Waste is a human concept. Nowhere else in nature can you find systems that incorporate this belief. Just exactly when and how mankind created this habit is a mystery, although I’m sure Scientist’s would likely link it to the advent of agriculture or some such revolutionary occurrence. Waste is a subjective idea, proven by the age-old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, and it’s a notion that we have learned to merge with our beliefs of worth and value. Through this amalgamation we have come to create a concept of waste that can mean many things, but always has a negative connotation.
To waste is to use or consume, spend or expend thoughtlessly or carelessly, it is to cause a loss of energy, strength or vigor, to exhaust, tire or enfeeble, to destroy completely. By these definitions we have created the personal nature of waste, the reality that we can, and do, waste anything and everything. We waste objects, materials, and resources. We waste opportunities and openings, time and thoughts. Additionally, within our conceptions of waste there is a hierarchy, an acceptable rate or severity for waste. While some of this has to do with toxicity or health, more often it’s simply related to ignorance or obliviousness. How well we can hide our waste, both personal and material, plays directly on how much we acknowledge it.
In feeding our unreasonably consumptive lifestyle, we create mountains of waste, both literal and figurative, but we have hidden and ignored this waste in order to move forward with our paradigm of growth. While it may be acceptable to waste an opportunity once or twice, any more and you could be deemed foolish. American’s waste more food than any other nation on Earth, but doing so in a hungry household would be considered reckless. While we may worry ourselves over wasting time or money, less often do we consider our use and waste of air, water, and other common reserves. Through our wide and varied understanding of waste, we have opened the door to the reality of material waste so toxic it is hazardous to all life everywhere.
When attending a symposium on the management of nuclear waste and the future of it’s storage, linguists and artists were gathered to devise a sign, an object or message that would convey the deadly threat such a location would pose for millions of years. They had to consider the very real possibility that mankind will have long-since disappeared from the face of the planet, and subsequent species or alien visitors will need to be warned of this hazardous threat. That we have created a waste so enduring is both shocking and astounding.
There’s another great old adage that goes like this, “don’t shit where you eat”. This message is powerful in its simple and visceral language, but it speaks a sad truth to our wasteful society. While we have expanded our concept of waste to include anything and everything, we have made waste out of both. Now, we are approaching a point when our waste so saturates the environment that the threat of health is felt around the entire ecosphere. No longer is waste a pile of shit we bury, or a body to be burned, but we have created a way to waste that not only ensures it’s the objects destruction, but also makes waste of the our basic necessities of air, water, and food as well.
If we wish to transform our production of waste, if we hope to create a future of health and prosperity for all life on Earth, it will take far more than a reduction in waste. We cannot hope to turn our waste into conservation by abstaining from use or consumption, although this will be the first step. But to truly make over our concept of waste we will need to recognize the intrinsic nature of all things, we will need to subdue our superiority and understand our relation and interconnection with all life, all material, all energy. We will need to acknowledge that there is no seclusion of waste, it cannot be avoided or disposed of, and it will forever be part of us, as we are of it. When we create waste, when we choose to waste anything, we are quite simply wasting ourselves.
If energy cannot be created or destroyed, how then can we arrogantly assume to have control of such a concept as creating or managing waste? In our attempts to build a more sustainable future, it would do us well to consider the true meaning of this word, and it’s relation to waste. At its root, to sustain is to hold, to support, to maintain and endure. Ecological sustainability is how biological systems remain diverse and productive, waste has no place in this approach. For mankind to continue our lives on Earth we’ll need to adopt a similar understanding as that of the rest of nature, where there is no waste. In ecological systems where balance is the law, and everything exists within a circle, waste has no place. Let us try and mimic this mindset and create a world where waste does not exist, where value and respect are given to every action and every material. Maybe then, we can learn how to live without turning this world into waste.