I really miss many things about the hometown I left behind nearly 38 years ago when I decided to travel to America to pursue graduate education. One of them is lettuce. Not the head lettuce popular here in the United States, but the special kind of lettuce that grows only in the warm and arid areas of my home town, Qum, Iran. This lettuce, known as Minaei lettuce, grows tall, especially if not cut and harvested on time, and has long, dark, lush, green leaves and soggy, slender, purplish ribs. My father, who earned livelihood as a farmer, used to grow the best variety on a small farm he rented from its owner, Haaj Arbab. It was scrumptious! Organic nourishment was used on his farm and was perhaps the main reason why that particular type of lettuce was so genuinely appetizing. In those days, chemical fertilizers were unknown to traditional farmers. They used only organic composts, after they had aged to readiness, of dirt and decayed natural, degradable substances that were discarded by people, or simple animal manure. This material would be picked up on a daily basis from all over the area by men who were hired by the farmers. It would then be piled up and preserved for about a year until it eventually mutated into the natural nourishment ideal for plants and vegetables. That was probably the farmers’ primitive version of Darwin’s theory of evolution!
To my knowledge, I don’t believe there was any kind of officially designated public landfill in sanitary or even unsanitary condition in Iran at that time, at least not in my neck of the woods. I don’t think there are many even today. Instead, every corner of almost every alley and street was an unsanctioned, make-shift landfill where people dumped their solid waste openly without any shame, ignominy, or hesitation. Without giving it a second thought, often naughty kids in my neighborhood used these corner landfills as their emergency toilet, adding another unpleasant odor to these already disgusting sites. These places were also magnets for occasional scavengers looking to find something of use or value and, of course, for the professional garbage hauler (called kharakdar by local people) whose daily job was to pick up dirt and refuse materials for farmers like my father to use to fertilize their farmland.
If you lived in a poor and undeveloped country like I did, you knew that polluting and littering the streets and alleys were inconsequential misdemeanors committed with impunity. Dumping harmful waste in the public domain was generally admissible despite the imminent health risks because human lives were not as precious and as safely guarded as they are in advanced countries. As such, scant attention was paid to environmental quality in less developed countries, and this is true even to this day. Where I lived, the dismal economic conditions, lack of education, and unscrupulous religious beliefs were the principal reasons why life was such a taken-for-granted commodity in those days. People seemed content despite the unbearable living conditions because they were told by mullahs that this world was like a prison for pious people. The health hazards of those open dump sites in alleys and on street corners were not a matter of concern to anybody, including the government officials. They were so busy with appeasing their superiors and celebrating the triumphant Persian Empire of some twenty five hundred years ago that they didn’t have time for anything else. The absence of affluent people in our neighborhood signified that it had nothing worthwhile to offer to attract these people. Their nonexistence, however, was a welcome relief because it camouflaged the misery of deprivation for the residents of our community who had no yardstick against which they could compare their unmanageable fate.
I felt so sorry for the poor donkeys my family owned and cared for. Gentle and falsely thought of as dumb, the patient, stubborn donkeys are not yet liked by their own creator who did not even give them horns with which to defend themselves in case they confronted a threat or a physical altercation with other animals, human beings included! I can’t image what kind of havoc they could wreck on earth if they did have horns. I recall that all the poor donkeys could do to promulgate their existence, voice their objection, or react to predatory dangers, was to raise their not so amiable voices. They are even despised unceremoniously in our Holy Scriptures as if they are the creatures of a second-class God! “And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys.” (Sura 31, verse 19)
Every morning of every day, the garbage pickers and the herd of donkeys they shepherded roamed the long, twisting alleys and streets of our neighborhood in search of trash and animal manure that would be transported to the designated landfills to be piled and used months, or even years, later to fertilize the farm soil. Habib was our own private trash hauler. My father had hired him after a painstaking recruitment process! In his late twenties, he had no education or training to succeed in life, even at the you-want-fries-with-that jobs. Seemingly, he had no purpose in life other than to wait and see what nature would throw at him next. Spare time was what he had plenty of and, with no opportunities awaiting his time, it cost nothing and wasting it was a daily routine for individuals like him. Without a doubt, gratuitous time was the only thing that made trash hauling an expedient endeavor. And, if the opportunity cost of your time is nearly zero, you don’t have to care about the economic consequences of your actions since there may not be any.
Whether we admit it or not, a choice we make is basically guided by “trade offs,” the sacrifices, monetary and non-monetary, we have to make in order to make that choice. A trained doctor, for example, may not spend a couple of hours in a movie theater to watch even a good movie because the opportunity cost of doing so would be enormous for him; but a minimum-wage worker might do so any chance he can get. As such, making choices becomes as easy as 1, 2, 3, for the poor. Under such system, the rich and the poor chose among their options in the same way. However, the choices attainable to them and the constraints they face are different. Money may not be a constraint for the rich as it is for the poor. And, if you live under deprived conditions as Habib did, you are willing to tolerate more hardship and be willing to pay a hefty price for improvement in your living conditions. That is, however, a luxury beyond your reach. I could never understand how the collective consciousness of a society seemingly so devoted to moral values could create and condone unjust social structures, and turn a blind eye to individuals like Habib who have to devote their lives to trash hauling for meager or no compensation. Lacking a reasonable and just pricing system, the value of the services performed by persons like Habib and my father eventually descends into triviality and, with no social safety net in place, in the long term they are forced into a financial quagmire and eventually to the periphery of society.
The garbage Habib collected on a daily basis from these sanctuaries had to be piled and preserved for a long time before being used. Farmers did not use any organic compost before its time. Patience was necessary for the piled trash to evolve into natural fertilizer. Early in the morning, Habib came to our house to outfit the donkeys we owned and usher them to the theaters of operation! He then fulfilled his mission: collecting garbage to be carried by these domesticated donkeys to the conservation site, usually at the corner of our rented farm located on the outskirts of city limits. The pile of trash looked like a manmade hill and was the outcome of Habib’s many months of toilsome work. In the absence of alternatives those days, donkeys were the only feasible means of transportation, especially for almost everything especially for agricultural products. The advent of a more modern transportation system, however, rendered Habib’s service uneconomical and his dexterities unmarketable. His manual skills and the donkeys became obsolete, bringing heartache to him and pushing him sooner or later into irrelevancy.
It took donkeys about an hour or even longer to finally reach the dumping destination where Habib would unload the dirt and relieve the donkeys of their heavy loads. He then had the time of his life on his way back to town to collect more garbage because he could ride a donkey of his choice while guiding the rest of them down the road. I remember that Habib was not strategically smart enough to guide the guiltless donkeys under his command sagaciously. He had a long leather whip in his hand which he used to propel the slow moving donkeys in a punishing way. Usually the last one in the procession was the one that was lambasted because that was the only one accessible to Habib. The ones at the front of the line could not be reached because his whip was not long enough. In my childhood mind, I sometimes thought that he was dumber than those donkeys he was trying to guide. One day I told him that if he wanted the last donkey to go faster, he should first have the ones at the front go faster. They were the hindrance and the ones that needed prodding.
More often than not, economists tell us about the price of goods but not about the price of “bads,” the things you want to avoid. Bad things have no value whatsoever unless you live in a deprived city in a poor country. Intrinsically, the value we place on everything depends on expected benefits and price we are willing to pay reflect that. If refused materials are the only source of fertilizer, then they become an object of value. That is why we hired Habib to pick them up for us. And, it seemed to me that the value we placed on the “bads” like garbage was also one of the indicators of a lack of socioeconomic progress or inattentiveness to environmental issues.
The reasons dumping trash in poor countries is so cheap and not so cheap in affluent nations are the differences in the level of income, the value of human life, and the emphasis placed on a standard of living. In addition, people in poor countries may not be aware of better options that may be attainable for them.
Pollution, for example, is a critical issue in the U.S. because people care about environmental issues, their health status, and their life expectancy. They also have the resources and the will to deal with such issues. Americans may import products from other countries not only for economic reasons, but also because the exporting counties have a greater tolerance for air pollution and other environmental damage that may result from cheaply manufacturing certain products. Lack of environmental protection agencies, inadequate willingness of government to deal with the issue, and bribery and corruption are the primary reasons why the Least Developed Countries cannot tackle environmental issues effectively.
To make a long story short, there often are human reminiscences behind even the simplest of things. The next time you enjoy the crispy taste of Minaei lettuce, think about the arduous efforts of farmers like my father and impoverished trash haulers like Habib whose simple lives were at the mercy of those who purchased their crops. Think about the faceless and often voiceless poor people, sometimes from across the globe, who provide you with things you enjoy. Perhaps then you will find it in your heart (and for the good of your heart) to buy more vegetables!