Money causes waste

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When I was living moneylessly for two and a half years, I wasted nothing, because everything was precious. Whenever I left the caravan for a pee under a fruiting tree in the cold, dark winter evenings, I blew out the beeswax candle to save what to me was a finite resource. Whenever I stumbled upon some dead wood lying around in the summer, I gathered and stored it for winter burning. If I found a lighter on the street, I picked it up and used it, as that would save me twenty minutes working a bow drill. Every scrap of food I had was eaten, and other people’s waste food too. Newspapers lying in the ditch became easy tinder. If I had eight bottles of cider to last me the entire winter, I drank them sparingly when the situation cried out for it, and not the eight in one sitting. I didn’t have a bin, not even a recycling one. Everything was either used, or reused, including the waste that came from my own body. Life was cyclical, not linear.

At the time of writing I’ve been back in the monetary economy for over five months as I plan and organise the next stage of the experiment. I’ve slowly found myself doing things I would never do when I was moneyless. I now sometimes leave the lights on when I leave the room, as the energy behind the switch feels infinite. I don’t make use of waste food to anywhere near the extent I used to. If I see a pen on the street, I don’t bother to pick it up – a new clean one is only 20p at the corner store. I don’t chop wood anymore as I’ve got gas shipped into my bedroom all the way from Norway. The list goes on, ad infinitum.

When we are connected to what we use, or when getting or making something new isn’t so simple as going to the shop, we appreciate it and we certainly don’t waste it. You understand how much time or energy you or someone you know put into it. Money disconnects us from our goods and services through the massive economies of scale and the highly specialised division of labour it facilitates. This disconnect leads to large levels of waste in our daily lives.

This is certainly not conventional economic logic, which argues the opposite to this, claiming that charging people monetarily for energy and resources, whether by price increases or taxes, regulates and potentially caps their use of it. On appearance, this would seem a valid argument; but its a sleight of hand, focusing your attention away from where the con is going on.

Let me explain myself if you will. The difference is one of perspective. When economists see, for example, one of the 13 billion litres of oil being (through the mechanics of the economic marriage from hell) over-efficiently turned into plastics, pesticides, fuel and toys every day, they don’t perceive this as waste, as it has had an efficient use and in turn has transformed a part of the Earth into financial and material wealth for us humans. In terms of waste, their main concern is that ‘our’ resources, extracted and transformed at levels far beyond the optimum for sustainability and the health of both our egocentric and holistic selves, get used efficiently and turned into marketable produce. Within that context, controlling this with a monetary price can work, theoretically at least.

However, I have a different perspective, and I believe this is key. When I see men and women slaving on oil rigs, sucking out a part of the Earth that was best left where it was, just so that we can make ready meals, mobile phones and plastic toys for our kids at Christmas, I see nothing but waste: waste of habitat for other species, clean air and water, and of the lives of the workers who spend parts of their precious life extracting oil so that we can then efficiently waste it. If we had to take responsibility for producing all our own energy in truly sustainable ways, and were therefore more intimately connected with the processes involved, there is no way we would use our time, resources, health (mental, emotional, spiritual and physical), clean rivers or acreage to produce megatons of merchandise for kids or electronic tranquilisers for adults.

The economies of scale required for high technologies also demands that we don’t share, and that we all have one of everything, resulting in the situation we have now where all of us are hoarding stuff in our cupboards and attics that we may only use once a year, if that. Rest assured, your neighbour is also hoarding the same stuff. If we were all to share these things, and have five high technology lawnmowers (instead of five hundred) per suburb, such a lawnmower could never viably be produced, and therefore the monetary economic model as we know it would collapse, given that the same logic applies to all other high technology products also. It is an economy where sharing means collapse. If that isn’t the definition of waste built in to an uneconomic model, I don’t know what is.

We’re living in the marriage from hell. This ménage à trois of money, economies of scale and division of labour isn’t working for the Earth, or us, any longer. It all looked very exciting to begin with, as a ménage à trois will, but it has got complicated, as a ménage à trois will, and it is going to end in tears, as a ménage à trois so often will. They were all much more fun when they were single. And if all involved want a future worth having, someone has got to leave.