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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Stories Told by Trash (p. 17)

From chapter "Waste"

Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans. -Jacques Cousteau

Much of what is known about ancient civilizations comes from digging up their waste.  Long after empires fall, after flags and flesh rot, garbage remains to tell stories about those civilizations.  Although some texts have been retained, much of history is essentially constructed by historians through the act of reading trash.

Societies that produced little or no nondegradable waste are consequently less interesting to many archeologists and historians.  Stories told by trash are “hard facts,” but oral histories passed down by indigenous people are often relegated to the status of allegory or myth.  In fact, there’s a good chance that a society that “failed” to produce any lasting waste may not even exist in the orthodox historical record.

Within our current system, the lifespan of any particular artifact as waste is usually far longer than its lifespan as a useful tool.  Let’s say I go to a food court at a mall and eat a meal with a disposable plastic fork. Let’s say I use the fork for five minutes before one of the tines breaks (as always seems to happen) and I throw it out.  The fork goes in the garbage and is buried in the landfill.  Let’s say this particular type of plastic takes five thousands years to break down (we’ll talk more later about what it means for plastic to break down).  For every minute I used the fork it spends a thousands years as waste: a ratio of one to 526 million, a number so large it’s hardly meaningful to human minds.  On a scale that’s easier to fathom, if we compressed the fork’s five thousand year existence to one year, the fork would have spend only six one-hundredths of a second as an object useful to me.

We can also take into account the millions of years previous that the carbon the plastic fork was made of spent as oil deep underground.  In that even longer time frame the useful life of the fork is an imperceptibly short instant sandwiched between a very long time spend in the ground as oil and a very long time spend in the ground as waste.  The is true for almost every physical item civilization produces, from cars to computers to fast food containers – they sped many eons in the ground as iron ore or coal or sand, and are used a staggeringly short time, and then left as waste for thousands of years or longer.  

It’s pretty easy to argue that, from a long-term perspective (and indeed from a short-term perspective), industrial civilization is essentially a complicated way of turning land into waste.  It is, in all truth, “laying waste” to the earth.