3/02/2006

Orbiting Garbage

Humans are slobs. Not all of us, of course, but enough are. If you don’t believe me, drive the 401 highway from Montreal to Toronto (or vice-versa) on a long weekend, at Thanksgiving say, and try to use the toilets at the roadside service centers. If you can stomach being in there, you’re tougher than I am.

Do you want to test your innate optimism about human kind? Get a job as a flunky at a restaurant for a week, or any other food service establishment, and watch what people will do when they know that they won’t have to pick up after themselves.

I don’t believe that this is due to the collapse of modern society or anything so dramatic as that. Being slobs comes naturally. Go to a zoo and watch the apes. Were it not for public embarrassment or our mothers screaming at us to pick up after ourselves, we would probably all end up living like the apes in those cages, with bits of food in our fur, flinging our dung around and picking our noses. We come by the behaviour naturally. It’s in our genetic make-up. In the wild, wolf packs don’t clean up after themselves, they just eat those bloody filthy carcasses somewhere other than at home so that the mess ends up in some other animal’s back yard. But, nature looks after itself by having scavengers eat the carcass remains and by having the rest rot. Unfortunately, we humans have invented stuff that doesn’t rot.

When mining companies are finished extracting what they want from open pits in the ground, they put a padlock on the fence gate and walk away. There’s no reason for them to act otherwise, since restoring the planet to the same state that they found it would cost them plenty and their objective is to make money. Since no one forces them to clean up after themselves, they don’t. They don’t have mommies nagging after them. If corporations leave behind messes they are just acting normally, like us, and it is the fault of the rest of us, society, that we care so little about our surroundings that we allow this to happen. A simple change in the rules would force enterprises to plan for and execute closure plans that didn’t leave behind toxins in the dirt that will maim your children. That exit clean up would simply be another cost of doing business, yet we can’t even be bothered to do that.

I have known people in the IT industry who felt good about the work that they were doing because they believed that computer technology was a clean industry, unlike say, evil automobile companies or oil refineries. It might be interesting to get the opinion of people six generations from now scratching their heads wondering what to do with all those mountains of dead PC’s in landfills.

Civilization is a thin veneer. Our homes, most of them, are clean, we wash our cars regularly, companies hire people to vacuum our offices. But all those toilet flushes, all those garbage bins full of crap that we throw away, our scrapped cars, soiled diapers, all that we leave behind ends up somewhere. We can hide the mess for a while, but it’s really still there.

There are, after all, only three places where all the garbage can go: in the water, in the air or in the ground. Those are the only options, or so I used to think. But it turns out I was wrong. Now we put it into orbit too.

A few weeks ago, I watched an excellent science television program called Découverte on the French CBC network that ran a segment on garbage in space. At the moment, there are about 100,000 pieces of junk in space between 1 and 10 cm in size. There are another 10,000 pieces of junk greater than 10 cm in size. They estimate that last number will grow to 50,000 in the next few decades. That’s just the stuff orbiting earth.

The program went on to describe the various shields that were placed on the space station to protect itself from the smallest of the particles. If a big one hits, well, there’s no protection from that. They showed pictures of impact damage on some tiles from the Space Shuttle. When the shuttle last docked with the space station it had to make an evasive maneuver to avoid behind hit by something. Several years ago an astronaut lost his grip on a video camera and it’s still out there. They have lost hammers, pliers, and other objects. The program even mentioned one enterprising outfit in the U.S. that will put your ashes in orbit after cremation. The urn is metallic, about the size of a large tin of tomatoes. They have a bunch of them in inventory and are waiting for a commercial carrier to take them into orbit and then, well, leave them there.

NASA has full-time staff whose job it is to track all of these objects. Think about that. They have to hire and pay a group of people who sit at desks and computers all day in order to observe and track the orbits of the garbage that we’ve left in space.

In order to be in orbit, those objects must be traveling at about 25,000 miles per hour. When a ¼ inch titanium bolt sails through an astronaut’s skull at 25,000 miles per hour someday, there will be a huge outcry about what we’re doing to clean up space.

4 Comments:

At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A famous friend of mine once said, "we are only three meals away from total anarchy"!

 
At 6:48 PM, Blogger JimR said...

It's not our fault. If there was enough vermin around to consume the leftovers we'd never have this problem.

 
At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Gary Morris said...

Robert,
Hi from an old friend.
Drop me a line at gmorris@laketon.com.
Gary

 
At 2:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a big garbage affair here in Czecho for the Germans, for a small "fee", were dumping tons of it here. Now , caught, they don't want their carbage back.

 

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