In the heart of London are the Churchill War Rooms. This vast underground complex is where the British government managed World War II and is now a fascinating museum, with detailed exhibits on everything from war technology like an encrypted telephone system, to a display of Churchill’s own underground bedroom. At least as fascinating as these war relics, though, are the reproductions of dozens of Allied propaganda posters from the first and second World Wars, found, of all places, in the gift shop. The more recent ones are about 70 years old now; the older ones nearly a century old.
Yet despite their age and vastly different contexts, much of the language in these quaint propaganda pieces sounds uncannily like the language of sustainability we use today.
For example, Brits were advised to “Mend and make-do to save buying new,” and in the United States, families were urged to “Grow your own, can your own” so there will be “lots to eat this winter.” Brits were told to take “Fewer hot baths and save coal!”, and that “To dress extravagantly in war time is…unpatriotic.” Americans were even admonished that “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!” That one was a poster encouraging car-sharing—though it’s hard to imagine Zipcar using that particular slogan.
While some are clearly intended only as limited war-time deprivations, others have a more timeless feel to them. There’s the famous “Use it up, wear it out, make it do” poster from World War II, and another one from World War I about food reads “Buy it with thought, cook it with care, use less wheat & meat, serve just enough, use what it left.” Going beyond the usual conservation-for-war theme, one American poster even says, “Rationing means a fair share for all of us,” and depicts three people receiving an equal share of meat from a butcher.
It’s easy to dismiss these posters as amusing remnants of a bygone age, or to view them as only one-time warnings, not suggestions for a general way of life. This would be not only wrong but historically incorrect.
Ignoring the fact that the posters urge conservation for the war effort and not for the sake of the environment, they still embody ideas that were part of the general culture of the day. If there weren’t people who regularly canned food, grew gardens, mended clothes, or saved energy, and if these steps could not have been easily imagined, then it’s unlikely that even a concerted social marketing campaign could have made a difference.
These old war posters demonstrate that far from newfangled or radical ideas, sustainability embodies, to a large degree, longstanding commonsense cultural practices that we have only recently forgotten.
The affluence and technological progress of the post-war era made it easy to abandon old ways of living. Manual labor seems like “drudge work” today (in part because of marketing efforts by makers of time-saving appliances and packaged foods). Yet if anything we are more overworked in our era of leisure and pleasure than we were in the 1940s. Today many people find they can regain a lost sense of solace by engaging in work like do-it-yourself repairs, gardening, or cooking.
There are two lessons here, one for the skeptics of sustainability and one for its most enthusiastic advocates. For the skeptics, it is to realize that much of what we now call sustainability has in fact been in our culture for decades or even centuries, and yet has been diminished within living memory. Therefore, we should think twice about whether the developments of the last 50 years are really all for the better. For the advocates, we should not dismiss the skills, knowledge and values of past eras, while promoting green technologies, but instead investigate how best to accelerate re-adoption of earlier practices.
We often speak of sustainability as something we must build going into the future. But in many ways, it is something that we simply need to restore.