“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself…. The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.” Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
The dirt road that winds from my living quarters into the town center is roughly a quarter of a mile long and probably the most unpleasant aspect of my daily life. It is dusty in the heat, muddy in the rain, and treacherous with black ice during the winter. During particularly heavy storms it becomes a river of loose rock and debris that can be a foot deep in some places. It is not a stretch, by any means, to say that scheduling the activities of my day is predicated largely by the specific condition of the road outside my door: the more unpleasant the journey looks to be, the less likely I am to make it.
However, the icing on the cake is not the road itself, but the trash dump that it skirts just around the corner from my house. To call it an eyesore fails to accord it the true multi-sensory, aesthetically-offensive, soul-sucking status it attains. Continually ravaged by rodents and dogs, perennially abuzz with flies and wasps, arrayed in a neon rainbow of tattered plastic and mouldering paper whose color palettes seem to have been mined from a bad acid trip, it sits sulkily putrefying amid the elements less than three feet from the road’s edge. You smell it before you see it; the odor seeps into the folds of your clothes, clings to your nose hairs, coats your skin and stubbornly trails you long after you have left the heap behind.
I have to concentrate on not looking at it as I pass by because it angers me on such a visceral level, setting off a chain reaction of recrimination and blame that can blacken my mood long after the trash has been physically left behind.
It goes like this:
Why in the world can’t this neighborhood get together and buy a dumpster to hold their collective refuse so it won’t be accessible to the elements, the rodents and the dogs that roam the vicinity? (Of course, then how would the dogs eat – but that’s another chain reaction entirely…) There are countless two story villas on this road being slowly but inexorably constructed by remittances from family members working in other countries who seek to match the lifestyles they encounter there. Every day, almost as many BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Escalades whizz by me as litter the roads of southern California. Every other teen on the rutiera fiddles with her iPhone, or clutches her D&B bag, or reads on a Kindle while we bump over asphalt so pockmarked one wonders if it may have been bombed by an errant drone. There appears to be no shortage of cash to satisfy individual appetites in many circumstances, but seemingly no funds, nor any will or desire, for any type of community-betterment project.
Then I remember that these appetites are quite deliberately cultivated, manipulated, and whetted by those very same corporate concerns whose un-booked externalities in the form of plastic bags, aluminum cans, cartons, crates, cardboard, and paper constitute the bulk of the materials feeding the midden on my road. but no – it doesn’t stop there, it gets even worse as I go deeper, folks.
I hearken back to my trip to Guatemala in 2012, walking beside a brilliant friend who spent two years living alongside the indigenous population helping them form a school for their children out of sticks and mud and determination. I was bothered, immensely, by the amount of trash that filled the river ravines in the village. I asked her about it – why it was there, what could be done, how she tolerated it.
She replied that it was the symbol of everything that stymied her about trying to help build a different sort of life for the disadvantaged in this world. Thirty, forty years ago these people lived closer to the land, had their own farms and garden plots , grew most everything they needed and traded for what they couldn’t cultivate. But then, almost simultaneously (coinki-dink? Hmmm, I think not) large agricultural conglomerates bought up their land and began monoculture farming, exporting produce and inexorably cornering people into supplementing their diets with the relatively cheap and available Doritos and Pepsis and Snickers and fried pork rinds from the corner markets run by the families who no longer had income or staples from their land.
The people, of course, being so recently exiled from the natural occurring, unmaintained beauty that had heretofore surrounded them were disconcerted by the refuse that was suddenly piling up in heaps everywhere, but attempts to collect and dispose of it only stranded them before the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of how? who? where? There was no agency to build roads, no trucks to travel those roads, no money to pay people to drive the trucks, collect or haul the trash and no place to put it if they did. So the trash piles up in the ravines until the seasonal floods come and wash it all out to the ocean where it flows into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating accumulation of trash the size of Texas that swirls and gyres with the currents outside of anyone’s purview.
Well, didn’t that make me feel all better.
There is no one to blame but everyone, more or less. I consume and generate trash, everyday, only here it is not conveniently swept from my awareness by a union-scale worker in an automated machine who absolves me of guilt for all the detritus that feeding, cleaning, furnishing, adorning, and entertaining my ‘self’ creates.
I remember once in my life being taken to the dump by my father, who probably needed to dispose of a mattress or some construction material or an old appliance. I was horrified. First, by the miasma that enveloped us a half mile out, then by the sight of those veritable mountains of trash which loomed into view, cranes and other indecipherable machinery hovering about their perimeters clutching great loads of plastic and food and tree limbs and clothing and car parts all mixed in together amid grinding gears and circling birds and clouds of flies and dust curtains. I gagged and gagged and ended up swallowing my own vomit, not wanting to add one piece to the ferment bubbling around me. Of course, I have conveniently filed away the fervent vow I made then to find a way to meaningfully reduce my waste while seeking a way to convince others to do the same. It is so much easier to just keep buying, unwrapping, and tossing mindlessly.
So perhaps that’s what really angers me about having to pass this garbage heap day after day after day. It will not let me forget that every single solitary piece of plastic; every garbage bag; every carton; every length of foil; every battery, can of paint, container of hairspray or detergent or peanut butter; every granola bar wrapper, empty pen casing, and broken cassette vomiting tape; all the broken (and too easily replaced) curling irons, blow dryers, toasters, waffle makers, crock pots, frying pans, blenders; every discarded pair of holey sneakers, bleach stained blue jeans, worn out socks; each and every used toothbrush, toothpaste tube, strip of dental floss, empty mascara, dried out lip gloss – ad nauseum, etc., etc., etc. – all of it still exists, somewhere, and will for many, many years after I do not.
Somewhere along the line, responsibility has become disconnected from activity, as if we’re able to enjoy a pleasurable ‘cause’ without an attendant, oft times deleterious, effect. We encourage production and consumption and first world lifestyles with our foreign aid dollars, our glamorized advertisements, our iconic status symbols and our willingness to saturate markets with goods that local infrastructures have no mechanisms for processing once they are discarded.
We are so adept at generating externalities – residual detritus that collects in our human wake, evidencing lifestyles that are powered by consumption, (why must the economy continually grow to be healthy?) which we personally do not need to worry about recycling or repurposing or permanently dismantling. And we tend to take for granted the sub-system of sewers and power grids and water mains and transit networks that support that consumption, leaving little evidence behind.
Who can really blame the Moldovans for desiring the same goods that people in the EU or the United States or Canada enjoy with such fervor? Who can fault the Guatemalans for satisfying hungry children’s bellies with the cheap and tasty snack foods that line the shelves of the local bodegas? They have all the toys without having the ability to build the walls and raise the roof and carpet the floor of the playroom.
So this is my question, so elegantly posed by the quote that headed this piece: which comes first, the unhappiness or the garbage? Do we consume and discard because we’re unhappy or do our mounting externalities actually end up fomenting the gnawing, existential unhappiness that, down the line, results in the sense of despair and distaste which we attempt to assuage by consuming even more?
I can’t help feeling if that garbage heap was gone, my environment would be so much more enjoyable, which would positively affect my mood and make my daily life here much more agreeable. I can’t help thinking that Moldovans, as a whole, would have more hope and dreams for their future, and perhaps remain in their own country, if their neighborhoods were cleared of garbage, paved with smooth asphalt, furnished with sidewalks and pleasant open-air spaces for people to gather in community.
Meanwhile, I open the cellophane wrapper of my coffee and retrieve the carton of creamer from the refrigerator for my morning cup of joe….