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Our Throw-Away Society

We are at a crossroads not just for the health of our planet, but also for the health of our society.

"For some of us, we will think back and remember how we used to do things before the ubiquitous presence of plastic, but many of us are young enough that we can’t visualize our lives without plastic encasing everything."(Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

"For some of us, we will think back and remember how we used to do things before the ubiquitous presence of plastic, but many of us are young enough that we can’t visualize our lives without plastic encasing everything."(Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Mainstream western culture is addicted to the convenience of plastic, to single-use items, cheap electronics of limited lifespan, and excessive packaging that assures us of safety and cleanliness.  In the face of horrific images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and mutilated wildlife, we are starting to wake-up to the necessity of curbing our addiction to these conveniences. This will require not just active engagement and action by government and industry, but a fundamental paradigm shift by every individual.  For some of us, we will think back and remember how we used to do things before the ubiquitous presence of plastic, but many of us are young enough that we can’t visualize our lives without plastic encasing everything.

If you are over 50, you likely remember the Prell shampoo commercial where a bottle of Prell was dropped from an unseen height and as we watched it approach the floor, we braced for the inevitable shattering of glass.  Then… it bounced! This was the first shampoo to be marketed in a plastic bottle rather than a glass one. Glass!? Yes, glass. Milk was delivered in glass bottles, soda dispensed in glass or cans, hand lotion and other cosmetics in glass jars and bottles.  I remember talking to my daughter-in-law about shampoo, and she asked how we managed glass bottles in the shower. We placed them outside the shower, stuck our heads out and applied the shampoo, so that we didn’t drop the bottle in the tub. If you did drop the bottle on the floor, well, you finished in the shower and then cleaned it up.  Glass made us care-full, while plastic has made us care-less.

Those of us over 50 remember other things like snacks, candy and ice cream treats packaged in paper, school lunches wrapped in waxed paper, convenience meals in aluminum trays and covers.  We remember when apples did not come in factory molded trays, when restaurant leftovers were placed in paper boxes in a ‘doggie bag.’ We remember buying items at the hardware store by scooping them out of bins into paper bags, instead of sliding prepackaged plastic boxes hanging from pegs.  We also remember being able to ask clerks not just where something was located, but about which product was best for our project. We learned to make and repair things, and in general, had fewer things, especially those requiring electricity.

Ever heard of ‘trickle-down economics?’ We have. It didn’t work in our youth, and it won’t work in yours.We also remember the lies our government has told us, sometimes multiple times.Ever heard of ‘trickle-down economics?’ We have. It’s the idea that if you cut taxes on business, business will naturally channel that cash into hiring more people and/or lowering prices, sharing the prosperity with everyone. It’s a nice idea, except that there is nothing to require them to do so. It didn’t work in our youth, and it won’t work in yours.

Our society wants everything new and shiny, the old and used up discarded and out of sight, things done for us, not by us, by machine, and by computer. We isolate ourselves by our insatiable appetite for computer-based activities. This reality brings me to another aspect of our throw-away society – throwing away the wisdom and experience of elders.

Do you know how to sew on a button, hem jeans, iron a shirt, cook a meal from scratch, make simple repairs around the house? Kicking it up a notch, do you know how to knit, work with wood or metal, preserve food from a garden, use a slide rule?  Chances are that those around you over 50 do, and that many of them would be delighted to teach you. In turn, they may welcome assistance with smartphones and social media, helping them communicate more readily and regularly with you.

We are at a crossroads not just for the health of our planet, but also for the health of our society.  We cannot afford to make the same mistakes over and over because we do not value the experience, knowledge and wisdom of those older than us.

If you are young and cannot visualize life without plastic bags, boxes and utensils, ask an elder to talk about their youth and what they did. If you want to learn to do something practical, ask an elder. If you want perspective on world events, ask an elder.

Elders, do not allow yourselves to be invisible. If you have specialized or ‘old-fashioned’ skills to share, seek opportunities to pass them on with joy. Even if you do not have a special skill to share, by your very seniority, you have stories and experience to share.  Assert yourselves with pride.

Together, we can teach with joy, learn with enthusiasm and effect change with our shared knowledge of the past and the present.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Eileen McCabe

Eileen McCabe

Eileen McCabe is an artist, poet and progressive activist  living in the Greater Seattle area.

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