Philosophy of Trash

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What is it

"One man's trash is another man's treasure," or so the saying goes. But what makes something trash to begin with? The word can be used to describe disposable objects, pieces of culture, or even people. Underlying each of these uses, however, are feelings of indifference, disdain, or disgust. How do the things that we call trash reflect our values, as individuals, and as a society? What can we learn about ourselves by examining the things we deem worthy of throwing away? The Philosophers go dumpster diving with Elizabeth Spelman from Smith College, author of Trash Talks: Revelations in the Rubbish.

Listening Notes

Ken argues that the massive amount of trash that we produce is a necessary tradeoff to innovation. Not only is it natural for humans to want new things, but innovation requires that we abandon the old. Debra, on the other hand, invites Ken to distinguish between innovation and pointless consumption. She argues that the unbridled consumption in the West needs to slow, since the trash that it creates destroys the planet. Our hosts wonder if humans will need to reconsider what deserves to be thrown away to live more sustainably on the planet.

Ken and Debra are joined by Elizabeth (Vicky) Spelman, professor of Philosophy at Smith College. Vicky tells us that “garbage,” “waste,” and “trash” are not always synonymous. Instead, what makes something trash is our attitude toward the object in question. As for waste, Vicky introduces Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” to the conversation. According to Veblen, elite classes flaunt their wastefulness as a show of their social status. The philosophers broaden their discussion to hyper-consumerism in the United States and how this contributes to the growing piles of trash in our landfills. They consider capitalism and corporations as additional contributors to hyper-consumerism itself.

The philosophers welcome callers’ comments and weigh human innovation as either a threat to the environment or asset to enhancing human quality of life. They consider humans’ proclivities for never having enough a tenet of this environmental and social issue.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:19): Liza Veale interviews resident artists at Recology San Francisco, where artists use recycled materials from the San Francisco dump to create new art.

  • Sixty Second Philosopher  (Seek to 45:14): Ian Shoales reminds us that trash in earlier epochs become historical artifacts in newer ones.  


Elizabeth Spelman, Professor of Philosophy, Smith College


Bonus Content


Research By

Spencer Giel

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