If we want the future, in Wales and elsewhere, to be one in which unsustainable societies become a thing of the past – in which the urge to consumer is replaced with a broader, more authentic drive towards well-being, where energy is produced cleanly and used less intensely – then how societies manage their relationship with waste will be central to bringing this about. We are used to receiving a variety of messages about waste, with the emphasis generally falling on the need to reduce it. In the shape of waste, the relationship between sustainability and our personal lives becomes particularly immediate and tangible. But is waste simply an aspect of contemporary life where we can ‘do our bit’ to reduce the impact we collectively have on the earth, or is there more significance to our relationship with it than this? In last night’s Cafe, Dr Chris Groves (Social Sciences, Cardiff University) explored four different ways of thinking about the philosophical significance of waste.
Waste, in consumer societies, is almost the foundation of these societies themselves. The way needs are serviced and even created by the consumer goods industries and by advertising is built on phenomena like planned obsolescence. Waste – discarded products, packaging, pollution from landfill packed with consumer goods – was for a long time simply cast out of mind. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in this short film that this prevalent attitude creates a necessary illusion, one that holds together the system in which it is rooted.
Zizek also suggests, however, that mainstream criticisms of this attitude – such as ones that have led to the current preoccupation with recycling – are equally problematic, and contain their own illusions. He argues that the belief that we can attain some kind of harmony with a self-correcting, balanced natural order is an illusory belief – an ideological one, if we use concepts originating from the Marxist tradition in which Zizek’s philosophy is rooted. Indeed, it represents a conservative theology of nature. We do not have any more reason to believe that nature is inherently self-balancing, he suggests, than we do to picture it as characterised by catastrophe (climatological shifts, vulcanism and earthquakes, mass species extinctions etc.). If we believe that waste is a kind of sin against nature, and try to erase this sin, then we have failed to recognise the nature of our relationship with waste and acts of wasting just as much as when we simply didn’t think about them.
Dr Groves explored this theme of Zizek’s by looking initially at two contrasting economic worldviews. On the one hand, he suggested, corresponding to the first of the illusory attitudes mentioned by Zizek, is a traditional view of the economy as a process of circulation of goods and money. Consumers have needs or preferences, which are fulfilled by firms that produce and distribute goods or services. The sale of these products creates revenues, from which the costs of production and distribution are deducted to leave profits. From profits, dividends or other payments may be deducted, leaving the remainder to be re-invested in production. Waste, whether arising from production, distribution or consumption, simply drop out of the equation: the economic system remains one in which only flows of goods and money are of interest. If this worldview were personified, Dr Groves suggested, it might be by Benjamin Franklin, whose religiously-inspired morality made wise investment and judicious use of profits into a Christian virtue.
Although this is a very simplified view of the economy, it does enough work to point out that wastes of various kinds, from packaging and landfill to CO2 impose costs on society and the environment that are not automatically registered within the system itself. To change this and hopefully reduce waste, and with it, these additional costs, it is usually thought necessary to impose taxes (on waste sent to landfill, on carbon emissions) so as to incentivise producers and others to reduce the waste they make. However, as Paul Anderson pointed out in our March 2013 ‘Valuing Nature’ cafe, it is doubtful whether such attempts to translate biophysical and social harm into quantities of money can have the desired effect.
As a result of this, the second of Dr Groves’ representative worldviews takes a different position on waste. A ‘bioeconomic’ point of view views the economy as nested within a broader system of exchanges of energy, beginning with the Sun’s energy reaching Earth, which makes possible the totality of chemical reactions present on the planet, including photosynthesis in plants. Plants feed herbivorous animals, which in turn are eaten by carnivores. At the same time, the death of plants and animals make possible the geological processes that produce coal and oil, forms of stored, concentrated solar energy. The economy rests on the transformation of resources produced through biological, climatological and geological processes into goods which have instrumental value. Yet the process of energy exchange is ultimately entropic: embodied energy gradually becomes less useful as it is used and transformed, and eventually ends up in forms that we recognise as waste. Just as usable energy resources are limited, so are the ‘sinks’ through which wastes are absorbed into the all-encompassing energetic system that we call ‘nature’.
In this worldview, waste is a problem – failure to bring it back within the system (as forms of rotting biological matter automatically are through decomposition) means that entropy increases. The ecological economist Nicolai Georgescu-Roegen, who pioneered this style of analysis, promoted what he called a ‘minimal bioeconomic programme’ for dealing with the problem of waste, aiming at the elimination of phenomena like ‘planned obsolescence’ and fashion, and the maximisation of recycling. Such ideas are reflected in the goals of ‘zero waste‘ (as set out in the Welsh Assembly’s 2010 waste strategy of the same name) and the ‘circular economy‘. If we were to search for a suitable contemporary personification of this worldview, we might go for someone like George Monbiot, a firm of advocate of living within the limits set by Nature.
Both these worldviews have certain things in common, however. For example, both begin from the assumption of scarcity. There is not enough of what people want to go round – depending on which worldview one subscribes to, not enough capital/goods or energy – and so the economy evolves as a system through which money or bioeconomic-based regulation is used to allocate resources. What if, however, we began from an alternative premise, that of abundance?
One might argue, as Zizek does, that ultimate natural limits of the kind on which bioeconomics is based are actually unknowable. If we do not know for sure that human productive activity is subject to ultimate limits and final scarcity, but only that it tends to become subject to local limits (as when one resource runs out and another is found to replace it), then a belief in limits rests on a faith in a theological view of Nature as endangered by our activities. This prescribes a particular set of virtues, a kind of ecological mirror image of the sobriety recommended by Franklin. But begin from a different ‘theology’ and a different view of waste, and one will end up with a different set of virtues. George Gilder, a Republican intellectual and champion of trickle down economics, did just this. Gilder claims that capitalism, as an economic system, differs from socialism because it does not begin from a ‘rational’ assessment of human needs that it then sets out to fulfil. On the contrary, it sets out by creating a supply of goods for which it then creates the desire through the seductions of design and advertising. Capitalism is inherently wasteful. Hundreds of investment decisions get made all the time which run to nothing. Entrepreneurs start up all kinds of businesses that fail. But this is necessary in order to create wealth, jobs, and the means of improving technologies so as to improve the world – including, for example, renewable energy technologies. The squandering of capital in gambles of this kind is the condition of creativity, surprise, novelty: waste keeps the future open and the uncertainty of this future makes life worth living. Fuelling this uncertainty – rather than Franklin’s model of capitalism, where all capital is invested usefully – is the key to a higher form of human flourishing. From the internal dynamic of risk capitalism comes a morality of uncertainty and creativity. To personify this worldview, we could choose Peter Sprague, the entrepreneur praised in Gilder’s 1981 book Wealth and Poverty for transforming the semiconductor market in the USA and thus helping to create the personal computer boom.
The fourth and final worldview we were asked to consider belongs to the French novelist and philosopher Georges Bataille. Like Gilder, Bataille bases his philosophy and ethics of waste on a concept of abundance, the kind of abundance which is symbolised by the Sun. Solar energy is a kind of gift, one which cannot be reciprocated, a case of ‘expenditure without return’. From this beginning, Bataille elaborates a distinction between a ‘limited economy’ of money or energy that has for its centre of gravity the survival of human beings, and a general economy in which the survival of human beings is a kind of accidental byproduct of excessive natural and social expenditures of energy. Inspired by anthropological accounts of gift-giving and sacrifice, Bataille sought to explain the existence of human societies, not by examining how people organize themselves to take care of their material needs, but how they make excess a central part of their lives – such as engaging in ritual giving of sumptuous gifts. A favourite example is the potlatch, the tradition encountered among Native American tribes of competitive gift giving of ever-larger amounts of goods, leading sometimes even to eh deliberate destruction of huge amounts of precious objects – with the meaning of such acts being essentially to establish social status by demonstrating one’s superior generosity. Other examples include engaging in festivals that include practices that produce extreme suffering or ecstasy, like the Plains Indians’ sundance, or even human sacrifice as in Aztec and Inca cultures. These kinds of rituals perform social functions – but they are only able to have this kind of social functional use, Bataille suggests, because they create a deeper, existential unity between humanity and and nature. Nature here, however, is imagined in a particular way – the kind of nature of which Zizek speaks, a nature of catastrophe that recreates itself through destruction. In Bataille’s understanding, people produce and consume, not to survive, but to blow out, to waste energy, goods and themselves, to transgress human limits. In contrast with Gilder’s vision of capitalism, Bataille’s view of the centrality of waste and wasting to human life is primarily aesthetic and religious (although without anything resembling a monotheistic God at its heart). Practices that aim at excess reconnect humanity with the primary principle of nature, which is abundance, making life meaningful again.
To personify Bataille’s point of view, we might adopt Patti Smith, as a representative of the artist as transfiguring humanity through the representation and evocation of excess and transgression. The contrast between Gilder and Bataille on the one hand, and the investment economy and bioeconomy on the other could not be greater. Where the two latter aim, in Gilder and Bataille’s terms, at ensuring human satisfaction and survival in ways that rely on the forgetting or redemption of waste, the two former aim at transcendence and creativity based on the affirmation of waste. The (in Zizek’s terms) ideological attitudes towards waste that support the investment economy and the bioeconomy are rooted in fear and inauthenticity. Overall, each position reflects a different kind of view of the nature of reality, in which waste plays a vital role – each has, if you like, its own theology of value and of waste.
If we are interested in shaping the future, then what society do we want to live in, asked Dr Groves – a society of Franklins, Monbiots, Spragues or Smiths?
In discussion, audience members wondered whether the differences between the different worldviews were really about the differences between ways of living that focused on control of uncertainty, and ways that were prepared to accept uncertainty. Others wondered whether the problem with waste was one that could be referred to some kind of ‘discomfort’ with waste itself (as Zizek’s psychoanalytically-influenced philosophy suggests) or whether the real issue was one to do with the social impacts of wasteful processes, for example in the loss of jobs, pollution of communities and so on. Dr Groves asked, citing Allan Stoekl’s 2007 book on Bataille, Bataille’s Peak, whether if sustainability were to be truly sustainable, it would need to make room within it for excess, in order to create ways of life that were genuinely worth living and that could be seen as examples of flourishing or as providing genuine meaningfulness and well-being.
Are you a Franklin, a Monbiot, a Sprague or a Smith? Or none of these? Why?