I am going to do another blog that has long been on my ‘to do’ list, more about things that we recognize today than about the fifties – what we would now call Green issues or ecology.
I suspect that some scientists even then were aware of Global Warming but the general public had no concerns and would not have understood the word ecology or ‘green’ in its modern sense. But we were not profligate in out treatment of resources.
I am going to work backwards and start by a trip round our local rubbish dump today – now glorified as a ‘Recycling Centre,’ and look at the things we now recycle:-
- Paper. Back in the fifties we had newspapers and we used them to light fires. Supply and demand matched very well. We didn’t use much other paper, perhaps note pads and colouring books. Any excess newspaper and all other paper just went on the fire. (There was nothing remotely like junk mail!)
- Cardboard. This was quite a rare occurrence, maybe occasionally something came in a cardboard box. It would have been torn into small enough pieces and go the way of paper. (Cardboard egg boxes were collected and re-used.)
- Wood. At the risk of being repetitive we used the wood that made up open boxes of vegetables to light the fire. I suspect we only had these boxes because Dad worked in wholesale fruit and vegetables. Any other wood would have gone on the fire.
- Plastic. What! Plastic? There was virtually none of it. Small bits of plastic or cellophane wrapping could go … wait for it … on the fire. No food came in plastic containers.
- Glass. Again there was very little. Milk bottles were re-used. Beer and soft drinks bottles were returned for their deposit. The only other glass I can remember was for jars such as marmalade or sherry and wine. I suppose it went in the dustbin.
- Metal. There were not much because there were no canned drinks. The only food I remember in cans was baked beans (and very occasionally garden peas.) It must have gone into the dustbin.
- Batteries and Light Bulbs. These went into the dust bin but were very rare. I think out only batteries we ever had were for a torch – used when we had power cuts. Light bulbs lasted a long time.
- Electrical Goods. Now we have various options for recycling – Large electrical (white goods) and smaller items. Of course back then we didn’t have most electrical devices of today. (In the early fifties we didn’t even have a refrigerator. The electricity meter under the stairs had a wheel that went round faster as you used more. Except in the evenings when lights were on it generally stopped!) Anything large like a refrigerator would be taken away by the council (free) if you just rang up and asked them.
- Textiles. This is still only a small area now for recycling or re-use. Basically we didn’t throw away old clothes then – they were used until they fell apart and then used as rags. (There were no kitchen towels.) Eventually they would probably go on to the fire.
- Cartons. No we didn’t have such things.
- Food Waste. This went to the compost heap but we did not waste food. Potato peel, pea pods, egg shells etc. made good compost.
- Other rubbish. I suppose most of what we have now that goes to the land-fill department is packaging and things that can’t be recycled because they are mixed. I can’t think of anything we had in this category. We certainly did not have aerosol cans.
So what did we have in our dustbins? Basically it was just ash from the fire. Dustbins were metal so the ash could go in while still a bit hot sometimes.
Dustbins were collected every week and we didn’t have to do anything. The dustbin men would come round the back of the house and find it. After emptying it they would return it where it belonged! (I know we can’t call them ‘men’ now but it was never a job for women. They didn’t do it and almost certainly would not have been able to do it.)
The rubbish collected by the bin men was burned so we didn’t need large land-fill sites. [See Blog  ]
It’s worth pointing out that there were garden incinerators, simple metal mesh containers that could be used to burn some rubbish. Generally they were used for garden rubbish such as autumn leaves but old furniture could be chopped up and burned. We even had open bonfires in the back garden – not just for the Fifth of November.
One of the major causes of excessive rubbish now is packaging. There was very little packaging in the fifties, and it was mostly wood, cardboard and paper – easily burnable. Some things did come in metal containers.
Much more food was bought with little or no packaging, for example vegetables were loose; bread was unpacked, just wrapped in tissue paper. (Sliced, wrapped bread was an expensive alternative.) Milk came in milk bottles (rinsed and returned for re-use). Egg boxes were also re-used. Apart from milk, drinks came in glass bottles. For beer bottles there was a deposit, refundable on return – for re-use not for re-cycling.
For goods in department stores you might be offered a carrier bag (brown paper) or you could use your own shopping bag.
Most things were made of wood or metal. Plastic was only just emerging as a material and some toys were made of plastic. Bakelite telephones and electrical plugs were the main things in plastic. But there were no chairs, boxes, pens, bottles or cutlery made of plastic. (Also, of course, many of today’s uses for plastic were not around in the fifties in any material – food mixers, computers ….)
Most clothes were made of natural fibres – wool, cotton (and occasionally silk). Nylon had emerged for stockings but otherwise there was little use of man-made fibres for clothing.
We didn’t have materials like polystyrene, cling-film or bubble-wrap. ..
[Of course without metal cans and today’s ubiquitous plastic wrappings and containers, there was very much less visible litter. Any paper litter was biodegradable and soon disappeared. On the other hand with much more smoking cigarette ends and sometimes discarded cigarette boxes were seen in the streets. And dogs – no dog poo bags and no culture to use them.]
Re-cycling can be expensive and inefficient and so re-use may be more effective.
We re-used milk bottles, beer bottles, some soft drinks bottles and egg cartons.
For so many things we just didn’t need to change – so we were not regularly throwing out old models to make room for the new. For example, I remember we had a hairdryer. It lived in the middle drawer in the cabinet in the morning room. It always lived there. It must have lasted for years. It worked so we did not consider replacing it with a faster or better model.
Today many things like mobile phones have a life of 2-3 years built in almost automatically. (In business they call it built-in obsolescence.) We have a monthly contract on a phone which includes buying the actual handset. When it runs out we assume it’s time to upgrade to the next model. So we spend several hundred pounds to buy a replacement and throw out the old one. [The old fixed phones lasted forever.]
Most people now accept the significance of the phenomenon known as Global Warming, which predicts an imminent collapse of the World’s environment as a habitat fit for human population. Politicians are only just beginning to try to prevent or reduce it but many predict that all efforts are now far too late.
One of the major contributing factors is the change to our carbon balance with the depletion of carbon stores such as coal and oil deposits and the loss of rainforests. A hundred years ago large areas of Africa, America and Asia were rainforest but economic and demographic pressure has let to most of it being cut down with increasing losses in recent years.
Back in the sixties most of what still remained was the Amazon basin a large area of undisturbed forest. I remember from Geography lessons in the Fourth Form we looked at South America. The capital of Brazil used to be Rio de Janeiro until an ambitious project around 1960 carved space for the new city of Brasilia in the middle of this rainforest. Now many large areas of the Amazon are no longer forest.
If you ask – what did we know about Global Warming in the fifties and what we do about it? Well, I suppose that few really knew what was happening and politicians, as always, ignored anything even slightly long-term. [Ok, I’m a cynic about politics – a Grumpy Old Man!]
In the seventies the Ecology Party in Britain and other organisations began to open up political awareness of green issues. (The Ecology Party has since been renamed as the Green Party.)
My awareness goes back a bit further to Gordon Rattray Taylor and the book he produced in 1968, The Biological Time Bomb. I read it at the time and still remember it. It was primarily about the rise of biotechnology but it also considered many resources with only limited supplies. There was a whole list of elements expected to become unavailable by the turn of 2000. (Of course they did not run out. Maybe we have other sources or alternative technology. Maybe we have just postponed our problems.)
There have been predictions of inevitable doom for many years and at University I also noted the predictions of Rev. Robert Malthus, who in 1798 published, anonymously An Essay on the Principle of Population. It considered how improvements in food production led to population growth.
Of course the elephant in the room is now population growth as it has been for hundreds of years. People still don’t talk about over-population although it is far more important than all other considerations.
Malthus observed that the improved well-being from better food production was temporary because it led to population growth. Mankind used abundance for population growth rather than a higher standard of living. Populations tend to grow until halted temporarily by war, famine and disease.
Even in the sixties I remember our Geography teacher, Mr Evans (the one who taught us about South America and the Amazon forests,) foretelling the doubling of World population by the year 2000. It’s now three times what it was then.
When movements like the Ecology Party arose in the seventies there was a movement called Zero Population Growth. Demographics make even this unachievable because we live so much longer today. If every couple in the UK had just two children the population would continue to rise – probably for hundreds of years. (China with its one-child policy has still doubled its population over the last fifty years.)
I don’t generally comment about politics but my views are that we are already in excess of sustainable population levels by a factor of maybe five or ten – and the climatic effects of Global Warming will inevitably lead to another great extinction event like the one that led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Earth has had five such events and will survive another one. It’s unlikely that the human race will survive. We may all be lucky enough to survive before it gets too bad!
Two comments before I end this somewhat pessimistic blog. First we have a language rich in idiom with all sorts of convoluted expressions which come and go. There are hundreds of expressions we use now that people of the fifties would not have understood. One such expression is ‘the elephant in the room.’ Wikipedia mentions a story from 1814 but dates its use from the New York Times in 1959. It certainly was not well known until sometime later.
And ‘How Green was My Valley’ is a 1939 novel about family life in Wales. I remember a very early series on (BBC) television but Wikipedia knows only of a series from the mid-seventies. Perhaps I am wrong.