Capitalism’s Not-So-Secret Dirty Little Secret

August 26, 2008 at 12:34 am (environment) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once, when we were kids, my brother and I accompanied my dad to a new public golf course in town.  He assured us we could drive the golf cart.  What he failed to mention until we got there was that the course was built on top of a landfill and that there would be “smell showers,” as my brother and I came to call them, all over the place–literally 6″ PVC pipes sticking up out of the ground, taller than a grown man, and curved at the top in such a way as to keep rain from entering but also to literally shower passersby with the noxious odor of civilization’s excrement.  I haven’t thought of that golf course in a very long time…

That is, until yesterday when I had the distinct non-pleasure of visiting Vancouver’s Transfer Station.  The Transfer Station is not exactly a landfill, but close enough; it is a small (as far as warehouses go) warehouse-like building with a huge garbage pit in the center.  Supposedly, trash gets sorted and packaged there to be sold to reclamation companies.  Some trash is treasure, but I’m guessing most is still just trash.

The stench made me want to retch; it also made me hope that the guys working there are well-paid.  The rope I had used to tie my old box spring to the top of the car for transport there fell in a puddle of trash juice and when it got on my hand, I totally freaked.  I’m not a germ-a-phobe by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t even the dirt and germs I wanted off my hands so much as the guilt that accompanies participation in this cycle of waste, consumption, and more waste.

Waste pervades our culture; we cannot escape it.  Indeed, waste turns the wheels of the capitalist economy.  There is so much more money to be made in selling people the same cheaply-made goods over and over than there is in selling a few well-made goods to consumer-collectives.  It just isn’t in the interests of the capitalist owner/producer to build his product to last or to encourage it to be shared amongst consumers (think anti-piracy laws).  No, he wants each and every consumer to buy his product an infinite number of times (either because it is made to be disposable or because its construction is so shoddy that its use-pattern is virtually disposable); in this way does he insure the future of his business.  Does he care what ultimately happens to his products?  No; the fact that they wind up in landfills, on beaches, or in the stomachs of unsuspecting marine mammals–and the cost of cleaning all this up–is not accounted for in his books.  For all its free market rhetoric, Capitalism’s blatant disregard for true accounting is an abysmal shame.

And yet, it is me who bears the burden of shame.  My visit to the Transfer Station, that stinking garbage pit on the south side of town, left me with a feeling, not just of nausea, but of guilt and overwhelming sadness at the thought of every consumer good I’ve ever bought and had break on me far before its time.  There’s the lamp I just bought at Ikea the other day, off of which a plastic clamp broke as I pulled it out of its package.  (When I go to exchange it tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind they will give me a new one and toss the broken one, having never been used once for its intended purpose.)  There’s the fancy Cuisinart coffee maker with the automatic timer I got two Christmases ago, the clock-set function of which ceased to work within six months.  With some simple math, I could still utilize the automatic timer function… that is, until it, too, stopped working.  (There’s nothing more disappointing than waking up to find the coffee you prepared the night before did not brew as intended.)  Then there’s the electronics kit my partner ordered to help him learn the basics of circuitry; it arrived with malfunctioning switches (no good for a beginner who spent a full day pulling his hair out trying to figure out why his closed circuits weren’t making the dang light light up).  There’s the reusable coffee mug I spent a whopping $16 on to save all those paper cups from winding up in a landfill.  I ask you: Whats worse: throwing away a paper cup every day or a heavy-duty plastic and metal mug once every six months?  If the “reusable” mug isn’t built to last, I’d just as soon toss the paper–at least its made of a renewable resource.

By far, the worst instance of business-as-usual waste that I’ve encountered in the last year comes from, of all companies, Snugli, the original maker of baby-carrying devices.  I was given one of their backpack-style carriers when my daughter was not quite a year old.  By the time she was eighteen months old and a scant twenty or so pounds, a snap had broken off the adjustable waist belt.  I contacted the company for mailing instructions, assuming I would have to send it back to the factory for repair; in all the two pounds of canvas-type fabric, nylon straps, plastic buckles, and metal rods and fasteners, all that needed replacing was one measley little half of a snap–a single cmponent the size of a dime.  Their instructions?  Destroy the product, send us the cut-off straps as proof, and we’ll send you a brand new one.  Customer service replaces craftsmanship.  Un-freaking-believable!!!  When I sent in the straps of the hardly-used and hardly-broken first carrier, I enclosed a letter to the company stating my severe disatisfaction with their wasteful policy.  Their response?  Silence…

And nothing to break the silence but the ping-ping of balls and clubs on a smell-showered golf course…


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Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

January 17, 2008 at 5:35 pm (aquaria, Eleanor, goings-on) (, , , , , )

Well, I know I had kind of neglected my blog, before Christmas. I was just so busy–the time got away from me. And, then there was the necessary and anticipated absence of Christmas vacation when Stephen and I took little Eleanor down to Atlanta and Charlotte to show her off to all her family. And, now that we’ve been back in Vancouver for two whole weeks, I have not taken the time to catch my readers up. What a bad blogger I am!

It’s not that I don’t make time to get online–I do!–but, to be honest, I found a new addiction right before Christmas. Mom, you may recall that one of the items on my Christmas wish list was a subscription to a magazine called Practical Fishkeeping. Well, it turns out, I don’t really need the magazine in print because, not only are all the articles available online, they have a very active forum that just keeps drawing me in. In a month of membership I’ve put up almost fifty posts! Granted, they’re not nearly as long as ranty as some I’ve written here, but still… 50! First thing every morning, I have to check my forum. Seven a.m. is still peace-and-quiet-coffee-break time (Eleanor doesn’t usually get up until until 8 or 9). And, at this time I have every intention of updating rainraingoaway (especially because we’re in the thick of the rainy season and the rain rain just will not go away), but because I’m 8 or 9 hours behind the majority of the members on the UK-based PFK forum, there are always multiple replies waiting for me, and of course I just have to reply to those and then I just have to check out all the new posts that magically appeared while I was sleeping. Is this crazy?! No, it’s just that fishkeeping is a darn addictive hobby. Ask anyone on the forum, having a single successful fish tank doesn’t last long–you want another one and then another… In fact, two is no longer enough for me. I added a pair of German Rams yesterday to my larger aquarium, bringing that one near completion as far as stocking goes, and already I’m planning on a third, much bigger one… and maybe a small brackish water tank–I’ve never kept a brackish tank before–and maybe also an extremely low-tech tank in which I follow all the “don’t’s” of the fishkeeping hobby (like don’t use soil for substrate and don’t use sun for light–sounds silly doesn’t it?) Well, there’s only one way to find out; I’ll just have to set up that tank…

Well, any plans for a much larger aquarium are on hold for now because we are waiting to hear back from a local housing co-op where we’ve applied for membership. If we get in, and I’m fairly confident we will–it’s just a matter of time–there may be a big move in store for us soon and I don’t want to have to move a really big fish tank in addition to everything else I own. If we can make this move, though, it’ll be good. We already know a couple people in the co-op because they have children the same age as Eleanor. There’s a daycare for 3-5 year-olds on site and a really good primary school right across the street. I’ve got my fingers crossed…

And, hey! if we get in–when we get in–maybe we’ll have a little more room to accommodate some of my “new” furniture! I’m the proud new owner of a worn-out, but still very classy Eames chair–the classic leather and bent-wood rocker. This Christmas was, in part, a sad one for me because I had to say goodbye to my childhood home. Plans have been made to store some of the more memorable pieces of furniture for me (and I am so grateful to those who made it possible to do so), but I will never go back to 1914 again.

One of the neatest things about an old house like that is the history that it comes with; unlike with new construction, an old house has a life of its own. That house was and always will be part of my life, but I was part of its life, too–and an old house always has a life beyond just “housing” its owners and their things. That house in particular had little pieces of history–little flourishes that were not built for me or for anyone else, but simply to give the house Quality–little things like the telephone shelf with a hide-away for the cords and phonebook. And, then, there are little touches that get added over the years that were never part of the builders plan but that, nevertheless, result in a certain irreplaceable Quality. (I’m capitalizing the word Quality here to emphasize that I do not just mean that it was quality; rather, I’m speaking in the vein of Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) The house at 1914 was literally a diary that spanned close to forty years. A previous owner’s daughter started writing on the basement wall in the early 70’s when her family moved into the house; her first entry read “Hello House!” She didn’t flesh out the details of her life by any means, but she dropped by every so often to record her height, the day she got her braces off, and, twenty years later, the day her parents moved out. Her last entry was “Goodbye House.” Realizing that this was something special, my family renovated the entire house and left this one wall alone. I added a few entries to the diary wall over the years that I lived there and this Christmas when I was “home” for the last time, I added my own goodbye to the wall. My hope is that future owners will have the good sense to leave the wall alone.

That being said, Christmas was good. The most exciting part, the part that I most looked forward to, was showing Eleanor off to all of her adoring family. I guess every parent feels this way, but I am so proud of her. I think the world of her and I was excited to have everyone else see the Eleanor that I see everyday. I think she more than impressed everyone! And, of course, we are so appreciative to have all the new clothes and toys for her. She has been so much better than before about entertaining herself with her toys (I think she had out-grown all her old toys). She especially loves her new Duplo blocks. Personality-wise, I think all the cousin-exposure (for those on my side of the family that may not know, she is one of 12 grand-children on Stephen’s side) was good for her; she really matured a lot. It’s like she’s a two-year-old now! When her birthday comes around–on Valentine’s Day!–we’ll be taking her to Science World for a fun treat (as if her scientist father and my aquariums aren’t already fostering a regard for science in her). In a similar vein, we took her to the new Georgia Aquarium while we were in Atlanta. It was amazing! It made me want to resum e my volunteer work at the Vancouver Aquarium, if only I had the free time…

Getting back into the swing of things work-wise and Ellie-wise has been quite an adjustment. No one really wants to return to work after a holiday, but we were so spoiled over Christmas having so many other people around that we didn’t have to entertain Eleanor every second of the day, that the real adjustment has been getting back to the daily grind of child care. I know it’s worth it, though. Speaking of, it sounds like my peace-and-quiet-coffee-break is over. Eleanor beckons.

I hope to keep you all updated more regularly from now on. I’m not making any resolutions about it, but here’s hoping!

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