A Disposable Society

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Princeton, NJ At most cafes today there is a station where packets of sugar, canisters of milk and cream, and coffee stirrers are conveniently available for the personalization of each person’s hot beverage. Amid the detritus that is collected every hour, each day, week after week, year upon year, is a steady stream of coffee stirrers that are swirled once or twice around the cup and then deposited into the trash. It is a marvel to imagine how many of these stirrers are disposed every day after a single use. Or the tops of the coffee cups, also tossed away with the empty cup. Or the plastic bags we might use to carry the baked goods that accompany our hot beverage. Or the discarded bottles of ecologically produced water the purchase of which goes to help impoverished people in “developing” countries. In that one daily purchase – made daily by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people – we witness in a microcosm our disposable society.

Convenience combined with busyness amid prosperity is a perfect recipe for thoughtlessness. We don’t often think about what we are doing, because it’s increasingly rare for us to be in the midst of what it is we are doing. We have long grown accustomed to living in a virtual reality created for us by a combination of jobs that aren’t in any fundamental way connected to the reality of our daily lives, along with electronic forms of media that involve us as a “culture” in events and occurrences that are in no way related to our places, the people we know, the neighborhoods we inhabit. Most of us commute to some other place where we work at jobs that involve us in some form or another in international commerce but which divides us wholly from the household and neighborhoods where we might live; and then, when we are “home,” we spend an inordinate amount of time watching a medium that ensnares us into the belief that it matters deeply to us who wins “American Idol” or what the stock recommendation Jim Cramer is making at this or that particular nanosecond. This virtual reality – fostered by our work and our home life – has only been increased by the electronic media that we now carry with us everywhere, keeping us constantly “connected” and ever-more rarely present the actual place where we are. So, as we stir the cream into our coffee in the morning, doubtlessly we are more likely to be thinking about the meeting we are about to attend or the text message we need to return than the source and destination of the coffee stirrer that resides in our hands for several seconds then passes into the waste receptacle whose presence we barely register.

In a way, our inattentiveness and the plastic stirrer are deeply and profoundly related: they both derive from our massive employment of fossil fuels. The coffee stirrer – and all the plastic that undergirds our throw-away society – are made primarily from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. And our inattentiveness is primarily undergirded by that amazing resource that allows us much of the time to live elsewhere than where we actually are – whether by fueling the transportation system that has made global mobility as easy as chewing gum, or primarily powering the electrical grid that serves as a virtual transporter, affording a constant and often illusory, hypnotic and addictive form of displacement and disembodiment. Our lack of any relationship to the coffee stirrer is born of the same resource that made the stirrer.

But it’s quite remarkable, when one does stop to think about it: that plastic stirrer, and the millions of others that arrive in our landfills after a single swirl around the edge of the cup, will remain in that pristine and unaltered condition for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years. From time immemorial human beings have sought some way to create mementos or monuments that would stand the test of time, beyond not only our own lifetime and that of our children, but as testimony to what we are and were to future civilizations yet unknown and unknowable. From the epics of Homer or the story of Gilgamesh to the pyramids of Egypt to the Icelandic sagas to the humble gravestones found in ancient churchyards, humans have sought some form of permanence in a world that inevitably all but erases the presence of each generation from the distant future. Yet, when sometimes we imagine the sentient beings that may settle on the layers of earth that will someday cover our surface – or the visitors from some other planet who will arrive here after life as we know it has ceased – and imagine that what they will discover, we picture their unearthing of a civilization that wrapped the earth in a layer of plastic. The things we throw out most readily – without thought or hesitation – will be the very things that will prove to be the most lasting substance known to any civilization of human being. How is it that we came to dispose so readily of something so permanent, when so many generations that preceded us worked so mightily to preserve even those things that are fleeting?

The immediate answer, ironically, is oil. Oil has allowed us the illusion of complete independence from the older practices and traditions, and particularly the belief that we could abandon a whole set of ancient hard-won virtues – especially thrift and care for the future. It has afforded us the temporary belief that life is primarily an existence of ease and convenience – yes, punctuated by some unpleasantness, mostly disease and death, but, in all other essentials, a life of relatively few material cares of the sort that seem to concern all species and most humans that have preceded us. God dispelled Adam and Eve from Eden with the terrible burden that each should “earn your bread from the sweat of your own brow,” and since that time humans have sought mightily to escape that terrible fate. For most of human history we have employed slaves for that purpose, or, in societies of some modest wealth, servants willing to work for a small reward. But, beginning in the 19th-century, we learned that the burning of fossil fuels was a promising means to escape the moral evil of slavery without the corresponding necessity of wiping our brows, and even the means of liberation from what remained of forms of work that required the attention of most human beings, regardless of whatever benefits they might have gained from the bondage of other humans. It was through the burning of the highly concentrated solar energy stored in age-old decomposed plants, plankton, and organic material that likely once flourished in Eden (and in other particular and limited places around the globe) that we seemed finally to be liberated from God’s curse upon humankind for the transgression in Eden. That transgression – the effort to become like God – is increasingly a way of life in significant part because of our employment of millennial-old deposits of prehistoric remains. More than any other time in human history, we operate under the belief that human power and might and ingenuity is irresistible and sufficent to conquer the world – that we can dispose of God, because we have become gods.

But a deeper answer is required: why this solution now? Why have we become the plastic – or, really, the oil – civilization? The word “petroleum” is from ancient Greek, a substance long known for its remarkable properties. Why us, now? Why, in particular, do the denizens of the United States burn so much of the substance? We comprise roughly 5% of the world population, but burn 25% of the annual production of oil.

It may be that this culture, in particular, was particularly well-suited to becoming a disposable society. Just before the advent of the fossil-fuel era, Alexis de Tocqueville noted a particular feature of Americans – namely, their “restlessness.” Americans, he noted, seem constitutionally incapable of seeing through any long-term project: they begin to sow a field but abandon it before its harvest can be reaped; they begin to build a house, but abandon it before it can be made a home. What lay at the root of this “inquietude,” he suggested, was the belief that something better always lay just out reach. This belief, in turn, was motivated by the liberation from class, rank, and status that democracy above all represented. Left to define our own positions in the world – and driven by the ambition for advancement and the fear of failure – Americans were widely incapable of satisfaction with anything they might achieve, but driven constantly to seek something better or more promising. Americans were an engine waiting for oil to grease its wheels: offered the opportunity to completely unmoor ourselves from time and place, we burned with abandon.

Above all, Americans lived in conditions that tempted them to neglect their ties to generations. After all, many came to escape the past – which was also tantamount to escaping from too much concern for the future. Unlike those nations with aristocratic pasts – even those that are now democratic – there was only a much more tenuous and often fleeting cultural forms that fostered in successive generations a felt sense of gratitude to the past and a sense of oligation to the future. Americans are prone to think of themselves as mayflies, each new generation responsible for creating its own world anew. While even in America there were vestiges of an older understanding of the connection of past, present and future – in particular Tocqueville thought those connections could be found in family, townships, rule of law and religion, above all – he believed them to be in danger of loosening with the likely trajectory of democracy and especially the restlessness that it induced. Our employment of fossil fuels only accelerated that trajectory, promoting the belief and practice that each individual of each generation was responsible to itself alone. The virtual life led by modern Americans disassociates us not only from place, from the continuum of time as well. A one-time inheritance of ancient sunlight induces an illusory belief in our independence from time and place. So, we stir our coffee devoid of any sense that the plastic stirrer becomes our legacy to the future; we burn an inheritance that was not designated to be ours and shape it into forms that are of momentary use to us before we fill the earth with detritus of our temples to convenience. By living off the corpses of the old, we have liberated ourselves from the need to consider our relationship to generations past and future. We are free amid our bondage to oil.

When the future poets sing songs of our time, our generation, our civilization, will there be words to describe our hubris, our viciousness, and our sinfulness? What will they say about our delusional ability to live not only with no cognizance of the past and the future, but even our inability to live in our places, with our own people, in our own present? Will our legacy be the billions of coffee stirrers that will line the planet, a testimony to the wastefulness of a civilization? Is there any possibility of knowing what we are doing, and so knowing, doing otherwise? Or is our ignorance now so deeply ingrained – so fostered by an anti-culture that destroys all culture with which it comes into contact- that our last best hope is to accelerate the production of coffee stirrers until the last one is finally thrown away – and then awake, as if from a deep trance, and wonder where and when we actually are?

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