Archive for the 'consumerism' Category


Hangover Saturday

If Thanksgiving is the appointed time for rampant overeating and Black Friday our annual date with discount frenzy, then today could perhaps become enshrined as Hangover Saturday, a good time to reflect on consumption rather than engage in it.

Here a selection of Hangover Saturday thoughts gathered in the course of a restful day:

When people talk about what they are grateful for (on Thursday), they never say, “I’m grateful that I have so much stuff” or “My cup runs over because of those Manolo Blahniks I bought last spring” or “The best thing that ever happened to me is my Lamborghini.” It’s possible they’re just trying not to tip their hand, but I suspect we don’t hear those things because, actually, we all do know better.

Our current economic woes have had one advantage: to clarify the point that consumption is not a selfish indulgence but a patriotic duty, philanthropy flowing ceaselessly towards the wealthy, so that our expenditures can come back to us in the form of jobs, which may be defined as a palliative for massive debt or as a subsidy for patriotic duty, sadly insufficient.

Can't touch that 42% of greenhouse gas tied up in goods and food!

Whoever thought of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was not really clued in to the realities of our economic system. We do our bit to help with recycling at least in some parts of the country, but when we make an (unwilling and modest) start on the “Reduce” component, the whole country goes off the rails. That must be why the EPA report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices”—which is to say “How to Save the World by Tackling Consumption and its After-Effect, Garbage”—declines to estimate the impact on greenhouse gas production if we ate less and bought fewer things. Instead, it tries to figure out what difference it makes if, for example, we were to capture ALL the landfill gas that percolates up from our trash and convert it to electricity or if we recycle ALL the construction and demolition debris coughed up by the never-ending pursuit of bigger and better (as opposed to affordable) homes and gardens.

The opposite of consumption that most easily comes to mind on Hangover Saturday would be abstention. But consumption also has an opposite in creation, which is or can be blameless and much more fun than just saying no. The best place I know to get a feel for the truth of that proposition is S.C.R.A.P. (, an inspired program in San Francisco that diverts virgin merchandise from the landfill, makes it available for dirt cheap to all those with an urge to create rather than consume, and provides a bunch of jobs into the bargain.

What one might do with scrap

The San Francisco warehouse (on Newcomb between Toland and Selby) is huddled rather inauspiciously under Highway 280, but step inside and be greeted by a carnival of color and texture—papers, fabrics, buttons, doodads, figures, threads and yarn, birds, notions, glass, wood, boxes and containers, table legs and carpet squares,  stickers, ribbons, cards, and vinyl discs. On and on. Not everything leapt out at me as obvious fodder for art, including the industrial-sized potato mashers. For many things, it is immediately obvious why they are not in a store somewhere. In their original identity, the scraps that S.C.R.A.P. offers are not saleable, but as art materials they’re irresistible, guiltless, and very inexpensive.

Over it all hangs an exhibit of unpretentious art: scrap boxes emulating the best of Joseph Cornell, mobiles, a digestive tract laid out in flopping beakers and retorts, quilts, and many other works that demonstrate the virtues and joys of clean salvage.


Meadow Lands

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo, telling travel stories to Kublai Khan, describes Leonia, a city that refashions itself continually. Everything is new all the time, he explains, shiny, spotless, and just-unwrapped. “It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity.”

An increasing drawback of Leonia’s predilection for the new is the accumulation of the old, which rises at a staggering rate on the outskirts of the gleaming city even as it becomes more durable. “The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia’s talent for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish improves in quality, resists time, the elements, fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.”

Most of Marco Polo’s invisible cities are highly allegorical, but in this instance it seems he just happened to look out the window when he flew into Newark and saw the Meadowlands.

Meadowlands Mountains, Obscuring Manhattan.

Meadowlands Mountains, Obscuring Manhattan.

Of course, at this time of year, the glowering trash heap looks more disconsolate than when the grass is green. But it obscures the Manhattan skyline just as effectively in June as it does on March 1. It’s not just tall, it is also wide. And as far as I can tell it is still growing.

Over by Disposal Road in Lyndhurst, NJ, there’s every sign of continuing excrescence. At least I see plastic liners exposed in the bosom of these artificial hillsides. There are also, as usual, plenty of no-trespassing signs. In the far distance I think I can make out the spire of the Empire State Building, poking up above the rubble.

Calvino offers another thought, for context, and it seems especially appropriate at the moment, with the Dow way down and the ranks of the unemployed swelling daily: “In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered … It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our sceptre, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”

Back in 1982 I was puzzled and wrote in the margin, “who speaks these words?” That is, who are these heirs to all the long undoing. Today, I think, the answer seems obvious: it is us. We are the inhabitants of Leonia, the dime-a-dozen emperors who conquered, not with marching armies or galloping horses, but with plastic.

So let’s sit on the steps of the garbage palace for a moment and consider the view:  isn’t it time for a change?

Contemplating Manhattan from Lyndhurst, NJ

Contemplating Manhattan from Lyndhurst, NJ

Postscript March 5, 2009: As a curiosity, there is in fact a Leonia, New Jersey, just a few miles up the road from the Meadowlands.


saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.


Filing Cabinet

I have tried to explain (to myself and to others) what I find so compelling about garbage and garbage dumps. But I’m not the only one who’s asked the question. My daughter, Lauren, has had plenty of opportunity to wonder what is the matter with me as well. Below, I post her account of what it’s like to have a mother with an unusual passion:

It started with the pictures, thousands of them. Sunrises blazing bright across the sky. A little enchanted world shown day after day in vibrant orange and red. My mother put them in a book with fine black paper. They were beautiful. And they were all pictures of a garbage dump.

Sunrise over SF Bay

I guess if we’re being honest it really started with a commute to San Francisco. My mother had taken a job as an interface designer for Blue Shield. She’d had to get up every morning before the sun rose to make the forty-five minute commute (turned rush-hour nightmare) up 101 to the city center. One day, when her camera happened to be in the car, she stopped at the exit for Candlestick Park and took a photo. I wonder if she has that first picture marked in her book with the black paper, the sunset that started it all. Maybe she simply knows with a look which one it is.

That first photo turned into countless landfill visits, and seemingly thousands of rolls of film. By the time I entered high school, my mother knew where every landfill was in the Bay Area. She’d been to most. Shoreline. Brisbane. Oyster and Sierra Points. Bayfront Park. Byxbee Park. Fort Bragg. Coolee Landing. Hayward.

Her interest in landfills mutated, grew. She wondered about what went into dumps, what they said about our lives as Americans. She hoarded trash so that she’d have a reason to visit. We didn’t really need a new table, but my mother carted the old one off because she’d run out of things to throw away. She wrote stories about the paths that garbage took through our lives and made garbage her free time.

Glass Beach, Fort BraggSometimes I found myself in the car, weighted with a little dread, watching as she snapped photos of the stark and sterile coast line nudging shoulders with the batteries, old furniture parts, and the crappy romance novels you felt dirty for reading. I didn’t like how I felt on those trips, desperate for humanity, and horribly, horribly ugly. How could we let this happen? My mother recently went back home to the Netherlands and decided while she was there that she’d search out their landfills, and surprise surprise, there were none. They burned their garbage in Europe. They got rid of it.

The reason we have dumps, landfills, places that might eventually be covered up with a layer of clay and turned into an idyllic lakeside getaway like Shoreline, is because we don’t want to think about our waste, what we lose and leave behind. The only time the landfill was convenient was when the Stones came in 1999 and Mick Jagger collapsed on the stage. Clearly it was the methane emissions they were venting out from the earth and not all of drugs he’d probably ingested.

Mostly we cringe at the photos we see in environmental documentaries, vow to recycle better next time, and then forget about it altogether. That’s what landfills are designed to do, allow us to brush packaging and toxic paint and plastic twisty-ties off, like so much dirt on our shoulders. They’re the filing cabinet of problems too big to consider at this moment. Sometimes they’re easy enough to hide. Once they become too saturated with debris they simply get sealed away—recycled into a park. But Shoreline and Byxbee, no matter how pretty you paint them, how much grass and trees you lay over the clay covering, are never going away. They’re trapped, lying in stasis, never decomposing or breaking down, a constant memento mori for those of us who think to look.

I spent years being exasperated and annoyed at my mother and her penchant for weekend daytrips to the local waste way stations. I don’t know what I wanted from her. An obsession with classic films or antiques—something I could connect with on some level. Instead I had a mom who thought subscribing to the trash collector’s union magazine was interesting, who asked for Soylent Green on DVD for Christmas, and who got excited by road signs pointing to local dumps.

Somewhere along her expeditions, as she refers to them, these dumps and way stations became a story that needed to be told.

She decided to write a book about it, The Landfill Diaries, and she joined a writing group that met Mondays. I stuck to my bedroom on those occasions, furiously doing math assignments and procrastinating on the internet. I didn’t want to hear about the layers of garbage, the dead girl who showed up on the waste conveyor belt, and certainly not the number of tons of crap Americans let anonymous men cart off and dump into barren stretches of land kept well hidden from the average citizen. A job, as it turns out, that is more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq, or a police man in Camden, New Jersey, or a fire fighter in desert country. The homework and the computer and the snacks I munched on all represented more trash, more waste, more detritus.

One Monday, I walked out of my room to get a glass of water, and I overheard my mother reading the tail-end of her latest chapter. She was probably talking about those long ago sunrises. I don’t know. I was tired of hearing it. I did notice when a woman, severe glasses and clothing and expression, and the writer of the worst sort of romance schlock, spoke up.

“It’s so beautiful, the way you phrase it. I wish it…weren’t about garbage.”

I stopped still in the kitchen and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had an epiphany. That woman had so incredibly missed the point. That’s why my mother did it. That’s why she took a trip to New York City in the middle of my senior year, to visit Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Garbage is not beautiful in each individual piece, or even when we bag it up and stuff it into blue bins. With a shock of sky as a background to mountains of Styrofoam and discarded clothing and food strewn over dead gray earth it is transformed. It is not pleasant, and perhaps only my mother would put such an image up on her wall. The devastation I see in those pictures is frightening. The things we are capable of doing in our carelessness should give anybody pause. And yet it’s still magnificent.

Sunrise over SF Bay, AgainThe sky blazes in polluted pink or deep, deep blue, plants still fight there way up to the sun, and even so it smells horrible. It should. It takes a diaper nearly 10,000 years to degrade. There’s history in that landfill. When we’re all gone, have covered every last landfill with fake parks and strip malls like in Fresh Kills, archeologists will be digging that garbage up and positing about how we live. Everything will be perfectly preserved. Do we want our forgotten bicycles, chip bags, and worn-down shoes to be how history remembers us? Do we want them to see our filing cabinet of problems we couldn’t deal with or simply forgot about? Just like the pictures, they are frozen snapshots.

Postscript: Lauren is still in school. She’s a writer and an artist. I am very proud of her.


Why Worry About Garbage

… when we have much bigger and more urgent things to worry about, like climate change?

None of the obvious reasons for studying and chronicling (or reading about) garbage hold water, as I soon discovered when I tried to think it through and capture it on paper. Despite periodic alarms that we are running out of space for garbage, there is in fact plenty of room left. As a retired hazardous waste engineer told me recently—and with a straight face—most of the state of Utah would be entirely suitable for the purpose. We can in fact keep going as we have for many centuries and hardly notice the difference. (Unless of course you live in Utah.)

Marsh Road Fill, Menlo Park, CATrue, landfills contribute methane to the atmosphere, and methane is thought to have an even stronger effect on our climate than carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, garbage is a much, much smaller problem than our reliance on fossil fuels. Compared to the burgeoning world population, still multiplying at break-neck speed, increasing global inequality, frightening reductions in biodiversity, and progressive regional destabilization, garbage doesn’t rank as a major issue.

What’s worse, my early attempts at explaining myself ran foul of the essential nature of my experience visiting garbage dumps and collecting garbage facts. Somehow, all my explanations gravitated to the ponderous and the edifying. Before I knew it, I’d be up to my ears in stern morality and finger-wagging, a flock of shoulds lurking at the end of every sentence. Here’s a snippet from my archives: “Garbage is a part, even if only a small one, in our environmental muddles. If we manage to head off catastrophic climate change, if we husband our natural resources carefully, we’ll eventually have to confront all the garbage we so meticulously store up for the future.”

Byxbee Park, Palo Alto, CAWell, yes, that’s true—we are preserving our garbage in pristine condition in our landfills—but that’s not why I like it. Here’s another attempt: “Our economy is driven not only by marketing but by swift and efficient trash collection. One creates the endless desire for ever more stuff, while the other reduces our guilt over the consequences. Stuff will continue its gay march through our households only as long as there’s a smooth way out the back door.”

It’s not that I don’t agree—I wrote it, after all—but what fun is that?

Besides, take a quick look online for books on consumerism and it’ll be instantly clear that you hardly need me to tell you that we buy too much stuff in too much packaging for reasons that, in the final analysis, have little to do with our own well-being.

So why then bother with garbage? Why do I write about it? And what on earth makes me think that you should read about it?

Fresh Kills, Staten Island, NYThe answer is simple and straightforward: garbage is delightful. I humbly offer it up, perhaps not as absolute truth, but certainly as my deeply considered opinion. It’s counterintuitive, but garbage improves upon acquaintance. I can personally vouch for the fact that the more you know about it, the more entertaining it becomes, provided you approach it in the proper spirit. Garbage is disgusting, sure, but it’s also funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating—every bit as funny, pathetic, fascinating, and infuriating as we who produce it.

I love garbage because it is concrete, showing us very specifically what some of our contributions to the planet amount to. Because almost all of the garbage created in our lifetime has been buried and preserved, it is still as concrete as the day it went to earth. Though hidden, it is still visible if you seek it out. And it is permanent, carefully preserved in its many unassuming storage places to minimize its impact on those who hope to deny its presence. That is to say, if we’re not ready to think about it now, we’ll have a lot of opportunity to do so later.

I love garbage because it’s traceable. Given a date and a location, you can figure out where your garbage now reposes. I know, because I’ve done it. And, presumably, if we were to find it and dig it up, it would be recognizable as yours and mine. I suppose that could be depressing, but the comic potential is vast.

I love garbage because it gives me perspective, in two senses of the word. Garbage throws a compelling light on us. It doesn’t offer the whole truth, perhaps, but it’s certainly unvarnished. Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have long studied garbage, as it offers a rich source of information about ancient societies. Along those same lines, modern garbage is a rich source of information about ourselves—without the comforting stories and embellishments that surround us everywhere else.

At the same time, garbage puts things “in perspective.” It’s hard to stand on your dignity when your garbage heaves into view. In much the same way, I found it hard to be too despondent about our environmental challenges when contemplating the odd disjointures and weird implications of our garbage habits. The bathos inherent in our garbage—the incongruities of the desperately serious and the patently trivial and ridiculous—is potent medicine.

What’s more, whatever it takes to reduce the size of our garbage will also reduce our impact on the weather.


Garbage Island

Garbage Island, a cartoon from Icebox, is a sort of phantasmagorical trip through the infernal pleasures of consumerism, seen through the eyes of a child who doesn’t want to go shopping for shiny new toys because he loves his chewed-up old doll, Mr. Messy. The cartoons take such a sledge-hammer approach to the sacred cows of a consumerist economy that they race right past heavy-handed, into the realm of gleeful fun.

I love the way each episode grabs hold of a convention of Hollywood story telling, and then just refuses to follow through at the end–a very clever way to implicate mainstream cinema in the consumerist exploitation these cartoons spoof and attack all at once.

Under cover of darkness, all the children\'s favorite toys are disappeared.

The first episode starts us off with evil doings under cover of night to set the scene–all the children’s favorite toys go in the trash, just so they have to be replaced. Even the trash can goes in the garbage. Meanwhile, the young hero is whisked off by his horrid parents to Toy City, where a pumped-up Santa shackles each child in an all-you-can-buy bracelet. He’s to go shopping so his parents can be relieved of his presence and enjoy themselves in the Skyhigh Lounge over some skyhigh cocktails. But in the midst of these proceedings, the Kid–our young hero, that is–is discovered to harbor a filthy old doll in his shirt, Mr. Messy. Santa rips his beloved dolly from his chubby fingers and tosses it onto a conveyor that runs straight into the maw of the garbage machine, the mouth of Hell, the entrance to the horrible cave–yet another instance of this endlessly recycled motif in the stories that surround us in the mainstream media.

You know the rest. The Kid, in mounting horror, squirms in the clutches of the horrid parents, desperately trying to reach dolly before it is too late. Santa laughs a Satanic laugh. The dolly slowly approaches perdition. The music reaches a furious crescendo. We are awaiting the moment when the Kid wrenches himself free, hurls himself onto the line to rescue dolly, and saves the day.

But no, the doll simply tips over the far end of the line, into hell and damnation. End of story. Goodbye. Every episode ends, not with a cliffhanger, but with a complete anticlimax.

An average day of shopping, with a rather unconventional end.In episode 2, the Kid wanders around in Toy City for a while, beleaguered by toys that scream BUY ME! BUY ME! and by kids in the Kombat Korral, who train the heavy toy artillery on him, before he is deserted by the horrid parents. When he hears the mournful cries of dolly, he crawls into the maw of garbage hell himself. You know the rest. He spies his little dolly, his heart flooded with joy, the music keeping pace. But then the Gremlins come and tip him into the abyss. Heave-ho. End of story. Goodbye.

It’s thoroughly inspired, and I highly recommend it.


Trash Can Lids

Today’s New York Times carries a commemoration of the May revolution in Paris. The general tenor of the article is that the revolution is incomplete, politically if not socially, a phenomenon that is presumed to be most evident in the fact that young people today don’t have much taste for change. The son of one of the leaders of the May ’68 uprising says, “We’re a generation without bearings.”

Photograph by Marc RiboudIndeed, at first glance, it’s dispiriting: such an abyss between the optimism of those days and the weary resignation, the sad cynicism of today. Look at those trash can lids, even. What would we bring if we took to the streets in protest now? Garbage bags?

And that’s when something clicked in my head. These are the old tapes–the program put together by dinosaurs still complaining about that blasted comet, or whatever it was, that put a dark and sooty end to all their brightest hopes of making the world just right for dinosaurs. The world has changed. Whatever is happening in France these days, I don’t really know, but another day has dawned on a dark and sooty planet. A new disquiet is gathering speed, not armed with bricks or decked out with demands–not yet–but spurred on by the notion that something is fundamentally wrong.

If it takes 9.5 planets to sustain the world population at our level of consumption and under current conditions, then what exactly does that tell us about a society that can only sustain itself, more or less, by ever increasing consumption?

July 2018
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