Don’t Let Your Left Hand


by Ana Grarian

Recently my book group was discussing “What Matters: Economics for a renewed commonwealth” by Wendell Berry. We were all regular readers of Wendell, involved in community agriculture, and concerned about the environment. You could say we were a group of middle aged tree huggers. We didn’t discuss the book itself much. Our concern kept returning to getting the message out.

Wendell and others, have been writing prolifically about these issues for years. Michael Pollan who now is a bit of a media sweetheart (and an industry pariah) constantly refers to his mentors from the past.

I recently picked up “The Sheep Look Up” by John Brunner, who has been called “the Rachel Carson of Science Fiction”. ….. “this book offers a dramatic and prophetic look at the potential consequences of the escalating destruction of Earth. In this nightmare society, air pollution is so bad that gas masks are commonplace. Infant mortality is up, and everyone seems to suffer from some form of ailment. The water is polluted, and only the poor drink from the tap. The government is ineffectual, and corporate interests scramble to make a profit from water purifiers, gas masks, and organic foods….” (product description from

The book was published in 1972

What at it’s first printing was a prophetic look at what could happen if we went hell bent ahead as we had in the first two thirds of the 20th century is now a pretty good description of where we have ended up.

Somewhere in those pages I came across the saying: ” do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, and had an AHA! moment. Now Biblically that saying is: “when giving alms to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, a warning about giving in a way that brings you admiration and to avoid patting yourself on the back for your generosity.

I thought about how in our consumer society we have hidden our refuse from ourselves.

Our toilets flush. We wash dirt from our dishes/clothes/body/homes down the drain, along with the chemical pollutants we use to “clean” them. Our trash goes into clean plastic bags and is hauled away to dump sites that are hidden from view. Our left hand (the soiled hand)(in a society where washing facilities were scarce the left hand was used solely for less sanitary tasks) is busy disposing of all the unwanted refuse the right hand has been procuring.

What if we had to see, every day, the accumulation of trash we create?

Would that open our eyes a little?

When I was a child our trash was disposed of on our own property. Papers, fabric, boxes were burned. Foodstuffs were fed to the animals or used to fertilize the garden. The rest went into the trash heap. This became a bigger problem when we started to purchase food in jars and cans instead of reusing canning jars, or using a dry storage like the root cellar. The pile started to grow quickly. Gradually plastic and aluminum became a problem as they didn’t degrade. Soon we used a trash service which hauled our refuse away to the county dump.

Out of site / out of mind.

I can remember as a kid seeing a news report about garbage barges from NYC taking trash out to the ocean because it had been turned away from a landfill in another state.. I was horrified. Why didn’t NYC take care of its own trash instead of sending it to New Jersey or something? You don’t air your dirty laundry in public and you certainly don’t throw your trash onto the neighbors yard! Now we truck garbage, trash, and other waste products all over the country and the world. Our broken computers are leaking heavy metals and radiation into India. Radioactive Fracking fluids are being hauled to waste water treatment plants hundreds of miles from drilling sites without disclosure of the chemicals they contain.

I’ve got a proposal. I think we should push to have waste products disposed of at the most local government level possible. So if my city/town/county wants to OK an industrial site, or a housing development, it needs to have a plan to dispose of the waste products safely and locally. I would restrict this to nothing larger than the state level.


We’re not going to play the carbon trading game which only allows the richer regions to take advantage of the poorer. Obviously this would take some time. Major metropolitan areas would need time to come to grips. Population shifts would have to take place.

But we need to face the filth we create.