The Disposable Society: Go Ahead and Throw Me Away! The Landfill’s Nearby

doomsday1Product packaging, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, furniture, paint, batteries… We throw it away at a rate of about four and one-half pounds per person per day according to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Every year, the United States generates approximately 230 million tons” of garbage or, as it is more properly called, municipal solid waste (MSW), and “less than one-quarter of it is recycled.”[1] Now that’s a lot of garbage!

It’s also an indicator. In 1960, the amount of stuff Americans threw away amounted to around two and one-half pounds a person each day. Of course, an increase in population over the last 50 years is a significant contributing factor in the overall increase in MSW, but it is not the only factor. Truth be told, we buy more in quantity, less in quality and, consequently, throw away more. In a very real and frightening sense, we live in a disposable society.

This is not shocking, really, when one considers just to what extent this undergirds the whole of the modern American economy. Indeed, as the chairman of President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors said in 1959, the American economy’s “ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” And you only produce more and more “goods” with more and more consumption…[2] Is it difficult to connect the dots here? This entails, of course, inculcating and encouraging gross materialism, that is, materialism in the everyday sense in which we understand and most often use the word:

  • Materialism – (2) preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things; the concomitant desire for material wealth and possessions.

As Robert Bellah notes in The Broken Covenant, “That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but is preached incessantly by every American television set.”[3] Touché! And so like Lewis Lapham quips in Money and Class in America, “Nobody ever has enough.”[4] And so, generally speaking, we buy more in quantity, less in quality and throw away more.

The garbage collector may be happy with the marked increase in business, and we can be certain “big box” retail is, if not happy, satisfied and even dependent upon the cycle of mass production, purchase and consumption (attended with almost unbelievable waste.) Problem is, none of this has contributed to the overall well-being and happiness of society in toto. In fact, according to a June 2007 Reuters’ article, “Americans are less happy than they were 30 years ago.”[5]

Evidently, acquiring greater wealth and more material goods, not to mention working longer hours to do so, does not contribute significantly (if at all) to personal peace, joy and a healthy sense of satisfaction. But then, millions of Americans have traded in relationships for retail. It’s easier to purchase some trinket or new gadget than it is to invest the time and effort required to cultivate good, lifelong relationships. And here is where we need to mention the other kind of materialism … deeper, insidious, philosophically contributing to our collective sense of relativism, radical individualism, and hedonism.

  • Materialism – (1) theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.

Stefano Bartolini notes in the same Reuters article that one of the “main causes” in the general decline in the happiness of Americans “is a decline in the so-called social capital — increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair… Social contacts have worsened, people have less and less relationships among neighbors, relatives and friends.”[6] And yet we have more stuff; does one plus one still equal two?

If physical matter is all of reality, and reality consists of no more, then there is no such thing as the “spirit of friendship,” or the “spirit of love and compassion.” There is also no real reality in the supreme (divinely-human) ideas of Beauty, Justice, Virtue, Charity, and the like. These are, according to naturalistic-materialism, the results of the cognitive-psychological evolution of the homo sapien. So, too, there really are no entities such as mind, spirit, soul; much less, the numinous, dæmons, angels, gods and goddesses, or God. Indeed, all of this is said to be no more than epiphenomena.[7]

  • Epiphenomenon —  a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process; particularly used to describe mental states arising from brain activity (by naturalistic materialists, who claim that ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ are only epiphenomena of the physical/organic brain.)

Is this true, though? Ah! The question, so fundamental in our day and age:

Who is man? Is he ‘a gypsy on the edge of the universe?’ This is what the Nobel prize-winner for physics, Jacques Monod, called man in his famous book, Chance and Necessity. Almost at the same time as Monod was writing his book, the Second Vatican Council was maintaining yet again, with all possible solemnity, the exalted position of man – “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.” Does man hold a privileged place?

Who is man? Is man a ‘someone,’ or a ‘something?’ Is he clothed in ineffable dignity – not because anyone has granted him this, but because he has always possessed it as man, because he is man? Or is man a ‘thing,’ who can only properly feel himself to be part of a greater whole? All the great questions relating to human dignity and human rights ultimately revolve around this question. The way we should deal with human dignity and human rights depends on how we answer this question. One thing should be said at the start: the answer to this question cannot be found by opposing faith and knowledge, religion and science, but only in a shared effort of thought, research, and also belief.[8]

The problem runs deep, deeper than the garbage in most landfills. As we buy more and cheaper product that we then turn around and almost thoughtlessly dispose of later (but not much later!), so we also tend to quickly enter shallow (might we say “cheap”) relationships that we later nearly mindlessly break and throw away … because there’s always another cheap relationship to be had for the asking! Might there be some socio-psychological and spiritual connection here? Yes.

We tend to say – out loud or not – of packaging, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, cheaply-built furniture, people… “Go ahead, throw it away; after all, it’s disposable!” And so we grind on and on, but this is about life and people, and the value and quality of life in community; it’s about meaning and purpose, and holding on to what matters and is worth holding on to – both people and the acquired, invaluable, immaterial possessions of ideas, virtues, arts, memories and so much more; it’s about looking out beyond corporate-business, “big box” retail parking lots and feeding our souls more than we fill our garbage cans. This inevitably entails recognizing, honoring and cultivating the divine-spiritual aspect of our humanity. As Protestant theologian, Kathryn Tanner, so eruditely observes from contemporary Catholic thinking:

human nature is itself fulfilled … by the gift of grace, which can be no mere extrinsic add-on to our natural state … humans have a natural desire, that is, a desire that is a fundamental part of their created constitutions, for a supernatural end – communion with God – they cannot achieve by their own powers. Because they have a natural inclination or tendency to something that only God can provide, the very nature of humans steers them to God’s grace. The account of nature and grace I offer also affirms that a reference to grace is part of human nature: humans are created to operate with the gift of God’s grace; human nature requires the grace of God for the excellent operation of its own powers and general well-being.[9]

Touché! To arrest the ongoing destruction of our planet, turning it into an overly polluted, scandalously trashed world, we must dethrone materialistic scientism…

  • Scientism – an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities.

And replace this holistic-philosophical paradigm with a more creative evolutionist perspective…

  • Creative Evolution – theory that evolution is a creative product of a dynamic, vital force rather than a spontaneous process explicable in terms of materialistic-scientific laws alone.

Which allows charitable room for the supramundane, with the consequent, reasonable allowance of teleological explanations.[10]

  • Supramundane – transcending the mundane; spiritual, celestial.
  • Teleological – exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature; consequently, teleology is the study of evidences of design in nature; a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes.

As Richard J. Foster shrewdly pointed out not so very long ago, “Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.”[11] No wonder we’re not happy. This is an empty life because it is a cheapened life. This is an empty life because it is largely a pointless life without purpose, a life of impoverished vitality and spiritual depression.

“Life” may not even be an appropriate word to use for description; this is an existence filled with convenience stores and artificial sweeteners, lotteries and movies-on-demand, and an “idiot’s guide” to almost every conceivable subject because, though we may not all quite be idiots, we certainly don’t have time to devout to serious study.

This is mere existence in which we have standardized “achievement” tests and schools that teach to those tests, in effect making everything else non-essential, kind of like an assembly line churning out the maximum number of product at minimum standards of quality. And over all this we might drape a thin veneer of religion that offers little more than miracle bubbles, cartoon Bible stories and cheap, plastic “Jesus Loves You” Easter eggs.[12]

And into this vacuous, pretend-life we pour more and more stuff; we consume. And we are told to consume, and to work and play, too, of course. But above all, we need more and more stuff, and we need it quickly and cheaply while make-believing we’re getting really great stuff at really great bargains, and that all this stuff is part and parcel of living “the good life;” the not-so-good life of consuming and throwing away, disposing of used products and used people.

Yes, the garbage is piling up, the pollution is thickening, both literally and metaphorically, and we’re not happy; we’re not at peace… But, then, how can we be, if mere physicality is all there is to life? As Francis Bacon so rightly observed, “Our humanity were a poor thing were it not for the divinity that stirs within us.”[13]

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[1]Garbage: How Can My Community Reduce Waste?” at Annenberg Learner, as accessed June 22, 2015

[2] Cf. “The Ultimate Purpose of an Economy is to Produce More Goods,” at Quote Investigator as accessed June 22, 2015; cf. also “The Boomer Way to Deal with Trash and Garbage,” at MisterBoomer.com as accessed June 22, 2015 who places the date of quote in 1953.

[3] As quoted in “Cultural Barriers to Sustainability and Environmental Learning and Action,” at GreenHeart Education as accessed June 22, 2015

[4] As quoted in “A Garbage Timeline,” at Rotten Truth About Garbage, as accessed June 22, 2015

[5] Deepa Babington, “Americans Less Happy Today Than Thirty Years Ago,” published by Reuters June 15, 2007, accessed June 22, 2015

[6] Ibid

[7] Cf. Jennifer Trusted, Inquiry and Understanding: An Introduction to Explanation in the Physical and Human Sciences, 88-89

[8] Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, 112-113

[9] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, 107-108

[10] Cf. Jennifer Trusted, Inquiry and Understanding: An Introduction to Explanation in the Physical and Human Sciences, 6-7, 61, 88-89

[11] Martin Manser, ed., The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotes, 119

[12] As one finds in such stores as Hobby Lobby; allegedly “Christian” products produced in self-declared atheistic nations, which have been documented numerous times over for human rights abuses, and this all for greater profit margins. One justifiably wonders just what Jesus of Nazareth would, or does, think of this sort of business practice.

[13] M. Manser, ed., The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotes, 180

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