Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Five(ish) Questions With the Author: Edward Humes

 2013's One Book, One Peninsula title is Edward Humes' Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. Mr. Humes will be speaking at the Peninsula Library on September 28th at 2 p.m. (for details check out the One Book, One Peninsula Facebook page). A journalist and author of thirteen nonfiction books, Edward Humes has received the Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage of the military and a PEN Center USA Award for No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year In the Life of Juvenile Court. His latest book is Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, part of his eco-trilogy that also includes Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of WalMart's Green Revolution and Eco Barons. Humes, who previously worked as a reporter for the Orange County Register, has also written for Los Angeles MagazineSierra, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He lives in Seal Beach with his wife, two children and three rescue greyhounds. Find Edward Humes online at www.EdwardHumes.com.

BF: Your introduction to Garbology opens with a truly horrifying anecdote about hoarding. Why in the world should the average reader care about this exhibition of excess?

EH: This scene involved an elderly Chicago couple who had hoarded so much trash and junk that they had been buried alive in their own house, until they finally were discovered near death and had to be rescued as if from a collapsed mine.

The debris had accumulated for years until every surface of the house was covered by layers of old newspapers, empty plastic jars, pieces of broken furniture, worn-out coolers, splintered garden rakes, thousands of soda bottles, cans of every size, clothing old and new, broken lamps, dusty catalogs, mountains of junk mail and garbage bags filled with the detritus of daily life. All of this, and much more, had been kept for reasons no one could coherently explain, not even the Gastons, until the junk and trash reached the level of the highest kitchen cupboards, the ones that held the good china. A broken refrigerator lay in the kitchen, half buried and resting on its side, as if buoyed up by the sea of bottles, cans, cartons and sacks engulfing it. No room in the house could be called usable or even safely navigable; the stairs were blocked, the furniture buried, the garage packed floor to ceiling. The disordered accumulation looked as if it had been swept in by a tidal wave.

The Gastons simply grew unable to part with their trash. This hoarding compulsion gripped them gradually, a slow evolution, a piece at a time, then a bag here and there, then whole boxes of trash until, finally, the Gaston home became a one-way depository, the garbage version of the Eagles’ famous “Hotel California”: stuff checked in, but it could never leave. They hoarded until goods and trash consumed their home and almost their lives.
Why include this anecdote? Because the amount of junk, trash and waste that hoarders generate is perfectly, horrifyingly normal. It’s just that most of us hoard it in landfills instead of living rooms, so we never see the truly epic quantities of stuff that we all discard. But make no mistake: The two or three years it took the Gastons to fill their house with five to six tons of trash is typical for the average American couple. The rest of us are just better at hiding - mostly from ourselves – the 1.3 tons a year of trash each American wastes every year, 102 tons across the average lifetime. 

EH: The most surprising part of the story is just how wasteful we are without really knowing it -- the true numbers are much worse than the official line. I’m using the word wasteful, rather than trashy, deliberately. The fact is, our trash – something hoarders, however pathological their reaction, understand – has enormous value. It’s actually treasure squandered, which is why our leading export to China and other countries is our trash and scrap. 

Almost as surprising: Being less wasteful is liberating, timesaving, and wealth-creating – for families, communities and businesses big and small. Waste is one of the few big societal, economic and environmental problems anyone can do something about.  

BF: What trash item do you generate that you've found it most difficult to give up? For example, I'm sure you don't drink bottled water, but is there some pre-packaged item you just haven't found a good "naked" substitute for?
EH: Yes, I’ve stopped relying on bottled water, paper towels, plates and napkins, plastic grocery bags, etc. Those are easy to switch to reusable or less wasteful options. Tougher are the personal care items: deodorant, toothpaste and such. I’ve switched to an old fashioned razor, but have been stymied when traveling, because you can’t carry razor blades on the plane (disposable razors are okay). 

BF: When you're not reading about environmental subjects, what do you like to read? What's your "escape" genre? Favorite book? 

EH: I can’t single out a favorite book, but authors I admire and have read and re-read include John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Tracy Kidder, Raymond Chandler, Harper Lee, John McPhee and Tom Wolfe. My escape genres have lately been sci-fi/fantasy. I just powered through George R.R. Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire collection, then discovered Peter V. Brett’s excellent Warded Man series. And from that genre, Frank Herbert’s Dune ought to be on anyone’s list of favorite books. 

BF: Are you working on a new project? What can you tell us about it?

EH: My next book comes out October 22, my first biography, and my first foray into the fascinating world of winemaking: A Man and His Mountain. It’s the unlikely and inspiring story of the accidental winemaker, Jess Jackson, a former cop, fashion model, lumberjack and lawyer who started a little mountain vineyard as a hobby and ended up quite literally putting Chardonnay on America’s tables. His Kendall-Jackson Winery made him a billionaire, and for more than 20 years, has bottled the most popular premium Chardonnay in the world. 

BF: Finally, what's the single most important change of habit the average American can make to help reign in the problem of too much waste?

EH: Rethinking how and what we consume – and therefore what we throw away – is key. There’s no one strategy, but there are five first steps anyone can take:

1.  Refuse. From unwanted mail-order catalogs to grossly over-packaged produce, just refuse them. Say no to promotional key chains and tchotchkes that come free at conferences and fundraisers. You know it’s junk, and accepting it just encourages more. Refuse.
2.  Buy Used and Refurbished. Keep resources out of the waste stream, save money.
3.  Stop Buying Bottled Water. It's a waste and a fraud.
4.  No Plastic Grocery Bags. One-use bags are the gateway drug of waste. Go reusable.
5.  Buy Wisely, Buy Less. The disposable economy wants you to think about the price at the cash register, not what it costs to own in the long run. That’s how we end up with cheapo DVD players that got trashed in a year and clothes that fade and wear out after a few washes. Saving up for fewer products that are more durable, efficient and higher quality costs less over time and radically reduces waste. 

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