Monday, June 24, 2019

The Stuff of Our Lives: The Seneca Collapse of Relocating

The experience of relocating is curiously similar to an archaeological excavation of the ruins of a disappeared empire. Above, you can see two jars filled with old coins recovered from the nook and crannies of my house after emptying it of everything. Mostly these are old Italian "lira" coins, others are foreign coins and, in the smaller jar, you can see an Italian "gettone" used for making calls at public phones up to a few decades ago. These old coins have no monetary value, they are just markers of time passing. 

You know that the "Seneca Effect" has to do with overshoot and collapse. From the time when the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca noted that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid," I keep finding new examples of application of the idea. One that I recently experienced had to do with relocating: moving away from the home where my family had been living since 1965. From then,  the 340 square meters (ca. 3600 ft2) house had been gradually filling up with all sorts of stuff. Emptying it in a couple of months of work was quite an experience. "Sobering" is the correct word, I'd say.

I don't know if you are all good followers of Feng Shui, striving for good vibes and not too much junk in your home. I didn't consider myself as an adept of that philosophy, but I didn't see myself as a serial accumulator of junk, either. Well, I had to reconsider my position. I was a serial accumulator. Really, the amount of stiff that came out of my place was so large to be bewildering. And so much of it we had to throw away -- bewildering, too. We are still a little bewildered, but the most intense part of the saga seems to be over, so maybe I can report about my experience in this post.

First of all, we (me and my wife) tried to be good citizens and separate/recover/reuse what we could. It was one of those experiences where you note the divergence between theory and reality.

Let me start with the furniture. A lot of it was modern pieces of the kind made in laminated wood, bought in places like Ikea. We had a few of these pieces re-assembled in our new home, but the result was something that looks like it was salvaged from a shipwreck -- this furniture is not made to be reused. Indeed, the employees of the company that transported our stuff told me that most people just throw away old furniture and buy new pieces: it is cheaper and easier. Another field of our society where the concept of "circular economy" just doesn't seem to apply.

Here is a photo of some (just some!) of our old furniture disassembled and ready to be taken away by the local waste management company. I have no idea of what they do with it, but I am sure there is no way to recycle it. It has to be landfilled or incinerated. Furniture is NOT environmentally friendly.

Then, we had plenty of things that were still perfectly usable-- even brand new -- but that we couldn't take to our new, much smaller home. Here, we tried to avoid throwing stuff away, but it was hard work, time-consuming, and not a very satisfying result in the end. Here is an image of one of the several carloads we transported to a local charity -- I counted at least six trips like this one.

At the charity, they took most of the things we brought, but a little grudgingly. They told us that they are full of clothes, books, toys, tools, tableware, appliances, trinkets, and the like. The poor can have these things aplenty, but what they need is not that: they desperately need money for food and for the rent. But that's, obviously, not what you want to dispose of when you are relocating.

Then, eventually, a lot of things had simply to be thrown away: not good enough to go to charities, too big to be stored somewhere, useless in our new home. Here, you see me throwing away my old globe of when I was a kid -- note the burned area near Australia. Maybe I was playing a nuclear war game, or maybe I was already a catastrophist at that time!

Note also that the globe is going into the "undifferentiated" bin. It is plastic, theoretically it could be recycled, but the Italian law considers only food containers to be recyclable. So, a lot of plastic objects we threw away will never be recycled and every item I dumped in the bin, shoes, tools, trinkets and more, gave me an eerie sensation of a "revenant." One day, I would find again that plastic in the air I breathe after it will be incinerated, or maybe in the form of small chunks in the sushi I eat. Not that if it were possible to recycle it, things would change so much. The thought that my old junk could be turned into a garden bench doesn't comfort me too much: also that bench would end, eventually, in my sushi.

How much stuff did we throw away? I can't say, hundreds of kilograms, at the minimum. And it is impressive to think that most homes in the Western will have the same problem, one day or another. I don't know about your experience but, after I went through all this, I cannot visit a friend at home without noting how much stuff is accumulated there. Some places are even more encumbered with all sorts of junk than our home -- getting rid of all they contain is going to be a nightmare for the owners.

Where will all this stuff end up? And how to manage it in a future in which, probably, transportation is going to cost much more than today? Maybe it will remain where it is, slowly buried by the ruins of our civilization. A treasure for the archaeologists of the future, if there will be any. But it is, after all, just entropy doing its work.


  1. It's recently been recognized that most recycling is never actually recycled, but is only shipped overseas where unscrupulous companies promise to do something with it, and often goes into the ocean. So I don't think your globe went to the wrong place necessarily.

    1. In my experience, in Italy the companies involved with recycling do their best. They do recycle what's possible. But the mass is enormous, the costs high, and the results not satisfactory. Recycled materials end up into low quality items that only green junkies want to buy

  2. Extraordinary... with a little personal anecdote we can all understand ans share, you touched on a huge issue.

    Thank you!

  3. Myself and my Father still live in the two houses with two big barns next to each other that raised three boys and housed two personal businesses since 1973. My day of reckoning of the artifacts will be coming soon enough.

  4. It's much easier if you pare down your possesions to just what you really need. When I was living in my Freightliner, I had everything I needed in 5 bags/containers. Those were the same 5 bags I moved to Alaska with. I took it all on the plane with me, no shipping, no movers. In those days, you didn't get charged for checked baggage. Remember that?

    In the years prior to trucking, I moved several times between states, going through the whole rigamarole of renting a Ryder truck, a trailer for my car, packing all my stuff in boxes and wedging in my furniture. Reverse the proceedure on the other end. Forget it, it's a nightmare.

    This is why in the H-G era of Homo Sap, they only had possesions they could carry with them. Everything was portable or could be built on-site. We'll get there again, in due time.

    Meanwhile, latest Collapse Cafe now up on the Doomstead Diner:


    1. Haven't yet reached your level of Zen wisdom, RE. Maybe, one day....

  5. In the past year, both my parents have died. In both cases it was a live action version on a Seneca Cliff - both went from active and healthy (for people in their 80s) to the funeral pyre in about 6 weeks. After they died, my brothers and I cleaned out the old family home. Most of the clothes were donated to charity, books (unwanted by charity) were recycled (perhaps to be incinerated), and the rest to landfill/incineration. The accumulation of things that were important enough not to dispose of immediately (and my mother was usually ruthless in avoiding clutter) from two lives rapidly dissipated in the course of a few days - another Seneca cliff. It made me think of Shelley's poem Ozymandias on the futility of chasing a permanent mark on the world. Perhaps, as a civilization, plastic beads will be our "trunkless legs", and the weather worn concrete shells of cities will be the "half sunk... shattered visage".

    "I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away."

    1. Nice story, Craig. And, yes, one of the reasons I embarked in this terrible experience was to avoid to leave to my children the thankless task of disposing of the junk their parents had accumulated. I have to say that my parents had never thought about that

  6. I have said it before but I believe it is obvious that the LTG model did not give enough weight to pollution, or perhaps did not define it correctly as probably 90% of industrial civilization is a waste stream. The "stuff" that doesn't end up being disposed of is very minimal and even what has been "disposed of" doesn't go away. Dilution is no solution to pollution.

  7. Full sympoathy for your experience. Am trying to do the same in this "developing/emerging" country where I live. In spite of the soaring population and relative poverty,there is also a certain saturaration with leftover consumer items. A lot is probably just tipped somewhere in the desert. Sometimes I just dream of a good old ice age that would grind and compress all our stuff under kms of ice!

    1. Or maybe the rising seawater will hide everything at the bottom.

    2. My favourite fantasy, too: ice sheets obliterating everything - consoling thought.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)