Show Trials, Part 9: Ficticities

The Dump in Anne’s home town: you can smell it, you can hear it, you can see it. There is also a sizeable financial impact on property values located near it. The local Citizens Group put forward a proposal for compensating neighbors of the Dump, to which the Landfill Service Authority responded with a counter-proposal. Anne and I prepared a white paper, complete with charts and tables and references to publicly available local data and research findings from other sites, that estimates quantitatively the cumulative adverse impact on the valuation of properties located within a two-mile radius of the Dump. We modeled the two alternative proposals 13 years into the future, which is when the site is expected to reach capacity and be closed. Based on the evidence we concluded, and presented starkly in our report’s executive summary, that the Citizens’ proposal is much fairer  than the Authority’s proposal, to the tune of millions of dollars’ difference over the active lifetime of the Dump. Anne presented our findings to the leaders of the local Citizens Group and to a member of the Service Authority; she also posted it on a website dedicated to citizens’ efforts to push back against the landfill. No inquiries were generated; no impact detected. Not surprisingly, the Service Authority has effectively tabled the whole property value compensation issue, not even approving its own inadequate and unfair plan. A future is taking shape in which no compensation whatever will be offered to residents whose lives are going to be adversely affected for years. The most likely outcome is that the Authority will buy up (for depressed prices) more land adjacent to the Dump, expanding it beyond its current acreage and extending its lifetime even further into the mid-21st century.

We’ve discussed forming a consulting group, Anne and I, built on thematic elements uncovered by the Dump controversy. Or, more accurately, I’ve discussed the consultancy, while Anne has listened. Maybe it would be more like a waste-focused think tank — a stink tank? Theory and practice would be guided by a core construct that I’ve come to call ficticities. I’m no philosopher, so I can’t offer a comprehensive and nuanced treatment of the philosophical idea of facticity. In brief, people are ineluctably thrown into a world that’s already framed and structured, already imbued with mood and meaning – this is facticity. There is freedom and possibility in human existence, but the possibilities always unfold within – are both enhanced and constrained by – the facticity of the world into which existence is thrown. My proposed shift from facticity to ficticities is twofold. First, the world humans occupy isn’t solely a matter of matter; it’s also constructed, invented, crafted in complicity with the imagination, populated by houses and lawns, automobiles and traffic lights, financiers and schoolteachers, TV programs and fast-food restaurants. In short, we’re thrown into a world where nature is fashioned by fiction – ficticity. Second, the nature-fiction hybridity of human existence isn’t a unitary one. Crows worldwide speak the same language, form the same sorts of flocks, build their nests the same way, mob their predators using the same tactics. Humans do not all speak the same language, and that can be alienating to the odd bird immersed in a language he doesn’t understand. Sociocultural ecologies vary widely across space and time. Ficticity is plural – ficticities.

The Dump – or the Landfill, as its proponents euphemistically refer to it – is surely a physical place gradually being filled with material garbage. But it’s also a product of local history and politics and economics, of precedent and zoning and money, of packaging and consumption and waste, of loading and transport and dumping. Tweak any one of the multitude of man-made parameters that shape the ficticity that the Dump presently occupies and the physical Dump itself is altered, perhaps dramatically. It might even go out of existence altogether.

The Regional Authority wants the citizenry to regard the Landfill as facticity. A Dump Show Trial would treat the Dump as a ficticity, and a farcical one at that, the supposed facts of the situation being revealed as arbitrary, political, cooked up. Why must the citizens prove that the Dump stinks, rather than the Dump having to prove that it doesn’t stink? Why doesn’t the FAA regulation against bird hazards get enforced by the FAA itself? Why do the elected governmental representatives get to sit onstage at the Public Hearings, deliberating and speechifying while their constituents, relegated to the gallery, are permitted to speak for no more than three minutes each? Why not divert the sewage to a reservoir in a less densely populated area where the stench isn’t so offensive? Why not treat the sewage and use it as farm fertilizer? Why should the annual kickback from the Regional Authority to the county be used to pay governmental bureaucrats’ salaries rather than compensating the neighbors for impaired quality of life, health hazards, and reduced property values? Why should the elected representatives be able to decide about the Dump when the citizenry could make their own decision directly? And so on.

In the Show Trials, the county politicians would give due consideration to each of these public concerns before invariably deciding in favor of Dump expansion. Taken in the aggregate, the parameters of concern outline a ficticity of Dumpworld, an artificial ecosystem that opens up certain possibilities while constraining others. The Show Trial makes it clear that Dumpworld is erected on a staged fiction that is both arbitrary and, given the financial and political forces shaping its contours, virtually inevitable. No reason it can’t be done some other way; no way it will.

In a ficticities consultancy, the parameters of Dumpworld would undergo a transformation, from setups for farcical scenes to nodes in a hypothetical N-dimensional decision space that generates a multiplicity of simulated ficticities, of alternate realities. Striated by different potentialities and constraints, these alternate Dumpworlds affect not only the Dump but the entire ecosystem in which the Dump operates. So: a Dumpworld that prohibits sewage experiences less total tonnage being dumped per day, which extends the lifetime of the dump before reaching capacity. No sewage also decreases stink, improves quality of life, and increases property values within a several-mile radius of the site. It becomes necessary to implement alternative ways of routing and storing the sewage, entailing a new set of possibilities and constraints, of benefits and costs.

If we lived in the county we could conduct a different sort of Show Trial — not the farcical version sketched out in the last post, but rather a serious endeavor at exploring alternate ficticities. It still wouldn’t be a real trial, with real judgments being enacted that bring about real consequences affecting local residents and businesses and governmental agencies. It would be a simulated trial, an exercise in anarchistic democracy. We could hold the trial at the decommissioned Historic County Courthouse, or at one of the local public schools. All county residents would be invited to attend, including reporters from the local press. The case for compensation would be broken down one issue at a time: Should depressed property valuations be determined based on independent appraisals, or property tax valuations, or published algorithms? Should tax valuations made years ago be updated based on countywide price rises in the local realty market?  Should compensation be offered to owners of mobile homes, who theoretically could move their homes to sites not located near a dump? Should compensation be offered retroactively to homes sold after the dump became active but before the compensation plan was agreed upon? Evidence would be presented, much of which is summarized in our white paper. Jury members could be selected randomly from the audience, or else the entire audience could serve as jury. Each aspect of the case would be voted on separately. Would decisions be enacted? No, but the issues, and the injustices, would be made public. The facticity of the Dump’s status quo would be revealed as but one among many conceivable, and practicable, ficticities.

The alt-ficticities simulator would be systematic, rational, empirical, probabilistic, open-ended – everything, in short, that the farcical Dump Show Trials would not be. The problem, of course, is that the farcical Show Trials more accurately model the actually-existing Dumpworld on the ground: arbitrary, paranoiac, predetermined, irresistible, decadent.

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