Thrift and Waste in American History

J. R. McNeill and George Vrtis

in Thrift and Thriving in America

Published in print July 2011 | ISBN: 9780199769063
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199896851 | DOI:
Thrift and Waste in American History

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This chapter discusses the history of how Americans have wrestled with the competing social visions of economic growth and ecological thrift. On the one hand, the story of waste is a story of American exceptionalism: endowed with unusual material abundance, technical know-how, and political freedom, Americans created “a cultural format in which endless consumption rivaled spiritual grace as the path to worthiness and fulfillment.” Yet, in contrast to what they call the “cornucopian vision,” there arose a concern for ecological conservation and protection that would eventually give birth to the modern environmental movement. Nature and culture form a double helix in American history, causing the perennial struggle between thrift and profligacy to swing decidedly in favor of the latter. Still, the American propensity for excessive wastefulness provoked periodic backswings in the direction of careful husbandry, the repercussions of which are still at work today in the greening of thrift.

Keywords: American culture; economic growth; ecological thrift; exceptionalism; environmental movement

Chapter.  9034 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Economic Sociology

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