Tuesday, January 18, 2011

War and the Environment - Analogies to trash

A few weeks ago, Serge asked me to define the words "trash" and "waste." I had a hard time doing that on the spot, probably because definitions can start getting blurry over time. It is interesting, how in many walks of life, when you start prodding for answers, you just end up with more questions. One definition of "trash" that I can think of is that trash is a byproduct of human activity in which natural resources have been concentrated and modified so much so that they cannot be re-introduced into the environment in a (close to) non-impactful way. 

 It is interesting to think that with most of the objects we use in our daily lives, it is the concentration of natural resources that makes that object useful to us - a few molecules here and there of iron oxide is utterly useless to us from a material standpoint, but when concentrated and modified, it can form solid iron, which can then be tempered and modified to form high-strength stainless steel. Such a concentration of material, resources and power is necessary in the age of modern warfare. One molecule here and there of a dioxin is harmless to the environment, but concentrated amounts of dioxins, such as in Agent Orange, when sprayed on vast swaths of land, can maim, disfigure and kill ruthlessly. Natural radioactivity from the heavy elements is natural, and radioactivity from our life-sustaining force, the Sun, is too, natural. But when concentrated, natural radioactive materials can be forged into forces of monstrous environmental, social and psychological harm. In the same manner, trash is generally made of resources that exist in diffuse natural states. These materials, when violently extracted and modified and treated, are morphed into objects that are functional in our society. Such a modification changes the inherent properties of the material in its natural state, either making the end product toxic or deadly to us, or to something else in the world.

It is also interesting to think of concepts of the "justness" of trash, in the same way people conceptualise "just wars." The concept of proportionality, which (somehow) dictates and regulates the amount of force that is "right" to be applied, can also be applied to something like trash. It seems like significant amounts of trash are created for objects of mostly little ethical or moral value, as is the case in a consumerist society. I contend that the value of many of the objects we create, which also end up as trash or waste, cannot fulfill the requirement of proportionality of use. Yet in spite of such violence, for most people, it is difficult to imagine a world without objects that end up as trash. The remains of both modern warfare and trash are degraded natural landscapes, degraded human landscapes, polluted air, polluted water, and injustice served to people least deserving of it.

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