Excerpt from The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

The World Without Us
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2007,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2008,
    368 pages.

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Within 10 years, the downside to this wonder substance was apparent. Life Magazine coined the term "throwaway society," though the idea of tossing trash was hardly new. Humans had done that from the beginning with leftover bones from their hunt and chaff from their harvest, whereupon other organisms took over. When manufactured goods entered the garbage stream, they were at first considered less offensive than smelly organic wastes. Broken bricks and pottery became the fill for the buildings of subsequent generations. Discarded clothing reappeared in secondary markets run by ragmen, or were recycled into new fabric. Defunct machines that accumulated in junkyards could be mined for parts or alchemized into new inventions. Hunks of metal could simply be melted down into something totally different. World War II—at least the Japanese naval and air portion—was literally constructed out of American scrap heaps.

Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who has made a career of studying garbage in America, finds himself continually disabusing waste-management officials and the general public of what he deems a myth: that plastic is responsible for overflowing landfills across the country. Rathje's decades-long Garbage Project, wherein students weighed and measured weeks' worth of residential waste, reported during the 1980s that, contrary to popular belief, plastic accounts for less than 20 percent by volume of buried wastes, in part because it can be compressed more tightly than other refuse. Although increasingly higher percentages of plastic items have been produced since then, Rathje doesn't expect the proportions to change, because improved manufacturing uses less plastic per soda bottle or disposable wrapper.

The bulk of what's in landfills, he says, is construction debris and paper products. Newspapers, he claims, again belying a common assumption, don't biodegrade when buried away from air and water. "That's why we have 3,000-year-old papyrus scrolls from Egypt. We pull perfectly readable newspapers out of landfills from the 1930s. They'll be down there for 10,000 years."

He agrees, though, that plastic embodies our collective guilt over trashing the environment. Something about plastic feels uneasily permanent. The difference may have to do with what happens outside landfills, where a newspaper gets shredded by wind, cracks in sunlight, and dissolves in rain—if it doesn't burn first.

What happens to plastic, however, is seen most vividly where trash is never collected. Humans have continuously inhabited the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona since AD 1000—longer than any other site in today's United States. The principal Hopi villages sit atop three mesas with 360° views of the surrounding desert. For centuries, the Hopis simply threw their garbage, consisting of food scraps and broken ceramic, over the sides of the mesas. Coyotes and vultures took care of the food wastes, and the pottery sherds blended back into the ground they came from.

That worked fine until the mid-20th century. Then, the garbage tossed over the side stopped going away. The Hopis were visibly surrounded by a rising pile of a new, nature-proof kind of trash. The only way it disappeared was by being blown across the desert. But it was still there, stuck to sage and mesquite branches, impaled on cactus spines.

 

South of the Hopi Mesas rise the 12,500-foot San Francisco Peaks, home to Hopi and Navajo gods who dwell among aspens and Douglas firs: holy mountains cloaked in purifying white each winter—except in recent years, because snow now rarely falls. In this age of deepening drought and rising temperatures, ski lift operators who, the Indians claim, defile sacred ground with their clanking machines and lucre, are being sued anew. Their latest desecration is making artificial snow for their ski runs from wastewater, which the Indians liken to bathing the face of God in shit.

Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved.

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