Garbage of the Golden West
It is folly to keep trying to throw this stuff away, because there is no
Jim Hightower, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow
Stripes and Dead Armadillos
In May 1970, Look magazine ran an International Paper Company advertisement, “The Story of the Disposable Environment,” which envisioned a time when “the entire environment in which [we] live” would be discarded. “Colorful and sturdy” nursery furniture “will cost so little, you’ll throw it away when [your child] outgrows it,” the ad enthused, adding for the socially conscious, “experimental lowbudget housing developments of this kind are already being tested.” International Paper never addressed where the disposable housing, furniture, and hospital gowns, or the toxic chemicals used for processing raw materials and manufacturing products—or the fossil fuel emissions—would end up. More than 30 years later, we live with the consequences of that vision, which has transmuted the real environment that we depend on into a nightmarish one, dominated by colossal and increasingly hazardous wastes.
For nearly all of human history and prehistory, people dropped their wastes where they lived, expecting the discards would largely disappear. When wastes were relatively minor and all natural materials, many of them did disappear through “natural attenuation”—the diluting or neutralizing effects of natural processes. But even after tens of thousands of years, many items in ancient garbage remain recognizable, and poking through prehistoric dumps can reveal significant details about long-gone people and their ways of life.
History shows that soils and waters have limited capacities for processing even natural wastes. Garrett Hardin underscored these lessons in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” From Roman urbs urbii (cities) to nineteenth-century industrial complexes, the refuse dumped in and around larger population centers issued foul odors and helped spread diseases. Public health concerns eventually forced towns and cities to provide sewers, “sanitary” dumps, water treatment, and more recently, sewage treatment. Nowadays, however, our sewers and dumps receive a sizable proportion of synthetic chemicals with unknown properties as