Moving out of a house where you’ve lived for twenty years is a bit like being the caretaker of an old graveyard. I can’t remember what Italian novel I read whose speaker was a sexton’s son… but in the Old World, space is at such a premium—and some bodies have been buried for so many centuries—that part of the custodial work consists of excavating decayed remains and depositing them in a kind of dustbin called a charnel house.
A lot of stuff that I kept from previous moves, and that apparently I expected to keep forever, has at last gone to that charnel house called the garbage can. Copies of bitter letters that might once have ended up in a courtroom have now not only surpassed the statute of limitations, but even the limit of memory. I literally can’t recall the details in some cases… and why in the future would I ever waste my time trying? If God should call me in eternity’s amplitude to be a witness against one of these desperadoes, I’ll have to shrug and say, “Sorry, chief. I’ve forgotten the specifics. I’ve almost forgotten the name.” Of course, the records in eternity are flawless and won’t need my corroboration. God will smile and answer, “Just checking.”
An entirely different class of charnel-house material includes utterly obsolete technology. What can you do these days with video cassettes? I still have a functioning VCR, fortunately—and some of those ancient recordings have become treasures. But many have not, and all are quite bulky by present standards. I hate to chuck them in the bin for a one-way trip to the landfill… but am I, then, supposed to keep them forever despite their bulk and uselessness?
One can usually find an operation that accepts old TV’s and computers (for a fee), then mines them for recyclable parts. That may ease the conscience… but I’ll bet I know where the parts end up that are not recyclable. Never before this spring have I had occasion to reflect seriously on how much irreducible litter our society produces. Oh, I’ve seen the documentaries about floating islands of Styrofoam packaging, plastic “carrier rings” molded to hold six-packs, lost bikini tops, flip-flops without mates, crumpled clear-plastic water bottles, kids’ paddle-boards, and various and sundry other mass-produced, mass-marketed items of advanced artifice that have clumped together. Actually, I have sometimes wondered if such insipid flotsam doesn’t have a benign side. Why would a real island, full of natural material like moss and captured silt, not eventually form around these drifting effluvia? Why would that be a bad thing? Maybe the island’s formation could even be “encouraged” with artifice taken to new heights (or depths). If it floated, at least the Chinese couldn’t claim it as part of their ancestral domain.
But a substratum of earth dedicated to old video cassettes… no, I’m hard put to imagine how that has a happy outcome, even millennia in the future. I promise that I am not not going to launch into a Philippic against capitalist waste and moral bankruptcy that constantly drives consumers to have “new and better”—and hence to send last year’s Christmas haul to the bulldozers and the sea gulls. I understand the power of such outrage. Yet I usually find it a) hypocritical, because the illuminati who lecture us have their own varieties of wastefulness that they conceal from themselves and everyone else; and b) unhelpful, because the progressive/high-tech genie is out of the bottle, and accusing others of removing the cork won’t get him back in. (For that matter, aren’t the accusers here the very same crowd that clamors for universal health care—and where would advanced medicine be without cutting-edge technology, with its rafts of disposable plastic cases and bottles, used hypodermic needles, etc.?)
Here as on so many issues, the only antidote to progress that I foresee is further progress: another damned genie to restrain the previous one. In the matter of my ancient cassettes, for instance… why do we not have a way of manufacturing energy from all such waste? If you dumped the whole lot into the Kilauea volcano, wouldn’t it obligingly incinerate? And if the released energy could somehow be tapped like the coal burned in power plants…. Yes, I understand that the toxic byproduct would likely be exponentially worse than coal’s; but I ask, with all the ingenuousness of someone would performed indifferently in high-school chemistry, couldn’t we find a way to knead this byproduct into something at least anodyne, or even valuable? Why are people of such creativity reduced to such block-headedness as soon as the party’s over and the floors need to be mopped?
Certainly this is a large part of the eventual solution to gun violence: i.e., produce weapons that function only for their legal, trained owner. Though well within reach, such a solution isn’t much discussed because too many anti-gun crusaders don’t really want an independent populace capable of self-defense: they want a servile mass abjectly obedient to an elite leadership.
Garbage does not have any covert advocates that I know of, however. Why can we not put our oh-so-clever heads together and clean up this mess by means of some profitable new industry?