If you haven’t seen the pictures recently published by Charles Custer, who drove America’s route 66 with his wife in 1950-51, you’re in for a treat—and, for some of you, a challenge to preconceived notions about progress.
They show in wonderful detail, composition, and style, an America now gone, replaced by uniformity, efficiency, and overpopulation. I’ll take the liberty of posting one, but there are 148 of them here, and I recommend viewing them all.
Some of the backstory: Charles Custer recently died at 91 years old, leading the photographs to resurface. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote more in an obituary: Charles Custer, dead at 91, with wife Irene Custer took photos capturing a time capsule of Route 66, Americana.
What to look for
You’ll find plenty to love without any suggestions, but the absence things we’ve come to feel we need or can’t avoid struck me most. These pictures help expose the lie that the only alternative to pushing for exponential growth nonstop is abandoning science, technology, and knowledge.
People keep mistaking plastic for something that improves our lives. Many such messages come from people who profit from plastic enough to ignore its problems that override its benefits in probably 90% of its uses. But many messages come from people who ignorantly associate plastic with progress.
I recommend looking at the craft in the furniture, ceilings, clothing, floors, and everything. While there was some plastic, nothing like now. People put care into making things. Did that make life worse? It looks pretty healthy to me.
Likewise with corn syrup and other doof. Nearly everyone in these pictures looks healthy and fit. I suspect they didn’t consider their food bland. I wonder what they’d think of our food, let alone the doof contributing to most of Americans’ calories.
Walmart hadn’t taken over. On the spectrum with at one end efficiency and at the other resilience and abundance, they seem to the resilient, abundant one. I see culture that we’ve since mostly wiped out.
Many people today act as though if we don’t push with all we have toward growth, innovation, and efficiency, we’ll end up in the stone age, most babies dying in childbirth. Their lack of imagination leads them to fear the only alternative to stepping on the gas full throttle is going in reverse full throttle.
These pictures show that a lack of plastic doesn’t mean going without. It means care and craft. Not processing food into doof doesn’t mean people going hungry. It means fitness. Lacking a global, just-in-time distribution system doesn’t mean everything becomes too expensive. It means people make enough to afford things.
Many will see that nearly everyone in the pictures are white. Fair enough. While not suggesting to ignore the likely lack of access and more, I suggest we can explore the lack of plastic and doof, and presence of culture, community, and resilience without detracting from that point.
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