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Trashy Author: Journalist Heather Rogers became fascinated with where the garbage goes after it leaves the curb.

The Wasteland

Heather Rogers brings us a brief history of garbage

By Rick Kleffel

Filmmaker Heather Rogers digs into everybody's trash and follows the waste stream to come up with a treasury of how business, government and the Progressive movement have all grown out of the garbage.

From the paper cup that holds your morning coffee to the newspaper you read while drinking that coffee--even this newspaper--your world is swimming in garbage. Yet you can spend your entire life surrounded by trash that remains utterly invisible until you read Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press; 224 pages; $23.95 cloth). By the time you've closed the book, your eyes will have been permanently opened, and Rogers is here to warn you that you may not like what you see.

"The amount of waste America produces today is not inevitable," Rogers told Metro Santa Cruz, "but is instead the outcome of choices and historical forces deeply connected to our economic system." Gone Tomorrow offers nothing less than a contemporary history of Western Civilization as traced by the history of garbage. It's a fascinating story with a more recent starting point than you might at first imagine. We're so accustomed to the refuse we live with that it's hard to imagine living any other way. But life and the stuff that make it possible was not always so cheap as it seems to be now.

"During the 17th and 18th centuries," writes Rogers, "most American settlers threw almost nothing away; they were so poor that manufactured goods were almost absent from their lives."

"Of course!" you'll think, but it's not a thought you've had before. And there in a nutshell (one that is not going to be tossed into the river of rejectamenta that surrounds you) is the real pleasure of Gone Tomorrow. It's one of those books that will transform your vision of the world around you in ways that you'll intuitively understand. It's vivid, funny and consistently intriguing.

As is Rogers herself. When asked how she became enamored with such a trashy subject, she explained how "garbage is a unique substance in that we all make it every day, so we can all relate to it. Because of this, trash has the ability to reveal the connections between our daily lives and the often hidden horrors of the larger ecological crisis.

"My visits to the waste processing and disposal facilities were striking," she continued. "These are places few people who don't work in the waste industry ever see. To witness the scale of destruction that goes on at a landfill or incinerator is profound. There's just so much garbage."

In fact, there's enough of it around to give birth to some very strange creations, including some you might not expect, such as the Progressive movement as well as Keep America Beautiful. "There's been this connection between social control and sanitation," said Rogers. "In the 20th century, the Progressive Era carried forward the project, most notably with its City Beautiful movement ... Over the last 50 years there's been a concerted and very sophisticated PR effort by manufacturers in the U.S. to shift the responsibility for garbage off of industry's supertoxic exploitation of the environment and onto the individual. The civic group Keep America Beautiful embodies these efforts. In 1953, KAB was founded by the Owens Illinois Glass Co. and the American Can Co.--makers of the first disposable bottle and can respectively‹along with firms like Coca-Cola and Dixie cup."

From the birth of Progressive politics to the Dixie cup; this is typical of the connections uncovered in Gone Tomorrow. Rogers is a firebrand, a powerful prose presence in her own book. Readers will join her on her journey towards a new vision of the world around us. "The most important shift was that I started to look at products on store shelves and I would see them as garbage waiting to happen. Once I started researching the topic, it became abundantly clear that we have so much waste because capitalism needs garbage." And while that's certain, it's equally certain that writing about trash has transformed Heather Rogers into a resource to be treasured.

Heather Rogers, Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.

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From the January 25-February 1, 2006 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

For more information about Santa Cruz, visit santacruz.com.

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