Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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Why wealth creates waste

A lot of effort goes into devising ways that we can do things more efficiently and reduce waste. Reducing waste in theory should save money, time, effort, and natural resources. It is at face value, a universally good thing to do.

So why is it then that we waste so much? Why do we waste our own time, waste energy, waste food, waste space, and waste material? My answer, simplistic as it may sound, is wealth.

Although being wealthy has many undeniable advantages for those who possess it, it inherently creates wasteful behaviour.  Wealth means “an abundance” or “a plentiful supply”.  In other words, it means that you have more than you need.

The human mind, like any animal, has evolved to encourage us to behave efficiently. This sounds like it should mean that we naturally strive to minimise waste. In practise however, the opposite is often true.

When we have a shortage of something, our minds work overtime to understand how to make our resources go further and to motivate us to be more frugal. Shortage or famine drive efficient behaviour while excess or wealth makes us behave inefficiently, because saving our own mental and physical energy is more important than saving time and physical resources.

It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are or how disciplined we train ourselves to be. We will always waste resources so long as we have more than we need. This is one of the problems we face in trying to solve the world’s environmental crisis and provide for our growing population, that most of the people who actually have the time and resources to think about the problems of the world are unable to live their own lives in an efficient and sustainable manner, simply because they can afford not to.

The best way to create efficiency is to work with less. This is why deadlines help us to get more done, why rationing improves human efficiency and why subsidies obliterate it.  As a designer, I am well aware that the most creative and innovative solutions are developed against tough, challenging briefs, whereas a blank canvas often leads to sloppy and inefficient designs.

We cannot eliminate waste simply by educating people to be more frugal and efficient. Wealth disparity is clearly part of the problem because it means that there will always be many with far more than they need. But on balance it seems that solving wealth disparity will not actually solve the problem of waste because it is our collective species that has access to too much, rather than any specific individual or group. As a species we allow ourselves to take more each year from the earth than can be replenished. This in essence is why waste matters at all. It matters because there is not enough for everyone and not enough for us to live as we do today in the future.

We must therefore impose limits upon our own access to resources if we are ever to reduce waste to a meaningful extent.  At some point, nature will impose those limits for us, but if we want to minimise the pain of outgrowing our planet and if we want to leave a healthy environment for future generations, then we must self impose limits sooner than later.  In practice, this can probably only be achieved through government policy, though I doubt there would ever be political will to do this proactively on any significant scale.

Our aim therefore should not be to physically eliminate waste but to create a culture in which we understand what is sustainable and in which we believe that we genuinely cannot afford to exceed those limits.  We can do this first on a personal level, then within our families, our business and eventually, as nations and as a species.  If limits don’t come from the top, then cultural change must rise from the bottom up.

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