Beguiling rationalizations aside, vacuous rhetoric about moral principles of “equality of opportunity,” and surface concern about the environment notwithstanding, the record shows that rich nations and the bourgeoisie value garbage more than people, more so today than in the era of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. Is it fair to compare 19th century Western society when the Industrial Revolution was only beginning to generate garbage that hardly existed in pre-industrial societies with early 21st century post-industrial world where packing materials, invariably made of plastic, make up the majority of garbage?
Do rich nations and the broader middle classes value more than people, more than social justice that could make them feel good that they are part of a larger ecosystem crying out for equilibrium? A recent report by a British television station noted that food discarded in London by supermarkets, restaurants, households, etc. can feed anywhere between several hundred thousand to over a million people and that does not even include the pet food industry, where the household pets of affluent societies out-eat the world’s poor. Similar waste is evident in wearing apparel, household furnishings, durable goods, automobiles, etc.
As we move forward in time, as political and business leaders keep pushing the rhetoric of environmental justice and ending world poverty, the result is more garbage generated by the wealthy nations, led by the US, which is the most consumerist society on the planet. In 1960, US generated 88 million tons of waste, in 1980 151 million tons, and in 2007 254 million tons- 2.5 pounds of garbage per day per person in 1960, 4.6 pounds per day per person.
Why does the average American produce one ton of garbage more per year than the average European, although globalization, commercialization of culture, and consumerist values are catching up with the Europeans and the rest of the world? More than 14 billion pounds of garbage dumped in the sea each year and more than three million cars abandoned? Unquestionably garbage has greater value to people that generate it than their fellow human beings, or the ecosystem to which lip service is paid dutifully to feel good about consumerism. Just as devout Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Dark Ages were convinced that spiritual salvation was the ultimate goal in life that gave meaning to human existence, modern man is convinced that possessing material things makes him feel safe, secure, powerful, even immortal.
Will the culture of affluence and waste change because of all the talk on the part of the media, politicians, businesses educational and other institutions talking about the ecosystem? Because policy is driven by corporate interests that find it profitable to do business that generate garbage, because profit transcends any principle about environmental justice, because social justice is relegated to the domain of theoretical treatises by intellectuals, artists, and the occasional clergyman, a change in values toward garbage vs. human beings and the environment can only come as a result of deep structural crises in society that invariably results in the use of force to alter the status quo.
Just as the current global crisis (2008-present) presents opportunities for re-examining the values of the educational system rooted in the myopic business model that is a disservice to society, similarly the larger issue of bourgeois values rooted in wasteful affluent living (in glamorized 'shopping therapy' that has infected the entire population’s garbage values regardless of class), there is an opportunity to address environmental and social justice issues. Is this likely to be a part of political debates? Of course it is, but nothing of substance will come of vacuous political rhetoric.
Because power and wealth are mesmerizing to humans aspiring to feeling godlike even ephemerally, because it is rare that anyone surrenders power, wealth and social privileges voluntarily for that means surrendering the godlike feeling, only the state can use the fiscal and legal system to engender humanist values in society and a 'non-garbage' ethos, instead directing people toward the path of social and environmental justice. If the state in the rich nations can dish out trillions of dollars to strengthen finance capital, can the state absorb the surplus capital from the top ten percent of the wealthy class to foster a 'non-garbage ethos', a more just socially and environmentally just society that looks beyond garbage as proof of power?