Zero wasters, I think it’s about time we talked about something that you’ve been avoiding for some time now. It’s been danced around quite a bit, it’s been hinted at, but it’s the elephant in the room for the whole movement, and it’s about time we dragged it out and dealt with it.
There is no better indicator of how much waste someone produces directly or indirectly than how much money they have.
There, I said it.
And I’m not talking about just the mega-rich, here. I’m talking about all of us within the context of the global population, especially you so-called middle-class folk (who are, in reality, mega-rich compared to many people living in the global south).
In the past I’ve talked a little bit about how consumer choices will do absolutely nothing to avert or even delay climate change, water and food shortages, or peak oil. But I want to take this opportunity to drive the point home: an activism that is rooted in our power as consumers is no activism at all. It presupposes the existence of a power that we don’t even have. I like the beginning of this blog post by Ramsin Canon, which really illustrates how much product manufacturers and marketers actually hate the people that buy their crap, and how much we do exactly what they want us to do:
Bless Steve Jobs. I mean, I hate his horrible, anti-competitive company, their fetish-generating products and a corporate policy that seems to suborn inhumane working conditions.
But I love him for at least one thing: he was either so in love with his counterfeit counter-culture persona, or so unawares of the governing philosophy of American capitalism, that he let this gem slip when asked how much “market research was conducted to guide Apple” in its production processes:
“None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
You can hear the neoliberals and “Solutionist” whackos of Silicon Valley jumping up off their Aerons: Shhhhhh! Shut up Steve! If consumers don’t really have all that much meaningful agency in “directing” corporations on how to act, the entire edifice of post-Friedman economic and governance policy crumbles!
Granted, Jobs was working in a very specialized sub-category of consumer electronics. But Jobs’ point was essentially a correct one: people will consumer what they’re told they need to consumer, whether they need to or not. Hayek’s pithy slogan that profit is just a signal that you’re serving people well is little more than that–a pithy slogan. History is littered with billion dollar industries growing up around essentially useless products solving a “problem” which does not exist. When Lysol began shaming women into poisoning themselves and made a shitload of money, they weren’t “serving” anybody “well”–other than their shareholders, of course. They were manufacturing a need–creating a want–that they were simultaneously satisfying (and even then, not doing so particularly well). That people want and consume products is a perfectly vacuous type of signal.
But I mean, I shouldn’t even have to go into the psychology of marketing or the toxicity of capitalist economics to prove my point. It’s really just home budgeting 101: the more discretionary income you have, the more junk you can afford to buy. If your family makes $15/week, you’re probably not going to have much of anything in the way of pleasure spending. Your clothes will definitely not be new, you’ll make sure your household items (the few that you do have) last as long as physically possible (and then some), and you’ll definitely not be able to afford a motorized vehicle. You may only be able to travel entirely on foot, in all likelihood.
Here are some infographics to illustrate what I’m talking about:
The entire continent of Africa has a carbon footprint roughly equivalent to that of Canada and Mexico. Central America has a carbon footprint roughly equivalent to that of Hong Kong. Oceania, sans Australia, has a footprint roughly equivalent to that of Belgium. Which is doubly ironic, considering these poorer nations are where most of our stuff here in the West is made! Our emissions come almost entirely from consumption. Here’s a couple more:
The graph below illustrates the carbon emissions of various US industries and industrial processes:
Not a whole lot we can do to lessen these emissions as consumers, is there? Industry is gonna industry, and industry, as a whole, serves those with money: commercial and residential developers, homeowners, jet owners, car owners, sailboat and yacht owners, factory owners, server farm owners, business owners. Basically, those able to afford to own things, and especially things that can help them to make money and increase their overall wealth. In other words, it is the producers that are responsible for the majority of waste and emissions in the world, not consumers.
Not that I’m advocating for us all to become “”takers”” instead of “”makers””, in the immortal words of Paul Ryan. We are all producers in some way or another: our simplest product is work and labor, but many of us produce more than that. We produce delicious food; handmade clothes or knitted hats; works of art or poetry; craft beers as complex and refreshing as any at the store; upcycled furniture or household goods; beautiful and productive gardens; natural cleaning supplies or cosmetics; woodworking and gardening tools; toys and games.
And so much more.
Consumerism is thralldom. Production is power.
But we, as part of a lifestyle movement, need to stop telling people to recycle more and buy less packaging because that will somehow save the planet. It won’t. If tomorrow we halted all the factories, shut all the landfills, walked away from the tar sands and oil rigs, abandoned every gas-powered vehicle where they sat, and turned off the lights, it would still be too little too late.
What if we took the time and energy we might spend on avoiding the occasional paper napkin, and put that toward developing and actualizing strategies for real, concrete change? Change that doesn’t revolve about fretting about how many times a year you take out the garbage, because a world in which there IS no garbage would naturally flow from the bigger solution we’re fighting for? A solution which doesn’t ask the poorest of us to do with even less?
I’m not going to say that money is the problem– but it’s a big part of the problem. It skews perspectives, and quite frankly, the zero waste movement needs a reality check.
How can we begin to hold ourselves accountable in a bigger, more far-reaching way? How do we widen the discourse? What is our relationship to the political, economic, and natural world around us? How to we deal with issues of class? If you own a business, or a piece of property that exists solely to make you money, why? How do you reconcile that with your environmental concerns? What kinds of people are in your social circles? Are they all financially stable? If you don’t associate with any poor people, why is that? If you do, how to you talk to them about eco-friendly lifestyles? What is their reaction? Why do you think they react that way? What are your politics? What systems and institutions do you hold to be good and true, and why?
Consider this a call to action.
I put it out there because I care pretty damn deeply; this is the world I’m due to inherit soon, after all.
What world do you want to leave behind?
Gonna end this with a quote by Murray Bookchin:
All too often we are told by liberal environmentalists, and not a few deep ecologists, that it is ‘we’ as a species or, at least, ‘we’ as an amalgam of ‘anthropocentric’ individuals that are responsible for the breakdown of the web of life. I remember an ‘environmental’ presentation staged by the Museum of Natural History in New York during the 1970s in which the public was exposed to a long series of exhibits, each depicting examples of pollution and ecological disruption. The exhibit which closed the presentation carried a startling sign, ‘The Most Dangerous Animal on Earth.’ It consisted simply of a huge mirror which reflected back the person who stood in front of it. I remember a black child standing in front of that mirror while a white school teacher tried to explain the message which this arrogant exhibit tried to convey. Mind you, there was no exhibit of corporate boards of directors planning to deforest a mountainside or of government officials acting in collusion with them.