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Unchecked consumption will waste the planet

WasteCutting waste is the fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and cope with other crises of climate change. Waste is about turning resources into non-usable rubbish without getting full value from them. Waste causes half our carbon emissions, and wastes resources and the human lives that produce them.

According to the Australia Institute's 2005 report, 'Wasteful Consumption in Australia', in 2004, 20 million Australians threw away $5.3 billion in food alone, including $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million of uneaten takeaway food, and $876 million of leftovers. In addition, the Conservation Foundation found that each Australian household wastes an average of $1,226 per annum on items they purchase but do not use.

Why is the alternative of cutting waste to reduce carbon emissions not receiving the same attention as carbon trading, which balances continued emitting with problematic offsets?

The big snag is economic. As NSW Premier Morris Iemma has said, 'There is no point in saving the planet if we ruin the economy doing it.' If everyone wastes less, what happens to jobs? What happens to business? If we buy less and throw out less, what happens to shops?

The problem becomes absurd when we consider that the richest 10 per cent of the world's population must continue to buy and consume wastefully, to prevent global economic collapse. Meanwhile two billion people barely survive.

A logical response is make the global economy more rational. Accept that capitalism can run to excess and can be improved. Its great advantages are that it encourages enterprise and saves capital for production that serves people's needs. A great disadvantage is the perceived necessity for unstoppable growth, which is leading to ecological disaster. The challenge is growth in quality, not quantity.

Regarding the effect on jobs, the truth is that if all the jobs needing to be done were being done, there would be no unemployment. How can these jobs be financed? Beside changes in personal lifestyles, political and economic action is needed. These include changing taxation to discourage wasteful production and depletion of resources, encouraging employment and research into the products that are needed, and salvage that emphasises re-using even more than energy-intensive recycling. Building and transport infrastructure need rejigging before it is too late.

So many of the goods we see in shop windows will soon be waste, mostly landfill — we need more products that are repairable and durable. We should enjoy what we have without needing insatiable novelty.

Sustainable-household economics can complement markets, as suggested by economist Graeme Snooks. We can develop many low technology inventions such as backyard solar ovens and pedal-powered communications (with exercise as a by-product).

Much waste of fossil-fuels and built-in obsolescence aims to save labor costs and to 'make jobs'. It is great that we have replaced the appalling drudgery and unmitigated toil of past ages with quick and convenient machinery . But we go to extremes when people waste time in formal exercising because they use electricity for tasks that could give us natural everyday exercise.

In a Biblical story the land of Egypt prepared for seven years of famine during seven years of plenty. The developed world today has enjoyed years of utmost plenty as never seen before, but has wasted them with a consumption explosion, careless of future cost. Our plastics, fertilisers, infrastructure, petrol, many creature comforts and sources of energy still largely depend upon diminishing oil reserves.

The 18th century moralist Dr Samuel Johnson once quipped that 'when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully'. Our thoughts have not yet been concentrated by climatic catastrophes and shortages. Most of it seeems far away from us personally. However, winds, droughts, fires, floods and 40 million economic refugees are signs of a world facing crisis.

It has been taken for granted that if humans are not using or exploiting something it is being wasted — all those empty continents, unexplored jungles, trees growing, animals roaming. Now we are recognising the importance of maintaining biodiversity. In order to continue to live ourselves we must allow many other life forms to exist. Moral theology considers sharing, not wasting, and cooperation rather than competition.

Our entertainment imagines a future of dystopias. We play with puzzles, but could instead work on real ones. Our imagination and energy can rise to unprecedented challenges with a different vision.



Val YuleVal Yule is a writer on social issues and researcher on imagination and literacy. In the 1970s she was schools psychologist for disadvantaged Catholic schools with the Commonwealth Disadvantaged Schools Program.





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Existing comments

Thank you for this article. I have long been concerned about overproduction and waste. There must be a better way for economies to prosper than to continually produce more and more things for us to consume. We need to promote all ideas and people who are trying to come up with sustainable ways to live. Do we need a disaster before we act?

Frances Pegrem | 02 November 2007  

Those of us born in the '30s were raised with warnings about wasting nothing and making do and not having things because others had them etc. Hugh McKay rightly observed that we are 'lucky' because we have this knowledge and experience. Many of us tried to pass on these values to our children but external influences were too strong in many cases. How can we best educate our grandchildren into those old skills? They are ready and willing to change because they are quite conscious of the damage we have wrought.

Jenny Raper | 22 December 2007