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Our Grandparents: The Real Environmentalists?

Whether by choice or harsh necessity, those who came of age during the Great Depression might have a thing or two to teach us about being green.
 
 
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My mom is confessing to me over the phone.

"I have to admit," she says, "as a kid I thought my baba was a horrible old woman." The horrible old woman is her dad's mother, Pearl, the great-grandmother that I'm too young to remember. "She had almost her entire backyard filled with strawberry bushes, but when we'd go over there, she would see us looking at them and she'd scream, 'Don't you touch those strawberries!'"

"We didn't understand how she could have that much and not let us have any. So we would wait until she wasn't looking, and we'd crawl on our bellies through the dirt and bite the strawberries right off the plants."

I didn't ask her to confess these childhood crimes, exactly, yet she is confirming the suspicion that led me to give her a ring: although they are among the most familiar faces in our lives, on certain counts our grandparents don't just seem to come from the distant past, but from the queerest reaches of outer space. It's pretty safe to wager that, for most of us who graduated from diapers among strip malls and cable television, our grandparents lived lives astonishingly different from our own. (Even my parents -- who are still in their 50s -- are able to regale me with stories that make it sound as if they grew up competing for nuts and seeds with the woolly mammoth.)

Look to the current spate of environmentally minded "ordeal books," whose authors detail Herculean struggles with self-imposed sustainability challenges -- 100-mile diets, a year without shopping or electricity, life without TV or the tiniest scrap of garbage. I applaud them all, yet I imagine that my grandparents would be less impressed, seeing as how they could handily check off the entire list of deprivations and likely add a few more besides. The very fact that this genre has been saddled with the "ordeal" moniker should serve to illuminate the howling chasm between my baba's youth and my own.

And so I have to suppress my generational pride (not to mention that lingering sense of injustice over my gido's unwillingness to accept my teenage haircuts) and admit something unflattering: If my grandparents hail from outer space, it is from a planet quite possibly more sustainable than the one I have always called home, and despite having gone about their business not knowing their greenhouse gases from their carbon credits, they might still have a thing or two to teach me about being green.

They appear to have the credentials to back them up. By and large, they used less water, burned less gas, needed less electricity, put less carbon up into the air, imported less food, bought fewer cars, built much smaller homes and threw out way less garbage. Moreover, whether they accomplished this by choice or by harsh necessity, they managed it all without organic grocery stores and front-loading washing machines and hybrid gas-electric cars and compact fluorescent lightbulbs -- all of those glittering new consumer choices that we keep hearing so much about.

Regrettably, I arrived at this realization a little too late, since all of my grandparents have passed on. So I did what any self-respecting young(ish) man does upon finding himself in a jam: I called my mom and dad for help.

Clean your plate (and quit showing off)

I've always enjoyed getting on my dad's case for his shitty diet, which, as far as I can tell, consists of two parts red meat, two parts milk, one part potato, and only incidental traces of vegetable. In turn, and maybe in revenge, my dad enjoys nauseating me with tales of how much he loved it when his mother would set aside bacon fat and other pan drippings for spreading on toast at breakfast.

There's more to his rhapsodizing about lard than arterial hardening. That congealed animal fat was just one aspect of a general refusal on the part of his parents to say goodbye to anything that could still be put to good use. Having little disposable income probably had something to do with that. So did the provenance of these inconspicuous scraps of food, which, no matter how humble or downright unappetizing, represented many months of backbreaking labour.

My dad, like my mom, grew up on a farm among the wheat fields and underwhelming curves of the central Albertan parkland. With a few exceptions like spices and sugar, nearly everything they ate was grown or raised right there, on the farm, with the family's own hands. Sinking one's teeth into a juicy drumstick meant weeks of turning eggs several times a day in an incubator, followed by months of feedings and poo shovelling, followed by a few furious minutes of squawking and thrashing and spurting blood, followed by the plucking and the gutting and the dismembering, followed at last by the actual cooking. After all of that, throwing away any part of that chicken would have been nothing short of criminal. (To this day, Dad remains a big fan of the gizzards, while Mom claims to have always loved "sucking the jelly right off of the toe bones.") As for those things that couldn't be grown, edible or otherwise, it was all bought with money from the grain harvest, from selling gallons of cream to the local creamery, or from moonlighting whenever there was slack in the farm work.

No wonder that my mom became a self-styled waste cop. The most rabid recycler I know, she regularly slips other people's garbage into her pockets to be properly sorted once she gets home. The satisfaction that she gets from this doesn't come from some abstract sense of duty to the Earth, but from the thought that all of this valuable stuff -- all of this metal, paper, glass, and plastic that so many people sweated so much to produce -- will be put to further use.

Her parents' refusal to waste, however, was rooted in memories far more indelible than last summer's hard labour. Three of my grandparents -- the three that were born in Canada -- came of age during the Great Depression, which hit the Canadian prairies harder than just about anywhere else. Frugality was burned into their blood. Waste became more than a pile of useless rubbish; it was lost opportunity, something to be eyed with suspicion and disdain.

"We never had a dump to go to," explains my mom, "Scraps and peels and rotten potatoes would go to the pigs, or into the vegetable garden as fertilizer. We reused all of the wooden crates and burlap sacks that our dry goods came in. You could always find a use for paper, lengths of twine, stuff like that. As a last resort, anything that we couldn't use ended up in the burning barrel, and the ashes were fertilizer as well."

It would have taken a pretty heroic resistance for such childhood rituals not to have brainwashed them. If you want evidence of this in my dad, come over one day and take a peek in his garage. Open any drawer or cubby, and you'll find an embarrassment of salvaged wreckage -- bolts, washers and rusty nails that pre-date my awkward puberty; evidence of a half-dozen dissected lawnmowers; sparkplugs from a 1988 Toyota Tercel that we never owned -- the bulk of which I can't even identify, but for which Dad always seems be formulating a distant-future plan.

That he has managed to amass so much junk is itself informative. My grandparents' perpetual war against waste was made simpler by the equally frugal people who surrounded them, and who hadn't yet discovered a non-negotiable need for things like disposable milk cartoons, single-use plastic shopping bags, or individually wrapped cucumbers. Our cities, by contrast, actually force these little miracles into the hands of all but the most hyper-vigilant. And whereas granny once had to physically wrangle with every piece of garbage she created, our waste alights from our hands as if on the wings of fairies.

Adria Vasil knows this reality well. Her new book, Ecoholic, sprung from the green advice she dispenses through her regular column in Toronto's NOW magazine. She notes that while many of her interrogators write to her for judgements on potential purchases, she's constantly returning to one core principle: "As long as our economy and culture is built around the shop-til-you-drop concept, we'll never really embrace the number one rule of environmentalism, which is to reduce. Our grandparents knew that rule well. Anyone that's lived through a depression does, really."

So what advice does Vasil have to offer those of us striving for granny-like restraint in a decidedly un-granny-like world?

"I always tell people to take a pen and write the word 'reduce' on the back of your hand," she says, "Then go through the rest of your day with that idea in mind. Every time you reach for something, think: Do you really need that bottle of water when you could just drink tap? Do you need to turn that key in your car's ignition when you could bike, walk or bus it?"

This kind of concerted self-discipline may be the only way for us to manufacture a latter-day simulation of the consumption habits of our grandparents, most of whom had neither the money nor the temptation to constantly shop. Alas, the human brain is a stubborn beast, allowing each and every one of us to perform some impressive mental gymnastics when it comes to self-persuasion. In just a few short, strange years, we have managed to assemble, virtually from scratch, a veritable checklist of goods that we all must own to attest to our green credentials. Not so long ago, we suffered through the absurdity of ad campaigns claiming four-wheel-drive SUVs as the only tools available to us for accessing nature. Now we suffer through ad campaigns claiming hybrid SUVs as the only tools available to us for saving nature. At the intersection between ecological conscience and shopping fever, buying green -- not wasting less -- has become the new cultural imperative.

"Buying more green stuff will never fix things and rebalance an ecosystem totally out of whack," points out Vasil, "Even if it's an environmentally friendly widget made from biodegradable corn, it still has an ecological footprint and consumed gobs of resources to grow that corn, then process, package and ship it to your door, not to mention the fact that bio-corn plastics come from GMO corn. Yes, it's greener than the non-biodegradable widget on the shelf next to it . . . but the question becomes, did you really need the widget to begin with?"

Managing our waste, then, is about managing our desire -- not necessarily an easy thing when you are encircled by come-ons for goods offering status, contentment and power. In our gran and gramps, though, we have proof that it's not a pipedream. Those gallons of cream that my grandma sold would garner my mom, as with her four siblings, no more than a pair of nice Sunday shoes and a dolly at Christmastime, along with a new winter coat in the fall. Rare trips to the nearest food store or a monthly visit from the door-to-door Raleigh salesman may have landed them a chocolate bar or a bag of candy. But these indulgences were infrequent, and even then had strict limitations.

"Your baba would never let us buy bubble gum because she thought it was a waste of money," recalls my mom, "Sometimes, though, we'd be lucky enough to find a glob of it on the side of the road, so we'd brush the dirt off and take turns chewing it."

Make yourself useful

"When we were eight or nine years old," says Dad, "they got us started with the farm work. Every morning before school, we would milk the cows and then separate the cream. Depending on time of year, we would be lifting bails of hay or seeding the fields or hauling manure with the tractor. During the harvest, we'd all have to miss a lot of school to get everything done."

These days we might be tempted to look at such an army of toiling nine year olds and call it child labour; they just called it their chores. Thanks to an alarming level of self-sufficiency -- by today's standards, verging on superhuman -- there was no shortage of work to be done, and it wasn't going to get done by grandma and grandpa alone. Together, they sewed and knitted their own clothes. They made their own soap. They stuffed their own pillows with duck down that they collected themselves. With the help of friends and relatives, they even built their own houses. And then there was the food. In addition to the vegetable garden and the fruit trees, they churned butter with milk from their own cows, baked bread with flour milled from their own wheat, and made cakes and cookies with eggs laid by their own chickens.

"You didn't go to the store and buy steaks in a plastic tray," my dad notes, "We had a lot of chickens, and we'd hunt for wild game that we would freeze or get made into sausages. A lot of moose, elk, deer, partridge, stuff like that." Naturally, relying on their own food also meant being subject to the seasons, namely the interminable and bitterly cold Albertan winter. "We did a lot of stocking up for winter -- just like squirrels. It was a lot of work, not like going to Costco. We picked wild gooseberries, blueberries, saskatoons, cranberries for preserves. Mom would make sauerkraut in fermentation barrels. We pickled carrots, cucumbers, beets. And we canned and froze just about everything else."

Needless to say, these are no longer everyday skills. Though I considered asking her, I never did get my baba's recipe for cloudy-brine garlic pickles, and if you were to ask me to ferment up a nice batch of sauerkraut, I imagine you would be sorely disappointed with the results. That said, the true story of the march of the generations in my family is best told not in terms of withered canning proficiency, but as a sequence of rapidly shrinking gardens. From my grandparents' hundreds of acres of farmland, to my parents' backyard vegetable garden, to the infrequent pot of basil on my own windowsill, all in less than 50 years.

This isn't just my family. Sometime next year, the planet is expected to cross that threshold at which, for the first time in human history, there will be more people living in cities than not. In Canada, which mirrored trends elsewhere, the portion of the population living in rural areas has more than halved in 60 years, from 46 percent in 1941 to 20 percent in 2001. Of that rural population, only about a tenth now actually lives on farms -- about two percent of the total population. Compare that to the 1930s, when people living on farms accounted for 30 percent of the total population.

Predictably, as we bailed on our farms, most of us bailed on food production altogether. The magic show that is consumerism depends upon a certain sleight of hand to convince us that it is always better to outsource to others those things that we once did for ourselves. Now, we find ourselves subject to the magician's greatest trick, in the curious position of having to buy, from total strangers who live many thousands of kilometres away, one of the few key things that we actually require to survive. It makes about as much sense as paying to have somebody blow air into your lungs through an extremely long tube. Only, the air has kind of a stale, farty taste after travelling so far, and the mechanical pump that is doing all of the work is a real bitch of a gas-guzzler.

Forget about that romantic '70s notion of "going back to the land." That may be fine for a minority of brave souls, but what our cities really need is the reverse: to bring the land back to us. During the shortages and rationing of WWII, back-yard and urban gardening took on an urgent dimension as the allied nations promoted resource-saving "victory gardens" as an integral part of the war effort. While the literal wars currently being fought have not yet demanded the same, our cities are in the midst of a figurative war against the landscape, as arable land is eaten up by urban sprawl and topsoil degradation, and virgin land is disturbed to make up for the loss. Add to this the considerable carbon costs of transporting out-of-season and processed foods long distances, and it becomes clear why the David Suzuki Foundation, for one, has concluded that if you must choose between organic and local produce, it makes more environmental sense to choose local.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be one or the other. Tempted by the ecological benefits, the prospect of stable, long-term sources of employment, a more robust local economy, and food security in the face of natural disasters, a growing number of poor and affluent cities alike (including my adopted city of Vancouver) are actively increasing the amount of poison-free agriculture going on within and just outside of their borders. Whether it's a backyard victory garden, a private rooftop or balcony plot, or a co-op community farm, chances are that there's opportunity all around to get your hands dirty and grow some food. Or, if you don't have the time or energy to do it yourself, look to the relatively recent emergence of community-supported agriculture (CSA), a farming model in which small-scale farms on the outskirts of cities sell seasonal shares in their operations. The farmer gets a guaranteed income and protection against the vagaries of the weather, while the shareholders get all of the fresh, local, seasonal produce they can ram down their gullets.

Of course, there one more basic reason to get excited about local food, which my mom happily points out: "It's so tasty. We used to eat everything right out of the ground. We didn't even bother washing it. I'd go back to that in a second -- dirt ring around the mouth and all."

Share your toys

"All of our parents wanted us to take over the farms once we were old enough. They would have just given them to us; they wanted to keep it going. But almost everyone ran away to the cities. That's what we called it -- running away. We wanted to drive our cars and drink and have fun and be totally free. They made all of our choices for us; we wanted to make our own choices. So we fled, and there was no more help for them."

Although it happened more than 40 years ago, Mom recalls this with more than a bit of remorse in her voice. As baby boomers, my parents were granted the curious honour of being the first generation of youngsters to get a taste of the notion that their own desires might just be worthy of trumping familial duty. By the end of the '60s, the idea had graduated to the level of T-shirt slogan: the young are a revolutionary force, the future, the source of all innovation and cultural vitality. And the corollary: that the aged are relics of an outmoded past, at best irrelevant, at worst, counter-revolutionary.

To ask my parents about how their own parents lived, then, is a little like asking a jailbird to critique the prison food. Far from pastel nostalgia, they recall childhoods of unsheltered, clear-eyed realism, a sort that kids are rarely afforded these days. They remember gagging through glasses of milk contaminated with stinkweed. Trundling though silos that teemed with nipping field mice. Harsh corporal punishments dished out by teachers and family alike. Sick pets euthanized "the old-fashioned way." Days eaten up by devastatingly unsatisfying tasks, like combing the fields for stones that might damage the farm equipment. Now, it's all valuable fodder for that inventory of hardships that parents keep at the ready in case the kids start to whine about having to empty the dishwasher. Then, however, it was fuel for the extravagant resolve needed not just to run away from familial responsibilities, but to make a historically momentous break with the cohesive, organic community itself. Perversely, that could explain why they seem to miss it so much.

"In the fall," explains Dad, "all the women from all the neighbouring farms would get together and make preserves, or they would kill 50, 100 chickens and prepare them for freezing." He goes on to tell me about a horrific chicken-plucking machine that I'm completely unable to visualize, let alone explain. "Once they were done at one farm, they'd make the rounds to all of the others in the area. It was the same with the harvests. Everybody helped each other -- it seemed like nobody was trying to make money off of another person. People would actually refuse money if you offered."

Mom evokes something very similar. "Those that had a threshing machine, it almost became their responsibility to help their neighbours with the harvest. If somebody was sick or broke a leg, you didn't even question it. You just made sure their work got done when it needed to be." Ominously, she adds, "I don't think your generation really has that."

If I sound in danger here of degenerating into a chorus of wistful sighs, let me assure you that I'm squirming in my seat as I type these words. Couldn't this all be just another re-enactment of that old saw about aging, how our youthful idealism and sweeping designs for the future give way to irrelevant and unsolicited (not to mention long) anecdotes about how "things used to be better"? Couldn't my parents be suffering a belated attack of the guilties, since their generation is the one most responsible for busting up the party in the first place? Isn't this yet more worship at the altar of small town innocence, the same quasi-religious fantasy that spawned the unique horrors of the themed, developer-planned gated community? While we should be willing to seriously entertain all of these possibilities, we should also seriously entertain the prospect that, from an ecological perspective at the very least, our communities are genuinely dysfunctional.

In his new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future , US environmentalist Bill McKibben argues that we will require a major renegotiation of the idea of community if we are to have any hope of heading off the more disastrous consequences of climate change. "No question we need new technology," he acknowledges via email, "Fossil fuel is at the center of our economic lives, and it will be hard to replace. But more than hydrogen or cellulosic ethanol or anything else, I think we need the technology of community -- to learn the lessons of how to do things with each other again."

"Want hard numbers? The average western European uses half as much energy as the average North American -- not because they have some different technology but because they have a slightly different approach to the world. Half is a lot -- especially considering that their levels of satisfaction with life are higher than ours."

Whether it's sharing space, sharing goods, sharing buying-power, sharing expertise, sharing time or sharing transportation, there are plenty of opportunities to foster our technologies of community, both new and old. Quite aside from merely helping each other out in the fields, my grandparents' generation was instrumental in bringing about what may have been the golden age of the co-op, at least in Canada, where credit unions, co-op insurance, building co-operatives, agricultural pools and consumer co-ops entered a period of astonishing proliferation. Critically, the greatest constituency for these voluntary associations was not ardent intellectuals or politicians nursing an agenda, but rather working rural people who realized that cooperation made wonderful sense for their families and for their larger communities.

So should our goal be to turn back the clock, to reconstitute the organic community and reinvigorate the specific institutions that sprang up to support them?

"More localized economies should help," McKibben offers, "Not in the way that our grandparents lived, precisely, but taking advantage of new ideas too. Visit a modern community-supported agriculture farm -- there's all kinds of innovation about compost and green manure and biological pest control, and far less interest in individual self-sufficiency than in community sufficiency." Even in our most impersonal megacities, these new technologies of community are already popping up all around us -- from CSAs, to car co-ops, to ride-sharing schemes, to district heating networks, to urban community gardens, to farmers' markets. The trick is to seek them out and make a habit out of them.

Save for a rainy day

It wasn't until adulthood that my mother realized why her baba -- her dad's mom, my great-grandmother -- wasn't merely being sadistic by denying the kids free reign over the backyard strawberries. The occasion was the big move from the farm, where my great-grandparents raised my grandfather, to a house in the city.

"They were clearing out the farmhouse, and when it came time to empty out the cold room, they found just how much food was down there. She hoarded. There must have been hundreds of jars of preserved food in there. Dozens of jars of chicken. Jars and jars and jars of strawberries. A lot of it had been down there for decades. They had to throw most of it out."

"I guess it was like insurance for her -- all of that food. If anything happened, then at least none of us would go hungry."

With my 12-year-old gido and two other little ones in tow, my great-grandmother fled Ukraine in 1933 to reunite with her husband, six years after he made the same passage to establish a family farm in western Canada. As he weathered the considerable hardships of the Great Depression, his family would be struck by an even greater calamity: the Holodomor, the "hunger plague." Though there is still active debate surrounding whether the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 was an unforeseen consequence of a disastrous campaign of forced agricultural collectivization, or a Stalin-engineered act of genocide, it is clear that the confiscation of produce by Soviet authorities led to the eradication of several million Ukrainians -- as much as a quarter of the population. Rural peasants took the brunt of the deprivation, and those who survived spoke of emaciated bodies littering the countryside, and of babies and children disappearing amongst rumours of cannibalism.

Neither my grandfather nor my great-grandmother ever spoke of the Holodomor. Whatever they saw, whatever they experienced before they fled, they only ever allowed it to manifest in that cold room full of preserves. Far more than just evidence of industrious dedication, those jars of pickles and jams -- with the squirrel-like preparation that went into them -- serve as proof that their makers had one eye fixed firmly on securing the future.

If you had both the time and the inclination, you might be able set your calculators on these millions of individual cooks toiling away over millions of individual stoves to put away billions of little jars of preserves, and you might be able to prove beyond a doubt that these legions of cooks will use up more energy and chug out more carbon that a handful of agribusiness processors doing the same work in a few dozen factories. But you would be missing the point. When we outsource every function of our lives, particularly those things that are critical to human life, we also outsource a participatory stake in the future. Without that stake, without a meaningful reason to keep one eye fixed on what's to come, all of the other things that we can do to mitigate our impact on the planet -- reducing waste, scaling back our desires, localizing production, sharing resources -- will never come to pass. ******

My grandparents were hardly environmentalists. Along the way, they and their peers were responsible for some pretty stunning missteps. They tended to trust everything that science had to offer, eagerly snatching up DDT, chemical fertilizers and miracle detergents. They swooned over air travel, the tropical getaway, the 5,000-kilometre pineapple. They started our headlong rush toward the car-centric suburbs, and they made that journey in some very, very hefty automobiles.

"We shouldn't overly romanticize the past," suggests Vasil, "We just have to figure out how to take the best ideas from it, creatively adapt it to the present and make reducing innovative and practical, not just a stodgy drag." Looking to the past, and being innovative at the same time? Everything that I've ever been told about the supremacy of youth has assured me that this is implausible. Yet here I am, in spite of myself, starting to believe it.

The fact is, the 50-year-old promise of youth culture runs neatly parallel to the promise made by modernity itself: the future is brave, prosperous, wholly new; the past is useless, quaint, vaguely embarrassing. This is the promise that billions in developing nations -- a sizeable majority of the planet -- have been dreaming about for decades. If we're lucky, they'll be able to shake off the fog of that dream faster than we have. If, as a species, we are less than lucky, we may not be so pleased with just how appallingly new the planet can become.

 
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