Waste time

A few days ago we learned that a mountain of plastic waste has accumulated on PEI. China abruptly stopped importing our recyclable waste, and suddenly we find ourselves left with a 100 tonne hill of garbage with nowhere to go. The story presents us with an opportunity to look at how we understand buying and selling – the fundamentals of economic activity; of how powerful our consumption patterns have become, and how we could use it as an opportunity to question the wisdom of our actions.

Most people attach virtue to the business of recycling, and feel that we are doing our part for a sustainable future (whatever your idea of that murky term means) by dutifully rinsing, sorting, bagging and lugging our plastic waste curbside once a month. And I don’t want to dismiss the importance of us learning to use the Earth’s limited resources in continuous cycles: it is one part of us learning to live successfully on this planet – as a friend of mine puts it – “as if we want to stay”.

When I think back to my childhood, we didn’t recycle, but we didn’t make a lot of garbage either. Life was simpler, things were designed differently, and the relentless encouragement through advertising to consume more stuff was largely absent. I do however, remember the introduction of the “3 Rs” when for the first time, the limits and dangers of humans ruthlessly mining the Earth for minerals and other resources was becoming clear.

We were encouraged to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” We had also bought in to an economic paradigm that pursued growth with an endless fervour: we needed, for economic health, to have “good growth; strong growth; sustained growth”. An expanding economy is incompatible with the instruction to reduce and reuse, for those activities do not lead to more consumption, indeed quite the opposite. With a truly concerted effort, economists were acutely concerned that the 3 Rs would become “Reduce, Reuse, Recession”. To live simply with less, and to repair things and make do with what you already have (a hallmark of Island life for generations) is counterproductive to doing your part to grow the economy. So collectively, at the encouragement of governments and most economists, we largely abandoned the first two “Rs” and focused on the third, more compatible one, recycling. This allowed folks to continue to consume overpackaged, non-durable items we didn’t really need, and feel that they were being responsible citizens as long as they hauled those exploding blue bags to the curb every month.

With growing mountains of recyclables accumulating all over the world, including here on PEI, with nowhere to put them other than a local landfill, it is time to look at whether this is a sensible way for a mature global society to manage our affairs.

Until very recently, humanity was a fairly insignificant player on this Earth; we were small in number and affected only the immediate area in which we lived. In a few thousand generations – the blink of a geological eye – we have gone from unimportant member of the global village of species, to dominant player. 100 years ago there were just over 1 billion people living on this Earth, now we are over 7 billion, and the technologies we have developed allow all these people to extract resources from our home planet at a rate that is growing exponentially.

We are only now beginning to recognize that this fantastic expansion, built on human ingenuity, and which has brought us so many benefits, is also causing us some serious problems. Climate change, reliable access to water, extinction of other lifeforms, and mountains of recyclables and garbage are all signs that we need to review our collective goals. Is further growth necessarily a good thing? And if we’re not sure about that, what are we going to do differently? These are not small or easy questions, and our willingness to look at them will be a sign of the level of collective maturity we have attained.

As children, our primary purpose is to grow: we need to increase our size in order to function well in the world, but at a certain point we stop, and just as well, or getting in and out of cars and buildings would become problematic. Many people now believe that humanity has passed adolescence, and that rather than look at how we can further grow physically on this finite planet, that we need to pursue some other goal if we want to create a secure future for our children. Against the backdrop of a rising mound of plastic, the conversation around the challenges of confronting planetary limits is profound and potentially uncomfortable, but for the sake of future generations, it is a talk whose time has come.