Turning Resources into Garbage.

Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian, recently wrote:-

“In 1995, I published a book called The World After Communism. Today, I wonder whether there will be a world after capitalism…

“Capitalism has always had crises, and will go on having them. Rather, it comes from the feeling that Western civilization is increasingly unsatisfying, saddled with a system of incentives that are essential for accumulating wealth, but that undermine our capacity to enjoy it. Capitalism may be close to exhausting its potential to create a better life – at least in the world’s rich countries.

By “better”, I mean better ethically, not materially. Material gains may continue, though evidence shows that they no longer make people happier. My discontent is with the quality of a civilization in which the production and consumption of unnecessary goods has become most people’s main occupation.”

I was so pleased to find I was not the only one deploring the plethora of trash characterizing our modern Western society. The “production and consumption of unnecessary goods” has been an object of my disgust for years. I hesitated to comment on it before lest I be considered no more than a foolish old man who failed to understand that prime miracle of neoliberal economics—that  huge array of choices available to the consumer. In most cases, the reason the public flocks to the ‘new’ and ‘fashionable’ is that they weren’t able to figure out the original.

Of course, Baron Skidelsky is approximately two months older than me, which could expose both of us the charge of not being ‘with it’; that horrible affliction so feared in today’s fifteen second society. But I’m quite willing to set my perception against that of anyone whose world view was learned from TV commercials. All the increases in so-called efficiency achieve is a faster transfer of the Earth’s valuable resources from previously undisturbed ground to the landfill.

Using computer communication before the Internet and Windows, required an investment in time, energy, and basic Mojo that the average citizen did not possess. I could, by sweating it, download the huge raw GPS data files I needed over the phone lines from the Government of Canada’s monitoring stations, but making the system easier to work for the average citizen saved me a lot of sweat and tears as well. But the world’s losses might have been greater than the gains. One need not understand anything about communications to send a text message by smartphone, but the amount of ‘garbage in’ and garbage out’ has been magnified immensely.

That this is not a trivial matter is discussed in a new book by the founder of Global Institute For Tomorrow, Chandran Nair, called “Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet”. The world cannot continue producing huge quantities of trivial goods for an ever-growing urban population; we are past the time when we should be working to provide the necessities for the world’s poor. For Nair, capitalism’s deficiency remains its inability (or perhaps, as some might suggest, its contemporary unwillingness) to acknowledge the natural resource limitations that confront most of the developing world.

In an interview (Asia Times Online) , Chandran Nair says —
“The book has received a very strong response in Europe. I was recently speaking to a large European company in the global automotive industry and made the point that we really do not need another couple of billion cars in Asia which is the likely scenario if Asia adopts Western car ownership levels.

“This is hard for companies to hear, and even harder for them to incorporate into what they call their sustainability practices. But there is no denying the truth and I rarely find anyone arguing against these facts and the implications. The smart companies and non-deniers know and are willing to have that debate. Sadly many simply do not want to go there. Needless to say there are always the “technology will solve all the problems” group but they too, when pushed, back off.”

From my perspective, the way we use technology is not the solution, but the cause of many of our problems. In the craze for ‘new’ and ‘latest’ perfectly adequate and efficient technologies are replaced and consigned to the landfill merely because there is a new gimmick being sold to gullible ‘consumers’ by millions of dollars worth of advertising. I have witnessed this ‘progression’, more realistically regression, many times in my 72 years, but one example still relevant to today’s computer users may be sufficient.

The punched paper was replaced by the 5¼” floppy, was replaced by the 3½” floppy, was replaced by the CD.ROM, was replaced by the DVD, was replaced by the thumb drive … will be replaced by something else. All of these media/information storages worked satisfactorily, and had a place in modern computing, but the ‘out of fashion’ devices have been sent to the landfill along with millions of dollars worth of hardware that functioned with them. If you want to preserve wealth with some shares in a successful company of the future you could hardly do better than find one with expertise in gleaning valuable minerals from garbage—in a few more decades the landfill could be the only source of them.

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