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Who is the Greenest Generation?

Leah Deziel and Aaron Vehling

Try talking about “green living” with your parents, children, or grandparents and you will learn that the concept carries different meanings. The “Greatest Generation” saved cooking fat, drove less, and grew Victory Gardens to support the war effort. Their children, the Boomers, created communal living and “free stores,” while circumnavigating the continent on cheap gas. In the outbreak of the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the Boomers joined their parents in experiencing forced conservation. For Generation Xers and the Millennials, green living is not thrust upon them so much as it is a lifestyle choice driven by political, spiritual, and even fashion considerations.

The Minnesota History Center’s “Greatest Generation” exhibit is a testament to the green practices of said generation. The Great Depression forced people to reuse—and reuse and reuse and reuse—material possessions because buying new simply was not an option for cash-strapped families. As History Center volunteer Laurie Johnson put it, “During the depression, after a woman had outworn a dress, she’d tear it up and make cleaning rags.” Hand-me-downs were commonplace.

As you progress through the exhibit, things change once the United States got involved in World War II. A new breed of conservation and green living became part of daily life. In order to compete at a global level, the U.S. government enacted rationing of raw goods and fuels and required its citizens to save such materials as tin and cooking fat to contribute to the “war effort.” Driving was limited to 240 miles a month for the average family. Those that threw away tin or drove too much were deemed unpatriotic in a series of propaganda posters. People were encouraged to plant “Victory Gardens,” which were designed to create a sustainable food source for Americans so precious crops could be devoted to winning the war. Flour companies ran ads informing their customers that the wheat crop they were used to would no longer be available because the government needed it for the war. Margarine became a butter substitute, with the option of food coloring to simulate the appearance of butter.

After the war, the United States entered into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, and a robust middle class was born. “Devastated by war and economic depression,” the History Center exhibit tells attendees, “young couples were anxious to move on with their lives.” Gone were goods rationing and stickers in car visors that asked, “Is this trip necessary?” The next generation, the Boomers, would reap the benefits.

Cynthia Scott, a Boomer from south Minneapolis, said she did not grow up in a “green” home in the popular sense. “We took Sunday drives and generated copious amounts of garbage,” but some of the spirit of a bygone era persisted. “My mother used everything until it was worn out, and then re-used it if it could be salvaged.” Nowadays, Scott does a number of things out of concern for the environment.

“I buy as little plastic as possible. In fact, I stopped buying yogurt and decided to make my own because I got tired of dealing with all the plastic containers.” Scott’s bicycle is her primary mode of transportation in the warmer months. When it gets cold, she uses mass transit. In addition, she has a rain barrel and her house is peppered with compact fluorescent light bulbs.

For Xers and Millennials, organic food, fair trade coffee, bicycle commuting, and recycling are by no means a government mandate, but indeed for many a personal mission. Emily Buggy is a Millennial from Minnetonka. She said she carpools or bikes whenever possible; she also prints double-sided pages and uses reusable shopping bags. She buys rechargeable batteries, unplugs her computer when she is not using it, and always makes sure to unplug any orphaned cell phone charges. “I love nature,” she said. “I think the more we can do to preserve it and the green spaces that exist is worth it.”

Where these generations come together in the thick of our current economic recession is the cost savings that can come from being green. Cynthia Scott has cut back on consumer spending, she said, because she believes that “mindless accumulation is at the heart of many of our planet’s ills.” Emily Buggy, a student at the College of St. Benedict, said that an added bonus of conservation-focused lifestyle for her is the money she saves.

So which of them is the “greenest generation?” Is it the one who was forced into it by war and economic depression? The one who wants to save the earth? Maybe it is not about intention or compulsion. Perhaps it is the product of any effort at all.

Greenest Generation

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