The Circle of Life
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The other day the Urban Man had a vision of his place in the Circle of Life. I assure you, it was an uplifting moment that reminded me of my greater purpose in society.
I'd been doing some spring cleaning, and found myself sorting through a back closet crammed with clothes I no longer liked, camping gear I no longer used, baby toys I forgot to give away, chargers for electronic equipment I no longer owned, along with replacement parts for a dishwasher two dishwashers ago.
And I thought to myself, "I'd like to be remembered as a seeker of justice and warrior of the light...but in the greater scheme of things I will probably be recalled as a dedicated consumer."
Soon, an industrial waste site appeared in my backyard, 15 feet long and four feet high: an obsolete TV and outgrown bike, busted lawn chairs and 3-year-old computers...all ready to be hauled back to China, where they began their brief existence.
Once upon a time, I know herbivores turned plant fiber to flesh and scavengers returned everything to soil or sea. In the new Circle of Life, metals and plastics flow to Shanghai to be fashioned into flat screens and toaster ovens and patio furniture. These items are then sent to occupy a short, but happy life in my home—before they get broken down and carried back to Shanghai as scrap.
Things still return to the sea, but now they go in container ships.
As I tossed a stray crock pot onto the pile, I said to myself, "They are wrong who call Americans 'materialist.' For the most part, we don't care about the value of things we purchase, only the speed with which we can move from one item to the next."
I figure a worthy consumer works like a museum curator. You have your identity items: that glass dolphin purchased in Seatac airport, that rocking chair from Vermont. Then you have your semi-permanent collection, rotated in: the waffle iron, the Nordic Trak, the tennis racquet—things rarely used, but always available. Finally, you have your large traveling exhibits: the floral couch, the Bose radio, the big-screen TV: each temporarily occupying your living room before achieving obsolescence, getting sold on eBay, or sent straight back to its maker.
Even our best clothes and jewels are often no more than brief costumes. Like all biological systems, we consume and then we, well…
I've seen Edward Burtynsky's photos of the discarded American goods now collecting in vast hills around Chinese cities: unbounded landscapes of our old phones and tires. Whole villages have been dedicated to picking through our used metal casings. Old women heat up our discarded motherboards on little fires, then sit picking out transistors with tweezers, as clouds of burning glues and varnishes arise from their homes.
Meanwhile, of course, whole Chinese cities have been organized around the manufacture of a single light switch or a toaster oven: tens of thousands of workers in yellow jumpsuits gather in collective work groups and get yelled at by comrade leaders.
And yes, as the Urban Man cleans out his closet, I do pause to hold up an ice cream maker I used only once and a rice cooker I never used at all. I recall with some irony each moment of purchase, each illusion of necessity, each brief sense that I was buying something worth the cost to everyone concerned.
But I never give in to that irony. No, the Urban Man recalls his duty and bucks up his consumer confidence. He considers those old ecosystems of herbivores and predators. He says, "Okay, it may be a brutal Circle of Life, but it's the only circle I know—and surely, no harsher than anything devised by Mother Nature herself."
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Note: I am indebted for some of these ideas to my good friend Shaike, an important local philosopher..
Everyone should rent or buy the excellent video, Manufactured Landscapes by director Jennifer Baichwal, which chronicles the birth and death of consumer goods, along with the work of Edward Burtynsky, much of which is centered in China.
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