Wastes, with over 8 billion metric tons of plastics and counting, will eventually choke most lives on Earth

Recent news about the grotesque amount of unnatural plastics humans have introduced into the natural world in articles such as “The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics” by Tatiana Schlossberg  in the New York Times (19 July 2017) and “Scientists Have Figured Out How Much Plastic We’ve Made Since 1950” by Dominique Mosbergen in the Huffington Post (20 July 2017) is depressing enough.  Adding insult to injury, the extensive waste problem in our material-dependent linear capitalist economy with a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production is actually even more entrenched and pernicious.

In nature on Earth, there exist vast and extensive networks of interconnected ecosystems that are self-balancing and fine-tuned to be sustainable, self-sufficient and resilient over millennia.  Together, they form this fragile web of checks and balances and create a circle of life from the beginning of the Earth that started with a single-cell organism to the present complex world of profuse and unique biodiversity, until recently.  As soon as humans come along, we proceed to interfere and disrupt the natural systems incessantly.  As of this date, we continue our unabated interventions that have caused mass extinctions of other species at an unprecedented rate, with us barely batting an eyelash. We are so blinded by our self-interests that the laws of nature seem completely irrelevant and inapplicable to us.  We ignore the truth that everything that we have on Earth is in fact a gift and it is our duty to keep on the giving before there is nothing left.

Nature shows us how to deal with waste but we do not learn from her, even though we have an expression redolent of the same theme that says “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Every time we generate waste that does not get recycled harmlessly back into nature, there are two kinds of cost: one as negative externality and the other as wrongful resource overdrafts.

The negative externality (also called external cost or external diseconomy) can come in the forms of health hazards, pollution, toxins, unintended consequences or useless altered materials that remain in the environment and can harm the ecosystems and the living things within.  Since we do not have a complete understanding of the full effects of our wastes, we can only witness ubiquitous dysfunctional natural systems that are out of wreck and out of control:

from cancers in humans and wildlife, the ticking time bombs of deadly nuclear and industrial wastes stored out of sight, the Great Pacific Ocean Gyre or garbage patch of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris forming a deathtrap for the marine life, the frequent and ever-expanding toxic algae blooms and red tides creating dead zones in natural bodies of water, to the ultimate climate changing fiasco from the excessive carbon emissions of our modern human society. 

The natural world has always evolved with existing finite resources with every living organism taking what it needs to survive and propagate, no more and no less.  We define each living organism’s share as its resource claim (or as ‘fair Earth share’ described by Peter Dauvergne in his 2016 book, Environmentalism of the Rich).  The act of wrongful resource overdrafts actually manifests itself in three different ways in our human economy.  Firstly, whenever we waste or throw away something that has an inherent value or use, we are taking away that resource claim from someone else or from our future generations.  Secondly, whenever we consume and leave behind waste that cannot be fully recycled harmlessly back into nature, we are rendering that resource useless permanently and destroying its repetitive future claims.  Thirdly, whenever we consume not what we need but what we want, we are knowingly hogging additional resource claim over and above what we need or our fair share.  If we multiply the problem of such wrongful resource overdrafts by the human population of 7.4 billion and counting, we can see the extraordinary magnitude of the overall harmful impact.  This kind of waste can also be considered as a manifestation of privatizing gains and socializing costs at an individual level.

The capitalist business model espouses so many different kinds of waste that it is hard to chronicle every single one.  In addition to the waste of natural resources and physical materials, there is also the concurrent waste of time, human labor, human potential, opportunities and their associated financial and social costs.  Each and every single waste is compounded by its respective unused and unrealized value or potential.  Every idle or surplus productive capacity or capability, whether it is machinery or labor, inventory or renewable energy captured but not stored, etc., can also be counted as being squandered because they depreciate while sitting around being unproductive.  With a bit waste here and a bit waste there, they all add up.

Instead of multiple suppliers, manufacturers or producers of the same products or services, there should be only one entity who will provide the best products or services with the minimal inputs or costs, as with NATORZ’s Greenopoly, thereby saving all those human, material and financial resources that would have been duplicated and wasted unnecessarily and also eliminating the creative destruction phenomenon altogether.  There already exists many simple ways to drastically minimize waste and maximize efficiency, like standardizing, sharing or renting instead of owning, replacing or producing only when broken or on demand, modular design with standardized and replaceable parts and components, etc.

Recognizing the steep and pernicious price of privatizing gains and socializing costs individually and collectively, we can redirect our behaviors and reorient our goals to first minimize waste, and then eliminate waste altogether, through NATORZ.  We also need to transform our approach toward resources, abstaining from degenerative activities and negative externality and engaging in regenerative activities and positive externality.  Non-recyclable waste in a zero-sum world is a total loss and possible harm but recyclable waste in a non-zero-sum world can regenerate and become the gift that can keep on giving.  Instead of the standard 3R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), we can do so much more by adding Repair, Recover, Repurpose, Reclaim, Retrieve, Rescue, Revert, Return, Retrofit, Reinstate, Renew and Regenerate, whenever and wherever practical and possible.  The imagination is ours.  By targeting at each source of the counterproductive and degenerative effects of the capitalist resource waste, we can create a complete circular economy while minimizing our carbon footprint and help us to conform and attune to the sustainable, self-sufficient and resilient ecosystem in nature. Waste not, want not.  How true.

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