Sunday, March 13, 2011

Put yourself in their shoes

This project isn't just about trash, yet trash is a most visceral manifestation of the fundamental problems our societies have created. I just re-read Vanessa Baird's fantastic piece from the New Internationalist, "Trash: inside the heap." Baird articulates the social injustice of the world as viewed through trash and waste. She writes, "The rich make it, the poor deal with it. The rich who make it are generally considered 'clean;' the poor who deal with it are considered 'dirty.'" How true.

Visiting the recycling plant a few weeks ago provided me with the most up-close view of the world of trash processing. The plant accepts materials from all over the region, and the material keeps coming in waves. Entire warehouses are filled with the materials, and as soon as those materials are sorted through, the next roomfull of materials is waiting to be sorted. To me, those materials have lives of their own (in a sense) and stories associated with them. Those materials are other than the air that we breathe and the land we stand on. This means that those materials have human lives associated with them, too. Not just the lives of the people that used those materials, but the lives of people that were involved in both material creation and fate after use.

After the tour of the facility, Caroline and I were wondering about the stories of the people that worked at the recycling plant. We wondered how they might be feeling given the cold day, the loud noise, the putrid smell, and spending their time in the constancy of refuse. We wondered if they were appreciated at all, and whether or not they even wanted to be there. Are they there because they could find nothing else to do? Do they have the choice not to be there? The founding documents of our nations proclaim how people are born equal, yet nothing could be further from the truth. This world has always been a world of haves and have nots, and most every material thing in our lives depends on this inequality, whether it is diamonds, oil, plastic, rare earth minerals, recyclables, trash or wood. We have founded our lives, the lives of those people with choice and power and money, on the bodies, hearts, minds and souls of those less fortunate.

I wonder whether we are willing to do what it takes to provide ourselves with what we want. How wonderful it would be if each one of us, in our upbringing, was made to fully carry out the tasks, at least once, of the people who really make our societies functional. I am not talking about investment bankers or engineers or doctors (the "clean" people), but rather farmers, sanitation men, electricians, plumbers, and people in countries less powerful than the US (the "dirty" people). Maybe if we put ourselves in their shoes, we'll see that not only are we degrading the environment, but we are devaluing the existence of these fellow humans.

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