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Junkie Nation

Joyce Marcel

Just imagine for a minute that you wake up one morning to learn that someone has stolen the arm off of the Statue of Liberty. And with it, her torch. No more will she "lift my lamp beside the golden door." Instead, her great lamp is already shredded; it's on a slow boat to China as we speak.

To be followed, soon after, by the Verrazano Bridge.

Farfetched? Maybe today. Maybe not tomorrow.

Earlier in the week, I toured a scrap metal business in the Northeast Kingdom.

In a startling way, the price of scrap metal has risen so high that people are selling everything they can get their hands on. Suddenly, that old washer and dryer in the side yard, the ones with the vines growing through them, are valuable. So are those old tire rims.

Scrap metal businesses are booming. In Vermont, metal yards are running two and three trucks a day to the ports of Albany, Montreal and Boston. I was told that in Montreal, they have a machine that can suck in an entire car and cut it down to "frags," which can be packed into containers. The rest of the car -- the insulation, plastic and padding, the "fluff" -- gets blown by huge blowers into a different bin and trucked to the landfill.

It's not surprising that the biggest buyer of American scrap metal is the world's biggest consumer/manufacturer, China. Turkey is right behind, and other Asian countries with booming new economies are also following.

The scrap metal people are working overtime to fill the demand. They're buying, shipping and selling like mad. While it's nice to have a booming industry in Vermont, you can see that this one has its limitations.

Since we're not a manufacturing country anymore, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that we could easily run out of scrap metal if this keeps up.

And even though America still needs metal for houses, cars and appliances, we're competing for our own scrap with countries that can pay much more.

It reminds me a bit of drug behavior. When junkies run out of money, they still need their fixes. After they sell everything they own, they start stealing.

As resources in America become scarce and/or too expensive, as people need their new car fixes -- or even when they run out money for food and beer -- what will they do?

Will they do without? Not in America, where we're all spoiled rotten and have the entitlement complexes of infants. We'll just strip-mine the country. When we run out of junk in our back yards, we'll steal it.

Already, second homes are being raided for their copper plumbing. Cars parked on city streets are having their catalytic converters cut out; they're worth about $100 each because they contain platinum. Used car dealers are having a hard time getting inventory, because a car is worth more stripped and turned into scrap than it is driven down the street or used for parts.

What are some other good sources of metal? Well, the Statue of Liberty is an obvious choice.

Don't get me wrong. Its great that we're recycling -- aluminum cans no longer dot the roadside, and rusted out cars are no longer eyesores on our neighbors' lawns. A dump used to be a dump, but now it's a resource. Besides generating methane for energy, we can mine it for stuff we threw away 10 years ago when it had no value.

Recycling is a good thing, but we're not using the recycled material ourselves. Our trash is someone else's treasure. We're in debt. We have no industry. We're spinning our wheels while the rest of the world is moving ahead.

We may have come to the natural and inevitable end of an unsustainable consumer society. Like the air we breathe, the water we drink and the fish we eat, the unlimited resources that we took for granted have turned out to have limits, after all.

There's another issue at play here, as well. China may be our customer and our supplier, but it is also our competitor.

It's interesting to note that before the start of World War II, as much as 75 percent of Japan's scrap metal came from the United States.

In 1944, the poet e. e. cummings wrote a famous poem, "Plato Told," about selling New York's Sixth Avenue El to Japan: "Plato told him:he couldn't believe it (jesus/told him; he wouldn't believe it) took a nipponized bit of the old sixth avenue el;in the top of his head:to tell him." (Grammar and punctuation his.)

Eventually, Roosevelt put an embargo on selling scrap metal to Japan. Then came Pearl Harbor, and America entered its last great metal scrap and recycling age -- it went into high gear producing tanks and planes for World War II. The country was able to win that war because, from a standing start, it outproduced Germany and Japan.

I'm not suggesting that China will turn our junk cars into weapons that will come back and bomb us. The world is a different place now. It runs on money, not guns. And the easiest way to destroy America is to let us do it ourselves.

We don't need an invading army. We can sell off our assets to the highest bidder, embroil ourselves in imperialist dreams on borrowed money, and say goodbye to the Statue of Liberty.

Piece by piece.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through And write her at

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