A few weeks ago I was having dinner with someone who has traveled widely across the world. She said that the worst city she has ever seen was Manila, in the Philippines, where slum-dwellers literally live in gigantic piles of trash. It’s not their own trash. It’s trash that gets shipped there from developed countries. The Philippines is so poor that they are willing to accept payment for converting areas of their country into massive landfills.
I was shocked to learn this. I had never heard about it before. I am an American concerned about preserving the environment. I know that our relatively small population consumes a disproportionate amount of the world’s energy and produces a large percentage of its trash. But I had no idea that, to keep our own land nice, we (and not just us–the linked articles also cite Canada and Japan as culprits) take advantage of poorer countries to use them as landfills.
It is just this sort of ignorance that Anderson addresses in Feed. In one part of the book, the main characters visit a farm where filet mignon grows on bushes. “It was really interesting,” the narrator says. “I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.” It is a funny but sad moment. It’s not hard to believe that some children today probably believe that all things come from Amazon.
Feed is a deeply troubling, upsetting book. It is hard to read. But anyone who consumes and throws things away should read it. It describes a world where the moon is littered, all the forests are all cut down (air is produced by air factories), the oceans are completely dead, and even the suburbs built above the ground are slowly becoming toxic. It is a world not far removed from our own, if we continue to live as we presently do. Every day we use a vast array of products, each coming in its own disposable packaging. We have no idea where it comes from or where it goes once we toss it away. Most of us don’t care.
The worst part is, even if you are aware of the problem, what can you do about it? Over the last few months I have been troubled by thinking about how many things we throw away. Take a morning bathroom routine. Most of us take ten-minute showers, using gallons of heated water. Our shampoo, conditioners, and body wash come in plastic bottles. We shave using disposable razors. We floss and brush our teeth. Flushing the toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water if you have the latest, most efficient model; it can use up to 7 gallons if your toilet is old. And then there are the optional products–makeup, hair spray, sunscreen, lotions.
All of these come in containers that we will throw out.
Our society is structured around wasteful products in such a fundamental way that average people cannot simply choose to stop using them. If you don’t take showers with shampoo, you’ll be an outcast for having greasy hair. Same if you don’t shave. We need to eat, but all the food we can buy in the grocery store usually comes in some sort of plastic.
It has always amazed me that people don’t seem concerned about human extinction. When bacteria in a petri dish consume all the food in the dish and become engulfed in their own toxic waste, they die. Humans aren’t some exceptional form of life that can live through such a scenario. There are now 7 billion people on this one small planet. The sum of our daily collective actions matters. Unless we come up with solutions for reducing our impact, we are headed for oblivion.