REMEMBER ‘THE THREE Rs’ OF ENVIRONMENTALISM?
You know it’s funny how things evolve. I was at my Uncle’s place a few months back and saw an old set of encyclopedias from 1970 on the shelf. I opened them up to look at what was considered ‘now’ back then, and what do you know, I saw pictures, in living colour no less, of all sorts of garbage dumps, factories belching smoke, toxic waste dumps, and environmental protests.
It would seem that even forty or so years ago, the environment was already a big issue on the public agenda. We then got serious about making vehicles smaller and more fuel-efficient, as well as more rust-resistant and durable. Then in the 1980s this whole ‘blue box’ thing started happening, and municipalities started encouraging citizens to recycle paper, plastic, glass, and metal. Pretty soon we started hearing about municipal warehouses overflowing with garbage from blue box programs because there wasn’t enough infrastructure put into place to actually reprocess the waste into new stuff. Rumours started flying and certain citizens in some cities flat out refused to use the blue boxes because they felt that the waste was just being dumped into the garbage incinerator anyways, or that the planet was already too badly compromised and that those dinky little blue boxes weren’t going to change anything, so why bother?
By the early 1990s, municipal and provincial governments had gotten their acts together somewhat more, and had started recycling advocacy organizations to coordinate all of the efforts of their cities and towns as well as regional municipalities. Laws were passed, public awareness campaigns were launched in public schools and college and university campuses, and all of a sudden we started hearing about the virtues of ‘the three Rs’.
No, we weren’t being exhorted to learn about the virtues of ‘readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic’, but a distinctly much more post-modern version of this catch phrase: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. This was to be the new mantra, or ‘Holy Trinity’ of the environmental movement, with a definite emphasis on the first ‘R’, being ‘Reduce’.
We were all to henceforth focus on consuming less of everything, so as to produce less garbage, and re-evaluate this whole ‘growth model’ of materialistic consumerism based on linear and continuous, and ever-expanding economic growth in the production and consumption of goods and services. Then we were to reuse as much as possible what little had been produced in the first place, after we’d done our moral duty of reducing, then we were all to recycle everything that we first produced so little of then reused until it was used to the bone.
All very sound doctrine in theory, and perfectly suited to the pious and virtuous intentions and exhortations of the denizens of the environmental movement. However, I think somebody forgot to tell them about this thing called capitalism. It’s based on the notion of the maximization of profit through the maximization of production and consumption of goods, services and information on a global scale, which flies directly and diametrically in the face of the doctrine of ‘the three Rs’.
So basically what we’ve wound up with after about fifteen to twenty years of this policy being peddled in the public forum, is that, first of all, we don’t hear those ‘three Rs’ being invoked much anymore by public officials and policy-makers, much less by corporate stakeholders, and secondly, this is most likely because what has happened is that the mantra has for all intents and purposed gotten itself reversed back asswards: In practice we’re now living more with a situation which resembles something more like, ‘Recycle, Reuse, then Reduce’.
We’re producing more and more cheap techno-junk at a very alarming rate, a lot of which ends up in land fill sites, or if we’re lucky, public/private infrastructure is being put into place to recycle the mother lode of precious resources such as metallic substances from these devices, by dismantling them in often crude and poorly-equipped workshops both here and abroad. We’re producing more and more dry and solid waste in the form of construction materials from public and private buildings and structures that are being torn down and carted off to increasingly overwrought landfill sites, whose municipalities and higher up levels of government are now being forced to put into place various types of sorting and recycling infrastructure to do something ‘constructive’ with all of the waste cinder block, cement, brick, stone, gypsum board, plumbing and electrical fittings and so on, that end up being hauled away from demolition sites.
So basically, where does this leave us as a society? We’re still massively funding the financing of our global extraction industries in the fields of minerals, both metallic and non-metallic, stone, sand, and gravel quarrying, harvesting of wood in areas of the world where non-sustainable harvesting practices are being practiced, all for the sake of expediency, and short-term gain, not to mention the building and paving over of some of the worlds best farmland with residential, commercial and industrial development projects. We’ve also depleted 90% of our ocean’s fish stocks, and are in the process of handing over the fate of commercial fishing into the hands of wealthy corporate fish-farming conglomerates, who will essentially fish the oceans dry, then make a fortune selling us fish raised in holding tanks, while their owners continue to go sport fishing on some of the few privately-owned salmon runs left on the planet.
The Police, the British pop band, once sang, back in the early 1980s, ‘When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around’. I think that pretty much sums up how I feel about the whole situation. David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist, has a slogan for his foundation which says ‘solutions are in our nature’. It’s a catchy double-entendre, and good for marketing and fund-raising, but I’m not so sure just how much of an effect it will truly have on a genuinely positive outcome for the planet.
Meanwhile, I still try in my own little way, in my own little part of the Village, to live by that seemingly long-lost ‘Holy Trinity Mantra’ of the 1990s: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. People think I’m crazy because I own so much old stuff. Or because I refuse to sell or get rid of my vinyl records and my turntable. It’s not just that I grew up with vinyl and that I like the sound better, and the big album covers and liner notes better. It’s the principle of the thing: When CDs came out I was skeptical. Why should I all of a sudden turn around and throw out or give away all my vinyl records, buy a CD player, or even replace all my vinyl with CDs? Especially since they cost much more, still do, wear out faster, skip more easily, and sound antiseptically ‘perfect’?
Luckily for me, when all of this was happening, in the mid 1980s and early 90s, I was as poor as a Church mouse, and in some instances, couldn’t even pay my rent. You might not think of me as ‘lucky’ in such instances, but I think I was saved from succumbing to a lot of un Godly conspicuous consumption. I only got a CD player in 1994, and it was a gift from my mother, and I kept it for close to 15 years before it crapped out on me.
I’ve never bought a new car, and probably never will. Don’t believe in it. First of all, I’ve never been able to afford a new car, so that takes care of that. And secondly, even if I could afford one, I wouldn’t get one because I don’t want to further stimulate the extraction of any new raw materials from the earth any more than I have to. So I buy used cars. My TV is 15 years old. No I don’t want a big screen one with plasma and HD. Why should I trade it in when my old one works just fine? I know people who buy new electronics just because new stuff comes out and they want the newest and latest gadgets, and think nothing of just throwing out the ‘old’ ones, when they’re sometimes not even 2 or 3 years old, and still perfectly good!
My computer is six years old, and no I have no intention of changing it. Can’t afford to. Same thing with the TV. There are certain advantages to living on a modest income. It forces you to really prioritize things in your life and to focus on what’s really important: Your spiritual life, your conscious contact with the God of your understanding, your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, friends, family, work-life balance, etc… I have used appliances, fridge, stove, and washer, dryer. They work just fine. Occasionally they need to be repaired, and when they do, I pay for it, but it’s still cheaper than buying all-new stuff.
I wash and rinse in cold water. My laundry comes out nice and clean, thank you very much. I buy the big box of the el cheapo laundry detergent. I pay easily half the price of the big national brands. I buy a lot of no-name generic brand products at the grocery store. I wash out all my jars, bottles, cans, and plastic containers and recycle them. I take public transit to work most of the time. I have one of the old-fashioned Granny-style drying racks I bought for 12 bucks at Zellers that I dry one out of every two loads of laundry on. Cuts down on electricity. I turn down the thermostat in the winter and put on a sweater. I unclog my drains with boiling water. No chemicals. I turn off lights when I’m not in the room. I turn off my engine when I’m idling somewhere in winter in my car. If it gets too cold inside, I’ll start her up again and warm up a bit, but then shut down again once the cabin has warmed up. I walk up the stairs wherever I can, avoiding the elevator or escalator. I don’t make unnecessary trips in my car, unless I absolutely have to.
I have a lot of used furniture that was either given to me, that I inherited, or that I bought at a used goods store and had refinished. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a single piece of new furniture or appliances from a store which sells new stuff, with the possible exception of my wall unit, and my computer desk. But that’s it. Again, I’ve never been ‘prosperous’ enough to afford any of this stuff new. But I consider myself blessed nevertheless. I’ve never lacked for anything, nor will I, God willing.
I think if the citizens of this country and of this planet focused more on what was really important, I think there’d be a lot more happy and contented people, and the planet would be in a lot better shape, and people everywhere would lack for nothing, instead of the egregious disparities of wealth that we find on our planet today.
Maybe this post-modern ‘Holy Trinity’ of ‘three Rs’ is being just as neglected as the old-fashioned ‘Holy Trinity’ of Father, Son and Holy Spirit? I think the latter flows from the former. I wonder what the Encyclopedias of 40 years from now are going to look like? What topics are they going to deal with? Will there be more pictures of garbage inside? Will they even be printed on paper? Or will people realize that more online information creates more techno-trash and stimulates the extraction of more precious resources to make more computers, which fuels more tribal wars in far off lands? Or will people continue to print their encyclopedias on paper made from trees harvested from sustainable forests and low-environmental footprint paper mills?
Something tells me that I won’t be around to read that encyclopedia. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do my level best to worship at the altars of both varieties of ‘Holy Trinities’: First and foremost, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then ‘the three Rs’ of ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle’. God Bless. Amen.