Waste and our soul’s hungers

7-days-of-garbage-environmental-photography-gregg-segal-11

Hail to the power of shocking images. Dana and her 7 days worth of trash by photographer Gregg Segal

Every time I go out in nature, I listen more deeply to the voice of the earth compelling us to remember another way of living more lightly on HER body. But even though I am sensitive to this message, it has been difficult to write and compose these emerging thoughts into a cohesive whole without feeling the weight of this issue pressing on my shoulders, bearing on my soul, and pulling my heartstrings. And so I’ve let them flow organically without forcing them into being but allowing them to take their own shape, form, space and time.

More of us earthlings are waking up to the damage our modern and post-modern life styles are causing while ravaging the earth. Where does it all begin? I have been meditating on our human relationship to things, on how we seem to want to commodify everything that is alive–even ourselves. In a misguided effort to have a sense of control, we objectify the whole world around us. We pursue the illusion of control and escape the truth of interconnectedness, often ignoring that what we destroy today will inevitably destroy us tomorrow. The illusion is that we are separate from that which we destroy—a dream that creates and perpetuates our own suffering.

Our Garbage taboo

Our affections don’t last; the objects we once ‘loved’ end up in the landfill. They become waste, garbage, trash. Such is the fate of our objects when they ‘fulfill’ their cycle and cease to delight us.

We then hide our garbage in shame. Our garbage goes unnoticed, unspoken, repressed, out in the open only in places that make a living dissecting, burying, burning, recycling what we dare not see—all the remnants of our unsustainable lifestyle. And yet, garbage is part of this collective environmental unconscious, irking in the shadows of our consciousness, asking to be integrated, assimilated, digested.

What is waste and what isn’t? Waste in nature is just a byproduct of the creative cycle. Whatever isn’t assimilated and integrated returns to the river of life. Thus, waste in nature becomes nourishment for new life. Human waste, however, can takes so long to return back into the cycle of life. Our toxic waste creates a chasm between our creations and the continuity of life, one that takes a long time to bridge.

The etymology of the word ‘waste’ reveals nuances about the nature of OUR waste. Waste means to “devastate, ravage, ruin.” From Anglo-French and Old North French waster, it means “to waste, squander, spoil, ruin;” and from Latin vastare, to “lay waste.”

Art’s mirror

Last year I read the book Underworld by Don DeLillo with deep meditations on waste and our connection to our evolving wild and human-made landscapes. Here are some excerpts that shine light on our garbage issue:

On seeing our eroded objects of desire with new eyes:
.And he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and lost eroded object of desire. The biggest secrets are the ones spread open before us.

On bringing our garbage out in the open:
But basic household waste ought to be placed in the cities that produce it. Bring garbage into the open. Let people see it and respect it. Don’t hide your waste facilities. Make an architecture of waste. Design gorgeous buildings to recycle waste and invite people to collect their own garbage and bring it with them to the press rams and conveyors. Get to know your garbage.

On garbage as the origin of civilization:
Garbage always got layered over or pushed to the edges, in a room or in a landscape. But it had its own momentum. It pushed back. It pushed into every space available, dictating construction patterns and altering systems of ritual. And it produced rats and paranoia. People were compelled to develop an organized response. This meant they had to come up with a resourceful means of disposal and build a social structure to carry it out—workers, managers, haulers, scavengers. Civilization is built, history is driven…”See we have everything backwards,” he said. Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn’t discard, to reprocess what we couldn’t use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics..I take my students into garbage dumps and make them understand the civilization they live in. Consume or die. That’s the mandate of the culture. And it all ends up in the dump. We make stupendous amounts of garbage, then we react to it, not only technologically but in our hearts and minds. We let it shape us. We let it control our thinking. Garbage comes first, then we build a system to deal with it.

Untangling our mess

We need to rethink the way we create and manage our waste. Our unconscious ways are negatively altering the ecology of our ecosystems, poisoning our sacred lands and waters. Some signs:

  • A heartbreaking wake up call–a bottom feeder rises to show us the state of our ocean, what we normally can’t or are not willing to see. This gray whale appears on a beach bringing us a message -with stomach full of plastic trash.  The “[whale] had ingested about 20 plastic bags, surgical gloves, a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, and other cast-off bits of our lives.”
  • Neonics pesticide is the key driver of bee collapse according to Harvard scientists in new study via MotherJones.
  • This article explains how Plastic  is “the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world.” Plastic is not a biodegradable product. It takes years for plastic to turn into smaller pieces, but it never breaks down into simple compounds that can be harmlessly reabsorbed by the environment. Instead, it becomes a dangerous pollutant, clogging up waterways, damaging the marine ecosystem and entering the food chain.
  • Where does garbage go? We know that giant plastic garbage patch is out there in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas, the largest known floating garbage dump.

Creative Solutions

Our waste is not only desecrating our sacred earth and turning it into a wasteland, but also bringing our wildlife into a state of collapse, all of which tells us the balance of life has been upset. We have much to learn from nature and indigeneous societies around the world to harness waste and produce less toxicity. It is time to:

  • Get intimate with our trash. The photographer Gregg Segal photographed people in a landscape of their own trash of 7 days. From this article: “Obviously, the series is guiding people toward a confrontation with the excess that’s part of their lives. I’m hoping they recognize a lot of the garbage they produce is unnecessary.”
  • Challenge the idea that only ‘things’ increase the quality of our life.  Focus less on acquiring and more on being and creating nourishing experiences.
  • Embrace CRADLE TO CRADLE PHILOSOPHY when creating things. Its time to engineer and architect our products and homes to take the healing and well being of all of life into account.
  • Create less toxicity. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute announced they have created a new bioplastic  based off a novel source: shrimp shells. “It’s strong, transparent and renewable, and its called shrilk.”
  • Reduce our waste on an individual level — From the article about Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home: “The following set of 5R’s IN ORDER are the key to eliminating waste: We Refuse what we do not need (for example single use plastics, junk mail and freebies), Reduce what we do need (furnishings, clothes), Reuse by buying second hand and swapping disposables for reusables (that includes shopping with reusables such as cloth bags, jars and bottles), Recycle what we cannot refuse, reduce or reuse and Rot (compost) the rest (fruit peels, lint, etc).”
  • Have more cities go for zero waste like SF.
  • Generate energy from our trash. Oslo converts its trash to heat and electricity at a waste-to-energy incinerator.
  • Start waste-free supermarkets and zero waste restaurants.
  • Create musical instruments from our garbage, the way these kids do in Paraguay.
  • Make our trash available to artists. There is a program in San Francisco that gives a stipend, studio space, and access to trash at at the Recology Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center.

Our soul’s hungers

In our consumerist, disposable, throwaway culture, we are the imaginal cells of nature who have forgotten how to live in harmony with all of life. Our superficial relationship to things is one of addiction, an addiction that never truly satisfies our soul’s hungers. Buying more things won’t satisfy our inner void, only doing the soul work to satisfy our hungers and deepest yearnings will.

Is garbage bad? No, not if it becomes compost for new life, not if we learn from it, not if it evolves to generate energy to illuminate our lives and those of our brothers, sisters, communities, ancestors, and generations to come.

In indigenous communities, we give back to the earth, not our trash but our offerings given in a spirit of reverence and celebration to replenish her body and spirit, in an expression of gratitude for all that she shares with us. May we remember to come into sacred relationship with life.

To all our relations, with love…

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Jul 23, 2014
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