This Garbage Civilization

From the film Wall-E, which I haven’t seen

I worked at McDonald’s when I was 14 years old and at the end of shift I’d have to throw away any leftovers. There was a laminated sheet under the register that listed the accounting value of the stuff we sold, and it was fraction of what we sold it for. The actual value, of course, was less than negative. The theft of a life from a cow and labor from a 14 year old in order to give someone heart disease. And we just threw it away in the end. We threw the whole planet ways. This is a garbage civilization. That’s all we leave in the end.

Now, some 35 year later, my wife is moving house in Oxford and I came to help clear up. All of the stuff we painstakingly and expensively accumulated, it has no value now. It’s actually a burden. The bike we paid £150 for, the same people will buy it back for £40. The dishwasher we bought for £250, nobody even wants it for £100. It feels like I’m at McDonald’s again, looking at the secret values under the till. The illusion of consumer society disappears the moment you unwrap the packaging. It disappears once you step out of the mall or drive off the lot. Almost everything is worth less the moment you touch it. And it’s all garbage in the end. That’s all we produce if you really think about it.

What pyramids has this civilization we built, besides landfills of garbage? What have we etched in stone, besides smears of carbon and radioactivity? Even our buildings are disposable. When we were building our house in Sri Lanka an antiques dealer came over. We asked what would be of value in 100 years and he laughed and said “nothing.” Only the wood, which we had bought from an old spinning mill and which was already 100 years old. Everything new we sunk so much money into, it was all so temporary. Modern houses are just packaging for families, and when a new family moves in, half the time they tear it down.

It’s funny being on the butt end of consumerism (ie, moving house) now. All the objects I shopped so carefully for and even coveted, nobody cares about them at all. Least of all me. All of this effort goes into gathering resources from every corner of the globe to make a thing — sometimes carting it back and forth across oceans in the process — then it’s packaged and marketed and transported to put it in front of you, all nice and new and shiny, seemingly immortal in its utility. Then you buy it (with time spent away from your family), use it for a few months (if you’re lucky) and then it just gets torn up and turned into waste again. And that waste doesn’t just spontaneously reform into something useful. Someone has to expend energy to cart it away in a diesel truck, and maybe ship it overseas if you want to pretend like you’re ‘recycling’. For what? For why? What does it mean? What the fuck are we doing?

When I was a teenager in Ohio, we were very bored (this was pre-Internet) and one of the things we did was dumpster diving. Most of the time we’d find garbage or raccoons, but I remember once we found a dumpster full of magazines. Content cost money back then so this was technically a dumpster full of money, but it was also completely worthless. A bunch of Marie Claire and Elle from the 1990s, and we were lords of it. We sat on those magazines like monkeys on a pile of plastic fruit. It looked valuable but we couldn’t do anything with it. All of that paper, all of that ink, all of that thinking. Just under the ground and stinking now. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was encountering was capitalist entropy. We were a bunch of dumpster monkeys sitting on the ruins of a capitalist civilization that just didn’t know it yet. Because entropy comes for us all.

I still find entropy confusing because it has multiple definitions. In my dimmest understanding it’s the idea that the scalding hot McDonald’s coffee goes cold, and won’t just warm up again. It’s the idea that you can crack a roll of quarters into the register but they won’t spontaneously roll up again. It’s the idea that magazines go from organized on a shelf to disorganized in a bin, and not the other way round again. It’s the idea that ‘again’ doesn’t just happen unless you apply some energy to the process. Things fall apart; The center cannot hold; Mere chaos is loosed upon the world.

This civilization, like any civilization, like any life really, is just a bubble in the endless universe of entropy. It briefly organizes matter into forms so solid that they seem like reality itself, until they die and then it’s all just heavy. I remember when our dog died and I was holding him. He went from being ungainly to merely heavy. He was a big dog, it took three men to bury him in the garden. But at least he’s decomposing there. He’s giving life to something.

All the objects we give life to through electricity, all the goods we make dance across the world with oil, where do they go when they die? In a sense they were always dead, but in another sense they never die (because they don’t decompose naturally). So what are they? It’s weird to think that every toy I touched and every motherboard I installed are probably still sitting in some landfill somewhere, waiting for me to play with them again. But I won’t. They’ll wait for centuries and I’ll still never come. I’ll decompose long before they do.

We dump things that barely break down into landfills where they break down even slower. Like everything else we produce, it’s a temporary and toxic form of fossilization. I wonder if some future thinkers— long after this fossil-fueled age is over — will dig up this huge pile of anti-entropy up and wonder what the fuck it was? Maybe it’ll be future AI doing the digging, finding what were essentially its ancestors, commodities briefly flowering in some Cambrian-like Explosion. We call it garbage now but they, borne of artificial bodies, might look at is as the remains of some great expansion before the mass extinction that followed. The mass extinction we’re living through now, which is consuming natural life now but will eventually come for the artificial as we simply run out of energy and resources in general.

I wonder those diggers will find Bunky, my old teddy bear, or even some old McDonald’s burgers I threw away (they barely decompose). They won’t find much more of me because that’s what I’ve left (unless I write some blog posts in stone and bury them in the yard).

This civilization ultimately produces nothing but garbage and waste heat. Penultimately we produce an illusion that this is all very valuable, but if you’ve unboxed any consumer product you know how quickly the illusion dissipates. If you’ve done any cleaning work or dug any bins, you know how quickly the value goes to nil. Then what does it mean? What was it for? As the physicist Tom Murphy says, “Maybe a lot of what presently occupies society is a bunch of wasted effort in service of growth and not serving ourselves or the planet well in the process.” Maybe. Definitely, really.

I mean, I’ve worked at McDonald’s making people unhealthy and taking their money for a few moments of pleasure which barely qualify as sustenance. After I worked there, I couldn’t touch the food for a decades. I’ve seen how the ‘food’ arrives in boxes and leaves in plastic bags and is largely an illusion. The real value is hidden in a sheet under the till, and the bins are over-flowing. Now on a planetary level, with our waste seeping into the air and the oceans, where we can’t hide from it. What we look at in consumer society is illusion and all the waste we don’t look at is the actual reality. And the reality is pushing back now, catastrophically. That’s the mess this garbage civilization is in.