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Finding our Victory Gardens

"The speed of [the] conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy is stunning," Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute writes of the US mobilization for the war effort during World War II. "The harnessing of U.S. industrial power tipped the scales decisively toward the Allied Forces, reversing the tide of war." He points to this collective effort as an example of hope for our modern challenges with the environment, the economy, and the energy crisis. "This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country — and, indeed, the world — can restructure the economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so."

Armaments production in the United States increased eightfold between 1941 and 1943—a re-routing of the American economy in just two short years. What kind of lessons can we in the current financial crisis learn from the wartime years?

During the war effort the US came together as never before, but it also came together in new ways. Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of the era because the nation was forced to draw deep into new sources of economic strength. The icon acknowledged the women who entered the workforce in increasing numbers or moved into traditionally male occupations. With war on the horizon, a scrap of backyard land became a Victory Garden. Rationing of commodities like sugar inspired ingenuity: "World War I marked the beginning of commercial beekeeping in the United States" and in World War II honey became an important substitute for rationed cane sugar.*

Great! But how do we tap our American ingenuity to solve the modern problems?

Long before either FDR or Lester Brown brought their calls to action to the American public, The New York Times delivered a message of hopelessness on another matter: The Great American Novel. "Few expect novel typifying America. Authors agree elements are too numerous to be put into a single story," begins the article from March 16, 1916. While it may be true that, ""No single book has shown or can show all of America and the American people," most agree now that "a" Great American Novel is one which accurately depicts the American people of a particular time period. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, comes to mind as a great American novel that meets that criteria.

The book addresses many of our country's concerns today: the environment (the dust bowl), migrant farm workers, industrial accountability, and the responsibility the whole of society should feel for its parts. But what I find most interesting, and most American, about Steinbeck's novel, is that the characters hold on to their moral identities by changing. One family is shaped by their experiences interacting with a diverse cross-section of Americans and American landscape, yet they still maintain something of the essence that they set out on their journey to save.

The plot follows the Joad family across the country in a gamble to survive against the considerable odds stacked against it by dire economic times. Various misadventures befall the family, but the end vision is one of hope. Rose of Sharon, one of the young generation of survivors, takes in a starving stranger, a new person into their social unit. With this move, the author seems to hint that the spirit that the Joad clan has been fighting for—justice, dignity—can only be protected by redefining their concept of who they are.

We don't know how the coming months of economic turmoil will affect each one of us.
We may be mobilized in Lester Brown's sense, or a new economic force, a new Rosie the Riveter, may emerge. Whatever happens, as Conscious Consumers we should be alert to creative opportunities all around us, looking for the equivalents of our own forgotten plots to turn into Victory Gardens. One of the most hopeful images from the wartime years is that people didn't necessarily go without something sweet: they just ate honey instead of sugar. As we buckle up for the economic turbulence ahead, let's remember Steinbeck's message: we can remain who we are, as long as we're willing to be surprised by who that is.


*Read more about rationing and creativity in the United States during World War II.

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