The beauty of Nature is that it’s natural. That is, it’s figuratively worlds apart from the separate Earth mankind has created on the same planet as Nature that is negligently and turbulently spreading its unnaturality. In the midst of mankind’s new world one is bound to find sparse oases of the natural world, even in man’s sloppiest regions known to us as cities. While cities aren’t always bad places to be, sometimes it’s all too necessary to seek out one of these natural oases in order to momentarily forget about man-made atrocities like cars and guns and reality television.
On a rainy September afternoon I found myself amidst one of said quarantined oases surrounded by trees with autumn-tinged leaves, fields of tall grass swaying listlessly in the wind, and a pond adorned with a family of impervious ducks. After several similar sessions in this oasis located in the world’s 28th largest pile of garbage called Chicago, I had finally learned how to pretend not to see cars zooming by in the distance and hear their incessant and pointless honking. Although the surrounding fence could be seen in at least one direction from just about everywhere inside the oasis, I also learned to ignore the chain-link, which was built to keep the cars and guns and reality television out.
In attempting to set myself apart from mankind’s Earth: 2.0, even for just an hour, there was one specific object standing in my way. This object wasn’t necessarily more colorful than my surroundings nor was it any bigger than mother duck’s tiniest offspring. It was the context of the item that first grabbed my attention, and its symbolic value still occupies my mind months later. How inconsiderably “us” that object is, I told myself. It was a swastika on Churchill’s grave; it was a cross turned upside-down in a Catholic church; it was Derek Jeter wearing a Red Sox jersey. It was an empty juice box: garbage abandoned on Mother Nature’s doorstep.
It was at this moment that I pondered the parameters of the term garbage; humans tend to assume that the term refers to any man-made object that perhaps at one point aided us in our interminable quest for satisfaction yet has been rendered useless after it can no longer produce any more pleasure. If you think about it, garbage is the ultimate martyr in the way that it exists for the sole purpose of satisfying human needs (or more likely: human wants) only to die when it is no longer rendered useful. Once cars and guns are unable to harm others, they become garbage. Once reality television runs low on ego-clashing, it becomes garbage. Once Derek Jeter retires from playing sports, his public image becomes garbage until it is restored by reality television.
With that thought in mind, on the off-chance that everything man-made became unable to provide further pleasure to mankind, that all our food went bad and all of our houses could no longer keep us warm, and all of our casinos ran out of poker chips, entire cities would be nothing but heaping piles of garbage resting ignorantly and ironically unwelcomed upon Mother Nature’s welcome mat. In other words, our cities would be no different from an empty juice box left on the ground, save for the fact that the de-pleasured city would be significantly more difficult to dispose of.
As absurd as the thought of garbage-cities is, the thought of garbage-people is entirely more ludicrous. Yet to someone who is most distracted by sports, Derek Jeter would be no different than a dirty and cushionless couch eroding in an alleyway if he were to retire. With the rising influence of popular culture, we see more and more popular humans and their artless portrayals of music, movies, and other distractions find their way into our alleyways once we’ve squeezed every last drop of pleasure out of them. We have no connection to these people, so we feel no remorse when we tear down our Derek Jeter posters to make room for sports’ newest star.
While the juice box represents the debasement of everything natural, I realized that this also included our thoughts; I thought about how often my natural train of thought is run off course by the movie I watched last night, while the song currently stuck in my head mindlessly gallops alongside, neighing its pointless chorus over all the locomotive commotion. In the Age of Overstimulation, sometimes it can be difficult to maintain control of our thoughts.
This is where my erratic train finally makes a stop and identifies its final destination, asking the ultimate question: How harmful is it to mankind that we can’t seem to remove culture from our minds even when we’re far removed from everything but Nature? Should we be worried that we’ve reached a point where something as innocent and meaningless as an empty juice box offers an excuse to remove ourselves from our natural surroundings so that we may plunge into the comfortable pleasures of the impending-garbage that is culture?
The answer to whether or not culture’s strong impression on us is harmful is similar to that of whether or not actual garbage is harmful: Some garbage is biodegradable, so even though it is an eyesore, it isn’t permanent. Similarly, some of the culture we take in doesn’t make a lasting impression on us and we soon forget about it after it’s consumed. For example, one might see the movie Transformers in theaters and perhaps even enjoy it, but it may not be memorable or significant enough to mull over for the next week or two. Over time, the memory of seeing the movie biodegrades in one’s mind until he can’t even remember whether or not he saw the movie.
On the other hand, the movie may have a very strong effect on the viewer. At its least effective, it may be the distraction that consumes his mind while basking in natural oases, trying to remove himself from culture and immerse himself in Nature only to struggle with the roadblocks of last night’s movie. But at it’s most effective, a movie or any other form of popular culture for that matter, could be the gateway drug to a new addiction and will eventually begin to numb our sense of reality, replacing actual experience with unremarkable voyeurism. In many ways, the permanence of the garbage is certainly destructive.
Despite making an argument for a different sort of garbage-less world, green-thinker Al Gore uses this addiction metaphor to explain the world’s obsession with consumption in his book Earth in the Balance. Gore compares our incessant need for more of the Earth’s natural resources to someone suffering from an addiction, which stems from the need to distract oneself from painful situations. In doing so, a dependence forms which leads to a perpetually increasing amount of consumption.
As it relates to the topic of consumption of culture, the painful situation that we need to be distracted from appears to be ennui, a condition that can best be cured by another ten dollar movie ticket and an equally pricey barrel of popcorn. As Gore theorizes that we are addicted to the consumption of our planet’s natural resources, I further theorize that it’s more often than not for the benefit of our ever-unsated need for stimulation, a drug that can be taken several different ways.
Of course humans haven’t always felt bored when they’re not being overstimulated. This outcome is most likely a product of such easy culture-fixes as television and all of its various extremities. These devices are preferable means of culture consumption due to the straw they provide us with as we guzzle down that sugary, unnatural reality television, whereas a book requires us to tilt our heads back and pat on the near-empty juice box until we’ve given up on procuring sufficient stimulation. Further, when we’re being straw-fed the juice, there’s always another box waiting for us when we’re done in the form of another episode, as opposed to the harder-to-obtain juice, of which we typically have to go out and buy a new box.
“Shopping is now recognized as a recreational activity,” Gore mused over twenty years ago, a thought that comes as no surprise to some of us who grew up observing shopping as a lifestyle depicted on countless television programs. But keep in mind that shopaholics aren’t just buying more items to clutter their homes with before they’re deemed “garbage” and tossed out, these items are also certain to clutter the shopper’s mind. When buying a new table from Ikea or the first instalment of the Transformers quadrilogy, aren’t you going to need to go back and get the matching chairs and subsequent episodes? In this way, buying one item encourages us to up our doses of consumption, further clouding our minds of any natural train of thought as well as filling our homes with more to-be garbage.
While Gore preaches the dangers of addiction to consumption, utilitarian thinkers, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, may argue that the pleasure gained from such garbage-promoting activities outweighs their harmful effect on the mind. A seemingly infinite amount of money may be poured into the salaries of athletes, the overwhelmingly loud and flashy adjustments to the arenas the athletes play in, and the jerseys purchased by the athletes’ audience, but the amount of pleasure achieved by the audience outweighs all expenses.
In other words, this addiction is not harmful due to the fact that such affairs as sporting events and movie screenings provide expansive audiences with sufficient pleasure, the only casualty being a desperate need for floss after consuming a bucket of popcorn. In advocating the most pleasure for the most people (and the least pain for the fewest people), utilitarians may see such infatuation with such uninvolved gratification as a win-win for both its viewers and its well-paid performers.
But later in Earth in the Balance, Gore describes the false promise of addiction as “the possibility of experiencing the vividness and immediacy of real life without having to face the fear and pain that are also a part of it.” While this certainly pertains to the addiction metaphor, I felt that it best described our increasing numbness to the natural world, which we’d rather observe from the comfort of our Ikean furniture than risk experiencing firsthand.
The unintended irony of a truck commercial exemplifies this wonderfully, as the audience shakes its head at a little boy who appears to be glued to the screen of his hand-held video game while his dad is taking him out camping. What few people realize is that we are that little boy as we sit impatiently waiting for our Nature program to come back on. There’s certainly a fine line between supplementing an affinity for the natural world and replacing it with cable TV.
I once dated a girl who told me that she didn’t ever plan on traveling anywhere because she could just look at pictures of any desired location on the Internet. What scared me most about this statement was the fact that she’d been to Europe, so she’d certainly seen postcard-worthy scenes, yet still accepted Googled images as a worthy substitute. Having never been to Europe myself, I can only attest to the beauty of such natural landmarks as Glacier National Park in Montana and the Badlands in North Dakota, which confirm my assumption that such beautiful landscapes are full of epiphanal moments as opposed to just being another pretty landscape on TV.
Even seeing man-made landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and Mesa Verde at a young age, I was surprised at the contrast between the pictures in my textbooks and the real thing; I never found Mount Rushmore to be at all absurd until I saw it in person and realized that it’s literally just four of our all-time favorite presidents’ heads carved into a huge rock. You don’t get that when you see it on TV but instead become desensitized to its brilliance. To quote synth-rock oddballs The Faint, “there’s something not as valid when the scenery’s a postcard.”
It may be the fact that the mediums in which we observe the Grand Canyons of the world are the same as those that show us Transformers, proving to us that the two are equally likely to exist. When photography and film can be distorted to the point where we can’t tell that it’s being distorted, it certainly ruins its validity. Sure, the juice tastes good, but is it really “all natural?”
Herein lies my critique of Bentham and Mill’s philosophical pleasure principle in our contemporary culture: Oftentimes, the experiences that provide us with the most pleasure are also most detrimental to our perception of the natural world. By engulfing ourselves in culture, we tend to neglect our natural train of thought, which often concerns not only our relationship with the natural world but also our relationship with ourselves. In other words, our frequent imbibition of culture directly detracts from the time we should be spending identifying our own personal significance.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of culture’s looming monopoly is our infatuation with a world even more separated from Nature than the one we’ve created with our cities and cars and guns, and this is the world of reality television. I refer to this as a separate world due to the fact that we are in no way a part of it; we know its inhabitants better than we know our own neighbors but not on a personal level.
This is the subject of Paul Lenda’s article “Escaping the Imprisonment of Cultural Programming” in which he describes our mentality as “imprisoned” by this world that has no effect on our day-to-day lives yet causes constant diversion from our natural train of thought. Lenda, who co-founded SHIFT>, an organization aiming to encourage “the positive social and spiritual evolution of humanity,” created the article to remind us that absolutely none of this matters in the grand scheme of things, and since this obsession clashes with our ability for self-growth and self-actualization, we need to steer clear of it as much as possible.
Of course, reality television isn’t the only culprit in our celebrity-crazed culture; I just choose to use it as an example because it best embodies the kind of programming that feeds directly into humankind’s innate need to know what happens next while remaining completely thoughtless. While I agree with Lenda, who states that programs such as reality TV shows, sporting events, and other slowly-emptying juice boxes erect boundaries between rivalries, I fear that instead they unite us and have joined the weather forecast and impending-weekend plans in being universal topics of conversation. Obviously I encourage the oneness of our society, but what Lenda refers to as the “mass hallucination” of culture seems to me to be the wrong way of achieving unity.
While culture often directly opposes Nature, I see the two worlds as a Venn diagram with art as the quickly-slimming ovular in-between. Because expression is the most natural human capability, art is essentially Nature speaking through us, allowing it to shed the dreaded influence of our culture-based world. Rather than being garbage, art is a severed extremity of Nature, perhaps a leaf on the ground or a petal pulled from a flower. Good art shouldn’t be biodegradable; the more it causes you to think the better it is.
The key word here being think: Art sets itself apart from culture by the way it opens our eyes to new ideas and perspectives and, as Lenda would argue, leads to self-growth and self-actualization. Rather than merely serving as a distraction, art encourages us to think for ourselves and inspires us to rethink the way we live rather than thinking and even living for us, as popular culture tends to do.
While the purpose of Transformers is more voyeuristic in its encouragement to put the audience in the role of the hero who sweeps the girl off her feet and saves the day, the artistic vision is to make the audience reflect on their own lives through the protagonist’s journey, thus encouraging thinking. In this way, art refuses the label of garbage through its ability to remain with us after consumption. As with juice boxes like Transformers, we tend to swish its juice around in our mouths (for a long enough time that it damages our teeth, often), when juice exists to be swallowed.
But it’s hard not to swish when television, the most often-consumed form of media, contains so much teeth-rotting material. We aren’t just becoming desensitized to the Grand Canyon because we see it on television so often, we dismiss it as unimpressive because of our mindless state in which we observe it on TV. The mere fact that television programs remain watchable despite not receiving our full attention serves as sufficient proof that we’re imbibing mind-clouding material. Furthermore, the image of a television set glowing in our periphery is hardly different from the song listlessly repeating itself in our heads.
Duane Elgin’s concept of voluntary simplicity could be the best approach to overstimulation. Rather than having the television on just to have the television on, we should consume more thoughtfully by watching only when our favorite program is on and choosing our favorite program based on how much it makes us think rather than who it lets us be. Similarly, the goal of music consumption should be to appreciate it as you listen to it rather than carelessly lodge it into your brain for future mental replays. These ideas may seem a bit extreme to some of us, but they aren’t as extreme as what Elgin would likely propose.
While this may sound like a tirade against everything man-made, it certainly isn’t. I’m just as excited about the impending NBA season as most sports fans, and I fill my head with more music than I’m able to defend the artistic value of. But I don’t let that define me; I don’t let thoughts of last night’s Bulls game consume my mind and, consequently, my daily conversations; I understand the implicit boundaries separating what’s important with what’s trivial; I strive to be identified by the contents of my unclouded mind, not my DVD collection.
I fear that it’s the opposing mindset that is the reason for the figurative and literal pollution of Nature. We have begun to allow pleasure to get the better of us and in doing so pushed Nature away. I fear that eventually Nature will no longer be able to provide us with any form of pleasure and will therefore be seen as garbage itself.
Back at the oasis, I was disturbed by one final thought before returning to my garbagerial city surroundings: Had I been sitting on a bench in downtown Chicago, where it is mostly Natureless, I wouldn’t have thought twice about observing a leaf in the middle of the sidewalk, even if there wasn’t a tree in sight. In other words, while observing garbage amongst Nature my mind became consumed with unnatural thoughts, but if I was to observe Nature amongst garbage, thoughts of garbage would still consume my mind. Because Nature is so subtle, we tend to overlook it more often than not; the leaf itself is a symbol of Nature’s subtlety and tranquility, while the juice box symbolizes everything unsubtle, noisy, and concerning (whether they’re our concerns or Derek Jeter’s) about culture.
We’ve made our mark on Nature, yet we refuse to let Nature make it’s mark on us. As we continue to suckle from the teat of Mother Culture, Nature has merely become the bee that we fear irrationally and fling our arms at absentmindedly. We have become the rebellious son of a well-to-do family who ran away from home years ago but still survives off of dad’s paychecks.
Despite being the world’s 28th biggest pile of garbage, Chicago features more than 500 parks to remind us of our forgiving parents. These parks may not necessarily be safe from careless juice consumers, but they still serve as proper reminders as to how we should view Nature: as an escape from the warm breath that culture blows down the backs of our necks, as a break from advancing our own plot (and forgetting the plots of those who exist only in our televisions), as inspiration for pure thought, and as the brief, blissful silence that occurs when we flip the record over.
 A city is a place where humans go to be in each others’ ways as much as possible and perpetually up the ante in the game of Who Can Destroy Nature First.
 Cars are the four-wheeled answer to man’s age-old question of How can I get somewhere else unreasonably fast while putting everyone’s life in danger?
 Guns are man’s solution to the problem of murder, which was critiqued by many a murderer as “too personal.”
 Reality television is the further inflation of the world’s biggest egos for the inconceivable gratification of aspiring egoists.
 Honking is the only way drivers can get other drivers and vulnerable pedestrians to see their three tons of bright yellow mass as it flies by.
 Derek Jeter is a prominent figure in one of mankind’s most popular distractions called sports.
 The Red Sox are the people that Derek Jeter gets paid millions of dollars to hit balls at.
 Casinos are where adults go to play video games and waste money so that their kids don’t know that they play video games and waste money too.
 Welcome mats are polite ways of saying “you are only welcome in my home if you wipe your feet first.”
 Alleyways are the metaphorical rug under which their surrounding buildings brush their garbage. Somewhere along the way it became custom for humans to pretend that alleyways do not exist, therefore making them acceptable.
 Popular culture is a language taught to us at a very young age that excludes you from conversations when you don’t speak certain dialects.
 Posters are shrines we set up in our bedrooms that serve as reminders to us of which humans are our favorites.
 Transformers is a culmination of all of society’s garbage: technology, cars, violence, bad jokes, and attractive people. Surely there is no better example of an eyesore than Transformers.
 Most of the time, before presenting you with your drug of choice, movie theaters will open their trenchcoats to reveal all of their coming distractions, which will often result in a new addiction for the moviegoer.
 Video games, a popular extension of television, provide humans with a second life in which decisions are made by simply pressing any of eight buttons.
 Humans have begun to design straws for our books now, too, calling them “ebooks.”
 Ikea is a chain of tiny countries scattered amidst bigger countries where your GPS can’t save your from getting lost.
 Jerseys are a form of clothing regular people wear in hopes that they will be mistaken for their idols by other regular people.
 Google is the name of the robot who knows everything and is more than happy to share his wealth of knowledge with mankind.
 Voluntary simplicity is the alien idea that one has the ability to refuse distractions of all sorts and chooses to do so willingly.
 I imagine Duane Elgin’s alleyway to be full of smashed television sets.