The New7Wonders Foundation, the Swiss non-profit that in 2007 facilitated an online vote to name the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” is back at it again. This time, the organization and its founder, Bernard Weber, want the world to submit and vote on the “seven symbols of peace,” a vague and confusing concept that is producing equally vague and confusing submissions.
Weber is an earnest dogooder of the kind commonly found in the non-profit sector. In the most pedantic sense, his mission hasn’t necessarily been for naught; his “new seven wonders” campaign netted an impressive 600 million votes and gave us yet another reason not to tear down some old stuff and replace them with condos. Weber, according to his “about me” page, sought to harness the unprecedented global collaborative potential of the internet to bring people together, maybe even to start a new discussion around monument-preservation efforts. Presumably, his “seven symbols of peace” campaign has the same aim; it’s a worthwhile mission indeed, except he is mistaken.
The new Seven Wonders of the World seem much like the first: replace the meticulously crafted Hanging Gardens of Babylon with architectural feats the Roman Colosseum and Taj Mahal, update religious monuments like the Temple of Artemis with Rio De Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, and cap it off by throwing in The Great Wall of China in the place of the really tall Lighthouse of Alexandria. But are these structures really “wondrous” at all? Even Weber doesn’t seem to think so; he conceded on his “about” page that he couldn’t even name the original seven wonders of the world before he started the New7Wonders project. It seems as if Weber stumbled upon a profound insight: We take postcard-ready vanity “world wonders” for granted to the point that any one of them is hardly worth committing to memory, and what’s more, they tell us nothing about our ancestors’ cultures and the way they lived. This isn’t anyone’s fault, necessarily. The glistening, magnificently-crafted structures of yore were never meant to be expressions of life as it was lived for most, but instead served as physical manifestations of the power that rulers held over both the land their lands and subjects.
It appears that people are taking a similar approach to the Peace initiative and attempting to venerate the best stuff we’ve got. Anyone can nominate a Symbol of Peace, and so far, the submissions have run the gamut from clip-art handshake pictures to cliche dorm-room posters like John Lennon (submitted with the hashtag #Imagine, of course).
But these nominators, however well-meaning, have got it all wrong. In order to truly find the benchmark of wondery, a peace symbol of our modern age, we need to look offshore — outside the realm of conscious design or human discovery. Our new wonders need to reflect our flaws, the ways in which we’ve failed our world and ourselves, the ways in which we could do better. That said, there is only one true existing composition that satisfies the increasingly-unobtainable title of “wondrous,” and it is the giant, glistening pile of trash known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In fact, I even took it upon myself to nominate the Patch to be the new Worldwide Symbol of Peace. While the New7Wonders foundation removed my nomination from their website presumably because they thought I was trolling them, I will not be silenced. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is disgusting, shameful and a sign of a grim future, but it is all of us, in the most literal sense. It is the only modern wonder and the only truly collaborative project of our age.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not technically exist, at least not in the sense that its name evokes. It is not an island-like pile of compost twice the size of Texas, but rather a galaxy of garbage spread across the Pacific Ocean, swept loosely together by the ocean currents, gathering 80,000 tons of plastic and debris from three continents, stretching 6,000 miles. The Patch, which began being measured in the ’70s, is ever expanding, a snake-like beast with no area larger than the other. Fittingly, this makes it undetectable by satellite imagery, which, in addition to being a convenient allegory for an economic system that sweeps all its problems just out of sight, is kind of wondrous to think about in and of itself.
The Patch represents an ugly intrusion of humankind onto nature. When Herman Mellville described the sea’s ugliest and most dreaded creatures as “hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure,” he couldn’t have possibly have predicted its current condition. The marine life that once made up the ocean’s ecosystem is threatened by the worst aspects of our own character, as our rampant consumerism, unbothered by the need to starve off our destruction, sweeps its most disposable synthetic objects off the mainlands and out of sight.
The most notable wonders and architectural works of prior eras — the statues and temples of Antiquity, the churches of the Renaissance, and the magnificently crafted banks of the 19th century — were representations of the state of civilization at the time. Reign after reign of emperors, the Catholic Church’s dominance, and a nascent finance capitalism all left their historical stamps in the various construction projects of the period.
But judging the state of a society by the peak of its architectural achievements is, and has always been, patchy at best. Think of a college brochure. In its pages, a school will tend to display the newest and most state-of-the-art buildings while conveniently leaving out the actually-existing experience on the campus — the decaying humanities departments, the shitty, smelly first-year dorms, the increasing adjunctification of its teaching faculty, the hordes of geese feasting on the accumulated Monday morning trash. It’s a microcosm of how grand, over-advertised physical structures serve as clumsy distractions that hide the disposability of the broader world in which they are planted. In order to judge a society and assess the actual experiences of those who have to live within it, we need not examine its highs, but its lows. The Garbage Patch is a stamp of our moment: a rotting, exhausted culture, trudging along under a system of nihilistic free-market neoliberalism, moving its crises around geographically as it bakes in the hot sun.
The Patch, in a way, is a truly grand collaborative project. It contains plastic from Asia, North and South America, meaning that over a billion people may have contributed to it. Try to think of something more immaculate than that: a world in eternal conflict since life began, unconsciously harmonizing through trash.The greatest achievement of the rise of a hegemonic capitalist globalization, the rise of a global consumer culture which promised an End of History premised on international cooperation and peace, failed on all but one thing:the global cohesion of waste We did it. The Patch is unbothered by investors or markets. Instead, it’s an autonomous iconoclast, rejecting input from its broader world with a menacing aura. It just grows and grows, accumulating the waste from a society in which it’s at once not at home, but also not separate from either. The Patch lingers, hunched over, indiscriminately collecting ornaments from different cultures, different lives, different pasts, preserving them for an uncertain future. It’s everything Epcot Center wishes it could be.
In the future, perhaps The Patch will be discovered as a relic of the past. Maybe an alien species, or a fledgling terrestrial one with no memory of us, will find it in a dash of exploration. Just like the Himalayas, they could study it, stare it at, but will never be able to fully comprehend its vastness and or the lives that contributed to its stature. If they think about it hard enough, they may even find it beautiful. Through studying our waste, these future civilizations might be able to glean insight into our culture, just as we have learned about the Romans from the Coliseum. Through their studies, they will craft a picture of who we were, obtaining a clearer understanding of our society than they’d ever be able to get by studying any museum or monument. They may even be able to tell where it all went wrong.