Saturday, July 08, 2006

American Waste(ful)land

The other day was trash day. We wheel out 88 gallon plastic drums and blue recycling bins full of the appropriately separated plastic, glass, aluminum and newspaper. I drive down the street and I am AMAZED at the sheer amount of "stuff" we simply disgard as trash. Although I would say I am a political conservative, my family didn't have scads of money, so we shopped sales, renovated or simply did without. Living in what was then the burgeoning suburbs north of Dallas, where many people had a good deal of money and spent it wildly rather than wisely, it was an early lesson in wealth, money and its use. My father went through the Great Depression moving from one place to another as my grandfather's employment changed. I think those folks that suffered severely through that trial never really left it behind and often they imposed its rigorous economy on their children. I was one of those children. And in a way, I think I have imposed a similar fiscal restraint on my own kids. I'm not sure if that's a bad thing or a good thing. But it does have some bearing on the topic.

So here we are, a wasteful society that would rather throw something away than reuse it. This was never brought more to light than when our previous neighbors, about ten years younger, would buy things likes sheets or computer printers or clothes and use them sporadically for a short time and then, THROW THEM OUT. They didn't donate them, they didn't share them with the poor in the community, they didn't even have a garage sale, they just threw them away. And what it more, after a time, they decided that one big bin wasn't enough, they needed TWO. We have the same size families, but our bin is hardly every filled up and they throw away two bins of stuff weekly. What's really odd is that this particular family, along with most of the rest of our neighbors, are very liberal. (What is odder is that we are the only family on the street that recycles despite city incentives...) That is certainly their perogative, but is it really a good thing to condemn another person's consumption when you don't curb your own. And this particular family has very much pointed fingers at people who have older cars, disregarding that a well tuned older car driven less still makes less pollution than any car other than electric driven everywhere. It's puzzling that "everyone" is concerned about the environment, but it seems like there's a great deal of fingerpointing when it comes to solutions.

Taken to the celebrity level, I have a great deal of respect for Judge Reinhold, who drives a tiny car or rides a bike rather than tooling around LA in a Hummer or Escalade. And I am truly puzzled by hiphop artists that spout anger at everyone, but seem content to drive around in overblown SUV's. I have heard it said that America is one of the few places where the poor have running water, drive to work and are overweight. So does this make us greedy or covetous or simply so hooked into the GimmeGimme image presented by all of the media that we buy and buy and buy until our credit and our lives are in peril?

Nowhere is this better illustrated than on a college campus. It's a cross section of America, with scholarship kids and work study kids trying to squeak by on Ramen Noodles and Diet Coke while others lounge around for four or five or more years in relatively palatial apartments, including weight rooms, pools, cable and internet access all paid for by Mommy and Daddy. Resident Assistants, of which my daughter is one, have to clean up after the students leave. You would be amazed at some of the "trash" that was salvaged by the more frugal and needy students. These things included working TV's, microwaves, mini-fridges, game systems. ...Relatively new coats, clothing, shoes and furniture....books that could be reused or resold...CD's everything you could imagine. When asked by a couple of RA's why they were throwing away perfecting good "stuff" the students' answered something similar to "they didn't want to bother taking it home because they could always get more..." So what's the message parents have sent these kids? That they can break or lose or simply throw away anything, and get it replaced for free.

And if you aren't concerned yet, be aware that credit card companies heavily traffic the universities and colleges of our fair land trolling for new customers. My 17 year old son got a letter offereing him a platinum card with a $1500 limit. He doesn't even have a job OR a car. Every single one of these kids that threw out good stuff rather than lugging it home or selling it or donating it to a worthy charity is exemplifying the concept of Consumerism Gone Wild. I am surprised the Stock Market cable channels haven't started filming these spending sprees for nighttime viewing, just like Girls Gone Wild.

Then there is the problem of cooperation. We put off letting our kids drive until they were nearly 18. To be honest, this was as much for insurance purposes as anything, but it also forced our kids to become familiar with public transportation which is more economical, more environmentally friendly and an asset to any large metropolitan area. In most cities, that wouldn't be an issue, but in Dallas, they have poked around about getting train service to all but the most demanding suburbs leaving large sections reliant on bus service. While this shouldn't be a problem, it has become one because some of the bus drivers will pass stops with teens. This isn't an accident, it's happened several times with DART. And what is even funnier, our local transit authority doesn't have a listed phone number. So we pay taxes and try to encourage the next generation to use public transit and when they are stiffed, THERE'S NO WAY TO COMPLAIN. So in many ways, it seems that government entities are as much to blame for discouraging use of public transit as anyone else.

I realize this essay is somewhat scattered, but the end run is that regardless of our political preferences, everyone MUST get away from the notion of a Disposible Society. It has come from paper cups to families and marriages. The concept of simply throwing away things, and people, and families needs to come to an end. And if it starts with simply recycling, then great. Otherwise, my kids are going to end up picking up the remains of everyone else's lives.

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