Tag Archives: green

Garbology

By Randy Jackson

My father-in-law was one of those people who liked garbage dumps for the treasures they held. There is a family photo of him in a suit, checking things out at a dump while on his way to his daughter’s wedding. Garbage dumps have changed somewhat over the years, but I’m sure there is still a lot of good stuff that ends up in a landfill.

There are mountains of stuff going to landfills every day. Mexico, according to Wikipedia, sends 95% of its waste to landfills. For Canada, it’s 72% and the US 54%. Too much, way too much, as we all know – but is there anything good about piles of garbage besides the odd treasure? Well, there is Garbology and Archeology, or what we can learn about ourselves and our society from studying garbage.

A. J. Weberman has been credited with the invention of the term “Garbology.” Weberman billed himself as the world’s leading Dylanologist (also his invented term). In his intense study of Bob Dylan and his music, Weberman collected and studied Dylan’s garbage and labeled the study Garbology. He claimed Dylan’s garbage revealed real insights into Dylan as a human being, an artist, and a family man. Weberman goes so far as to claim his work led to Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. However, knowing that Bob Dylan once beat up Weberman on the streets of New York, I’m not sure that Dylan sees Weberman as being that influential.

Weberman, an odd eccentric even to this day, was onto something; You can learn a lot about someone from their garbage. The term Garbology has since been taken up by a Harvard-trained anthropologist, William Rathje (1945-2012). Rathje’s work led to Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (Harper Collins 2001), co-authored with Cullen Murphy. The book is based on Rathje’s ongoing Garbage Project with the University of Arizona.

Rathje saw the Garbage Project as a combined study of archeology and sociology. A 1992 New York Times review of the book was aptly titled “We are what we throw away.” The review essentially expresses what Weberman said about going through Bob Dylan’s trash. One example cited in Rathje’s book was that of alcohol consumption. Rathje found that people drank 40% – 60% more alcohol than they reported they consumed. Among numerous other findings, Rathje found that people from poorer neighbourhoods more often choose smaller portions of name brand merchandise rather than larger quantities of the less expensive no-name or generic brands.

Rathje’s garbage project has also done some myth-busting about what is actually in landfills – substantially more recyclable paper than fast food containers, for example. His study also found that landfills are dry and oxygen-starved places that tend to mummify rather than biodegrade material. One way Rathje’s team dated material in landfills was simply to read the perfectly preserved newspapers buried at the level they were studying. To this day, the Garbage Project studies landfills across the US (in Toronto and Mexico City as well) going back to trash levels from the 1950’s. Even trash layers from past decades show that organic material is only partially biodegraded.

Archeologists and anthropologists go farther back in time in their study of trash sites. In these disciplines, trash sites are called “middens” (the word comes from the ancient Danish for “dung heap”). Midden later became the scientific word used for a kitchen mound or shell heap. Middens are the cornerstones of how archeologists and anthropologists piece together their knowledge of ancient peoples.

As an example, at Yucu Dzaa, a late postclassic (ca. 12th to early 16th centuries) Mixtec capital on the coast of Oaxaca, excavations of middens revealed numerous aspects of cultural life including levels of prosperity between households – indicating socio economic classes. Materials from other parts of Mexico indicate distant trading. Non self-sufficiency in food preparation indicates existence of local markets for goods.

Worldwide, ancient trash heaps have been central in our understanding of our history. The East Chisenbury midden, for example, provided information on the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages in England. Ancient middens in Japan have demonstrated evidence of extensive trade networks. In Egypt, at a place called Oxyrhynchus, a substantial midden contained large quantities of papyrus texts. This site held so much important information that scholars have commented that this midden would have been comparable to finding the ancient library of Alexandria. Among the many texts excavated at Oxyrhynchus was the gospel of St Thomas, discovered in 1945.

One thing they don’t tell you at the dealership when you buy a pickup truck, is that you will be hauling something to the dump (just as surely as you will be moving someone’s couch with it). As a truck owner, I’ve learned that modern landfills are dramatic places to visit. There are swirling flocks of crying gulls or, as in Huatulco, charging troupes of zopilotes (vultures). Monster machines roam at high speeds with huge iron wheels crushing everything in their wake. There is a tapestry of colors from all manner of things discarded. And there’s that acrid smell. It’s that smell and the rush of the crushing machines, I think, that seems to evoke haste among us trash deliverers. I’ve always felt in a rush to empty out the back of the truck as quickly as possible, jump in the cab, and speed off – thus leaving behind some of the evidence of our lives for garbologists or archeologists to study one day – no time to look for treasures, as my father-in-law would have done.

Earth Day Celebrates Mother Earth – Do We?

By Kary Vannice

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our annual celebration of Mother Earth. A day when we pay homage to the natural beauty that surrounds us and take stock of the environmental quagmire we find ourselves in 50 years after the start of the environmental movement.

There are few who would balk at calling our planet “Mother Earth”; after all, she does provide us with the essentials to maintain human life – food, water, and shelter (for some). But would any of us really treat our true mother as we treat Mother Nature?

Fifty years is a milestone, a time when we often take stock and look back to see how far we’ve come, to assess the progress that’s been made … or not made.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans, one in every 10 people, took to the streets demanding that the US government pass laws to protect them, the animals, and the environment from rampant air and water pollution, which, at that time, was almost completely unregulated.

Celebrations of Earth Day 2020, due to the COVID-19 virus “shelter in place” orders in 45 of the 50 United States, have been almost entirely virtual, and have exerted much less impact. It has been the same in Mexico, where one scientist candidly pointed out the irony of the situation: “Social distancing from home will imply an excessive increase in the use of electrical energy. The consumption of electrical energy is one of the factors that produces the greatest number of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This electrical power will burn more fuel, considerably polluting the atmosphere.”

But, while the only thing these situations may seem to have in common is irony, that’s not entirely true, as this excerpt from an Earth Day article published on Fortune.com points out.

Virologists and scientists say that our broken relationship with nature is at the very heart of this pandemic. Accelerating biodiversity loss—caused by a mix of pollution, over farming, urbanization, and changing temperatures—has made complex ecosystems much simpler and more unstable. That makes it easier for viruses to jump from animals to people, as they have begun to do with alarming frequency.

The truth is, we haven’t come far enough in 50 years. While some things have gotten better, many have gotten worse, and we are not where many eager young environmentalists had hoped we would be in 2020.

On the first Earth Day, polluted rivers, many of them veritable oil slicks from factories’ unremittent dumping, were a top agenda item. And, while most first-world countries have indeed regulated corporate sludge dumping, some developing countries still lag far behind. And our oceans are far more polluted than they were 50 years ago, so much so that scientists can’t even quantify the effects that plastics will have on the biodiversity of sea life, not to mention the fact that our oceans are also warmer and more acidic than they were in 1970. It all adds up to a grim prognosis for all, not just our fishy friends, since biodiversity really is the key to health, at both the macro and the micro level.

This year on Earth Day, The New York Times reported that the World Wildlife Fund estimates that, on average, thousands of different wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent since1970. And that “last year, a comprehensive scientific assessment from the United Nations warned that unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals.”

We haven’t done much better on land either. The rate of rainforest destruction has also increased. Before the 1970s, deforestation in the Amazon was mostly done by local farmers, clearing the land to grow crops. In the latter part of the century, deforestation became more of an industrial affair, when large-scale agriculture entered the region. By the 2000s, cattle ranching was the number one cause. In 2018, 30 million acres of the Amazon rainforest were lost. That was slightly less than in recent years, but it’s not slowing fast enough.

Why does it even matter? Well, this brings us back to our Mother. The Amazon has been called “the lungs of Mother Earth,” the largest producer of life-giving oxygen and a huge storehouse for carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming. We humans need the trees to survive. But it doesn’t stop with the trees. The Amazon is also the richest, most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity. And biodiversity equals health, not just for Mother Earth, but for all her inhabitants, including humans.

After 50 years, if you run the numbers for air pollution, water pollution, environmental toxins, species extinction, deforestation, overpopulation, waste disposal, and climate change, you’ll see that while some areas have made some small gains, there are simply too many losses to make up the difference. Far too often the real issue comes down to the environment vs. the economy. And in this fight, the environment will always be the loser, unless the consumer, the true driver of global economies, starts to make environmentally friendly products and companies a priority, sending the message that they aren’t willing to sacrifice one to benefit the other.

Now consider your real mother, what would you be (or have been) willing to sacrifice for her health and well-being? Does Mother Nature not deserve the same sacrifice?