Monday, May 4, 2009

A Disposable Society

Earlier today I posted on this subject at Front Porch Republic. A snippet:

At most cafes today there is a station where packets of sugar, canisters of milk and cream, and coffee stirrers are conveniently available for the personalization of each person’s hot beverage. Amid the detritus that is collected every hour, each day, week after week, year upon year, is a steady stream of coffee stirrers that are swirled once or twice around the cup and then deposited into the trash. It is a marvel to imagine how many of these stirrers are disposed every day after a single use. Or the tops of the coffee cups, also tossed away with the empty cup. Or the plastic bags we might use to carry the baked goods that accompany our hot beverage. Or the discarded bottles of ecologically produced water the purchase of which goes to help impoverished people in “developing” countries. In that one daily purchase - made daily by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people - we witness in a microcosm our disposable society.


But it’s quite remarkable, when one does stop to think about it: that plastic stirrer, and the millions of others that arrive in our landfills after a single swirl around the edge of the cup, will remain in that pristine and unaltered condition for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years. From time immemorial human beings have sought some way to create mementos or monuments that would stand the test of time, beyond not only our own lifetime and that of our children, but as testimony to what we are and were to future civilizations yet unknown and unknowable. From the epics of Homer or the story of Gilgamesh to the pyramids of Egypt to the Icelandic sagas to the humble gravestones found in ancient churchyards, humans have sought some form of permanence in a world that inevitably all but erases the presence of each generation from the distant future. Yet, when sometimes we imagine the sentient beings that may settle on the layers of earth that will someday cover our surface - or the visitors from some other planet who will arrive here after life as we know it has ceased - and imagine that what they will discover, we picture their unearthing of a civilization that wrapped the earth in a layer of plastic. The things we throw out most readily - without thought or hesitation - will be the very things that will prove to be the most lasting substance known to any civilization of human being. How is it that we came to dispose so readily of something so permanent, when so many generations that preceded us worked so mightily to preserve even those things that are fleeting?


I attempt to answer my own questions here.

1 comment:

Nicko said...

I ponder the same questions whenever I pop into a coffee house. I have to ask, is it like this in other places of the world? Is this habit unique to what you saw in America, or is it spreading?