The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Working to Dig You Out!

WALL-E may be my new favorite movie ever. The reason for this is jammed pretty far to the left on the EMOTION--------|--------REASON scale, though the following post will demonstrate just how much I love one it on an intellectual level as well. Nevermind that the animation is unbelievably incredible (the close-up on WALL-E's spinning caterpillar wheels against gritty dirt is probably the most impressive shot). Nevermind that the little cleaning robot M-O is maybe the cutest and funniest thing I've ever seen, or that it reminds me of my coworkers and I at the bookstore around 11:30 when we find a stack of pornos hidden behind war books or a half-full cup of coffee balancing atop a stack of books out of place on a shelf. Really, I love WALL-E so much that I can't even pick a favorite part. I'd have to pick 10. The Hello Dolly bits probably clock in at #2 or #3, and I've been singing the clips all day. But anyway. This post is not about cute robots, it's about saving the planet, because WALL-E's whole function and reason for existing is to clean up all the trash that ends up covering the entire surface of the earth. Oh, and as much as I LOVE this movie (did I mention I love this movie?) I will warn you that if you see it you will probably leave the theater a) in cute-robot afterglow, b) with the uncontrollable urge to recycle everything, and c) with the compulsion to run around a jogging track several times.

I was just talking to my dad today about how we can recycle more. We've been recycling the basics--like cans--for as long as I can remember, but ever since I started going up to the recycling center myself, I've noticed that there are things to recycle that I'd never thought of before, like shampoo bottles and cereal boxes. Anyone who's ever seen my room knows that I can't hardly stand to throw anything away. It's not just that I have the pack-rat mentality that insanely suggests I might one day need this taco bell receipt, but also that I just hate waste. Also, things like this that I've seen in the past few months have really started to freak me out.

This Japanese town might be a bit extreme, for now, but I think it's something to shoot for. I think that once people start making conservation a part of their daily lives, they won't even notice it any more. I mean, a hundred years ago (and in many parts of the world today), people had to do dozens more tasks a day than we're used to doing, and probably thought nothing of most of them. It's just the way life was. A hundred years from now, our great-great grandchildren will probably gasp in horror at the thought that people once had to drive themselves somewhere or load the dishwasher.

Of course, the sustainable eco-grind shouldn't be all that back-breaking for long. In the realm of home recycling alone, I'm expecting innovations in the next few years that will make the all sorting and moving less confusing and more convenient. I envision a large trash can at a central location in a house that has a lot of compartments, sort of like a chest of drawers, but maybe hexagonally shaped with drawers up and down each side so that there's a lot of room for a lot of compartments. People could just get used to sorting everything the instant they throw it away, so that the inevitable sort at the curb or recycling station is less painful. This could be a first step. Later, I think these home-sorters could start to do some of first stages of the recycling process--namely, compacting and melting. Tin, aluminum, plastic, and glass could be melted down in each compartment by pressing a button, then end result being like a trash-compactor effect. When the drawer is full, press Melt, and the next time you open it you'll just have a solid layer at the bottom. Continue the process throughout the week (or, possibly, month) and by the time the collection truck comes around, all you have to do is pull the slabs out of each compartment (maybe they eject to you like a VHS tape) and then sort them into the appropriate slots in your curbside recycling box, ready for pickup.

However, if we forget about how convenient recycling and other behaviors may soon seem to be, I think that the extra effort some people are putting into sustainability these days represents an interesting turning point in human history (as long as it's not just a fad, which is entirely possible). Up until now, it seems that most of human progress has been aimed at making things easier for us--technology has been about serving our needs better, faster, more completely and more efficiently. I think especially in the US, our constant goal seems to be to have as much as possible with as little effort as possible. I know I'm just as guilty as anyone else is of maintaining this mindset and lifestyle, so I'm not trying to point the finger. This is, just like hand-crank washers in the 1920s, a fact of life. We want it more, faster, cheaper, easier, and who wouldn't? The new "conscious consumer" is, to me, and interesting phenomenon. By my definition, a conscious consumer is anyone who makes a choice to buy/use/support/patronize any establishment, product, or service that inconveniences themselves more than the alternative just because they believe it's the right thing to do. This can mean buying fair trade products when old-fashioned sweatshop products are cheaper and more accessible, or more-expensive, funny-looking light bulbs because they're better for the environment. Let's think about this for a moment. If most of human progress has been pushed forward by the desire to improve individual and collective human life at the most basic and obvious level (the instant-gratification, easy-to-see level), then the new focus on "Green-" "Eco-" "Fair-Trade-" "Local-" or "Any-Other-" -conscious consuming becomes rather remarkable. Of the people who pay more/inconvenience themselves to participate in conscious consuming, this says three things to me: a) they have a conscience, and care about more than just what is easiest for them, b) they are intelligent and are starting to look at long-term (nice, not-covered-by-trash planet) rather than short term (cheaper! bigger!) benefits, and c) they have the time, resources, and energy to have the *luxury* of doing something that costs them more but benefits others.

For some reason this strikes me as really revolutionary. Companies are actually developing products that are more expensive, more inconvenient, and overall more trouble than their competition's product because they know there's a market for "conscious" products. People are inconveniencing themselves in their daily lives in order to participate in "conscious" behaviors (like recycling). In a weird way, it seems like we're starting to move forward, backwards.... or that we're moving backwards in a forward way. We're essentially creating more financial and physical hardship for ourselves, rather than less, just because it's the right thing to do. For some reason this seems really extraordinary to me, and really, really awesome.

I know there are lots of things that could be said to sweep away my own "this is revolutionary" argument. One could say that charity has been around as long as anything else has, and there have always been people in society who sacrificed their own personal comfort for the well-being of others. This is very true. However, I'm talking more about the direction, or potential direction, that human development seems to be taking. I'm talking about technology that's focused not on making our lives easier, but making them more sustainable, and, in the end, more worthwhile. I'm talking about large groups of people creating more labor for themselves on a daily, domestic level rather than less. It tells me that not only are a lot of people waking up to the reality of long-term benefits to short-term inconvenience, but also that we seem to have truly hit a breaking point in our gluttony. We have *so* *much* *stuff* (I know I do) that we've finally had enough. Perhaps I'm only speaking for myself here, but I think many of us have finally gotten rich enough (or just cluttered enough) that we've finally decided less is more.

In a way, it's hard to describe. I'm not saying there aren't things I want. Absolutely, there are things that I would love to have, like the spring line of Prada skirts. But that's just it-- I want quality, not quantity. I think that given the choice, most of us would rather have three great skirts (or pairs of jeans) that are really high quality and that we really love rather than 20 really cheap, really ugly garments. It's the Wal-Mart filler than I can't stand anymore. The 200 fist-sized plastic Happy Meal crap toys instead of the 2 well-crafted dolls. Wealth in the past was different. Rich people in the 1700s probably had a lot of things, but they probably didn't have as *many* things. Rather, they had really, really opulent things. Which is not to say I'm glorifying excess extravagance, but that from this vantage point, even the gaudy sumptuousness of the Rococo period seems positively serene in it's simplicity next to the mounds and mounds of plastic crap we have in our world. A rich person in 1732 wouldn't buy 20 tin chamber pots. She'd buy 2 golden ones (which is a bit much, but then it's rococo), and then wouldn't feel burdened by the anxiety of what to do with 20 chamber pots, and where to put them, and the guilt of feeling like she should get rid of them but they'll only go to waste and fill up a garbage heap somewhere because no one wants a used tin chamber pot, everyone has a tin chamber pot, though if someone didn't it really still is a perfectly good chamber pot, but how to find that person and get the chamber pot to them and she can't even go to that neighborhood and now she's exhausted and still has all the chamber pots. (This is how I feel every time I try to clean my room, which is why it's still messy). Anyway. In the past, rich people had fewer things but of higher quality because there was simply *less* to have. There weren't as many types of *things* to have so one had to one-up her neighbor by just getting a solid gold one. And while I hate gold, and would never have anything made out of it, I think that would drive me a lot less crazy than having 600 pieces of plastic to which I'm emotionally (packrat) attached.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Almost everyone has too much crap that they're afraid to get rid of either because they know how much they once paid for it, how handy it was to have that one time 5 years ago, or because they form emotional attachments to inanimate objects and probably need professional help. There are several magazines dedicated to either organizing all of your crap or even just getting rid of a lot of it. This is popularly known as "simplifying" and it sounds marvelous. What I'm getting at here is that most of us have way to much stuff that does nothing to improve our quality of life and in fact probably brings it down most of the time. Then, when we finally realize how all of our "luxuries" are crushing us, we just end up sending more stuff to landfills. "Stuff" has become our enemy. It comes into our lives on a whim, with a brief flash or flicker that it could somehow make our existence better. Then it suffocates us, crowds us, guilts us into moving it around, putting it away, bring it back out, or shoving it off on someone else. Finally, it ends up in the trash, filling up another dumpster and another landfill, guilting us again with all of its wasted possibility. Recycling is a little better, but even that uses resources. It's better not to over-consume in the first place.

Once I have things I find it impossible to let them go, either because I feel it's "wasteful" (what purpose do you serve, Conversation Hearts Made With Splenda? I'm not going to eat you, Valentine's day was months ago, and you're not going to do my laundry), or because I have a psychological need to hold on to everything with an iron grip (I'm afraid of losing, so I hold on to the material because I can't control or hold onto the immaterial, i.e. time, events). It would be so much easier if this "Stuff" never came into my life in the first place, and now I try not to acquire anything that I know will just end up in the heap. Why is it so hard not to get more stuff? We are so obscenely rich that crap just falls into our laps day in and day out. More importantly, our culture is so consumer-driven that even if we're aware of it, part of our brains can't turn of the "acquisition is advancement" gerbil voice; after all, the idea is rooted in instinct. Then enhanced by advertisements and media (btw, I'm sure you're nice people, but how do you advertising majors sleep at night? I realize all of our lives are fueled to some extent by greed and materialism, but yours are so much more obviously so. I judge you, ad majors. I JUDGE YOU.).

As usual, this post has already gone on way, way too long, but the hamster-wheel in my brain really got to spinning. Are we finally realizing that all our cheap extraneous "stuff" is not only aggravating, but dangerous? Is there a light at the end of the garbage tunnel? In a culture and an economy that depends almost entirely upon the life cycle of "stuff" in a big trashy wheel of consumerism, can we really break free of the excess and save our sanity and our planet?