What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world

July 10, 2007

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Home-Front Ecology

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.

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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.”

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More important, that national obsession of the 1890s, the bicycle, made a huge comeback, partly inspired by the highly publicized example of wartime Britain, where bikes transported more than a quarter of the population to work. Less than two months after Pearl Harbor, a new secret weapon, the “victory bike”–made of nonessential metals, with tires from reclaimed rubber–was revealed on front pages and in newsreels. Hundreds of thousands of war workers, meanwhile, confiscated their kids’ bikes for their commute to the plant or office, and scores of cities and towns sponsored bike parades and “bike days” to advertise the patriotic advantages of Schwinn over Chevrolet. With recreational driving curtailed by rationing, families toured and vacationed by bike. In June 1942, park officials reported that “never has bicycling been so popular in Yosemite Valley as it is this season.” Public health officials praised the dual contributions of victory gardening and bike riding to enhanced civilian vigor and well-being, even predicting that it might reduce the already ominously increasing cancer rate.

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Ideas as well as commodities were recycled in the war years. Much of the idealism of the early New Deal reemerged in wartime housing, fair employment, and childcare programs, as well as in the postwar economic conversion from military to civilian production. One particularly interesting example was the “rational consumption” movement sponsored by the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which encouraged “buying only for need” and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition, food conservation, and appliance repair. The OCD consumer committees challenged the sacred values of mass consumption–the rapid turnover of styles, the tyranny of fashion and advertising, built-in obsolescence, and so on–while promoting a new concept of the housewife as an “economy soldier” who ran her household with the same frugal efficiency that Henry Kaiser ran his shipyards.

Yet with millions of women wielding rivet guns and welding torches, traditional concepts of gender roles were increasingly contested. In April 1942, for example, the New York Times visited a trailer village near a Connecticut defense plant, expecting to find young wives yearning for the postwar future of suburban homes and model kitchens that the 1939 New York World’s Fair had prophesied. Instead, they found female war workers who liked their industrial jobs and were content to live in simple quarters that demanded little or no housework.

One point of convergence between this incipient “war feminism” and the conservation imperative was the fashion upheaval of 1942. Desperate to conserve wool, rayon, silk, and cotton, the War Production Board (WPB) believed that the same techniques that were revolutionizing the production of bombers and Liberty ships–the simplification of design and the standardization of components–could be usefully applied to garment manufacture. In an unusual role for a department store heir, H. Stanley Marcus (of the Neiman Marcus dynasty) became the WPB’s chief commissar for rational fashions. As such, he emphasized conservation and durability–priorities that coincided with the egalitarian-feminist values long advocated by the radical fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, whose 1943 book, Why Women Cry, was a bold manifesto on behalf of the millions of “wenches with wrenches.”

The goal was a “slim, abbreviated silhouette,” whose higher hemlines, girdleless form, and stabilized variation in styles would free fabric and looms to make more uniforms, tents, and parachutes. As shorter skirts, along with overalls and pants, became the WPB-approved norm, Life magazine photographers delighted the troops overseas with images of true patriotic zeal: starlets cutting off the bottoms of their nightgowns or showing off the shorter pajamas that were helping to win the war. Those nightgown trimmings, along with the wool cuffs from men’s pants (ordered sheared by the WPB in May 1942), were eagerly recycled into blankets and other military fabrics in the 500-odd sewing workshops across the country that had been organized in response to an appeal from the Bureau of Industrial Conservation.

Conservation also warred with luxury lifestyles. Although defense production was adding billions to the net worth of America’s plutocrats, it became harder for them to spend it in the usual conspicuous ways. In order to force builders to meet the acute demand for affordable housing for war workers, the WPB banned construction of homes costing more than $500 (the median value of the average home was then about $3,000). Simultaneously, thousands of servants fled Park Avenue and Beverly Hills to take higher-paying jobs in defense factories, while many of those who remained joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ new United Domestic Workers Union. Some millionaires retreated to their clubs to grouse about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s latest outrages, but others accepted the servant shortage and moved into smaller (although still luxurious) apartments while allowing their mansions to become temporary war housing. In a typical story, the Chicago Tribune in July 1942 described the adventures of seven young Navy petty officers and their wives who were sharing an old robber baron’s mansion. (Today we would call it “cohousing.”)

The total mobilization of the time was dubbed the “People’s War,” and while it had no lack of conservative critics, there was remarkable consistency in the observation of journalists and visitors (as well as in later memoirs) that the combination of a world crisis, full employment, and mild austerity seemed to be a tonic for the American character. New York Times columnist Samuel Williamson, for example, monitored the impacts of rationing and restricted auto use on families in commuter suburbs that lacked “the self-sufficiency of the open country” and the “complete integration of the large city.” After noting initial popular dismay and confusion, Williamson was heartened to see suburbanites riding bikes, mending clothes, planting gardens, and spending more time in cooperative endeavors with their neighbors. Without cars, people moved at a slower pace but seemed to accomplish more. Like Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, Williamson pointed out that American life had been revolutionized in a single generation and many good things seemingly lost forever; the war and the emphasis on conservation were now resurrecting some of the old values. “One of these,” he wrote, “may be the rediscovery of the home–not as a dormitory, but as a place where people live. Friendships will count for more.”

An alternative future lurked in Williamson’s hopeful comment, but it was swept away by the backlash against the social and economic reforms of the New Deal and the postwar euphoria of abundance. Few of the core values or innovative programs of the People’s War survived either the cold war or the cultural homogeneity of suburbanization. Yet, even a few short generations later, we can find surprising inspirations and essential survival skills in that brief age of victory gardens and happy hitchhikers.

Mike Davis is the author, most recently, of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. He is working on a new book on the geopolitics of climate change.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior