Summary of Trash Talks

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Smith College philosophy professor Elizabeth V. Spelman explores anthropology, economics, law, literature and psychology in this incisive, unconventional exploration of “trash.” Deciding what to do with the garbage that humans generate poses challenges to any society. Most people consider anything discarded as repugnant, and waste threatens the Earth’s ecosystem. Yet cultures and their garbage have an inextricable relationship. Human beings reject garbage and eject it from their lives, yet it can come back to bear witness to the kind of people they were. People also repress unpleasant thoughts or memories, as if their own experiences were trash. Though at times the author’s erudition becomes a bit overwhelming, this remains a rewarding read. getAbstract recommends Spelman’s unusual exploration of how garbage illuminates societies and the relationships within them.

About the Author

Elizabeth V. Spelman teaches philosophy and humanities at Smith College and wrote Inessential Woman, Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering and Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World.



Garbage as Insight

Dealing with the garbage that humans generate challenges all societies. Human beings produce trash on such a gargantuan scale that it poses a danger to the environment. While most societies consider anything discarded as repugnant, cultures and their discards are intertwined. Trash carries indelible markers of the processes that produced it. That’s why celebrity watchers and law enforcement officials, as well as the poor, may rummage through garbage. Do you wonder if your castoffs are private? Is it against the law for someone to root through your discards?

The Fourth Amendment

The US Supreme Court considered this issue in California v. Greenwood. It examined the issues as to whether the Fourth Amendment – which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures” – prevent law enforcement officials from using information gained from searching through a person’s garbage. The US Constitution guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects.” However, those who seek this protection have to satisfy other conditions. For instance, they must show that society would accept “their expectation...

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