Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On framing: consumption vs. trash

Having been involved in environmental activism on campus for years now, the issue of the framing of issues is never too far from my mind. Framing the issue in the right way without compromising on your values can lead to more persuasive arguments. Today's post is on the issue of framing. Case study: consumption vs. trash.

Consumption is complicated. As defining a feature as it is in our behaviour, consumption is vague in its physicality. Consumption is solely an action. It is not something that we can touch or smell. The fact that we can't feel consumption, but rather that its existence is conveyed through the exchange of physical objects, makes it more of a mental and emotional characteristic. At the same time there is indeed a spectrum of consumption, and some consumption must occur to stay alive - with each breath I am taking I am consuming oxygen. Furthermore, many of us think that consuming leads to a happier and more meaningful life, and maybe it does - I can buy a cell phone so that I can keep in touch with my family. At the same time, we live in a society in which people are judged by their consumption habits such that they have physical objects to show for them. Therefore, it may seem very difficult to persuade people to stop consuming.

Yet the dire state of our environment is plain for all to see, and consumption has played an all too heavy hand in this state. There has been ever-increasing talk about how we live in a "materialistic" and "consumerist" world, and that we need to "consume" less if there is any hope that we avoid catastrophic climate change, or if there is any hope that we move to a more sustainable world. Probably more often than not though, we have been told that we need to consume "differently" - we are now being persuaded to buy "green" cars and "environmentally friendly" computers, which are, of course, purely oxymorons. The issue of consumption has been skirted to make us feel less guilty about what we buy. All of this increased consumption is to aid "progress" and "development;" I've written about previously, the concept of sustainability has been consciously morphed into that of "sustainable development," or in a sense, "sustainable consumption."

On the other hand, we have the problems that are borne of consumption, trash being on of them. "Trash" is both an action and an object. Trash isn't something vague or unnoticeable; it is not emotional or mental (although for me it has become so). Rather, trash is a physical manifestation of a mental and emotional construct - consumption - just like the objects we consume are physical manifestations. The objects we consume may be adding some "value" into our lives, but unless you are dealing in the business of trash, trash adds no value to what it is you consume. Instead, trash is a nuisance. Trash is felt and experienced viscerally; the fact that trash is visceral therefore makes it a wonderful metaphor of ecological degradation perpetrated by humans.

To me, the problems of trash, consumption, climate change and unsustainability are one and the same. Yet in order to have a broader impact, and in order to motivate individual action to aid the environment, what may be the appropriate framework to help guide more people? The connotations of consumption may not be wholly negative. In a sense, there is no way I can stop consuming physical things in existence in nature, particularly air, water, and food. But trash has only negative connotations associated with it. More importantly, adequately addressing trash necessarily addresses the issue of consumption - minimizing trash and waste minimizes consumption automatically. Gone are the issues of deciding whether or not to buy product X because it may be greener than product Y. The fact that trash is the result of that consumption choice obviates any need for further thought.

(Thank you to Professor Johnson and Dr. Shriberg for planting these ideas in me.)


  1. I think about this problem a lot. What is valued and considered good. I like this related song lyric,
    "There's those thinkin' more or less, less is more,
    but if less is more, how you keepin' score?
    It means for every point you make, your level drops.
    Kinda like you're startin' from the top...
    and you can't do that."
    -Eddie Vedder

  2. Boy those lyrics really confused me!

    What are your thoughts, Matthew?

  3. Since waste is already a worldwide problem, it is important that institutions directly concerned, such as medical establishments, find ways to manage their medical wastes properly. They should work together with medical waste disposal agencies, and find effective solutions that can deal with today's and tomorrow's medical waste problems.