If you’re like me, you get lots of stories, jokes, anecdotes, offbeat videos and the like in your email inbox.
The other day, a genial acquaintance sent me a tale that, others tell me, has made the Internet rounds for years. But it was the first I’d seen it.
I’ve fluffed it up a little, but it goes something like this:
A woman of some age is placing items on the check-out counter at a grocery store when the young cashier delivers an admonishment:
“You should bring your own cloth bags,” he intones, righteously. “Plastic bags aren’t good for the environment. It’s the ‘the green thing.’ Eco, ya know?”
The woman apologizes for her thoughtlessness, explaining that “we didn’t have this ‘green thing’ back when I was your age.”
That should have been the end of it, but the young enviro-snob continues his scold. “That’s the problem today,” he says. “Your generation didn’t care enough to save our environment for future generations!”
This gets the old lady’s back up. “No,” she tells the supercilious clerk. “Our generation didn’t have the ‘the green thing.’”
Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. I think you call it “recycling.”
She was just warming up.
We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building.
We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.
We washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine. Wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in the “olden” days.
Back then, kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.
We had one radio in the house, and later one TV — not a TV the size of Montana in every room.
In the kitchen, we blended and stirred and sifted by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us.
When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded-up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam peanuts or plastic bubble wrap.
Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power.
We exercised by working. And we got up 15 times an evening to change the TV channel, rather than click a couple of buttons on a remote. So we didn’t need any health clubs or treadmills that suck on electricity.
We wore cotton and wool clothing, not chemically “stretched” slacks and thermo-gear.
We drank from the tap or a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a plastic bottle or a big, rented jug of designer water.
We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying new pens, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.
But we didn’t have “the green thing.”
Back then, people took the bus or streetcar, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. And we played, and played, and played — outside, from morning to night. The only time we sat or stood around playing video games was at the fair or on short vacations at the beach.
We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances, and we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.
We didn’t need to pay extra for “organic” food because we didn’t feed our chickens and cows hormones or inject pesticides into our apples, eventually polluting the ground and water system.
The old lady concludes, “So you might think a minute before calling us old folks wasteful because we didn’t have ‘the green thing’ back then?”
Unfortunately the version of the story that I read says nothing about the clerk’s reaction — or that of the customers waiting in line behind the old woman.
Mine, as I read along, ranged from a hearty “right on!” to “You tell ’em, Granny.” I shoveled coal as well as snow when I was a kid. I walked to and from school — not uphill both ways, as old-timers are said to embellish such tales, but a goodly distance. And I also toted a heavy bag of newspapers on a long, walking route down my street and up the next. I lugged those soda bottles to the store, too. And a power mower was an object of wonder in our neighborhood.
A generation earlier, my mother and her siblings walked for miles, or drove a horse cart, over the mountain to shop and visit. Walked farther than I did in Pennsylvania’s brutal snow to and from their one-room school, too. My grandmother sewed everything they wore. My grandfather made every stick of their furniture and the very cabin in which they lived. Everyone ate organic food from plants and animals that they, themselves, grew and raised; they would have gone hungry if they didn’t.
They, and we, had fewer “things” but, at least as I remember it through the mists of time, we were happier — often even thrilled — with what we had.
So it is tempting to snicker at pompous, judgmental eco-elitists such as the pretentious clerk in our story.
But this may be a more measured way to look at this generational and cultural divide:
The world didn’t change overnight from the time when my grandfather whittled rocking chairs and raised his own pigs to the time when even people of modest means could select among 230 cable television shows without getting up from their recliners made in China, pick up fully prepared gourmet meals at the store, and talk to their friends not by walking down the street or over the mountain but by running their fingers down some listings on their handheld phones.
Whether these changes are really “progress” is a matter of dispute. But they came in waves, introduced and then perfected by people from my generation through today’s. Like today’s eager pups, each of those generations couldn’t wait to ease and simplify their lives.
Still, as you see, I’m prone to reminiscing, fondly, about the “good old days,” taxing though they surely were.
Or I was, until my former editor, Rob “Spoilsport” Sivak, weighed in on the tale of the elderly shopper. He’s now concentrating on science, but as a colleague “of a certain age” — I believe the official Census demographic is “No Spring Chicken” — he read the tale of the clerk and the old lady, and replied:
I think your interesting litany makes a valid point that per-capita energy use a generation or two ago was a fraction of what it is today, and that, pre-plastics, we were less of a throw-away culture. And that further suggests that as a society we were imposing less heavily on the environment and, in one sense, living more healthful lives than we do today.
But be careful not to oversimplify either the past or present meanings of “the green thing.” Despite the relative simplicity of life in the old days, the widespread ignorance of and public indifference to the environment was a real and major hazard to the natural world. Before the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the air and water in many communities were often filled with invisible but deadly toxins.
Many communities are still waiting to have these toxic industrial dumping zones cleaned up. Many cities were frequently enveloped in choking smog. Workers were exposed to toxic chemicals and work environments. You might want to recall the gangs of excited suburban children running after the slow-moving DDT truck, taking deep breaths of the bitter fog it spewed out as it moved through the neighborhood. Remember Rachel Carson’s clarion call?
I would also point out that the myriad hi-tech appliances plugged into our electric outlets today are many, MANY, MANY times more energy-efficient than those old, hulking refrigerators and big-box radios and console TV sets and oil-thirsty furnaces.
Do you recall that Christmas 1968 photo of the Earth that the Apollo 8 astronauts sent back from their first round trip to the Moon? That unforgettable iconic image, of a fragile, cloud-specked ball hanging in the blackness of space was an epiphany for the human race and helped give rise to the worldwide environmental movement, and the first Earth Day two years later.
Rob’s bottom line: I think we’re much greener today than we were a generation ago.
I told you he was a spoilsport for those of us who romanticize the past.
What do YOU think about the “green thing” divide between generations?
And lest you reply that it doesn’t much matter what old fogeys think, I’ll close with this tidbit from the Associated Press:
Americans who are 90 or older have nearly tripled in number since 1980, to 1.9 million, according the first-ever census numbers on the age group. Joined by graying baby boomers, the oldest old are projected to increase to 8.7 million by mid-century — when they figure to make up one in 10 older Americans. More than a century ago, fewer than 100,000 people reached 90.
So attention, judgmental eco-purists: expect a lot more old ladies (and men) at your check-out counters. If there is still such a thing as a check-out counter.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Admonishment. A stern, often verbal, rebuke or criticism.
Epiphany. The sudden and vivid realization of something. The term comes from the Christian bible’s story about the revelation of Jesus as the human son of God.
Pretentious. Impressive beyond one’s actual talent, culture, or intellect. A pretentious person is a “show-off.”
Supercilious. Haughty, arrogant, “putting on airs” of superiority.