I feel ashamed to admit this, but when I was in junior high, my friends and I would sometimes make fun of the school’s janitor (as custodians were called back then). Never in front of him of course – just among ourselves. While our parents were already encouraging us to become doctors and lawyers, we were surprised to see an adult who seemed quite content to earn his living living by mopping floors and emptying garbage cans. We were a bunch of arrogant and ignorant grade-seven boys, with an outmoded and stratified view of labour and vocation. However, we did mature and become more respectful during our adolescence – in high school, the janitors were called custodians, and each year, a couple of pages of the yearbook featured the custodial staff, and thanked them for their continued efforts.
I haven’t thought much about the role of custodians in society since high school – until I saw a documentary called Life After People. The series is based on the question “What would happen if the Earth’s entire human population suddenly disappeared?” Using a team of subject matter experts and some impressive CGI, the producers illustrated the ultimate fate of our cities, neighbourhoods, monuments, houses and everything else that was left behind. I just assumed that (aside from rotting food) everything would remain fairly well-preserved over the ensuing years and decades, but as it turns out, the deterioration of just about everything Humankind has created is surprisingly rapid, and in some cases, completely devastating.
After watching a few episodes of Life After People, I was both shocked and humbled. Nature has established a global equilibrium that has endured for millions of years. Then, in a geological instant, homo sapiens came along, and as our numbers grew exponentially, we began cutting and reshaping the planet. We humans are supremely confident as we dominate the Earth, exploit its resources, and carve out a pleasant environment for ourselves. However, that self-assuredness is premature, because we are underestimating the power of the juggernaut known as Mother Nature. We may think of ourselves as masters of our domain, but after watching this program I now realize that we are doing little more than causing temporary ripples in Nature’s equilibrium. I’d never thought about it before, but maintaining our cities, roads, buildings, infrastructure and everything else requires a continual and never-ending collective effort.
The Life After People scenarios were fictional, but a few months after watching the program, I encountered a real-life example, much closer to home. As I was riding along a local bicycle trail, I saw this peculiar sight:
I remember cycling past it a number of years ago, and there was a road there, which I believe was paved. I wish I had taken a photo of it at the time, but who takes pictures of such things? Fortunately, Google Earth has a “time machine” feature that allows you to examine historical satellite images of a particular location. Here are some photos of this spot taken (from top to bottom) in 2005, 2007 and 2009 (Google Earth’s most recent image). The spot where I was standing when I took the above photo is marked with an “X”.
Look at what Nature has reclaimed during the relatively short time span of 2005-2013. I always thought that a paved road (even if not maintained) would last decades – or even a century – but after only eight years, the gate and signs are the only indicators that something else was ever there.
The more I thought about this tug-of-war between Man and Nature, the more examples I began to see. The forces of Nature are immensely powerful, but to be fair, we’re already at a disadvantage because the laws of physics are also working against us, in the form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In simple terms, this law states that there the amount of entropy (lack of order) in the universe always increases. In fact, Life After People was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Deterioration surrounds us, and affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. Counteracting or even neutralizing this continuous increase of disorder means that we all have to spend a lot of our time on various forms of maintenance and repair, tending to our ourselves, our possessions and our surroundings. Much of what we do every day can be classified as simple custodial duties. Therefore, in a sense, we are all custodians.
Our Daily Custodial Duties
To illustrate my hypothesis, let’s examine a typical day, by looking at the things we do and the products that we use. A surprising number of the items we use every day exist solely for repairs and maintenance.
Personal Care: You wake up and shuffle into the bathroom to begin your morning routine. Here, you will perform daily maintenance on your body with the help of many of the following products: soap, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, dental floss, mouthwash, toilet paper, facial tissues, hand cream, shaving cream, Clearasil or Oil of Olay (depending on your age), razors, nail clippers, nose hair clippers (again, depending on your age), hair-removal cream and deodorant.
Personal Fitness: Our bodies establish a certain equilibrium, based on our lifestyle. If we want to alter it, then we need to exercise, change our diet or both. All of the time you spend at the gym, stretching, lifting weights, and well as running, walking, hiking, cycling or working out at home with your own equipment is just body maintenance.
Indoor Chores: Even though you never deliberately make your house messy, it seems to require constant upkeep. During a typical week, you or your spouse will probably spend several hours using the following items: feather duster, dust cloth, vacuum cleaner, Pledge furniture polish, Swiffer (or a generic mop), Ty-D Bol, Mr. Clean, Lysol, Drano or Liquid Plumr, CLR, Easy Off oven cleaner, Windex, Comet, Febreze, laundry detergent, dryer sheets and dishwashing liquid.
Outdoor Chores: Just about everything we do outside the house is maintenance-related: mowing and watering the lawn, weeding, pruning, landscaping, cleaning the eavestroughs, raking leaves, shoveling snow, resurfacing the driveway, The next time you visit Canadian Tire or Home Depot, take a look at their inventory and make a note of how many items could be classified as custodial supplies – probably more than half.
Automotive: Most of our possessions require regular maintenance, especially ones with many moving parts. You may buy a new car every five years, but you’re probably visiting your dealer every 3-4 months for oil changes, tire rotations, winter/summer tire swaps, tune-ups, and the dreaded (and expensive) “regularly-scheduled maintenance”. Your weekly trip to the gas station might also include (in addition to a fill-up), a car wash, a tire pressure check, cleaning your car’s windows and vacuuming its interior.
Professions: Think about our trades and professions for a moment, and consider how many of them are primarily (or even entirely) various types of repairs and maintenance: in addition to the usual building, construction and handyman trades, there are also acupuncturists, barbers, chiropractors, computer programmers, counselors, dentists, doctors, firefighters, maids, mechanics, paramedics, psychologists, physiotherapists, sanitation workers, surgeons and technical support workers.
TV News: When you are finally ready to retire for the evening and turn on the evening news, you’ll invariably see stories of natural disasters: featuring hurricanes, tornadoes, landladies, floods or wildfires. It’s almost as if Nature is deliberately trying to erase the marks we’ve been leaving on the planet. After each of these events, a massive and often extended cleanup operation is necessary to repair the damage.
We are in a constant tug-of-war with Nature, but we seem to be completely unaware of this battle as we try to shape the world around us. When most of our waking hours are spent performing repairs and maintenance, then perhaps we should should rethink how we’re living, and how we can become better stewards of the planet. This is our wake-up call.