Table to Trash
We live in a consumer society. As a culture, we are solely focused on ourselves and our own needs, especially when it comes to food. Hunger is a sensation that relates directly to consumerism. We consume food to satisfy the hunger and completely disregard the waste we contribute to the environment in doing so. This is especially prevalent in the infrastructure of our environments. The infrastructures of our food consumption are invisible to us. We don’t notice that the voice behind our drive-thru window belongs to a person who helps prepare our food. We don’t consider the environmental implications of throwing away the bag from our devoured chips. We don’t care that water is a limited resource because we can’t see the conglomeration of systems that make it readily available to us. We are wasteful beings and our foodscape infrastructures only perpetuate our consumer mindsets. If we have any hope of bridging the gap between humanity and the environment, we must recognize our anthropocentric nature in relation to food.
The Opening of a Fridge
In modern day society, one of the most relatable and joyful images is that of a bountiful fridge. A full fridge is sought after because it is a sign of economic stability and freedom. When you open up a full fridge and see a bounty of different colors in fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy items, and preserved food lit up by bright lights and on a heavenly white background, you can't help but smile. This is so well-known, that often times the importance of the actual refrigerator is forgotten until the power goes out. It is so common, that we forget how food preservation would happen without this vital tool. We forget how our current diet, which emphasizes perishable and processed foods wouldn't be possible without the kitchen tool.
Our packaged goods are styled to look so natural because shoppers gravitate toward them, but why? The packaging is made to look like it is organic and from the natural earth, and not from a laboratory. For example, Land O' Lakes butter is made and pasteurized in a factory, but the packaging does not represent this, but beautiful images of Native Americans and rolling hills. The packaging and saturated colors of these foods bring us back to essential environmentalist ideas. We are so drawn to the aesthetics of these items because they make us feel closer to the wilderness in our industrial society. Henry David Thoreau, wrote about the wilderness in his article, “Walking”, published by Atlantic Monthly. He strongly advocated going out into the wilderness for hours on end, and wrote that “Wilderness is the preservation of our world” (665). This quote explains why having a bountiful fridge full of natural foods is so important to the modern family. Because it brings them the essence of wilderness, even in an industrialized environment.
William Cronon also had a lot to say about wilderness in his piece, The Trouble with Wilderness. One of his main points was that “Wilderness is more of a state of mind than a fact of nature” (80). The images we see when we open that bright white container of fresh food brings us to a mindset closer to the natural world. This is why the familiar sounds of the fridge are so important. The sound of the fridge, the suction of opening, the tightness and exclusivity of the jar that seals it off from the outside world, illustrates the feeling of wilderness in the modern home.
The way we prepare our food today has become more anthropocentric as humans start to adapt to their fast-paced lifestyles. The process of quickly heating the food is ignored because of how easy it is to complete the action. The invisible infrastructure of where the power is being developed to turn the microwave on is being ignored as the human is heating their food. The electrical part that is involved with giving power to the microwave is ignored for the convenience of the user. In The Ethnography of Infrastructure, Susan Star explains that “infrastructure is sunk into and inside of other structures…[and] is transparent to use” (381). We use the microwave as a quick and easy cooking source, but fail to realize the danger that can come with using the microwave.
The energy that we are using to start the microwave and heat our food is detrimental to the environment and the air we all breathe. The user isn’t efficient with thinking about the effects they have in nature and how one small thing they do in their household can alter what happens around them. In Michael Warner's "Environmental Care and the Infrastructure of Indifference" audio, he states how "most of our carbon emissions are mediated by the [electrical power] grid (Warner 00:18:13-00:19:30). Humans are aware of climate control, climate change, and global warming, but never ask the question of what can they do. They are aware of the harm they can bring to the environment by starting that microwave, however, they get lost in their anthropocentric ways and do what is most convenient for them. In Warner's audio, he brings up the fact that if the demand for power rises, more power has to be created to fulfill the needs of the users (Warner 00:57:00-00:58:00).
Food is an essential part of our lives. However, it is much more than just a mean of survival. Cooking food as a falling tree, sound, music and listening, represents a “thick event” (Eidsheim 1). According to a Professor of Musicology at UCLA, Nina Eidsheim in her Sensing Sound, “interpreting a sense experience in terms of just one of the physical senses cannot take full account of the event’s complexities” (1). In everyday life, we usually experience similar and familiar flavors, meals, and ingredients. We take them for granted so that they become completely invisible to us. However, it is important to consider the semiotics of food and cooking as they represent a sign system.
The cooking process is so effortless nowadays that we can easily buy ingredients that are already cut, peeled, and sliced. The only thing that is left for us to do is to just mix them up and turn on the stove with a simple click on the switch. Such conveniences, as food packaging, provide us with instant access to everything we want, minimize our labor as consumers and increase pressure on the environment. There is an entire system involved behind the scenes that makes all of this available to us in that particular form. For instance, beetroots, which is one of the ingredients of borscht soup, involve many different aspects, such as the sunlight and water needed to grow them, animals in the farm ecosystem, human labor, pesticides, transportation, etc. When we consume a borscht soup, we do not just eat beetroots, but we also experience this entire chain, a network of interconnected processes.
As a “thick event”, cooking does not just include ingredients, but also the use of the infrastructure, such as the stove (Eidsheim 1). Because of the ease of accessibility to the stove, we do not really think about the integrated electrical heating device in it, the conversion of the electrical energy to the heat energy and the power grid. We also do not think about the costs of all of these conveniences and their impact on nature. As Michael Warner mentions in his "Environmental Care and the Infrastructure of Indifference" podcast, according to the anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, “grid is the world’s largest machine and the 20th century’s greatest engineering achievement and we are remarkably oblivious to it” which is partly because of ”the architecture of invisibility” (Warner 00:39:53-00:40:18). Infrastructure is purposely designed to be invisible and covered inside the built environment. To quote Susan Star's Ethnography of Infrastructure, it “is sunk into and inside of other structure, social arrangements, and technologies” (381). Our indifference to the grid is especially dangerous as we consider that “the electrical power is currently the largest contributor to CO2 emissions” (Warner 00:22:15-00:22:25).
We as users do not think where our resources, the food and electrical energy, come from and where our consumption wastes go. The only thing we know is that it must always be available, even if it is not needed. Because of our anthropocentric views, we only think about our convenience and how we can use both the built and natural environments so that they benefit us. We see ourselves as separate from nature.
Does the sound help us at all to overcome this human/nature binary? Does it force us to notice the grid, food and energy waste, and the consequences of our actions? Perhaps we do hear those sounds, but we do not actually listen. It could be that the ignorance and indifference are so ingrained in our habits that even the sounds of food and infrastructure are just additional things we get to ignore and not pay attention. Maybe it is time for us to reconsider our values and habits. The current climate change requires us to bring the grid, food waste and our dependence on consumerism into our consciousness (Warner 00:41:08-00:41:21).
Flipping a Grilled Cheese
People all over the world exert little energy for everyday norms. All we have to do is flip a switch to get the power needed, and in this case, to heat a frying pan. We have unlimited access to this power source, everywhere, every hour of every day, and we expand the massive amounts of invisible electric power of Earth through the grid by just the flick of a finger or the press of a button, being figuratively plugged into the world. We’ve become so accustomed to this, it’s now our environment and our way of life. As users, we depend on easy access of the electric grid to survive, no longer interacting with a wilderness lifestyle. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to create or even imagine a life with no technology infrastructure.
The grid has consumed the geography of the Earth, spreading across oceans, running under our feet, over our heads and physically all around us. One of the reasons we have such unlimited access to electricity is because it forms its own geography in agreeance with the natural world, giving us power to cook in our homes, in airplanes, on ships and so much more. To quote Susan Star’s The Ethnography of Infrastructure, “Infrastructure is both relational and ecological...it is part of the balance of action, tools, and the built environment, inseparable from them” (377). This statement accepts the fact that the environment and the infrastructure of the grid are combined.
With the increasing infrastructure and complexity of the grid, there is a constant availability of this source of power to all users. All the user sees is turning on a stove, but in the reality of consequential cost, it leads to colossal amounts of waste. There is little to no awareness of the amount of energy it takes to turn the stove on or the infrastructure needed to heat up the frying pan in order to fry a grilled cheese. According to Michael Warner’s audio of "Environmental Care and the Infrastructure of Indifference," “The amount of power generated is many times greater than the amount actually used” (Warner 00:57:23-00:57:35). Overuse is monitored by the argument of infrastructural ethics, in an attempt to reveal the mass amounts of energy waste. The ethics of infrastructure emphasizes the fact that overuse is covered up culturally, and blocked from the minds of users. Warner states, “It is paradoxical to know something that doesn't want to be known; hiding it while being surrounded by it” (Warner 00:38:00-00:38:35). In environmental ethics, the electric power center is currently the largest contributor to CO2 emissions, which proved wrong the previous “electrify everything” movements. However, we always assume that someone, somewhere, is doing something to fix it, such as green movements and new eco-friendly technologies. A better alternative to the environmental issue could be grid infrastructures that require less energy to power and function.
Student Drinking from a Water Fountain
Much of American consumerist culture revolves around infrastructure that masks the production of our goods. When we go through a drive-thru, we have little visibility of the kitchen in the back and the cooking process, much less an idea of how the food was grown, transported, and stored. When we go to a gas station, we rarely think about the political climate that affects the availability of oil nor the carbon footprint we leave as we drive off. When we flip on a light switch, we expect electricity to be ready immediately but fail to consider the government subsidies that make electricity so cheap. Susan Leigh Star, in The Ethnography of Infrastructure, comments on the invisibility of infrastructure, and what role it plays in our consumption habits. Star writes, “Turn on the faucet for a drink of water and you use a vast infrastructure of plumbing and water regulation without usually thinking much about it” (380).
As water streams from a water fountain, the consumer typically views the resource as unlimited- press one button and the water spurts out, release the button and the water stops. You can continue to do this for as long as you’d like. No payment. No problem. No thought. Star notes that “The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure only becomes visible when it breaks” (382). If a water main ruptures or the fountain button gets stuck, only then do we consider that water is a limited resource that isn’t always readily available, and that otherwise, the user assumes guaranteed access through infrastructure.
This ease of accessibility perpetuates naivety about how the water reaches the consumer. The consumer has no need to consider the infrastructure of pumping the water from an aquifer, the energy-intensive process to test and purify it, or the environmental expense of wastewater when it appears as free and unlimited to them. There’s no visibility of the cooling infrastructure inside the fountain to make sure the water is delivered chilled, nor the plumbing to account for every drop of water that escapes down the drain. In this way, the infrastructure of the water fountain works against sustainability and encouraging positive consumer behavior, it allows us to mindlessly access a resource that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
However, one part of the infrastructure of the water fountain does offer benefit to the larger goal of modifying consumer behavior in a positive direction. Many recent water fountain models, including the one from the recording, come equipped with a water bottle refilling spout. The presence of the spout itself inadvertently advertises for the use of refillable water bottles. Additionally, the infrastructure equips consumers with the power to reduce water bottle waste and commit to refillable bottles. Especially as younger generations become more cognizant of the impact of single-use items on the Earth and environment, this infrastructure helps sustain a consumer trend in the reduction of water bottle waste by supporting a more sustainable alternative.
According to Susan Leigh Star, in The Ethnography of Infrastructure, “Infrastructure is both relational and ecological - it means different things to different groups and it is part of the balance of action, tools, and the built environment, inseparable from them” (377). The “drive-thru” has become a significant infrastructural component of our consumer culture and society. One can hardly drive two miles without seeing the “golden arches” of McDonald’s, or more commonly in the South, a billboard with some character of a cow encouraging consumption of chicken over beef (i.e. Chick-fil-A). In accordance with Star’s definition of infrastructure, drive-thrus are part of America’s built environments, and therefore amplify our anthropocentric tendencies.
Here’s a scenario to emphasize this point: On your way home from work after an unexpectedly long meeting, you had planned to go to the grocery store, but you are too tired to do so. Lucky for you, there is a Chick-fil-A near the exit for your house! You excitedly choose the drive-thru option because it is quick, convenient, and requires nothing but a click of your window button and a swipe of your credit card. You don’t even have to get out of the car! Score!
You enter the lot, are greeted by a “voice” (the Chick-fil-A worker) that “speaks unconsciously” (unconscious to you because the voice has no face) from the “presumed center of things” (the menu screen with a multiplicity of options). This is what Star would call the “master narrative” of infrastructure; in this case, the Chick-fil-A drive-thru (384). In an average of fewer than 7 minutes, you have a full, neatly packaged meal and probably are already reaching for a fry to satisfy your hunger and consumer needs.
Michael Warner, in his lecture “Environmental Care and the Infrastructure of Indifference,” states, “Obliviousness can easily translate as indifference” (Warner 00:16:42 - 00:17:04). The infrastructure of a drive-thru perpetuates our anthropocentric natures because it feeds our desire for efficiency, ease, and utilization. It encourages oblivion to where our food comes from; we only care that it gets to our mouths, and fast. Infrastructure even exists in the name of the industry: “fast food.” Fast food drive-thrus cultivate expectant attitudes for food to come quickly with minimal involvement on the consumer end. Drive-thrus are infrastructure, and infrastructure, in turn, is consumption.
Opening a Bag of Potato Chips
In today's on-the-go, time-obsessed culture, convenience is a desirable quality of food consumption. Easily obtainable foods allow us to spend our time doing more important things. It’s as simple as dropping by a convenience store or a nearby vending machine, grabbing a bag of chips, and eating it anywhere, anytime. Because we are so used to this convention, we often overlook all the time and effort that went into making these quick meals. The infrastructure around food consumption also leads us to overlook the waste that accompanies convenient food options. As Susan Leigh Star writes in The Ethnography of Infrastructure, “infrastructure is transparent to use … [it] invisibly supports those tasks” (381). The bag that carries the chips is a part of the invisible infrastructure, in that it supports food consumption but does not immediately reveal its cost. The bag is waste; it cannot serve us in another capacity and cannot be recycled. Though we can hear the bag crinkling as we eat and we know that we will dispose of it when we are finished eating, we do not often think about the landfill in which it will eventually be thrown, or the hundreds of years it will take to completely degrade. Those of us who do recognize these ramifications but do not modify our behaviors or actions are environmentalists: “people who are concerned about environmental issues such as global warming and pollution, but who wish to maintain or improve their standard of living as conventionally defined, and who would not welcome radical social change” (Garrard 21). Today, the impact of waste on the environment is generally known to the public, but we still often make choices that will negatively impact the earth.
A change in infrastructure is necessary to allow our planet to properly thrive. One such infrastructural change we could make is creating a land ethic, or a set of morals for humanity to follow that would set a standard for treatment of the earth. This would “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold 239). If we choose to extend our ethics to the earth, we would more readily recognize this infrastructure of waste; we would stop and think about the effects our food consumption has on the earth. Mere environmentalists would consider making bigger lifestyle changes in order to respect and care for the land we are living in. In the end, is this manner of food consumption worth it the convenience when we consider the negative environmental impact?