Philosophia, “No Impact Man,” and the reader of Discard Studies


We have a modest fern garden on the side of our home.  (Curiously, it is situated right in front of the plastic shed that holds my two trash containers.) I am the steward of the miniature garden; I take care of it, I tend to it.  This year I’ve given it more time.  It is flourishing.

Democracy needs “tending to.” Some people forget this simple fact.  One of the things oftentimes forgotten is the need to protect the values of civil society in order to ensure their reproduction into the future.  In lots of ways, we’re taught to forget, to look the other way.

We have the right to know about toxics and to demand transparency about what they are, where we find them, how they are being used, who is affected by them, and whether or not certain groups of people are disproportionately exposed to them.  Similarly, we have the right to know about the true effects of fracking on human bodies, waterways, and ecosystems.  Do fracking processes add to our toxic loads or not?  [On another note, I was glad to see a discussion of genetically modified foods on the Bill Maher show last Friday].  Do these foods alter our bodies and our immune systems, do they make us intolerant or unable to digest certain food groups after we ingest them for a few years?  Should these foods be labeled?  We deserve the opportunity to discuss and debate these questions.

Discard Studies (and other similar corners of the internet) functions as an autonomous sphere in which ideas and problems can be freely discussed and disseminated.  It is an example of the active part of philosophy, the vita activa, that enables the daily constitution of democracy.  Democracy depends upon critique and philo-sophia, the love of wisdom.

As I read it, the notion that one’s life can be an “acting out” of philosophy, a reflection of one’s philosophical beliefs, lies beneath the surface of the film, “No Impact Man.”  The film emphasizes day-to-day choices we make and asks us to think about how we make those choices.  Do we use things, or purchase things, based on any particular principles?  Do we make purchases merely because one item is less expensive than another (despite the hidden environmental and health-related costs)?  Or do we pause to consider what Kopytoff has called the “biography of things,” the moral economy of things?

Making ethical spending decisions requires a moment’s hesitation.  We have to be committed to actually thinking about our decisions.  Freedom of choice requires freedom and it requires real choice.  Choice can only be made on the basis of good, factual evidence.  Too many times the playing field is loaded.  Consider that the FDA is staffed with former Monsanto executives.

Socrates lived his philosophy.  He saw life as philosophy.  “No Impact Man” represents an experiment in living in New York sustainably.  It is a lesson for all of us.

Readers of Discard Studies are philosophical.  Philosophy, as Socrates demonstrated, is critical thinking.  The internet provides new opportunities for shaping and sustaining critical thinking (in our case around discards).  The internet enables agency in profound new ways.  To experience agency is to rub up against freedom in the face of determinative social structures (what Horkheimer and Adorno once called the “force of the collective”).

One’s life can become an active reflection of philosophy.