Rubbish and the New Approach to Ecology

I’m standing on top of a landfill site about 5-6 kilometres north-north-west of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. It is an ever-growing testament to our propensity for waste hidden in plain sight. From a distance, this hill looks like any other, covered as it is in vegetation, wild plants and grass.

The route here, once a well-trod public footpath, has been reclaimed by the surrounding greenery. Any attempt to reach here will be met with resistance from the thorned, spiked and prickled plants, which tug you back by your coat, and from the bog which swallows your trainers. As you get closer to the landfill, rogue pieces of rubbish appear on your path. What looks like a large plastic sink bowl rests under a tree, filled with this autumn’s dead leaves. Glass bottles are to be found periodically tucked into the mesh of thorny stalks to either side of you, and a stash of red bricks appears to be emerging from the soil on the footpath. Large black compression valves stick out of the ground. signposting the way to the landfill. Many of them are marked with large, yellow warning signs which simply say, “Ex” (short for “Explosive”). The majority of gas produced by landfills is comprised of a mix of methane, carbon dioxide and various other pollutants; the former of which is easily identifiable to anyone with a nose who is within a short range of these expellants. Without these compression valves and vents though, this landfill could cause a huge explosion, catapulting lumps of flaming garbage into the surrounding fields, not to mention the smell. The landfill is ostensibly natural when viewed from a distance. To those standing on the surrounding public fields,which are separated by a barbed wire fence, it is an unreachable green-space. This is the older part of the landfill, which now cultivates plant life. It has, in fact, ceased to be a landfill, the original meaning of which is an impression in the ground filled with garbage; it is now a ​mountain of rubbish, which surpasses the height of any surrounding greenery and overlooks the city below. Standing at the precipice this mountain of waste and looking downward toward the city frames one in a sort of grim parody of Friedrich’s ​Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

                                         And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean , and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

On top of the landfill I’m standing on, rubber tyres have been squashed together and merged into a small alcove in the soil, and glass bottles and bits of wrapper are poking out of the grassy ground. Nature and the products of man have commingled, but  it’s probably not the kind of synthesis of man and nature that Wordsworth had in mind. Most of the waste deeper into the landfill below me will actually have been well-preserved, rather than becoming a part of the land. Partially this is because the majority of supposedly degradable products in fact only degrade under laboratory conditions and fail to do so in the real-world. It is also because landfills act less like decomposers of trash as they do preservers. Excavate this landfill and you will likely find a magazine or a book that is still legible. It’s clear that we are not decomposing much and that, what we are really doing, is hiding waste from view. Out of sight, out of mind.

Romantic ecology believes that we need something of the spirit of the Romantics to reconnect with the earth. At the same time, it will concede that the idealization of the supposed organic communities of the past is a myth which has perpetuated itself from generation to generation. But Romantic ecologists consider the myth an important and fundamental aspect of human character; a survival mechanism which will offset the coming of our environmental destruction and advocate further perpetuation of environmental mythology as an ecological tool. Human beings, they insist, are not like other species. The justification for this is that we have always invented histories for ourselves, constructed narratives which help us to make sense of the world. This is itself may be part of the problem. Narratives in themselves tend to justify the current conditions – to digest the grief of the situation.

“In all things that live,” says Ruskin, “there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.” In other words, there is an aesthetic value in imperfection. In fact, Ruskin goes as far as to say that “the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” Gothic architecture, with its irregularity and rich variation, is the embodiment of this aesthetic ideal for him. To embrace thoroughly the imperfections of a structure is to advance its capacity for great artistry. In this way the imperfections are absorbed and legitimised by the whole. This, needless to say, is a dangerous aesthetic with which to approach conservation.

With the Romantic framing of nature – the seperation of man and nature into subject and object – comes an aesthetic distance. We might think of this distance as ecologically valuable. (How can man damage nature if he he has distanced himself from it?) But this aesthetic distancing may be counter-intuitive to ecological efforts. Is it not this inherited Romantic concept of nature framed that provides the impetus for hiding thousands of tonnes of garbage underground in order to keep the landscape picturesque? Would we not benefit from a more immediate engagement with reality which foregoes this aesthetic framing? The first step toward a working philosophy of ecology is to abandon the Romantic concept of nature, and to recognise our true place in nature. Not on Mont Blanc, but on the landfill.

If we were to consider Canterbury as a map of the human mind, I stand now in the deep unconscious. Fully visible from the surrounding area, this landfill is nevertheless obscured by a thin superficial layer of greenery. It has become artificially integrated into the landscape. Looking from afar one wouldn’t register it. Even standing here it is difficult to imagine that tonnes and tonnes of partially preserved junk is below me. It is only when I look to my left to see a freshly dug impression in the ground partially filled with rubbish that I come anywhere near grasping of the magnitude of the waste we produce. The new landfill has been mobbed by stationary JCBs. The high-vis vests of the workers are slung over the compression valves. It is Sunday and, apart from the seagulls, I am the only one here. A huge flock of them swirl around the waste below, occasionally grabbing something that takes their fancy. These are the bane of landfill workers. Frequently, residential areas will find themselves the recipients of unwanted gifts from these birds. Most often this occurs when two seagulls, fighting over a scrap of meat, will inadvertently drop it below into a street or garden. Consequently, these landfill workers will have to take precautions to deter the birds, such as stringing fishing wire around the landfill to interrupt their flying patterns.

But these seagulls are only reminding us of the waste we have hidden away.  What are offended by when a seagull drops a partially-decomposed chicken burger in our garden if not the reminder of our own wastefulness? When we flush the toilet, take out the rubbish, or poke bits of food down the kitchen sink plughole, we are effectively eliminating waste from our conscious life. It ceases to exist within the world of our immediate experience, as if we have banished it to some other dimension where it won’t trouble us. Of course, we know intelligently that this is not the case. We can imagine in an abstract, theoretical sense the legacy of waste we will leave behind, but none of it really seems ​real. This is our disavowal. This is the ​but in our line of thinking. That is, “I know that I am producing an excess of waste, that things cannot go on like this indefinitely – but when I look out of my window things seem pleasant enough; there is a benign green hill in the distance and an environmental catastrophe seems unfathomable.”

Even when presented with the evidence of environmental destruction, we simply cannot imagine in any real sense that anything will come of it. In fact, we have made a concerted effort to hide the evidence of our impact on the environment with landfills like these. The daily operations of slaughterhouses too are obscured from public view, seen only periodically through leaked footage by animal rights organisations, which we even then we manage to disassociate from the neatly packaged products we purchase in supermarkets. It is scarcely even reported by environmentalists that the consumption of animal-based products roughly doubles our greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps because it disturbs our comfortable ideas of what our contribution to ecology should be. Perhaps too because it disturbs our idea of what ​nature should be. We tend to perceive human activity as a perversion of nature, forgetting that we too are an intrinsic part of it. But nature in itself is not a complete, self-regulating, circular realm of uninterrupted goodness that has been perverted by humans; it is a series of catastrophes.

When plastic was first created in 1905 by Leo Baeklan from a polymer made with coal tar and formaldehyde, it was intended to free humanity from the restraints of nature. Ivory, scarce metals and a range of other materials could all be substituted with this miracle product. Post-war it was heavily marketed as a cheap convenience, and production soared. Now, we are so inundated with plastic that it has slipped beyond the public consciousness. Most of it will end up in public landfills like this one, simply because the majority of plastic is “dirty plastic”: plastic which has been contaminated by food and is too costly to recycle. We have passed a point of no return and plastic has become an essential part of our existence. As it was with the advent of nuclear energy, we failed to take into account the potential future dangers of this exciting new technology. What is interesting here is that plastic was motivated by a desire to conquer nature, and to be free of its limitations, when in fact it has been a major contributor to the waste which we now find ourselves inundated with.

The problem with the distinctions between natural and unnatural which we adhere to, is that they make less and less sense as we learn more about the world. When we boil nature down, (that is nature in the sense of organic matter) to the essential algorithmic processes of which it is made, it begins to resemble less of the squishy nature that we associate with the Romantics and more the mechanical structure of technology. When nature comes to resemble a machine – and what’s more, when we come to resemble machines – it becomes harder for us to ​frame it as a separate entity; harder to distance ourselves from it through aesthetic means and so make that distinction between subject and object. Romantic ecology wants us to bridge the gap between ourselves and the lost object. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with a concept of nature which is constantly revising itself. The extreme materialist position is to increase this alienation from nature, to move to a terrifying new abstract materialism. It is quite clear that our scientific knowledge of nature forbids us from returning to a Romanticism that is not at least partially contrived. Why not, conversely, abandon the concept of a Romantic nature and instead view the entirety of the world in this abstract materialist way? Have we not then realised the synthesis of subject and object that the Romantics sought, only by opposite means?

In order to achieve this, we need to come to places like this landfill site. It is one of the many legacies of waste which we have created for ourselves and we should be perpetually reminded of it. Visiting a national park or a wooded area is not going to help us address the current ecological issues. It will only pamper our disavowal and assuage the niggling fears we have about the future of our planet. As bleak as it sounds, we need to make ourselves conscious of the guilt we should collectively feel and let it pervade our consciousness without digesting it in an idealised form. This is not a guilt of a perpetrator who has committed a crime, but the guilt which arises from the realisation that we are both perpetrator and victim.


― November 2016


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