Monday, July 1, 2013

Are We Being Forced to Waste?

It is clear that large corporations are trying to force us to be wasteful. Here are just three examples I have recently experienced, individually trivial but collectively painting a picture of waste.

First, I tried to buy some of those little paper cupcake wrappers. I tried two supermarkets, and could not find them. Instead, what you had to buy was the paper wrappers and a disposable pan to put them in. (In addition, the pans and papers were inside of extremely durable plastic, the kind that you need a Klingon bat’leth sword to open.) Second, in a major supermarket, there were a couple of shelves of jars of instant coffee, but an entire rack of boxes of instant coffee with disposable cups. If current trends continue, you will be unable to make instant coffee in your own cup at home. Third, there are whole displays of dry laundry detergent packed into individual packets, to save you the trouble of measuring the amount you put into the washing machine.

One can only hope that such wasteful items will go the way of the paper dresses of the 1960s—dresses actually made of cellulose, which could be worn once and discarded. They were uncomfortable and flammable. I have heard interesting stories about what happened when a woman wearing one got caught out in the rain. You cannot readily find them anymore. In the 1960s, few people gave a second thought to throwing everything away; the paper dress market failed because the novelty wore off. But today, one would think, the sheer wastefulness of disposable clothing would make it a market failure.

I do not believe that most people demand to use disposable cupcake tins, to use disposable cups even at home, or that most people are too lazy to measure their laundry detergent. If consumer choice were the driving factor, such wastefulness would sink these products. But manufacturers, and the supermarkets that carry their products, can make more money if you buy a box that contains twelve disposable coffee cups with individual servings of instant coffee than if you buy a jar of instant coffee with ten times as many servings in it, for about the same price. A manufacturer’s paradise would be if consumers had to buy, for each meal, expensive MREs (meals ready to eat) instead of ever fixing their own meals. Corporations will never be able to do this, but they can constrict the more efficient items to smaller and smaller shelf space and present a large display of disposable items to consumers. Consumers prefer the more efficient items but not enough to actively refuse to buy the wasteful ones. It is as if Wal-Mart made a corporate-level decision to market only paper clothes, a highly unlikely but no longer unthinkable prospect. Already, major food product corporations are pressuring the government for restrictions on farmers’ markets, ostensibly for sanitation concerns. Never mind that all the cases of food  contamination on the news involve large corporations.

Individual evolutionary fitness has long been served by the efficiency of resource use. Our prehistoric ancestors almost never threw away stone tools; they kept re-sharpening and reusing them. Recycling was the norm until recent decades; Dickensian rag-pickers were recyclers. Home canning reused the glass jars every year; I doubt that my grandmother on rural northeastern Oklahoma farms ever bought anything in a can until she moved to town. Natural selection rewarded such behavior: less waste meant that you had more resources.

But there have always been evolutionary fitness benefits to wastefulness. A rich, wasteful person (like a bird with outlandish feathers) can attract mates. The difference between conspicuous ostentation and the modern supermarket variety of enforced waste is that the individual cannot readily choose what to do. A person may choose to display their wealth by showing that they are free to generate a lot of garbage. I do not so choose. But I am being pressured by corporations to so choose.

This is an example of the process of individual selection in evolution. I choose efficiency, but corporations choose waste; and they are stronger than I am. Group selection would dictate efficiency as well, but the decisions are largely made by corporations, the individual profits of whose CEOs determine that consumers should be wasteful.

Wastefulness will sink us. We should use less energy and materials—this is an essential component to averting climate disaster from global warming. Our only hope is that the collective feeble insistence on frugality by conscientious consumers (who also want to save money) will out-compete the corporate interests that largely control our society.

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