Sunday, July 8, 2012

As Americans, we're still far too wasteful

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8 July 2012

When did traditional American values change from thriftiness and frugality to “shop ‘till you drop,” buy now—pay later, and waste, waste, waste?

This isn’t an essay on the political mess in Washington, DC, this is about American households and “policies” that have put us on an unsustainable path (on so many levels) that a different future is inevitable.

The change in these values was not an accident. Henry Ford populated his early assembly lines with European immigrants and confronted his workers’ thriftiness and frugality with the Sociological Department who pushed the workers to spend their incomes on consumable durables instead of saving, saving, saving.

In the 70s and early 80s, tax policy gave a tax deduction for credit card interest.

How long has advertising been a business deduction? Indeed, television is practically completely paid for through advertising and television’s influence (and its advertising) on American culture is undeniable.

Mortgage interest deduction encourages home ownership and all the “stuff” that comes with it. And houses are huge compared to what they were just 30 years ago and those big houses need lots of stuff to put in it. I have a 25 year old refrigerator, dryer, and washer. I dread the day they need repair because repairs are hard to obtain. Instead, the push is to “just replace it.” My repair people scavenge parts from old machines because getting parts is difficult since they are no longer made.

We have so much “stuff” that each of us throws away 4 to 5 lbs a day, even when as much as 70 percent of it is recyclable. The amount of food Americans waste is astonishing. After paper and paperboard, food is what we throw away the most of. A University of Arizona researcher, with USDA funding, estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the food in the US is wasted. And our waist lines keep growing, nevertheless.

This was not always the way. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and they had different values, many which stuck with me. My parents didn’t throw anything away (it seemed), especially food. My dad always thought there was something he could do with cigar boxes, wrapping paper (yup, we reused it over and over again), plastic bottles and lots of other stuff. Wastefulness was not permitted! We shut lights off when we left a room, we didn’t take 45 minute showers, we didn’t waste things, even stuff that was cheap. Today, wastefulness is the default lifestyle.

Wastefulness used to be a vice (gluttony is a sin), now it is virtue. It is almost cliché to say we are “addicted to oil”, especially “cheap” oil. We have grown so used to wasting oil and other fossil fuels, from ridiculous SUVs, to monster houses, to 80 inch TVs, to moving goods from long distances, that we are now trapped by it. You can see the trap in the anemic recovery that now looks even more anemic. Despite an uptick in jobs, despite interest rates that are nil, despite the lowest taxes in 50 years, as soon as the recovery began to show some legs, oil prices began to tick up, gas prices began steadily rising, and because our society is so dependent on oil (for everything from the obvious, transportation to growing our food, to the myriad plastics that make life so cool, to pharmaceuticals) that it sucked the life out of any recovery.

We have the ingenuity to solve some of these problems. Oil is far too valuable (even if it is “cheap”) to burn up in our gas pipes. Oil is necessary if we hope to feed 9 billion people by 2050. It is too valuable to throw away in landfills in the form of one-time use plastic utensils, plastic water and soda bottles, and plastic bags.

At the very least recycle it, but even that still wastes this precious substance. We must demand greater efficiencies, eye with skepticism how much energy “convenience” actually costs, and develop alternative and renewable energy sources, including a return to human energy (that will help reduce our “waste” lines (pun intended)).

These aren’t brilliant insights nor an original viewpoint, but it’s a viewpoint that few of us and even fewer of our “leaders” are willing to address head-on. We don’t have to wait for government to begin change in our households. Recycling is getting more convenient locally even if the economics on it are upside down. But that is a start.

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