Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Getting and Spending, We Lay Waste Our Powers

"Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...." An Earth-Day inspired article, Waste Not, Want Not by Bill McKibben reminded me that the Romantic poets were spot-on about the Industrial Revolution. The news sites I follow have featured environmental news and commentary along these lines:

In the end, we built an economy that depended on waste...Making enough money to build houses with rooms we never used, and cars with engines we had no need of, meant wasting endless hours at work. Which meant that we had, on average, one-third fewer friends than our parents' generation. What waste that! "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers," wrote Wordsworth. We can't say we weren't warned.

The economic mess now transfixing us will mean some kind of change. We can try to hang on to the status quo--living a Wal-Mart life so we can buy cheaply enough to keep the stream of stuff coming. Or we can say uncle. There are all kinds of experiments in postwaste living springing up: Freecycling, and Craigslisting, and dumpster diving, and car sharing (those unoccupied seats in your vehicle--what a waste!), and open sourcing. We're sharing buses, and going to the library in greater numbers....

It's not that I don't take these things seriously--my parents remembered the depression after World War I as well as the Dustbowl, and I never felt comfortable spending money on stuff in suburbia, back when I had the income to cover it. It's just that these endless discussions of lifestyle modification are so repetitive, and generally involve at least a little whining.

That's why I was so pleased to find a reference to Susan Strasser's book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, including a generous two-chapter sample from Google Books.

She provides a review of how people have seen household and industrial trash from Harriet Beecher Stowe's household hints through the swill children of New York City to today's freegan dumpster divers. It's refreshing to get a really different perspective on waste and recycling. ("Fresh" isn't quite the word for it....) I particularly liked Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's distinction between

"cunningly devised minces" made from leftovers by "the true domestic artist" with "those things called hashes...compounds of meat, gristle, skin, fat, and burnt fibre, with a handful of pepper and salt flung at them, dredged with lumpy flour, watered from the spout of the teakettle, and left to simmer at the cook's convinience while she is otherwise occupied."....Unfortunately, cookbook writers had trouble describing exactly how to achieve a cunning mince instead of a forgettable hash....

That is the rub, isn't it? Sometimes hash is best forgotten, especially if it sports much "burnt fibre."

1 comment:

Reya Mellicker said...

I should say so!

Seriously though here in the house on Tennessee Avenue, we are doing a lot more stew cooking and a lot less of the big hulkin' chunks of tuna that cost $20 each. Dinner is still fine at 1/3 the price.