Humankind’s legacy is shaping up to be a pile of garbage

It’s time to consider how to restore Western civilization’s balance with nature.
Peace & Justice

Archeologists in Alicante, Spain have turned to drone technology to safely reach caves that would otherwise have required a death-defying trek by intrepid researchers. They have been rewarded with the discovery of previously unseen cave drawings that are somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 years old. Like previous discoveries of primitive art created by Neanderthal and Homo sapien inhabitants of what would eventually become Europe, the cave paintings offer subtle, intriguing insights into the lives of these ancestors out of our collective prehistory.

Archeologists of the distant future may not have to puzzle quite as much about how we Homo sapiens of the 20th and 21st centuries lived out lives of consumption and casting off; they may struggle, though, to make sense out of why we were so oblivious to our self-sabotaging lifestyle. That’s because unlike these more discreet cave dwellers, offering a few haunting images in subtle pigments, modern humankind will leave behind massive evidence dumps that will literally say tons about us.

Future investigators may need only to check on the remnants of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, perhaps still gently gyring in mid-ocean sometime in the distant future. But the true motherlode of material evidence of our profligate ways will likely be found in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where a pile of discarded clothing is so tall and wide that it’s visible from space. It’s the world’s largest clothing dump: tons of barely worn and sometimes completely unused apparel that is shipped into the port city of Iquique before being clandestinely trucked out into the desert to add to what has become a mountain of thrown-away clothing.

You may have heard about “fast fashion”—clothing that is cheaply made, quickly outdated, and just as quickly tossed by consumers who may wear such apparel only a handful of times. Perhaps no other economic phenomenon gets closer to exemplifying the throwaway culture of excessive production and heedless consumption deplored by Pope Francis. Fast fashion puts money in the pockets of manufacturers and designers and offers consumers cheap options, but it is hard on the Earth at every stage, from resource-intensive cotton and petroleum-based fabric spinning through to the apparel’s end stage: millions of tons dumped around the world, a source of land and microplastic pollution we are only just beginning to contend with.


Despite such mounting evidence of life out of balance with nature, there remains a significant and often powerfully placed class of skeptics and enablers who see no reason to change our wasteful ways or who remain so personally enriched by current patterns of production and consumption that they are content to accept the Earth-draining status quo.

But hope persists even as we tiptoe around climatological tipping points that could begin a global reset that will be fundamentally indifferent to the fate of the world’s current dominant species. New technologies promise to contain the floating garbage dump in the Pacific, and there is nothing stopping each of us from reassessing our relationship with fast fashion. We humans have devoted centuries to twisting and transforming the world to suit our purposes. Maybe it’s time to carefully consider how we might fruitfully devote the next half century to restoring the balance we have upset, lest it is not our ancestors but our descendants who will be living in caves drawing figures by torchlight. 

This article also appears in the August 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 8, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: iStock/Nalin Prutimongkol

About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

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