|Between Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), there has been widespread awareness of the toxic side of capitalist development. But workers and peasants didn’t need Engels’ or Carson’s analysis to explain the nasty effluents from factories or the terrible violence of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
The garbage that rots on the surface of the earth is the appearance of the problem. The essence of the problem is the requirement of our socio-economic system to endlessly sell commodities, then decrease their lifespan, so that more commodities are bought to replace them, and so that the discarded commodity joins its brethren in the mountains of trash on land and the islands of trash in the oceans.
In 1955, the Journal of Retailing noted that the system required that ‘things be consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption’. This is what Vance Packard, in The Waste Makers (1960), called ‘planned obsolescence’. ‘We make good products’, Packard wrote. ‘We induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old-fashioned, outdated, obsolete’.
Garbage, from the standpoint of capitalism, is an ‘externality’. Capitalist firms plunder nature for resources, and dump waste back into the earth. The costs of this plunder and this waste are not to be factored in to the balance sheets of the firms. These are considered to be ‘external costs’. The velocity of the production of commodities, as part of the necessity for endless accumulation of profit, generates theories such as ‘planned obsolescence’, setting in motion the creation of trash. In the West, computers used to last for seven years, phones for five – now, computers are replaced every two years, phones every twenty-two months.
Procedures to diminish the volume of trash – by reuse and by recycling – are minimal. Social life, encrusted with commodification and consumerism, cannot be easily pivoted to new forms. Prognosis for less growth where there is tremendous waste is low. There is, meanwhile, already pressure on spaces of deprivation that are receiving rather than producing the majority of the world’s waste to not produce trash. This is like the debate over climate mitigation – the poor are being told to tighten their belts, while the rich continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere.
The 1987 UN World Commission on Environment and Development – the Brundtland Commission – defined the concept ‘sustainable development’ as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Certainly, by now and from overuse, the term ‘sustainable development’ has the tincture of meaninglessness. But when it was coined it did mean something. It meant that ‘development’ pathways should be conceptualised that allow the deprived to access more than basic needs, while the privileged should lessen their footprint on the planet. That meaning, contrary to the logic of capitalism, needs to return to our debates.
Please read Aeshnina Azzahra’s letter. Here is the voice of another young person who is deeply worried about the fate of the earth. She needs her voice amplified. She needs billions of us to refuse to accept the world as it is, a world that is choking on its own refuse. She, like the whales, wants to breathe.