The definition of nature is constantly changing. The word itself conjures up many different feelings, thoughts, and images. It cannot be pinned down into one simple definition. Critical theorist, Raymond Williams, once wrote about nature as “the most complex word in the language(p. 216).” Nature is often defined through our re-creations of it, because most of us live in cities. Some of these re-creations come in the form of parks. These spaces are an invented form of nature, reflecting our ideal versions of it. The city park acts as a reminder in all the urban chaos that we can still preserve nature. This all sounds reasonable, except that the park is not a preservation, it is a creation, just like nature itself. The same thing goes for wilderness conservations, with their ties to a settler past and frontier mythology. We continue to assume there is some kind of nature out there, and that we are truly connected to it. There are representations of that idea everywhere:
In the past half century we have invented alternative
worlds that give physical expression to the denial of
disaster. National Geographic magazine with its blue-
bird landscapes, and then the architecture of Disneyland
happiness, a thousand Old Waterfronts, Frontier Towns,
Victorian Streets, Nineteenth-Century Mining Communities,
Ethnic Villages, and Wildlife Parks have appeared. One now
travels not only in space while sitting still but “back” to a time
that never was. As fast as the relics of the past, whether
old-growth forests or downtown Santa Fe, are demolished
they are reincarnated in idealized form. (Shepard,P. 364)
It is almost as if we are more at home in our creations of nature than out in the raw, undefined version of nature we cannot fully grasp. In this “nature” we have constructed through stories and visuals, we often see no sign of technology. We try to align ourselves with nature by ignoring tech, even though technology is a huge part of our own human nature and our world in general. In the same way we make technology invisible in these narratives, we do the same with trash.
In the documentary, Examined Life, Slavoj Zizek argues that we need to get “comfortable” in the trash and “after reading (about ecological problems), I (royal) step out and see nice trees and birds singing and even if I know rationally all is in danger, I simply do not believe that this all can be destroyed”. He continues to argue, in front of a large trash heap at a landfill, that because we are not seeing the mess in its entirety, destruction is unimaginable. We love to spend time in clean parks, hide our trash in cans, and obsess over how beautiful everything looks in these constructed spaces. We hide what we create with trash and with technology. We assume neither of these things belong in a pure nature.
Trash, with all that is mixed with the death, blood, and other bodily fluids, is abject. We have removed it from the social order, while at the same time placing an idealized version of nature into the capitalist system with health food, natural products, new age products, and wilderness excursions. All things that are expensive and unavailable for the poor. With this access, the ones who are most privileged within the system get to decide who is closest to ‘nature’ and who is not. Nature has become an identity within the capitalist and consumer system. We consume nature through products. It is difficult to make environmental strides when we are still using the same ideological tools that caused our problems in the first place.
Technology and trash aren’t ruining the environment, capitalism is. This isn’t news to most of us, but here is where we can start addressing how the environment is being destroyed. Of course trash is a byproduct of mass consumerism, but do we have to look at it as only that? We recycle, yes, but even then we’re often just creating new consumer products. Shall we ask dumpster divers?
Dylan Clark describes dumpster diving as an activity that “attempts to break free from the commodification of food, from the fetishism of food as a commodity (Clark,P.3).” The food becomes rotten to the system as soon as it hits the trash. We’ve decided, through the draw of advertising and what we purchase, what is considered useful and what is trash. This goes beyond utility because the items we purchase, even food, are attached to our identity. Most stores throw out what they do not sell, including clothing stores and book stores. Most of the time the items are purposely destroyed before they enter the trash. If the items can no longer be sold, they are simply taken out of view. The dumpster diver brings them back into the light, just by opening the lid. What otherwise might be forgotten about and added to our pollution, is placed back into our line of sight and into a different order of signs, one that reminds us of our over consumption.
What if we expanded with and beyond the subculture of D.I.Y with garbage and dumpster diving? What if we took from the garbage, sustained ourselves and created with it through advances in technology? Unless we're seeing the prolific pictures of tech as trash, we tend to look at trash and technology as two very different things. One being totally useless waste products, and the other a necessary and life changing creation. Technology and nature are seen as two different things. One being a human brainchild (as if that’s not nature), and the other being a pure cycle existing before and after us. We need bring them together, dissolve those boundaries that keep nature constructed and tech-free, and link them together to help us create an eco-friendly future we have our hands on.
Astra, Taylor (Director). (2008). Examined Life (Motion Picture). United States
Clark, Dylan. 2004. “The Raw and the Rotten: Punk Cuisine,” Ethnology,vol. 43(1: 19-31)
Creed, Barbara. (1993). Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection. In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Pp. 8-15). USA, Canada: Routledge.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin (1990)
Shepard, Paul. (1995). Virtually Hunting Reality in the Forests of Simulacra. In Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions (Pp. 362-367). United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing.
Shohat, Ella. Stam, Robert. (1998). Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics. In The Visual Culture Reader (Pp. 37-59). U.S.A., Canada: Routledge
Williams, Raymond. (1976). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. United Kingdom: Harper Collins.