I am, as it turns out, not only a part of one of the first generations to really embrace disposable culture, but actually so enmeshed in it that I rarely even question my practices. You might think that this personal predilection for consumption and disposal of everyday objects would be at odds with my career as a historian/archivist/museum professional where my job for the past ten years has been to research, collect, preserve, and make accessible our documentary and material culture. Instead, I seem to simultaneously live two separate philosophies.
For example, not only do I replace my cell phone on average every 14 months, but I knowingly purchase phones that I personally lack the ability to repair beyond rebooting and recharging. I also purchase phones knowing that the cost of repairing the item (effort + time + cash) is much greater than the cost of replacement, and that I will always choose replacement when I grow irritated with it, or when it breaks. In addition to disposing of phones on a regular basis, I also don't bother to migrate the born-digital material such as movies, photos, and other ephemera to my new phone because I consider the data fundamentally transitory.
This habit of non-thoughtful consumption is certainly not the way my parents and grandparents were raised. In their generations, people regularly repurposed items that I consider disposable. In the 1920s rag collectors paid people cash for their cast-off rags which were then turned into long-lasting paper. I, in contrast, pay a company to cope with recycling my cast-off everyday objects. My parents will probably argue that they didn’t raise me to buy (and break or grow bored with) phones and other objects on a near-annual basis, yet I still somehow manage to live with disposable objects at home, and work in my professional life to ensure continued access and interpretation of collected heritage for the general public.
This reflection is why I chose to do museum programs at the Galt Museum & Archives on Earth Day this year. Galt staffer Bobbie Fox has researched the history of waste and put together a display featuring historical recycled artifacts along with information on the changing way our culture has defined waste. Our UpCycling show and sale brings local artists together who repurpose cast-off items into beautiful or functional objects. The artists work with items such as thrifted fabric and leather to make bags and pillows, broken appliances to make sculptures and wall art, and salvaged wood from corrals and fences to make furniture. The evening Café Galt presentation brings professors from Lethbridge College together to host a conversation linking past, present, and future on xeriscaping, irrigation/water conservation, and the “living home.” I am, of course, looking forward to a day where I get to simultaneously learn about the history of waste and how our environmental practices have changed over time…while I shop.