Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bubbles, proxies, responsibility and invisibility

Our societal bubble has been built around extracting energy and material from nature and the environment around us, and depositing degraded materials and energy back outside of our bubble, into nature. Our ethic is defined by doing what we want "in here," and not worrying about what happens "out there," as long as the flow of materials and energy in continues, and as long we can continue dumping what we want out there. We have created this disconnect in order to shirk responsibility in dealing with shortcomings of our philosophies and mental capacities, and in our humility. As Wendell Berry describes in his essay Total Economy, we have at the same time created proxies for the provision of essential goods and services - food, clean water, clean air - to people and corporations who have no connection to us. If we don't know where these essentials are coming from, who is providing them, and who is ensuring their existence, we are putting our faith in believing that no harm is being done to the nature, the outside bubble, the provider, along the way.

Trash is a telling example something we have created that we do not want to take responsibility for. Indeed, we have created a proxy for dealing with it. You just put your trash outside once a week, or every other week, and it goes away. Where? Who knows? (Do you know where your nearest landfill is? Who is incinerating your trash?) Since we cannot see where the trash is going, we lose the capacity to see how much of it is being produced (from yesterday's post, what does 4.5 lbs/person/day times 365 days times 300 million people look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like?). We have faith that once the trash is out of the house, it has magically disappeared, and has no impact on nature. What if each one of us was responsible for our own trash? This American Life had a show a few years ago, "Garbage," in which garbagemen (or san men) in NYC describe our trash. I remember one worker mentioning how people have no respect for the san men who take their trash away, leaving boards with nails sticking out of them and shards of glass waiting to hurt someone. Hmm. Since trash doesn't have a name on it, we don't need to be responsible to the people that magically make the trash invisible, either.

Maybe you've heard of the trash crisis in Naples. Here's what it looks like if trash isn't collected.

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