And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench
—Wendell Berry, “A Purification”
I live in a religiously pluralistic city renowned for its green vibe. We have historically conserved our natural resources for public use. We can have our morning fair-trade coffee delivered by bike, commute using a light-rail system that provides directions in four languages, and purchase local organic groceries at our neighborhood food co-op, ostensibly lowering our carbon footprint and heeding in a facile manner the deservedly revered and prophetic voices of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Arne Naess. As my spouse says, this environmental theater may promote less smog, but the smug is nauseating.
But it’s when I look at my trash that my environmental self-deception bubble really bursts. After doing a bit of spring cleaning, I stare at the astonishing mounds of stuff that I accumulated, and I recall a critique made by the students in the environmental ethics course I teach at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, a school in which about half of the students identify as people of color, most are Pell-eligible, and nearly one-third are first-generation college students. I recollect how the students told me that in their neighborhoods trash is simply a part of the landscape. There is so much trash that they come to expect it.
In my middle-to-working-class neighborhood, waste removal is ubiquitous. Every place that I might visit has large blue canisters for recycling, medium-sized green canister for organics, and the duly smaller receptacle for trash. Yet despite these overt messages to reduce, reuse, and recycle, despite the frequent community clean-up days, trash is a persistent presence in the working-class-to-poor neighborhood a few city blocks away. What is the difference between the pristine parkway where I live and the urban core blighted with trash where they live, and what do these disparities signify?
For starters, there may be some relation between the quantity of waste observed by my students and other important factors. In those places where my students report higher levels of trash on the streets, there are also higher levels of violence, policing of low-level offenses, crime, subsidized housing, crowded bus stops, verbal harassment, and pollution. For people of color in my state, unemployment is four times higher, and they earn nearly half the median household income of their white counterparts. Moreover, these gaps have widened during the past five decades, as ethnic and religious groups have become less integrated and more segregated in formative institutions such as schools, municipalities, and religious centers.
But I suggest that trash, waste, and pollution disparities reveal hypocrisy and injustice that we too readily accept. Middle-class, educated Christians, myself included, have learned to be better waste managers, honing our class aspirations to remove the necessary reminder of our waste from our daily senses. We use our education, wealth, and power to ensure that waste and pollution are “not in my backyard.” Thus, we can ignore the alarming signals of how much we consume. By deftly and skillfully hiding our trash, we can also hide the burden of our waste. We can make invisible the people whose lives and livelihood it is to manage that waste. The global techno-bourgeois can adopt a lean and agile aesthetic of minimalism with little thought of the contradictions these values raise. As Christians committed to environmental justice, it is critical that we confess and lament how our lives and livelihoods rely on rich natural resources to fuel, inspire, and offset the stress of our modern urban lifestyles.
Our trash points to our hunger for consumption, driving the startling rise of municipal solid waste. According to the World Bank’s 2013 report, ten years ago there were 2.9 billion urban residents who together generated roughly 68 million tons of solid waste per year. But the new report estimates that we presently have 3 billion urban residents generating 1.3 billion tons, and the authors project that by 2025, 4.3 billion of us will nearly double this amount of solid waste. The report indicates that the global cost of waste management of this increase will be a price tag rising from its present rate of $205 billion to $375 billion; it also indicates that these costs will be most severe in poorer countries. Furthermore, post-consumer waste contributes 5 percent of global greenhouse gas, and methane from landfills represents 12 percent of global methane emissions.
This economy of waste intersects profoundly with race, class, gender, and power. Advanced automation has contributed to the deflation in value of things that can be tossed, including workers. As machines replace laborers, wages stagnate, economic mobility shifts to the few, and low-skilled workers, particularly in developing countries, lose their place in the workforce. And thus, there is a growing divide between consumers of trash and those left holding the bag. Simply, trash confers a stigma of dehumanization, debasement, and subordination. The things dispossessed are the remnants and refuse of things that may have once had value but now lack value. Trashy people and trashy things are worthless. They can be trashed—tossed away or humiliated by associating them with waste. They are debris according to our dominant system of value. The derogatory nomenclature of calling poor people trash has been a way to debase the working poor (many whose labor has been nullified in an economy which favors high-tech workers) and those who can afford only transient or mobile housing (e.g., “white trash” or “trailer trash”). Rather than lament the ease with which our highly individualistic, market-driven culture leads us to evade the responsibility of sharing dignity and worth, we judge these people when they “get wasted” using drugs, alcohol, or other coping mechanisms, indicators, we believe of lives that were “wasted.”
Recently, strides have been made in the environmental justice movement to make visible the disproportionate burden we place on those who handle our waste, rubbish, and refuse. In her book Picking Up, Robin Nagle describes her experience joining a garbage crew and shares the insights of workers who manage an average of 10.6 tons of trash per day. The weight on a worker’s body, she explains, is staggering. While she expected to shrink at the smell, Nagle was galled by the stigma; individuals in institutions and businesses refused to accept, admit, or treat with dignity these workers who labor on the frontlines of public health. Even more startling, she says, is the danger—she cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics declaring sanitation work as one of the ten most dangerous jobs.
As I scanned those same labor statistics, I noted the significant numbers of black and brown men and women who work hidden behind the scenes as dishwashers, janitors, and hotel maids. Yet the racial disparity worsens when the waste is fecal. Human waste removal typically falls to the lowest caste of women in India, or in North Carolina undocumented workers from Central America labor alongside shit lagoons that are half a mile wide and comprised entirely of animal waste.
From Rubbish to Reverence
Trash challenges us to think in particulars. An item can become rubbish when we have an excess of the item and its preponderance overwhelms us. Therefore, we ought to be cognizant of the ease at which we hide our excess. When we cannot identify a single story for a thing or person, we may become overwhelmed; when we experience many people who we do not associate with individual stories, we will find them easier to subordinate and dehumanize. We may label Syrians as refugees or migrants rather than recognizing individual Syrians—people with names like Sayid, Tarek, or Amena—who have individual stories. Instead, we must learn to conceptualize the lives of people most likely to become global trash according to individual stories and narratives.
But while we tend to overlook the individual stories of those groups, we quite comfortably slip into an individual focus when it comes to our own trash. In Western culture, I get to determine when something is trash. I might say, “That has nothing to do with me; it does nothing for me.” Such a statement centers on me and my individual concerns, not on the needs of the collective or on what might be best for us. Thus, a warped sense of self may be at the heart of our wastefulness—a self that is too centered on its subject position and its own wants and desire. This self may also be trapped in a productivity mentality, believing that one has no time to waste. We may even find ourselves working toward an end game where we will have enough surplus that we can afford to be wasteful; we may take the luxury of wastefulness as a sign that we have arrived. Both polarities—fear of want and selfish excess—leave us trapped in our myopic self-absorption.
When we abandon self-preoccupation, we realize that trash is part of us. For much of the history of Western philosophy, we have been able to other trash and its associates by declaring ourselves as having inherent value, identifying ourselves as belonging to a designated category of beings who have the capacity or propensity for rationality. We venerate the ability to think, placing our thinking selves in opposition to our material bodies. Although humans are “natural,” we can speak easily in the abstract of “nature” and her forces. Ecological feminists suggest that some depictions of nature as an irrational terrifying mother are a deliberate association meant to separate humans from nature. It is no wonder, then, that some humans, with greater capacity and propensity for rationality, have deemed themselves inherently valuable without reflecting on the material consequences of that assertion or of asserting that other humans do not necessarily belong in the same category of inherent value.
Environmentalists lament when we discover trash in places of natural beauty or witness animals suffering in the wake of chemical runoffs or foul waste. Such scenes are the opposite of the purity many of us seek in our natural quests for wonder, beatific visions, and the relief of leaving human waste. We don’t want to deal with the foulness of the waste we create in our quest to live a happy modern life. To be blunt, we don’t want to deal with our shit. Instead, we seek nature as a commodified resource to distract us from our isolated modern lives.
Yet shit and its analogues—crap, discharge, refuse, waste—are the necessary byproducts of being a part of the life cycle. When things are alive they decompose, decay; they become foul; they go to waste. Our psychic state of fear and dread toward decay is most likely an evolutionary compulsion toward survival. These instincts have kept us alive but not immortal.
It is exactly in regard to this quest for immortality, for the complete absence of waste and decay, where Christian theology ought to have much to say. I suggest that the quest to never die, to never decay, to never become worm food, is a vain and fruitless quest. Of course, it is our destiny to decay—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But in the Christian narrative, it is also in dying that we find life. In letting go of one life, we may now be reborn. Our aim is not to avoid death but to live well the life we’ve been given.
If I inhale the Spirit what will I exhale? What is the byproduct or exhalation of the Christian life? What is my shit like? My trash, rubbish, and shit are reflections of what I have chosen to take in, inhale, consume, and join. Does my waste show signs of the fruits of the Spirit? Is the living body and blood in communion with others?
Again, Nagle in her TED talk shares an insight of her experience as a sanitation worker: “I also learned about the relentlessness of trash. When you step off the curb and you see a city from behind a truck, you come to understand that trash is like a force of nature unto itself. It never stops coming. It’s also like a form of respiration or circulation. It must always be in motion.” This rhythmic dynamic of trash—its cyclical, persistent presence—reminds us of its integral link to our life and lifeways. It is part of the circulatory system of being alive. We can bury trash, rubbish, shit, but its truthfulness is a living testimony to what we have chosen to consume.
Perhaps this is the root of our bias, shame, and hatred of trash, rubbish, and all its variants. It reveals our poor choices, our scorned desires, our wretchedness laid bare. When I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was told that the Christian Dutch housekeepers of that town all place their trash bins in the same location—hidden under the sink. A friend who had moved there from other regions was scolded for leaving hers out where it was conspicuously visible. Hiding our trash makes living life with messy, filthy people a comic irony. What are we hiding? Our lives are a big, hot, mess. As Christians, perhaps the greatest litmus test of our Christianity ought to be if we can air our trash in public. Few could stand such scrutiny—are we confessing to one another this sin of poor consumption, inhalation?
I suggest that rather than hide, scorn, or bury our waste, we can—and perhaps ought to—in a sense, revere it. We ought to be astonished at the sheer size and magnitude of it. We ought to be grateful for what was given and perhaps consider if it can abide with us or find new usefulness. And when it is time to let it move away from us, perhaps we ought to express gratitude for the value it gave and the way it sustained our lives. It is the exhalation of our lives, lives meant to be worth living. It is a necessary measurement of the scope, scale, and quality of our collective consumption. It ought to be visible to us, and we ought to treat those who handle it with the respect of anyone who handles the precarious preciousness of our lives. To treat with dignity the people and stuff our lives have made can be an act of maximal love and minimal waste.