In Praise of Decay By Janet Mark WallaceOctober 14 2018
My latest guilty indulgence on YouTube is watching “Britain’s Greatest Hoarders”. The hoarders in question are people whose conditions range from simply owning too many knickknacks, to having the health-threatening inability to discard expired food. The story usually follows the same lines: the cameras go in to film the chaos, as family members implore the hoarder to get rid of some of their belongings. Eventually expert declutterers and psychologists are called in, and by the end of the show, the hoarder may be willing to part with some of their goods.
Most viewers are probably as bewildered as I am at the willingness of these people to live amid not just clutter, but, in some cases, actual filth. We cheer for the decluttering team, hoping they will convince the hoarder to clear out the house.
It does surprise me nonetheless that the counselors who are called in persist in calling most of the hoard “trash”, “rubbish”, and “garbage”. In their attempts to clean, they cram items indiscriminately into opaque plastic bags, which the hoarder inevitably feels compelled to inspect.
It makes me wonder if the hoarder is in fact the sanest person on the show. Perhaps he or she can see that all this “junk” represents a great deal of embedded energy, either from the sun (like food) or from petroleum (like plastic). I wonder if the hoarder could be persuaded to part with their belongings more readily if the decluttering expert talked about how the junk could be put to use in another context.
In some sense the hoarder is behaving quite responsibly, living among the mess that they themselves created. Perhaps in the large picture the pathology lies not with living in a pile of trash, but rather with exporting that trash off to someone else’s neighbourhood, which is what most of us in the industrialised world do, on a weekly basis.
Since the 1990s, many large cities in North American and Europe have offered curbside pickup of recyclable goods. Homeowners rinse and sort their food containers and the city picks them up and sends them off to be recycled into new products. Only in the last year has it become more widely known where the items are being sent “off” to: it appears that China was the lone customer in the global recycling market. For decades China has quietly taken in our waste packaging, and then exported it back to us, as plastic lawn chairs, nylon clothing and Star Wars Lego.
But lately it’s starting to look like China has had enough. The supply has so far outstripped the demand that China is saying “no thank you” to garbage from the West. North American recycling exporters are watching the material pile up in warehouses. We may one day have to face the unthinkable: dealing with our own garbage.
How will we do this? I think part of the answer is that we need to learn to embrace decay.
After all, everything that we produce, from organic carrot tops to leaded gasoline, will eventually decay; it is only a question of how long the process will take and what components it will decay into. Everything that humans build and manufacture will eventually succumb to the ravages of time, weather and gravity. So why not take this into account when we buy things?
I find it immensely satisfying to watch my household “waste” slowly break down into soil. At least once a week I go out to my yard and get completely mesmerized in stirring and breaking up chunks of compost, watching fibres break down bit by bit through the magic of bacteria. Compost falling through a sieve and emerging as new soil is to me the very essence of rebirth. The death and decay of one living thing becomes the medium for new life.
I’m even starting to wonder if a better understanding of decay will come to replace some of our fading spiritual traditions. As more of the Baby Boomer generation reaches the end of life, having renounced the religious traditions of their childhood, will they embrace the idea that their bodies can provide sustenance for other living things?
“Recompose” is a public benefit corporation founded by Katrina Spade in Seattle, Washington, that is designing a prototype facility to safely decompose human bodies in an urban setting. Unlike green burials, it does not require land to facilitate the decomposing process, but will rather use aeration and wood chips to ensure that bodies can gently and naturally be transformed back into soil. Sounds strange to be sure, but watch Katrina’s TED talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRsopS7yTG8 and I think you’ll come away convinced.
The Recompose project addresses two key questions: what to do with the excess of corpses as the human population continues to grow, and how to face death with dignity in a world where fewer and fewer people believe in an afterlife. To choose to compost one’s corpse is a guarantee of some kind of immortality: your atoms will come back as an oak tree, or a rose bush, or a dandelion.
Most of all I think composting is an antidote to the prevailing 21st century notion that the role of the global middle class is simply to consume, and never to produce. By processing our own waste at home, we become producers of the world’s most precious substance: soil. Only in soil can we grow the plants on which our supply of oxygen, food and clean water depend.
Maybe we can learn something from Britain’s Greatest Hoarders: there is value in waste. But we need to hoard the right things, things that can decay and generate new life.