Is it the recesssion or are we all getting just a bit more mindful of our consumption — what we need, what we don't and what we waste? I for one have made a number of adjustments in my routine this past year. I no longer buy coffee at the deli but make it at home and carry it in a thermos to work. We eat more meals at home that we make from scratch, things like soups and sauces that we used to get ready to eat in a can or jar. We travel more by train and bus and less by car and plane.


What's curious is that almost every small change I have made reminds me of my parents — their thriftiness, how they took care of things and wasted nothing. This past weekend I was at my dad's, making soup stock from the remains of a chicken we'd had for dinner the night before. Once the stock was ready, I gave the bones to my dad who ground them up into meal for the dog. Not a bit of that three-pound broiler went to waste; my dad used every part to feed some member of the household at least one meal if not two.


My dad's a true "waste-not-want-not" sort who appreciates the worth of things. He repairs before replacing and patches before he discards. He works hard and he expects his things to work hard too. I've yet to figure out how to load the dishwasher as well as my dad. His is tightly packed with plates, bowls and glasses. I tend to mix it up more with pots and pans that don't fit together so hyper-efficiently. Even when I'm loading the dishwasher in the privacy of my own kitchen, I can hear him ribbing me about how much more he could fit in.


Today I'm wearing a shirt of my mom's; it’s well-worn but in really good shape nonetheless. It was my Christmas present from my dad and I like it as much if not more than if it were new. My parents were "materialists" according to Wendell Berry's definition — they conserved, were thoughtful about resources, mindful of what value they provided and what wasting them cost. Their lives were organized by the old World War II motto: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.


Thriftiness when we were growing up was in equal parts about saving moneyand not wasting it. My parents installed solar panels on our house during the oil shocks of the 1970s and composted food scraps for as long as I can remember. The same weekend as I made the soup, my son asked his grandfather how much of the household energy expense did the solar panels defray, and  his answer was "pretty much everything but the hot water" which meant a pretty good savings on the monthly energy bill. But it wasn't all about saving money. Being conservation-minded, efficient with resources, was just plain smart, and I don't believe our family was so unusual. Americans aren't wasteful by tradition. In fact, the very American ethic of self-reliance is deeply tied to conservation, at a level that transcends political allegiance.


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