Waste of Country
by Peter Carroll
Photo by Ed Kleingeertz

Despite its age, Australia still manages to provide a bounty of resources for our benefit. Sadly we are spoiling the landscape with the consequences of maintaining our economically developed lifestyle. When did we lose the understanding that the inanimate and that part of life, which we refer to as waste, are essential ingredients in creating new life? The process of decay has been integral to creating new life for aeons. If life was unable to deal with the remains of the living there could be no further life.

With increasing economic development and materialism, communities have increased the volume, type and complexity of waste. The amount of waste we generate, as a society is a function of the rate of resource extraction, production and consumption. So far as is known in every facet of physical life there are limits. In the so-called developed world we are losing sight of the earth’s limits. The earth is limited in its capacity to assimilate and synthesise the waste we produce. The sensitivity and intuitive wisdom to keep the earth free of excessive waste has dissipated with the advent of a materialistic culture.

The reorientation of environmental focus has been directed toward resource depletion and resultant damage (and rightly so). The consequences of an increasingly wasteful society have perhaps not received the attention it deserves. Incremental waste generation is a barometer of how disconnected we are becoming from natural processes. Current levels of waste are a manifestation of the loss of connection. The more waste we produce the further we move from our attachment to the earth.

We have developed a predilection to treat waste as a structure, a body of material that needs to be disposed of where it can do the least harm to the human/environment. By not acknowledging the role waste should play in the cycle of life we have to invest greater amounts of human capital to shield its presence. It would be more efficacious if our waste disposal was analogous with natural systems, where although structures exist they function as part of a process. The linear approach we have adopted is dysfunctional because it is contrary to the cycling of nutrients and energy in the earth’s systems. The detritus that is broken down by microbes, air, water and sunlight provide nourishment for plant and animal species. This cannot be said of our waste. Even our household domestic waste is too toxic for this to occur. Is it too much to expect that the things we produce and dispose of should be modelled on processes that are millions of years older than our consciousness and eminently more successful?

The evolution of post-industrial life has inured us to the dynamic equilibrium of ecosystems. We cannot afford, nor should we pretend that our waste could be disposed of by our rules. Too few people advocate that we should model our actions and responses on the earth’s ecology. The knowledge and understanding that the leaves that fall in autumn will be gone in summer due to an incredibly efficient process has been lost. In urban environments we have adopted the almost compulsive/obsessive behaviour of collecting and disposing of this material as it is an affront to our ordered, artificial perception of how the world should be, reality is displaced.

Unlike nature there is very little evolutionary utility in many of our products that end up as waste. In the absence of internal or external control mechanisms our psyche is such that we feel compelled to acquire the latest bauble or trinket that is flaunted. This compounds the problem of waste, as our products are high in energy and material content and low in longevity. In the same way that a wildfire will feed on itself and utilise the potential energy of a forest, hypothetically we could consume until there is nothing left. One of the legacies of our existence will be pockets of poison that dot the landscape, they are called landfills.

The entombment of waste is part of the deification of technology that has superseded the reverence for nature. It is a mechanistic response, requiring incremental levels of energy, infrastructure, materials and engineering to succeed. This in itself maintains the spiral of self-destruction, by creating more waste to deal with waste. Technology is a “Trojan Horse” that unless in harmony with natural processes contains evermore complex ramifications. Consider the concept of “waste to energy”, temporarily setting aside the health concerns of burning waste. On a continent that has the lowest level of organic carbon in its soils in the world why would you burn organic matter like farmers who burn off the stubble from their crops?

Also in our eyes, waste is at the lower end of the hierarchy of society’s priorities. Contrast this approach to that of the world around us where there is no judgement as to the value of things, animate or inanimate, where everything has a use and a place. It is only when we deal with waste from this perspective that it will no longer be a problem. The financial burden of waste disposal has been deemed to be the responsibility of consumers. Perhaps it is time a levy was placed on producers. This would in part mimic nature where there is no distinction between producing and consuming and waste is part of a process of optimisation of resources. It would also help to refocus thinking and potentially aid in developing innocuous products, which of course wouldn’t attract a levy.

Recycling is a superficial practice that humans have adopted whether consciously or otherwise; it has become entrenched and touted as a potential solution to increasing levels of waste. Nevertheless it is a “remora beneath the shark of consumption”, as it has had minimal effect on the volume of waste and is another aspect that requires considerable artificial input to be maintained. What we need to do on a conscious level is “rethink and refuse” before we concern ourselves about having to recycle.

Waste is one example of how poorly we interact with the earth. If we continue to use the land as a dump for that which no longer has any utility, has been replaced or no longer needed, then we cannot rekindle an appreciation of the earth, nor do we place any intrinsic value on the source of our sustenance and therefore ourselves. People dispose of their rubbish with little care for the consequences to the earth, other species or future generations.

The ramifications of a wasteful culture continue to grow exponentially. We suffer from the hubris of believing that we have the capacity to change our behaviour. At best our behaviour can probably be modified with conditioning. A reorientation of theory and practice is needed that is in concert with the surrounding world. The burden that is waste is not something that is deposited at a landfill, but an entire system that has lost relevance in the world. The pain is palpable every time we crush, compact and bury rubbish in the earth. The concentration of our garbage will only hasten the demise of the system(s) upon which we depend. These activities are consistent with the prevailing attitude of exploitation and competitiveness and are anathema to ecological sustainability. We need to understand that our waste is a pestilence; hopefully proximity to the disease will overcome the avoidance and apathy that currently exists. It is hoped that the problem will not become critically immediate (as is normally the case), before we all evince reverence for the earth and it becomes the status quo. Waste, as we know it, is only one of a number of difficulties assailing the earth; if it could be conducted with an underpinning of social and sacred ecology then the reliance on technology and economics will be superfluous. By redefining waste it can serve as an example and model of compassion and habitual care for the earth.