Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Signs of different times

We just came across this collection of old World War II propaganda posters at Treehugger. Many of them promote the Victory Garden movement, but the most interesting ones are all about thrift and anti-consumption.

These posters have a deep appeal to people our age, even beyond kitsch. They symbolize the passing of a generation that still knew how to can, still knew how to grow food. That kind of knowledge is now dangerously rare, from our point of view.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford says American education has trended away from hands-on learning in the trades, agriculture, and other foundational types of knowledge, and have instead favored training for white-collar work. He's not convinced that this is a good path for American society.

We are deeply anxious about what we don't know about the things that sustain us -- and marketers are aware of this. Crawford describes a recent ad for a motorcycle that shows an owner working intensely on his bike; the ad tells buyers that they can "build" the motorcycle according to their vision. But the ad merely hawks "custom" features that are ordered at the dealer and built at the factory, not applied by the rider-owner. (Crawford points out that the newest luxury cars and motor vehicles don't even let you check the oil or diagnose other problems in the engines; a computer at the dealer has to do that.) It's a bit like Betty Crocker cake mixes, Crawford says: Homemakers felt better about their "cooking" if they could add an egg or two to the mix before popping it into the oven.

This anxiety might explain the explosion in vegetable gardens this year. (Vegetable gardening one of the "back to basics" skills mentioned in this story about this very topic in The New York Times.) When things get tough, people seek out that foundational knowledge -- growing food to sustain their families. These days it's hard to find someone who actually knows how to make vegetable plants thrive. That is the main reason these posters and this generation carry a nostalgic appeal. These people knew something about how to make a living. Even though we live in better times, do we need this knowledge, too?

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