It Hasn't Always Been Easy Being "Green"

Green: Then and Now

It wouldn’t be Thursday at my house without the rumbling of the huge recycling truck tumbling through the neighborhood, picking up our overflowing bins of numbered plastics and old Kleenex boxes. Recently, compost bins have begun to make their appearances too. Being “green” is a trendy topic, indeed.

Of course, attitudes toward the environment have changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so—often for the better; in some ways, things have changed for the worse.

From the birth of our nation, people felt environmental resources were theirs for the taking. Really, who could blame them when you when you have a vast, new country laid out in front of you with only a relatively small number of inhabitants and a great need for resources? But, of course, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century kicked this use into high gear, sucking up resources at an ever-quickening pace. It is estimated that before European settlement, 5/6 of the eastern U.S. was forested. Currently, that fraction has been reduced to 1/6.

Closer to home, attitudes toward “being green” often gave way to the burgeoning idea of convenience. Styrofoam was considered a marvel that allowed food to be served without the tedious process of washing dishes. The manufacturers weren’t exactly in the habit of promoting the idea that “Hey, every single piece of Styrofoam you’ve ever used is still on the planet and will be for thousands of years.” Today, most items come in a disposable form—everything from razors to diapers and even cell phones. Disposable bags, first in the form of paper and later plastic, even changed the way we transported our new items.

Farmers in Chesterfield and around the country were told that the chemical DDT could eradicate the problem of pests on crops. A wonderful thing for farmers who might have entire livelihoods destroyed by an infestation.  In fact, a “more is better” approach was often taken concerning pesticide use.

Without the technical advantages of today, everyone had to burn something to cook, light their homes, run industries and keep warm. For much of the Industrial Revolution, this “something” was coal. St. Louis was one of the largest consumers of coal. On November 28, 1939, the problem became so bad that when a thermal inversion (cold air coming in over warm air) came through the city trapping the cloud of coal emissions, the city’s pollution problem came to a head. The city became so dark that lights remained on in buildings throughout the day and cars kept their headlights on. Visibility was nearly nonexistent. The day became known as Black Tuesday and cleaner solutions were immediately sought, although full change would take some time. Today, despite advances in other energy methods, coal is still used widely on a global scale, although there are cleaner-burning versions.

Without regular trash service in more rural areas, people burned what trash they could and buried the rest. Larger items took on a more peculiar and shocking end. I remember my great-aunt being upset that a family member had dumped the family’s grand piano into the Missouri River. Aghast, I said, “Surely not actually dumped it into the river. You must not mean that literally.”  The response: “No. Actually into the river.”  This was a common practice then, as well as a common perspective—if you put it into the river, someone downstream can worry about it. Because of this practice, early Chesterfield residents watched trash float by from towns and cities further upstream.

Despite a lack of advances in some areas,  people were often “greener” than we are today. Green was mowing your own lawn with a push mower, powered by your own strength instead of a combustible engine. Green was getting a drink out of an old garden hose–not thinking about any bacteria in or on it—rather than using the one-time-use omnipresent plastic bottles of today. Green was wearing your cotton clothing more than once or even twice, before washing it-on a washboard or in a wringer washer, again powered by your own self-energy. Green was not buying more than you needed. Green was purchasing items in reusable containers– usually glass jars or wooden crates. Green was repairing something instead of disposing of it. Now the cost of repair is often more than the cost to replace an item (a fact of which manufacturers are well aware). When was the last time you took a DVD player to be repaired?

Maybe we should draw from the best of both worlds–use the knowledge we have to make use of our modern advances–but still occasionally drink from the garden hose–or at least sip tap water from a glass.