My perspective about the excessive level of consumption we’ve established in the modern world, especially in the West, has typically been informed by collateral issues including unsustainability, demographics gone mad, ecological destruction, commodity culture, advertising (programming, actually), and the sheer absurdity of manufacturing, buying, and consuming so much stuff, much of which we don’t need. All of these things come at a not-so-hidden cost, naturally, even while our style of consumption seems to make our lives happier and more comfortable. (I say “seem” because it’s not entirely clear or agreed upon that plenitude equates to physical, spiritual, or psychic wellbeing, either as individuals or as societies.)
I recently caught wind of a few details surrounding a further issue that threatens to overwhelm us: what to do with all the refuse we create. The “dump” or regional landfill is by now so well-established in our thinking that it hardly bears comment. Still, that’s the subject of a documentary movie called Trashed. I haven’t seen the film so can’t comment knowledgeably, but I can discern its message from viewing the trailer.
I’m really more intrigued by some of the perhaps less obvious instances of the impact and scale of our material and manufacturing processes. For instance, many of us have seen pictures of the airplane graveyard outside Tucson, Arizona, known as The Boneyard:
This image (if my research is correct) dates from 1994, when the U.S. military lined up acres of decommissioned warplanes (bombers) from the Vietnam War era to demonstrate compliance with the SALT II Treaty to Russian satellites. Those particular planes have by now been chopped up, recycled, and repurposed as, among other things, soda cans.
Another startling example is the Staten Island Ship Graveyard:
At the sites from which I’ve pulled these images, there are numerous comments about the striking nature of the images, a sort of beauty even. I’m not sure I agree. It seems to me a case of mistaking wonder at excessive scale with a more traditional aesthetic.
Although the Staten Island site is only one of many such sites scattered globally, it’s a visual reminder that large, hulking vehicles inevitably pass beyond a useful age. A similar dump site located in Suisan Bay near San Francisco is the home to decommissioned military warships. This report from American Shipper says,
Aquatic life and fishers in Suisan Bay face the danger of heavy metal contamination from more than 21 tons of lead, zinc, barium, copper and other toxic metals that have sloughed off or washed away from a fleet of decommissioned government ships stored in the bay.
Clearly, we lack foresight when it comes to disposal of large wrecks. I suspect the economics of waste disposal (including nuclear waste disposal) make deferring the issue obvious, though at our peril and most likely at a higher eventual cost. Similar dump sites exist for other machinery, such as train and computer “graveyards.”
Another curiosity to me is the unexpected surplus of inbound Chinese shipping containers that never get reloaded and sent to another destination, which is a result of our current trade imbalance. This image of the shipping yards at Long Beach, California, shows the acreage devoted to receipt of all these containers:
Reports tell that containers are frequently stacked so high that they cast immense shadows, causing sunset to arrive artificially early in nearby residential districts. The containers are being transported to the California desert and abandoned, and in some cases, converted to modular housing of sorts, which begs all sorts of other questions I won’t address.
For a slightly more comprehensive look at pictures of similar architectural wrecks, have a look at Modern Ruins. One can’t help but wonder what the long-term effects of abandonment of buildings, vehicles, containers, etc. will be. Is there any expectation that they can possibly be anything other than awful? Is there any way to turn back from wrecking things further?
Update: For links to lots of further pics and videos of industrial wrecks and other detritus of modernity, see my later post on Post-Industrial Chic.