American Culture

Waste not want not (Blog Action Day)

I have no doubt that the climate is changing, nor that it will continue to change.  It seems reasonably well established that  the Earth has gone through extreme climate swings in the past; on the basis of that i predict that it will do so again. Maybe humans are not responsible for climate change, and the planet would be warming in any case as it sheds the final remnants of the last ice age. Maybe it is entirely our fault. The truth usually falls between the two extremes. I do not believe that humans have the power to destroy the Earth or life. Suggesting that we do strikes me as the height of egocentricity: both preceded us by unimaginable lengths of time and will survive us for just as long. We do, however, have the power to destroy ourselves and most of the forms of life we know.

We have a carbon dioxide problem that is seriously destabilizing multiple, interdependent systems. The carbon dioxide is the result of harvesting ancient plant matter to burn the hydrogen it contains. The carbon contained in the ancient plant matter doesn’t burn, so it remains after the hydrogen combustion and combines with oxygen in the atmosphere. In essence, the carbon is a waste product, i.e. trash.

We have mountains of trash. We flush gallons of water down the toilet with a small amount of urine and turn potable water into waste. We define ourselves by what we own, which must be manufactured and produces waste in the process. And much of what we own is disposable, turned into waste in short order and replaced with something that’s creation generated waste.

Waste is everywhere, but that is the way of the life. I generate carbon waste by breathing. Plants pollute their environment with oxygen. And together we get along nicely, because i happen to require plant waste as an input for living and plants happen to require my waste. Look around anywhere, it’s happening from the micro to the macro. One thing’s shit is another thing’s staff of life. It’s the way of the universe, or God’s plan, or whatever you choose to call it. I call it elegance.

That’s not what happens with most of our waste, and that’s the fundamental problem. The loops aren’t closed. In the grand scheme of things we had better start working on closing them, because they’ll close with us or without us. If they close themselves it is likely to be without us, or at least the vast majority of us.

On a more practical level, i think of a man i used to know who lived through WWII in Central Europe and spent time in a Soviet P.O.W. camp; he became very successful and money was not much of an object. Yet at the end of every meal he could be found nibbling the last bits of fat and gristle from a bone, not just the bone from his plate but every bone at the table. Though he was as wasteful as the rest of us in many other ways, he knew the want of of an empty stomach and he was determined to avoid it.

We’re in the unenviable position of needing to imagine what our wants will be if we continue to waste so profligately. Take a long walk somewhere beautiful. Watch your children.  Think about your next meal. That’s what’s at stake. If we refuse to conserve what we were given, our children and grandchildren will make their home in our trash. There is no way around the fact that if we put something into the environment that does not constitute the input of another life process, then we will eat it, drink it or breathe it.

I used to marvel at a meal of pork in Korea. It started with people segregating their kitchen scraps and depositing them in a drum outside the apartment building. Pig farmers gathered the drums and in the end i’d tuck into a meal of my own kitchen waste. We need many more of that sort of closed-loop answer, though they won’t all be so simple. Complex solutions will be required to address our present circumstances, but they’ll all boil down to waste not want not.

You don’t have to believe in global warming to realize that today’s waste will be tomorrow’s want. You do need the desire to conserve what you’ve been blessed with so that you may pass it on to your descendants. (Call it generating long-term wealth if you like.) It’s about our values. And frankly, if our values put politics and accumulating material wealth above the health and well being of our children then we really don’t deserve what we have, but we do deserve what we’ll get.

10 replies »

  1. Thanks for this, Lex. In the immortal words of George Carlin: “The planet will be fine. The people are fucked.”

    There has been a lot of research in the last decade or so into green chemistry techniques specifically to get away from the nasty solvents and other chemicals that are produced by our existing industrial processes. Green chemistry tries to use water and hydrogen peroxide and other similar naturally-occurring substances to do the same things that you used to need acetone (or worse) to do. And lots of catalysts to reduce the energy requirements for reactions or even enable self-assembly.

    Fascinating stuff. I’d say we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got a ways to go yet.

  2. Of course, hydrogen peroxide and other oxygen radicals are why we age. So, I guess you could argue that we’re saving our environment by killing ourselves faster. 🙂

  3. Ubertramp, I always was taught that since all chemical reactions are incomplete, that gives significant contribution to the aging process, far more than any radical….but then again, what do I know.

  4. As depressing as the situation can be, i get pretty excited about elegant solutions when i see them. I don’t really like pork, but i’d go out of my way to eat it in Korea because i loved their solution to feeding the pigs and reducing household waste at the same time.

    It’s been called “Natural Capitalism” and a few other things. I’d like to see us move towards better, more integrated design of both products and manufacturing with a concerted effort to design wastes as inputs for other processes.

  5. lex,

    Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse? As the old saying goes, “The use everything but the moo.”


  6. Jeff, I come at it from the radiation medicine perspective. Low dose/low dose rate radiation is sometimes used as a model for aging. Radiation causes most of its damage by generating lots of reactive oxygen species. While most of the initial blast gets cleaned up in microseconds, enough of it starts interacting with lipid membranes, proteins, and organelles (like the mitochondria) that ROS homeostasis is probably shifted a bit, allowing a higher “tolerance” of ROS. This, in turn, causes more damage, etc, etc, etc. Mitochondria by themselves kick out a shitload of ROS as part of normal metabolism (making ATP). Immune cells (like macrphages and neutrophils) make a shitload of ROS when killing bacteria and cleaning up dead/dying cells. One theory is that messing up that normal homeostasis is probably a large part of the aging process.

    But having said all that, I was really just pushing Brian’s buttons. 🙂

  7. I haven’t been to an abattoir (just like that word, not trying to be elitist), but i do know that it all gets used. I don’t recall the names to look for, but cow ends up in a great many products that you’d never expect to see them in.

    Now we just need to work on the livestock waste pre-slaughter.

  8. And just about everything with a jelly-like consistency. There was a Discover article some years ago that gave the full list…it was eye-opening.