As someone who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s I sometimes look back and wonder at the hubris that sprang from the 'triumph' over Nazism and Japanese expansionism, which coupled with the Doomsday angst of the Cold War, to produce the world we live in now. As the saying is; "We didn't see THAT coming!" Mine was probably the last to grow up with teachers and parents word being 'law', in a world where 'drugs' were used by losers and idiots and we recycled everything glass, and even tin cans. Compost was something you made yourself if you were a gardener, and you didn't go to the supermarket for your groceries, meat, spare tyres, car parts and everything else. Even dog and cat food was bought raw from a butcher, and cooked, then minced by hand and sealed into 'preserve jars' and stored in the refrigerator.
Fresh vegetables came in bulk from the local 'German' Market held every Saturday in the Municipal Market Halls, which often supplied a plump fresh chicken for our Sunday dinner. Chickens and eggs were all 'free range' in those days, and, yes, not cheap. I look back in amazement now that roast chicken was our 'luxury' once a week, and we ate stews, meat loaf, fish pie and many other dishes which 'stretched' whatever meat was available. My grandmother (who lived above us with my grandfather) baked biscuits, cakes and other treats, and made jam - her speciality was orange marmalade - and also pickled and preserved a lot of the vegetables. Peas came in the pods, in large string sacks, and my brother and I had the job of shelling them and storing them in large glass storage bottles. Beans also had to be cut and the 'string' removed so they could be stored and there was very little went to waste. It wasn't that we couldn't afford the odd bit, it was more a case of being very aware that by some standards, we were very well off, and waste was definitely something to be avoided.
Groceries were bought daily from the local greengrocer who also stocked a range of tinned and bottled goods, liquor came from an 'off-licence' and meat from a local butcher (who happened to be my uncle). Fish we bought fresh from the fishing boats, or at our local fishmonger, milk was delivered in a hand drawn cart and the empties collected, washed and refilled, as were almost all other bottles. We could make a bit of pocket money going round looking for 'lost' empty cold drink bottles and returning them to the shops who paid 1d (One whole Penny!) per bottle. But then, a Mars Bar about three times as big as the ones you get now, cost 6d and a slab of Cadbury's chocolate cost 2s 0d (Two shillings, or twenty-four pennies, for the post metrication generation!). Wages were, by todays standards, low - my father earned only Thirty-two Pounds, ten shillings (32/10s/0d) a month and my mother around Twenty Pounds. Out of that they paid the rent, fed and clothed my brother and I and ran a car. There were few 'luxuries' - but heck, we had plenty and appreciated what we had.
Looking back I can now see the gradual change that came over our world, starting in the late 1950s, probably around 1958/9. First came the supermarket. Instead of carry a basket up to Henry's Shop as it was known locally, we all ended up going to the supermarket on Saturday after the German Market. Then we had to carry the shopping out to the car in the large paper bags. It wasn't long and 'Henry's Store' was downsizing, then closed. Our trips to the Market became less frequent - usually only now for the occasional fresh chicken. After all, we could get everything we needed at the supermarket - and it was cheaper.
Somewhere along this road, cold drinks stopped coming in glass bottles. First they went into tins - actually aluminium, and later into plastic 'bottles' which you threw away. Convenient, yes, but now we had a rubbish problem. Being a 'free-range' kid, something else I noticed was the way in which suburbs and townships were expanding. By the time I left school, a lot of the places I'd hiked through as a Scout were now covered in houses, laid out as townships and simply no longer 'wild space'. That accelerated from around 1965 and by the time I married whole tracts of land I'd camped on, or visited or known as farmland was covered in houses. And that brought with it the first 'ecological crisis' - rubbish.
Between 1945 and 1965 we'd somehow managed to shift from a society that minimised waste, recycled as much as possible (even clothing was 'passed down', collars and cuffs 'turned', shoes resoled and so on) to one which threw everything away at the first sign of wear, or the first sign of an 'improved' version, and the 'consumer' society took off. Great for the profits of the companies feeding this, not so good for the animals now being 'factory' farmed as things to be bred, fed, slaughtered and packed for the supermarket without compassion. Some say we turned the African Slave Trade into an 'industrial' process - you should see how we treat animals in our 'consumer' desire for cheap excess.
The first indication that something was going very wrong was the streamers of discarded plastic shopping bags adorning every fence around our cities (I grew up in Africa in case readers don't know) and the waste dumps began to overflow. It got worse, waste simply couldn't be cleared fast enough in some areas, and most of it was ecologically non-degradable. I hadn't been in the fire service lonbg when the first recycling businesses started to spring up, someone having realised there was more to the old Yorkshire saying of "where there's muck, there's brass" than just a quaint expression. At first though, they could only handle paper and clothing, but gradually that extended into other things.
For some of us, it was funny to watch as the wheel turned slowly back to doing things we remembered as kids as being 'normal'. This is why, now resident some six thousand miles north of where I was until 1987, I sometimes find it annoying to be lectured by soime snotty nosed 'Green' clutching his/her iPad/iPhone/Android/(Insert Name of Latest Gizmo Here) and dressed in designer jeans, teeshirt and synthetic jacket and expensive trainers, about the need to 'save' the planet by cutting down my 'consumerist' lifestyle. I should laugh, after all, my wife is constantly nagging me about wearing shirts I bought almost twenty years ago, or my extreme reluctance to give up perfectly serviceable furniture to the Crunchy-Munchy truck when I'm damned sure someone, somewhere out there would love to have it and use it.
Yes, it is convenient to be able to go to the supermarket and buy cheap produce. It is convenient to be able to discard my drinks carton/can/bottle, but there is a hidden cost to all this 'consumerism' and it is one we all end up paying. Yesterday I raised the issue of energy, and here again, I must point out that back in the 1950s, our power was locally generated by a small coal burning power plant (as Josephus pointed out, the coal creates steam, which turns the turbines, which ...) and our home had only one power socket per room, one central light fitting and in the kitchen we had a grand total of two power sockets, the light and an electric stove! Luxury. Power was expensive, and we didn't 'waste' it. If you left a room, you turned the light off. Nor did you waste water. the supply was metered and my father was always quick to 'have a go' if the monthly bill was higher than usual.
I think we have reached a turning point as a society. The straightforward 'consume-'til-you-bust' model is broken. The model most 'Green' organisations promote is unworkable and unsustainable with our populations at present levels. Somewhere between the two we need to find a balance, consume less, recycle more efficiently (I've just watched a perfectly good lounge suite be destroyed by the Crunchy-Munchy truck - one which, if there was a decent furniture recycling system in place would have been cleaned, any defects restored, and passed to someone who needed it) and relearn the art of living, rather than existing in a constant rush.
Yes, the 1950s were probably the apogee of the western dream lifestyle for many, but the naked consumerism that began in the 1960s is not an ideal model either. As Fagan says in Oliver Twist, "I t'ink I better t'ink it out again". Perhaps not me, but perhaps some of those very clever people in the corridors of power - assuming they can stop gourging long enough to do so ...
Mr Cameron? Mr Milliband? Mr Clegg? Frau Merkel? Anyone?