things, before you start a radish garden.)