Found this really interesting interview [via Good] conducted by Believer with the New York City Department of Sanitation anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle. Her concept of “future trash” is as simple as it is austere, it’s anthropological extract, once adopted, amounting to an altered, all-encompassing perception of material culture.
Among many of the questions raised by Nagle, one of the more striking inquires delved into an examination of consumer-culture and societies perpetuated by waste.
“Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation?”
An easy example of this kind of practical dilemma would be the controversy surrounding the creation of a “Do Not Mail” list, essentially a reserve of addresses, not unlike the already instated “Do Not Call” list, whose respective tenants and owners do not wish to receive advertisements and solicitations via mail. This problem is complicated by the economics of the United States Postal Service who are in opposition to such a list being generated as a substantial amount of their revenue is derived from these mailings. Albeit, the vast majority of this junk mail ends up in landfills. [For a story on an elderly man buried in junk mail, read this]
While discussing sweltering piles of garbage and waste produced by an ecologically careless/capitalist/consumer culture, it’s worth mentioning the physical phenomena that is Fresh Kills. Located on Staten Island, Fresh kills is “one of the only man-made structures massive enough to be visible from earth’s orbit”. Presently closed-down and slated to eventually become phased into a public park, Fresh Kills used to be the largest landfill in the world, the Puente Hills Landfill of Los Angeles County now currently being the largest functioning landfill in the country. The Center for Land Use Interpretation did a tour out there that you can hear about here.
[Image: The Mountain of Plastic has now become a popular Bangkok spot/Young lovers come here/and leave behind plastic bottles/as monuments of their love. Film stills from Citizen Dog, 2004.]
What would be interesting to see is how forthcoming generations will deal with their massive inheritance of waste, chaotic heaps of discarded materials and non-biodegradable matter. One can only speculate as to what sort of relics will come to indentify our current culture for generations in a distant future, our leftover laptops and discarded electronics submerged in an island of plastics. As Nagle points out, citing William Rathje, the pioneer of Tucson, Arizona based “Garbage Project”, “garbage is a highly visible problem that we choose to make invisible.”
The surreal notion of the volume of our material output makes me wonder if this stuff will eventually become part of the landscape in a more apparent way, ala the Thai film Citizen Dog, where a mountain of plastic bottles in the city of Bangkok becomes a recreational attraction in the urban environment, a majestic retreat for lovers interjected into the skyline. It seems unavoidable that all this “stuff” will eventually force itself into our lives in a way in which we can no longer hide it in rural landfills and other areas under-populated by humans, like the ocean, unless we make serious changes in our lifestyle choices and develop creative solutions to such problems. As we are already turning our landfills into parks, perhaps the future will lead us into creating a new topography defined less by natural environmental forces and more by the scraps and discards of the everyday.
To read a really awesome New York Magazine article about the reclamation of Fresh Kills into “a new paradigm for a park”, click here. I highly recommend the further reading in relation to the ideas presented in this post.