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Ask Dr. Salvo

August 15, 1995

Ask Dr. Salvo

[Editor's note: Dr. Salvo is on vacation, playing grandfather to two visiting granddaughters. The following is a reprint of a 1987 column offering Dr. Salvo's tour de force solution to the problem of solid waste disposal in the US.]

Dear Dr. Salvo,

What is your analysis of the current waste disposal problem, as advertised by the voyage of the Flying Dustman from New York to the Caribbean and back?


Dear Baffled,

A social symptom of such complexity will never yield even to a deep Brazilian analysis. Let me propose instead a synthesis. There are several serious problems awaiting solution on this vast continent. I have been pondering about them since Mark Twain calculated that the mouth of the Mississippi River was moving south and east at such a rate as to be emptying into the Congo basin in two hundred years. Many readers laughed. Yet several billion tons of rich topsoil are in fact annually washed into the Gulf of Mexico by that great river. There are populated deserts all around the earth where people would cease starving if they had such topsoil.

In the past three or four decades, thanks to Madison Avenue, an enduring romance with the cute and unnecessary packaging of consumer goods has flowered. Besides the denuding of many lovely forests this entails, with consequent loss of topsoil and pollution of trout streams, the solid waste or garbage problem has thereby been suddenly created. Most of that noisome mess on the Flying Dustman is paper, cardboard, cute packages. For years New York City has towed such refuse out to sea and dumped it, untroubled by latter day concerns as to the long-term effect on the ocean, and upon fisheries that feed so many millions of people besides ourselves. In New Jersey it is an old custom to burn garbage in huge stinking dumps. Depending on the vagaries of the wind, millions of square miles are polluted by the smoke.

A related problem, rarely mentioned as such, is our bizarre method of managing human waste. The North American flush-toilet is indeed a thing of austere beauty, and has evidently inspired awe and reverence among its numerous devotees. It is so -- so sanitary, so hygienic. Doctors Koch and Pasteur would be transmogrified by the spectacle of St. Paul and Minneapolis dumping their treated or untreated sewage into the Mississippi for the fertilization of other cities downstream. Each of the recipient towns then carefully and expensively purifies this sludge in order to create chemically pure drinking water. Then they dump their own sewage into the river, etc., the final beneficiary presumably being New Orleans.

Water itself is becoming scarce, and one flush consumes two and half gallons of it. Western states take this statistic rather seriously, because they have suffered a drastic lowering of their water table over the past decades. For some years now we have possessed the technology to convert all flush-toilets to chemical toilets. The recovered waste would serve as excellent fertilizer, as it now does all over the Far East.

Let us draw breath now, if we dare, and caustiously sip an aperitif of New Orleans tap-water, since it was recently declared in the news to be the best drinking in the nation. It is time to address two more heavy social-geodetic problems, if you forgive the up-to-date argot.

The first is unemployment. We know from Reaganomics, not to mention Nixonomics, that unemployment is caused by the lax morals and laziness of the poor. However, the economists of traht school offer us some hope: If we would only allow our government to give enough money to the rich, some of it would spill over and wet the poor. The tinkle-down theory, I believe this is called. Through the operation of this almost miraculous principle, the national unemployment rate now ranges from a mere seven to a slightly annoying fourteen percent points. Hardly cause of concern, unless you are one of the statistics yourself.

Finally, there's the climate. Haven't you noticed every winter that when Canada goes "Ah," Florida answers "Choo?" And then loses another year's crop of oranges? Well, why is this? And must we endure it without protest or alternative? I say, "No we mustn't," and I will explain why, since that is my job. It is because this damnably backward country was never properly laid out. Our mountain ranges run north and south, conveniently providing huge wind tunnels for the frigid Artic air to rush into Florida, creating frost and chilblains. Why, I ask you, can't we have some civilized mountains that run east and west as they do in Europe, and other salubrious locations?

More in sorrow than in anger, I can only reply that this piteous state of affairs must be due to the lax morals and laziness of the poor. And yes, the cowardice and poverty of imagination of the rich. My remedy proposes to correct both of these weaknesses, do justice to rich and poor, and redound to the everlasting glory of our country.

Stage I, G.R.A.M.P.S. (Great Reconstituted American Mountain Project Survey), will quickly give employment to thousands of professionals -- meteorologists, climatologists, geologists, agronomists, land surveyors, and of course computer- men from Silicon Valley.

Beginning with Florida, these experts will locate the best places in the country to build a modest mountain range stretching east and west and perhaps three thousand to five thousand feet in altitude. To avoid extravagance, each mountain will be made as thin at the base as possible. The specs must be compatible with the cost of condemning the landand remunerating the owners, who will be mostly blind and needy Republican bankers, brokers and such. And the mountains must be effective in moderating the climate south of the new range. Because of the oranges.

As soon as Stage I is completed we will bribe the National Security Council to persuade some poverty-stricken, lonely marines to spill the plan to some voluptuous girls in Moscow. Since the climate of the Russians is even more savage than our own, they will feel obliged to inaugurate a five year plan to be the first with the biggest garbage mountain. (Oops, I have spilled the plan.) They will fair, of course, because of a chronic shortage of garbage. They eat theirs.

Still, it will use up a lot of rubles they otherwise might invest in nuclear arms. We will no longer fall behind in the nuclear arms race and our hawks and doves will lie down together.

The prosperous Florida land owners will raise a stink until they realize they will make a bundle off the condemnation fees, and also will be allowed to cultivate the slopes that cover their former territory.

As they ascend, planting, singing hymns and praying, each 1,000 feet will provide a climate typical of the one that prevails 300 miles north. Therefore, they will be able to grow almost anything they fancy. Chances are they will all plant apples.

The Democrats will fuss and reproach everybody about all of the above. But they will calm down as soon as they realize they are in the very midst of a government work program costing trillions of dollars, employing hundreds of thousands of idle citizens, and surpassing in grandeur all the works of man thus far. Democrats like to think big. I can hear them now: "We'll make the pyramids look like anthills! The Great Wall of China will look like a low hurdle after this!"

And as soon as they progate the latter opinion, the Chinese will feel obliged to join the race to build the biggest garbage mountain first. They too are short on garbage. When they and the Russians are as broke as the United States, perhaps peace will descend.

Stage II, or G.R.U.N.T. (Garbage Recovery Underfill, Nutritive Topfill), is implicit in all I have said so far, and would of course employ hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of workers. The base of the mountains would be made of densely compacted dry garbage. Terraces would be formed to provide arable fields, and these would be covered with salvaged topsoil from the Mississippi and other big rivers. The soil would be enriched with the dried sewage fertilizer and the compost made from liquid and semi-solid garbage. There would be planting of grass, shrubs, and trees appropriate to each altitude. Irrigation systems with rain-collecting cisterns would be added. With trout near the cool top of the mountain, and bass near the bottom. Bullfrogs optional at all levels. No snakes. The mountains will look lovely in a few years, their contours and silhouettes having been designed to resemble especially beautiful mountains in Chinese and Japanese paintings.

Dear Baffled, I have neglected to mentioned one detail. When the first Garbage Mountain is built, I will already have been appointed as its Resident Sage. My cave will be about twenty-five hundred feet up, and will face south. I will see you there! Pick a couple mangoes on the way up, it's chilly up here.


-- August 15, 1995

The Harbinger