Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The ecology of trash: the memoirs question and my american dung trowel

The ecology of trash

There is a famous definition of dirt from anthropology (Mary Douglas) as "whatever is in the wrong place". This emphasises the relativity of trash, and provides little for the understanding of what trash actually is. As a biologist, I consider it absolutely necessary to make a first distinction between rubbish and pollution. Rubbish are the things which do not interact much with the system, are not quickly degradable, and the human reactions against them are therefore primarily aesthetical. Pollution are the things which do interact easily with the system, are quickly degradable, and the human reactions against them are often based on concerns for the ecosystem.

Thus, rubbish are the things anybody may keep recognising as traces of human presence for a long time – artifacts of plastic, solid metals, concrete, glass, stone, treated wood etc. They have little fast interactions with the local system, and there is no good "ecological" argument against rubbish (there certainly is against the mass production of non-degradable and non-reutilisable packages in general, but not specifically against everyday-level littering). Therefore the problem is mostly that littering could be a sign of lack of orderliness or "poor morals" in the human population. In the city, it is still active in contributing to circulation because it keeps a class of lowpayed workers occupied, and it exposes brand logos without expensive advertisement costs. Outside the city, such as in the forest and on beaches, it is less active but may cause controversy when it keeps reminding romantically-minded nature-lovers that the landscapes are not pristine, and in a similar way may to anybody sabotage the atmospheres experienced by adding compulsory irrelevant associations. Thus, rubbish is an aesthetical category, it is about the economy and dynamics of sensory impressions and associations. And here we are definitely in the sphere of the relativistic anthrolopological argument: many people would say that paved roads, cars and buildings are rubbish only when they are abandoned; some will say they are rubbish also when in use.

Pollution disappears from sight more quickly because it contributes to the local system (paper, food scraps, excrement, urine, ionized metals, carcasses, untreated wood, toxic waste, "chemicals"), and we can make a proximate distinction between poison (immediately toxic to organisms) and fertilizers (short-term advantageous for organisms). Fertilisers can be far more dangerous than poisons though. To start with; adding nutrients will usually twist the species composition so that few common competitive species will thrive while many rare species will perish. Then, the increased mass of organic material will consume a lot of oxygen when degrading, and in a habitat with a limited oxygen supply it will run short, and dead areas are created (*).

The distinctions are not at all clearcut. Degradation is dependent on climate, to begin with. In a warm humid climate, many solid metals corrode quickly and a lot of things become pollution which would have been rubbish elsewhere. And on the other hand, in a dry or a very cold climate, degradation is slowed down so that even scraps of food and carcasses may be permanented as rubbish. And among the types of pollution all relationships are complex. Many poisons can be said to act by nurturing uncontrolledly (hormones for example). And take calcium, which can be immediately toxic, acts as a fertiliser and may increase diversity and sustainability. (Then there are other classes of pollution with their own problematics which we can not go into the delicate problematics of here: such as genetically modified organisms and radioactive waste.)

My american dung trowel

Perhaps most people don't regularly dig in dung, but I am a dung beetle enthusiast and researcher (herbivore dung is more interesting to me than human shit, mind you). My normal tool is a gardening trowel. But last year I was given a remarkable artifact as a present by good friends, an american dung trowel. We sure don't have particular dung trowels in europe. And the package of this one expounded a generalised life strategy (a so-called philosophy): one should make as little impact as possible. So this was an ecotourist gadget: if you had to shit while camping, you should make sure to bury your crap so that no one could see you had been there!

Ok, a low-impact strategy is often strongly preferrable to the alternatives, on ecological as well as moral, political and aesthetical grounds. But it is also a generalisation of paranoid anal sadism. And it is sometimes used as an argument against radical change, or against all reform and historical dynamics. Furthermore, significantly in this particular case, it is a part of the common american environmentalist idea complex, one aspect of which is the idealisation of "nature" without human presence, historically connected with the specific denial of the indigenous population of North America and of the extent to which they had shaped the landscape. It can be taken as a bit cynical to see low impact supported at home while the United States forcefully apply their branding iron everywhere else in the world.

Specifically, there is not much point in burying your shit. At first glance, burying is a purely aesthetical gesture since it still feeds the environment with the nutrients. But this choice has ecological consequences, since the organisms degrading it subterraneanly will not be the same as the ones degrading it overground – overground there are for example many insects specialised on such resources, several of which are rare and threatened. Well, I don't suppose any local populations of threatened species will survive specifically on campers' crap, but there is not much point in denying the local assembly this resource either. Not even the argument of reducing fertilisation is a strong one, since the carbohydrates dominating dung are in fact far less powerful fertilising agents than for example urine, which has nitrogen in higher concentrations and indeed can be locally devastating. If you care about ecological low-impact living: go piss in water closets connected to sewage purification plants and not outdoors, but there's no big reason not to shit anywhere. (**) But no one seriously opposes public urinating, except the police and some overzealous feminists who take the metaphor of "territorial pissing" (which in the real form makes little sense in humans) litterally.

Leaving memoirs

So, at the individual level, the problem of rubbish is as I said a purely aesthetical problem. Different people are differently inclined here. Some are happy to just drop whatever waste they produce wherever they are, some are even more eager and work hard to leave a trace on the environments they visit, while some are careful to make as little impact as possible. Surrealists often cite Lautréamont saying "I shall leave no memoirs", but many surrealists do write memoirs and other anecdotal works anyway, and many are very eager to expose their names in journals, books, exhibitions, webpages, etc.

It is all anal in the sense that it relates to potty training, to the control of withholding and releasing. But when releasing becomes compulsory, it is usually related to a specific lack of concern about consequences, or in fact a mere strategy in manifesting power through not caring, or of a struggle for attention maybe conditioned by uninterested parents. Withholding compulsorily is the classic anal-sadistic disturbance euphemised as pedantery etc, and may be related to interested parents instead, when in late childhood and early adolescence this strategy becomes meaningful as the obsession not to leave much traces based on which the detective parents can deduce whatever one has been up to. The latter strategy comes to use in paranoia visavis the authorities, but may elsewhere make good impressions on friends of order and cleanliness. The subversion that is so secret that it leaves no traces also has very little occasion to actually subvert something.

Surrealists have little reason to partake in this era's grand competition over exposure of personal names as brand names. "I would like to see that those of us who are on their way of making a name for themselves, would erase it" as Nougé famously said. Here at Icecrawler these concerns have been discussed several times, with "Re: surrealist groups and publicity" perhaps as a centerpiece. We tend to believe more in messages in a bottle, in the capacity of the desire of the interested to find the relevant. Of course the noise, the advertised nonsense, the generalised rubbish, often makes this difficult. It might be useful to use personal names as scattered signs for the interested to follow, and for attachment points in building the bigger structure of collective experience. Because it is all about conveying experience. I think it makes sense to regard the accounts of our experiences as a very special kind of rubbish, a rather discrete one that does not yell for attention and disturb the general perception of the landscape, but should be in plain view for anyone who knows how to look for it.

Mattias Forshage

(*) For example, we have this problem with dead sea beds in the Baltic.

(**) I don't know if I need to make this reservation: openly or buried, it is not a good idea to dump large quantities of human excrement in the environment, because it may feed e-coli-bacteria to the groundwater and potentially cause health problems.

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