Hello. My name is Jason Oestreicher and I graduated from Gonzaga in May 2017 with my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies. I first met Dr. Henning through my involvement with Gonzaga Environmental Organization’s fossil fuel divestment committee, and then later in his Environmental Ethics course. Like most of you, he invited me to contribute to the ZEEL blog as a way to collaborate, discuss, and tell our stories so that we might find inspiration or become a catalyst for action. I can definitively say that I have found inspiration in the blog posts I have read on here and so, with that being said, here is my contribution to the world of ZEEL.
On a recent bike ride I found myself climbing a steep road 15 miles south of Spokane, tall Ponderosa pines flanking me on both sides, autumn sun shining overhead. The pitch of the road was steep enough that my pace had slowed so that I was making forward progress only slightly faster than if I was walking up the hill. As I fought against gravity, I noticed a fancy-looking washing machine – one of those with the round glass door on the front that stand in long rows at the big hardware stores – that had plummeted ten or fifteen feet down the embankment on the side of the road and had come to rest disturbingly askew, leaning against a tree for support. Judging by the layer of dust and piles of golden pine needles covering it, the washing machine had been there for some time.
The mass of dented metal and cracked plastic was so starkly out of place lying there in the woods. It didn’t belong there. As a deceased product of modern technology, it belonged in the appliance graveyard at the city dump so it could be dismantled and recycled to live on in future generations of washing machines – but here it was, lying in the forest like a dead animal, fingers of rust reaching out from its seams and slowly decaying as the erosive forces of nature worked to revert the plastic, steel, and rubber back into their elemental states. The machine had been transformed from the coveted object of a (most likely) suburban homeowner to something utterly value-less, carelessly discarded as though it was no more significant than a food wrapper or junk mail.
A few seconds up the road I saw some mattresses down the embankment. Just beyond that, a sofa. This road was far enough away from the city that you wouldn’t really expect to see any litter nearby, but the shoulder had become the final resting place for these sickly and weak Things no longer deemed valuable in the throw-away culture of our consumptive society. I wondered about the person who dumped them and imagined a large diesel truck idling on the road, the driver feeling a sense of accomplishment as (s)he shoved the infirm Things down the hillside.
What I found so striking about the sight of the Things in the forest was that the mysterious dumper drove to that very spot and had failed to be overcome by any sort of reverence or appreciation for the trees, grasses, and bushes clinging to the hillside, or the tireless processes of nature occurring there; it seemed obvious that the dumper saw nothing more than a convenient and anonymous place to dodge a few dollars in dump fees. Surely, any appreciation of the wild beauty of this spot would have prevented them from acting upon the purely self-centered intentions that brought them there, and to act instead with appropriate environmental responsibility and concern. Understanding that this lack of appreciation was what I found bothersome made me realize that the scene before me was much more than just trash dumped in the woods; it was emblematic of the state of modern human relations to the natural world. How so?
Humans are unique in our ability to reason. This reasoning ability has led to observations of natural phenomena, these observations eventually led to the scientific process and experimentation, and the application of scientific discoveries led to technology. Technology has done many things that have created a separation between humans and the natural world; where once we were vulnerable and at the mercy of the forces of nature, we have now developed technologies that allow us to, for example, stay warm in frigid temperatures or cool in blistering heat, to grow plants and raise animals for dependable food sources, to quickly transport ourselves across distances once unimaginable, and to remove the nutrients and resources of one place so we can use them more efficiently in another. As we’ve done this with increasing steps of complexity and efficiency, we’ve also stepped further and further away from our primal relationship to and understanding of the natural world. Broadly speaking, I believe that most humans don’t consider themselves to be at the mercy of the natural world anymore and hold a worldview that envisions humans as master and nature as the servant to human desires. By this view, human life now seems to be less a game of chance in which only a few will survive, and more a calculated technological strategy ensuring the survival of the many. This is viewed as a good thing, certainly by utilitarian philosophical standards, but is it?
Technology has brought much good to the world. In many instances, human suffering has been reduced by discoveries in medicine, disease, agriculture, and nutrition; largely due to these advances, life expectancy has dramatically increased – in the US, life expectancy rose from 49.24 years in 1900 to 77.4 years in 2003. Infant mortality rates have declined, many once-debilitating diseases are now diagnosed and treated, food and shelter are easier to acquire. Unfortunately, technology has also brought humans the ability to cause harm on scales previously impossible: the clearcutting of rainforests, the Alberta Tar Sands complex, bombs that can destroy entire cities in seconds, and toxic chemical pollution of entire watersheds are all made possible by the application of human technological knowledge. Wild, natural humans were not capable of any of those things even a few thousand years ago, and I shudder to think of what technologically-driven humans will be capable of in the coming decades.
One of the most damaging consequences of technology is the rapid growth of the human population. Those same advances in medicine and agriculture that increased lifespans and made procurement of food easy have had the net effect of creating the conditions necessary for the exponential growth of the human species, to the point that scientists such as Paul and Anne Ehrlich, among others, have argued for decades that the human population has vastly overshot the number that is sustainable by the natural processes and cycles of the planet and leaves us dependent on technological manipulation – not natural order – for the ability to sustain our global population.
Generally, the most successful technology maximizes efficiency. Sustaining a population that has outgrown its non-technological capacity is more efficient if supply lines can be concentrated, which explains the proliferation of large industrial farms, food processing plants, and the migration of rural people to urban cities. A 2014 UN population report found that 54% of the global population lives in urban areas; by 2050, it estimates that 66% of the global population will be urban. In 1990, there were 10 mega-cities with 10 million or more inhabitants; in 2014, there were 28 of these mega-cities with the largest, Tokyo, having 38 million residents; by 2030, the UN projects 41 mega-cities. Urban living makes technological, rather than natural, sense. Prior to the widespread adoption of animal husbandry and agriculture, humans lived in small social groups, which makes natural sense because the sustenance of a small group places minimal strain on the resources of an area. No ecosystem in the world could naturally sustain Tokyo’s 38 million densely-packed inhabitants without serious degradation or destruction, no matter how fertile the soil or optimal the conditions. Technology, not nature, created the conditions necessary for the massive growth of the human population, and further created the necessity for massive populations of people to be concentrated into cities.
Living in dense urban centers isolates humans from the natural world. Cities are sprawling artificial environments of concrete, metal, and glass that in no way resemble the forests, grasslands, and deserts that were destroyed and paved over. A person living their life in a large city can easily go for extended periods of time with no interaction with the natural environment and can turn to technology to supply the food, shelter, clothing, and transportation for their daily lives. For people estranged from nature, the natural world can become an abstract, simplified caricature. With a diminished sense of our reliance and connection to the wild, natural planet, we use the terms ‘natural resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’ as though the natural environment exists solely for the use and benefit of human beings. Humans cling to technology with religious faith and expect engineered technological fixes for the environmental problems technology created in the first place, failing to accept the painfully obvious reality that modern technological human existence is rarely compatible in the long term with the natural processes and cycles that have shaped the planet over billions of years. When humans come to think of technology, not nature, as the source of their sustenance, all manner of environmental harms can be, and are, justified. As a species, we are so deluded as to think that we can use our technologies to manipulate and control planetary processes and not cause planetary consequences.
The Things in the woods brought some big thoughts with them, but this was inevitable. How could I look upon the harsh juxtaposition of the rusting, angular washing machine set against the organic shapes of the trees and grasses and not be forced to consider what the scene represented? As I contemplated human relations with the natural world, I was also forced to confront my own way of living on the planet. To be clear, I think that I am much more conscientious about my environmental impacts than most, but the truth is that I, too, am guilty of falling under the intoxicating spell of human exceptionalism and technological distraction. Living in modern America, it’s incredibly hard not to do so.
Daily, I am exposed to the constant barrage of behaviors and norms that reinforce the human-nature-technology relationship. For all of my efforts to live deliberately, I still act in culturally-influenced ways that are antithetical to a harmonious existence with the planet – I own and operate a car, I rarely ride the bus, I eat meat, I buy bananas and other produce grown far away or out of season, I take hot showers, I frequently fly for work, etc. Even though I try not to waste anything, recycle everything, and be conscientious about my purchases, I still crave those bananas, burgers, and hot showers and I’ve gotten used to the ease with which technology provides them. I’ve grown complacent about my own skewed relationship to nature and have gotten comfortable with the idea that I’m already making a positive impact in the world and that’s good enough.
How terribly unfortunate that thought is.
While I might not shove washing machines into the forest on country roads, I often live as though my own convenience is more important than taking the time to buy local, in-season produce, or to plan ahead so that I don’t require a car for commuting, or to eliminate or at least minimize meat in my diet. I make excuses to explain away the actions that conflict with my values: I’m too busy, I don’t feel sated on a vegetable-based diet, I don’t have time, my actions don’t make any significant change, or worst of all – it’s inconvenient to do more.
It’s hard to take a deep, honest look at yourself and find something you don’t like to see. It’s easier to look at Things abandoned in a forest and direct your blame and outrage towards another. When I saw the Things that day, I didn’t know that reflecting on them a few months later would place me at the crossroads where I now stand: one road – familiar to me – is fast and easy like a highway, paved with complacency, driven by half-hearted efforts, and littered with excuses; the other road is slower and more complex like a dirt road in the forest, built on the solid ground of honest introspection, powered by deliberate action, and surrounded by possibilities. The difficulty of the second road lies in the cultural and technological landscapes it traverses, landscapes that constantly try to detour you back onto the highway at every turn.
I owe something to the mystery dumper of the Things: gratitude. As odd as it sounds, I’m grateful that they dumped the Things in such a remote, beautiful spot where their impact was more dramatic than if they were dumped in an empty city lot, which would have been less likely to create an emotional response in me. I’m grateful that their actions forced me to confront the unease gnawing at me for some time about my own complicity in the environmental damages occurring around the world. I’ve identified the actions that I can and should be taking, and also the excuses I made to justify my inaction. I’m grateful that their dumping of the Things afforded me a glimpse of just how much work needs to be done to reestablish a healthy cultural relationship with our planet, and that that relationship-building needs to begin not in some faraway place like New York or Washington DC, but in my own community with my neighbors, friends, family, and even with myself.
This spring, when the snow has melted away, I’m going to take a ride back up that road to see if the Things are still laying there in the forest. If they are, I want to take pictures of them to keep as a daily reminder to myself of the conscious shift in direction required from all of us at this environmental crossroads, and then I’ll come back with a truck and haul them away. After all, Things don’t belong in a forest … trees do. Bushes do. Birds do. Animals do. And we do.
Arias, Elizabeth. “United States Life Tables, 2003.” National Vital Statistics Reports 54, no. 14. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2006. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr54/nvsr54_14.pdf
“World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas.” UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2014. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html