MARIA PERSU & MIRCEA ANDREI FLOREA ‘GOOD TIMES ON EARTH’: ARCHAEOLOGIES OF WASTE FOR A DIGITAL SOCIETY
Entering the speculative realm of a fictional society of the future, Maria Persu & Mircea Andrei Florea explore the relationships between digital technology and the (post-)human, waste and habit, nature and ethics.
There is no way back. Trash is now an indelible element of our ecosystems. As I was passing by the myriad of blue stilettos that were delineating the dirt road into the forest, spells of terror accompanied this banal realisation. Slowly, our waste penetrates every corner of the world, every soil and living organism. Then a wave of nostalgia for the trashless beaches and forests I saw in old tourist guide books hit me (were they really trashless or were they the result of deceiving advertising?). I swallowed and stepped further. Nature lost its human-posited virginity: it was no longer a refuge from our destroyed urban environments, from our daily alienation, from human-created problems. They come with us wherever we go.
M. September, 2020
People nurture this nature-that-carries-human-created-problems hybrid.
This is the train track I visited this morning. Located behind the first line of blocks facing a heavy traffic boulevard. Imagine how it looked back when it was functioning. Three to four trains passed, each transporting around 50 to 100 people a day, at around 50 km/h, which for a stand-byer meant almost a flash of a second. And in that flash of a second up to 400 people got a glimpse of the blocks, the supermarket down the corner, the pharmacy, the blue painted kindergarten.
This is not a dull math problem, If a train leaves at 7:00 and travels at 60 mph, etc., what I want to point out is that this place used to be vibrant! It was a place of exchange both for the passer and for the dweller. Traveling by train you get in touch with the other’s surroundings. You put yourself in their shoes, see yourself shopping at their supermarket, imagine waking up with their view from your window. For the inhabitants this is an opening.
Now its static, unwelcoming vibe spreads on the whole street. A feeling of abandonment lurks even in the photo, in the shadows cast by the young trees, all grown in the span of time since the track was put out of function. This is the symmetric phenomenon of what you said, or, even better, nature grown wild out of human first-created-then-abandoned problems.
But imagine this: because this weird mix is already there, “all in one picture”—nature’s stillness and the abandoned waste—why not bring back some of the ethics surrounding our involvement in nature? Preserve. Interfere as little as possible.
Calling M . . . Hi, can you hear me? Yes? Louder? Okay. You may wonder what’s with all that annoying heavy machinery noises, the hooters, all these masculine voices shouting at each other in the background. I’m taking you to a real estate development site this evening; the opposite to your ‘minimal intervention’ ethics. The picture I’m going to send you, however, has nothing to do with all that rigorously organised fuss. On the contrary, this may be one of the least agitated and thought-about spots on the entire site: a pile of dislocated soil and grass, mashed with some other types of construction waste. And what an abject object! How would one even come to think about it?
But something unexpected happened today. Engineer H., while writing his daily report, paid significant attention to how his subordinates assembled the pile early in the morning. The head engineer, entirely bamboozled, raged on and on about it. H. himself is now completely ashamed and dumbfounded by his earlier unnecessary burst of creativity that might as well cost him his job. This is the mysterious excerpt:
6:03 am. Vietnamese workers arrived at work three minutes late.
6:30 am — 7:30 am. Ensured all operations for the day were cost-effective and that all materials are in place so that there are no delays for the day. Sanitary task: workers excavated, uprooted unwanted soil, grass, and building remains from the site. The pile was placed on the western side of the construction site so as not to disrupt further operations. Checked that everything was disposed of according to instructions. Closing in on it, the pile looks like a little forest-y mountain that incurred from a landslide. Soil ingeniously pressed together like potatoes in a potato mash. Little patches of grass tied with rubber that looks like moss. A gigantic earthstar mushroom out to devour every little piece of this catastrophe. A McDonald’s cup’s final struggles to climb down and avoid being eaten.
I could hear you perfectly, I just couldn’t say anything. I was baffled, perplexed. And then the photo spoke louder. I get the fascination H. had for the organic soil and the processed matter, all piled together and labeled as useless. I myself am drawn to this contrast that all our waste embodies. I find there is a dark aesthetic to it. Sometimes I think of all the chicken bones we throw, they are in a way decomposable leftovers, wrapped in plastic bags, collected in a landfill, located on an arid field, rotting under the sun. Or the multitude of things we throw in our toilet, how we repeatedly flush them, until we see them all disappear, as if they ever do.
But even the water we do pollute when we carelessly flush inappropriate junk was not unpolluted in the first place. Despite how big the effort we put into it, a small percentage of almost all water on Earth contains microscopical plastic fibres. Artificial and organic matter are irreversibly braided together.
Your photos made me want to develop my own ‘Cartesian’ maxim: I consume, therefore I produce. I consume, but I am unaware of my actions, unaware that I am also producing. I put energy in opening up that sandwich packaging and in trashing it away. I put energy in picking up the dead leaves of my houseplants and then flushing them away. Yet, I am not conscious of that energy. I have no idea that, actually, the economic activity involved in consumption-production does not end when I buy my sandwich, or when I order my houseplant online. Consumption-production is not a consumption and an x, but a consumption with x. In order to grasp how consumption is at the same time production, we need to think about its material consequences. Your dead plant parts may not be the best example, so let’s imagine they were, in fact, artificial plants you were so tired to stare at. They would have probably ended up in the Dâmbovița river by now, just like many other micro- or macro- plastics. That produced both: (a) a new constitution of the Dâmbovița river’s water and land, which is already fragmented by the varying levels of anthropogenic interventions it has suffered on its course; (b) and the market’s need for a waste management industry and for a new industry of biodegradables. It also produces (c)your satisfaction and carefreeness. Our economies are affective economies, we see only what is right in front of us, we see our feelings, never our impact.
Are we addicted to making waste? Imagine a 12 step program, with weekly meetings and 3 months/6 months/1 year waste-free tokens. An emergency line you could call to say the yoghurt in the fridge smells bad and you just want to throw the whole thing out. How would you know if you need to attend the program? What would a brochure look like? Maybe with those typical questions you’d have to answer and self-reflect, smth like:
1. Have you ever decided to reduce your carbon footprint for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple of days?
It never works out properly! A couple of months ago, I heard that the ‘carbon footprint’ was born in a British Petroleum PR campaign. Scary stuff!
2. Do you wish people would mind their own business about your garbage sorting/stop telling you what to do?
Nobody tells me what to do. And I feel like I need that. I am so overwhelmed. It is certainly easier to see trash when it’s not your own—when I was walking into the forest, I started imagining who those awfully ignorant forest-litterers were. Indeed my image of them was so distant from my image of myself. Alterity: the litterer in my mind was a poorly educated middle-aged man, an alcoholic, a villager, or a provincial townie.
3. Do you envy people who live in countries with less strict regulations regarding waste?
Quite the opposite! Let me tell you that while I was living in the UK, I loved compost-making and organising my waste. I wouldn’t feel sick by looking at my trash bags, so I could finally notice it, see what I consumed and think with it, not in spite of it. I miss that. My unorganised trash is a disgusting mish-mash of:
—Cigarette buts; —Plastic packagings; —Dust; —Food waste: banana, tomato, and potato peels, rotten fruit I forgot to eat, broccoli remains;; —Used napkins.
4. Have your waste ethics caused you trouble with your friends or family?
Not my ethics, but my messy way of applying them. I want people to talk about what they throw away more often so that I don’t feel so lonely, so lost: my habits are bigger than me. When we see trash, we notice it individually. Thinking collectively about waste may make it easier to update our practices, and in the end become able to conceptualise what waste means and what it is generating on a planetary scale. Noticing waste is such a peripheral moment—I told you about Engineer H.’s story in order to show you how peculiar it is to talk about waste and what kinds of ‘landscapes’ it creates in a non-negative fashion. I think that could be a starting point.
5. Do you tend to be more wasteful when at somebody else’s house because you feel that litter is not your responsibility?
I get paranoid when I visit other people’s houses. I think more about what changes I produce in their personal environment than in my own. But this has to do with my own fear of expulsion. And I don’t think fear can generate the really good stuff.
‘The steps’ are muddy and nonlinear, and they require assemblages. In a way, this is what we’re trying to show here. Which is why, after reflecting on the individual versus the collectivity, I propose we go even further. Let’s expand our concept of ‘community’ beyond what is human: humans-waste-soils, humans-waste-bacteria, humans-waste-insects. Entanglements, like in my photo below.
I know what you want to hear… the much recited story of mycoremediation, or how we ended up depending on mushrooms in order to save our world. In the Gulf of Mexico, we found a species of fungi able to absorb spelt oil; in Washington, Paul Stamets developed a strain of oyster mushrooms that can cleanse spilled Diesel in contaminated soil; from the Amazonian rainforest, we brought a mushroom able to survive without oxygen, feeding only on plastic; and then in Utrecht, we discovered another one that was edible too. Then 50 more were found, and from the closed space of the laboratory flourished the idea that for each ecological crisis we can develop a particular strain and apply it like an ointment or a bandage with curative functions. We sprayed them like a pesticide, throughout our oceans and our landfills. But mushrooms are not the slaves of an instrumental logic, we kind of knew that already but paid no attention to it. Just how Mazatec curandera (healer) María Sabina realised her mistake in letting Westerners take part in her magic mushroom rituals, we were all bound to the same fate. The first step for the fungi was to get caught on the polystyrene clothes of the landfill workers. And from there on the olive garbage dumpsters at the corners of our apartment blocks. It was inevitable that they’d eventually get caught on our plastic slippers and we’d start bringing the mushroom into our homes. From then on, the idea of symbiosis was quickly accepted, everything we tried to throw at the mycelia, they had no issue adapting to.
“But mushrooms are not the slaves of an instrumental logic”.
See the tiny xenobots, robots designed by UVM and Tuft scientists to clean up the ocean, built out of repurposed frog embryo cells. They are picking up objects whilst self-regenerating. With these human-made biological machines, perhaps we won’t ever need to use other living organisms to take care of our disasters! These impressive computer-frog complexes can move on their own underwater for days, collecting our microplastics. One of the scientists in the project declared: “There’s all of this innate creativity in life. (...) We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms.”
“We can direct and push it toward new forms.”
“We can direct and push it toward new forms.”
STOP. What is that? Domination by scientific knowledge, reiterated? The same chord is struck again, although the new musical ornamentation is what gives us the impression (not totally mistaken) of progress. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to suggest we get rid of science. As we reconstruct our daily lives, we must avoid demonising technology, taking into account all our non-human counterparts: a list as extensive as possible. The image of a biological-cybernetic hybrid like the xenobot may in fact suggest new ways to deconstruct the socially constructed distinctions between the natural and artificial, between our bodies and our tools, distinctions that are built upon a logic of domination and oppression of the other.
I think technology—and, even more so, the digital sphere—is demonic in the sense that it is a human exclusive environment. Let’s say we accomplished the mythical quest of “saving the planet” from the villain that garbage is, restoring nature to its edenic, uncorrupted form. Like the poet proposed*, let’s say we managed to rebuild and repopulate the Earth with robotic versions of all extinct species, letting these artificial life forms survive without any danger or unsought death. Say, we are done repenting for our evil actions that have led to ecological calamity. Will that be the end of our waste production? I already pointed towards my answer to this question. That is, as long as the garbage bin icons will grant us this power to decide what is disposable and what is vanishable, what we want to keep and what to efface from our digital environment (which is part of our all-encompassing environment now more than ever), we will never be done with waste making. Waste will retreat to the digital community, where moral decisions do not involve other forms and aspects of life.
I want to leave each other with this. Imagine we are actually fictional characters in a fictional future:
The zoomparty had been a disaster. The personalised balloon reactions kit she bought just for this one occasion, the duck-soap flavoured bubble gum game filter she coded herself, the ‘vamp your look’ app, all wasted on this shitshow. There was nothing she could do but dispose of them to forget about it. But the little trash can on the bottom right side of her screen was already full, and did indeed look quite frightening. So she did what she always does, like the hoarder she is: all of them went straight to the ‘stuff’ folder. She opened up the letter again. She had stumbled across it a while ago, looking at a digital archive of personal communication from before 2030. An unknown M. writes to an unknown M. about walking into a forest full of blue stiletto shoes (ugh, imagine all the annoying mosquitoes they had to encounter back then, when complex VR systems did not exist!). She sighed. How did we end up in such a wasteful digital society? She asked her assistant to generate yet another version of the conversation between the two M’s.
* “The only—but the only acceptable thing left/for mankind would be/ to technologically restore/ eventually all the life// forms that ever lived/on Earth and on other planets/[...]and all living beings to live forever/ even as individuals/ if that is what they desire.”
“Singurul—dar singurul lucru acceptabil/ar fi ca omenirea să refacă tehnologic/la un moment dat toate formele//de viață care au trăit vreodată/pe planeta Pământ și pe alte planete/[...]și toate ființele să trăiască veșnic/chiar la nivel de individ/dacă asta le e dorința.”
Singurul lucru acceptabil, Andrei Doboș (2020) Carst. Cluj Napoca: OMG.
 Damian Carrington, Microplastic particles now discoverable in human organs. The Guardian, 17 aug 2020.
 Kaufman, M. (2020). The carbon footprint sham: a ‘successful, deceptive’ PR campaign. Mashable.
 Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Al-Nasrawi, H. (2012). Biodegradation of Crude Oil by Fungi Isolated from Gulf of Mexico. Journal of Bioremediation & Biodegradation, 3(147).
 Stamets, P. (2005). Mycelium Running: How mushrooms can help save the world. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
 Russell, J., Huang, J., Anand, P. & Kucera, et al. (2011). Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 77(17).
 Brooke Gazer (2015) Maria Sabina and Magic Mushrooms. The Eye Huatulco, May 1.
 University of Vermont (2020) Living robots built using frog cells: Tiny ‘xenobots’ assembled from cells promise advances from drug delivery to toxic waste clean-up. ScienceDaily, 13 January.
 Haraway, D. (2006) A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. In: Weiss J., Nolan J., Hunsinger J., Trifonas P. (eds) The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. Dordrecht: Springer.
 Hawkins, G. (2006). The Ethics of Waste: How we relate to rubbish. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Mircea Andrei Florea (born in 1996) is a Bucharest-based poet. For the last 5 years he studied mathematics at the University of Bucharest, of which he eventually got bored. Interested in experimental forms of writing and the possibilities of using verse in performative arts, he collaborated for a number of projects with the artists group Ludic Collective. His first poetry collection Larvae will appear at Casa de Editură Max Blecher at the end of 2020.
Maria Persu (born in 2000) is a student and freelance arts & culture journalist (Scena9, SAVAGE Journal, sub25). She studies philosophy and political science at University College London. Her main interests lie within environmental aesthetics, multi-species sociology, and the politics of everyday life. Her undergraduate dissertation will focus on how consumption of ‘exoticized’ foods participated in constructing the sociopolitical realities and discourses of early post-socialist Romania.