Uncle Sam Wanted Us

Patriotism once meant conservation, not shopping

| May / June 2003

Despite war, turmoil in the Middle East, and energy crises at home, talk of conservation—let alone personal sacrifice—has been missing from the national dialogue. Instead, in the aftermath of September 11, President Bush urged the American people to go shopping. He also renewed his push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This approach was welcomed by industry; Ron Zarella, president of General Motors’ North American division, concluded that “GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles.”

In other times of national crisis, citizens have willingly sacrificed for the common good. During World War II, people were encouraged to plant “victory gardens,” to conserve rubber, paper, aluminum, tin cans, toothpaste tubes (for the small amount of zinc they contained), sugar, coffee, and even kitchen fats (the glycerin was used for ammunition). Drivers were limited to three gallons of gas per week, leading to the formation of car pools or “car clubs.” Leon Henderson, head of the Office of Price Administration, the agency in charge of rationing, rode a “victory bike” to work. All these conservation campaigns were publicized through a series of remarkable posters produced by graphic artists organized as Artists for Victory. The reasons for conservation have changed since then. Sources of natural rubber, for example, are no longer in enemy hands, and terrible explosives can be made without kitchen fat. But oil is still central to our current crises. Iraq would be a minor power without its vast oil reserves, and one of Al Qaeda’s stated grievances is the presence of American troops guarding the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Isn’t there something more patriotic we can do than buy a new SUV?