Wasting Away: Are We Truly the Most Wasteful Society Ever?

I was watching another television special focused on potential causes for a coming apocalypse (as a society, we still really are focused on it … or perhaps I’m just noticing it more). Anyway, something that really struck me was when one of the experts said that (and I’m paraphrasing quite roughly) generations will look back on our society as the most wasteful one.

by Unknown. Sponsor: Canada Food Board. Publisher: Howell Lith., Hamilton, Ontario, Canada source Wikimedia license Public Domain, from Acobox.com

This would, I suppose, be when we’ve entered into a time where supply can no longer meet demand. Perhaps after the world as we know it has ended. And yes, while I agree we are extremely wasteful and what we’re doing to ourselves and the planet is foolhardy, are we truly THE MOST wasteful?

We’re only fairly recently in the age of fossil fuels and industrialization. Again, on some of those television shows and books they focus on how it’s only entering the petroleum age and burning fossil fuels that have brought us to where we are. And indeed, fossil fuels are ubiquitous in our society – they run our cars, heat our homes, produce our electricity, produce our plastic, fertilize our plants, etc, etc. However, did we get to be where we are only because of them?

From what I understand, it seems to be something of an evolution and coalescence of a few factors, including an increased knowledge base following an increased focus in understanding our world scientifically rather than simply spiritually, knowledge passed down by our forefathers, and perhaps also because the climate has been, since around the 19th century, the most consistent and relatively predictable it’s ever been in the time of man. If you don’t have to worry that your crops will die due to sudden July snowstorms and your family will starve, you have a lot more time to think about other things, like how to make getting to market more efficient, or how you could produce more food, rather than just the bare minimum.

Okay, so we as a society get to a point where we’re able to reliably produce great amounts of food and other consumables, which thus does probably, yes, make us a bit spoiled. So indeed, our society does seem to like the idea of “throw-away” everything. It’s purchased, was cheaply made, and is then tossed because it’s broken, boring, or replaced by a newer better model. But that’s been going on for some time, hasn’t it? Indeed, we may have more clothing items than our nineteenth or seventeenth century relatives, who probably did fine with one or two outfits total, but does it mean we’re necessarily more wasteful?

Perhaps it has to do with how we deal with our trash. Our landfills get filled up, which leads to searches for new places to dispose of things. But this isn’t a new problem – the Romans, Egyptians, etc all had this problem. When simply throwing trash out the window or into the streets made passage impossible, new methods to dispose of garbage – and in some cases, to reuse or recycle it, such as garbage pickers or rag men in Europe and other places – replaced old methods. There are also so many more humans on the planet than there were before, so of course we’re going to produce more garbage.

So, while perhaps we have more stuff (and how we have too much stuff, focus on it too much, or base our lives around it is a whole other discussion), and some of it is so cheaply made it’s never intended to last, we also have new ways to dispose of it, and are, I think (and hope) coming up with new ways to reduce the waste, such as with materials intended to break down (like new plant-based plastics) or ways to recycle them (like electronic recycling depots).

Is our society wasteful? Yes. Should we be less so? Absolutely. But are we the worst offenders? I’m still not sure. We haven’t gotten to where we are now instantly, and much of our behavior is learned from our forefathers (or some, at any rate). Perhaps the better question or point is not to condemn us completely as a mere criticism, but figure out how we can do better. Labeling one as the most evil doesn’t leave one much room to change or improve, does it?

Anyway, just a thought. Or, perhaps I’m simply denying the reality before my eyes, and we truly are the most wasteful and thus doomed (perhaps rightfully so). What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Wasting Away: Are We Truly the Most Wasteful Society Ever?

  1. have only just discovered this blog so apologize for answering three blogs all at same time – we waste too much but as you say theres a lot of us and it is so easy – but we seem to have it inbuilt into us – from way back humans have had a ‘potlatch’ mentality towards life – from Easter island to Candian native indians (prob. non PC sorry not sure in my old age what anyone is called anymore!) a sign of power / wealth / success has always resulted in over consuming / over wasting i don’t think it will stop for long even if we lose everything once we have re-established our lifes it will start again

    • Very interesting comment – thanks. I definitely see where you’re coming from, and indeed, this could be the case that once we weren’t starving to death (provided we survived that long), it might become a case of waste again. Although, perhaps like some pioneer ancestors, we could improve ourselves and learn to do with less and waste as little as possible. Perhaps it’s just an overly optimistic viewpoint.

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