Trash talk

Who knew recycling, shorter showers, and organic spinach could cause such angst?
By JAMES PARKER  |  November 7, 2007


Trash night. Trash night, trash night, trash night. Abfallnacht, as they probably call it in Germany. Trash night is the reckoning, the tallying-up of your week of waste — and what a squanderous week it has invariably been.

You’ve been drinking Dasani water, you’ve been eating teriyaki chicken out of plastic boxes. Your cat has produced a sack of used litter, your child a minor landfill of used diapers. On trash night you construct, in semi-perishable materials, a temporary monument to your lifestyle, and set it out there for an audience of bums and raccoons. And then you rush back into the house, because you are slightly afraid of your own garbage.

Here’s a question for you: why is it that in eight out of 10 Western marriages, according to a statistic I just made up, it is the man who takes a more scrupulous interest in the business of household recycling? Why is he bent among the scraps of Abfallnacht, loyally separating the paper from the plastic and the plastic from the glass, while his wife sits inside watching A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila? Could it be that women, whose natures vibrate to the moods of Gaia, are at some level already inured to the idea of planetary self-destruction and suicide-by-garbage, while men — those frigging idiots — are just waking up to it?

Eco-guilt is having its way with us. The irony is rather delicious when you think about it: snug in our fortresses of techno-humanism, agnostic and cheerful, toasting our banana waffles and listening to Rilo Kiley, we are nonetheless subtly oppressed by an ancient sense of error, by feelings of primal trespass that would be familiar to the muttering-est medieval Catholic. Everything we do degrades or exhausts the world. Somewhere, in a realm we cannot quite grasp or visualize, we are blowing it every second. The average American, living day-to-day in the average way, produces 22.5 tons of toxic carbon dioxide a year. That’s 22.5 tons of sin, buddy, blooming invisibly out of your existence like a private mushroom cloud.

What’s to be done about it? Well, you can take shorter showers. You can flush the toilet less. You can turn the TV off when you leave the room. You can turn the radio off when you leave the room. You can turn the lights off when you leave the room. You can turn yourself off when you leave the room.

But if you disappeared right now and stained the Earth no longer with your presence, you’d still be leaving, like a polluting Sasquatch, your nasty carbon footprint. No one escapes the logic of eco-guilt. The most moderate consumer, viewed through its exacting lens, becomes a cosmic high roller, a super-spendthrift, binging and bender-ing his way toward global blackout. It’s a binocular vision: open one eye and he’s pushing his trolley mildly down the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s. Open the other and — behold! — a one-man orgy of environmental catastrophe. If that spinach isn’t locally grown, if those carrots were raised on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, there stands your blushing eco-sinner. God help him if he forgot his reusable bag.

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