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Waste and consumer choices

I essentially want to look here at cycles within Western society in terms of economic and consumer activity. Starting from the root of the word as ‘household management’, I tend to view economic activity as housekeeping or the process of managing natural resources.

It seems bizarre how even fairly recently “waste” as we know it did not really exist. It seems that food was grown fairly locally and bought in its rawer, unpackaged state. Clothing and possessions were fewer and treated with greater reverence and care. Property was maintained and designed to last. Materials were generally natural and could be repurposed – wood, metal, natural fibres. Then suddenly we are all generating vast amounts of waste, and in forms that cannot be reintegrated into nature. It’s quite an incredible shift really, and surely one that must be actively sustained by standards within the business world.

As an aside here, the book “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough & Michael Braungart is fascinating and challenging in this regard; and this topic also links with my recent post on “Small is Beautiful” regarding our treatment of natural capital and the principles underpinning our actions.

I also find it interesting that we demean those who perform the ‘menial tasks’ within our system, such as maintenance or production, when to me there is a real importance in taking responsibility for the full reality of a situation. In maintaining something, you gain valuable insight into the material reality of our choices: Is something nearly impossible to maintain in its intended state? Does it require unnecessarily chemical products or time to clean? Does it age well or seem designed to do the opposite? To me, it’s one of the contradictions of our society that we embrace consumerism but do not want to look at the consequences and learn from them. We get someone else to sweep it under the carpet.

As with most things, I see a real truth behind all this – that we are not looking entirely consciously at the system we are embracing; that we are not fully taking responsibility for the less glamorous realities of how it all works. Yes, we can make all manner of things. Yes, there are few limits to what we can envisage and create. Except the material limits of our ecosystem, the human limits of social inequality, the ethical limits of the world we leave behind us. Hopefully once the excitement of material indulgence fades we will begin to look and act more responsibly in terms of how we manage these things and the full implications of the choices we are making.

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