There are two man-made objects visible from space. One is the Great Wall of China. The other is a newer addition: a massive garbage dump at Fresh Kills, New York, home to fifty years’ worth of New York City’s trash.
In the age of global warming, peak oil, devastating droughts, and dying species, it might seem a bit quaint to make the case, as Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Edward Humes does in Garbology, that the United States—the world’s largest generator of trash—will soon confront a new crisis of garbage.
But Humes’s argument isn’t a castigation of litterbugs. It’s a persuasive and sometimes astonishing indictment of an economy that’s become inextricably linked to the increasing consumption of cheap, disposable stuff—ultimately to our own economic, political, and, yes, environmental peril.
Humes opens with a scene straight out of Hoarders: Rescue workers and a TV crew arrive at the home of an elderly Chicago couple trapped in nearly six tons of trash—newspapers, old clothes, broken appliances—accumulated in less than three years.
But as Humes goes on to note, the six tons of trash isn’t at all an aberrant quantity. “The amount of junk, trash and waste that hoarders generate is perfectly, horrifyingly normal,” he writes. “It’s just that most of us hoard it in landfills instead of living rooms, so we never see the truly epic quantities of stuff that we all discard. . . . Today’s hoarders perform a kind of public service, letting us see what our true legacy looks like.”
The United States produces more trash than any other country—about 102 tons per person across a lifetime. Only about 2 percent of that trash is recycled, while the rest of it keeps piling up in landfills like Fresh Kills, or the ocean, where it will probably remain for thousands of years.
Large quantities of garbage have become one of the most accurate gauges of prosperity in the twenty-first century, Humes tells us—and the opposite is also true. “When the lines of garbage trucks headed to America’s landfills grow shorter, as they did in 2008 and the years that followed, it makes for a surer sign that our disposable economy is headed for a recession than a plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average or a falling dollar,” he writes.
It wasn’t always this way. Humes spotlights a turning point in the history of American garbage: the postwar rise of consumer culture, birthed by a new generation of advertisers who saw their mission in life as persuading Americans to throw away perfectly good things in order to buy bigger, better replacements. The pioneer of this thinking was J. Gordon Lippincott, the father of modern corporate branding. In 1947, Lippincott said, “Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history. . . . It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.”
Long before George W. Bush’s post-9/11 call on Americans to buy new things for the good of the country, President Dwight Eisenhower equated shopping with patriotism. During a mild 1950s recession, he told Americans that they could all pull together with one simple solution: “Buy anything.” That mantra continues to guide economic policy today, with analysts eagerly greeting any sign that Americans are buying more things as a telltale indicator that the economy is finally getting back on its feet.
But Humes argues that an economy whose health depends on how much disposable stuff people buy is driving us toward a precipice. Making and trashing all those things will generate economic activity and jobs, to be sure, but the waste-driven model of mass consumption also eats up tremendous amounts of increasingly scarce resources. The petroleum needed to make all the disposable plastic bags used in one year in the US amounts, for example, to the equivalent of 150 million gallons of gasoline, while sending ever more trash to landfills eats up ever larger amounts of energy, land, and public money.
Meanwhile, the most alarming environmental problem with trash isn’t what happens to it on land. The United Nations estimates that annually seven million tons of trash, 80 percent of which is plastic, ends up in the ocean, where researchers fear the toxic petrochemicals could be wreaking havoc on the ecosystems of the microscopic phytoplankton that provide about half the oxygen we breathe.
Humes, in short, presents us with a compelling problem—and most of his arguments for the rank inefficiency of our trash-happy, terminally obsolescent economy are spot on. But he doesn’t offer a compelling solution on the same scale.
As an example, he highlights the San Francisco dump’s artist-in-residence program, which generates cool, socially conscious art from trash, while also aiming to raise overall trash awareness among San Franciscans. He offers as a model a Northern California family, the Johnsons, who decided to break the cycle of consumption and clutter, and filled their home with sleek white modular furniture, a lush wall of plants for decoration, and a pantry lined with mason jars of whole grains bought in bulk and carried home in cloth bags. As lifestyle porn, this is delicious—but as policy prescription, it falls short.
Humes talks to archaeologist Bill Rathje, who’s applied the techniques used to study ancient sites, like the lava-encrusted streets of Pompeii, to the garbage churned out by today’s Americans. In America’s overconsumption, unsurpassed levels of waste, and morbid obesity, Rathje sees a parallel to other great civilizations at the moment when extravagance begins to outstrip resources—the tipping point at which these cultures began to contract and decline. “America should break the historical pattern and commit to all-out conservation . . . before, rather than after, it’s too late,” Humes writes. “There’s just one problem: No great civilization of the past has ever pulled this off. None.” In other words, the final test for the greatly hymned idea of American exceptionalism may lie in the country’s long- dormant ability to clean up after itself.
Coral Davenport is the energy and environment correspondent at National Journal.