“Waste not, want not.” One of my dad’s favorite aphorisms.
I find it ever more relevant as I grow older. The amount of waste Americans routinely demonstrate literally dumbfounds the rest of the world.
But are we wanting? At first it may seem a fair question. Hard to answer, even. But I think we are clearly wanting, although you may have to view it from a different perspective than usual to see it.
To get my meaning, let me tell a little story: a friend was talking about work the other day. He works at STPUD, the local waste disposal facility with a name illustrative of how language, even in its most innocent ways, can become a large part of the enemy.
It seems there are huge pools in which the city’s effluent is stirred by a rotating blade some 30 feet long. The object is to force the solid matter into a sump in the middle of the pool where it is collected and separated for disposal.
The story was all about how a foolish employee got himself submerged in the disgusting, half solid slime that was collecting there. But that’s hardly my point, so I’ll just leave you with the image to mull on at your leisure, while I attempt to draw you back to the object of my original discourse.
These hugh pools and the very expensive equipment, including high speed centrifuges, that process the water you wash down your drain are specifically designed to remove bits of sold matter from it. Every ounce of water, in fact, that goes down any of our drains goes through this process.
Now nothing we will ever do is going to change the need for the specialized equipment, but a lot that we do increases the need. Much of that is really quite unnecessary. And everything that is unnecessary brings with it an avoidable cost.
I’m thinking mostly of garbage disposals, at the moment, although I’m sure there are many more and, doubtlessly, better examples. Consider the fate of the scrap of carrot you discard into the sink. You flush it down the drain with the other scraps, turn on the disposal, then run enough water to give a desperate baby in Ethiopia enough to drink for a week or two.
The carrot piece is torn into shreds by the disposal and carried off to the STPUD plant for processing by STPUD’s sophisticated machines. The plant works feverishly to dissolve and oxidize as much as possible via heavy use of chemicals, to separate out the surviving bits and pieces, and finally to smash them into blocks of solids which are shipped off to a landfill.
The bits and pieces don’t go away just because they’ve magically disappeared from your kitchen.
That’s a lot of energy spent to accomplish the same end we could have achieved by throwing the carrot piece into the garbage. Far better, though, would have been putting the scrap into a composting bin and taking it right back into the ground. But that’s an entirely bigger and deeper story than I set out on.
Let’s just focus on what we’re actually doing here, not what we might do better. We’re wasting huge amounts of energy in how we routinely dispose of our food scraps for no reason other than our desire not to have to deal with handling the scrap ourselves any longer, or in any more detail, than absolutely necessary.
And yet it would be remiss to conclude out of hand, based only on our undeniable waste, that we must be wanting, for the obvious observation in looking at Americans is the exact opposite. In fact, in any set of beings, waste would seem more closely affiliated with excess than deficiency.
So wherein lies the wisdom of “waste not, want not?”
Well, there’s a time lapse implied there, isn’t there? Maybe a question of focus, too. You may not be paying attention to the item you’ll later need most while you’re busiest wasting it, but that is little consolation when you suddenly find yourself in dire need.
Where we are wanting, and will, sooner or later, become aware of it, is on the global scale and, unfortunately, in the not too distant future. In some parts of the world, there is already no need to await the future.
We are going to feel our want in a lack of everything we have wasted, from water and oil, to fertile space on which to grow crops, to biodiversity through which our planet maintains its vibrancy. We’ll see shortages of everything from cool, calm days, to goodwill toward our fellow man. War and death will visit us daily until we humans are so reduced in population that there is no longer a need, or will, to fight. All we have to do to see this “want” is to expand our focus to include the whole world, not just Americans.
What is most frightening, however, is the lack of evidence reassuring us that a reduction in our global numbers, at this late date, will result in a remission of the effects our actions have already set in motion. Everyone I talk to, in fact, seems to assume exactly that. But that’s so surprising, since all the science I know indicates exactly the opposite.
For instance, almost everyone in the scientific community agrees nothing we can do is going to halt climate change. At the very best we might, through drastic changes in our energy consumption habits, slow it.
Such a change in habit would follow from our reduction of numbers, for instance. But slowing climate change is hardly evidence that climate change wouldn’t continue. Nor even that a tipping point may have already been passed which would bring totally non-human connected factors into play, assuring the runaway greenhouse effect.
For example, the warming already in place might have the effect of releasing methane trapped in arctic tundra, bringing about more warming than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide released directly from our standard energy sources would.
So what if we eliminate those sources from the equation? The carbon already in the air appears sufficient to release the methane.
One of the biggest oversights we suffer from today is the disregard we have for so much wisdom from our fathers. Or, probably more accurately, the unwillingness to glean wisdom from the old sayings.0