Following the City’s bankruptcy in 2038 and the Code Compliance Department’s official dissolution, more and more Austin citizens start making their backyards into art environments/recycling centers/permaculture gardens. By the 22nd century, most of Austin looks like the Cathedral of Junk – thousands of overgrown sculptured landscapes that feed over half the population in an informal economy. Plumbers, electricians, and musicians trade their services for food. It is estimated that 45% of the city’s solid waste is diverted into the City of Junk, and 15% of homeowners have taken to squatting in handmade buildings in their yards while renting out their houses.
But we're getting far ahead of ourselves. The gas and water have yet to run out. Poop is still some kind of public secret that vanishes from houses without effort, and eating food fertilized by it is unimaginable. Cooked meals appear like magic when you flash money around. And the City of Living Garbage is still a fragmented dream that crops up in private backyards without hinting that it's an overarching future. Little glimpses of the possible City still look like the whimsical fantasies of crackpots and hoarders, not a collective strategy for survival.
Junk, litter, trash, refuse, and all manner of polluted, unvalued, and forgotten things compose this City. Garbage is a vast cultural category of entropic things, decomposing forms, and abjections that have crossed the threshold of being discrete objects or entities. The post-mortal world. Broken machines, shattered toys. Metabolic byproducts: urine, feces, and other biohazards. Moldy, melted vegetables. Dust as the ultimate steady-state attractor. Garbage threatens as a polluting substance that has fallen out of economic value to become a harbinger of ecological collapse at various scales. Every accumulation of capital has its accumulation of waste that might clog and overwhelm the moneyed world. Garbage is a dangerous and valuable substance, riotous with threats and promises, that we must regulate or vanquish. Toilets and trashcans suck it out of existence – someone else's problem. This rotting world we send off to landfills – our very bodies and thinking are a part of it; we might come to think of it as worth preserving, repairing, and keeping among the living.
And just what is this living that something like garbage does it, too? Living is a word or music of uncanny intelligences, senses, bodies, and forms caught up in loving and fighting and killing and dying with each other. But living is sadly and inevitably mortal, the flash in the dark before the dead remains become the food or home for some other life form. Living is about the mortal arc of presence and dissolution, and nothing lives without being in an atmosphere, affecting and being affected by other beings. Living is intensely relational, like when you only feel really alive when a certain person's around.
The quality of vivaciousness depends on a politics of attachment (over emancipation) whereby beings become dependent on one another, or even use each other as components in “living machines.” But these machines are unpredictable, articulating at unknown scales, growing through accidents and auspicious, unplanned unfurlings. “Living garbage” animates a thinking and language oriented away from trying to control how life forms, atmospheres, systems, or patterns should be, towards caring for and preserving their self-emergent vivacity in processes of symbiotic survival that are never finished and thereby eternal, for the moment.
This 22nd century gambit for survival posed by the future City of Living Garbage might be the grim kind of survival that lives off boiled dandelion greens and beetle grubs. But it just might be the survival that glorifies in calling out, "We're still here! We survived!" while joyfully improvising ways to make a living. If the luxurious present gets yanked away from all around us, what is left but garbage? Under these conditions the residual and the ruins take on the presence of gifts. Then improvisations that transform death and decay become ordinary, humble, and thankful. The dusty, rotten world becomes fertile soil, and that's the ground for the City of Living Garbage. It is growing in my backyard.