Humans are the only animal that leaves its trash everywhere is a phrase with many variants. I often see it online set against photographs of foxes choking on plastic bags, dead gulls’ stomachs burst open with straws and legos, or the ocean as it exists today outside of the polished documentaries, plastic bobbing up and down while fish attempt to swim through it. In those moments, it seems like this statement is true.
And then I walk outside. In winter, I see the remnants of nests. In spring, I look down at the bird shit in patches on sidewalks. I watch a cat hairball-vomit and walk onward. The paths I take through the park are covered in trees’ seeds and the myriad traces of other animals that have been there before me. And then I go to the documentaries, where animals continue to litter, their waste not confined to bins, but littered across the ground. In the ocean, shells, bones, and bodies litter the surface of the deep, and shells eventually become limestone. Human beings want to believe that we are exceptional — in this case exceptionally inconsiderate and wasteful — and yet, that’s not actually what is happening here.
We’re the only species that is deliberately chucking waste products made of novel nonbiodegradable materials like plastics that, to be blunt, f–k other species (and ourselves) up. We are the ones who, in under a century, went from beautiful products created by companies priding themselves on producing things that would last to a throwaway culture with fast fashion and this constant drive to replace things. I watch Mrs. America, Hidden Figures, Carol, created today, and films from those periods themselves and am struck by the wood, metal, and general solidity of everything people used. I think about all of the bad experiences with furniture I have ever had as an adult and how all of them have been with mass-produced composite materials that were not designed to last, the things that I was/am able to afford as a graduate student and early-career professional and as an early-30s adult who continues to pay down student loans. Especially with things that are necessary and within our budgets, we, and not the companies, are blamed for mass-produced things being of bad quality when we all know perfectly well that the human workers and their robotic assistants in those factories can be given better templates.
I think about religion and myth: Demeter and Erysichthon, or the nymph and Erysichthon, the greed of Midas, the destruction of sacred groves, and the transformation in the human mind from the world as a sacred agalma of the Gods to an exploitable product that contains no inherent divinity or value rooted in Christianity’s iconoclasm and antitheism.
I also think about minimalism and its criticisms. One of the biggest and most valid ones I have heard is not related to economics — I mean, we all know that wealthier white men will become the face of any movement regardless of who is actually in it — but the process of decluttering itself. One has to amass that clutter in the first place. We collect the plastic action figures and the polyester clothes, the thermometers that will break a month after we purchase them, the mementos and status symbols, by necessity or convenience or desire. We reach a tipping point, and then we purge what we own, sending it to the landfill or Goodwill or shelters. Out of sight, out of mind.
But there is also another point, and that’s related to growing up. So much of what I decluttered over the years was stuff related to who I thought I was when I was a teenager and earlier in my young adulthood. We buy things because we are trying to figure out who we are, and we cannot conceive of ourselves moving on after we acculturate to something.
In other posts I’ve made about merch and consumerism, I have wrestled a lot with this paradox without really addressing it directly. This is a process that everyone goes through, so how can we build changes into our cultures that make our sensemaking processes more sustainable? And how do we avoid being proscriptive buzzkills to people who are still figuring themselves out and who want maximalist spaces?
I mean, saying “don’t do this” is too easy. It’s like explaining what chocolate tastes like to someone who has never eaten it. Firsthand experience is a far better teacher than some 33-year-old blogger telling you how to approach your sensemaking process more sustainably.
I’ve said elsewhere that, like Dionysos enraptured by his reflection in the mirror, we see ourselves in media and advertising, and we risk overidentifying with and building our environments around these scattered identities instead of around our own human lives (the life of an animal gifted with speech, tekhnē, and anxiety) and our own individual lives (giving us our personality and preferences).
We are also individuals in communities, and communities have status symbols. Capitalism and consumerism in this millennium have exploited our feelings of lack and need for belonging by telling us that if we have the right “merch,” we can achieve fitting in, and we can signal to others that we are part of this magical group of people who “fit in” to whatever lifestyle is on offer. I need an enamel pin to signal that I belong in every group that I am in, someone says, but I don’t have enough room on my day-bag, it’s so stressful to have all of this merch. People working from home during the pandemic said, Shit, I want to show that I’m knowledgeable, I need to buy a bookshelf and stuff it with bulk-purchased books that I will never read to show this status. Polytheists looking at the opulent images (or, to be honest, those other images where people are trying way too hard to look like they are in metal band cover art instead of spending their time on the actual prayer and sacrifice) think, I need to have all of this stuff before I can even practice, this is so stressful, how am I ever going to be able to afford it, I need all of this to show that I’m serious and that I belong. Minimalists worry, How can I be minimalist if I think the white walls look like a horror movie and I like floral patterns and lush art, I need to change myself to fit this idea that others have of what I need to be.
I bought a lot of t-shirts in my college years, and I would occasionally impulse-purchase other geek display items. I fell into a peer group in college filled with geeks and imitated all of their behavior, good and bad, because I was desperate to belong and blend in. It was psychological bypassing to avoid dealing with trauma from bullying and the resulting self-esteem issues. Even before college, because a lot of pagans online were geeks, I thought that went along with being pagan. I was not actually a geek. I just like reading speculative fiction and astronomy, and I enjoyed tabletop gaming because it reminded me of improv. (My parents literally met at an amateur astronomy convention near Mount Holyoke and my mom joked to a Sky & Telescope writer that I came from Betelgeuse when he was doing a piece on the children of amateur astronomers who attended Stellafane. It, um, ended up in print.) The themes in my life that have persisted since my childhood are a strong interest in theology and transcendence, a love of poetry and writing, and an awe-ful fascination with the maw of sky and every jewel hidden within it, Ourania haunting my life from conception to current breath just as much as Apollon fascinates me.
Was there a way to learn all of that without consumerism?
And ultimately, what does merch look like without consumerism? How do people learn about themselves without making mistakes that involve items that cannot be recycled or composted? How do we signal to others that we are like them (or unlike them) without resorting to stuff, which always ends in decluttering and the dissatisfied feeling that we have wasted our time, money, and attention on something that didn’t end up working out for us? How do we — and I’m being serious here — encourage companies to mass produce action figures and other ingroup status symbols from materials like wood, clay, and stone that can be given back to the Earth in the end? How do we stop lying to ourselves that the specific media items we like now will be the things always on our minds?
How do we keep our rejected lives out of the landfill?
I know that the solution is partially digital. Digital status symbols do not require recycling; only the computers do. Another solution is to be more mindful of what we bring into our physical spaces, as few people want an austere environment. We use the Earth as a tool instead of revering her as a Goddess. She is “that great mundane divinity, the Earth, [who] is the common [Hestia] of Gods and [people]; and on whose fertile surface reclining, as on the soft bosom of a mother or nurse, we ought to celebrate her divinity with hymns, and incline to her with filial affection, as to the source of our existence” (Theophrastus, excerpt 29 in A Casting of Light by the Platonic Tradition). Part of what we definitely need to do is restore the sacrality of sacred groves, mountains, rivers, and the Earth herself in our hearts and minds, purifying ourselves of excessive materialist thinking.
Still, it feels naïve to be so proscriptive. Proscriptive buzzkill vibe, am I right?
Beyond our material needs, we adorn our spaces in imitation of the Demiurge and the Young Gods in the Timaeus, bringing to light and ordering our environment in response to whatever is happening within ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not, because the Gods are not austere, and symbols of them saturate the cosmos. It’s often done haphazardly, like the examples of people in Plato’s dialogues who chase after material things to fill a lack that materiality will never fill.
Some alterations we make are functional, like shrines and the items that we adorn them with to establish symbolic connections to the Gods, closing the circuit to make way for an electric current assisting our prayers and nourishing our meditations. Some of them are indulgences or objects related to good memories or gifts. In my case, I have a case that contains sentimental geodes that my dad cracked open with a hammer when Highway 61 was being expanded in the part of Missouri we lived in during my later childhood. The earth the highway crews went through was filled with geodes, each of them like Gaian pomegranates filled with crystals instead of seeds. I have a glass fox paperweight, a glass cat the size of my thumbnail that I have had since I was very young, and a souvenir didgeridoo that my mom brought back from Australia. (Most mementos I haven’t mentioned are also glass, lol.) We don’t need to be austere, furniture-free extreme minimalists clad in beige linen in order to be mindful about our tangible impact on the Earth.
We need to know when we are consuming out of void and lack instead of necessity or deliberate reasoning, and we need to push back against the messages we are receiving from marketers about how to fill our lack and from companies about their refusal to change immediately (what is this zero emissions by 2035 bullshit when half the world is on fire and the other half is flooded?). To return to this post’s opening, we also need to push back against unrealistic ideas that nonhuman animals have innate purity in comparison to us. We do textiles, metallurgy, glassworks, ceramics, and plastics. Metallurgy and plastics (including plastic-derived textiles) are the most destructive, and they are the things that we should be managing better to promote the well-being of every living thing on the planet.
Personally, I still make mistakes and have things that I want to change. For example, I recently learned that there is a huge fire/burn risk from candle-based oil burners, so I am switching to a flame-free option. My old one is ceramic, which is better than some other materials, but it’s still waste. I am dismayed by how often I have to replace some types of cookware and how few options there are for diverting them from the waste stream. There are also medical diagnoses and conditions that may change how we live. Being diagnosed with a dust mite allergy meant that I had to make a lot of changes in my space and behavior to lessen my symptoms, including donating/discarding. It is allergy-enforced minimalism. Gluten-free flours (for another health thing) are also packaged in plastic, not in paper, and bulk bins are not safe to use. We change what we can, and we make peace with what we can’t while pushing on manufacturers to find new storage methods.
Happy Earth Week, and hail to the Goddesses of the Earth, the nymphs, the winds, the rivers, and the myriad divinities who exist upon and within her.
🌎 🌍 🌏