I've thought a lot about the definition of waste. The way I figure out, a good way of defining waste is the use of planetary resources that don't improve quality of life.
I like this view a lot. Instead of environmental effectiveness being based on the restrictive view that we should simply "use less," we should instead "use well." This offers the intersection of environmentalism and human aspiration.
Much of packaging, to take a simple example, offers no quality of life improvement. Nix it. The generation of electricity in a small sub-Saharan village where children can't yet read at night improves education. Do it.
If we simply stopped using resources that degraded our lives and prioritized the use of resources that improved out lives, we'd use less and be happier, right? What a revolution.
In yesterday's post I asked readers to leave behind comments sharing what makes life worth living. What amazed me is that almost none of the answers required the use of resources. You can click here to read a few or get the general gist below:
- From Mark in Cincinatti: "I was thinking yesterday how much I enjoy the northern light."
- From Susan in PA: "It may sound silly, but when I hang laundry out to dry, I get the feeling that all's well with the world."
- From Andrea Kidssweet: "When [the 3 to 6 year olds I read to] see me in the halls they all wave and are so excited to see me and say hello."
- From cingt: "I love it when my dogs are really happy."
- From Leslie: "There is nothing sweeter than watching [my children] sleep, and my heart almost broke watching them peacefully cuddled up together oblivious to the world."
There isn't a single comment that says "I love my video game" or "It's all about TV for me" or "Thank God for my jet ski" or "I dig my car."
It's not that there would be something wrong with such comments. It's just that they are conspicuous in their absence. I wonder if that absence bears witness to the fact that cars and jet skis and flat-screen TVs aren't the things that deliver what's most important in our lives.
To what extent do we--as individuals and as a culture--prioritize what really makes life worth living?
How much time do we not spend with our kids or friends, for example, because we're trying to get rich so that we can later, um, have the leisure time to spend with our kids and our friends? How much time--and resources--do we spend on big houses or better cars when really we just want to watch the sunrise?
On a cultural level, then, how much effort is spent on economic throughput when what we want is strong communities full of people that have the time and inclination to support each other? How much effort do we expend on making sure we can all have a third TV when what we really want is a great education for our kids or great theaters for our adults?
Which brings me back to my originally definition of waste. How many resources are we wasting--both as individuals and as a culture--on things that don't even improve our lives? If we made a rule of targeting resources only at things that delivered quality of life, we would end up automatically saving the planet.
So my questions for you are (and please leave them in the comments so everyone can benefit rather than emailing them to me):
A. What could you change in your own personal life that would mean you get more of what you really think makes your life great and may, at the same time, save resources? (In my own case, as one example, it's refusing to work nights and weekends.)
B. How can Government policies help facilitate our getting what truly improves lives while reducing resource use? (My examples might be, first, investing in mass transit of such high quality that we prefer it and don't have to dedicate 15 percent of our working hours paying for cars and, second, investing in municipal water supplies so that our children don't end up having to work long hours just to pay for privatized drinking water.)
PS A writer for a national magazine wrote to me in the hopes of interviewing waste-conscious people, preferably on or near East Coast, who are currently committed to a long-term zero-waste challenge and/or saving and quantifying their home waste for a significant period of time. If you're interested in being interviewed, find my email address over on the left hand side of the blog and send me a note.