I often think about garbage (literally I mean garbage) and so do many anthropologists and archaeologists. There is even a name for studying waste: garbology. I heard a paper at the last American Anthropological Association meeting on a study that looked at garbage from a school cafeteria to get a better idea of what kids were really eating. It was very interesting and this is a popular research technique for studying eating habits and nutrition. However, I thought about taking this idea to the street.
This morning I woke up to beautiful blue skies and a stunning, rare view of the Alps. It was the ideal day for a good long run. The air was crisp, the road a little slippery in the shade but there were just miles of rolling hills in front of me waiting to be explored. I head out towards Salicetto and hung a right at Pocopaglia and as I headed back to Bra the long way my eyes began to study the roadside. I was astounded at the amount of garbage. This isn’t Naples but it makes me angry to think people just throw things out of the windows of their cars into this otherwise lovely landscape.
So what did I find? First of all, lots of empty cigarette packs. The analysis of this one was a no brainer: it seems obvious that smokers do not respect their bodies so it is unlikely they are going to be very sensitive to the environment around them. Secondly, there were scads of plastic water bottles. As you may know, Italians are the largest consumers in the world of bottled water (despite the fact there is excellent tap water here). So what are they thinking throwing this totally unbiodegradeable garbage on the side of the road? I have been reflecting on this one for awhile. Perhaps this littering has something to do with having very little civic sense and no vested interest in common spaces. I have noticed that urban parks in Italy are often full of litter and largely unusable because of their toxic nature. The nastiness of parks stands in sharp contrast to carefully kept private yards that are surrounded by 12-foot high fences and patrolled by angry German Shepards. The home and the private sphere are the scared sanctuary of the family, while the public sphere is where everyone just tries to survive even if that means destroying common property and space. What happened to community and civic pride? Love thy neighbour?
Plastic bottles on the road side out in the middle of ‘nature’ are just a small symbol of a more toxic and bigger issue that has to do with a sever “tragedy of the commons” that is endemic throughout Italy. Not only is there no sense that public spaces belong to everyone rather than belonging to no one, the rampant and senseless consumption of bottled water turns water, an essential necessity for human life, into a commodity. This is potentially very dangerous.