The Crying Indian

Photograph: Gary Kohl

IF YOU WATCHED television at any point in the seventies, you saw him: America’s most famous Indian. Star of perhaps the best-known public service announcement ever, he was a black-braided, buckskinned, cigar-store native come to life, complete with single feather and stoic frown. In the spot’s original version, launched by Keep America Beautiful on Earth Day 1971, he paddles his canoe down a pristine river to booming drumbeats. He glides past flotsam and jetsam. The music grows bombastic, wailing up a movie-soundtrack build. He rows into a city harbor: ship, crane, a scrim of smog. The Indian pulls his boat onto a bank strewn with litter and gazes upon a freeway.

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” intones a basso profundo voice, “and some people don’t.” On those words, someone flings a bag of trash from a passing car. It scatters at the Indian’s feet. He looks into the camera for the money shot. A single tear rolls down his cheek.

“People start pollution. People can stop it,” declares the narrator.

Rewind. Replay. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch this ad over and over, framed by excited viewer comments: “A classic!!” “Very powerful.” “Best PSA ever made.” Most YouTubers agree with the trade journal Ad Age, which included the campaign in the century’s top hundred. Some netizens even claim the ad motivated them to pick up trash or chide litterers. The Advertising Educational Foundation declares the spot “synonymous with environmental concern.” Wikipedia says it “has been widely credited with inspiring America’s fledgling environmental movement.” The crying Indian wept for our sins, and from his tears sprang forth a new Green Age.

This is remarkable, since the ad was a fraud. It’s no big secret that the crying Indian was neither crying nor Indian. Even some YouTubers point out that he was played by character actor Iron Eyes Cody, whose specialty was playing Indians in Hollywood westerns. The Italian-American Cody — his real name was Espera Oscar DeCorti — “passed” as a Cherokee-Cree Indian on and off camera. His long black braids were a wig, his dark complexion deepened with makeup. His fraud was not ill-willed: he also supported Indian rights, married an Indian, and adopted Indian children.

The fraudulence of Keep America Beautiful is less well known. In a recent survey, respondents were given a list of “environmental groups” and asked “Which organization do you believe is most believable?” Thirty-six percent chose Keep America Beautiful — it beat out the Nature Conservancy (29 percent), the Sierra Club (17 percent), Greenpeace (15 percent), and the Environmental Defense Fund (3 percent). Over two million Americans acted on that belief in 2006, volunteering for Keep America Beautiful activities: picking up litter, removing graffiti, painting buildings, and planting greenery. Many may not have realized they were handing their free time to a front group for the beer bottlers, can companies, and soda makers who crank out the containers that constitute half of America’s litter. Or that this front group opposes the reuse and recycling legislation that might better address the problem. The information is not hard to find. Ted Williams wrote about it in 1990 for Audubon. Online, you can find many more narratives of KAB’s real motives, including a summary by the Container Recycling Institute.

And yet, even with Cody outed as Italian and KAB unmasked as a trade group, the crying Indian remains a beloved environmental icon. Why did he touch such a chord? One day in June, while visiting family in Michigan, I decide to find out.

TO GET TO Illinois from western Michigan, you ease round the bottom of what Michiganians call “the Lake,” then drop down into Indiana. Almost immediately, the landscape becomes classic heartland: seemingly endless, flat cornfields like the one where Cary Grant flees a crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest. Each small town pivots on a grain elevator, the horizon’s only transect. I stick to blue highways, remarkably free of generic sprawl, and head west. I think, Indiana.

As a child, I had a puzzle of the United States, each state a separate wooden piece. I liked stacking them in two piles: Indian names, European names. I was always fascinated by place names, especially Indian ones. Even as a kid, I found it odd that pioneers should name their homes after the people they had displaced to build them.

But that’s frequently the role Native Americans are given by American culture: marker of loss. Early American landscape paintings often included a token Indian: America was the new Eden, complete with mournful, expelled Adam. In the early nineteenth century, as “Indian removal” became federal policy, artists like George Catlin traveled the West, painting Plains Indians in war paint or ceremonial dress. Their still, solemn faces have a funerary tone. At the same time, hugely popular “Indian dramas” swept stages, almost always ending with an Indian character’s noble death. Yet even as these stage natives reassured audiences with their disappearing act, they embodied the young nation’s ideals: sacrifice, nobility, and honor. Depicting Indians as a “vanishing race,” these works registered an odd anxiety about their vanishing. What if in building our new world, they asked, we actually destroy its founding values?

At nine a.m. I arrive at my destination, the Advertising Council Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The UIUC library is classic land-grant college architecture, monumental yet homespun: huge hallways with soaring ceilings, wide staircases with thick wooden railings. The Advertising Council Archives are in the basement, down a long, tunnel-like hallway. Before going in, I stop to examine a glass display case outside the door. It celebrates “the Advertising Council’s commitment to the environment.” Typical is an ad from a 1994 “Clean Water” campaign. “There are toxic chemicals in our water,” it declares. “Such as oil. And pesticides. You might think industry is to blame. But they’re only part of the problem. You and I, in our everyday lives, are also responsible for a tremendous amount of water pollution.”
People start pollution. People can stop it.

KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL first came to the Advertising Council for support in 1960. An advertising trade group, the Ad Council recruits and oversees ad agencies as they create pro-bono public service ads for nonprofits and government. The Council then coordinates donations of media for the ads. They are famously successful. Working with the Council, volunteer agencies have churned out loads of catchy taglines for righteous causes: “Buckle up for safety”; “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”; “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” They created Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, and Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies.

Perhaps even more famous are the Council’s World War II campaigns: “Loose lips sink ships” and Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it!” Formed in 1941, the Council was originally intended to mitigate the antibusiness, collectivist side of the New Deal. Its founding mission was defined as “reteaching a belief in a dynamic economy.” But after Pearl Harbor, the ad men teamed up with the Office of War Information to crank out propaganda, encouraging Americans to buy war bonds, enlist, work in factories, and save tin cans, scrap rubber, and waste fats. At war’s end, however, the Ad Council happily returned to its true role: prophet of endless growth.

Looking back from America’s current position as global missionary of free-market gospel, it’s easy to forget that enterprise American-style — dedicated to the proposition that consuming equals happiness — once needed the hard sell here, too. But the ad men knew it. In 1945, the Council issued a pamphlet outlining its new purpose. The war was over, but a new battle was on: the “battle for markets.” Europe, they declared, was in ruins. State socialism was creeping through the Old World. America, too, would move left, unless advertising could “resume its star role as a profitable seller of goods.” This meant recasting the American Dream as the endless pursuit of plenty.

“Only if we have large demands can we expect large production,” wrote economist Robert Nathan in 1944. “Therefore, it is important that in planning for the postwar period, we give adequate consideration to the need for ever-increasing consumption on the part of our people as one of the prime requisites for prosperity.” This was more than economics: it was politics. An ongoing cycle of “mass employment, mass production, mass advertising, mass distribution and mass ownership of the products of industry,” wrote the Saturday Evening Post, would make the U.S. “the last bulwark” of democracy. Consuming became national policy: the 1946 Employment Act named “purchasing power” as one of the things government was meant to promote.

Thus prompted, Americans of the late 1940s got down to the business of buying things. In the first five years of peace, consumer spending increased by 60 percent. People bought cars and boats and clothing. They bought furniture and appliances. They bought Tupperware. Most of all, they bought houses. Housing starts went from 142,000 in 1944 to 2 million in 1950. The Ad Council cheered them on, casting consumption as what distinguished happy capitalists from those poor benighted souls living under the communist boot.

A 1948 Ad Council pamphlet, “The Miracle of America,” is typical. In it, Uncle Sam — shown striding across the cover with a toolkit and rolled-up sleeves — explains American free enterprise to an average family. The key, Uncle says, is ever-more-efficient production: “The mainspring of the American standard of living is High and Increasing Productivity!” America’s high rate of consumption — “We take abundance for granted” — is a sign of superiority. The U.S. has only one-fifteenth of the world’s population, the booklet explains, but consumes “more than half of the world’s coffee and rubber, almost half of the steel, a quarter of the coal and nearly two-thirds of the crude oil.” This, the Ad Council assured the nation, was Success.

“I HAVE OBSERVED that they will not be troubled with superfluous commodities,” wrote Thomas Morton about New England’s Indians in 1637. Arriving in the Plymouth colony in 1623, Morton, a freethinking Anglican who’d hung out with a group of libertines (including William Shakespeare) in law school, quickly grew tired of Pilgrim prissiness. He set up a rival trading post called Mare Mount, where he commenced retail and revelry with the natives. His paganish Mayday beer bash particularly outraged the Pilgrims; they chopped down his maypole — twice. (The episode became a famous Nathaniel Hawthorne story.) Finally, Miles Standish — “Captain Shrimp,” the reprobate Morton called him — was sent to arrest him. Standish cleverly arrived when Morton and his band were drunk, and the New World’s first frat party summarily ended. Back in England, Morton wrote a book about his experiences, New English Canaan. In it, he gives an atypically glowing early account of native ways. “According to human reason, guided only by the light of nature,” he declares, “these people lead the more happy and freer life, being void of care, which torments so many minds of so many Christians: they are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.”

Morton kicked off an American stereotype, one all the more powerful for having some basis in truth: the ideal of the “noble savage” who rejects European commodity culture. The reality is more complicated: the natives, of course, were savvy traders. But Morton highlights an essential contrast between Native American markets and those of the colonists: Indians valued acquisition for use, not for its own sake. “They love not to be cumbered with many utensils,” as Morton puts it. They knew the word “enough.” Their markets weren’t based on an ideology of infinite expansion.

Markets tend to get saturated. Even with planned obsolescence — another postwar innovation — people’s needs eventually level off. After the initial postwar exuberance, American consumption slowed. That fact alarmed the captains of industry. In 1953, economist and Lehman Brothers banker Paul Mazur fretted that “it is absolutely necessary that the products that roll from the assembly lines of mass production be consumed at an equally rapid rate.” Throughout the fifties, the Ad Council tried to jump-start consumption with ad campaigns like 1954’s “The Future of America” and 1956’s “People’s Capitalism,” all of which equated American freedom with mass consumption. Nevertheless, in 1958, people bought even less stuff. The Council launched “Confidence in a Growing America,” designed to “encourage consumer spending.” Supported by forty-one companies, it was nicknamed the “Buy Campaign.”

But how do you get people to buy if their demands are sated? That’s where the folks of Keep America Beautiful — rejecters of reusability — come in. Things that last forever you only buy once. But something you use once and throw away: that’s the perfect product.

“THEIR NATURAL DRINK is of the crystal fountain,” Morton wrote of the natives, “and this they take up in their hands, by joining them close together.” He was fibbing a bit — he himself sold the Indians spirits — but he was making a point. Hydration, too, has its politics.

After the hand-cupping came the pewter mug, the canteen, and then eureka! the glass bottle. Before the 1950s, most beverage bottles were refillable. As late as 1960, refillables still delivered 95 percent of the nation’s soft drinks. But the beer industry, shifting from local small brewers to large, centrally located corporate producers, was finding transporting all those empties increasingly expensive. They began turning to new “one-way” or disposable bottles. By the end of the 1950s, half the nation’s beer would be in throwaway containers. Many of them were ending up as roadside trash.

In 1953, Vermont’s state legislature had a brain wave: beer companies start pollution, legislation can stop it. They passed a statute banning the sale of beer and ale in one-way bottles. It wasn’t a deposit law — it declared that beer could only be sold in returnable, reusable bottles. Anchor-Hocking, a glass manufacturer, immediately filed suit, calling the law unconstitutional. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed in May 1954, and the law took effect. That October, Keep America Beautiful was born, declaring its intention to “break Americans of the habit of tossing litter into streets and out of car windows.” The New York Times noted that the group’s leaders included “executives of concerns manufacturing beer, beer cans, bottles, soft drinks, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes and other products.” These disciples of disposability, led by William C. Stolk, president of the American Can Company, set about changing the terms in the conversation about litter.

The packaging industry justifies disposables as a response to consumer demand: buyers wanted convenience; packagers simply provided it. But that’s not exactly true. Consumers had to be trained to be wasteful. Part of this re-education involved forestalling any debate over the wisdom of creating disposables in the first place, replacing it with an emphasis on “proper” disposal. Keep America Beautiful led this refocusing on the symptoms rather than the system. The trouble was not their industry’s promulgation of throwaway stuff; the trouble was those oafs who threw it away.

At the same time, the container industry lobbied hard behind the scenes. In 1957, with little fanfare, Vermont’s senate caved to the pressure and declined to renew its reusable bottle law.

In 1960, the year Keep America Beautiful teamed up with the Ad Council, disposables delivered just 3 percent of the soft-drink market. By 1966, it was 12 percent, and growing fast. As was the Ad Council. By then it was the world’s biggest advertiser.

WHEN ASKED if their family tree contains any Indian branches, most Americans will say yes. In my own family, the putative native progenitor was said to be a great-grandfather some times removed. Cherokee is what we were told as kids. Given the family’s deep Michigan roots this doesn’t seem likely, unless someone took a serious wrong turn on the Trail of Tears. As an adult I learned that this family mythology was common — though its most common manifestation is a mythic Cherokee matriarch. Considering this syndrome — you might call it delusions of Pocahontas — only fuels my obsession with the crying Indian. Keep America Beautiful tapped into something very deep in the American psyche. But it took them a decade to figure out how to do it.

In 1962, Michigan considered a ban on no-return bottles. Keep America Beautiful openly opposed it. Throughout the sixties, Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council battled a growing demand for legislation with an increasing vilification of the individual. They spawned the slogan “Every litter bit hurts” and popularized the term “litterbug.” In 1967, meeting at the Yale Club, they decided to go negative. “There seemed to be mutual agreement,” wrote campaign coordinator David Hart, “that our ‘soft sell’ used in previous years could now be replaced by a more emphatic approach to the problem by saying that those who litter are ‘slobs.'” The next year, planners upped the ante, calling litterers “pigs.” The South Texas Pork Producers Council wrote in to complain.

At the same time, KAB’s corporate sponsors made sure their own glass containers and cans never appeared as litter in the ads. This hypocrisy did not go entirely unnoticed. In the late 1960s, a noncorporate faction within the Ad Council, led by Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey, began to call for Keep America Beautiful to move from litter to the larger problem of environmental pollution. They threatened to scuttle Ad Council support for further antilitter campaigns. Backed into a corner, KAB directors agreed to expand their work to address “the serious menace of all pollutants to the nation’s health and welfare.”

Clearly a more subtle approach was necessary. The Ad Council’s volunteer coordinator for the Keep America Beautiful campaign was an executive from the American Can Company. With him at the helm, a new ad agency was brought in — Marsteller, who happened to be American Can’s own ad agency. The visual arm of Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm famous for its list of clients with environment-related publicity problems,* Marsteller crafted the new approach. The crying Indian campaign, premiering on Earth Day 1971, had it all: a heart-wrenching central figure, an appeal to mythic America, and a catchy slogan. There was a pro forma gesture in the direction of ecology — the Indian paddles by some belching smokestacks, after all — and the language had shifted from “littering” to “pollution.” But the message was the same: quit tossing coffee cups out of the window of your Chevy Chevelle, you pig, and America’s environmental problems will end.

IN 1970, as Marsteller hatched the ad that would seal his fame, Iron Eyes Cody was busy making film westerns. He played a medicine man in A Man Called Horse, Apache chief Santana in El Condor, and a character named Crazy Foot in a comedy called Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County. As in the earlier Indian plays, Indians in westerns are usually allied with nature, wilderness, old codes of vengeance and honor — the vanishing past that civilization must replace.

But in the questioning sixties, the inevitable march of manifest destiny began to be examined for its dark side. As social unrest accelerated, the counterculture began taking up Indian-ness to express a rejection of the status quo. In 1969, Native American Vine Deloria published Custer Died for Your Sins, a scathingly hilarious manifesto diagnosing the epidemic of bad faith in Indian-white relations, and advocating a new “tribalism” bent on “rejection of the consumer mania which plagues society as a whole.” In 1970, Dee Brown published his influential Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of U.S. government treachery toward natives that questioned the inevitability of empire. The same year, the tragicomic epic Little Big Man played Custer’s last stand as an analogue for the moral morass unfolding in Vietnam. Anti-war protesters adopted fringed jackets, beads, and braids. The Indian was still a symbol of America’s lost principles. But, in a Mortonesque revival, he was also becoming a living alternative to the postwar culture of consumption.

In adopting the Indian as a symbol but turning his rejection of consumerism into a rebuke to individual laziness, Marsteller and Keep America Beautiful — underwritten by the Ad Council — struck greenwash gold. Their Indian evoked the deep discontents afoot in the culture. But they co-opted the icon of resistance and made him support the interests of the very consumer culture he appeared to protest. There he stood, stoic and sad, a rebuke to individuals rather than a rejection of the ideology of waste. But then, that was the very ideology the Ad Council had promoted all along.

It was an elegantly closed circle. The titans of packaging pushed throwaways into production. The Ad Council preached the creed of consumption, assuring Americans that the road to prosperity was paved with trash. The people bought; the people threw away. Then, the same industries and advertisers turned around and called them pigs. The people shamefacedly cleaned up the trash. And the packagers, pointing to the cleaned-up landscape, just went on making more of it.

ON MY WAY HOME from central Illinois, I stop to get a sandwich at the only place I can find: Subway. It’s just off a highway exit, and I can hear the gears shifting on trucks as they accelerate up the on-ramp next door. I stand in front of the fridge staring at my options. Soda, water, energy drinks, juice. Plastic, aluminum, plastic. At Subway even apples — one of nature’s most perfectly packaged fruits — come presliced in plastic bags. I ask the clerk for a paper cup of tap water. She eyes me as if suspecting I’m the Unabomber’s unknown accomplice. I feel like the Unabomber’s unknown accomplice, because this small act, I know, is ridiculous. It’s not enough.

Symbolic protest rarely is. In 1976, after KAB testified against a proposed California bottle deposit law, the EPA and seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, resigned from its advisory board. Activists declared KAB a “front group.” But by then, being outed didn’t matter. The group’s work was largely done. In 1976, two-thirds of America’s soft drinks and nearly four-fifths of its beer came in disposables. Today, every American throws away about three hundred pounds of solid waste a year, about one-third of it packaging. Sixty percent of that comes from food and beverages.

Eleven states have succeeded in passing bottle bills. Beverage container recycling rates in those states are roughly double rates in nondeposit states. But in shifting the debate to bottle deposit legislation — which it opposed — KAB still won, because it shut down debate over whether disposable beverage containers were a good idea in the first place. Vermont’s original 1953 law would have required manufacturers to accept and refill their empties. No one’s talking about that now.

ENVIRONMENTALISM URGES us to consider the consequences of our actions. But what if by focusing on our individual actions — what we can do — we lose sight of the larger issue of what we can’t do — what has been made impossible by the way the world now works? I leave Illinois with a nagging feeling that I’m missing a piece of the puzzle. I find it in an unexpected place: about sixty miles east of Portland, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River.

The Dalles, Oregon, is the site of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most longstanding and cherished Native American trading sites: Celilo Falls. Once a waterfall with a peak flow about ten times that of Niagara, today Celilo has vanished. It lies at the bottom of the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, a mile-and-a-half-long concrete mouth, gates lined up like teeth, that has swallowed this stretch of the Columbia. At a Citgo station near the dam, a few Indians are parked in lawn chairs by a cooler with a hand-lettered sign: SALMON. The red plastic box sweats in the sun, entombing the sorry remnants of Celilo’s once-famous salmon runs. At the dam visitors center, on the Oregon side, talk quickly turns to Google. The sachems of search have built a giant data center about five miles downstream, in The Dalles industrial park. “I hear they’re running an extension cord over there from here,” jokes the Army Corps of Engineers docent. Outside, the reservoir glints flinty blue in the sun.

I drive to the data center and park in order to circumnavigate it on foot. The facility sprawls across the riverfront, the size of a shopping mall. Its chillers, humming like a Dreamliner on takeoff, cast waves of heat across the Columbia in an effort to keep the thousands of servers inside from melting. Across the street, a silent, cold blast furnace looms in stark contrast. It’s an idled aluminum smelter. Both industries — aluminum and information — came to this spot for the same reason: cheap electricity from the government-built dam. The smelter used about 85 megawatts. Based on projected square footage, the Google data center can be expected to use about 100 — enough to power a small city. I scramble onto a dirt hill and gaze at the data center’s private substation — two 100-megawatt transformers — until a guard dog chases me away.

The federal government began damming the Columbia in the 1930s, but things really got going in the forties. With the advent of World War II, Uncle Sam needed aluminum — more than Alcoa, a near-monopoly up until then — could make. The War Production Board hired Alcoa to help Uncle Sam build twenty new aluminum plants between 1941 and 1943. Many were sited near government-built dams, especially on the Columbia River. In fact, beefing up aluminum production was used as a reason to build new electricity-producing dams.

The result — especially after the war, when the government sold off its wartime plants to Alcoa competitors — was a glut of aluminum. Even as Cold War fears were used to justify building more dams, the aluminum industry scrambled to find new, peacetime uses for its product. The tail of production began to wag the dog of demand: Alcoa and their new competitors began inventing scads of new uses for aluminum: toys, boats, appliances, golf clubs, cookware. But the real breakthrough was the aluminum can. John D. Harper, Alcoa’s young and innovative president, boldly led the company into the production of rigid container sheet for can companies, gambling that the disposable market could use up his excess aluminum. The first aluminum beverage can was introduced in 1958. The aluminum industry never looked back.

In 1960, the year Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council joined forces, containers and packaging composed just over 7 percent of the U.S. aluminum market. But Harper’s gamble paid off. Within twenty years, aluminum containers would produce more revenue for Alcoa than its second-, third-, and fourth-largest markets combined. John D. Harper spent much of that time as a member of the Ad Council’s Industry Advisory Committee.

WE’VE COME a long way from our crying Indian. Or have we? The day the waters rose at Celilo Falls, the town’s tribal elders looked on in tears. It wasn’t the first such event. In June of 1940, Colville, Tulalip, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Yakima, Flathead, and Coeur d’Alene Indians gathered at Kettle Falls, another beloved trading and fishing spot that was soon to be ninety feet beneath the reservoir of Grand Coulee Dam. For three days, elders spoke, fishermen recalled fantastic salmon runs, children played games, and the community mourned the end of an ancient way of life. It was called the “ceremony of tears.” When the reservoir was filled, more than two thousand Indians were displaced from their homes.

The federal government built thirteen more Columbia River basin dams in the 1950s, another seven in the 1960s, and six in the 1970s. Many destroyed Native American towns and fishing sites. But this didn’t just happen in the Pacific Northwest. It went on all across America. After World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers built scores of dams, a shocking number of them on tribal land. The result was always misery for Native Americans. Kinzua Dam on Seneca land in Pennsylvania. The Moses-Saunders Power Dam on Mohawk land in New York. Tellico Dam, drowning Cherokee towns in Tennessee. Oahe, Fort Randall, and Big Bend Dams inundating Sioux land in South Dakota. The larger, hydroelectric dams quickly attracted power-intensive industries, often aluminum plants.

In 1948, a deal was reached for the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) in North Dakota to sell thousands of acres — at thirty-three dollars each — to the federal government for its new Garrison Dam. Three Tribes’ Council Chairman George Gillette reluctantly went to Washington to sign the contract. In a widely published picture of the event, the secretary of the interior signs the document, his face impassive. Flanking him, several suited bureaucrats look anywhere but at George Gillette, rakishly handsome in his double-breasted, pinstriped suit. Gillette has taken off his glasses, put his face in one hand, and begun to weep.

Ironically, perhaps unwittingly, the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful got it right. The crying Indian hints at the root cause of the problem he mourns: it’s not just roadside trash. It’s the culture of consumption that created that trash — with government subsidized power — and sold it to the public as the American Dream, when in fact it was that very dream’s death. Iron Eyes Cody may have wept on cue, but George Gillette wept for the land.

IS THE CRYING INDIAN the root of environmentalism, as Wikipedia would have it? Or is he its sole mourner, weeping its silent dirge? In the thirty years following his debut, Americans landfilled or incinerated more than a trillion aluminum cans — enough to encircle the Earth 3,048 times.

I watch the crying Indian again on YouTube. Here’s the genius of it: the ad appeals to a vague feeling of national guilt that — following in a long iconic tradition — is associated with Native Americans. What we’ve done to this land is not right, and the Indians know it, because we did it to them, too. As the Indian contemplates the trashed landscape and car-choked freeway, a dark possibility opens up: our way of life is destructive. The cars, the pollution, the factories: it’s not, despite what we’ve been told, the best of all possible worlds. Something must change. And then that bag of trash arcs out the window and explodes like a revelation at his feet. Oh, we think, relaxing, so that’s it. That’s what we’ve done wrong. We can stop doing that. It’s the same move by which we’re told to buy local food — that buying local will make things change — as if the government were not providing farm subsidies to agribusiness and highway subsidies to the trucking industry and zoning incentives to chain stores, thus shifting the costs of bad environmental choices invisibly to the taxpayer and making “buy local” — the best choice — often the most difficult and expensive one. How can we expect individual choice to right the wrongs of collective decisions?

Tracing the crying Indian to his real-life counterpart reminds us to focus not just on symptoms, but on the system. Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council planted the seeds of a feel-good “shop for change” form of environmentalism that urges us to forgo regulation in favor of personal choice. We can do it! But in a world where federal funds continue to subsidize energy squandering, individual action is important, but it’s not enough. In today’s disposable market, aluminum is being edged out by resource-intensive plastics that are even harder to recycle. The aluminum industry has gone abroad in search of cheaper power, and their subsidized hydropower is being taken over by energy-guzzling data centers. Microsoft,, and Yahoo have all joined Google on the harnessed Columbia’s banks.

It’s another elegant circle: Whenever you want to see “the best PSA ever made,” you can go to YouTube and search for “crying Indian.” Bytes will stream to your computer from a shiny digital factory, perhaps one sitting on the Columbia. The ancestral fishing grounds mourned by crying Indians will thus generate the electricity that activates Iron Eyes Cody’s tear, falling once more for a trashed world.

* In more recent years, Burson-Marsteller performed crisis management for Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster, for reactor builders Babcock & Wilcox after Three Mile Island, for British Petroleum after their Torrey Canyon oil spill, for Dow-Corning after silicone-breast-implant lawsuits, and for the government of Saudi Arabia after thirteen of its citizens helped carry out the attacks of September 11. One of Burson-Marsteller’s key accomplishments was helping to invent the concept of astroturf. Corporate-sponsored groups designed to look grassroots, astroturf organizations are able to reach the media, and in many cases, the hearts of the public, in ways that corporate flaks never could. Their particular specialty was astroturf environmental groups: they helped spawn the Coalition for Clean and Renewable Energy, bankrolled by Hydro Quebec; the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a consortium of energy, industry, and agricultural companies formed to fight clean air legislation; and the American Energy Alliance, which lobbied to defeat President Bill Clinton’s proposed Btu tax. Until his April 2008 ouster, Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn was also a chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Ginger Strandis the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.


  1. Ginger, your article is extremely thought-provoking on many levels and I thoroughly enjoyed it. . . thank you!! I’d be interested in hearing your impressions of another organization that the Burson-Marsteller agency has done work for in recent years: The Clean Energy States Alliance. Is it “astroturf”?

  2. Thanks for your comment and question, Carol! My internal skeptic also wakes up whenever I see Burson-Marsteller, but I wouldn’t describe the Clean Energy States Alliance as astroturf. They are a group of state-sponsored renewable energy groups. They are managed by the Clean Energy Group of Montpelier, VT, whose stated mission is “the greater use of clean energy technologies . . . through innovation in finance, technology and policy.” You will notice the absence of the word “conservation” in that statement and in their policy papers. So while I wouldn’t describe the Clean Energy Group as astroturf either, I might call them an advocacy group for various renewable energy industries.

    Sorry to be long-winded–these things get difficult to sort out these days!

  3. This is an amazing article, thank you! It leaves me with a lot of food for thought. I do know that the aluminum industry is now killing Iceland, who would have thought? ( It seems that big business has a hard time being anything less than insidious. In any event, I am finding it repulsive to drink out of disposable containers. I’m hoping the feeling will spread. While it may not change the planet, it allows one to stand for personal integrity. Perhaps that idea will spread too.

  4. I’ve been advocating, for years, the requirement that ALL manufacturers should be required to take back everything they make when the consumer no longer wants it. This would necessitate an entire rethinking on how they make their products, especially in how long the product is used for and the ease of recycling it

  5. Wow!
    I have been alive for most of the time frame discussed in your paper. I can remember my emotive response to many of the situations described in your report as they occurred. Thanks for the research and article. Historical perspective is vital too comprehension of complex issues. The simplifying or “plastic-ing” of America needs thorough understanding and an open-mindedness if we are to enable any real or meaningful change to occur.

  6. WOW..That ad has had a big positive affect on me. It still makes me cry..I have attended stomp dances w Cherokee people.I have just about given up on them bec so many are so pro war.Here in Muskogee Oklahoma the Chereokee Nation has build a Monticello looking health care center.The art work in it celebrates the “Christian” Seminaries that brought religion to these people SO sad..Maybe we will get it together when we to live more sustainiably..

  7. Thanks Ginger, for examining corporate greenwashing. Please consider exploring Orion’s own legacy along these lines- Chevron-Texaco money flowing into reportage, BeefUSA & Native Energy supported carbon offsets, the same CIA literary connection that perverted the Paris Review, the mysterious investment-banker founder unavailable to answer email, & the Editors cover-up of such trails.
    Thanks in advance!

  8. This is an incredible article. As a child born in 1960, the power of that commercial came back full force as I remembered every moment of the crying indian psa. Later, I majored in environmental conservation and canvassed neighborhoods for Colorado’s (failed) bottle recycling bill. This is the kind of article that makes me want to support Orion, the kind of article that I will send on to friends–especially all those folks addicted to “Mad Men”(!)–and that every american now trying to wade through information and raise children to “help the earth” whether it be through buying local, rejecting bottled water, recycling, etc., really needs to read. Fantastic article! Since I was raised in Champaign-Urbana and now live in the Pac Northwest, I loved the geographic trajectory of your piece as well, taking us on your journey with you.
    Vivid and real. Thank you!

  9. If “America was the new Eden, complete with mournful, expelled Adam” does that make the displacer God? Manifest Destiny….

  10. All well and good, and excellent research, but I do want to add personal experience. I was a kid roadtripping with my family in the late 50s, early 60s, and we really did pitch whole bags of trash out the windows. It was typical, everybody did it. McDonalds was new, but just plain trash from the supermarket or deli, after a meal in the car, would go out the window. Nobody noticed the trash – the great highways and American landscape were still beautiful. It was simply cool to have a car and to traverse the land. But the trash really did pile up, and eventually people started to notice. This was even before seatbelts and headrests in cars. The crying Indian was HUGE in bringing a new word into the vocabulary — pollution. Before that ad, most people wouldn’t have even known the word, or would have had to look it up in the extremely unlikely event of stumbling across it anywhere. Pollution became a mainstream word after that, something we all understood, even though anyone’s actual actions were always open to judgement.

    So, all that said, I am glad you are doing such great research and of course what you discovered is invaluable! We should know about this smokescreen and press the industry to match their message. But it doesn’t make the message less important. Back then, we also still had segregation, or desegregation was still very fresh. We are always evolving and we should always do better. But unless you were there, throwing trash out car windows with normal, and nation-wide abandon, then learning a new word, and feeling the collective stop a huge amount of mindlessness, I don’t think you can really appreciate the how valuable that message was. Not to whitewash its creators, but we have nowhere near the litter now that we might have had, had we not received that message.

    The word ecology joined the mainstream not long after this.

  11. That PSA was and is powerful. I understand there was manipulation involved, but the message still rings true: We need to clean up our mess, stat.
    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  12. I’m not rating your article and saying it was good, but it too damn dramatic, almost made my tears fell down, we should support these quality articles like this that enlightens people and makes them aware of our surroundings.

  13. This is a fantastic and thought-provoking article; thank you, Ginger! When I mentioned Google’s new energy guzzling server on the Columbia River to a fellow coal activist, I was surprised to hear him marvel at Google’s wise business decision enabling it to stream data to and from billions of computers for mere pennies per kilowatt hour using “clean” energy. Until we make connections between ways of living that contradict each other, the quiet revolution that our planet so desperately needs will always be just out of reach. By oogling over bigger and better technologies and information transfer while ignoring how our personal consumptive habits—whether spending hours on Facebook, driving to work in a new Prius rather than biking, or giving to NGOs such as Keep America Beautiful—we fool ourselves into believing we do not need to do more—this, to me, seems a very dangerous situation, indeed…

  14. I thought that The Crying Indian was a beautiful piece of art. I also thought that this article captured it very well. The entire ordeal was before my time so upon reading that it was on youtube I immediately thought that it was my duty to check it out and become an informed citizen. I must say I was rather shocked and baffled at the end of the article when the author stated that bit about bytes streaming to my computer from the banks of Columbia. I found the entire article all very insightful and interesting. I very much enjoyed how much it dealt with the American psyche and the American dream. It interested me to read the part about how many Americans were shocked at the revelation that the Native American in the commercial was not real. Watching it myself on youtube it never once crossed my mind that he may have been. To discover that so many Americans were shocked and repulsed by the news was intriguing to me. I have only praise for this article.

  15. I thought this article was very well done. I, like the author above me, was born well after the seventies, but the ad was something I felt that I should see after hearing about the presence of the ad while learning about the ethics of consumerism. The ad was well worth watching, and this article on the ad was also well worth reading. The witty comments made the reading far from dry, and the point that the ad itself was a fraud was extremely interesting to read.

    I particularly enjoyed reading about why in particular the ‘Crying Indian’ hit so hard on America. The idea that the Indian is the “noble savage”, as stated within the article, was well illustrated and undoubtedly true. I also enjoyed reading about the fact that the very agency that ‘tries to prevent and clean up pollution’ creates it through consumerism.

    I greatly appreciated this article for opening my eyes to the truth of consumerism: there is little truth in consumerism. Thank you so much for this very informative, well written and quite enjoyable article.

  16. Dear Ginger Strand,

    Thanks for telling the truth as you see it and for speaking out loudly and clearly about what everyone knows but precious few will say.

    As you know better than most of us, “denial” is not only a river in Egypt. However we choose to look at the taxonomy of denial, you help us easily see that many too many leaders are collusively engaged in its practice. Even though it is perverse, denial is consensually validated behavior. If enough elite people remain in denial, something more attractive…ie, something illusory…can be put in place of what is more real and somehow likely to be more truthful.

    Doing good work along the path toward a good enough future for children will not be an easy task for anybody. Evidently, everybody wants to be a somebody, but nobody in a position of power willingly assumes the requisite responsibilities and performs the duties of office. Such so-called ‘leadership’ is both ubiquitous and woefully inadequate.

    Occasionally a great person like you can be found who goes against the tide of people with power…who disputes the elitists who uniformly favor whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable and religiously tolerated.

    Certainly I share the view that everyone-in-power’s silence with regard to what is happening in any “here and now” moment of space-time is the most formidable foe that the family of humanity faces.



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  17. I have to say, upon reading the beginning of the article, when you introduced the ad, I went straight to YouTube and watched it for myself as to understand what you were going to talk about. Then upon coming back, I laughed because, just like you said, I watched it (and replayed it) online.

    I liked how you brought in how the advertisers shaped what America is. It really does seem that America is shaped by the media, and whatever the media wants to present the pubic takes to, and they believe what they see on TV to be the truth. I too, like a few before me, come way after the seventies and therefore get the benefit of hindsight to see where our mistakes as a population have been, and I would say that we really have changed. I’m not doing to say whether it has been a good or bad change, that is up to the individual to resolve, however the masses have taken to the internet, now getting bombarded with more propaganda than ever before. Speculating from the campaign that Obama led, advertisement is king. Whether it is newspaper, TV, or online (or all of the above) if you can appeal to the viewer, you have another person on your side. I would hope that people start to use this massive resource not as just a way to use MySpace, but as a tool to understand the depth behind the current ads so that we aren’t in the future looking back and asking ourselves “Why didn’t we learn from ourselves already?”

  18. I haven’t ever seen the crying Indian, it was about 20 years before my time, but I could really picture it with your description. I really liked your article and I hope more people read it and spread the message around. It was interesting to learn about the whole consumerism thing from the aluminum industry angle.

  19. I really liked this article. I believe it has opened my eyes to a whole new understanding. I am still young so I don’t know all that much about the economy, but I do know that our world is in trouble. Even if I do pick up a little trash on the ground it’s not going to change much, but I think it will help me a lot.

  20. Ginger— your article was indeed thought provoking. Thank you for being so thorough. The whole ad of the Crying Indian was centered around the fact that the people of America were littering all over the once beautiful America’s surface. The main character of the ad wasn’t a real Native American, but a PAID ACTOR. I wonder if the high and mighty Ad Council had ever once paid a visit to what remains of the Native American reservation to ask how the actual people depicted in the ad felt. Did they have any other solutions than a commercial? What would they have done? We, as a people, have allowed for the Native American’s land to be taken, used, and generally destroyed. I have seen countless articles, books, and documentaries about how sad and wrong that is… but I have never seen any changes. Any of their land given back? Any Government intervention to get those lands back? Of course not.

  21. In my generation the only “Crying Indian” viewed today are skits on reruns such as The Simpsons, but still the enviromental movement seems to be in full swing around todays youth. It is said that we study history to keep it from happening again, yet our government has repeatedly turned to greedy corporations and false advertisement to try to wiggle free from any tight spot our country found itself into. Take J.P. Morgan for example, in 1901 Morgan created the US Steel Corporation after purchasing Carnegie Steel Company along with many other smaller steel companies. Not long after US congress passed tariffs keeping out foreign steel maintaining the price at $28 a ton. Our government, which was created by the people, for the people, and of the people has had a history of being the government by money, for money, and of money. It is very rare today to find an organization or a company that is completely honest in its agendas. This article only supports my more cynic view of the world that I have grown up in. Hypocrisy in such “noble” causes such as those stated in this eye opening article are only a few of those being discovered in the media today, yet no matter how many times their skeletons are released from their closets, people still see them for their intentions. Though not the intentions that they carry, but those of which we are ment to believe that they carry. Personal obligation seems to be the main force behind personal responsibility to reuse, recycle, reduce but those efforts are not supported in our government when it is so desperately needed

  22. It is simple, our country has its flaws. We are lazy people with destructive habits. We are all sheep misled by a shepherd, with lobbyists screaming in his ears, pushing money in his pockets. The main problem is nobody is willing to stand up to these corporations. Just like the Vermont Senate eventually caved. Every man has his price, a possible solution, find someone who has a higher price then the companies can afford. Not saying this is an easy task, but are there any other solutions?

  23. I see Keep America Beautiful as a car without a working engine that you keep in your garage, that you wash and polish every day. We need to look beyond the aesthetics of our country. We need to look at the health of the planet. Sure, you can make America look a lot better by throwing things away instead of littering, cleaning up graffiti, and the like, but those things you throw away still end up in a landfill, and the paint used for the graffiti still damaged the atmosphere. Making things look nice doesn’t solve the problem. If all you do is throw away all of those Coca-Cola cans, you are still wasting so many natural resources, and the factories still keep pumping out massive amounts of aluminum cans every day. People need to stop using so many disposable goods and look towards renewables. Here in our city, you can go down to the 7-2-11 and buy a refillable cup that you can refill for less than one dollar, and getting much more soda than in a can you can buy from a vending machine for $1.25. I’m not saying it’s okay to drink gallons of soda all the time, but it’s better to get things that you can use over and over. If you go to a coffee shop all the time, bring your own cup, if you are a photographer, don’t use disposable cameras. If we don’t waste so much, then there is no need to throw so many things away.

  24. i think that this article is funnily insiteful because all the arguing makes it sound like elemtry kid.
    and the end with saying that by watching the best PSA ever made you will in turn make the
    “Iron Eyes Cody’s tear, falling once more for a trashed world.” was very profound way to end the story because it shows that most of the stuff we do know involes tecnology like a modern day king midas were every thing we touch turns to tec. but one way we can fight this is with renewable energy.

  25. Thanks everyone for joining in this discussion, and thanks to Nick, number 23, for the nice analogy of a front group like Keep America Beautiful being like a washed and polished car. We need to turn our attention away from the surfaces of things and toward the deeper problems. To those who say “Yes, but Keep America Beautiful stopped us from throwing cans out our car windows,” I say, Sure, it’s nice not to have cans littering the highways, but cans along the highways are the symptom, not the problem. The problem is that disposable cans replaced reusable ones. KAB switched off a national conversation about the wisdom of disposability generally, and in doing so, they did more harm than good.

    I don’t want to see our ditches turned to trashheaps either, but that might at least turn our attention to the amount of disposable stuff our culture creates. And that, in turn, might make us question the need for that.
    We have to focus on the system, not the symptoms.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful words!

  26. Keep America Beautiful is nothing more than a modern day political campagn. It just desguises the problems. Like what Nick said in his comment, it doesn’t really matter if we pick up the trash or remove the paint, it all just ends up in the land fill. What we need to do is move away from KAB and go towards LNT (Leave No Trace). Instead of throwing away our trash we need to make less of it. What I mean is, reuse plastic water bottles, recycle, and use real dishes instead of paper are just a few examples. Like with anything that changes, it will happen slowly, with only two or three groups behind it. But these groups will have a gathering effect and soon huge differences in our trash disposal will begin to appear. It only takes some will power. We did it when gas got too high, we can do it when the trash gets to high too.

  27. I enjoyed this article. Reading it before seeing the comercial made it seem disapointing that he wasn’t an indian and wasn’t really crying.

    In response to Nick Smiths comment i beleive we shuold recycle our items as a solution to the landfill. In Farmington NM, the trash company is starting to recycle and give cans out for it. Also according to “The Story of Stuff” there are many things unrecycleable because they are made of metal and plastic. What should be done is areas to be open where they are taken apart and recycled seperately (e.g. tv’s so glass and metal can be recycled). This would also open many jobs and help even more.

  28. If little by little America can pick up trash and cover graffiti, then little by little we can start recycling and replacing disposables with reusables. All big things start small, and only grow when people are informed. If in high school a rumor can spread like wildfire, then I’m sure the same can happen with adults. Of course this ‘rumor’ will better the way we as Americans live.

  29. I saw that ad as a kid, and it made a big impact on me. Today, the 46-year old Me is feeling some inner resistance to the implication that the original ad was worth less, just because the motives of the producers were not pure. Just speaking from personal experience here, but I think that ad helped to prime a generation of kids to think in terms of taking better care of the environment–not in terms of enriching the container manufacturers.

    Sure, maybe KAB didn’t intend to help nuture a generation of environmentalists… but that is what happened anyway. I’m going to just chalk it up to being the best kind of “unintended consequences.” :-} We can have whatever laws we want, if we have the will to follow through.

  30. Really enjoyed this article. We had just watched this a month or two ago on youtube with our children wit fond nostalgia (along with School House Rock) and we like other readers remember the days when people did throw their trash out of windows with no concern what-so-ever. Unbelievable. In our case came the later (Don’t Mess With Texas!, campaign). A very successful ad by the way. Not sure who funded that one.

    I also have a family tree with a (mythological?) Cherokee matriarch (although from Tennessee, so a bit more believable that your own). So, I was blown away by the behind-the-scenes diversionary tactics you explore in this article.

    I think Sarah, as Ginger points out in #25, you’re missing the point. If the big dollars had drowned out the real discussion, the Vermont legislation, and the debate on disposable products–environmentalism would be stronger. The debate would be more weighted towards that which is meaningful without just scraping the surface of “littering”.

    I remembering having to carry all of the 32 oz. returnables back to the store (my father was a Coke-aholic) and they stacked up and they weren’t pretty and the producers had to pay for the bottles and the transportation (of course the trucks were making round trips, so how much more was it really adding?). The real cost was built in to the products. Which is why there weren’t free refills, we had to nurse one soda through out the entire meal.

    That’s more towards the real issue. That costs are being pushed around and hidden like the credit fiasco most of us have allowed ourselves to be in.

    No matter how much we recycle, it’s not enough. Look at the huge surpluses in recyclable materials right now. According to NBC news, cities are now having to pay to have their recycling programs continue because other alteratives are “cheap” again. Recycling is a bit of a red herring.

    For me the local food part was quite relevant. I resell local foods and know that it is not cheaper and never will be as long as subsidies are in place. (Even then, I don’t know if it should be cheaper as much as all foods should be more expensive if the real costs were added.) Buying local is such a small gesture in the face of the bigger dollars of agribusiness and the real underlying problems which don’t seem to be going to change anytime soon. I was quite disappointed in Obama’s appointment as Sec. of Agriculture–as Pollan says, it’s just going to be “agribusiness as usual”.

    So much smoke and mirrors it’s extremely hard to keep up with the hidden ball.


  31. So… the photo of Iron Eyes Cody, taken in 1971, is attributed to Gary Kohl ? or, perhaps, if we are looking at details, the 1971 photo was manipulated by adding colour tints, & was merely an edit of another photographer’s work?
    I guess if we are giving credit where credit is due, the original photographer who sat in front of Iron Eyes Cody should be properly accredited…No ? I find this ironic, don’t you?

  32. If we’ve learned anything from , we’ve learned that in space — and increasingly on our planet as well — water is the most valuable substance. Among the host of upgrades that the International Space Station is set to receive over the next couple weeks is a water purification system that will recycle urine for use as drinking water. Similar technology has been used in the Salyut and Mir space stations to process water collected from the cabin’s atmosphere (the result of perspiration, aspiration and A/C condensation) but until now claiming back as much as 92% of water consumed by astronauts was just a wonderful dream. The project is part of a 15-day shuttle mission aimed at increasing the number of astronauts the craft can hold from three to six.

  33. Notice how Madmouser (appropriately monikered, I might add), fails utterly to refute my central argument about pollution. As long as the Righties can gain the upper hand by casting doubt in the populace about global warming, they’re perfectly happy to keep the “debate” there instead of making it about pollution. Pollution is inarguably bad. I’ve exposed their modus operandi and tapped into something they don’t want said.

  34. Great article. It opens a window to irony after irony — first to the irony that I read the article on my MacBook, and used Google as a search engine to find it. The Ad Council may have fooled us into buying throwaways, but we, meaning the majority of Americans, were eager to be led. As Google rests on the grave of Celilo Falls, it brings me the news of my complicity in that destruction.

    Where to go from here? We lived through a revolution in which we, as investors and consumers, won out big time, where even a person like me can afford a tiny computer with the capacity to connect to people all over the world instantaneously. But simultaneously, we, as citizens, lost out big time. We clothe and feed ourselves more cheaply than ever, but government is deaf to calls for responsible farming and international trade, protection of water, air and forests.

    I don’t think we can kill the monster of the bargain hunter. Most of us look for good deals. But, we can re-awaken the counterbalancing citizen. We can pour money into lobbying efforts, elect good leaders, invest in education, and hold ourselves individually accountable. The unraveling of the current banking system might just provide the impetus.

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  35. If you liked The Crying Indian, you’ll also like The Fluoride Deception by Chris Bryson.

  36. This is an incredible article. As a child born in 1960, the power of that commercial came back full force as I remembered every moment of the crying indian psa.

  37. A question on another reminder of Native-Americans, and this is something I haven’t heard about in quite a while: a sculpture of a Native-American on Mount Rushmore. In my childhood, I had the 1971 World Book Encylcopedias. I was able to pencil a profile of a Native-American next to Washington. This profile was probably twice as large as our 1st President’s sculpted face, but it definitely seemed to be there. I haven’t been able to come up with a meaningful profile of late. But then, I haven’t really tried over the years to do that. Nor have I heard any mention of it. Anyone else recall this? Thanks.

  38. So we should just stop buying anything, right? Consumer-ism is evil and the root of all bad things for this planet? I think consumer-ism exists to bring comfort. If you don’t like consuming products created by the evil consumer-ism overlords, then you should just create everything that you use like clothes, house/ shelter, car/ bicycle/ horse drawn cart, furniture, etc. You should also make your own entertainment items like the tv, radio, cd/ vinyl/cassette/8-track, computer, books or board games. You should also start building up your farm & ranch so that you can eat the livestock and the vegies that you’re going to grow, because grocery stores are part of the evil comsumer-ism conspiracy.
    If you don’t like the evil corporations, then stop buying thier products, all of their products.
    Comsumer spending went through the roof during the post WW2 years because “everyone” had a job, most families had at least one person bringing home the bacon. WW2 ended teh Great Depression by creating jobs to supply the war effort. After the war years, while the country still had the ability to mass produce, we had a surplus of available goods and the buying power to spend. Why wouldn’t we start buying? The entire country just went from a depression to a war footing and finally into a period where everyone had spending money.
    This article seems to have been written to showcase the resume of a select group of advertisers.

  39. I wish we could return the prairie to the way it was shown in “Dances with Wolves”/Lets stop shopping.Stop destroying the top soilThe planet is in grave danger..does more shopping make us happy???

  40. Jean, more shopping makes me more comfortable. I shop for items that I can’t or don’t want to make/ create/ fashion/ cast, etc. I hate going shopping but I’d hate to have to sew together enough cloth (I’b be using cotton that I had to pick, gin, spin & weave myself) to keep making enough socks so that I wouldn’t have to wash them every day, just to wear them to work. The same goes for work shirts & pants. How am I going to make a good set of workboots (need oil & chemical resistant soles & uppers)?

  41. Greg writes “this article seems to have been written to showcase the resume of a select group of advertisers.” Wha . . . ?
    How is it possible for someone even to think that reading this? Did he even read the article? Orion doesn’t even HAVE advertisers, so who is being “showcased”???

  42. Growing up in Oregon I have early memories of taking back the glass milk bottles (to be reused) and then shortly afterwards witnessing the cardboard ‘throw away’ cartons take over. Sadly, I didn’t even know there was once a great Falls on the Columbia river or that Google was now sprawling on its bank. I’m so glad I read your article. I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a thick tube of aluminum.

    I had no idea how much of my perceived American culture was nothing more than a series of ad campaigns. And the American dream? I bet that was an ad too!

  43. I took Ameican Indian Studies at St,Scolastica ,Duluth Mn. the big difference being instead of learning about the old white men that were in charge we got to know of the old white nuns that are in charge.hell bent on making a profit come hell or high water.

  44. The Native Amercians were treated worse than the slaves. Our ancestors, not us were responsible for pushing the Native American to distinction…all for what? It is all wrong.
    However, I will coninute my nieve childhood memory of the crying Indian today. The ad had a lasting impression on me. I would NEVER throw garbage out the window…garbage goes in trash can. I volunteer and keep my small are of this earth litter free. why does everything good always have to go back to “Politics”?

  45. Ginger, I agree with much of your position, but let me tell you a story. When I was a little girl my mother thought it would be character building to make me go out to the streets and pick up trash. Coinkidinkily it was at the time this ad ran.

    I have since grown up, raised a son that I made to go out into the streets to pick up trash and to this day do not walk past a piece of litter without stooping to retrieve to and whisk it away to the nearest receptacle.

    So, as bad as the subtext here most people don’t consider is, this ad DID change a lot of people’s thinking. I remember when it looked like that here in California, these days, comparatively speaking, it’s immaculate.

    Much respect,


  46. Scanning through these comments, I can’t help but think that most people are perhaps missing the point? I don’t think Ginger is by any means suggesting that picking up litter is “a bad thing,” or that if you see a can on the street that the only decent thing to do to is to just pick it up and throw it away. I think she is saying that the can in your hand, whether you are about to “litter” it or place it in an appropriate waste receptacle, is in fact the problem. Meaning, it is not whether we dispose of it or not, it is the whole IDEA of disposability that is in fact the problem. Of course, a can in the trash is better than a can in a river, or in the belly of a bird, but the idea of transposing the whole guilt complex onto the population that consumes cans is only partially true: change has to stem from the packagers, not only the consumers.

    In response to Greg, of course, everyone buys things because it’s comfortable. Luddites have computers these days and most of them didn’t build them (except for maybe jaron lanier.) But there’s consumerism and then there’s consumerism: to say that the content of the product you are buying and the means in which it was produced is something that you have no choice about, is to reduce the human race to a level of impotence and complacency that is not really fitting of higher intelligence. There is a place on the gradient between nomadic culture and current civilized capitalistic society where you could, if you tried, buy things that were more or less beneficial for you, the planet, and the manufacturers (i.e. organic, fair trade, re-usable.) Once again, I think the author’s point is not that consumerism is overwhelmingly evil, but that we as consumers, since we don’t plan on quitting consuming cold turkey, should charge the corporations that churn out all those things that you and I need for our comfort to use a modicum of responsibility. To perhaps make product that scale back on supply in terms of packaging and re-usability and focus more on quality. What equation do you know of that is stable at rates of eternal growth? If that is something that you and I as humans are not going to be able to stomach because it would cause us to be “sometimes” aware of things and “sometimes” temporarily, almost imperceptibly inconvenienced, than I might like to sign off of the human race. (But I think we’re capable of it.)

  47. by the way Ginger, thanks for the article, a really fantastic thought meal for this Sunday morning, keep ’em coming 🙂

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