Friday, May 27, 2011

Clean vs. Dirty and Human Activity

You may be aware of Mike Rowe and his popular Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs.  I sure hope you are.  If you aren't, spend a minute or two reading up, look for a pirated vid clip on YouTube.  It's funny and educational.

You might also be aware of TED talks.  Again, I hope you are.  In the TED venue, some of the most fascinating researchers, educators, innovators and thinkers talk about what really gets their motors going.  From cartoonist Jim Toomey talking about how he raises ocean conservation issues with the gentle nudges of enlightening comic strips, to medical researchers building artificial organic and implantation-ready replacement organs, TED talks make you think.

We're used to Mike Rowe making us cringe.  Some of what he's gone through is shocking, frightening, repulsive.  And while it's all of those things, what he's going through is somebody's job, the kind of stuff those folks do all the time, every day.  His show is all about having jobs that aren't beautiful, aren't impressive in the way we've learned to think of impressive jobs.  Hopefully, more on that another day.  Today though, I want to talk about one tiny snippet of what Mike was talking about in his TED talk.

"Clean and dirty aren't opposites.  They're different sides of the same coin."  That's it.  Twelve little words, one whole new paradigm.

I've said it before, that there is such a thing as being too clean.  In certain jobs, you won't finish the day clean.  You just won't.  And in those jobs, the boss fully expects you to come to work wearing jeans.  Thank God for that.

Let's think about "clean."  What do we mean by that?  Are we talking about general household clean, which means no socks lying in the living room floor, a couple of tasteful books on the coffee table?  Or are we talking about kitchen and bathroom clean, with hard surfaces wiped down at least once a week, a higher level of hygiene so you don't mind eating food that's been lying directly on the counter.

In household clean, you pick up the socks and toss them in the hamper.  The mess isn't gone - you've moved it to the hamper.  If they were dirty socks, the level of not-clean in the living room is somehow more than if they were clean socks that just fell out of the laundry basket.  What you will do with the socks after removing them from the floor is beside the point, they were socks out of place.  At first glance, dirty socks might be indistinguishable from clean socks.  But in your head, you grade the living room down a few more points if you know the socks are dirty.

Your living room will probably never be cleaner than it is right after a round of dusting, lint rolling, and vacuuming.  That's about as involved as most people ever get, and it's more than enough.  You haven't sanitized any surfaces or heat-treated anything (which in neither case does nothing about "cleaning," but just kills any pathogens), merely removed bits of stuff that contrasts with the surfaces, so the furnishings alone are what is visible.

Let's think about the socks.  They were dirty, so to the hamper they go.  Eventually they wind up in the washing machine, where application of detergent and water removes "dirt," microscopic shreds of shoe material, household debris from the floor, you, and of course a healthy dose of sweat.  Left to percolate in a warm, humid environment, this becomes a pretty ripe biosphere and starts to smell a little...tropical.  But when you take all that stuff out of the sock with water and detergent, where does it go?

Nothing goes "away."  The Earth is a sphere so we're all downstream and downwind of everyone else, including, eventually, ourselves.  Nothing much is flying off into space, since escape velocity is something on the order of 7 miles per second.  That's clear across North America in under six minutes, so rest assured, whatever's on the ground right now is more than likely staying there for the foreseeable future.  So where does it go?

Eventually to the water treatment plant.  Water gets "treated," sludge gets pulled out and "treated" some more, water goes into the streams and further downstream.  Sludge gets buried, burned, whatever they do to it.  But it's still around.  It's been rendered "safe" with heat or chemicals or biological processes and buried so you can't see it.  But just like playing peekaboo, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's really gone.  It'll be back.  The world is round, everything comes back around eventually.

"Cleaning" is the act of removing unwanted or undesireable materials from an area.  You can't make it go away, not when there is no such place as "away."  "Clean" means the level of unwanted material is below your tolerance threshold.  You can live with it, whatever it is.

Cleaning takes energy.  You raise the level of energy in the space by moving things that have naturally settled to a lower energy state.  Lint falls down, cat hair settles.  You add energy by running the vacuum cleaner, rolling the lint roller.  But that doesn't prevent more lint from settling.  The cat is still wandering around.  There will be more lint and cat hair.  And of course one day the vacuum cleaner will break irreparably, and will become another item of trash to send to the landfill.

Landfills are the condensed mess and dirt of entire populations, moved to one tightly concentrated, tightly contained area so the mess won't explode back out in a critical mass of grime.  Sewage plants are the rich stew of mess that humans make and flush down their drains, thinking that the mess is gone.  It's never gone, it only changes form.

Smoke.  Poo.  Noise.  Old Post-Its, skin dander, rusted old appliances.  Everything alive makes some degree of mess, everything we do produces a level of waste that we ultimately want to not see in our artificially cleaned living and working spaces.  As  humans, we make more mess than any other kind of animal, period.  It might be fine to think that as higher animals, we are also unique in that we "clean up after ourselves," fooling ourselves that we have somehow changed the average level of clean.  All the messes we make are still with us, hidden from view or changing into different messes.  We aren't cleaners, we are only instruments of change and movement.  Like forces of nature, like wind and water, we move materials out of the ground and into the air, out of the air and into the water.  Unfortunately, too often we realize that after we've been doing that for a few decades, we really don't want any of those materials where we've put them, and sometimes undertake to move them back to where we found them.

Better to have left it where it was, to begin with.

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