Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Understanding The Garbage Crisis

One of the problems facing our world today, is garbage. This is because we live under the assumption that our world is an endless resource that we can use to produce an endless supply of industrial age products and that our landfills and ocean dumping will allow us to dispose of our endless streams of waste. Now, we are beginning to drown in that stream.

The term ‘throw-away society’ is not something that is unfamiliar to us. We have lived our lives with terms such as this echoing in our minds and this constant reminder still does not open our eyes to understand this term. Like everything else in our lives, messages like this loose their impact when repeated exposure seems to lull us into a state of dazzled unawareness.

Our civilization creates garbage (or pollution) twice: once, when we transform a natural resource into a product and a second time when we tire of the product and throw it away.

Viewing our consumption, in an extended context, we find that our civilization now ingests enormous quantities of trees, coal, oil, minerals and thousands of other substances. We ‘harvest’ these resources, taken from their places of discovery, leaving vast scars across and below our natural landscapes, thus creating the third issue of concern when trying to understand the garbage crisis.

When we think of each of these three factors, combined, it is easy to understand the fact that every person in North America produces more than twice his or her weight in waste every single day: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year of continuous destructive waste.

Our mountains of garbage are reaching colossal proportions. Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, receives 44 million pounds of New York City garbage every single day. It will soon become the ‘highest point on the Eastern Seaboard, south of Maine’. It will soon, legally require a Federal Aviation Administration permit as it is a threat to aircraft.

In the Philippines, a growing mountain of garbage – called Smokey Mountain – has become a waste city. 25 000 people live in cardboard huts, perched on stilts, stuck into the giant heap of garbage. Territories are staked out, even though the adults and children are choking on the smoke from the fires fueled by decomposition. “Ten people squeeze into a hut the size of a bathroom. There is no shrub, no tree, just the stink of rotting refuse, day and night.”

These waste mountains are rising in the Third World, not only because of the pressures of population growth; equally responsible is a pattern of conspicuous consumption that has been exported to these countries along with Western culture and its consumer products.

I have come to believe that the garbage crisis – like our environmental crisis as a whole – serves as a kind of mirror, in which we are able to see ourselves more clearly. We need to find the strength to be able to question, more deeply, who we are and who we want to be, both as individuals and as a civilization.

If we have come to see the things we use as ‘disposable’, have we similarly transformed the way we think about our fellow human beings? Mass civilization has led to the creation of impersonal, almost industrial, processes for educating, employing, sheltering, feeding, clothing and disposing of billions of people. Have we lost our appreciation for the uniqueness of each one? Traditional societies venerate the oldest among them as unique repositories of character and wisdom. We, however, are all too willing to throw them away, to think of them as used up, no longer able to produce new things to consume.

What we are failing to realize is that our relationship with ourselves and others inadvertently affects our relationship with nature. Our needs are also the needs for this planet. We must find a balance of understanding, in our minds, in order to create a new change for our world’s delicately balanced systems of air, water and land. Our Earth’s natural systems enable the planet to breathe, just as we ultimately need to breathe.

The rains bring us trees and flowers. The lakes and rivers sustain us. Water flows through the veins of the Earth and into our own. We must take care to let them flow back to our planet as pure as they came. We must not poison and waste them without thought for the future.

The photos used for today’s blog have come from the book ‘Global Warning: The Last Chance For Change’, written by Paul Brown.


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