Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A market for everything

When I was in Montreal for the ICAO Sustainable Alternative Fuels in Aviation, I met man, who I will not name, who is very influential, especially in the financial world and the powerful (and old school) Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He told me something that I believe is both arrogant and unimaginative at the same time: "Look, the world economy is at around $60 trillion right now, and it needs to be [emphasis added] at $300 trillion in fifty years. In order to achieve that, the concept of waste cannot exist in fifty years; waste will not exist in fifty years. Every output of one process will serve as an input to another process."

I can admire such a statement, and can be repulsed by it. On the one hand, who likes waste? No one, really, apart from those who make their earnings from waste. On the other hand, it is an argument for continued technologisation of our world (something that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger would gladly accept), and it signifies something that I've been feeling for a long time--that in our control of nature, we have continually striven to recreate nature itself, or create our own "nature", as autonomously operating as possible. But, I digress. This isn't the main argument of this post. I want to go back to what this man said, that the concept of waste doesn't exist.

I can understand that cultures change, and that things that existed fifty years ago no longer exist today, and things that exist today might no longer exist fifty years from now. But I find the issue of waste (and trash) fascinating, especially because there is a market for something that we are all repulsed by. As I have said previously, regardless of your politics, trash and waste are things that most all of us want to be away from, and therefore, we do send it away. But at the same time, as Vanessa Baird has argued, maybe our economy is based around the generation of waste itself. This shouldn't come as a shock, for waste is big business in this country, and likely the same abroad.

It's true that we have made efforts to lessen "waste" and "trash" by doing something termed "recycling". But this doesn't fundamentally change the fact in our efforts to be less ecologically degrading (one can argue whether recycling is less harmful on the whole), we still have competition from landfills. When I visited the Ann Arbor materials recovery facility with Caroline, where recyclable materials from many neighbouring communities arrive to be processed, the good many that was giving us a tour of the facility said that because of the recently increased capacity of the facility, and because the facility started accepting #4, #5, and #6 plastics, that the amount of trash going to the landfills has now decreased, so much so that the fees associated with dumping trash at landfills has gone down, creating an "incentive" for communities and townships to send material to landfills, rather than paying more for recycling. There is indeed a market for trash, and a powerful one at that. How do we fight the market? Hope that "consumers will change their minds"?

When we create markets for something, we (at least for a while), accept the presence of something in the world. And with something has unwieldy, large-scale, and commonly produced as trash and waste, the larger the market, the larger the power. (A similar analogy can be made for oil and gas.) But I think that this points to something deeply fundamental and flawed in our thinking, and that is that if money can be made, even by doing something bad, someone will do it, create or coax a market for it, and then say, "Let the market dictate its presence in the world. If the market says that it shouldn't exist, then so be it." Such thinking fails to recognise that some things are inherently degrading. It is based off of the same secular, amoral thinking that has resulted in massive ecological crises and the possibilities of things degrading. We seem to confuse the possibilities of our mental capacities with real, actual, physical existence and implications in the world. The creation of options and possibilities (a market) is thought to be amoral an not value laden, and responsibility is quickly dumped on politics to messily figure out (or not) whether something is acceptable. For example, only because there is a "market" for acts like war do the possibilities of war exist. If the atomic bomb can be created, Why not it be created? many think. Why not then let the political decisions be made off of the actual presence of nuclear weapons in the world? The fact that nuclear weapons have been used "only" twice in the past sixty five years doesn't take away from the fact that nuclear weapons have been used twice, and that they have created an arms race the world over. Again, the same analogy can be made for most all of the possibilities that have been introduced into the our world because of such thinking.

I believe that such thinking can be extremely harmful. It implies a blind faith in "possibilities". People will always say that with the "good" of these possibilities comes with the "bad". But then again, this doesn't change the way we've been conducting ourselves in the world a single iota. Some things, some behaviours just do not exist in an ecologically sustainable, just world. For us to think otherwise, for us to be lead down the path of blind possibilities, means that we have not gained any wisdom from the knowledge we have; we do not learn from history and our mistakes.

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