THE BLOG
11/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Goodbye Good Times, Hello Waltons?

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How will you dress for the Bush Depression this winter? Me, I'm counting on my slightly tattered but super-toasty flannel-lined OshKosh overalls--so old they were actually made in OshKosh. That, and the sweaters I'll be wearing à la Jimmy Carter, since our thermostat and our bank balance will both be chillingly low.

President Carter tried, and failed, to make cardigans and conservation cool during the seventies energy crisis. He warned of "the serious consequences of our long delay in creating a comprehensive national energy policy" in a speech announcing the Emergency Natural Gas Act of 1977, and called on us all to buckle down and bundle up:

I again ask every American to lower the thermostat settings in all homes and buildings to no more than 65 degrees during the daytime and to a much lower setting at night... ...I must say to you quite frankly that this is not a temporary request for conservation. Our energy problems will not be over next year or the year after. Further sacrifices in addition to lowering thermostats may well be necessary. But I believe this country is tough enough and strong enough to meet that challenge. And I ask all Americans to cooperate in minimizing the adverse effect on the lives of our people.

Sadly, the sole American family willing to heed Carter's "make do with less" message was the Waltons, who, alas, resided only in the corn pone-filled cranium of Earl Hamner Jr. Two years later, a frustrated Carter asked, plaintively, "Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?" He blamed the loss of community and the rise of materialism in our culture:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Again, Carter channeled the Waltons while the rest of us stayed glued to the oily exploits of the Ewings. We bought into the more-is-more mania, and our collective carbon footprint expanded exponentially. Houses and cars and waistlines grew bigger, while an endless geyser of consumer goods gushed all around us. Will it ever run out of steam?

Consider this astounding statistic I came across in the October issue of Organic Gardening: In 1995, the average number of food items sold in supermarkets was 3,000; by 2006, it had jumped to 45,000. And most it is cartons and cans and clamshells filled with industrially grown stuff that's been processed to death and then schlepped over land and sea. That's why Michael Pollan's "eater's manifesto," In Defense Of Food, advises us to avoid supermarkets altogether and seek out fresh food from local farmers--and our own front yards--instead.

Sure, some folks will continue to fill their cupboards with Campbell's soup--the only stock that didn't tank when the Dow sank. But more and more Americans are rejecting pre-fab faux foods in favor of DIY dining. Today's New York Times cites a report that, as of May, "53 percent of consumers said they were cooking from scratch more than they did just six months before," driven by the rising cost of convenience foods. Hey, when you're unemployed, there's plenty of time to hone those handy Depression-era skills like how to make your own stock, grow your own veggies, and can tomatoes.

We're reverting to old-timey modes of transportation, too--there's been a dramatic spike in bike sales and train travel in recent months. And many of us are buying less, learning to make do, and turning off the lights when we leave the room. We are, at last, achieving Jimmy Carter's dream of a simpler, less-stuff driven life--a dream, by the way, that he shared with another recent U.S. president, George H. W. Bush.

Poppy Bush declared back in 1992 that he wanted to "make American families a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons." How gratified he must be to see that Waltons-style austerity is finally in vogue. And all it took was his son's catastrophic stewardship of our country.