Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Renounce Our Throwaway Ethic


It’s Time to Renounce Our Throwaway Ethic

We’ve all heard of the throwaway society, and many of us vigorously oppose it through our activism, our buying habits, and our worldviews. In most cases, the throwaway mentality is associated with the wasteful use of consumer goods, like electronics, appliances, or clothing. But manifestations of this insidious ethic can also be seen in less obvious areas—including food waste and the euthanizing of millions of unwanted pets.
In the case of consumer goods, items are bought, used briefly, and then discarded, whether because they break quickly or because they become outdated or out of style. Many usable, even valuable items—from washing machines to computers—are thrown out, and new ones are bought to replace them. Meanwhile, as we overwhelm our landfills with perfectly good items and squander limited natural resources to make new ones, a sizeable portion of our population still lacks many material comforts.
By failing to appreciate the value of older items, the throwaway ethic creates an inefficient system of distribution in which many people go without, while the landfills prosper. Unfortunately, the situation is strikingly similar when it comes to food waste and animal euthanasia.
The value of food
With regard to hunger, many believe that there are “too many people” and that we simply cannot produce enough food for everyone. This is not the case: the world already produces more than enough food for everyone, with some to spare. One analysis suggests that we may currently produce as much as seven times the amount of food needed for global adequate nutrition.
The real problem is not the volume of food that’s available, but its distribution. Most of it ends up in the wealthier countries, where a fantastic share is simply wasted: as much as 40 percent in the United States, and Europe is not far behind.
Loaves of unopened bread discarded in a supermarket dumpster. (Photo via Secret Freegan)
If equitably distributed, the food waste alone from the United States and other wealthy countries would go a long way toward addressing world hunger. But, as with our consumer goods, the abundance of cheap food obscures the immense value of food: for us in the United States, a loaf of bread is worth merely its monetary price—perhaps two or three dollars. For the mother in the developing world whose child faces starvation, can we even put a price on that loaf of bread? Yet the wasting of food in the wealthier countries can have the effect of exacerbating hunger among those who need food most.
In popular culture, food waste is standard fare on many food-related television shows, helping to mainstream the perspective that waste is “normal.” The worst offenders might be British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s host of competition-style cooking shows. In one of them, Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, Ramsay explains that a good restaurant must allow the customer to send back a dish for any reason, even if the chef hasn’t made a mistake. In another, The F-Word (the "f" stands for food), Ramsay routinely orders his subordinate chefs to throw out food ranging from slightly burned fish filets to sushi-grade tuna loins that were cut improperly.
Sure, in fine dining attention to detail is paramount, and customers certainly pay enough to cover the waste involved. But it’s difficult not to see a moral problem here, especially when simple malnutrition is still a leading cause of death in the developing world.
“New” versus “used” pets
The throwaway ethic is even more disturbing as it relates to animal euthanasia. Here, the ethic is tragically applied to living beings (at least no television can suffer as it is dragged off to the dump). If the routine euthanasia of stray animals is not disturbing in itself, the sheer number of animals killed each year should be. According to the animal rights group PETA, “approximately 3 to 4 million cats and dogs—many of them healthy, young, and adoptable—must be euthanized in animal shelters every year.”
Ready to be recycled?
At first this may appear to have little to do with the throwaway ethic. But the striking part of it is the phrase “healthy, young, and adoptable.” Just like all the “perfectly good stuff” that goes to the dump, “healthy, young, and adoptable” animals are euthanized. The analogy becomes even more pointed when we realize that there’s actually plenty of demand for pets, just as there’s always demand for consumer goods: according to the American Humane Association, 17 million Americans acquire a new pet each year—or more than double the number of shelter animals.
The reason we “waste” so many animals is that most people choose to buy new rather than “used” pets. One animal adoption website explains, “The stigma that shelter pets have been stuck with for many years is that they are damaged goods [emphasis added].” And the American Humane Association blames this all in part on the fact that “many people consider pets to be disposable.” “Disposable”; “damaged goods”; “healthy, young, and adoptable”; all these phrases reflect the creeping of the throwaway ethic into aspects of our lives that have nothing to do with conventional consumerism.
Disposable humanity?
Although unrelated to world hunger or animal euthanasia, there’s one more incident worth mentioning here. In 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death by a mob of Black Friday shoppers too impatient to wait for the store to open. Is this, too, the throwaway ethic at work? Already, food and animals are disposable—will even human life become disposable?
In 1947, industrial designer and advertiser J. Gordon Lippincott dismissed fears about the consumer society’s damaging effects on human morality, predicting that the fast pace of materialism would instead improve national morals and increase our appreciation of fundamentals like security, family, faith, and love. Sixty-five years of the throwaway ethic have proven the exact opposite. The throwaway mentality has instead exacerbated costly and tragic trends like needless resource exploitation, food waste, and animal euthanasia, and threatens to degrade our society’s respect for human life itself.
The lesson here is that if we cannot contain the throwaway ethic, then we must do what we can to renounce it. And the good news is that, as I’ve discussed in some of my previous posts, we are already beginning to do so.
Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and an intern with the Center for a New American Dream.
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