Last March, Michelle Obama commented on something she discovered during the pandemic lock-down:
“….we just don’t need a lot of the stuff that we have.” (3/27/20 USA Today)
Yet the driving engine of the world economy is making stuff, more and more stuff. To do that, manufacturers need raw materials and energy. To get those, they extract minerals and fuels from the ground, cut down trees, build dams. And to sell the stuff, they advertise, for which they need telecommunications. They launch ever more satellites into space. And they need to defend all their stuff with increasing military and police forces, requiring more rockets, weapons, fuels…. and so it goes.
One big problem with all this making stuff is that no one is cleaning up. Most makers do not clean up after themselves. There is no glory in maintenance and no money in it.
As Matthew McConaughey’s character in the film “Interstellar” said, “We’re pioneers, not caretakers.” He uttered the word caretakers with disgust.
The enormous messes makers make have not simply contributed to climate change—they have also made a huge mess—filthy, toxic, cluttered messes in the ocean, in the forests, in the earth, in outer space. These are some of them:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A collection of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
29 Million Abandoned Oil Wells. “Reuters estimates that, despite not being able to obtain concrete data from the governments some of the world’s leading oil and gas producers (Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia), there are 29 million abandoned wells around the world, emitting about 2.5 million tons of methane annually.” (July 2020)
Nuclear Waste. “Currently, there is a global stockpile of around 250,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel distributed across some 14 countries. Most of this fuel remains in so-called ‘cooling pools’ at reactor sites that lack secondary containment and remain vulnerable to a loss of cooling.” (January 2019) https://phys.org/news/2019-01-storage-nuclear-global-crisis.html
Space Junk. “The latest models from the European Space Agency estimates … 900,00 objects in space.” As well as endangering telecommunications, “Some space junk naturally falls back to earth – one tracked object a day, on average.” (January 2020) https://www.npr.org/2020/01/10/795246131/space-junk-how-cluttered-is-the-final-frontier
Logging Slash. On a personal note, last May I took a hike in a forest preserve in Angwin, California. It is privately owned land in Napa County recently opened to the public for daytime hiking. I was expecting a beautiful forest “preserve”. What we found was previously logged land still covered with slash—dry dead wood and debris. In a year where there has been very little rain, it was already tinder dry. Whatever company logged that land had not cleaned up after themselves. This week, it burned.
One of the things the pandemic has shown us, as Michelle Obama said, is that we don’t need so much stuff. It has also shown us how “essential” the work of maintenance is. Maintaining healthcare, maintaining schools and daycare centers—the work of caretakers. Maintaining food supplies—grocery stores and agriculture. Maintaining clean air and ventilation. We need far fewer makers and far more essential workers.