Sunday, November 25, 2007

Catalog Pollution 2

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

As I wrote in my previous entry, I have started reducing the number of catalogs I get in the mail. As of this writing I have eliminated 58 catalogs from my life. This being the holiday season I would not be surprised if that number reaches a hundred and more, as I am receiving catalogs from companies I have never heard of.

Catalog pollution is a serious environmental issue. The New York Times of November 19 reported that 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American’s every year. The number of trees required to produce these catalogs is 53 million.

This process of trying to take control of the number of catalogs I get is an interesting one because I also have to decide which catalogs I want to continue receiving. For example, I had decided to discontinue the Williams-Sonoma catalog, but I couldn’t do it. I have been receiving their catalogs for 20 years at least, and I was surprised to feel that I would miss them. I enjoy looking at the many different utensils one can buy for the kitchen, and, occasionally I see something we actually need.

I cannot imagine that I would ever cancel the Levenger catalog. As a child when my parents went shopping in a store like Woolworth’s (a precursor to Wal-Mart), I always headed for the aisle where the office supplies were. I have no idea why, but I loved looking at the pencils, pens, erasers, paper clips, rubber bands, envelopes. And I still do. The Levenger catalog offers all these items as well as bookshelves, notebooks, desks, chairs and more, and each object is aesthetically pleasing.

I am not opposed to catalogs. Quite the opposite. I enjoy being able to shop without leaving the house. I enjoy finding an item I need that resolves a problem I didn’t know I had. I enjoy catalogs that make me dream about a day when I could perhaps afford a spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly expensive piece of jewelry for my wife.

However, there are also catalogs that awaken in me the feeling of coveting, the yearning to possess some object I can’t afford, have no need for, and if I bought it, would have no use for. I don’t like the feeling of having my emotions manipulated by the beautiful pictures and the descriptive adjectives of the copy.

So as I engage in this process of choosing which catalogs I want and which I don’t, I am learning which objects I need, which will bring me pleasure and enhance my life, and which arouse in me the ugliness of avarice, an all-consuming yearning for objects whose acquisition would do nothing more than satisfy my ego’s desire to make me feel like I am more important and better than everyone else.

I’ll keep you updated on how many catalogs I eventually keep from my mailbox and how many I choose to continue to receive.

And if any of you are battling catalog pollution, CatalogChoice is the name of the group. They came online on October 9, and since then more than 165,000 people have opted out of almost 1.7 million catalogs. There is no charge for getting your name removed from catalog mailing lists because the group is sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Ecology Center.


This snake was dead when I photographed it, but the look in his eye makes me think this is how avarice looks.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Catalog Pollution

Text and photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

Maybe I’m the only one, but I am starting to dread getting the mail every day. Not because of the bills but the catalogs! If the post office department ever started charging customers for how many pounds of mail they receive, I would be in debt within a week.

The first two catalogs I remember receiving were from Sharper Image and Victoria’s Secrets. This was back in the late 70’s or early 80’s. Both catalogs represented the beginning of consumer pornography. As a photographer I marvel at how the photographs in catalogs can make me want to buy things I really don’t want, not to mention, need. There is an entire field of photography devoted to photographing products, and there are an array of tricks product photographers, as they are known, use to make an object look not only desirable but irresistible. But capitalism as a system is built on persuading consumers to buy, and what we buy is almost secondary to the need of the system to keep us buying something. Remember how, after 9/11, President Bush exhorted us to go out and BUY!!

I am not opposed to catalogs, (though I do mourn the number of trees who give their lives for glossy photos). As someone who does not leave the house more than once or twice a week, catalogs are convenient, and I have purchased many things from them that I not only wanted but needed.

However, what makes me angry is the common practice of selling mailing lists. I bought my wife a present from the catalog of colonial reproductions sold at Monticello, the home of presidential slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. Lo and behold, now I am receiving catalogs from other places that sell colonial reproductions as well as catalogs from stores in the state of Virginia. My wife gave me a birthday present of fresh fruit from a company called Harry & David. Now I’m receiving catalogs from companies that are in any way food related.

Recently I reached a point of simply not wanting these unsolicited catalogs in my mailbox. If you are in a similar situation, I have a bit of information that may bring as much joy to your life as it is bringing to mine.

There is an organization called Catalog Choice. Click on the link and you’ll be taken to their website. Registration is free. Once registered you go to their very extensive database of catalogs, find the catalog you no longer wish to receive, click on it, type in the customer number from the catalog, if there is one, and that’s it. The organization takes care of the rest. They say it can take up to ten weeks to be removed from a catalog’s data base, and if you aren’t, you let Catalog Choice know.

Since Friday I have eliminated 30 catalogs from my life – Allergy Buyers Club,, Audio Editions, Betty’s Attic, Charles Tyrwhitt, Duluth Trading Co., First Street, Oriental Trading Company, Timepieces International, and What on Earth, among others. I’d never heard of any of these companies until their catalogs arrived in my mailbox.

Now I eagerly get the mail and rush to my computer, unwanted catalogs in hand. As odd as it may sound, I am looking forward to the day in the not too distant future when I go to the mailbox and there’re only bills awaiting me.


"Laissez-faire, noun, An economic doctrine which states that no act can be evil if it earns a profit."

Victor L. Cahn The Disrespectful Dictionary


Mailboxes, Alabama, 1966

Sunday, November 4, 2007

If You Read Only One Book This Year....

Text & photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

If you read only one book this year, make it Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.

This is one of the best books I’ve read. It asks and answers the hypothetical question, what would happen if people suddenly disappeared from the earth? How would nature respond? Part of the book's brilliance is the quality of Weisman's writing, his extensive research, interviews, and his ability to describe in vivid detail what the world would be like without humans.

If we disappeared tomorrow, nature would reclaim our houses first. In New York City, the subway tunnels would flood almost immediately without people to operate the machinery that keeps the rivers out. And because humans would have disappeared from New York, cockroaches would also disappear.

Besides imagining the earth without us, Weisman also visits places where humans have left nature alone -- the one remaining virgin forest in Europe, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Because this area has not been lived in for more than 50 years, it has become a refuge for birds and creatures that might otherwise be extinct now. However, in anticipation of a reconciliation between the two countries and subsequent reunification, real estate developers already have their eyes on the DMZ.

Weisman does not rant about what is happening to the environment. He writes simply and gently, leaving it to the reader to rage or not. Weisman relies on being an engaging science writer, able to write about complex matters with a minimum of scientific language. In fact, Weisman tells a series of stories about our world, and he is such a good storyteller that the book reads easily.

It is also a book rich in insights and ideas because it is not only concerned with describing what a world free of humans would be like, the book is also concerned with how and why we have arrived at this place and time. Weisman writes about our “acquisitive instincts that can’t tell when to stop, until something we never intended to harm is fatally deprived of something it needs. We don’t actually have to shoot songbirds to remove them from the sky. Take away enough of their home or sustenance, and they fall dead on their own.” He presents a plausible explanation as to the disappearance of the Mayan civilization, and he also posits a startling answer about how we can avert ecological disaster in fifty years.

One sad fact: the one human creation that would survive for millions of years is the faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. (Imagine aliens arriving on earth in a million years and coming upon Mount Rushmore. Undoubtedly they would posit that a race of giants once lived here.) Sadly, all the art, literature, music humans have created would not survive. Even more sadly, the waste from the world's nuclear power plants will not only survive, but given how ineptly the wastes are presently stored, the chances of these wastes seeping into the environment are almost inevitable, whether we're here or not.

If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It is science writing at its best. At one and the same time, it is a depressing, enchanting, engaging, and, oddly exhilarating book.

One quote from the book:

“Like our kin the chimpanzees, we’d always murdered one another over territory and mates. But with the rise of slavery, we were reduced to something new: an export crop.” p. 76