Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Waste Not

One of the unintended--but not at all unwelcome--aspects of a recessional economy is that folks seem to be waking up to one of the major consequences bequeathed us by our acquisitiveness: waste. Or should I say Waste, with a capital. As a consumption-based society, we constantly produce more trash than anybody. Anywhere. Any time in memory.

A few weeks ago, I showed my Visual Anthropology class a pair of films John Marshall made many ears ago among the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa. Many students noticed the sharp contrast between the early film, The Hunters (1957) and N!ai, Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) in terms of the domestic environments the two films depicted. In The Hunters, and in the bits of N!ai filmed early in her life, the people had few material belongings--but they also had no trash. After N!ai's people were moved to a reservation and exposed to Western overseers and tourists, they began to accumulate more and more stuff, and their surroundings became littered with cast-off bits of paper, plastic, and other trash. Deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering economy (in which acquired goods were precious and not easily discarded), they had little to do but quarrel and earn money from tourists to pay for material signs of their "importance" in the group.

I've frequently ranted about how much stuff we buy, and how unnecessary most of it is, but being reminded of the the relationship between making something and using it provided a fresh lesson in the politics of waste. The "advanced" or "civilized" West (as opposed to the "uncivilized" or "primitive" natives of various regions) measures its wealth in concepts like Gross Domestic Product, "The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports" (Investorwords.com. Wikipedia's map of the world's relative GDP's is instructive). Thus, worth as a civilization is grounded in a notion of how much loot we produce and consume.

Perhaps what we need now is a Gross Garbage Index to help us understand how much of what we "consume" is only bought--not used, but simply discarded. Even those of us who recycle most of what we can't physically consume (food packaging, for example) are adding to the pile. Because of the economic down-turn, more people around here seem to be growing more conscious of what they buy, and perhaps that will help people understand how much they throw away, such as wasted food. On the online forum I frequent, a recent thread (short-lived as it was) explored what posters let go to waste in their refrigerators. Some were already extremely conscious of their own habits, but others admitted to carrying on random biological experiments out of neglect or forgetfulness. I have been guilty of growing my own varieties of alien critters on occasion, but have begun a deliberate campaign to avoid them. The best solution, of course, is simply to eat one's leftovers promptly, but doing so does require a modicum of attention.

And I think that's the root: we simply do not attend to our habits. They are, after all, habits, often ingrained and out of mind. But solving the problem of waste requires that we do pay attention, and that we modify our habits accordingly.

People who live in slightly less profligate communities, such as the Brits, seem to have twigged to this already (they do live on a fairly small island, with few landfill possibilities). The other day I was rereading the March edition of my favorite shelter magazine, the British edition of Country Living (with its environmentally sensitive editorial bent), and noticed a small article in the "Ecoguide" section on "The food we throw away." One bit of advice stands out: "Cook once, eat twice." Freeze leftovers instead of letting them rot, or at least compost the inedible side-effects of cooking. Doing so, the article claims, will make a difference: "If we stopped wasting food that could have been eaten, it would be the equivalent of taking one in five cars off the road." And then it sends us to a really cool website to tell us how to do it: Love Food Hate Waste. The section on food waste points out the following:

Around a third of all the food we buy ends up being thrown in the bin and most of this could have been eaten. Reducing food waste is a major issue and not just about good food going to waste; wasting food costs the average family £420 a year [about US $630] and has serious environmental implications, too.

Of course, this seems intuitively obvious to many of us, but again, we're simply not in the habit of thinking about such things. At least we haven't been until now.

Another obvious way of reducing waste is to buy fewer things--rather a hard sell during the holidays. But the Washington Post ran a column by Judith Levine on Sunday called "Don't Buy It," which describes the situation better than I ever could. And she should know, having spent an entire year without buying anything but necessities. The idea's a variation on themes we've heard before (some of which I've tried, like living on a welfare mother's budget for a month), where writers conduct experiments to help them answer questions:

The Year Without Shopping occurred to me, like so many rash ideas, at Christmastime. Although I'm a secular Jew, I'd scattered $1,001 on gifts and other holiday odds and ends. As my credit line grew smaller and my shopping bags heavier, I envisioned their contents, along with those of a whole nation, dismissed, disliked and discarded -- and moldering in landfills forever. Then as now, more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product came from consumer spending. There was, and still is, essentially one measure of economic health: growth. But all that growth is outgrowing our finite planet. Ask any economist left or right about this, and he'll write off resource depletion as an "externality," something to worry about later.

I decided to investigate the connection between the personal activity of shopping and the global problem of overconsumption. And I figured that the best way to understand the draw of the marketplace would be to quit it altogether, then see how that felt -- like contemplating a failed marriage from the distance of post-divorce single life. I knew that my no-shopping budget would be on Mother Earth's side. Which side would the macroeconomy eventually be on? Today it's clearer than ever that we'll have to worry about that sooner rather than later.

Her book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, is now at the top of my list (one more thing to buy--but as anyone who's visited my house knows, I still own nearly every book I've ever bought), and her talk about it at Cody's Books in San Francisco is available in full from FORA.tv.

And so, even after all this rumination, I'm still sanguine about the future. The new Cabinet is shaping up to be something I can live with, smart people seem to be populating the airwaves more and more, and people like Levine seem to be asking the right questions. Maybe I won't see utopia in my lifetime, but perhaps dystopia can be kept at bay. If we can decrease the number of landfills significantly, I'll take that as a sign that we've begun to come to our senses.

Image source: Landfill Compactor in Australia (We Are Not Alone!), by Ropable via Wikimedia Commons.

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