“Gone Tomorrow”

It is easy to live with the delusion that when something is discarded it somehow magically disappears from the world. Obviously it does not, but not many people are willing to delve into the next stage of the life of detritus. So, where does the trash go when we have divorced it from our lives? Heather Rogers explores this question in her book, “Gone Tomorrow”.

Her subtitle, “The Hidden Life of Garbage” encapsulates the theme of this book. After the garbage man hauls our debris away, it has a whole life that is concealed both from our sights and our consciousness. Rogers talks about a subject so taboo that it is not even acknowledged as taboo, it is so ignored. It’s easier to think that if you pick up the litter and put your glass in the right recycle container, the whole refuse subject is benign. From Rogers’ insight, it is anything but that.

From her very graphic description of a transfer station, to the efficacy of means such as incinerators and landfills, Rogers is a tour guide for the trash that really never gets taken out despite garbage day. She does not whitewash the process or render it sanitary for her readers’ consideration. To her, it is a testimony of consumerism gone completely rampant.

Rogers chronicles the natural history of garbage and its disposal from the time of the industrial era. As mankind evolves through the era of machines and factories, how societies have chosen to take out the trash has evolved alongside the transition. Rogers describes some of these historical events with the perspective of how cleanliness became a virtue in a more mechanized society. With more people choosing to live in cities and with better knowledge of germ theory, what to do with the trash was something that concerned more than just the people who threw the stuff out the window. Public sanitation was an extention that came out of this realization.

Of course, many people would suggest that now we have come to the other end: we throw out so much stuff, there is no place to put it. The discomfort of this book is that Rogers brings this disquieting realization to light. Packaging makes things more sanitary: who wants to go eat a donut that sixteen people have picked over with their hands? But it is causing a problem at the other end, as even recycling does not really solve the problem. In fact, Rogers makes an argument that recycling may even exacerbate the problem: recycling may lull the consumer into the idyll that consuming and discarding are benign now because plastics and other substances will go on to be something else.

Rogers does not hide the fact that she has a slant to her book. Mounds of trash are what you get when you have a society that focuses on consuming things. She quotes Karl Marx several times: how the worker’s work is considered disposable when the object made is thrown out, and how manufacturing is intended to outstrip consumerism are just two times she does this. She discusses how the economy is based on consuming more, which, after a saturation point, has to rely on things being rendered obsolete sooner than they could be if people are going to buy more. In this sense, trash is something that could be much lessened if only if it were made better, or if fashion was not some slave-master that everyone must follow to be a good citizen. People are helping the economy when they throw stuff out and buy new stuff. Plus, as she points out, more trash means a new business, and that will help the economy too. Her book takes the vantage point that corporations benefit from garbage, and will use political leverage to maintain this advantage.

A reader might choose to dismiss the veracity of a book when the first sentence of the starts out with a myth: Rogers touts the oft repeated legend that one can see the Great Wall of China from space, in order to walk into her lead-in that one can see Fresh Kills Landfill from space too. But her book is a vivid natural history of detritus, and it is hard to dispute that it’s getting harder and harder to find a place for all the cast-offs. Whether one is conservative or liberal or something else, it makes sense to be a good steward of the resources of the planet. This book is a good reminder that our personal use of stuff does have an impact, and it would be wise to remember that even if it is small, what we do with the stuff we encounter matters to everyone.