Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Stupid Nostalgia

But I repeat myself.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook. At first glance, it looks like it makes sense, but it really falls apart with even a little bit of thought. Here’s the text.

Checking out at the grocery store recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.” The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.” She was right about one thing — our generation didn’t have the green thing in “Our” day. So what did we have back then…? After some reflection and soul-searching on “Our” day here’s what I remembered we did have…. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day. Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then. We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then. Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then? Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smarty-pants young person can add to this

The ending gives it away, if you hadn’t already gotten it. It’s just another “things were better back in my day, get off my lawn” rant. But how much truth is there in it? Not much, but enough that some people will repost it and get lots of thumbs-ups along the way.

So here’s a bit of a response. When I was a kid, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire because of the pollution in it, and major lakes had large areas where you’d get sick if you went swimming. Locally, you couldn’t eat anything you caught in Bayou Bonfouca because the fish were contaminated by the runoff from the local creosote plant. Acid rain was common, and there were days in major cities where it was impossible for asthmatics to walk outside and breathe because of the smog. Today we’re debating over how much our pollution is changing the atmosphere as a whole–back then, we were worried that the air was giving us cancer.

Those single tv’s and radios that the above author is extolling? They used more electricity alone than the gadgets we use today combined, because we’ve found ways to make them way more efficient. We use as much fossil fuel per capita today as we did 30 years ago, but we do way more with it. (Side note: the fact that we’re still using fossil fuel is a major problem, but we can’t ignore that we’re much better at using it.) Would it be better if we had a working public transportation system in this country that would make it possible for more people to live without cars? Absolutely, but that doesn’t negate the incredible gains in efficiency we’ve seen in cars over the last 40 years, especially when it comes to emissions.

And then there’s some stuff that’s just ridiculous. People haven’t used refillable pens in any large way for 50 years. Same goes for refillable razors. And to suggest that cooking was somehow better in the past because the people doing the cooking (note: almost always women) had to spend way more time preparing food with all that chopping and stirring and blending instead of, oh, having careers or expanding their minds is frankly insulting.

The world was not better in the past, not for anyone. The only reason it might seem like it is because the past you remember is your childhood, when you weren’t having to deal with the shitty things. Your parents did. And at some point, your kids (if you have them) will talk about how awesome things were back in the old days, by which they’ll mean their childhood, and you may be tempted to strangle them as they recall a world you don’t remember. Don’t do it. Look at your grandkids (if you have them) and think about how much better the world they’re living in now is, compared to the one you were an adult in. And then roll with the changes.


January 2, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. You are right on, Brian!

    Comment by Leslie Mertz | January 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. I reposted that, because I thought it was relevant. yeah the cars 50 years ago had worse emissions but there were a lot fewer of them than they are now. Leaded gas was a bad thing, but who knew. the thing about it is would you rather have one car that emits x amount of hydrocarbons that are bad for the environment or 10 cars that emit x/2 hydrocarbons that are bad for the environment. The emissions laws enacted in the last 30 years didn’t cut out emissions, they REDUCED them but the thing is, there’s 3 times more vehicles on the road, so if they cut it by half, but tripled the amount of output then we’re still at a dangerous level. I hate it when people don’t look at facts before they post crap like you just did. Fact is glass bottles were recycled! I did it as a kid to earn money. you could find them everywhere. Problem is the same companies that polluted the rivers and streams with toxic chemicals are not pouring it directly into the water now. they’re separating it from the water and putting it in a land fill and as it rains, it still pollutes the water! You ever work in a waste water treatment facility? The process to manufacture products really hasn’t changed. Take chroming parts for instance, you still use very toxic chemicals, electricity and water to do it. all companies do now instead of letting the contaminated water go down the drain is to filter it with sand then take the waste sand and bury it somewhere. eventually when it rains the water flushes the chemicals down into the ground water supply and viola, we still have the same issue, but in a different place! I’m just saying.

    Comment by Jeff | January 7, 2012 | Reply

    • I want to respond in two ways here. First, I want to say that I’m a huge proponent of public transportation and I wish we had, as a nation, a much better system because we’re not going to drill our way out of this fossil fuel crisis, no matter what areas of the planet we’re willing to despoil. Honestly, oil at this point is too precious to burn in our cars. We use it for too many other things that improve the quality of our lives that putting it in personal vehicles is just stupid. I suspect that in my lifetime, we’ll be mining landfills for plastic, so strong will our desire for hydrocarbons be.

      But as regards pollution, if we had only cut emissions in half, then indeed the larger number of cars would be a concern. But instead we’ve reduced emissions per car to a thousandth or more of what they once were, depending on how far back you go (and if we’re going back to the days of leaded gas, then we’re talking about significantly fewer emissions indeed). Those are the facts you’re accusing me of ignoring. And auto emissions are only a small part of what we’re dealing with in terms of air pollution.

      There is no doubt that the air today is cleaner than it was when I was a kid, even with the increased industrial output and the larger number of cars on the road. Go back and look at pictures. Go back and look at measurements of pollutants. It’s not a debate. We still have tremendous work to do, improvements to make, but we won’t make them as long as we’re looking back at the past and saying “it was so much better then.” It wasn’t. It never has been. That’s why nostalgia is stupid–because it can keep us from pursuing the solutions we need because we think we did it better in the past.

      Comment by Brian | January 7, 2012 | Reply

  3. Way to go Brian! I like people like you who think the way you do!

    Comment by Princess Melissa Denham | January 8, 2012 | Reply

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