Wednesday, 2 September 2009

In the dumps -- Beverly Shepard

Sorting some very old boxes of papers, I discovered a September 1974 article in the [Hamilton Ont] Spectator about a newly formed environmental organization called the Garbage Coalition. How I became a spokesperson for that organization I can’t recall.

The article quotes me as saying the amount of garbage “must be reduced” and backing up the assertion with statistics. I had a one-year-old son and was pregnant with my second child. How did I find time to be such an activist? It must have been important to me. No doubt it was, 35 years ago, and -- guess what? -- it still is.

The only real difference is that a great many more people, groups, and levels of government have become concerned about the issue of waste and its disposal. Working for a solution is no longer just the province of splinter groups of radical weirdos. We’ve all heard “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.” And yet there are still people who think it’s just fine for us to produce 5 containers of garbage per household each week and pile it sky-high. It astounds and depresses me.

After many years of trying to explain and inform, people still don’t get it. A recent letter to the Spectator suggested the Brantford model of waste disposal: let people produce five containers of garbage a week, pile it high on 200 acres, burn off the methane emitted, and all will be well. Oh, no.

The truth is that the matter of waste disposal is just the tip of -- shall I say, the dump? It’s just one small aspect of the prevailing problem. What’s really going on with a garbage dump like that? Whenever a new layer of garbage goes on, I am told, it is covered with clean earth. Where does that earth come from? From somewhere else, where it could have been used for food production, but now it is a garbage cover. The garbage, as it decomposes, emits methane gas. Is that all? What else leaches or evaporates out of piles of refuse which was collected in black garbage bags that could have contained anything? Good soil is being changed to a mix of soil and compostable and non-compostable, degradable (perhaps with nasty by- products) and non-degradable waste which will take many generations to be useful again, if in fact it ever is. And -- perhaps most distressing of all -- people are being taught that waste and wastefulness don’t matter.

So if waste disposal is just one small aspect of the prevailing problem, then what IS the prevailing problem? The problem is that the planet is finite and everything on it is finite also, but human society is acting as though it were endless. Where does the waste come from? A small amount of it is organic waste, but for the most part it is all the stuff that we acquire and either never use or stop using. It’s packaging, disposables, planned-obsolescent objects. Everything that falls into these sorts of categories was manufactured. Manufacturing uses mineral resources, organic resources, energy resources - all finite. Manufacturing pollutes air and water -- air and water are finite as well. Manufacturing uses up land (yes, also finite) -- usually, land on which food was once grown, or trees grew, using carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen.

The waste which is the final product may, in the fullness of time, return its constituents to the earth in a way and a condition which would render them useful once more to earth’s inhabitants, but this is unlikely to occur until well after human beings have ceased to exist, if we continue with our present lifestyles, and quite probably after human beings have eliminated numerous other species as well.

There are other aspects to the whole complex web of our materialistic, wasteful, acquisitive society. Automobiles and roads are a major part of the western lifestyle which endangers earth’s survival. Paving farmland, putting greenhouse gases and toxins into the air (read: climate change) as we manufacture and as we use cars, depleting the oil resources of the earth (for which some societies are willing to wage war) -- these are all intimately connected, and it makes me a little crazy when I hear people talk as though coming up with a rationalization for any one of them will somehow make it all okay. It’s never going to be okay -- it’s a sure route to disaster.

I am not an innocent in this situation. I own manufactured objects. I heat my house. I drive a car. But I do try. I still abide by all those bits of advice I offered in 1974, to reduce -- the number of things I buy, the amount of packaging, the things which contain the most non-renewable resources, etc.; to use them as long as possible, maintaining and repairing them, and to find other uses if they become unsuitable for the intended use; and, when both these are not enough, and there is waste, to recycle. I combine my errands to make the maximum use of every trip I take in my car, and I use public transit when I can. I clean with vinegar and baking soda. I don’t put chemicals on my garden. I grow native plants suited to our climate and rainfall. I hang my laundry in the sun. And so on and so on.

If everyone tried as hard as some of us do, the outlook for our planet would be better. And if we all did as well at living sustainably as the best among us do, the outlook would be even better. But the outlook will never be ideal until we achieve a balance, and continual growth is not balance. As long as the world regards a growth economy as the only healthy economy, we will continue to stress our habitation toward destruction.

Businesses are in the business of producing what people will buy, and if it looks as though people may have bought enough of something, business changes it a little bit. What we have is now out of style, or not state-of-the-art, or doesn’t work anymore, or can’t be repaired for less than the cost of a new one. So we buy more; business manufactures more; the economy grows; the resources shrink. It is stunning to think of how many people simply do not acknowledge that this can’t go on.

This seems like a terrible time - in the midst of a severe recession - to talk of a steady state economy. Manufacturers are failing; people are losing their jobs; everyone is worried. I can hear the protests: We have to grow! It’s the only way to survive! We’ve come too far along the path we’re on to turn back now!

Maybe so. Maybe we’re simply incapable of fixing it. Maybe we’ve doomed ourselves. But, although there are many, many ways human beings have put themselves outside the influence of evolutionary pressures, nullifying natural selection by the very effective expedient of becoming unnatural, as a biologist I sometimes think we will eventually have to surrender to our natural state as biological beings; we’ll have to adapt to our environment, which is wholly contained on this planet. Could it be that a recession is nature’s way of saying we don’t need so many cars? So many factories? So much travel?

Rachel Carson famously quoted Albert Schweitzer in her dedication to him of her book Silent Spring: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” But Albert Schweitzer also said, “Because I have confidence in the power of Truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.” And, “All that I have to say to the world and to mankind is contained in the notion, reverence for life.”

Not just your life or my life, but the whole interconnected web of life, every living thing, including “the living rock” and “living waters”, dependent on each other and responsible for each other. It’s not just about a tall garbage dump. It’s everything and all of us.
Photo courtesy of the Guardian: the world's most polluted river, the Citarum near Bandung, Indonesia, due for a $500 million cleanup.

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