Trash in July (Backslide) / by J. Makary

My trash for July 2016.

My trash for July 2016.

So, this is typical: I generated what looks to be double the amount of trash from June to July, which is classic behavior for me—start strong and then fall off a bit. :) I’m still learning about what can be recycled and why recycling isn’t a panacea for our environmental problems. (I’m reading Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home for some tips.)

At RAIR Philly, where I shot my new video project last winter, the evidence of our unsustainable way of life piles up. The mountains of trash at the plant are a site of hope, because a high percentage of all materials brought here are recycled, but also dismay. There’s an efficiency and pragmatism to the work at the plant, and massive amounts of materials are moved through the recycling process each day. Despite this, the volume of discarded materials brought me anxiety and something that felt like an emotional bruise, a tender spot pressed into by sadness and complicity. It put me in a frame of mind to explore difficulty, struggle, and lack of control.

Dust is a renegade material that the plant is at pains to keep down during working hours. Outside of business hours it was available, like any other material onsite, for creative use. We devised methods for creating engulfing clouds of dust in which to situate movement-based improvisations based on news images taken during protests, dust storms, and catastrophic events, such as 9/11. The visual power of dust and light brings the movement improvisations into beautiful, theatrical territory. As the clouds rise up, the ugliness and chaos of the physical site fall away. But mixed with this beauty is a threat—the clouds are toxic, obscuring. And all part of the same tableau of how we live now, the “how” that the Dark Mountain Project admonishes us to wake up and change.

I learned about the Dark Mountain Project in 2014. Started by a group of disillusioned environmental activists, the Dark Mountain Project is an artistic and literary movement addressing the flawed subjectivity of man’s relationship to the Earth. Our cultural stories have put man at the center, instead of in equal relationship to the rest of the natural world. With the degradation of the natural environment, this way of living—our way of living—is passing into history. Dark Mountain holds that our way of life is not sustainable and civilization is headed for collapse; something will keep going, but it won’t include the human race.

Dancer and poet Laura Neuman performing in my RAIR project.

We are being called to engineer and embrace a radical shift: to accept that there are certain things that cannot be fixed, admit that we are to blame, and fall into a new, more humble role. The Dark Mountain Project champions a protagonist who doesn’t conquer, commandeer, or triumph in the conventional sense. This sensibility is already being developed in our culture as we struggle to reshape social hierarchies and work to dismantle patriarchy, racism, and economic inequity. The Dark Mountain Project takes it a step further by demoting humanity from the top of a hierarchy of our own making. This idea interested me.

Proponents of the Dark Mountain Project have pursued a range of measures, from moving to rural communities; using “human-scale technologies,” such as scything, that put man into a more intimate relationship with his environment; and engaging in permaculture, small-scale farming, and lower-impact draws on resources like water and energy. But why? If they believe, as they say, that we are too far gone, that civilization is already careening toward its certain demise, why adjust our behavior?

From my own small experiment in being more conscious about my personal environmental impact, I’m starting to understand. Aligning our actions with our values feels right because it is determined and consistent. It’s not exactly hard, but it’s definitely not lazy. We don’t’ give in—we’re thoughtful in many small ways throughout the days and weeks, and that feels like a kind of support we can give to ourselves, to our ideas. To me, the actions are important insofar as they clarify a vision we hold for the world, one that we can demonstrate and share. It may seem inconsequential from the outside, but, as I’m learning, it feels revitalizing and clear, if approached not from a sense of duty or judgment but from a dedication to the idea that the self (and, by extension, community) can prosper through incremental change and the power of our choices.

At least it still fits in a bag?

At least it still fits in a bag?