What causes people to waste?
Put another way why do some societies and their people use their resources more efficiently- thereby generating less waste? This is probably a better way to frame the issue.
In my 13 March blog I speculated on what leads people to use resources more efficiently:
“…It is only when consumption is viewed differently that this (excessive consumption) will change. This will take a drastic event where resources become scarce for one reason or another and there is a paradigm shift. A world war educated my parents about consumption. When you have nothing, something is everything. Even in the face of plenty this has informed their approach to resource consumption for their whole lives.”
In North America there is constant cajoling and some real progress. While the more efficient management of wastes has moved beyond the margins of hard core environmentalists into the general population there are still masses of disinterested people and mounds of unnecessary waste.
The progress that has been made is at least in part a mirage. There is the self satisfaction of more waste diversion but the unacknowledged reality of increasing waste generation.
Efficient resource use is not really a normal way of life in North America. Efficient consumption is the normal way of life. It’s becoming that way in other parts of the world that value and seek to emulate this way of life.
Does tragedy inform us?
So much happens so quickly. In the blink of an eye what is- isn’t. The earth comes crashing. And then the wave. And then the radiation.
The world marvels at their stoicism and their will to carry on in an orderly way. Long quiet lines snake as they wait for food and other supplies. There is no cacophony. There is no looting. Just patience.
The dying days of the second world war led to dying days of destruction and radiation. There was something and then there was nothing. Sure it was only two cities but it was a whole country that was affected for generations.
The evidence is that these events at least contributes if not wholly informs their resource use.
According to the Conference Board of Canada in 2005 Canadians generated twice as much waste as the Japanese (about 800 kg versus 400 kg per year).
The 2008 document Resource Efficiency: Japan and Europe at the Forefront (http://www.wupperinst.org/uploads/tx_wibeitrag/RessEfficiency_Japan.pdf) summarizes well Japan’s current approach to dematerialization and resource efficiency strategies.
It picks up the narrative well after the war and the oil crisis of the early 1970s to show the Japanese way.
In 2000 Japan became Junkangata Shakai or the sound material cycle society. This is really a 3Rs strategy but with regulatory back-up. Importantly it ties together economy and ecology. Rather than looking at it as merely as waste management exercise it has welded the Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on this issue so that they work together to identify indicators and work to meeting targets.
The sound material cycle society sets out goals for resource productivity. For instance the Inlet indicator is:
Gross domestic product (GDP)/Direct material input (DMI)
This means that they are striving to reduce resource usage per unit of GDP. The target for this indicator is a 40% improvement by 2010 (using 2000 as a base year). This would represent a doubling from 1990.
Other indicators, such as Cycle Rate (which relates to the rate of reuse and recycling) and Outlet (which relates to final disposal amount), focus on the reuse of materials and then finally the amount to be disposed.
What is key and critical is the economic output is directly tied to resource usage.
This mindset will help them recover from their current tragedy.
In North America only the backend of the approach is used- that is some 3Rs and waste disposal targets are set. As a result the overall results are below middling. It is only when these are linked directly to economic output and the resources required for that output that real progress will be made.
Canada and the United States have not been recently informed by tragedy in the same way as a country such as Japan.
Even the lessons of the great depression, a tragedy brought on by greed, have washed away by successive generations who like junkies have gone back to the old ways but in the meantime created better and stronger heroin for themselves. Even the recent economic downturn, also brought on by greed, has failed to truly enlighten.
Is there another way to shift the resource use paradigm that focuses on resource productivity other than a tragedy that severely limits access to resources? That’s hard to say. It is political space that is presently unoccupied but one that could be used, particularly in the United States, a country smarting badly from poor resource utilization.
Ultimately, there is a greater respect for what you have when you know what it is like to not have.