This week, my ENG 231 students and I will be discussing the final chapters of The Great Gatsby, and rather coincidentally, I found myself traveling to modern-day "East Egg" (Port Washington, NY) yesterday, to see an art exhibit featuring my aunt's digitally manipulated photography. Although the exhibit was delightful--as was my brief chat with Anne (my aunt) and her husband, Jim--the driving required to get there and back was exhausting and tedious. I just don't have the patience for the degree of traffic and congestion out there. It really puts the Philly suburban traffic (which is also bad, but not nearly as bad) in perspective.
Moments like this make me stop and wonder at how we can be aware of the problems in our world--and deeply frustrated by them--at the same moment in which we are contributing to and reproducing those problems. There is ample public transportation in the greater New York metropolitan area, so there was no need, really, for me to fight that traffic. Yet because of people like me, who chose the "convenience" of their own car over a ride with "the masses," we all sat around in our little metal-boxes-on-wheels, moving nowhere slowly for most of the afternoon, all the while, our engines were idling, burning fossil fuels, and dumping more carbon into the air.
We are a wasteful people. This is not only a theme in The Great Gatsby, but also in the excerpt from Edward Humes's book, Garbology, which my ENG 100 students will be discussing tomorrow. (Click here for my previous blog post on this text.) Humes mentions some distressing facts: Americans, despite only comprising 5% of the world's population, produce 25% of the world's trash. We also produce some of the world's largest landfills, including Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, which is apparently visible from space. (Again, coincidentally, I drove by this landmark on my way back from Long Island and Brooklyn last night.)
For their next essay, my ENG 100 students are imagining that they are college students from another planet, sent to study American society and culture, and then report back on its strengths, flaws, and bizarre obsessions. Wastefulness in any of its forms would be an appropriate sub-topic for this interstellar research paper. We see it; we know it; we do it everyday. How did we become so consumed by our wasteful habits, and what will it take for us to begin to break them?