Junkyard Planet

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
© 2013 Adam Minter
304 pages

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I once encountered a pair of supermarket clerks unloading cases of bottled water from their pallet jack to the shelves where the water awaits the public, and I commented to the pair that they must have to put out new cases fairly often, like once a week or so.  The pair gave me a look and said they bring out new cases three to four times a day.     Astonishingly, so it is with that unsightly pile of scrap facing the reader of Junkyard Planet.   Adam Minter is not out to convince you that there’s a problem to be solved, one that needs your attention. Far from it, in fact: that seemingly problematic pile of scrap is as transient as Wal-Mart’s cases of water;   here today and gone next week,  broken up and distributed across the globe,  where various classes of materials are put to use by an astonishing array of specialists and spur further development in less industrial countries.

Adam Minter is uniquely qualified for a book of this sort; he grew up in a scrapyard family, but left the family trade to pursue a career in journalism –  and followed that calling to China, where he lived for several years.  He opens with a history of scrapyard recycling in the United States, one that long predates the environmental movement of the 1970s. Early Americans had a far better motivator for recycling than idealism: they had need.  Prior to the maturation of industrial capitalism,  manufactured goods were preciously expensive;   they were diligently preserved, repaired,  or put to some other use once they were beyond mending.    (For a full popular history of how Americans went from reusing everything to throwing everything away, see Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want).     Sorting these goods and reducing them into re-usable elements was labor-intensive work, though, and as the cost of labor grew in the developed world,  the chief advantage of  producing with recycled materials over new ones — cost – disappeared.  Scrapping thus became more of an export business, with China as the main buyer.

Those who don’t know scrap may view the export of recyclables to Asia and elsewhere as one of privilege — the western world using China as its dump. But the Chinese are buying scrap,  not being paid a fee to take it away.  They want it — in fact, members of Chinese firms travel constantly from scrapyard to scrapyard, looking for specific categories of materials to send back home.   There,  what the average American consumer views as rubbish is transformed into infrastructure and skyscrapers, or even better – into new consumer goods.  There’s an entire global trade in this stuff:  the oil-rich gulf states have a similar relationship with India,  where it’s cheaper for them to ship rather than China.  (The United States sends some scrap to India, but it’s generally cheaper to send it China’s way given the constant cargo traffic;  ships are able to incorporate scrap deliveries into their backhauls.)  South America and Africa, too, participate.

What makes China special for this is  not just its cheap labor, but the fact that it has a rapacious hunger for scrap to fuel its own growth.   China’s people have not yet lost the use-it-up, wear-it-out mentality  that was chucked into the US’s landfills somewhere around the 1950s:   in cities, people actively bargain for and repurpose refuse, so that whatever goes in China’s own landfills or incinerators is truly trash.   There are also burgeoning markets for simply reusing goods which arrive from the United States:  an old CRT monitor is far more valuable when resold as part of a used computer setup  to a farmer just trying to learn one, than as scrap.   While some materials are melted down into their constituent parts, electronics are more likely to be mined for their processors and such.

Though a scrap man,  Minter doesn’t shy away from the downsides of China’s headlong embrace of recycling everything it can find a use for, especially plastics recycling.  The poor city which does the bulk of China’s plastic processing can boast of lung and circulatory diseases afflicting 80% of the population.  Over the years China’s ruling power has gotten more picky about the kinds of scrap it will accept, however, and Minter is optimistic that the future of recycling in China will grow cleaner.

Junkyard Planet is a fascinating look at a market which I  suspect few are aware of it, and while it wears a little repetitive,  ultimately it left me feeling….well, a little delighted.  Despite my hostility toward consumerism in general, I genuinely love and admire trade’s way of bringing people together, and Junkyard Planet demonstrates superbly how even what we  throw away conjoins the prosperity of each nation on its neighbor.    The reader isn’t quite off the hook, however: if you want your goods to participate in this glorious global scrap trade, you have to at least make an effort to recycle or get them to the scrapmen to begin with.

 

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This and that

Well, good news and bad news. The good news is…my book buying ban is OVER, so I have five books on the way.   A few are for next year, but I may try a couple beforehand:

Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage
The Origin of Feces
The Secret Life of Cows
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City
The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories

The bad news: my computer is in stasis at the moment, waiting for a new CPU cooler before it comes to life again.    My jet engine-like Coolermaster finally  wore itself out, so I’ve a new one on the way.   In the meantime….well, I’m still working on War and Peace, and hope to finish it before The Brothers Karamozov arrives in the post.      I’ve also finished a few books,  one of which doesn’t appear on goodreads.

First up was A Life Less Throwaway, which was fairly similar in theme to two books I mentioned last week, Tiny Homes and 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste.   The intent of A Life Less Throwaway is to convince readers to be more mindful about their purchases — to buy much less, in general,  to empty of their lives of purposeless things, and to buy only those things which are both useful and of such quality that they can be repaired and passed on to the next generation.     I followed that with Junkyard Planet, which I’m  preparing fuller comments for.

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The two other books were Hamburg: A Place Remembered and The Heritage of Perry County, Alabama, two books inspired by complete coincidence. On Sunday I took part in Marion, Alabama’s  holiday bazaar / historic homes tour, and it was a beautiful day for a walking tour.    Although I’d been through Marion before, mostly on visits to the women’s college there (I was part of a science club that took several day-long trips to Judson to work in their lab), I’d never roamed the city properly.    On Tuesday, a writer from Indiana wrote to the library and asked if we had any books on Marion and Perry County, as she wanted to get some idea of what it was like there in the 1940s. I promised her to review some of our literature and report on some of the highlights.

Hamburg: A Place Remembered delivers a history of a place that no longer exists. I have often seen the sign in Perry County that directs travelers to  Hamburg, pointing at….the woods.  You might guess that the village was named after Hamburg, Germany, but that is only true in a roundabout sort of way.  The city founder was from  Württemberg, an independent German principality with no connection to the Prussian city,  but he’d settled in Hamburg, South Carolina along with many other Germans,  and honored his adopted home  by giving the Alabama village he settled its name.    Interestingly,   although Hamburg was a bustling farming town at one point,  another community called “Hamburg Station”  sprang up around the railroad, quite a few miles away but still in the county, and in the 20th century the residents of Hamburg surrendered their name to that community and began to call themselves Vilula, instead.  By that point it was rather moot, because the world wars had caused much of the population, especially the black population, to leave for opportunities in industrial cities.  By the 1960s,  the village faded into memory — though its former citizens often met at reunion parties.  Dallas County had its own German village,  Berlin, though it too died.  The shift in commercial and freight traffic from the river and  railroads to trucks was its doom.   I did a little work research on Berlin a few weeks back when we had a visitor from the real Berlin, who has made it his mission to visit all the places named Berlin in the world.

Moving on to The Heritage of Perry County,  this is part of a collection of similar works we have at the library that are collections of histories, family stories, photographs, etc.  giving a folk history of the county in question.  The Heritage of Perry County includes bits of a hand-written history we also possess of Perry County, including  little hand drawn depictions of residences’ homes, churches, and stores.  The introduction to the handwritten history hails it for focusing on the majority of residents —  “plain folk”, or  ordinary yeoman farmers, as opposed to plantation masters —  and their homes.  Most of the depictions are variants off of a common Southern pioneer template, the dogtrot.

What is a dogtrot?

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As you can see,  both of these have a common beginning: two seperate rooms, each with its own fireplace, seperated by an open but roofed hallway. The purpose of the design was to funnel wind between the two rooms and provide a “breezeway”.    In these two examples, the owners of the house have made subsequent — but different — improvements on theirs.    Over time, the breezeway would be closed off, and a second story might be added.   At least one home built in this style still stands, albeit as part of Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, Al.    (OAT is two city blocks composed of homes and other structures from across the state which were brought there for preservation, and are arranged to appear like residential or working blocks.  It’s worth seeing if you ever visit Montgomery!)

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A real-life dogtrot home at Old Alabama Town. Its breezeway is used as an entrance to the residential block.

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Sword of Kings

Sword of Kings
© 2019 Bernard Cornwell
334 pages

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“Tighten the sail!” I shouted. The trap was sprung, and now the snake would discover how the wolf and the eagle fought.  p. 19

Uhtred of Bebbanburg has been fighting all of his life. A much-feared and much-respected lord of war,  he has earned a rest at his family lands in Northumbria. But the king  of the Anglo-Saxons lies on his deathbed,   the threat of civil war looms,  and someone is prowling Bebbanburg’s seas and killing her fisher-folk.   Clearly, there’s no rest for the weary.

Sword of Kings is twelfth in the Saxon Chronicles,   which have followed the fall of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the Danes, and the resurgence of the English dream under the hands of King Alfred and his heirs — ever made possible by Uhtred.     Instead of yet another battle on land, Cornwell treats readers to a variety of settings here,     from naval action to covert action inside Lundene,  the  battleground between two possible heirs.    We see Uhtred in fine form here; despite his age,  he can still fight — though he’s far more vulnerable than he was in his thirties, and one point here he’s humbled as he has not been since Lords of the North, when he was sold into slavery.     Perhaps that’s no accident,   as slavery features throughout the novel, and it’s through his contempt for it that Uhtred  recruits some unusual followers.

It took me months to get into War of the Wolf, but I finished this one within a couple of days of first picking it up.   The Saxon stories have suffered a bit, I think, for there being so many of them — and even though they’re all “good”,   they tend to blur into one another. Sword of Kings will be more memorable, I  think!

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Sunshine Award

Sarah of All the Book Blog Names are Taken has gracefully nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger award, with the implication that I spread sunshine to the blogging community. Well, shucks.     There are questions that I’m meant to answer, and I’m also supposed to create my own questions and tag some people who I think spread sunshine, but I’m either lazy or a rebel, take your picture.  Thanks so much to Sarah, and here are my responses to her questions!

What genres do you prefer? Why?
I most like reading books that help me understand the way the world works, especially society – so I’m equally delighted by a book on infrastructure as by a novel that teaches me how lawyers might operate.  

What genres do you ? Why?
While I have no interest in romance books, I wouldn’t say I refuse them because they don’t even make it in the door.  What I refuse to read are political rants (books written as deliberately inflammatory, complete with a hostile title) or campaign books. My political reads tend to be on things that aren’t partisanized (foreign policy and city development stuff), or which   are so outrageous that neither party would agree with me (i.e. the anti-state stuff).

What is the easiest thing about blogging for you? The hardest?
It’s always easy to find books to read. The hardest is finding time to read everything I want before an interest in a given subject is overwhelmed by interest in something else!   

If you could become a character in a book, which book and why?
Oh, easy. Bertie Wooster.    I’m in 1920s London,  my flatmate is brilliant and does all the cooking and cleaning,  and I’m free to do whatever little thing pops in my head so long as one of my aunts isn’t trying to get me engaged or gainfully employed.   And if I’m being played by Hugh Laurie, I can even play the piano! 

If you could travel to any period in history,  which would it by and why?
I’m deeply interested in the rise and constant re-creation of the city in the late Victorian period, so much so that one of the photographs in my  computer/writing area is a shot of a traffic jam on Chicago’s Randolph street in 1909.   That sounds about right.   

Do you ever DNF books? What makes you DNF?
I tend to be picky about the books I buy, so this doesn’t happen a lot.  For fiction, an uninteresting story or characters would do the trick; for nonfiction,  sloppy fact checking or an obnoxious style will put me off.     

Who are your favorite authors?
I’ve had many over the years. As a kid, it was Beverly Cleary, Bruce Coville, and R.L. Stine.  In middle and high school, I discovered Paul Zindel and S.E. Hinton.  Some of of my favorites since starting this blog have been Isaac Asimov, Bernard Cornwell,  Wendell Berry,  Anthony Esolen, and Bill Kauffman.    Jack London has been a constant from childhood on.  

How important is book cover quality to you?
Not very.  When shopping online, I use it to discriminate between professionally-published works and those which are self-published – not because  the indie stuff is necessarily bad, but there’s more quality control by default if a book has been submitted to publishers and run through the editors.  

Name a character you would want to be best friends, and why.
Jayber Crow, of the novel of that name; or Ducky,  from California Diaries. Both are good souls in slightly different ways – Ducky is far more outgoing and assertive, I think, than Jayber….who most of the time is content to keep  company with friends in the background.  

Name a character who would become your mortal enemy were your paths to cross IRL.
Obadiah Hakeswill.  I can’t remember  all of what he did in the Sharpe novels, but the only character I’ve hated more was Dolores Umbridge.  Cornwell made Hakeswill a frustrating object of hate, as he evaded Sharpe’s attempts to kill him time and again.  

Which authors would you invite to a dinner party?
Isaac Asimov, of course, because he knows enough about every thing to pull more than his weight in any conversation. (Asimov is my inspiration as a generalist!) Right next to him, I want G.K. Chesterton, because by god those two will love arguing with one another. (Asimov was very fond of Chesterton’s fiction,  and one of GKC’s Father Brown stories inspired  an Asimov Black Widower short.)    Bill Kauffman, the author I’d most like to have a beer with, has to be there.   At the…less loud end of the table, I could see C.S. Lewis, Anthony Esolen, and — ooh, Alain de Botton.   There’s probably room in the middle  for a couple of others.

 

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Tiny houses and zero waste

I’ve recently read two books which can be paired together nicely, so that’s what I’m doing.      Enter Tiny House Living and 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste.   

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In the last few weeks I’ve been watching Tiny House Nation on Netflix, fascinated because my own ideal is a country cabin of probably under a thousand square feet. Tiny House Living visits people who have chosen to live in tiny homes to probe the why and how, before shifting to the reader and using similar case studies to offer tips for how interested persons can design tiny house and a life that can live within it. This includes legal considerations, since states and municipalities are surprisingly hostile toward the tiny-house experiment. The book didn’t have the technical information I was looking for (the various ways people approach plumbing and electricity, for instance), though I was able to glean some information from the case studies. Composting toilets seem to be the norm for these operations, and wood-burning stoves apparently popular despite the fact that they’re not sustainable in the least if many people in an area are using them. All told, the book was a fine addition to Tiny House Nation and the other media I’ve been pursuing, but not particularly memorable.

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101 Ways to Go Zero Waste proved to be similar in spirit. At first glance, the book is merely a book-long list, with a lot of recipes that could be dismissed as filler were they not that point. If you can make your own cleaning products, you don’t have to keep buying them in disposable bottles! The idea behind zero waste is alter the linear economy – -the production, consumption, disposal model — so that, as much as possible, goods keep doing a loop-the-loop between production and consumption. There’s a complete book on that called Cradle to Cradle, I think, if you are interested. Anyway, a lot of the content is just green or organic living material on overdrive: Kellog calls for readers to abandon disposal products for reusable ones; kerchiefs over Kleenex, for instance, and offers alternatives and recipes for avoiding the need for disposables. More interestingly, however, she writes on the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle philosophy and argues that those Rs are listed in that order for a reason: reducing our consumption is the most effective way we have to not contributing to the landfill problem, because recycling is far less efficacious then people think. Contaminated goods — a paper envelope with a cellophane ‘window’ for the address, or a paper plate with grease soaked into it — often compromise entire bales of products to be recycled, meaning those who are serious about recycling need to do due diligence and prepare their refuse accordingly. Otherwise, they might as well skip a step and chuck things into the garbage. Since Reducing is the most effective thing we can do, Kellog argues for do a veer toward minimalism and voluntary simplicity.    Although quite a bit of the content was irrelevant for me personally (those written about makeup and feminine products),   I strongly appreciated Kellog’s     inclusion of minimalism.

Both of these books to me speak to examining our lives,  realizing what within them adds the most value — that which isn’t throwaway, in either sentiment or substance — and then making time and space to enjoy them more by letting the rest go, as we can.

 

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White Cliffs of ‘Bama

For a while now I’ve wanted to visit the White Cliffs of Epes, Alabama,  which were created around the same time as the far more famous White Cliffs of Dover.   Today was a beautiful autumn day that begged for some kind of adventure, so I sallied forth —  solo, because it was  rather out of the way (near the Mississippi border) and I didn’t know of anyone who would be interested in driving all that way to look at cliffs.

The best approach I could see was to park a ways off, then walk onto the bridge (US-11 passes over the Tombigbee River at this point) and admire them from there. I also saw a way down to the formations themselves, however.   They’re littered with rocks which leave a chalky residue on the hands.

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I Must Speak Out

I Must Speak Out: The Best of The Voluntaryist, 1982-1999
© 1999 Carl Watner
485 pages

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What distinguishes the State from an organized gang?     Carl Watner argues in I Must Speak Out that nothing whatsoever does, except its subjects’ belief. Monarchical or democratic, a State is  is nothing more than organized violence.  Those of us who vote are not engaging in self-rule or self-determination, he and others write here, but are instead legitimizing and participating in a fraud. I Must Speak Out explores these and other topics,  promoting instead voluntaryism – the belief that all associations between humans should be noncoercive (voluntary).   The book begins with arguments against the aggression and the state,  shifts into a review of history, and ends by probing voluntaryism as applied to commercial standards, marriage,  roads, and the like.

There are two axioms undergirding voluntarism: one, that if something is immoral, it is immoral for any one or any group of people. Two,  the use of uninitiated force (aggression) is itself immoral.    These two paired together are far more subversive than they appear, however; many poeple might agree that if the State murders and steals, it has done wrong.  Even those who otherwise support the state would admit to  recurrent malfeasance; see the dozens killed at Waco, or the widespread abuses of asset forfeiture related to the drug war. But what about the death penalty and taxes?   No one voluntarily pays taxes; even those who claim to be happy to do so would   assuredly pay much less were taxation a voluntary donation.   But just as the smiling gangster’s charm vanishes the moment payment to him is refused, so to does the State reveal its true nature whenever it counters resistance, and it is willing to break people for anything from  tax avoidance to school truancy, for the fundamental evil of the state is that it assumes ownership of us; even the most benevolent democracy is beset by  what Augustine called the lust for domination.

Voluntarism as explained by Watner is inherently individualistic, because all other social units or organizations are dependent on individual actors for their sustenance.     This means that individual actors who sustain a given injustice by their actions are responsible for the action;  the clerk who files paperwork for the SS is just as culpable just as the man filling the Zylon-B cylinders, or  tattooing the prisoners of Auschwitz.  It doesn’t matter if “someone else would have done it”, because we are each responsible for our actions; if something is wrong we cannot justify engaging in it.   A common motto of this book is that if we take care of the means, the ends will take care of themselves.    Just as engaging in coercion invariably corrupts the aggressor,  turning them into a paranoid bully, so too does commitment to cooperation redeem human institutions.

Do we need the State to survive?  As we look into the 21st century,  the real question is this: can man survive the State?   The State has never been more empowered by technology and the infrastructure of everyday life to wholly monopolize the lives of its subjects. We now live within an inescapable web of observation and manipulation.      But in response to charges that the state is essential for all manner of things —  education, roads, mail, law, etc – Watner explores how  these things were handled before the State assumed them as its prerogative These historical essays are particularly educational, because they not only reveal that  alternative means are possible, but they show the State for the bullyboy it really is,   as to establish and maintain its monopoly has involved violence time and again.  Even  peaceable souls like Quakers and the Amish have been continually  abused by the state, and the Amish’ present status is hard-won.   This section isn’t comprehensive – his chapter on roads only involves 18-19th century turnpikes, for instance, and not more elaborate private transport networks like the railroads – but informative nonetheless.

I Must Speak Out is cynical, subversive, and often brilliant.   Although the primary contributor is Watner, he includes  pieces from other authors, sometimes as varied as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Noam Chomsky.     Varying on contributor and subject, the collection can slide into conspiratorial thinking, as one author accuses the government of manipulating Japan into attacking the base at Pearl Harbor, and knowing beforehand what it would do.  Similarly bordering on conspiratorial is the charge that the post office was established to turn mail into a source of intelligence, rather than to serve the public.    Far more of the contributions impress, however, like the essay from a conservative anarchist who argued that one could still be opposed to things like abortion and prostitution without  blocking them by force.   Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, sayeth Salvor Hardin, and the same statement is made here in different words.    Although those supportive of the state to various degrees will find much to debate with here, Watner also challenges his compatriots early on by arguing that a libertarian political party makes as much sense as a nonviolent tank:     the State is inherently a vehicle for aggression,, and those who seek to drive it are suspect even if they claim they only want to use it a little.

Definitely recommended as food for thought and debate, and more comments may be follow. Personally. I don’t know if anarchism is practicable for two reasons: first,  that the absence of a “legitimate” gang-state  would lead to rule by multiple smaller gang-states, at least in large cities where there already exists gangs who exact considerable influence over their turfs.  Humans are innately tribal, and this includes an obsession with turf/territory.  Two,     modern humans are already so infantalized I wonder if they would be capable of taking ownership and agency of their own lives in the absence of big brother.

Related:
Red Emma Speaks, ed. Alix Kates Shulman. Emma Goldman was an anarchist from the leftist tradition, and I read this in 2010 when college social-democrat me was drifting off the reservation of acceptable political opinion.
The Iron Web, Larken Rose. A novel arguing for decentralization and voluntaryism, set as federal officers start destroying a voluntaryist commune in the mountains.

The State”, Porter Robinson.  A dark techno piece quoting Rothbard, I believe.

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