Saturday, September 02, 2006

Book Review--Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden History of Garbage

In the big scheme of environmental problems the world faces, garbage might not seem one of the most important. Between global warming, wildlife extinction, deforestation, and more obvious signs of pollution, garbage seems like something we can forget about. But that is exactly the problem. We forget about garbage the second it hits our trash cans. We don't know where it goes and we don't care. So long as it's gone, great.

But garbage has a history and it's disposal comes with a whole series of environmental problems. Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden History of Garbage effectively probes these issues and demonstrates just how important garbage is to modern American society. A well-written study in classic muckraking fashion, Rogers gives us both the distant and recent history of garbage in the United States and some of the recent developments in its production and disposal.

The first thing this book reminded me of was how nasty American society was for most of its history. Imagine a city covered in horseshit, food scraps, dead pigs, and other forms of garbage. That is an American city circa 1850, and even 1910 in poorer areas. Hardly a surprise then that life expectancy was low in the cities. Of course cities did try to do something with their garbage. Rogers quotes Dr. Ezra Pulling, a volunteer sanitation inspector in New York. In 1863 he described how rotting food, stale bread, and dead cats, rats, and puppies were turned into sausage to be sold at sailors' boarding houses. The rest, "a debris of material too thoroughly saturated with street-mire to be considered savory," was turned into cheap coffee for the poor. (38-39) Yummy!

During the Progressive Era, people organized to get garbage off the streets. Rogers tells us of the different methods for eliminating it. Eventually, burying garbage became the clearly most profitable option. This expanded after World War II, when America became a fully consumerist society. The 1950s produced the explosion of plastics and Americans threw things away at record rates. The mounds of trash and the environmental problems that it led to helped spawn the modern environmental movement that came out to the country with the first Earth Day, in 1970.

But of course the container industry struck back. Producing the cheap plastic containers that sort of sum up 1950s America are far cheaper than recycling. Fearful of an environmental backlash that would force them to produce products using the more expensive recycled material, these groups formed Keep America Beautiful and produced the legendary Iron Eyes Cody ad where the lone Indian sheds a single tear over all the garbage in the world. KAB thus shifted responsibility off of the backs of producers and onto the individual consumer. Producers therefore should do whatever they want. If consumers care, they can solve the mess through their own actions.

This is absurd of course. Recycling is great and people should do so but any real environmental change in this country has to come on the production end as much as anything. How much material is sent to recycling every year but ends up in landfills anyway because there is no market for it? Until the political pressure exists to force changes in the way Americans both produce and consume goods, trash will continue to pile up and we will face increasingly severe environmental problems.

There is much more to this book as well, including excellent sections on the history of garbage disposal and how Americans looked to end local scavenging of garbage. It's well worth a read for anyone interested in these issues.