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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Bert Bert 25 May 2014

    Oops! It should read: “The first few scene-sequences of the film are the most compelling.” When one changes a single noun (“scene”) to a plural one (“scene-sequences”) it is advisable to change the verb correspondingly, isn’t it!

  2. aim for the culprits aim for the culprits 26 May 2014

    An average corporate type lawyer and accountant to me represent the mindless striving for accumulating more and more ROI – whatever the product or process. The very process that drives the accumulation of rubbish.

    Until “good” lawyers and “good” accountants ie those that legislate and account for environmental externalities respectively dominate, we will continue our race to the bottom.

  3. ISax ISax 26 May 2014

    That’s what its all about.
    Small families have a better quality of life Not only in South Africa but throughout the World there are not enough jobs for young school leavers or graduates.

  4. Policat Policat 26 May 2014

    We have developed the skills to manipulate the elements formed in the universe to improve our lifestyles and learnt to reconfigure our environment to maximize our comforts. Alas, in the process scant attention has been given to the by-product of our success, “waste”. It is only when the value of waste can be converted into financial gain that real attention is diverted in its direction.
    Perhaps our behaviour is so wired the very tools we have developed to enhance our lives will be our downfall. Maybe the movie is not far off the mark.
    We should remember that the earth does not hold a candle specifically lit for us and it will certainly not mourn our passing.
    Quote by Stephen Crane (1899)
    “A Man Said to the Universe”
    “Sir, I exist!”
    “However,” replied the universe,
    “The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.”

    Saw the movie some time back enjoyed the satire.

  5. richard richard 26 May 2014

    There is an interesting website which shows the decline in global IQ in animation:

    The very idea of intellect is scorned in modern times, as technology has infantilised and cushioned us. We no longer have to use our wits to solve problems, and so the notion of intelligence and pursuits of the mind have given way to trash culture and sports. Recently, I read that some Victorian examination papers were discovered at Sandhurst (the military academy in the UK) which were much beyond what would be expected of modern students. I am sure this can be extrapolated across the spectrum of educational attainment. It is interesting, though to note how success inevitably breeds failure: once the hard work has been done, subsequent generations are able to subsist on what their forbears achieved. Intelligence no longer offers survival advantage and so will simply disappear. Evolutionistically, genes that serve no purpose are no longer selected. Non sub-Saharan African populations all contain Neanderthal genes, and we know that the so-called iceman “Oetzi” discovered some years ago (though deceased about five thousand years ago) had a higher number of Neanderthal genes than modern Homo Sapiens.

    The only advantage to this is that we shall slowly recede back to the primal swamp and so no longer be capable of producing anything other than simple artefacts, which will be biodegradable. Our populations will fall concomitantly.

  6. Bert Bert 27 May 2014

    Thanks for all the interesting comments.

    Richard, thanks for that link, too. I don’t know whether you have read a biography of Freud; what impresses one about it, among other things, is the astonishing amount of independence of mind he had to show, and intellectual initiative he had to take, and did take, to become a qualified neurologist in the first place. And it was nothing unusual at the time. It confirms what you have said about the Victorian examination papers.

  7. richard richard 28 May 2014

    @Bert, it is quite remarkable, the perspicacity and innovation Freud displayed in his conjoining of neurology with the idea of mind, perhaps similar to the leap Einstein took in dismissing the idea of the aether. It is also remarkable to consider from our perspective that Freud was a celebrity as an intellectual. How many public intellectuals exist in our time, and by that I mean people recognised by the general public? I cannot really think of any, apart from perhaps Bernard-Henri Lévy in France (rather than specialists like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking). Even MENSA, to which you referred in your article, is not what it was: if you think about the reasons it was originally set up in the UK in 1946, it was to act as a sort of “brains trust” to help solve social and other problems. That idea now would be laughable and seen as “elitist” and so dismissed. Somehow elitism is all well-and-good in sport or feats of physical strength (the winner is applauded and seen as deserving of his or her plaudits) but not in pursuits that require intelligence, where it is confounded with “elitism” and “privilege”. The immense benefits and development bestowed on us all flowing from the life of the mind are hidden, the deus ex machina that most do not see or care about. It is only when these complex systems (whether social or physical) start to break down that people pay any attention to the complexity of their design and upkeep.

  8. Bert Bert 28 May 2014

    Richard – Confirming your insights about the lack of recognition of public intellectuals today, by and large, one could add Edward Said and Foucault (both of whom died some time ago), and before that, Sartre. Then there is Noam Chomsky in the US and Jacques Ranciere as well as Julia Kristeva in France, and Habermas in Germany. It is not surprising to me that it is in France that intellectuals are most widely recognized, as I have argued before. Perhaps the recognition bestowed on sportsmen and -women has to do with the fact that they, like other ‘celebrities’, have become commodities in our consumer culture, while intellectuals’ work militates against that, mostly. Too few people familiarize themselves with what they produce. Artists, again, are more likely to be acknowledged, depending on whether their work is seen as having commercial value. Money is the pervasive, often blinding, virus here.

  9. richard richard 30 May 2014

    @Bert, one of the difficulties in our multicultural world is trying to place value on things. The first country in the West to embrace multiculturalism, albeit in the sense of European multiculturalism, was the USA in the latter part of the 19th Century. The only mutually-acceptable value-system became money, which was the reason they had moved to their new country in the first place (in most instances). As the USA replaced the modern European empires in the superpower stakes, that model became all-pervasive. Fashions, say, are no longer set by aristocrats, but by success-stories in the capitalist stakes, and their celebrity hangers-on. We relate to each other simply as part-players in the great capitalist universe, which of course excludes those who do not engage in that particular game. If all the world is fixated on football and its particular set of rules, non-football players don’t count for much. Increasing ethnic and cultural diversity (usually related) in Western nations make some sort of common value-system essential, and the only one that seems to tick the boxes is money. That is all we have come to, sad to say.

  10. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 28 July 2016

    The world, or rather, the big coffee companies, are obviously NOT interested in combating waste-accumulation – have a look at this rather disturbing article on the growing mountain of coffee-cartons in the UK and elsewhere. Our children’s children will curse this thoughtless generation of today:

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