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 stuff 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 the 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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)