by M. Doretta Cornell, RDC
I don’t remember when I learned that dirt came from other things, that it did not appear ready made. It became real, however, the year my mother burned her backyard by feeding the 10 square feet of grass an acre’s worth of lime.
She could see the smoke rise, she said, as we stared at the seared grass
It was too toxic for planting, so I found some boards and created a raised garden a couple of feet wide next to the garage wall. I brought leaves from my yard and layered them with potting soil, stray sticks, and peat moss, recreating what I had seen in “Man of Aran,” as the Aran Islanders had built potato fields from baskets of seaweed hauled up the cliffs from the water and handfuls of dirt from crevices in the cliffs.
The new dirt worked: leaf mat and all, rambling roses grew up and so did the tight drab marigolds my mother preferred.
And so I learned to make dirt, as Earth does, from sticks and castoffs and last years’s worn-out soil.
Our society is built on planned obsolescence – on casting off last year’s fashions and gathering new ones, filling trash heaps at an alarming rate. (When I lived in the Bronx years ago, 365 garbage trucks came to the Pelham Bay landfill each day!) At the same time, hordes of children in less fortunate countries swarm the hills of landfills scavenging things to sell for their next meal or something to wear. Billions of people live below any measure of a poverty line. The United Nations uses $1.25 a day per person parity – which means what we could buy in the United States for $1.25 – as the measure of extreme poverty.
While the Millennium Development Goal of cutting the number of people living at this level or below in half by 2015 is on track to be met, that will leave, according to the U.N. 2010 report, “around 920 million people living under the international poverty line—half the number in 1990.”
Waste in a world with such need is a crime against the people living in such poverty, as well as a danger to our fast-diminishing Earth. Besides all the practical reasons for action, compassion calls on us to take major steps to repair this situation and prevent further damage, to people or planet.
Waste is a human concept. Left to itself, Earth reabsorbs all its used materials, whether it be falling leaves and trees, which become humus and mulch; carcasses of animals; inedible seeds excreted by birds and animals, which become fields of grain and flowers, and so on.
Reduce – Reuse – Recycle: this slogan of environmental awareness can help us to eliminate much of what we now treat as waste.
“Recycle” is perhaps the most familiar, and here in Westchester, the simplest. We have a good system for recycling many items that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Yard waste, metal, glass, almost all plastics, cardboard, newspapers, and ordinary paper (though only in residential areas) are collected and given new life, often in very creative ways. My grocery bags, for instance, and also a shirt I received as a Christmas gift, were once plastic bottles!
“Reuse” can also stimulate creative juices. A friend gave me a small silver purse recently, made from soda can pop-tops! In a recent renovation project at Good Counsel, our workmen used doors and cabinets from rooms that had been “re-purposed” to create the new spaces. On a GreenFaith tour, we walked down corridors built of timbers from an abandoned pickle and relish factory; the principal told us there was a lingering scent on rainy days, which was a great entertainment for the children. On a much smaller scale, I have a lovely set of blue-covered canisters, formerly glass mayonnaise jars.
What do you have earmarked for trash that could be used in a new way?
The most demanding element of the slogan – and the most necessary – is “Reduce.” If we are to live within the limits of what Earth can provide, and provide for all – people, plants, animals, the land itself – we must reduce our demands on Earth’s resources. We in the United States comprise 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of its resources. Thomas Friedman recently remarked that if China continues to develop a consumer population, we will need another planet. By some estimations, things are much worse: if everyone in the world had what we enjoy in the United States, we would need FOUR more planets!
A great deal of the reduction can be accomplished by efficiency, as we are seeing in the change from incandescent light bulbs and higher-mpg cars and trucks. More careful methods of producing what we need can lead us away from carbon-based energy and the destruction to airs, water and mountains that energy creates.
However, unless we curb our insatiable demands for more shoes, clothes, new electronic gadgets, food – everything, really – we will still be stretching Earth’s resources beyond its capacity to support human life, perhaps any kind of life.
What can we refrain from accumulating today, for the good of all people and of Earth itself?