Thursday, June 16, 2011

The more we have, the more we waste

Our society has created for us an illusion of plenty (to borrow the title of Sandra Postel's book on water scarcity). Indeed, if we were to look at the lawns of the households in Phoenix, we would think that there is plenty of water to go around for all of us, and plenty to spare, so much so that everyone can own uncovered swimming pools in the driest and hottest parts of the country. (Given even a rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics, you would think that there would be a massive amount of evaporation and loss.) When we go to a grocery store, we see plenty of food, so much so that we buy food not only for today, but for tomorrow, and the next week. Much of this food goes to waste; Americans throw away more than 25% of their food. Based on calories, the National Institutes of Health put this number close to 40%. When you walk into an electronics store like Best Buy, you would think that metals and plastics will continue to be abundant, so much so that you don't mind adding another LCD TV to the one you already have. A stroll through the corridors of Home Depot make you feel insignificant compared to the amount of wood neatly stacked. There must be plenty of trees out there. So plenty, in fact, that cutting one down shouldn't matter. Maybe cutting down two shouldn't matter..or three, or four...

But the issue is a serious one - not only are we maybe over-producing food, or not equitably distributing it, but we are spending massive amounts of energy, and using so many chemicals and so much water to produce that food, and that waste. As I mentioned previously, one quarter of freshwater used in the US goes into food that is thrown away. Electronics are thrown away as soon as new models appear, with little regard to what goes on to produce each cell phone in our pockets, each computer on our desks.Our society has surrounded us with the illusion of copious, even infinite amounts of things we can burn or throw away. When you have a lot, you don't mind spending it, losing it, or throwing it away. Indeed, the value of a small amount is lost. If I've bought four radishes, one radish going bad won't make me lose sleep.

Professor Princen has written at length about the idea of sufficiency, which is a huge step forward from efficiency. When we look at the Earth from space, what we see is not an overflowing, unbound teeming of life, but the finiteness of the space in which all life as we know exists - the thin layer of atmosphere, the brown of the land and the blue of oceans. Yet for some reason we think that within the finiteness of our Earth, we can grow, materially and monetarily, unboundedly. We have founded everything we rely on on finite sources, on ever scarce sources. But we (or the corporations and can always blame them =)) have put on blinders to that finiteness. I encourage you to think about scarcity and finiteness. One thing that each one of us can do is value what we have, and treat each and every thing we have as precious. Whether it is a cup of water, or a dollar bill, or a drop of oil. Many of these things are never coming back. The least we can do is appreciate.

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