Reviewer Steve Werlin: Steve is a freelance writer and editor living in New Haven, Connecticut. He holds a PhD in Religion from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in Archaeology from Tufts University. Steve's reading and writing interests broadly cover religion, history, culture, archaeology, and the environment. Follow Steve's work here
Author:Edward HumesPublisher: Avery
In 1900, New Haven, Connecticut followed a national trend in waste disposal by feeding 5,400 tons of garbage to pigs. In the US, disposable diapers make up roughly 2.4% of the total buried trash by weight. Shea Stadium was built on a landfill. There is a garbage dump in L.A. County large enough to serve as a graveyard for twenty times the current world population of elephants (should the need arise). Americans throw away 694 water bottles per second and use enough plastic wrap yearly to shrink wrap Texas (again, should the need arise).
This is just a small sample of the quirky—and occasionally useful—facts peppered throughout Edward Humes’s latest monograph of journalistic activism. I characterize it as such because although Humes writes like a journalist, his work constitutes in no way disinterested reporting. In his unapologetically environmentalist approach, Humes aims to (a) describe a problem, (b) glorify the troubleshooters, and (c) identify solutions for the future.
The problem: trash. Americans create way too much of it—about 7.1 pounds per person per day—and mostly by design. Over the course of the twentieth century, Americans traded in the common sense strategy of reusing everything, buying little, and saving lots for a disposable economy that rewards designed obsolescence, encourages unnecessary spending, and relies entirely on the creation of waste. In Part 1, Humes takes us on a journey from the 130-million-ton landfill of Puente Hills, to the ash-filled, horse-carcass-lined streets of pre-World War I New York, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Representing an unequal portion of the book’s chapters, the “problem” is more than enough to turn stomachs, drop jaws, and shake heads. The reader is left wondering what can be done.
In Parts 2 and 3, Humes answers. First, he highlights those who analyze the problem: the innovative trash trackers from MIT and the daring archaeologists-turned-garbologists from the University of Arizona, all studying how much trash we create, where it goes, and what happens to it. Then, in Part 3, Humes focuses on four entities endeavoring to address the problem: trash-picking artists, plastic bag naysayers, vigilante municipalities, and a zero-waste crusader.
Garbology is a fascinating read for those interested in either the economic shifts that enabled America’s “102-ton legacy” of trash or the recent history of waste disposal in our country. But is it an insightful indictment that will shake us to the core and spark a zero-waste revolution? Nah. And here’s why: Although Humes expounds upon the strategies of municipal, state, and federal authorities, his ultimate conclusion—and the book’s overarching message—is one of individual responsibility. In the final pages, the author lists five things we can each do:
(1) refuse unnecessary
(2) acquire used and refurbished products rather than new;
(3) never buy bottled water;
(4) stop using plastic bags (the “gateway drug” of trash); and
(5) consider the entire life of a product and the real cost of ownership.
This is some excellent advice that we should all heed, and the idealist in me will (and does). But the realist in me reads Humes’ words with a heavy sigh. Personal responsibility is a wonderful notion, but it’s not one with which Americans have a great record. Most important changes in our nation’s history have come about as top-down decisions. As a group, we generally don’t do the “right thing” on our own, otherwise we wouldn’t have needed such important legislation and bureaucracy as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Civil Rights Act, or the Nineteenth Amendment. Our history suggests that real change is brought about by a minority of voices led by charismatic activists or daring political leaders. The progressive “cultural shift” of the masses comes much later.
There are also problems with the book’s presentation that will irk some readers. For instance, despite being laden with interview-driven anecdotes, Humes’s book was surely research-intensive, at the least requiring many hours bounding from website to website, if not library stack to library stack. Unfortunately, there is little citation. The book lacks any sort of bibliography or suggestions for further reading. The endnotes amount to only three-and-a-half pages and omit notes entirely for six of the twelve chapters. (Not a single endnote is referenced between pages 76 and 190.) The reader would have benefited greatly from a list of websites, too. Neglecting to provide the resources and tools limits the readers’ ability and impetus to do any further reading and discourages would-be allies from confirming the information.
Despite these criticisms, Garbology is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The anecdotes and historical accounts are entertaining, the facts and figures are staggering, and the players are admirable. (I repeatedly found myself reading sections aloud to whomever was in earshot.) If it was the author’s goal to generate some critical discussion on our problem of waste and waste management, raise awareness, and help move forward the wheels of change (however little), then mission accomplished.