Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Biosphere in transition. 4. Waste

If you read the footnote on Sunday, you will have seen that I replaced the T in the original with W. T stands for technology and W for waste. I think technology is misleading here, because it is not about how much technology you can throw at your own life and still enjoy it (like in the Charlie Chaplin film modern times), but about how to minimize the waste per unit of quality of life, which more likely than not will be a social efficiency rather than a technological one. To elaborate on the example I gave on Sunday, although I’m sure health care in Norwich could be made to produce the same benefits with less waste, there must be a limit to that that would still produce much more waste per capita for the kind of service we get, than is produced by a clinic in, say, a remote village in Vietnam. And that if you agree with me that we want to keep the former, we’d better start that one child campaign now.

At the same time, just as we say that everybody should become energy literate, we also need to become waste literate. That is, that in every decision we make, we automatically include an assessment of how much quality of life it gives us per amount of waste it produces. This doesn’t need to be very fancy, just the kind of background that at the moment allows almost every adult to make an automatic assessment of whether they can afford to buy something they would like to have in monetary terms. Like Tom Harper I was very encouraged by the example he gave that this is already happening.


  1. Hi Erik,

    I can't help but wonder how we would even begin to start to quantify quality of life - let alone get to the point where we have units of quality that could be ascribed to certain products and services... even more complex to then match those units against waste generated by those products.

    Apart from anything else you need to define 'waste' more tightly - I have no real idea what it is: an unusable process by-product (a movable feast I think you'd agree)? an inefficient use of energy (in which case any given product or service could actually be subjectively described as 'waste' and who will make those judgments)?

    Fundamentally I don't think that everything can be reduced to metrics - I don't think it's possible and I certainly don't think it's desirable. There is too much potential for perverse consequences and it leaves too little opportunity for circumstantial flexibility.

    So, though I do think you're right that we need to be more waste and energy literate, I doubt very much if everyone (or anyone) will ever be able to make consumptive decisions based on units of quality of life - because quality of life just can’t be objectively quantified.

    The bottom line is that we need to consume a lot less. A huge amount less. And where we do consume we need to be cleverer about it - the kinds of things TN2 is investigating. I also think we need to look out for red herrings - and population is one of those fish.

    It’s all too easy to say there are too many people and that we should impose a one child policy; but demographers suggest that this will have almost no impact on global population growth up to 2050 (when figures suggest growth will stabilize and possibly the population will begin to shrink).

    Already (and I know the figures are contested) it looks like we’re very close to global replacement rates and many developed countries are dipping below this level. There is a huge demographic lag that will take us to 9 billion, but there is very little we can do to accelerate the process - all we can do is continue to promote female education, improve access to contraceptives and attempt to more fairly distribute wealth and resources globally in order to ensure that people don’t feel the need to have large families.

    It is consumption and affluence that are the problem, population is only a multiplier; made worse because we in the minority world have and are setting such an appalling and wasteful example. It is the likes of David Attenborough flying around the world, not the people in shanty towns he and his buddies at the Optimum Population Trust would have us sneer at, that have and are causing the problems.

    My concern is that too many people see population as a handy displacement - an easy get out in an "I'll stop flying when they stop having children" kind of way. Or worse, conflate birth rates/population and environmental degradation in order to stoke up racial hatred.

    Best wishes,


  2. Hi Josiah,

    I think we need to try and quantify waste, and if we possibly can quality of life as well (the human development index of the World Wildlife Fund that is on the y-axis of my Affluence post is one example) not because this would tell us how to live our lives, but because without quantitative data we're even more prone to fool ourselves that we're "doing our bit" e.g. by putting in a few energy saving lightbulbs and meanwhile keep flying left, right and centre. Only by being quantitave can you make a comparison of the relative merit of doing one thing and not another. I'm not saying it's easy to be quantitative, but perverse consequences happen when you've left out something important from your metric, like externalising the cost of damage to the commons. I admit that suggesting we can quantify quality of life is maybe a step too far, but what I had in mind is that with your quota of 1.8 global hectares you can, say, either heat your house with fossil gas or go and visit your sister in Germany, but not both. If you do the latter and not the former, you have valued that higher, no need to stick a number on it, but it's a quantification of sorts.

    As for the population, I was explicitly talking about the UK, and precisely for the reason you give: our impact per average person is so high, so one less british person makes a relatively big difference. The demographic lag is not a given, it's made up of individual decisions. Just like every other personal choice you can either say that your own decision will make virtually no difference, or you can admit that it's this choice you are responsible for. As I said on Sunday, it's the product PAW that is too high. I see absolutely no reason to say one of these is a given and the other two are subject to personal choice.

    Kind regards,

  3. Dear Erik

    OUr government thinks that it is possible to quantify quality of life - whether they are right or not is anyone's guess! Have a look at this:
    Section 68 (p118 onwards) is all about wellbeing and quality of life.
    Kind regards