Archive for the 'future' Category


We Need More Alienation

“We need more alienation from our spontaneous nature,” says Slavoj Zizek. “We should become more artificial.”

Words that are subject to interpretation, I’m sure, but definitely worth thinking about:

  • “We should develop a much more terrifying abstract materialism of a mathematical universe…. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension. To recreate, if not beauty, then aesthetic dimension in … trash itself.”
  • “To find perfection in imperfection itself. That’s how we should love the world.”

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.


Secure Trash

I sometimes wish I could have a user manual for urban interfaces in the Netherlands. You run into all sorts of machines all over the place, many of which appear to be designed by aliens with a poor understanding of human cognition and a very poor command of the Dutch language. One example is this garbage container, which I found in the streets of Apeldoorn.

The interface is on the left. The gates of hell are on the right. To judge by the picture on the front of the interface—which shows a rat sniffing around “loose” trash—there is some temptation to just skip the entire proceeding and leave one’s offerings at the gate instead.

How to operate the underground dumpster

How to operate the underground dumpster

Also, of course, it may fail to operate altogether, in which case you have to call someone. The instructions seem to suggest that you will then receive temporary access privileges for a different secure trash can a few streets away.

Or it could be full. For that unfortunate circumstance, I don’t see an instruction.


making a stand, calling a halt

Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.

European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape.  They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.

The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.

Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.

Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.

As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.

Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?

Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories,  even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.


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.


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?


How Much Space/Time Left?

Martin Melosi’s Garbage in the Cities, a book about the adoption of organized sanitation practices in the US, mentions in passing an estimate of available landfill space of 18 years. He gives no date from which to start counting, but his book was published in 2004 and the studies he referred to were mostly recent. That gives us a date for running out of space before 2022, or thereabouts, assuming for the moment that no space is added in the meantime and the rate at which we use it up stays equal.

The eventuality of simply filling up our landfill might seem unimaginable, but it did just happen in Naples, Italy, first in the summer of 2007 and then again in January of this year. The dumps were full. The city stopped collecting garbage because there was no place for it to go. Of course, everyone had seen the crisis coming, but no action was taken, the government being hollowed out by corruption and crime. Eventually, one dump was reopened and more garbage added until this winter the extra allotment was also filled up and no other solution in place. Again the garbage rose in frightful mountains in the streets.

Could this happen in the U.S.? On a much smaller scale, it already has. Remember the Mobro? In the mid-1980s, a barge with garbage from Islip, Long Island, sailed the length of the East Coast up and down until finally Islip had to take its garbage back. A few months later another garbage barge sailed the seven seas trying to find a place that would accept its cargo. It finally turned up mysteriously empty. Since then, new patterns have been established, as many places have started to export their garbage, sometimes vast distances away. Other places–mostly those that are hurting for another source of income–have created mega-fill, especially Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia. Garbage slides down the economic ladder, helped along by “tipping” fees.

Pretty much every state that imports garbage in significant quantities has a debate over how desirable it is to be a garbage magnet. North Carolina imposed a moratorium on garbage imports in 2007–a somewhat short-sighted move considering that it exports more garbage than it imports. Many people in Michigan are clamoring for legislation that would ban “foreign” imports, finding the idea that Canada disposes of its garbage in the US especially repugnant.

Some of this, of course, is about the environmental concerns trailing in the wake of modern garbage. The stuff is toxic and contributes significantly to global warming, even when methane collection systems are in place. And landfill must be tended, perhaps for 35 years following closure, as sanitary engineers estimate, or perhaps forever, as environmentalists are more prone to posit. Moreover, the economics are unlikely to be sound in the long run. Tipping fees may be pouring in now, but they don’t cover all the future expenses of monitoring and tending the trash, remediating contamination, or converting the landfill to usable space. This is especially troubling in cases where a for-profit waste operation plucks the proceeds now and leaves the community to deal with long-term care of a contaminated site.

But after all the rational arguments against garbage imports have been laid on the table–and they lay more than enough weight in my scale–there’s something else that drives the outrage, something more deeply rooted and more intractable because it is about image and identity. We may be a little bothered by the notion that we dump much of our scrap and e-waste on the developing world, but being on the receiving end is easily much more disturbing. The United States is not supposed to be a third-world country doing such third-world things as importing other people’s trash, is it?

Unequal distribution of wealth undermines the collective good in this case (as I believe it is in pretty much every other respect), creating a lowest common denominator for the trash to slide down to. The more steeply pitched the social ladder, the more short-term economic incentive for someone to bury it wholesale in their own backyard for fees undercutting a better environmental solution. This is not to blame the people who feel they have little choice but to survive by garbage. We all share some responsibility for participating in a collective arrangement that stacks incentives, irrationally, for short-term profit and inequality, without regard to social and environmental sustainability.

Of course, 2022 is unlikely to be the hour of truth for us, as 2007 was for Naples. Efforts are underway, for the most part at the local level, to increase recycling, including individual and collective composting schemes. Bioreactor landfill is being investigated, by which landfilled garbage is washed and washed until it becomes inert and harmless. Plasma-arc technology is being proposed for incinerators, at temperatures so high that no noxious gases escape (in theory) but are converted to inert solids, and perhaps that will make incineration more acceptable to the environmental movement. And, at the very least, we’re likely to eke out the time until Armageddon by adding capacity, at least here and there.

But what I don’t see–not yet, at least–is a change in the economic engine that borrows from the planet for present gain, without regard to future ruin. All these efforts just postpone the hour of reckoning. They don’t change the underlying fact of our predatory lifestyle.

July 2018
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