Cut waste, forget perpetual growth – New Year hopes

WHEN we were young, adults used to come up with comments like “Waste not, want not” – understandable for people who had come through the rigours of wartime and post-war rationing – or warning us against “having eyes bigger than your tummies.” We were encouraged to “try everything” and to always finish our food.

One friend even remembers her class being exhorted to “eat everything because of the starving children in Africa.”

We were reminded that we should “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.” And we were given books like Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, one of those so-called “improving” Victorian stories, with characters like Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby (not such a bad axiom for living, when you think about it).

But as memories of post-war austerity faded, wages rose and people enjoyed more time- and labour-saving gadgets and greater choice in every aspect of life. Many parents extended these benefits to their children, particularly as they hit puberty and the teenage years. It became a truism, particularly in the United States, that teenagers were effectively (but not, of course, financially) independent, fussy and picky, stroppy and disinterested in adults in general and parents in particular.

They want to have their own televisions (now smartphones or computers), eat what and when they like, have their own cars and expect their parents to provide all of these – for no thanks. OK, it’s a generalisation, but not an extreme one.

As the post-war generation, we were criticised for the music we listened to and the clothes we wore – many of us took no notice and wore miniskirts or tight jeans and listened to very loud rock music played by long-haired bands. We were rebellious – and we shouldn’t forget that when we criticise today’s young people. But we were also taught respect and most of us did respect our parents and our teachers.

We have witnessed the contemporary ascendancy of teenagers at first hand with the teenage children of friends and family – dictating what is watched on screen, eating what they want when they want it (and leaving piles of good food nibbled or uneaten), self-obsessed and utterly unconcerned with anything that you – parent, relative or friend – might wish or need. We shrug, roll our eyes and mutter “Well, they are teenagers” or advise harassed friends that they will “survive the teenage years.”

Many teenagers talk about saving the planet – and some are inspirational in their actions – but the thoughtless waste and extravagance of others is shocking.

Meanwhile, on a macrocosmic scale, the post-war business and corporate world enthusiastically embraced the concept of perpetual growth. I recall, many years ago (late 90s to be precise), a fruitless conversation with the then managing director of the company which owned the paper I edited.

Targets were set quarterly and annually, with bonuses (for managers, not the rest of the staff) if we achieved them; but the threat was always there, implicit rather than actually voiced, that our jobs were on the line. The growth targets were aimed at the advertising department – unfeasibly demanding but not unachievable if you were prepared to drive the staff to work ever harder and faster. For the editorial department, the targets were on spending – how much money went on photographs and freelance contributors. (Over the years these figures were cut and eventually slashed to vanishing point, taking away much of the depth and quality of the content.)

I explained, patiently, to the chief executive that perpetual growth was an impossibility. I pointed out how, in the natural world, things that get too big eventually explode, implode, topple over or collapse. Perhaps this was a mistake – he wasn’t a man with any interest in Nature. He smiled, that patronising, condescending smirk of a man soothing a silly woman who knows nothing about, well, anything. I didn’t understand business, he said.

But I was right. I don’t take any credit for this. I am nobody’s idea of a scientific, environmental or philosophical prophet. I am just a logical thinker.

Nowadays many people – environmentalists, scientists and politicians – are talking about the inherent failure of the concept of perpetual growth, of the need to change and reverse the endless pressure to consume more of everything and of the critical requirement to reduce waste, whether it is throwing away our “devices” (smartphones, computers, tablets, etc) in favour of the latest model, or buying far more food than we need and putting it into rubbish bins, rather than using it up or at least composting the leftovers. Something like 30 per cent of the food purchased every year ends up in bins.

If we look outside the narrow confines of our own little lives, turn off the “reality” TV shows and explore the wide world of documentaries and news on channels and platforms outside our own immediate circle, we can see that we in the global north have to change every aspect of our lives. We need to understand the poverty and lack of even basic facilities of so many in the global south, and we must find a way to live more sustainably, making fairer use of the planet’s finite resources, cutting consumption and living within our means – all those things that our parents used to advise.

Fanny Charles