After weeks of torrential rains spawned by a pair of typhoons, a hundred-foot mountain of garbage gave way and thundered down onto a neighborhood of shanties built in its shadow. The trash, accumulated over three decades, had been piled up to a 70-degree angle, and the rain-saturated mountain had collapsed. Hundreds of people were killed, buried alive in an avalanche of waste.
-Matthew Power, speaking of Payatas, the 50-acre dump in the Philippines

Stuff accumulates. It collects in closets and unpacked boxes, lines bookshelves and hangs from walls. We surround ourselves with it, carry it from place to place, even the stuff that never gets “used” in any way; we keep it because it’s ours. Eventually, though, every single thing will join that stream of paraphernalia that passes so much closer to us, in its swift descent to the exit doors of our lives.

The glass and steel towers of the cities have a litter box under every desk. Every street corner has a trash can, and every business and home puts its bags out on the sidewalk. Through a marvelous collection system, we manage to remove the detritus from our lives. It may be recycled, destroyed, or buried, with all the attendant consequences of those actions – but it will be out of sight.

Worlds away, in Payatas, weathered men and women look for valuable scraps amongst the rubble. Layers of garbage are trampled down by these scavengers like fresh topsoil. Families live on a literal mountain of garbage, almost a living creature – a degrading compost pile of smokeless burning, oozing toxic leachate – and together with their children they sort through Manila’s refuse, one last attempt to absolve the sins of each of us before Mother Nature’s eyes.

As the worldwide urban migration continues, a similar fate awaits many doomed youth in the growing slums of the global South. We can avert our eyes ignorantly, but even here in America “Earth Day” is now linked with the anniversary of the BP Oil Spill, with all its unknown and unimaginable long-term damage to sea life, its countless human lives destroyed. (Countless, but we can start by honoring and remembering the 11 who died in the explosion that started it all.)

We’re all complicit in this, myself included. We drive our cars, fly our planes and heat our homes with fossil fuels. We take plastic bags from the grocer. How about the sandwich wrapper, bag of chips, plastic bottle, and used napkins produced by my supposedly cheap lunch today? All dependent on the free flow of Mother Earth’s stored energy reserves, the ones she’s accumulated over eons and buried deep down below.

But let’s consider further. Beyond environmental destruction, look at what we are putting into our own bodies. Standard lunch menus have chicken in more than half the dishes, it seems. Chicken salad, chicken sandwich. Buffalo chicken wings, Ranch chicken salad, BBQ chicken sandwich, Caesar chicken wrap. Nine billion birds a year raised in squalor, genetic mutants unable to stand, their beaks sliced off with a hot knife to prevent their pecking each other to death while they go insane. Their behavior is unnatural because they themselves are unnatural, deformed experiments, and thousands of them won’t survive the meager forty days and nights we allow them before slaughter.

Eggs are for breakfast in America. But I dare anyone to watch this video of egg-laying hens left for dead in piles of manure and tell me how that is not promoting new, more virulent forms of avian influenza. Fried or scrambled?

Our most popular beverage, an emblem recognized all over the world as a symbol of America, is nutritionally deficient sugar-water, with ingredients linked to cancer and leukemia, and a major contributor to pediatric diabetes. If you question the science, you might still consider the Coca-Cola Company’s complicity in assassinations of Colombian union leaders, or poisoning of the Indian water table. Or think of its decades-long, unholy alliance with McDonald’s, the purest representation of American unhealth.

Meanwhile, the greatest minds of my generation are working on getting people to click more internet ads, and the rest of us continue gorging on burgers and chicken – drinking sugar and chemicals – abusing low-wage workers, animals, the earth, and ourselves in the process.

It’s easy to blame BP for the oil spill, Coke and McDonald’s for selling us poison, Tyson and Smithfield for abusing chickens and hogs. What’s hard – what we fear to do, always – is to change our own habits, recognizing that they are fueling the crisis of the earth, the crisis of humanity. Who among us is ready to make an actual sacrifice to restore the vitality of our country, of our planet? Who will take responsibility for his actions, and encourage others to join him? These are difficult questions to ask oneself.

To seek truth means confronting your own truth. Though none of us can be perfect, we have an obligation to take steps toward perfection. Serious societal transformation occurs when each of us understands our own impact, and the consequences of our actions. It happens when we take responsibility, first for ourselves, and then for our fellow man.