Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Definitions and redefinitions

Paul Coseo, a Graham Doctoral Fellow, had a wonderful idea the other day: look at how the Oxford English Dictionary defines waste. He wrote - 

"...I thought I would look up some definitions of waste from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to try to understand how we have defined waste over time and in what different ways the word is used.  It may provide indications for the different ways we think of waste and provide conceptual paths for how we might look at reducing the different types of waste by individual or collective (policy/legislation/regulation) action.  Also to understand the “cultural baggage” words have such as waste and trash.  Waste is used as a noun, adjective, and verb.  As a noun the OED lists five different categories of waste.  Waste (in reference to land, water bodies or earth, e.g. desert land as a waste land).  Waste as a process or action.  Waste as matter or refuse. Combinations of words with waste (e.g. waste-collecting, waste-preventing, waste-diposal).  And a new addition in 2006 was a “waste of space n. fig. colloq. a useless, inadequate, or contemptible person or thing” (OED, 2010). I believe the definition we are using for this discussion is trash or refuse, which is a subcategory of the larger concept of waste.  The full definition of this kind of waste is “[r]efuse matter; unserviceable material remaining over from any process of manufacture; the useless by-products of any industrial process; material or manufactured articles so damaged as to be useless or unsaleable” (OED, 2010).

Trash or refuse is defined as “[a]nything of little or no worth or value; worthless stuff; rubbish; dross (Said of things material or immaterial)” (OED, 2010).  I will not go through all the categories or definitions for trash, rubbish, garbage, or refuse, but will say that many of these words also serve to describe people in a negative light as well as inanimate objects.  Waste, trash, or refuse have negative connotations in our culture and I know there are many authors aiming to show and argue for viewing waste as a positive “resource.” Bill McDonough arguing for cradle to cradle cycling of waste.  Herbert Dreiseitl designing landscapes using “waste” stormwater as a resource.  What these authors and designers may teach us is that a part of the effort (in addition to individual and collective action) in getting a larger movement of refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling waste is to reframe the “objects” as a positive resource."

I think that this is a very powerful and thoughtful exercise. Understanding the definitions of words, and how they change over time, can shed light on our perceptions of objects, places and events, and allow us to conceptualise what was important to people, and when. It is interesting to note that until the late 19th century, waste was a noun used to describe desert landscapes, although somewhat rhetorically. Nowadays, we know deserts serve as ecosystems in their own right; their existence is righteous. Similarly, we continue to redefine cultural norms - people's acceptance of homosexuality is steadily increasing over time (although, unfortunately, some are compelled to remain steadfast in opposition to it), for the most part due to generational change. Indeed, a true definition is subconscious, accepted, and unsaid. This ties in with yesterday's post by Michelle. She further elaborated on her post today, saying that closing the gap between the "effort required" and the "effort expended" would serve as a redefinition of a cultural norm; it must be a subconscious thought, feeling and emotion that waste and trash should be reduced. I am not sure whether I would want trash or waste to be viewed in a positive light, as advocated by Bill McDonough in his book Cradle to Cradle, since it seems to me that this would only serve to further commodify trash. (This is an oversimplification of McDonough's argument, which I will comment on later.) However, I share Paul's sentiment that it is important to understand where we've come from to understand where we might go.

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