At least twice in the past 15 years, I’ve been accused of being a child of the Depression era because I was saving things. Interestingly, the speakers weren’t commenting directly on my cluttering/ hoarding tendencies, and in both cases the remarks had a rather mean spirit that made me feel defensive – and self-righteous.
The first remark was a joke a friend made when I was chopping vegetables for a stir-fry. I’d missed cutting a dark spot from a potato, and she shot a “Geez, did you grow up during the Depression?” at me when she went to put the potatoes into the skillet. The second remark was aimed at me about five weeks ago, when I tried to save an attractive square-foot piece of wrapping paper a colleague had just sliced up in order to quickly get into a box of Christmas chocolates. Her Depression remark was nastiness disguised as a joke, and she followed it with, “You’re just like my mother.” Of course this is the mother with whom she’s had a contentious relationship all her life.
It’s easy to see why I find these remarks insulting. My self-righteousness is a whole other thing: I believe my way is superior and those who insult me are wrong. Thrift and caring about the earth are values with which I was raised, at home and at school, and I think they’re exceedingly important on a planet that’s being murdered by its human inhabitants. I also believe that, now that the U.S. empire is declining after its 50-year reign, it would behoove USians to learn how to reuse, share, compost, and recycle instead of buying, wasting, discarding, and polluting. If folks think the era of the big-box store, cheap everything from China, and 50 choices of everything from breakfast cereal to cell phones isn’t coming to an end, they’re in la-la land.
Unfortunately one set of my parents and stepparents seems to have forgotten frugality and environmentalism over the years, and they’re now two people living in (and overheating) a 12-room house. But they taught me well. I’m a recycling fanatic, although I try to not be obnoxious about it – I remove my co-workers’ recyclables from the trash when they’re not in the kitchen, and I do not lecture or preach. I can’t blame anyone for losing track in a city that changes the rules periodically, depending on what materials the area transfer stations are accepting. I don’t hound people if they forget that the cardboard wrapper on their paper coffee cup goes into the paper-recycling bin.
But I do wish, every day that I see one or two or five of these cups in the trash in our office of nine people, that everyone would carry a reusable mug. I am, frankly, tired – I’ve been wishing this for at least 15 years in nearly every office in which I’ve worked. I wish that my co-workers who aren’t disabled would stop driving to work and take the bus. Every Christmas I wish that my families of origin would stop squashing the wrapping paper into balls, stuffing it into giant plastic bags, and tossing it into the trash. This stuff goes right to the landfill – but they don’t have to think about it, because they’re middle-class enough that they’ll never have to live near a landfill (or in a landfill, as thousands of people in the Global South do).
At least once, my wishing has resulted in concrete changes. Of course, as these things go, I didn’t wish, cajole, or lobby; I simply lived my life, and a colleague saw it as an example. I don’t own a car, I like riding a bike year-round (in New England), and I live about four blocks from my office, so I bike or walk to work every day. I’m told that our executive director found this inspiring. He instituted a generous “green transportation” policy that paid for a parking pass in the garage for those who needed it, or the equivalent in anything that would facilitate not using a car – bus passes, new bicycles, equipment for existing bikes.
Except for health insurance, this is my favorite employee benefit of all time. I guess the next time someone aims one of those Depression zingers at me, I should remember Green Transportation and have the last laugh.
My grad school classmate, the exceedingly wonderful and talented Luis Alberto Urrea, has written two books about the people who live in the landfills of Tijuana, Mexico:
“Make Earth Friendly Gift Wrap” article:
Chicago’s latest Winter Bike to Work Day: