Gardening for a cause


Thursday, August 9
Last week, we ran an Associated Press story about front-yard gardens and the growing movement to turn the lawns of suburbia into vegetable patches.

There has been resistance to this idea in some places by people who think a vegetable garden is unsightly. But slowly, people have discovered that it doesn't take a lot of effort to grow fruits and vegetables, and the homegrown ones are fresher and better-tasting than the ones they can get at their local supermarket.

In a way, this is an old idea made new. During World War II, they were called "victory gardens." From the lawn of the White House to vacant lots in New York City to the back yards of more than 20 million gardeners, victory gardens produced about a third of the nation's vegetables during the war.

Writing in The Sierra Club's magazine, author Mike Davis offered the theory that the values that inspired the victory garden -- and other efforts by ordinary Americans during World War II -- could be the model for how our nation will cope with the effects of climate change.

In "Home-Front Ecology: What Our Grandparents Can Teach Us About Saving The World," Davis details how Americans "simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home."

With gasoline and rubber rationed, car pooling was encouraged and hitchhiking turned into an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. The bicycle made a big comeback as a primary form of transportation, and even horses and buggies started to reappear.

The government encouraged frugality and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition and food conservation and encouraged Americans to reject mass consumption and to "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" to free up resources to fight the war.


Vermonters, of course, were already wise to the ways of frugality and finding a use for everything. The demands of the war did not require drastic adjustments in the lifestyle of the average Vermonters.

From government-mandated clothing designs that used less fabric, to restrictions on home building and the production of luxury items, what happened during the war was nothing less than a total mobilization of American society. Growing vegetables, mending clothing, recycling scrap metal, volunteering in the community -- all these things were seen as ways for Americans to help the war effort.

Davis called all this "the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history." Of course, the conditions that created this burst of patriotic sacrifice -- a world crisis, full employment and a shortage of consumer goods -- were unique to the era. The social reforms and idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal a decade earlier made collective action for the good of the nation an easy sell.

Sadly, those ideals were swept away once the war ended and pentup demand for consumer goods was unleashed. Without a crisis, there was no need for victory gardens or bicycle-riding commuters and few of the core values or innovative programs of the war years survived into the postwar era.

Could this nation again rise to a similar level of sacrifice? We hear conservatives talk about the importance of the so-called global war on terror, but they're not trading in their SUVs to support the war effort.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush told Americans to go shopping and not postpone that trip to Disney World. And if gasoline, tires, coffee, sugar and beef were again rationed, there would be howls of protest.

We'd to think that if Americans were asked to sacrifice in a time of crisis, they would do so with little complaint. With the looming crises of climate change and peak oil on the horizon, the time may be coming for Americans to replant their victory gardens to save our planet. Maybe the secret to our future survival rests in the stories and experiences of our parents and grandparents.


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