That's Robin Nagle, the New York City Department of Sanitation's anthropologist-in-residence, talking to The Believer about our relationship with trash, and what our garbage says about us. The interview is fascinating, and some of Nagle's words are just revelatory.
BLVR: You, and William Rathje also, see [garbage] as also a cognitive problem.
RN: Well, it’s cognitive in that exact way: that it is quite highly visible, and constant, and invisibilized. So from the perspective of an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or someone trying to understand humanness: What is that thing? What is that mental process where we invisibilize something that’s present all the time?
The other cognitive problem is: Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation? Why is that OK?
And a third cognitive problem is: Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything. So we are surrounded by ephemera, but we can’t acknowledge that, because it’s kind of scary, because I think ultimately it points to our own temporariness, to thoughts that we’re all going to die.
Some other interesting points: Humans are some of the only animals not attracted to garbage's smells and odors. Modern cities are quite literally built on trash—and trash's role in urban topography can't be overstated. In the past, cities used to stink. Not only that, but they were so full of waste and excrement, that they were hotbeds of disease. Modern sanitation, according to Nagle, is as vital a public service as the work done by police or fire departments. Sanitation workers, therefore, deserve far more prestige and reverence than they currently enjoy.