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There’s something soft and elegantly proud about the clean lines of the Art Deco period – which belie the extraordinarily difficult times in which it was born.

Leonie Joubert wonders whether our faltering economy might return us to the austere consumption levels of war-ravaged Europe. If nothing else, it’ll shrink our environmental footprint.

A few years back, like so many other people from the Eastern Cape, I “immigrated” to Cape Town in search of work. I shared a flat with an engineering student: a smart and somewhat eccentric fellow with a cultivated look which was tailored around corduroy and facial hair.

You wouldn’t have said it from looking at him, but he came from money. Good money.

One day he noticed my tendency to top up the shampoo bottle with water when it was down to the dregs to get at that last little bit out. “That’s very… North Country,” he said, referencing the poorer provinces of the United Kingdom.

He didn’t know how accurate he was.

My mother was born into the closing days of World War II England. Her early memories are of life in the dock-yard town of Liverpool, amidst the food shortages which beleaguered the whole of Europe. Food rationing was the government’s way of ensuring that even the poor got their fair share in an economic climate where only the wealthy could afford three meals a day. She recalls having to choose between sugar and syrup; never both.

The shampoo trick – I learned that from her. Waste not, want not, she’d always say. Both my parents spent their early years in the economic austerity of post-War Europe, a climate which informed the way they spend their money even today.

Happiness, for them, is not found in bouts of retail therapy. As a result, their environmental footprint has always been relatively small.

There’s a lesson in this for many affluent South Africans, as we’re all forced to tighten our belts with the current economic crisis brought on by rising interest rates, fuel price hikes and on-again off-again electricity all putting a further pinch on what has, until recently, been phenomenal economic growth for the country.

Increased wealth translates to more spending power – and the more we buy, the larger our ecological footprint. Whether it’s updating the wardrobe every season with branded clothes shipped in from the East; running larger, more fuel hungry cars; more exotic foods often shipped from far off places; holidays that need cattle-class tickets to destinations half a world away; luxuries such as Cuban cigars or French wine. The more we buy, the more we demand of the environment to support our spendthrift lifestyles.

So cutting back a bit – less meat here, fewer new outfits there, a holiday in Langebaan instead of London, fewer luxury purchases – will shrink our ecological footprint a little. What’s more, being forced to self-medicate in less materialistic ways might also bring on some much needed existential reflection.

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