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Trash talk

December 1st, 2013

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

I just got back from a run to the dump, or as it’s called now, the Recycling Center. Today, Peterborough is an island of progressives, conservationists, and wildlife protectors in New Hampshire’s sea of conservatives, real estate developers, and gun-besotted Bambi and Tea Baggers, but its shift to environmentalism is of fairly recent vintage. When my wife and I bought our house here, in 1988, the dump was still a dump. You tossed your trash and garbage into the reeking pit of other people’s crap and forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind — only the trash wasn’t entirely out of sight. Some of the paper and plastic wound up in the Contoocook River that runs through the center of town, washed up on the banks or floating merrily down the stream.

And there was worse stuff in the river, because the dump pit leached all manner of toxic fluids into the ground, and it all percolated into the water. At the end of summer, when the river was low, there was often an iridescent slick on its surface. The Contoocook never actually caught fire, the way Cleveland’s Cuyahoga did in 1969, because it runs too fast. But it stank, and if you stood next to it for any length of time, your eyes would smart and your nose would start running.

Thanks to the town’s decision to make recycling mandatory, the river runs so much cleaner today that it’s become a good fishing stream again, and otters have returned to it. Kayakers and canoeists can enjoy it without having to breathe through their mouths and hope none of the water splashes onto them. Riverside restaurants that once had to keep their windows shut even in summer have opened them and installed decks for outdoor dining. The town’s put up picnic benches on the near bank, along with big trash cans lined with plastic, which are emptied regularly, and stern signs warning about stiff fines if you’re caught throwing anything into the water. The Contoocook has become one of the reasons Peterborough, which was never a quaint New England village with a town square shaded by stately elms, has become a tourist destination. Sometimes cleaning up your act works spectacularly.

But the lesson is lost on a great many Americans, even those who live in the neighboring southern New Hampshire villages and towns. This is the Live Free Or Die state, after all, and the right-wingers who make up the majority of the population in the area regard Peterborough as an insidious outpost of socialist Vermont. To them, “Live Free Or Die” means not only misinterpreting the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms but also insisting on the right to shit where they eat, rather than knuckling under to the diktats of governments, even small-town ones.

That attitude still predominates all over the United States, as the current president is learning to his cost. The Tea Bag Republicans in the House who are determined to block every progressive bill he initiates are as united in their opposition to every detail of Obama’s environmental program as they are to his attempt to provide universal medical insurance.

There’s a wonderful irony in their short-sightedness. Unless something drastic is done right away to curb carbon buildup in the upper atmosphere by weaning industry off fossil fuels (whose emissions essentially trash the air), the members of the Party of the Rich are going start dying of cancer and respiratory diseases along with the rest of us, even though they can afford private medical care. And before they do, their vacation villas in the country’s most scenic spots will lose a good deal of their charm when the local aquifers begin to deliver contaminated water to their taps and the seashores, lakes, and rivers are clotted with rubbish.

But the possibility doesn’t seem to bother the wealthy polluters. Accelerated climate change caused by human industry is socialist propaganda, and disposing of trash is something dirty people who work with their hands are paid to do. So for the foreseeable future, because money talks, we’ll go on being a trashy society. Use it up, throw it away, and buy something new. It doesn’t matter what the product is; everything, from cars to computers, is deliberately designed to fall apart quickly. Otherwise, how would the manufacturing corporations make profits big enough to enable their CEOs to build their dilatory domiciles?

This brings up the subject of where most U.S. merchandise is actually manufactured, and whether or not the people who make it have decent working environments or get paid a wage above the bare subsistence level. But to the average consumer, as long as the stuff the faraway toilers make stays inexpensive, who cares about their lives? And for a lot of the workers in places like China, India, and Bangladesh, working fourteen hours a day in factories, under relentless pressure, and in unhealthy conditions, is an improvement on trying to squeeze a living out of tiny plots of increasingly played-out and often contaminated soil. The vast majority of the factory workers flee the countryside to fill the demand for sweatshop labor, and as has been noted frequently by the right-wing media, they are grateful to receive steady wages, even if the money is meager by western standards. It beats risking starvation if the crops fail.

And conditions for factory workers in the cities of Asia are gradually improving, at least financially. Housing, food, and clothing are cheap, basic medical care is free, and the workers are finding themselves with a bit of discretionary income to spend on things beyond the bare necessities. They are, in short, becoming consumers themselves.

And they’ve picked up ther American counterparts’ carefree attitude toward trash. My brother Mike lives at an ashram in the Indian Himalayas, and he wrote me awhile ago about the aftermath of the rescue effort after one of the annihilating Ganges floods, which have become common now that global warming is melting the glaciers in the mountains, swept away many of the villages on the plains below. The Army did an heroic job evacuating the people who were still alive, but soldiers and survivors alike left the ground thickly littered with their leavings.

When Mike has a reason to come down from his meditative aerie and visit the nearest city, Uttarkashi, he’s dismayed at the new affluence, which even in that provincial town has resulted in a throwaway culture. The streets are covered with discarded food wrappers, soft drink cans, and plastic bags. Unfortunately, the city’s trash collectors, such as they are, are too understaffed and underfunded to pick up the stuff on a regular basis, and as yet there’s no concerted national recycling program. India is one of the places to which the discards of Western countries are shipped to be “repurposed,” but so far the nation does little or nothing to deal with its own refuse. And that refuse is accumulating alarmingly, thanks to India’s burgeoning population (1.21 billion today; 1.53 billion projected for 2030, surpassing China’s 1.46), and to both cultural and religious prescripts against any form of birth control.

China, faced with the same population problem, acted draconically by imposing its one-child rule in the late 1970s. By now, population growth has stabilized to a certain extent, but with grim side effects. Because sons are more prized than daughters in Chinese society, girl babies are either aborted, killed in infancy, or in some rare cases, put up for foreign adoption. And the boys — men now — have grown up with an exaggerated sense of their own worth. In many cases, their parents stinted on their own comforts to provide their sons with college educations, so after graduation, they flock to the cities. Once there, the spoiled men are disdainful of working in factories. So they look for professional, or at least white-collar jobs, of which there are few open to anyone without Party connections. Hence, many of them emigrate to places like New York City, hoping for positions commensurate with their educations and their outsized senses of entitlement. But nowadays the pickings are just as slim in New York as they are in Beijing, for anyone without special training or advanced degrees. So they have to settle, grudgingly, for whatever jobs they can find.

My New York apartment building has been undergoing extensive gentrification for months, with empty apartments being gutted to the support walls and remodeled, so the corporate landlord can charge $2,500 a month for a renovated one-bedroom. The work crew is made up exclusively of Chinese men. Recent émigrés, many of whom speak passable classroom English, are careless, inept, and resentfully arrogant. Well, they all grew up expecting to be doctors, lawyers, or members of China’s élite managerial class. And they’re slobs. The debris from the stripping is supposed to be taken down to the street and put in a dumpster. But a lot of it winds up piled up in the trash rooms on every floor, to be dealt with by the building superintendant, or simply dumped in the corridors when they run out of room.

I hasten to add that NYC, under Mayor Bloomberg, has initiated a massive recycling program, and my building’s trash rooms have the proper containers for separating one’s refuse. But the program falls apart if those containers, and the garbage chutes that lead down to the collection bin in the basement, are clogged by construction materials.

It’s wrong, not to mention politically incorrect, to single out the Chinese émigrés for their careless attitude toward trash. After all, they learned it from us, just as the governments and people of every developing nation learned to put making money above all other considerations. We may be making an effort, however belated and inadequate, to stop trashing the planet. But we’ve already exported our old attitude toward stuff we’ve used up to the populations of the countries who will start ruling the world after we’d had our turn.

I was walking up Broadway toward the supermarket not long ago, behind a pair of twenty-somethings in spiffy clothes who were finishing up the sandwiches they’d bought at the local deli. There was a city wastepaper basket on the corner not five steps away, but they just dropped their sandwich wrappers and napkins on the sidewalk. I thought of saying something, but I held my tongue. First, I didn’t want to get into a hassle with them, and second, my words would have been wasted on people who’d grown up without an iota of concern for anything beyond their immediate gratification. So I picked up their trash and put it in the basket myself, feeling stupid, because it was a useless gesture.

Americans are Rugged Individualists, right? We’re not a pack of conformists like the Japanese, who cheerfully obey the most stringent recycling regulations in the world, daily depositing their trash into bins on the street that are labeled with even more categories than the designations at the Peterborough dump. But the Japanese have always gone their own way, sometimes disastrously, more often successfully (see World War II for the former, and the late-twentieth-century auto industry for the latter). On the other hand, they still rely almost exclusively on nuclear reactors for electricity. And disposing of spent reactor rods — radioactive trash that’s far deadlier than the invisible poisons that once flowed under the waters of the Contoocook River — is a problem that, thus far, has stumped even their formidable ingenuity.

It would be a great boon to America and the planet in general if our government would get serious, not only about new energy sources that can’t blow up, melt down, or otherwise put an end to us, but also about changing its attitude toward trash in general. But that’s like hoping that America’s elected representatives would get together and do something for the common good, instead of spending the brunt of their time campaigning to go on feeding at the public trough.

So unless a miracle happens (and if you believe in miracles, you’ve lost touch with human nature), the prevailing attitude, from corporate boardrooms to the streets of the majority of our towns and cities, will go on being “Fuck it. Chuck it.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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