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Examining the Philosophical Nature of Our Relationship to Trash

In her latest research project, Professor Vicky Spelman raises many questions including: Why is it acceptable for developed countries to ship their waste off to the distant shores of other countries lacking in adequate environmental regulations?

/ Published November 26, 2010

Trash. Rubbish. Garbage. Refuse. Junk. These words and others like them, such familiar parts of our vernacular, hint at our nuanced and often conflicted relationship with the concept of waste. In her project Homo Sapiens as Homo Trasho, Elizabeth Spelman, chair of the philosophy department and the Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor in the Humanities, examines the way we humans think about waste. “We are creators of waste, by virtue of our biology, our prodigious production and our massive consumption. We even have a full constellation of these terms—debris, scrap, litter—that are used in very familiar contexts. I am looking for places where any of those terms are employed in different, challenging ways.”

Elizabeth Spelman. Photo by Jim Gipe.

The Trash Project is, at its heart, a philosophical undertaking. “It’s a philosopher’s goldmine—all of these terms!” says Spelman. She notes, however, that the question of waste “doesn’t really come up in classic Western philosophy. It is, nevertheless, a lens by which to reexamine the ancient texts.” In today’s context, questions of waste ethics and social justice extend past the Greek philosophers and permeate modern life, making Spelman’s work all the more relevant.

Spelman’s investigation—though by no means exhaustive, as she would be the first to emphasize—delves into a diverse range of topics. Essentially, wherever the labeling of something as “waste” extends past mere neutral description, there is opportunity for philosophical inquiry. Do we judge a person’s inability to properly deal with their trash as being an indication of a lack of moral character? Why, when we are so quick to dispose of our trash, do we become possessive and defensive at the thought of someone going through our discarded items, and how does that speak to our complicated connection to our waste? How is it possible that “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure”? These are some of the questions raised in the Trash Project.

As if picking through a landfill, Spelman has amassed the material for the Trash Project over the last several years. Her previous project and resulting book, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World (Beacon, 2002), explores the way humans seek (or choose not) to fix broken objects, broken relationships and broken societal structures. Seeing humans as repairpersons has necessarily informed the way she looks at humans as waste producers. “With regard to both repair and waste, we don’t just engage in those activities,” she notes. “We also refrain from engaging in them. Both acts involve choice. We make decisions all the time about what is worthless and to be discarded.”

This obsession with trash has made its way into Smith course offerings. Chosen as one of “Fall’s Hottest College Courses” by the Daily Beast, Spelman’s Presidential Seminar, Talking Trash, has been a space for exploring the question of waste in modern and discursive contexts with students since 2009. “It’s so rewarding,” says Spelman of the process of philosophizing with Smithies. “A terrific process. There are so many possible spinoffs.” Indeed, students who have taken the course in past semesters have creatively posed the question of waste against the backdrop of modern issues. For instance, Maria-Fatima (Fatinha) Santos ’10, while working with Spelman, studied societal justifications for imprisonment and the ways in which prisoners are treated as trash. Julia Cox ’10 examined the topic of women working in different strata of the male entertainment industry and how the associated statuses lead to being treated as more or less valuable.

The study of humanity’s love-hate relationship with its own waste is sure to have some distasteful moments. For Spelman, the way people—of all social, political and ethnic backgrounds—are treated as trash, is most upsetting. “In short, they are disposable. It’s just endless,” she reflects.

She gives the example of young female factory workers in Juárez—situated at the US-Mexican border—who are victims of near-constant violence, including serial murder, because of their low and ill-respected socioeconomic and political statuses as migrant workers.

Another startling discovery for Spelman involves the human costs associated with our planet’s endemic waste problem. Hauling waste away from developed countries, container ships dump their contents on the shores of countries without adequate environmental regulation and where international law is unlikely to be enforced. Unprotected local populations are then left to scavenge—not for rags or food, but for the valuable (and sometimes toxic) components of discarded computers, cell phones and other devices. “They are literally living in trash,” says Spelman of the deplorable conditions of these communities. “And they are treated as trash.”

Can we ever hope to solve our compounding waste problem—in all of its forms? Neither philosophy-at-large nor Spelman’s project pretend to offer any answers. But is Spelman hopeful? “If governments were to be more just, economic competition less cutthroat, people more kind, wars less frequent—perhaps then there would be fewer automatic assignments of human beings to the status of ‘trash.’”