Trash Course

A new book about garbage reveals what our waste says about us. By Kevin Friedl

Even if you're too young to have watched one of the best-known environmental advertisements of all time on television, you've probably seen it imitated or parodied. In the 30-second spot, which debuted on Earth Day 1971, a lone Native American man stands on the litter-strewn shoulder of a highway, surveying the ugliness and pollution surrounding him. As if all that exhaust weren't enough, some careless litterbug flings a bag out his car window, spilling fast food and garbage at the man's feet. Then the famous money shot: The camera zooms in to reveal a single tear sliding down the man's face as a voiceover sternly intones, "People start pollution; people can stop it."

The man playing the Crying Indian was an actor who went by the name Iron Eyes Cody. Although his actual date of birth was unclear, he claimed to have been born in Oklahoma to a Cherokee father and a Cree mother. After getting his start in 1919 as an extra in a silent Western, Cody went on to play Indians in countless movies, occasionally serving as a technical adviser on Native American dress and customs. What his directors (and viewers of the ad) didn't know was that old Iron Eyes was actually of Italian ancestry and born Espera DeCorti in a small Louisiana town.

But that's not the only sleight of hand in the commercial, which was produced and paid for by a nonprofit called Keep America Beautifulé─ţactually a PR front for bottle and can manufacturers, Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company, and others. All of these businesses stood to profit from increasing America's output of trash, not decreasing it. Stirred into action by early signs that their disposable containers would be regulated or even banned, the beverage industry formed KAB to promote the message that litter was the fault of individuals, not corporations. If only people would dispose of their trash properly, Iron Eyes Cody could start living up to his name and stop weeping by the roadside.

This early triumph of corporate greenwashing is one of many examples in Trash (ed. John Knecthel, MIT Press, $15.95), a collection of essays, photos, and fiction that explores the byproducts of human civilizationé─ţand how we overlook the causes and consequences of our discards. As factories keep flooding us with more garbage-to-be and landfills keep filling, we seem all too willing to look the other way.

Surprising, then, that Trash is so often such an optimistic book. Whether through close-up shots of microcosmic dust bunnies or proposals on cleaning up blighted spaces, Trash tries nobly to reclaim its subject as something worthy of our consideration rather than just our disgust. Junk, waste, and refuse are more than cast-off remainders of the consumerist equation; they're also gauges of the civilization that produced them, and famously open to interpretation (one man's trash, and all that). The authors and artists contributing to this book find in trash an energy source, eyesore, artistic medium, apocalyptic harbinger, food source, and inspiration to rethink what gets labeled as waste and why. Together, they offer a valuable look at a fact of life most of us choose to ignore.

After all, we are what we excrete.


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