May 5, 2016 6:01 AM EDT

Humans have long sought meaning in discarded objects–from archaeologists parsing rubble for clues about how ancient societies lived to tabloid reporters sifting through celebrity garbage for incriminating items. But in her new book, Trash Talks, Elizabeth V. Spelman argues that our attitudes about waste are even more revelatory. Throughout history, she writes, some people have purposefully created more trash to project a certain social status: the more they waste, the fuller their coffers appear–sometimes to a fault. (See: Marie Antoinette.) More recently, though, greater awareness about food waste and eco-friendliness has pushed many people to the opposite extreme; a few have even started blogs to brag about how little they toss aside. As we struggle with this ever growing junk problem, Spelman writes, debate will only increase over “who is and is not a good judge” of how we use–or discard–“the resources upon which our lives depend.”

–SARAH BEGLEY

This appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of TIME.

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