My Take on Progress Part I
Many of you watched Romney and Obama almost come to blows during the second Presidential debate. A couple of times, thinking I was watching a college hockey game, I felt the tension of the tipping point and could almost see an inevitable, all-out brawl. Several times I admit to wanting it to happen, but presidential decorum prevailed. There was much said about the economy – especially the 8% unemployment, the lack of jobs nationwide, and the educated but unemployed population of recent graduates. While 8% is obviously too high, in comparison, Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with 25% unemployment in 1933 when the Great Depression was laying a heavy burden on the young people in America. He took the bull by the horns and created jobs by founding the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Serving two great purposes, the CCC put young men back to work while saving our national treasures at the same time. Two of my uncles, and 2.5 million others between the ages of 17 and 23 found gainful employment and gratifying work over the nine years that the program was in operation. What a brilliant and innovative solution to the unemployment problem! The founding of the CCC was based on the three R’s – Relief for the unemployed, Recovery of the economy, Reform of the financial system. It sounds like a familiar tenet. Can we look backwards to find the answers for progress today?
On birthdays, people in the Greatest Generation celebrated simply – a couple of friends coming over for homemade ice cream. For Christmas, a small homemade toy, a couple of Mary Jane candies and a piece of fruit were gratefully appreciated. If you were lucky, you might get a one dollar bill! It was more about the celebration, family and friends, and less about how many gifts you received. Clothes for the family were sewn, and the scraps made into quilts or woven into rag rugs – a zero waste system. Local or slow food? Food was grown in the backyard and fresh eggs were readily available in the chicken coop. Families gathered around the table, united in basic survival, and perseverance. Recycling was already in place long ago as milk and soda bottles were always returned and refilled. The sun and wind naturally dried the laundry, and getting in shape was easy – pick cotton six days a week and you will have strong muscles as well as your daily dose of Vitamin D. My father delivered the newspaper on horseback, saving carbon emissions and fuel. Because the scarcest resource was money during the Great Depression, each family made very careful decisions about the limited resources they had, and frugality still drives decisions today for this generation. What have we gained by our desire for more, faster, bigger, newer (or in some cases) smaller? As we make this “progress” where more people move into the middle classes of the world, the demand for resources continues to soar, as does the amount of energy needed to convert raw materials into “stuff,” resulting in a potential crossing of the red line of sustainability. Will we continue until, like Easter Island, we use up all of our natural resources – fresh water, oil, gas, wood, minerals, coal – causing our civilization to collapse? I’m not advocating we give up all things electrical or exchange our cars for horse and buggy; only that we might have something to learn from looking back to the days of “less is more.”What can we learn from nature itself and our sins against it in the past? I’m currently rereading Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 manifesto on the evils of pesticides and changing the delicate balance, and even the make up, of living things. As a result of inventing 600 new chemicals since the 1950’s to supposedly solve problems of agricultural pests or make life “easier” with mold killers and weed killers, have we made progress or only created new more complex problems? The answer is fairly apparent on labels with multiple warnings for dangers of eye, skin and lung exposure! As always, there is a yin-yang effect when something new is created. For example, Carson describes a sequence of events where cattle ranchers wanted more grasslands, so they stripped out, or chemically sprayed, the dense evergreen sagebrush that was native to the western lands. This decision set in motion a disastrous cascade of events, uprooting the nesting grounds for the sage grouse and destroying their food source as well as winter food for the pronghorn antelopes, sheep and mule deer. This resulted in the elimination of species in the area, death of lush vegetation that was not targeted and a total disruption of the ecosystem. It seems we should learn from lessons that nature has taught us and acknowledge that She knows what’s best for the complex interconnectedness of our species. Can we look back to the ‘50’s and learn from our mistakes, or consult nature to solve problems, so we minimize the negative effect we have on the environment going forward? Hold that thought for Part II!
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