by Peter Carroll
Photo by Ed Kleingeertz
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 earths 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 earths 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 earths 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
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
societys 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 wouldnt
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.