Posts Tagged ‘scrap


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.


Garbage All Across the Milky Way

Listening to the radio today I heard another story about the Phoenix, the Mars lander which had just successfully touched down near the north pole of the planet Mars. If all goes well, it will dig through the top layer of dust and scoop out soil from the layer of permafrost, in search of a record of the planet’s climate history and any traces of life. The contraption landed in summer, the NASA scientist on the program noted. That is, it’sn not as nasty as it is going to be. In winter, things get distinctly more unpleasant, as the temperature plummets and dry ice precipitates out of the atmosphere. When that happens, the lander dies.

Phoenix Mars LanderThat’s when it finally hit me: the lander may be a lab right now, but it’s nothing but a heap of junk tomorrow, to join the scrap already there from prior missions. My sense of shock made me realize that I had innocently expected a scientific ethic of pack-it-in and pack-it out much like the frame of mind we’ve learned to adopt for visits to wilderness or even trips to the local state park. Rather than a basic respect for the environment under study, the mission appears to be governed by a sort of colonialist-imperialist disregard for whatever might be there. Nobody owns it, so you can do whatever you want? Or is it just that competitiveness fosters a blind arrogance to anything but “success” as the competition happens to define it? Isn’t there a scientific ethic that applies to situations like this that says you have to clean up after yourself?

The story reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s stories of having been an artist-in-residence at NASA for a brief time made briefer by her sense of having wandered into a culture so foreign it ruled out meaningful conversation. From her account, she might as well have been a Martian.

At the other end, the story also puts me in mind of the abandoned industrial hulks in the rust belt, such as those I ran into at Lake Calumet just two weeks ago. Further evidence of the compartmentalization of our culture, not just between different groups operating side by side to different ends, but between time frames. You can obviously divorce short-term gain, whether it’s profit or scientific knowledge, and long-term consequences with impunity.

I imagine the total impact of a junked Mars lander isn’t that great. Nine hundred pounds of trash with a bunch of toxic metals wrapped up in it somewhere near the north pole isn’t that big a deal on a whole planet, I suppose, especially if no sign of life is found to which the toxins would be toxic. But the spirit to which it testifies makes me wonder where I can go to register my protest and demand an environmental impact statement.

Quick Update: The European space agencies are working on developing a scientific ethics of space. UNESCO has a commision on the topic. The Union of Concerned Scientists is trying to address the issue of sustainability in space exploration and exploitation. All I could find for NASA and space ethics was the Office of the General Counsel, which is, amongst many other things, “responsible for developing the ethics and patent program requirements” of NASA. When ethics come up in the same breath with patents, hope takes a nosedive.

Wired has compiled a list of weird space debris: Lost in Space. And Scientific American devoted an article to space trash in the wake of the satellite collision over Siberia in February 2009.

July 2018
« Dec