Friday, June 09, 2023

Creatures Of Excess

Midden (or kitchen midden) is the archeological term for a heap of garbage. One millennia's trash is another's anthropological gold. Studies of middens reveal a great deal about how our ancient ancestors lived.

No other species leaves middens for scientists to study. This is because humans are the only species that produces excess. "We are creatures of excess" write the Davids Graeber and Wengrow in their book The Dawn of Everything, "and this is what makes us simultaneously the most creative, and the most destructive, of all species."

Excess is the glamorous cousin of waste. Excess is what makes us wealthy. It's also what makes us obese. Excess allows us to provide for others. It's also what we hoard. The principle project of every civilization may be to care for the children, but the principle question every generation of humans seems to be asking itself is what to do with the excess. 

In the sense that our excess takes the form of pollution of all kinds -- air, water, ground -- we are today witnessing our species' destructive capacity in the form of climate change. 

We produce so much excess artificial light that nearly all of us live perpetually under light-polluted skies; maybe not so bad for us, but for plants and animals that need the dark, it's literally killing them. Same goes for sound pollution; most of the planet's species live their entire lives against the background of human-created noise. As science writer Ed Young writes in his book An Immense World, "Sensory pollution is the pollution of disconnection. It detaches us from the cosmos. It drowns out the stimuli that link animals to their surroundings and to each other. In making the planet brighter and . . . (louder), we have also endangered sensory environments."

We produce too much food, too much clothing, and too much shelter, yet we don't use that excess to feed, clothe and shelter -- according to World Vision, about 10 percent of the human population go to bed hungry each night. Instead, that excess becomes toxic waste.

I imagine that some our drive to produce excess comes from having evolved our unique human consciousness. We are capable of imagining potential future needs and simultaneously a future that does not supply those needs, so we produce excess as protection. We save for a rainy day. An adaptive instinct, to a point, creative in the way the squirrels bury nuts "for the winter." But a destructive instinct as well because when excess is not eventually used, when it is left to rot, when it is hoarded, it becomes pollution. And even when our accumulated waste doesn't directly harm the climate or biome, it still, I would assert, damages our minds and souls. The natural emotional state of a hoarder -- whether its old magazines or money -- is misery. The difference between us and the squirrels is that if they don't get around to digging up a buried walnut it either winds up feeding another squirrel, enriching the soil, or growing into a tree.

Many cultures, like those of Native Americans, aboriginal Australians, and Māori, have traditions that acknowledge our tendency toward creating excess. Indeed, the middens we study were almost all accumulated by indigenous peoples. In Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes of her people's tradition of only taking from nature what is needed, only harvesting what you will eat. They hedge against a less plentiful future not by producing and hoarding excess, but by caring for their plant and animal relatives, for their environment, so that it will continue to provide enough in a cycle of nurturing with the goal of mutual thriving.

I know that comedian Louis CK is a problematic figure, but I find myself regularly coming back to a riff he once did about saving money. "I spend the money," he says, "I don't save it. I think it's arrogant. It's like holding a breath. I'm not letting it out. I worked hard for this . . . Raising your kids rich is the worst thing you can do for them, but more for the people that they're going to impact later in life. Because there's no way somebody who's raised rich is not going to be a piece of s**t human being."

I stipulate to the existence of people who are "good" despite having inherited wealth, and I'm not saying to cash in your 401K, but it's something to think about. I mean, that excess, that hoard, might make us feel secure, but that's only because we've created a world in which we all sit on our individual, competitive hoards, large or small, spending our short and precious lives growing and protecting it, only to one day leave behind middens of accounts and storage lockers for our loved ones to sift through. Very few of us will create middens that materially improve the lives of our inheritors, yet we spend our so much of our lives creating the excess to accumulate them.

But this drive to produce excess is, as the Davids point out, also a creative and wonderful thing. Over my decades working with young children, for instance, I've been surrounded by excess. Physical and emotional energy, curiosity, enthusiasm, and unfiltered love spills from them like water from an overfull bucket, yet none of it, none of it, turns into waste. They don't save anything for the future, but instead give with both hands, with open hearts, and with their emotions on their sleeves. They are perfectly happy with the midden that surrounds them: the sticks and leaves, the rocks and soil, the boxes and tins from our recycling bins. Plastic fantastic toys are, in the end, pure waste: joys for a season, then abandoned. But grass and trees and fresh air and open sky, insects and toads and worms, friends and family and pets, these are the educational toys with which these unspoiled humans most easily and readily connect.

We are creatures of excess, for worse or better. What we do with our excess is easily as vital and important as what we produce. Indeed it is the same thing. What to do with it is the question.


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