Trash’s Competing Utopias

Utopia, that imagined “good place” that is also “no place,” has guided aspirations of what a world ought to be like since Sir Thomas More wrote his 1516 book Utopia. Trash is no stranger to utopic imagination. In fact, there are two competing and even paradoxical “good/no places” that frame contemporary trash management practices.

Coloured copy of Thomas More’s Map of Utopia.

Utopias are narratives rather than spaces per se. They articulate possible rather than actual worlds, ideal places where social, legal, political, economic, and/or environmental practices are ideal and peoples’ quality of life are as superb as can be imagined. Utopias are pictures in the sky, so long as the sky is where you want to end up.

Our dominant waste management practices are decidedly utopic, takings the “no place” of utopia’s etymology quite literally. To create a “good place” of clean, disease-free municipalities, trash is exiled to “no place,” an ideal “away” that effects and troubles no one (except, as course, as environmental justice advocates tell us, someone– usually someones who are poor and part of minority communities– lives in “no place “, and as ecologists tell us, “no place” ends up being intricately linked to every other place through local or even global ecosystems).

Nonetheless, traditional solid waste management that clears waste from cities and deposits it in hinterlands is based on a fairly utopic narrative that pitches a potentially impossible ideal. Yet this narrative has been naturalized so it seems that taking waste “away” and plunking it in sinks is an earthly matter-of-fact practice rather than an unattainable ideal (for more on how sinks are ideals, see Jennifer Gabry’s “Sinks: the Dirt of Systems“). The magical banishment of solid waste has led several writers to take the practice to its logical extreme and make its utopic underpinning more explicit.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities explores relationships between extra-urban “no places” that allow an urban “good place” (which are in themselves “no places,” readers will find). Beersheba is a triplet city, where the day-to-day city rests between a celestial, sparkling Beersheba in the sky, and an immoral, filthy Beersheba underground. Celestial Beersheba is a traditional utopia, “where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one” (1972: 111). To allow this aspiration to become fact, the inhabitants of earth-bound Beersheba cast their gooey, icky bits below to the other “Beersheba… underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them… In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them” (111). Earth-bound Beersheba requires a “no place,” and under-thing, to become its ideal. Thus, according to Calvino, dumping grounds for the un-good bits are inherent in narratives of Utopia.
Likewise, novelist Jack Vance’s short story Rumfuddle, written around the same time as Calivno’s Invisible Cities, involves an ecological utopia made possible by trash. The main character rules earth via time travel, giving everyone their own version of a pristine, wild Earth. To achieve this, people have to clean up the original Earth during the week, which involves dumping everything that is not wilderness into an alternative Earth’s ocean via a space-time portal. Just like Calvino, Vance implies that Utopia is no possible without its dump.

But this is only one kind of trash-utopia relationship. Another, less dominant form is embodied in the figure of the radical trash picker and emphatic disposable denier. Freegans, the Garbage Liberation Front (GLF), and other politically motivated scavengers and dumpster divers imagine and enact new social relations through their relationships to waste foundational to a new type of society and economy. Such movements are utopic in direct opposition to the “no place” dumps that waste management utopias are based upon.

Dave Chameides with six months of trash in his basement in LA.

Dave Chameides with six months of trash in his basement in LA.

Imagine if you could not throw anything away, but had to keep it all with you?  The world would have to change to accommodate such a radically local infrastructure of waste. It is not currently possible. But this is what Dave Chameides’ 365 Days of Trash did anyhow.  He kept all waste he generated in his basement for an entire year. While Chameides frames the project in terms of his own waste footprint, part of making the project as public as he did (and now, into a course called “Chasing Sustainability”) means that people are encouraged to imagine doing a similar project. And then you can imagine it as a city or nation-wide phenomenon. From Colin Beavin’s No Impact Man to Beth Terry’s Life Less Plastic projects, a fairly recent genre of environmental waste utopianism via individual modeling has arisen. There is much to be said about the individualist slant of these projects and thus their distinctly American flavor, but for now we can frame them as vignettes of waste utopias, where the “no place” becomes a concrete place –a basement, a house, a lifestyle– and a set of actions to make waste place-based as such. They are diagrams \in a how-to guide that hasn’t been picked up by the majority of the population, nor by most governments and corporations. But we can hope.

Further Reading:

Tina Kendall, Utopia Gleaners, Alphabet City.

Russell Jacoby. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2005

2 thoughts on “Trash’s Competing Utopias

  1. What a fascinating post. It would never have occurred to me to write about Calvino and Vance through the lens of their approach to garbage.

    • utopia is only possible when trash is recycled in home 3d printers which make everything for free from data on the internet.

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