Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Trash, ‘Idiocracy’ and how to avoid it

Viewing the movie Idiocracy is quite an uncomfortable experience, despite it being a comedy. Its premise is simple: smart, intelligent people tend to have fewer children – sometimes no children at all, in fact – compared to less intelligent, less “educated” people, with hardly any future perspective. Project the imagined consequences of this premise into the future – say about 5500 years from now – and you get an “idiocracy”, a society of “idiots”.

The first few scene-sequences of the film are the most compelling. They alternate between an interview with a professional yuppie married couple (an accountant and a lawyer, if I recall), whose IQs are indicated as being near, but not quite on the MENSA limit of 150. In the interview, which dwells on their qualifications and Ivy League educational background, it becomes clear that they prioritise their careers, and that the thought of having children has been put on ice. Then the scene switches to an interview with a married couple from what Americans call the “white trash” demographic, and above the din of about half-a-dozen raucous kids one can make out that both husband and wife dropped out of school early, and the out-of-control children say all the rest.

A few years later these interviews are repeated, and one learns that the yuppies still don’t have any offspring (they never have any, it turns out), while the “white trash” family has burgeoned with greater numbers. Then the scene switches to a police officer in his office, doing a very pedestrian job, being visited by a superior officer and told that, given his supreme averageness in all respects (intelligence, physical ability, etc.) he has been selected to participate in a year-long cryogenics-experiment, together with an “average” female counterpart. This entails being “cryonized” or frozen in a specially designed cryonic capsule for a year, before being awakened to check the effects. Despite our police hero’s (and the corresponding woman’s) resistance, the experiment goes ahead, and they are locked into their cryonic pods for a year.

Except…The “experiment” goes horribly wrong when the superior officer is charged with a number of heinous crimes committed while he was canvassing a perfectly “average” woman for the job (who turned out to be a prostitute; and I can’t decide whether this is a patriarchal slip on the part of the film director on the “average” normative status of women, or a deliberate feminist allusion to the “average” way women are treated; both interpretations can be defended). As a result of his arrest, the laboratory where the cryonic pods are kept is demolished, and they end up in a rubbish (or what Americans call “trash”) heap.

Fast forward to around 2 550 CE (AD in older parlance), and planet Earth is suffused with trash – in more than one sense of the word. The “white trash” that featured at the beginning have proliferated, while the intelligentsia have died out because they did not reproduce adequately, and correspondingly, the “trash” that humans have routinely dumped in landfills has accumulated to the size of mountains. Then, on one fateful day a load of new trash being dumped on top of one of these trash mountains causes an avalanche of trash that cascades down into the city, dumping the two pods with the still frozen bodies of our two protagonists among what has become a nation of idiots.

By comparison, when our protagonists emerge from their pods, they turn out to be geniuses in the 26th century, despite their erstwhile average status in the 20th century. The rest is fairly predictable; it culminates in our “average” hero setting in motion a number of processes that augur well for improving the future of the overpopulated, polluted planet, and becoming the president of the US, married to the erstwhile prostitute and producing a comparatively intelligent brood.

The point of briefly reconstructing the narrative of Idiocracy is this: regardless of the tenability of its premise concerning the consequences of the disproportionate increase in the number of the intellectually challenged “human trash” (and the corresponding numerical dwindling of intelligent humans), it is to unpack the film’s thesis about trash (rubbish) in the literal sense, which does not seem far-fetched at all.

Any reasonably socially and ecologically sensitive person who has witnessed the desperately poor in India picking through endless rubbish dumps, or – closer to home – seen the extent of the trash at the “tips” (rubbish dump-areas) outside South African cities, would probably have winced inwardly at the sheer visible monstrosity or environmental blemish that they represent. Intuitively one has to “know” – even without deliberate calculation – that such dumping is unsustainable on a finite planet, but the mere thought of facing the problem, what to do with it, is so debilitating that it is quickly suppressed. Idiocracy may be “just” an average film comedy, but this aspect of the movie, at least, should galvanize people into preventative action, lest our descendants really be buried under mountains of trash sometime in the future.

A book which takes this threat seriously in the context of the looming ecological crisis (which is worsening so fast that scientists frequently have to revise their projections of its most deleterious consequences, judging by the recent IPCC report on climate change) bears the title of Cradle to Cradle (Vintage Books, London, 2009), by a process engineer and chemist, Michael Braungart, and an architect, William McDonough (a book first recommended to me by an architecture student, Jonathan Roux). The title implies a challenge to humans, in architecture and engineering, but more generally in all cultural practices, to find ways to emulate nature in her endless productivity of organisms, which displays the structure of “from cradle to cradle”.

In contrast, human practices bent on the construction of artefacts, ingenious though they have always been, have displayed the countervailing structure of “from cradle to grave”, unlike natural processes, which do not, as a rule, produce “waste”, or “trash” – everything in nature is part of a food chain; what is produced in the process of one organism’s struggle for survival is what another organism feeds upon, again generating side-effect products that are appropriated by the next organism in the food chain, and so on; hence “from cradle to cradle”.

The aim of the book is to show the benefits of re-calibrating human engineering and generally all human production processes, from farming to industrial production, in such a way as to put all “waste” products back into the biological cycle. In the Introduction (location 59 of the Kindle edition) the authors say:

“…our agenda is…about finding nurturing solutions very different to the often outrageous initiatives that harm the environment, sometimes by the same sort of institutions. Cradle to Cradle tries to put human beings in the same ‘species’ picture as other living things – and to us, a misuse of material resources is not just suicidal for future human generations but catastrophic for the future of life.”

Even an apparently good “solution” to waste management – building incinerators to get rid of waste – is not necessarily good, because incineration destroys all the nutrients that should be channeled back to biological or technical cycles (location 81). “The Cradle to Cradle approach”, these far-sighted writers state (location 93), “is to see waste as food, as a nutrient for what’s to come. It is about how to support the biosphere and how to support the technosphere. It is about being beneficial, about not panicking and destroying resources [through burning, for example; BO] that we can pass onto our grandchildren and their grandchildren”.

In this limited space I cannot nearly enumerate on all the truly wonderful ideas in this text on how to mitigate human impact on the planet by working with Mother Earth instead of against her. You will have to read it yourself – but it is thoroughly worth it. And it trashes the idea of accumulating trash in the customary manner.

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