America has only been around a little while, from the perspective of the world’s history. In that brief span of time, a lot of the details that characterize this part of the world have changed dramatically. So many things now define our lives that didn’t exist when this country was first settled, or invaded; however you look at it, the movement definitely had an impact. New inventions have changed the landscape of the United States in ways its first citizens could not have foreseen, and not all those changes have been for the better.
Take trash, for example. Back in the pioneer days, packaging was not generally all that elaborate. You might get a burlap sack, to carry some stuff; but most items were stacked on shelves and sold as is. Even when your goods did come wrapped, it was never packaging that was going to last hundreds of years longer than the thing it contained. Plastic products were in their infancy in those days, and nobody had thought to produce them in large quantities destined for the trash yet.
With so few people wandering around, and so little packaging being peeled off new products, casting aside what little trash you generated was not a big problem for early Americans. It all went back to the Earth pretty quickly, and there was so little of it to account for; no one really cared all that much that the occasional sheet of paper or scrap of burlap would blow by along with a herd of tumbleweeds.
Maybe it was the giant population explosion that did it, or the way manufacturers started using plastic like it was going out of style long before it actually started to, or the rampant consumerism so much of the world uses to categorize Americans; whatever it was, trash became a pretty big problem right around the time these three problems started to intersect in a variety of alarming ways. We can push aside conspiracy theories that position the government as the hero that saved us from an impending ice age, in this instance; it’s safe to say we like our new products to come on a regular timetable in this country, and that we don’t mind tossing packaging that sometimes takes more space than the items it was wrapping.
Packaging puts us at ease, after all. We know this is a new product, otherwise it wouldn’t be wrapped in layers of plastic that require pocket knives and scissors and sometimes more heavy duty tools to successfully open. Occasionally we even want to keep an item in its original packaging, to show we collected it without ever actually using it; but most of that plastic gets cast aside, to end up in a landfill or the ocean.
Sorry, did I say it goes in the ocean? Silly me, I meant that it all gets recycled and responsibly reused. That’s the bin I put all my plastic in; and I’m sure you do, too. After all, we don’t just keep our trash in specified containers; we have another one just for recycling. Corporations are already seeing the hefty fines that can come from placing an item in the wrong bin, and I doubt citizen trash patrol is very far behind. The good news is, money apparently makes this problem go away. I mean…it must, right? Why else would anyone have to pay a fine for putting recyclables in the trash instead of in the proper receptacle? The government must decide how much it will take to restore whatever natural equilibrium was messed up by that transgression, and use every dollar of that money they collect to make things right with nature again.
And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
We can’t even be certain the current solution would have been entertained, if the first people to settle America had faced the same problem. Landfills are hardly the product of genius thinking, or even long term thinking. In the short amount of time they have been around, all they’ve done is create a whole new type of landscape that wouldn’t exist without people and their dumb ideas. A lot of people may think the aliens are waiting until we get past the urge to make war before they visit us and share some super advanced technology; but maybe they’re just waiting for us to solve this basic problem with something better than putting it in big ugly mounds that stink for miles.
Those mounds just keep getting bigger, after all; and we don’t know the longterm consequences of this practice, since no one has ever created the situation we find ourselves in before. Even natural waste can let off some pretty noxious gases, when it decomposes; we have no way of knowing what will happen when this stuff breaks down, but we’re bound to learn. Synthetic products of all kinds are still being made all day every day, and every bit of it will become discarded trash at some point.
We could shoot it into space, if we’re certain no one is out there monitoring us. It would be pretty funny if we did, and wound up getting some kind of fine levied against the planet that we couldn’t afford to pay. If they work the same way we do, Earth would end up in some kind of space prison; none of us could leave, and we could only make calls to other parts of the universe if they were willing to accept the charges.
Come to think of it, maybe this has happened before. Civilization goes back further than we used to think, and may have been around even longer than we currently believe. Perhaps previous iterations of humanity tossed their trash into space, and that’s why we can’t colonize other planets. The government might know this, which would explain why they keep exhausting our collective resources on war instead of spending it on space travel. You’ve got to do something with all that wealth, after all; this would be a pretty boring planet if everyone had plenty of everything, and nobody was out to kill each other.
Well…maybe not boring, but definitely different.
If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that last week came and went with no new post. That’s because my lovely wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary last week, and we were on vacation together. We boarded a cruise ship to mark the occasion, and as we left the port behind I thought of how this trash issue has affected even that experience. Folks used to throw streamers and confetti overboard as they sailed away, and everyone was just fine with all that trash going into the ocean every time a ship went to sea. Now we don’t do that, because we know better; but it has only been a few decades since we stopped.
How many other common practices will go by the wayside on the road to handling this problem once and for all? You can bet people in a hundred years will look at the way we handle our waste today and shake their heads at what savages we were, as they try to clean up the trash we left behind; or maybe we’ll have colonized other planets by then, and Earth will have a new role to play in our existence. Perhaps the planet will be one big landfill by then, and we’ll shoot all of our trash across space to keep our new home clean while the original one becomes increasingly unlivable.
I can’t say how this will all turn out, for sure; but I’m pretty certain of one thing. Whether we are talking waste management or constant war or any other of a variety of subjects, we can be sure the people who inherit the problems we created won’t be too impressed with the way we handled things when it was up to us to handle them. In a worst case scenario, the things we do today will lead to a mass extinction event that prevents the next generation from cleaning up our mess; after all, they can’t fix this stuff if they never get a chance to exist.
On the other end of the spectrum, maybe there will be more people in another century than there are today. The best we can hope for in that instance is that they look at us the same way we look at people who lived a hundred years ago. They’ll talk about how we used to do things, and hopefully see some humor in the situation instead of judging us for our shortcomings. In other words, assuming people will still be around a century from now…
In a hundred years they’ll be laughing at us!
We’ll talk about that more next week, in a post by that name.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,