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I just finished reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage and I can't help thinking about the above quote. It makes me sad. I'm also struggling to reconcile my Economics and Sustainability brain. As someone who studied Economics in undergrad, economic growth was paramount, but the only way to have economic growth was to produce more. On the other hand, my Sustainability brain is screaming, we can't keep producing more. We don't have enough resources and we are not even recycling resources properly.
In my research, I also found this amazing diagram by Dr. Karen Higgins that sums up what we are doing. It's very straightforward, but really captures the snowball, interdependence effect of consumption, economic growth and resource depletion.
Show What is Behind the Curtain
We need to start exposing the truth behind our garbage. Reading Gone Tomorrow was an eye opener as it confirmed a lot of the ways garbage has been designed to be out of sight, out of mind. Without the constant reminder that our consumption is leading to waste and the depletion of resources, majority of consumers don't think twice about wanting the next, shiny thing. "If people saw what happened to their waste, lived with the stench, witnessed the scale of destruction, they might start asking difficult questions." Households consume and discard in private. No one sees you putting garbage away, no sees garbage being hauled away. Garbage is hidden in closed containers being whisked away before the crack of dawn. We waste in private, but clean in public.
Sadly, we are so disconnected. Garbage is now a source of revenue. We don't hold manufacturers accountable for how they produce and what happens to their products in the end. We don't encourage manufacturers to repair and reuse materials. We burn valuable resources for profit. We stopped valuing the fundamentals of resource recovery. We are glad to pay low prices for things that should have a cost. We neglect the well-being of people for the sake of stuff. We are OK with landfills and garbage transfer stations as long as it it not in our neighborhood. We don't fight when it is being placed next door in poor and working class neighborhoods. Goods are not only manufactured overseas, but are discarded there as well. We don't know who makes our stuff, what environment they work in and how workers are treated. We care about the low prices. We no longer care about the people that make the stuff that we so easily enjoy and discard. People with no voices are living in contaminated environments to bring us the latest and greatest so that we can continue to signal our materialism. We recycle in the hopes that these carefully sorted items are remade into something new, but the reality is that there is no market for it.
We Need to Find Balance
In my one of my other posts, Why Zero Waste is not Possible and We Still Have To Do It, I talk about the trade-off between waste and economic growth. We need to start shifting our mindset and start measuring economic health not in terms of GDP, but in other ways. We need to find a balance between economic growth and sustainability. Economic growth cannot be our only measurement for success. There are so many social and environmental factors that we need to consider. Our lives cannot just be about labor and output, but about impact. I hate to say it but for many of us, our lives will belong to objects, that if we continue down this path, we will be in an endless cycle of work, spend, waste. All of our hours, our of mental capacity will be used not to help solve our biggest problems today, but in the pursuit of stuff.
Dr. Higgins says it best below, but of course it won't be easy as we need to do a complete culture shift. I think this is why I continue to champion minimalism, sustainability and financial indepedenence. They all buck the conventional norms and yes, it is scary to go against the crowd, but it's what we need to do to break away from the cycle that we have put ourselves into.