Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Things you think about when you can't sleep

Ever feel like our society, as organized, doesn't make sense?

It's easy not to. You get caught up in the maze, let the maze become your reality. The cheese at the end is the goal. Don't ask questions, like "why am I in this maze?"

I'm not losing my grip, here, folks. I just wanted to register some basic confusions (none of which are that new or original, but which are the sort of thing that you might find turning around in your mind when you find yourself awake at 5am, unable to fall back to sleep).

Let me give you a few examples:

I am at Starbucks. I want a cookie. I do not want a bag. I have never understood the need to bag everything - to put something either a) in a package that I will throw out within one minute of being handed it, or b) on a plate, which will require work and water to wash. The employee has the cookie in their tongs, ready to tend it over, when I say, "please don't put it in a bag." The employee becomes confused.

"How do I give it to you, then?"

"Why not just put it in my hand?"

"I'm not supposed to do that."

"You don't actually have to touch my hand - just hold the cookie above my hand and drop it in. It's easy!"

Employee looks confused. "I'm sorry, I..."

"Okay, then put it in this napkin. I might actually use this napkin - at least it won't go directly into the garbage."

The employee looks at me, then looks at the bags. Do they follow their training, or the more logical request of the customer? I sigh.

"Okay, just put it in a bag."

I try not to resist, lately, in fact. I realize it's confusing to people, so I try to shut down the objections when they occur, and just make my fair share of garbage like everyone else. But there's an element of this every time I go into a coffee shop, or pizza slice joint, or other fast food establishment: Why do we need to make garbage at all? Why not organize the buying and selling of stuff so there is radically less waste?

Nevermind straws: how is it in 2019 we still have restaurants that will sell you food on disposable plates, to be eaten with disposable, single-use plastics, which you will - having finished your meal - shovel directly into the garbage, because there is no recycling in place? How is this even legal?

There are attempts to fix the problem in some restaurants, but some of these don't think through things well enough: for example, I ate at a falafel place on Granville a couple weeks ago, where the falafel was served in a biodegradable container... but there was no compost bin; so you still had to throw the container into the garbage when you were finished. "Thanks for trying, I guess..."

Sometimes, in dim protest of how strangely our world is organized - which sometimes leaves me feeling like Herzog's Kaspar Hauser, if I think too much about it - I will answer the question of "do you want this for here or to go," with, "whatever makes the least garbage," since I've found that the answer is not always obvious. Sometimes "for here" means more garbage. Sometimes "to go" means they will put your food on a paper plate and then put the food and the plate in a bag. It's hard to know how to proceed, so asking for the least amount of stuff that I will immediately throw away seems a fair gambit.

It's almost like they should start asking you, "would you like trash with that?"

Then there's the weirdness of packaging at all. I used to - when I indulged utopian thinking, which I don't bother with much anymore - imagine a society where everyone carried around containers with them when they went shopping. Sure, you have a travel mug for your coffee or tea - but why stop there? If you want a litre of milk, you bring your container to a milk dispenser. If you want a gallon of oil - cooking or automotive or whatever - you bring your container to an oil dispenser. Instead of a billion plastic packages with different products in them - picture the soft drinks in a cooler, here - wouldn't it be possible to meet our basic needs as a society by organizing stores so that there was next to none of this?

If the burden is too much, for people to bring their containers to the store, why not have all beverages delivered like milk used to be, in reusable, returnable glass bottles? Because, nevermind reusable cloth bags for your groceries: why not have a society where ALL PACKAGING IS REUSABLE? This need not just be a matter of beverages; if you want a dozen eggs, or some apples, or a steak, or some noodles; you go to a shop - organized kind of like a butcher shop or baker's shop - and make your order and they give it to you in a reusable container that you can BRING BACK TO THE SHOP THE NEXT TIME.

As often is the case, the reason we don't do this is "because capitalism." Because we live in a society predicated around competition, we have a billion different varieties of fizzy sugar water - to go back to that imaginary soft drink cooler - with different packages, asking you to choose between them. Does this actually make any long-term sense, though? I'm not proposing some grim, grey socialist dystopia where everyone just drinks Victory Gin all the time, but do we really need so much variety? Wouldn't it make more sense to organize, from the top down, a society where there were, say, fifty different non-alcoholic beverage options (or pick a number) which required no packaging, which you could pour from dispensers into your own reusable containers, producing no waste at all? If these were regulated in some way, perhaps we could do something of the fact that 90 percent of these soft drinks have no nutritional value whatsoever, and/or are actually quite bad for you...?

Again, there are people who seem well-intentioned, who do ask some of the necessary questions, and pose well-meaning solutions. During the brief time I was a student at UBC, I noted that some of the cafeterias there, by policy, had no bottled water options in them, because of issues of water politics.

That's great - a good first step. Here's the problem: there still were twenty other drink options, all of them involving sugar and dye... and water, lots of water! So it wasn't that they wouldn't sell you water in a plastic container; they would only sell you water if sugar and dye had been added to it. It's like they thought the other beverages were made from some other magical substance...

There's so much else out there, so much that does not make sense in contemporary life, that exists "because capitalism." It's one of the reasons I don't drive: because the idea of everyone owning their own fossil-fuel-burning personal transportation device has never made sense to me. Why not JUST have buses, trolleys, and trains? (Cars zip by the window outside in the snow as I type this.) There's a fascinating documentary out there, called Taken for a Ride, about how, in fact, most major cities in North America, at the start of the 20th century, had environmentally-friendly light rail systems, which were the dominant mode of public transport; these were dismantled, in most cases, because of pressure from automobile and fossil fuels industry, who wanted to encourage cars and roads, instead. Even buses were preferable to light rail (to the lobbyists of the day, or whatever they were called back then) because they encouraged a model of roads that people could drive on. So we end up with, instead of environmentally sound trolleys and trains, billions of individual fossil-fuel-burning cars - one or two per adult, I guess is the dream - and urban planners who design cities around this mode of transportation, further entrenching the problem.

Have never owned a car. Have never wanted to. I'll ride in them, but for most of my 50 years, I've happily gotten by without them. Most people I know have owned at least five of them, over the years. 

Another example: I was reading that the world's insect population is in rapid and problematic decline - something I've been noticing for years, which is finally surfacing in public discourse. It's due to our farming practices, of course. It's one of several competing doomsday scenarios out there, from peak oil to global warming to nuclear apocalypse... I posted the article I linked above on Facebook, and my old friend Alan ("like me, but spelled funny") commented: "The solutions are known, we can feed the world with a different way of farming, one that includes insects, and trees and mushrooms, etc (and more labour!) but it would terribly disrupt the economic positions of the entrenched interests and so onwards we go wiping out the ecosystem."

Yep, that's it exactly. There are times in my life where, if I allow my mind to go there, living as a human on the planet seems like I'm trapped in insanity - illusion and greed and short-term thinking everywhere. It shouldn't oughta be this way. It's very strange to me. It's one of the reasons that I chose to brand myself as alienated, here on this blog: because sometimes, looking at the world around me, it seems like every system I am implicated in is almost totally insane. (It's also one of the reasons I can kind of see Ted Kaczynski's reasons for dropping out and living in a cabin. Mailing bombs, not so much - but I do have his manifesto; it's an interesting read).

And now it is time to pee, and make breakfast for my wife, who will be getting up in five minutes for work.


Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

We are, one might say, what we do not eat.

Allan MacInnis said...