People of my generation have a lot of guilt about the environment, because we know that we and the several generations before us have done it some irreparable damage. In considering action to change our course, the phrase we use most, in one form or another, is ‘saving the environment for our children.’ Let’s recycle and reuse. Waste less. Buy and encourage the development of hybrid and electric cars and other green technologies.
But here’s an ugly truth. We can save the environment for our kids, but once they’ve got it, all bets are off. Nobody is more wasteful than an American adolescent. In sheer oceans of fresh water, mixed with industrial quantities of soap, shampoo and conditioner and washed down the shower drain, one adolescent is equal to ten or twelve careful adults. All food is suspicious (disgusting, weird) that does not come encased in cellophane, cardboard or plastic; none of this gets recycled, and much of it ends up on roadsides. All beverages must come in glass, aluminum or plastic bottles, all of which also end up in landfills and highway culverts. If asked to leave the house without five or six-hundred dollars’ worth of electronic gadgetry in hand, the average American teen is ready to report this abuse to the Division of Family Services; and it goes without saying that any piece of this equipment that breaks or malfunctions is immediately tossed out and the pleading for a replacement commences before its carcass has cooled. Repairs are pretty much unheard of. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that many are tossed out because the batteries died.
But the one practice that signifies the American adolescent’s rabid wastefulness more than any other is the immovable refusal to dress for the season. Actually they dress for one season, summer; forget any other. We’ve all seen this, I’m sure. A cold January day, frost on the ground, temperatures hovering in the mid-teens with little promise of warming throughout the day, and there at the bus stop stand three kids in shorts and T-shirts, pretending like they’re not shivering: trying to look cool instead of cold. Drive through the parking lot of any middle or high school just as classes are being dismissed, or visit any mall thronged with teens: it little matters if there are nine inches of snow on the ground, you will find neither coat, hat nor gloves on anyone.
Okay, granted, this is stupid. Why do I think it is also wasteful? Because it signifies that these young people fully expect to be moving from one blast-heated environment to another. The temperature at home, on the bus, in school, in the stores at the mall, indeed everywhere they go will be balmy and comfortable–and someone else is paying the bill. Why should I dress warmly?
Worse than this, you know there are always a number of adults who think they can preserve a portion of their own youth by emulating the style and habits of actual young people; so one rarely visits the grocery store or gas station in winter without seeing some grown man standing there in his shorts and T-shirt like an idiot. It’s that sense of self-entitlement. I’ll dress this way if I so choose; and when I’m home, I’ll crank the heat way up to simulate the season I’m dressed for. After all, I can afford it!
Anthony Smith, the British author who wrote The Seasons, a scientific study of the affects of the seasons on life on Earth, has noted that Americans have a funny habit of heating their winter homes to temperatures much warmer than they would tolerate in summer, and cooling their summer homes much cooler than they can stand in winter. And while we may see this irony and think that we should do something about it, our kids never will. Why do we even have heat if you’re not going to turn it up to a decent temperature? Why don’t you put on a sweater? Well, sweaters, it turns out, are gay. Coats are ugly and puffy . . . also gay.
Warm clothing was one of our first adaptations to cold weather. Thousands of years ago Cro-magnons–fully modern humans–triumphed over Neanderthals in the cold river valleys of Ice Age Europe. It’s not certain whether they did anything to drive out Neanderthals, anything that quickened their extinction. Neanderthals wrapped themselves in animal skins to keep warm; Cro-magnons knew how to make needles of bone or antler and sew their clothing, a much more effective adaptation in glacial times. They thrived because, among other things, they were smart enough to dress warmly. Are we traveling backwards?
I hate to get back to the chestnut of personal responsibility, but I think that’s what this is about, on a strangely intimate level. Dressing for the season is a matter of personal responsibility–I will take steps to keep myself warm. Young people (and their older imitators) who don’t, or won’t take those steps expect that the room will keep them warm, whatever space they’re in will keep them warm. It’s a variation on the world owes me a living, plain and simple. I can understand this kind of irresponsible behavior in children who have yet to learn better: it’s inexcusable in adults, or in any parent who’s not stopping the kid at the door and shouting ‘Put on a coat, ya nudnik!’