Americans waste a lot: Food, toys, paper cups. If we’re not wasting something (e.g. a power tool) we’re usually storing it which is really just a prolonged and more passive form of waste. We know we waste. It’s something we hear all the time, but I don’t always hear theories about why. What is it about our lives that leads us to throw things away? So here’s mine: The more we move the more reason we have to own cheap, temporal things that we can throw away. Movement makes us feel unsettled and throwing something away is a forming and regaining personal agency … or lightening one’s burden for the journey.
Thousands of American youth travel hundreds of miles away from their homes to attend a university. When they move in, they often bring microwaves, couches, storage containers and a multitude of accessories. All of these things in some way mimic the lives that the students knew before they started college. They make foreign places seem a little more like home. This process is known as “settling in” and has become a regular activity in our unsettled lives.
But when a year of college comes to an end students are left with a whole lot of stuff that needs to be moved or is no longer needed. Much of the stuff is given away, sold, or is put into some of the nearly 40,000 storage units reported five years ago. What happens to the rest? It’s thrown away:
This is one of countless piles of stuff at the University of Richmond on move-out day (for more images of this waste on campus click here). The dumpster is in the back of the photo, but was either full or inaccessible by midday. The stuff in the pile is not necessarily worthless or broken, but nonetheless it was left behind in the exodus.
This is the wake left behind a group of displaced people. It seems that the stress of being displaced is often great enough that belongings begin to seem more like burdens. These are cast off and left behind as each person moves on to find a new place to settle down. Volunteers collect the valuable goods for a garage sale and university staff collect the rest. Most students don’t feel responsible for this burden. Once they set it beside the dumpster it is someone else’s problem. The process continues in this way each year and at each new place, but rarely do we consider the magnitude of the wake of waste we leave behind us.
More importantly, I don’t believe we truly consider the space we leave behind. Like the things we own, this space is usually cheap, temporal and planned to eventually be obsolete. America has entire cities that are comprised of this sort of disposable space. When there is little significance to each individual space or belonging there is little reason to hold on or remain. So we move on. But at the same time we are constantly striving to reinstate significance and consistency in our lives. The digital photo is an example of humans attempting to create significance and nostalgia. These are often very political in the statement they make whether it’s “I’m happy” or “We’re best friends” we use photos to tell us what we want to hear.
The photo pasted into this blog is similar because I want to make a statement about the waste that results from a culture of movement. I was perhaps the only person that thought the pile of stuff was worth remembering, but I imagine many people made comments about the waste. This photo says “We should remember what we leave behind … it might eventually change our attitudes about moving forward. We might begin to linger long enough to make somewhere significant.”