Every decade witnesses changes to our environment

Life was not so difficult 50 years ago and we might learn some valuable lessons if we better understood how that was possible.

Having lived through the ’60s, I can state with little reservation that it was possible to live in comfort and safety in a world that used fewer resources. It was possible to travel about conveniently and communicate without smartphones. We managed to find trustworthy sources of news in a bigger newspaper, on locally connected radio stations and through television news that actually reported the news.

We walked more and drove less. We used streetcars, then busses. We lived closer to the places we worked and shopped in places closer to home. We knew the people in our neighborhoods. And we could walk through those neighborhoods on revolutionary walkways called sidewalks.

We ate more locally grown food and watched our neighborhood butcher cut and pack our meat. Our milk was often delivered to the cooler on our porch by a local dairy that got milk from their own cows or nearby dairy farms. We poured that milk from glass bottles that went back into the container to be taken back to dairy. Pop came in returnable bottles and we got money back when we took the empties back to the store.

Our expectations regarding clothes, home furnishings and electronic gadgets were lower. Many homes had a single phone and one television. In Altoona, most households only received one television station before cable added four more in the mid-1960s. The only keyboard was a manual typewriter.

Our music came from a radio (usually AM) or a record player (and most were not in stereo). Somehow, I still managed to listen to the wonders of rock and roll.

Beyond bananas, we didn’t see or expect to buy food from the other end of the world. We made more things in the United States, shipping them much shorter distances in the process.

Even without much recycling, we made 40 percent less trash. We used paper straws, our food was wrapped in paper, our purchases packed in brown paper bags (or white ones if we shopped at Gables). Before fast-food came to every part of town, we ate on real dishes, drank from glasses and used washable silverware.

Don’t get me wrong. This was not an environmental or social utopia. Our factories and gas-guzzling cars gushed pollutants. Blight was widespread and the nation’s largest cities could be riddled with slums. Poor folks, both white and black, were cursed with dreadful living conditions.

Working conditions, especially in manufacturing settings, could be similarly unpleasant, often dangerous and frequently unhealthy. Industrial accidents and workplace-induced disease, like black lung, took many lives before health, safety and environmental regulations turned the tide in the 1970s and 1980s.

So what’s my point? Could Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — been describing the 1960s as well as the 1860s? Is every era destined to experience both incredibly positive and dreadfully unpleasant life circumstances?

If the answer to both questions is yes, it should dishearten us that it sometimes takes us so long as a culture and a species to learn what should seem like obvious lessons.

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com) writes about environmental issues every other Wednesday.

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