America's most widespread and successful conservation efforts have been prompted by momentous social and economic disasters. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II are known more as profound historic events. Yet they resulted in incredible environmental reforms and widespread changes in individual behavior that we seldom see.
Nearly 85 years removed from the stock market crash that brought about the Great Depression, fewer and fewer of those that lived through the economic and social anguish that followed are around to tell the stories.
Testimony to the scope of this hardship comes from a story my grandfather told me more than three decades ago. Longing for a fresh pack of chewing tobacco, he managed to save a nickel for the special treat. As he approached the store on Twelfth Avenue, he reached into his pocket for the nickel. Much to his dismay, the coin fell into the deep snow in front of the door. He dug frantically through the snow until he could hardly feel his hands but never found the coin. He vividly recalled the incident, chuckling that, a half century later, he had all the nickels he wanted but no desire to chew tobacco.
Others have passed along stories of those years, telling tales of financial struggles and the frugality that became necessary just to survive. Nothing was wasted, everything that could be was reused and recycling was a necessity, not just an act of environmental stewardship.
Still reeling from the effects of the Depression, the Great Plains found itself in the midst of a horrid drought that was magnified by the cultivation of land that could be farmed only in the wettest of years. The hardships endured by the people of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas especially made the Depression seem paltry by comparison.
A valuable set of lessons came from this very dark time. Many of today's farming practices, programs and regulations have their figurative roots in the Dust Bowl. Franklin Roosevelt championed legislation to address the catastrophe, and the new Soil Erosion Service undertook the task of teaching farmers how to slow the loss of the nation's valuable soil resources.
Like the Great Depression, World War II seemed like an unlikely impetus for conservation. The war, just as the Depression had done a dozen years before, forced America into conserving energy and resources. The mobilization of industry to build planes, tanks, ships and vehicles for the war demanded tremendous amounts of steel, rubber and other resources.
It wasn't possible to get all those resources from virgin sources. Recycling became a necessity and would reach levels never before seen in America. And like the educational efforts of the Soil Conservation Service, the government undertook a publicity campaign to deliver the message to the American people.
Posters, newspaper advertisements, movie "shorts," radio spots and billboards encouraged Americans to carpool, recycle, use less water, save their fat (for explosives) and even do without silk stockings (for parachutes).
These three watershed events were not just notable pages from our history books but also brought about significant environmental actions throughout the nation. It proves yet again that there is much to be learned from our past.
You can learn more about the conservation efforts of World War II at the Blair County Historical Society's annual commemoration at Baker Mansion today and tomorrow. Visit www.blairhistory.org for details.