On Bottles

Glass bottles apparently have very little value.  Consider the way we throw them away with little thought, sending them off to a hole in the earth somewhere—or, on a better day, have them hauled here and there so that they can be ground up and made into new bottles.  So easy must it be to make new bottles that it is deemed better to smash them up and remake them!


But look at a bottle with fresher eyes, momentarily unaccustomed to our disposable culture.  A bottle is a miracle of technology and energy, a thing of beauty.  It is smooth.  It is carefully, even gracefully shaped and colored.  Though breakable, its durability is impressive.  Consider the accumulated knowledge that goes into the manufacturing and transporting of a bottle, knowledge collected and passed down for thousands of years.  From the first realization that sand could be melted into such wondrously smooth and transparent stuff, to the automated and computer driven facilities that effortlessly produce rows of these glistening containers, it would be possible to trace nearly every technological discovery made by humans since we began our conquest of the earth.  We see the taming of fire, experimentations with chemical compounds, the harnessing of fossil fuels—first coal and then oil—to the invention of the micro-chip.  Such effort and value that has been synthesized into this common and now almost valueless object, this thing now worthy of almost no consideration!


This indifference to the intellectual and physical toil of our ancestors is regrettable, for it locks us into a dangerously entitled myopia.  We fail, for instance, to remember that a bottle would, for a majority of humans who have walked our earth, be the most prized and useful possession (remember “The God’s Must be Crazy”).  Think what you can do with a bottle; consider its countless crucial and basic functions.  For this majority of our brothers and sisters, a bottle would have been of great, perhaps sacred value, and its willful destruction or neglect would likely have been a crime or an affront to a God.


With abundance, of course, comes the devaluation of many things, perhaps every thing.  There are scores of bottles in my house right now.  It is hard for this not to diminish their value.  More come into the house than I could ever have use for.  Too many bottles is a far greater threat than not enough.  But attitude and ideology are also significant.  The mania with which we buy and destroy has increased significantly during my 40 (something) years, even as we collectively and increasingly pay some sort of ritual homage to the “environment.”  When Reagan made a religion out of our growing tendency to buy and destroy, when he declared it our right, the foundation of our goodness, there was an acceleration in the devaluation of everything and thus the carelessness shown towards all the miracles of technology which overflow our homes and spill out on to the streets where we leave them so that they may be whisked away by uniformed men in large yellow trucks.


Consider this simple example: 20 years ago as a college student, part of our weekend ritual, our preparation for the new round of festivities, was returning last week’s case of “empties.”   The long-neck bottle was a feature of college life.  It seems a sensible system.  Wash, refill, and recap a bottle over and over again.  But apparently our need for convenience, and the determined efforts of our world’s brightest minds, made it more “economical” to grind them up and remake them.  This is stunning.  The ease with which a bottle can be destroyed and remade renders the action of carrying a 10 lb box of bottles from your dorm room (past the RA), to the car, back to the store, unnecessary and obsolete.  So good are we at the process of melting and recasting that we don’t even expect or accept this minor delay in our daily rush.  The energy with which a new bottle can be made is apparently so cheap that it overrides the smallest sort of demands on an individual’s attention, memory, and planning.  As our personal electronics reveal, we are a people who refuse to be encumbered and we have the technology to insure that we aren’t.


All of this is naturally dependent not only on the accumulated knowledge and technological expertise of our species, it also depends on the cheapest, most concentrated kind of energy.  If we didn’t have machines to carry, crush, and make anew all our stuff, we would certainly value it differently.  This concentrated energy is of course finite and quickly being used.  Apparently humans are not wired or trained to consider finitude and future scarcity when overwhelmed by current abundance.  But at our juncture, now, things are becoming a bit more focused.  Perhaps it is time to reconsider and revalue our bottles, and everything else we treat with such neglect and indifference.


So where can we start?  Here’s a simple proposal, but one that might encourage a wider revaluation.  Why not petition our local breweries to bring back the returnable long-neck bottle and eventually boycott those who don’t?  While this won’t in and of itself allow us to extend, significantly, our diminishing energy resources, perhaps this extension is not really the point.  We need, today, a revolution of expectations, which is also at the same time a revolution in values (in the broad sense) and thus of value (in the narrow economic sense).  It may be small and symbolic, but let us cherish and protect our bottles and return them safely to our Sprechers and Lakefronts!


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