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Exitstentialism

This week I thought about sustainability, energy, and systems. Specifically, I thought about how people encapsulate and divide systems in ways that would be considered shady by even the most unscrupulous accountant. Solar energy, yay! Except that solar panels don’t last all that long and their production requires huge amounts of cadmium and other super toxic and “unsustainable” materials. Or the DDT ban in the 1960s that went into effect only in the developed world. DDT sales continued abroad for decades. But guess what, the water in Africa is connected to the water in Ohio! Rachel Carson’s movement, like much of the activism of the 60s, was eventually commoditized and co-opted when corporations adopted its language of environmental responsibility while engaging in virtually unregulated dumping and disposal practices that have led to the mercury-filled fish that we’ve been eating for the last twenty years.

Part of the problem, I realized, is that there is little alternative. Here is everything I threw away over the past week:

  1. Orange juice carton and plastic screw top
  2. Toilet paper (about one roll)
  3. 15 banana peels
  4. 2 plastic forks (neither at home)
  5. 1 plastic spoon
  6. 17 plastic supermarket bags
  7. 1 Styrofoam dinner tray (social hour at ITP)
  8. Pork fat
  9. 3 egg shells
  10. Grape stems
  11. 2 dozen roses
  12. 3 paper plates (pizza)
  13. Numerous paper napkins
  14. 2 individual plastic cream containers (diner)
  15. Plastic 1 qt. yogurt tub
  16. 10 plastic bags vegetables and fruit came in
  17. Broccoli bits
  18. Pork rib bones
  19. Used saran wrap
  20. Tin foil
  21. 3 Q-Tips
  22. 15 tea bags
  23. A ball of my wife’s hair
  24. English muffin cardboard box and plastic wrapper
  25. Garlic peel
  26. Onion peel
  27. Celery stalk
  28. Fish bones
  29. Junk mail
  30. Plastic magazine sleeve
  31. Half a broken plastic watch band
  32. Padded envelope
  33. Plastic cookie tray and wrapper
  34. Various receipts/tickets
  35. Cabbage bits
  36. Squash ends
  37. Can clams came in
  38. 3 glass bottles
  39. Paper bag
  40. Paper coffee cup
  41. Sandwich wrapper (wax paper)
  42. 4 Styrofoam meat trays
  43. Soap, dish detergent, toothpaste, shampoo
  44. A fair volume of urine
  45. Four or five respectable shits
  46. Sawdust/small electronic bits in the shop
  47. 5+ hours playing Chain Factor

Most of my garbage is either organic food waste or the packaging it comes in. No matter how fancy/organic/expensive food is, still comes wrapped in several layers of plastic. Much of my out of the house waste was the result of eating at cheap places around NYU, where everything comes in disposable containers/on disposable plates. Reducing my packaging waste would ironically require me to spend a lot more money: on meals at better restaurants with reusable flatware and silverware and on “responsibly packaged” frou-frou organic groceries. I would compost my organic waste if I had the space or something to do with the compost, but I have neither. I could buy one of those midget pigs. But even that seems shortsighted. I buy a pig, it eats my garbage thus keeping it out of landfills where it would eventually turn into methane, but its porcine stomach also turns it into methane. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of everything on earth.

This why the idea of “organic” products is such bullshit. Yes, it makes sense to minimize our impact on the planet’s ability to sustain us if we can, but the implication that the application of technology to a problem renders it somehow artificial or inorganic is preposterous. You can’t just pick starting and stopping points to assess some product or interaction’s impact. For instance, not using chemical pesticides in no way eliminates the residual pesticides, industrial particles, and all the other human-made muck that will fall with the rain as long as somewhere in the planet people are spraying chemicals on their crops and releasing smoke into the atmosphere. Rain cannot certified organic. Neither can groundwater. Everything is interconnected. So-called organic products are still shipped using trucks and trains and boats and planes which burn fossil fuels. Where do we stop assessing for sustainability?

The real problem is that it doesn’t even matter. If I leave every energy-inefficient tungsten bulb in my house on for the rest of my life—and if everyone else I’ve ever met does the same—it won’t use even a fraction of the energy required to run a steel manufacturing plant for one day. It is not in the interest of governments or corporations to assess the real costs of their activities, nor do they have the tools. Cost accounting is a financial process. From whose bottom line do we subtract dead rivers? The market can’t fix what it is responsible for breaking. That’s what makes the commoditization of C02 and other pollutants and emissions allowances so nefarious and nonsensical.

In the end, progress, production, and consumption serve to distract us from our lack of significance, taking over religion’s role throughout much of history. If I remember correctly, human exceptionalism—the idea of humanity as somehow separate from “nature”—arose in response to the industrial revolution. Romantics, Transcendentalists, the Sierra Club, Hippies, and New Agers all called for a return to nature. What does that mean? At what point did we become separate from nature? Aha, you say, plastics don’t occur in nature. Really? Did we get them from aliens? Or did we make them from materials available around us, much as bees make honeycomb? Just as fusion at the center of a star produces heavier and more massive elements, so we produce increasingly complex materials—that doesn’t make them unnatural. That they don’t decompose just means that no creature has yet evolved to take advantage of their energy-rich polymers—and that they’ll outlive us.

A maudlin and silly nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral past (and, I suspect, the lack of yearning for meaning that comes with consciousness) has plagued us since our expulsion from Eden. In the end, our exceptionalism is our humanity. It’s also the source of a great many of our problems. Environmentalism pits “us” against the environment, which is absurd. We are our own opponent. We talk of poisoning rivers or warming the globe when we’re actually poisoning ourselves and making the globe uninhabitable for humans. The rivers and the earth will survive. Ultimately, it makes no difference what we do because we’re just like any other species, and that, I think is something that most people find very hard to accept.

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