ad astra per alia porci

what’s with the stuff
December 16, 2008, 4:03 pm
Filed under: current affairs, diary | Tags: , , ,


Flyers are like the plague: I try my best to avoid them. When faced with an outstretched arm armed with a flyer, I know that I am in an impossible situation. On one hand I would like to make life easier for the person who is only doing his or her job; but on the other hand I know that the flyer would be wasted on me because I simply will have no desire for anything advertised. Whenever I took a flyer, it was usually because the person who was distributing them looked really pitiful with his or her intimidating stacks of undistributed flyers. I don’t need the information on the flyers, and I wince whenever I had to chuck a freshly-printed piece of glossy paper drenched in colours into the waste bin.

The wastefulness of it all irks me tremendously. Waste requires excess, and the modern age seems to suffer from the problem of unhealthy abundance. We produce too much for our own good, and we overconsume.

The supreme irony is that theoretically at least, the free market should not result in waste, but rather achieve maximal efficiency in the allocation of resources in our world.

Take the example of the modern supermarket. I have always wondered whether it is overstocked, and where did the excess unsold food go. Surely everything cannot be sold, and I believe supermarket operators would not have given away food for free because that would result in no rational consumer paying money to buy their goods at all. As a result much waste is created, which is such a pity since perfectly good food that could have been used to feed the poor is wasted. In this sense, the free market guarantees waste.

Producers deliberately provide goods that do not stand up to repeated and prolonged use. Computers get obsolete quickly. The phrase “they don’t make it now like in the good old days” seem to apply to almost anything that can spoil through frequent use. It is amazing how despite technological advancements, products seem to break faster.

The media creates demand that would otherwise not exist and plays off inherent human fears and weaknesses, amongst which include the fear of ostracism and social rejection. Thorstein Veblen would label such consumption as “conspicuous consumption”. The fickle world of fashion bears this out; designers churn out new designs every season and consumers buy them, even though their wardrobes are already bursting with underused apparel.

I am in no position to offer concrete and well-thought solutions to our waste problem for I am not a professional with a deep understanding involved in industry, but I am at least able to point out certain general points.

We should recognise that laissez-faire alone is insufficient; the free market should be supplemented by sufficient regulations. Of course the devil is in the details and the question of exactly what regulations are sufficient is the real crux of the matter.

We as consumers and individuals should also recognise that our consumption patterns have a direct impact on the actions of producers. Each decision not to buy excessively is a signal to the producers that they have produced too much. This can create a positive feedback cycle where production is rolled back. On the other hand, our own greed can also result in producers producing more and more unwanted goods.

We should also recognise that we don’t need so much to live normal and satisfying lives. Stop grabbing every free gift that presents itself; think instead of whether one really needs it. Stop hoarding so many things at home and instead pare down to the basics and give away the rest to those that need it more.

It is ironic that technology in dramatically reducing production costs have in turn come full circle by making us want even more to be produced, trapping many modern humans in the cycle of work and shop and concomitantly the world of stress and existential ennui. Perhaps a change in our view of consumption and more importantly, our consumption patterns, would change things for the better.


1 Comment so far
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That you for your post. You mirrored my views of consumption, waste and behaviour perfectly. And that movie, The Story of Stuff, is a very nice introduction to this matter.

Comment by carlosemferreira

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