I hate waste. Yet I live in perhaps the most wasteful culture that has ever existed. We produce so much waste that disposal of that waste is a major environmental problem. Packaging alone, which adds nothing to the usefulness of a product, accounts for a truly staggering quantity of waste. To produce something that is potentially useful, and then have it never actually be used is one level of waste. To produce something that is not even useful in the first place is doubly wasteful. Manufacturers claim that they are simply responding to customer demand. If this were true there would be no need for persuasive advertising. All that would be needed would be to make it known that the product was available. It is not generally customer demand that drives manufacturing, it is the desire to find a way to make money.
The wasteful manufacture of items that are not actually useful is only part of the story. Many items that are useful and needed are used in a wasteful manner. Most tools such as electric drills and power saws are used for a minuscule amount of time in their entire lives. I have heard that the average drill is used for eight minutes total. Automobiles spend around 85% of their time not simply sitting idle, but actually being in the way! Everybody finds it necessary to own a complete set of what we consider essential to a proper life: appliances, tools, vehicles, recreational items, that spend most of their time being a storage problem. We keep things because we might need them some day, and then even if that day does in fact come when we need something we have been saving for just that moment, we cannot find it, or we find it and discover that in the meantime it has deteriorated to the point of uselessness.
We rent storage lockers and pay over the years thousands of dollars to store things that are maybe worth hundreds, even if that. I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of everything stored in such places goes directly from there to the dump. (Full disclosure: I have just such a locker. I wish I could live up to my beliefs.)
Nature is a wonderful reuser of materials. Almost all living organisms produce waste that feeds some other organism or natural process. I know of no other organism except we humans in all of creation that takes useful materials and turns them into something that benefits no other life form. Worse; by our activities we have wiped out countless other species; not even for our comfort or safety or other benefit, mostly, but just as a casual byproduct of our lifestyle. Actions that harm others without benefiting yourself are truly perverse. Indeed, often the harm we do harms us right back. Remember the childhood game “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” (As I am sure most of us who either had or were older siblings do) We spend much of our energy hitting ourselves.
And then there is the fact we are using up the raw materials of the earth. One of the prime tenets of our current religion, capitalism, is that you do not spend your capital. What else are irreplaceable raw materials than capital? if we consume them in such a way that they are not reusable, we have spent a portion of our capital, and we should only do that if we gain more by doing so than we are spending. Clearly we do not. We burn gasoline for entirely frivolous reasons. We give little or no consideration to the depletion of the original resources, the harm to other life forms or the accumulation of waste product caused by our way of living.
So do we have to reduce our lives to a level of deprivation to save the earth? Not at all. We just have to eliminate the waste. Sure, there are some activities we should not engage in at all, and maybe we could all examine honestly how many of our activities really do add to our happiness, but we could still enjoy a high standard of living (and even spread it to more of the world’s population) without harm if we could use no more than the absolutely necessary resources to do so.
We care a great deal about owning things, and the concept of what has been called a sharing economy can be challenging for us to accept. It has uncomfortable connotations of socialism. We have visions of having one electric drill for the whole block to share, and having to put our name on a waiting list to use it. But it does not have to be like that. Imagine rather that when you needed a drill you would simply order it on your computer, and it would arrive at your door within an hour, maybe sooner. You could specify exactly what kind if drill you needed for the specific job, rather than having to use the one you owned whether it was suitable or not. Obviously some people really do have enough use for tools such as drills to justify owning one, and they could still do so, but this would still be a small selection of items for any one person, and if any tool at all were available on call, everyone would have access to tools that they could only dream of owning. Certain tools would need some kind of certification to order, and other rules and restrictions would apply, just as in any other field, but the technology to make such a system possible either exists or is in the process of being developed. Amazon provides a model for accessing tools; it facilitates purchase, but could be adapted for rental, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, providing a delivery mechanism. But this touches on what a non wasteful transportation system might look like, and that is a topic for another night.