My grandparents married during the Great Depression and began raising their young family during World War II.
My grandmother would tell me stories about those times with pride. She couldn’t buy a car or nylon stockings. But she did save every bit of aluminum for the war effort, mended socks, and planted a victory garden. Though they had very little, when they could save ten cents, she would get another stamp for her war bond book.
As tough as those times were, my grandmother felt that what she did every day mattered for the country and her children’s future. Families across the nation took these same actions, and, together, they did indeed make all the difference. The victory gardens, the recycling, the $185 billion in war bonds raised by 85 million cash-strapped Americans (nearly $2 trillion in today’s dollars), and the retooling of Detroit for tanks and planes provided our country with the resources and capacity for the war effort.
Taken together, these actions gave the economy a whole new set of priorities—moving from a failing consumer-based economy to an economy focused on providing for the country’s future.
As a nation, we are again at this kind of pivotal time. We can choose to reprioritize the economy. And we know how to do it — we did it during World War II.
The steps this time around will look familiar to those who experienced these days. We need to embrace thrift as a fundamental value, and collectively shift our economy from one depending on consumerism, debt, and speculation, to one that spends its precious resources on what sustains health and well-being for people and the planet.
Like the economy my grandmother experienced during World War II, the consumer sector can no longer be the economy’s driver. But instead of a war effort, the priority now needs be to on economic activity and jobs that bring about a sustainable future—from energy efficiency, mass transit, and sustainable agriculture to education, health, and building resilient communities, that make sure no one is left behind.
The good news is that we’re already doing it. When gas prices spiked last summer, we saw millions of Americans finding ways to cut back on their driving. When Juneau, Alaska faced an avalanche-induced power outage last year, the town reduced its electricity use by 30 percent within weeks. And just this past spring, we saw the reports that the economic downturn can be seen at our nation’s landfills, which have been taking in less trash, as more Americans shift to thrift.
Smart transportation, energy efficiency, and a reduction of our landfill footprint: they’re not only a smart reaction to a crisis, but they’re part of the right response which, sustained into the future, will help us create the new economy that will work for all of us.
Unlike after World War II, we can’t go “back to the way it was” when our current crisis is over. We need to create the fundamental system change that keeps to these new priorities and reinvents a new economics that doesn’t depend on unhealthy growth—a system its cost on others, producing a range of modern social ills, from sweatshop labor to pollution. Instead, we need to build a new system that provides well-being for all in a sustainable, steady-state economy.
We need to make conspicuous consumption a thing of the past, and in this new economy, you and I, like my grandmother, will be growing that garden, mending, and recycling. We’ll get more creative about cooperating with family, friends, and neighbors to take care of the basics – and have more fun. The money we save will go to priorities like making our homes more energy-efficient, and into investments that help our entire country shift to renewables and provide the preventive care to keep families in good health.
No more defaulting back to consumerism as the engine that drives the economy and speculative investment that sends money speeding around the globe, divorced from the real, Main Street economy. We need to create the fundamental system change that embeds these new priorities – reinventing a new economics, with a new green engine, that provides well-being for all.
Alisa Gravitz is the executive director of Green America, the national organization advocating for a just and sustainable economy, www.greenamericatoday.org