There is No Away (or is There?)

I remember seeing the phrase ‘There is no away’ on some kind of flyer promoting recycling.  We can easily fall into the trap of thinking our universe consists of things that are in close proximity to our influence of being.  Despite my personal goal of learning everything about everything I can honestly say that ignorance is still bliss.

There are certain tangible items that I truly appreciate and feel have created a positive affect on my well being, but I really don’t know exactly where they come from and what effort and resources were required to create them.  I have a few favorite shirts, but I don’t know if they were assembled by children in an oppressive factory.  I love my leather recliner, but I have no idea if the leather was inhumanely removed from an animal and if a local forest was destroyed to accommodate the herding of that animal.  (I also remember seeing a quote by Paul McCartney saying something to the effect that if slaughterhouses were made of glass everyone would become a vegetarian.)

Likewise when I throw out my trash and watch that big truck come by every Thursday to pick it up I soon forget that my trash is becoming some other person’s problem.  I don’t think about how the landfill ten miles north of my house is growing in size faster than Anak Krakatau (see the historical significance section).

After watching Edward Burtynsky’s talk about manufactured landscapes I realized that there is indeed an away.  It’s that place just past the horizon of your consciousness right in the middle of another person’s existence.  (I wish I could remember the comedian who was making fun of Survivor and how these contestants would complain about being in a place that was so inhospitable yet that place is called home by people already living there.)

Edward’s talk comes across as lacking some focus as it starts being about man’s effect on the natural landscape and ends with the built environment of China, but the images used in his presentation are very powerful in demonstrating the fact that your “away” is someone else’s home.  It’s unnerving to think that the waste we consider to be too toxic for our landfills is what some other people on the other side of the planet pile up on their front porch.

Even if the United States was the greenest country in the world, where everyone rode their bikes to run errands and every house was powered by a windmill, true sustainability would not be achieved.  Your Prius may be reducing the amount of pollutants in your neighborhood, but it’s not reducing the amount of coal being burned in China.

Ignorance is bliss, but what you don’t know can hurt someone else.


2 thoughts on “There is No Away (or is There?)

  1. Mile High Pixie

    The comic of which you speak is Daniel Tosh. He has the contestants complaining about how they only have two bars here and Verizon said they’d have five bars everywhere and then suddenly the locals ask if they win anything for living here all the time. That’s a good point–even if we all go green, we still have to convince the upcoming Third World, etc. to go green. Problem is, they’re following our lead, and our lead was unsustainable for a long, long time.

  2. Eric Post author

    It’s interesting you make the point about the Third World following our lead, because the images of China reminded me of the United States during the early 20th century – the large factories needed to support a product-based economy and the pollution as a by-product. Every time I see images of pollution in China and other developing nations I think of photos I’ve seen of the steel mills in Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century.

    Quite a few nations have followed America’s lead, whether it’s the consumer based economy, suburban development, and hopefully our willingness to do the right thing.


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