Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trash Picking

Yesterday morning, returning from the market, as I turned  back into the far end of our street I saw an old man with a cart bent over, scrummaging through our garbage bin.  Tuesday is garbage day here.  We have two city-mandated pickup bins--a big black one for trash, a big blue one for recylables.

That old man, and this article today about waste pickers in India reminded me of a little tour we once took of a local recycle plant. I was amazed at what people sometimes dump into their recycle bins: kitchen cabinets, vacuum cleaners, wicker chairs, fur coats, unopened bottles of ketchup, salad dressing or shampoo (which have to be emptied and cleaned out before becoming recyclable). Things one buys or inherits and for whatever reason doesn't use, and just throws out.

 Jason D. Geil/The Cincinnati Post
As the planet inches (or perhaps gallops) toward becoming unsustainable, consideration of what and how we consume might better prepare us for when we'll no longer be able to buy those   convenient, time-saving items to which we've become accustomed where the world we enter might require us to have to start doing certain things completely "from scratch", as it were, in order to clothe and feed and transport ourselves from place to place.  The 'breakdown-of-civilization-as-we-know-it' theme currently playing out in novels and TV series perhaps has contributed to this mini wake-up call to some extent; the tanking economy worldwide doesn't help dismiss it as total fantasy, though.

Some have already been forced to face this unwelcome reality. Others are incapable of even imagining being reduced to having to actually resort to picking over someone's garbage, much less begin having to put in place practical measures to ensure basic survival--if it'd ever come to that.  Many will continue to spend money they don't have, refusing to make even the smallest change in a lifestyle becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain.

 It's interesting, though, noticing the increased awareness of people who're discovering innovative ways to adjust to what may become even more crippling economic times in the months/years to come.  (I think we've passed the point of relying on mere hope to somehow change things.)   I hear of more recycling, more downsizing/"cutting back", more cases of bartering, more people willingly sacrificing certain habitual recreational or personal pleasures; bouts of voluntary asceticism even. Do these folks know (sense?) something coming that others do not?

Hoping it's temporary, but what if it isn't? What's that scout motto?: "Be Prepared!"   There are people today who haven't the faintest idea, for example, of how to make a simple soup (unable to conceive of a world without "just open and pour"). The Crash, when it comes (the "if" already gone out of most predictions), is going to be harder on certain people than others, I think.

Seriously, say someone gave you $15 to go buy whatever food you would need to last you one month. Kind of a 'What If?' game.  Do your list.  Pick the item and attach an estimated price.  Stop when you reach $15.  Now take a calendar page and plan 90 meals (3 meals per day X 30 days; do that first before you think about scheduling 'snacks'.)  What items would you chose and how would you plan to 'stretch' them?   This simple exercise alone can induce one to begin thinking more about the life one's "used to", and how that might someday have to drastically change, given certain circumstances, and how you'd cope.

 Now imagine you have to do this for an entire year.  Welcome to the kind of tortured, careful planning not just certain individuals but entire groups of humans have to do every single day of their lives, without shelter being a given, or any funds at all.  It humbles you.  Like (now elderly) people who have survived the lean 'war years', who wasted not a single scrap of food, out of sheer habit, a sensibility arises, and stays with you, about how bad things could really get and what sacrifices you might have to make to survive. A different type of consciousness than one that tends to take everything for granted.  ("But of course there will always be air, food and water!" But of what quantity?  And of what quality?). 

Curious if anyone's come up with a Survival Skills for Dummies or Survival Skills 101, I googled.  Well what do you know?  ha ha.

Some links about basic survival:

 Practical Survival Skills 101

Wilderness Survival for Dummies: A Cheat Sheet

Pushing thru concrete: Little Summer Survivor
In my neighborhood, an old man picking through our garbage bin for something to use or sell -- not an uncommon sight, but it struck me as a wake-up call, that this sort of thing seems to be increasing. I mean, one doesn't normally do that if one doesn't have to.  As the 'have-nots' themselves are increasing, so does the 'having to' engage in activities heretofore unthinkable, just to survive.  Dignity is only one of the things one risks losing.  Life itself becomes precarious.

But good to the Pune (Maharashtra) waste pickers for what they're doing.  It has made me think twice about what and how I discard things, the importance of distinguishing between what's important and what's not.  And what the definition of "life" is.

This started out to be a post about trash pickers.  How'd that collapse into doomsday thinking? I'm reminded of the humor, practicality and downright optimism of people who, while they may feel the "darkest days" are yet to come, still go about doing what they normally do, adjusting.  When I mentioned recently to a friend about being leery of eating kelp from Japan (on account of Fukushima), she told me "Hey, did you know that seaweed packed in burlap sacs under the bed can block the winter cold and damp?"   She is living on a remote Greek island with solar panels insufficient to run the refrigerator for more than half an hour at a time, so has limited use of an everyday appliance I take for granted.  (You wouldn't, of course, need a refrigerator in Quebec December through March, what with all the snow piled round the house.  I once used such to stash 40 frozen fish there was no room for inside, but the neighborhood stray cats soon put an end to that best laid plan!  But all this also got me thinking about in what sense does our level of comfort determine how we proceed with everyday "musts"?

Random thoughts on a chilly November afternoon, under a too-too brilliant northern blue sky, turning chillier as I close.