December 07, 2006


Alphabet City 11: Trash. Edited by John Knechtel. MIT Press. $15.95.

The End of the Wild. By Stephen M. Meyer. Boston Review/MIT Press. $14.95.

     Although this is supposed to be a season of peace and good will, the world certainly has no shortage of problems that know no season and that cease for no one.  There are therefore voices crying in the wilderness at any time of the year – including some crying that it will all be wilderness if we do not wake up to what we are doing to Earth and take steps to reverse a decline that many believe is on the verge of becoming inevitable, if it is not inevitable already.

     The nonpartisan Alphabet City think tank continues its exploration of fundamental concepts and broad-scale concerns in Alphabet City 11: Trash, whose basic premise is that we human beings are defined largely by what we waste, use up and throw away.  Like previous volumes, this one is neither dogmatic nor particularly argumentative.  It includes 21 contributions that look at the trash issue from all angles, with varying degrees of intensity.  There are poems here, such as three by Patricia Uppal portraying the poet’s uncle, known to his neighbors in Brasilia as “Dr. Garbage.”  There is a careful and oddly disturbing set of photos showing how artist Kristan Horton recreates iconic scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film, Dr. Strangelove, using bits of trash.  There are small photos of more than 250 paper airplanes that Susan Coolen has collected from the streets of Montreal and other cities.  There are closeup pictures of dust bunnies by Karilee Fuglem, showing them as complex and oddly colored worlds.  And yes, there are polemics and heartfelt stories: on recycling facilities in Canada and China, on “zero-waste cities” in 2029, on the remnants of digital devices, on people thrown away by their families or societies, and more.  This is a small book – 5 x 6½ inches – dealing with very large issues.  Its main flaw is that it has no central point of view – editor John Knechtel sees to that – and seems, in its urge to avoid the argumentative, to trivialize some of the very real societal problems that trash represents.

     No worries about whether The End of the Wild has a point of view – Stephen M. Meyer does, to the point of stridency.  This is another small book (4½ x 7 inches) with big ideas.  Meyer is right on the edge of losing hope for humanity – if indeed not over the edge.  A professor of political science at MIT, Meyer says that human habitat destruction is past the point of no return, proceeding at such a pace that up to half of all the planet’s species will be gone within the next 100 years.  Nothing, Meyer argues, can stop this – not national laws, not international laws, not local or global regions set aside to try to sustain biodiversity.  Having lost the chance of preserving thousands upon thousands of species, he argues, human beings have no choice but to rally around protection of those that can still be saved.  This is a matter of self-interest, says Meyer: without concerted effort, ecosystems that are crucial to humanity’s survival – because they help purify water and prevent flood and storm damage, among other things – will fail, with disastrous consequences.  Meyer says he is not trying to write a jeremiad: “This is not the wide-eyed prophecy of radical Earth First! activists or the gloom-and-doom tale of corporate environmentalists trying to boost fundraising.”  But for all the facts that Meyer assembles and integrates into a larger picture, he does still come across with exactly the sort of shrillness that tends to make legitimate ecological concerns seem like special-interest pleadings.  What Meyer does not do – and, to be fair, no one has figured out how to do it – is to frame his message in a way that will make people of good will but of limited individual power, most of them with daily stressors and pressures of their own, accept the urgency of environmental tasks and (this is equally important) join together to help save what can still be saved.  Alas, it may only be through an increase in natural disasters that people can be focused on what Meyer is discussing – but even then (witness the slow recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), people’s attention spans may be too short and the needs of their daily lives too pressing for them to stay focused on the larger scheme of things.

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