Can we afford this extravagance and waste?

Thursday, 16 February 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The year 2012 is cited as a threshold or a point-of-no-return year by climate scientists in their recommendations on how we could effectively manage catastrophic outcomes that could arise from global warming and climate change.

They cite the huge increases we have seen of CO2 emissions in the last few decades, to be taking us to such a point-of-no-return. The collective of global leaders are yet to respond with solid commitments that are called for, to prevent such catastrophe.

Instead, some among them have chosen to busy themselves in creating climates of dissent and disorder, where the end game objectives are their own dominant economic and political growth and sustenance.

The year 2012 is also significant, for it is when a number of predictions converge on the fate of our planet. From the ending of the Mayan calendar to prediction of Nostradamus to a potential shift in galactic alignment, there are many scenarios painted associated with this year.

While the reality of these could be witnessed with passing of the days and since there is no point worrying about what’s beyond our own spheres of influence or control, learning of such may only be of academic interest for many of us. For those who wish to learn of such comprehensive coverage of the phenomenon can be found amongst others at the website

What’s real

Leaving the doomsday predictions aside, we must take a closer look at what is visibly wrong in our midst today. We are all aware of the causes of the current financial crisis that has reached global proportions.

Bursts of bubbles of consumerism in the real estate markets in the US, lavish takings by corporate sector leaders, large scale failure of financial institutions, increasing unemployment due to the shrinking of opportunities for productive work and the increased polarisation between the rich and the poor, have all added up to create crises in many nations even driving some of them to the brink of bankruptcy.

The situation in Greece and several other European nations (EU debt crisis), the recent bailouts and the emergence of the ‘Occupy Movement’ in the US are but some overt demonstration of what is ailing the global economy today.  

Given that these many happenings are interlinked and/or intertwined, should we not be thinking twice when we take on lavish schemes for providing entertainment and for economic growth that are far remote from meeting our basic needs or have the ability to serve the needs of the many and not a few?

Should we not be thinking twice about spending lavishly on events related to our lives and living such as weddings, celebrations or on other luxurious social tamashas that are wasteful? Should we not end our wasteful ways such as abuse of toxic substances, abuse of power, bribery and corruption in our midst and focus on more refined and basic lifestyles of living within our means, akin to our religious teaching?

Should our leaders not be cutting down on what was termed by the Pope in his New Year’s Day message as ‘superficial glitter’ in the use of the limited resources we as humans have for our very existence?

Austere ways

Focussing on what is within our power to change, should we not be making a strong call on our leaders (political, civic, business and religious) for there is so much they and each of us as individuals could do, to ensure that there is real change happening in the area of managing our wasteful ways and the extravagance with which many of us have chosen to live our lives?

As just one example, I often wondered why workers who contribute to building that roadway, bridge, housing scheme or the public complex were not made the guests of honour at each inauguration. A simple ceremony could replace the wasteful tamasha that we see, of gatherings of many VIPs, political and corporate bosses, officials and others who often had done nothing whatsoever as contribution to that venture.

The engineers, builders and workers offered that honour would then move on to strengthen the emotional ties they have with what they have created and will ensure its future maintenance and sustenance.

Often we pass such ceremony and pomp as phenomena associated with petty political gimmicks, but ignore that it is also prevalent within rest of our society and in the corporate sector in various other forms. We only need to focus our attention on such, to realise the intensity of the wasteful ways in which we indulge.

Story of our lives

‘Waste’ is no doubt a concept that is at the core of human existence. Yet, we pay only very little attention to what it really means to us. Observing the extravagance, the superficial glitter and wasteful ways practised in our midst, I made my column today an extension of what I had written earlier elsewhere, for I believe that this somewhat odd journey to be critical to our very existence as humans.

My aim is to bring to your attention and focus the concept of ‘waste’ and what it could mean to us as individual citizens on this, our planet earth and as collectives of people living on it, as nations or tribes.

‘Waste’ is tied up as an integral element with production processes of almost all human activities. The most intimate of such experience we encounter as humans is the passing of urine and faeces at times our bodies deem it necessary. Almost a mindless activity to us most, that could be thought of as both a process and an outcome, in the ultimate definition of the concept of waste.

It is not often we spare a moment to think deeply about why we are asked to analyse samples of our excreta when medical science wants to determine the state of the health or the functioning of our bodies. When we do, we realise that it is because that such analysis could tell medical practitioners a whole lot about the happenings within each of our bodies. That then is ‘waste’ telling a story of what we are and what we could become.

Simply extending that to planet earth, civilisations within it and our ways of living, the ‘waste’ we generate as beings living on this; yet the only planet we have to live in, should tell us a whole lot about what we are and what we could become. In fact it already does, with the waste we have generated as CO2 reaching alarming proportions now, causing the crisis we know as global warming and climate change.

A by-product of society

The way different civilisations look at and understand the concept of waste also makes interesting study. In the Western cultural tradition, waste is thought of as an inevitable by product of human action, much like a remnant or to be dumped useless entity. In that tradition, there is little differentiation between the cause for generating ‘waste’ and ‘waste’ itself.

Based on the assumption that all resources on planet earth are created to meet the needs of humans, and that human greed and craving for choice are natural phenomena that drive the urge for humans to seek ‘growth and/or development’ in acquiring material wealth, ‘waste’ is considered an essential outcome that need be ‘minimised and/or managed’.

Popular dictionary definitions of ‘waste’ refer to “an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose” and add as synonyms; to squander, dissipate, consume, destroy and misspend. Here the focus of the reference is mainly on the utilisation of finite and non-renewable resources.

We often hear statements like “there is money in waste” or “reducing waste leads to enhancing productivity” and that triggers responses from those who take on turning ‘waste,’ into money making enterprise. We hear engineers trained in the western tradition discuss ‘process waste’ and ‘use waste’ on a presumption of resource scarcity.

There are yet others who paradoxically argue ‘waste’ to be a by-product of scarcity. The tripod of ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ has been touted as the way to managing waste and that in the main, become our focus with not much attention paid to the concept of ‘waste’ beyond that.

Within us

Within the context of the oriental tradition, ‘waste’ is dealt with by minimising the need for generating it within the very core of our lifestyles. ‘Waste’ is also defined as deterioration (Kshaya) or obsessing one’s mind in meaningless thought (Anusaya). It calls for practice of modesty and a way of living defined in Buddhist thought as a balanced approach of the middle path.

Called the ‘Rightful Ways’ or the Noble Eightfold Path, the actions of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration all combine to enable the human mind to eliminate the need for creation of waste through the creation of an advanced and developed lifestyle.

The Noble Eightfold Paths are pillared on the realisation of the Four Noble Truths of Dukka (suffering), origin of dukka, cessation of dukka and the path to cessation of dukka and together form the very essence of the Buddhist thought process. It is indeed a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; finally leading to understanding the truth about all things.

This is much akin to what I read as an interpretation of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law as “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature (‘magic’ was the original)” and the rationale behind the philosophy of Zero Waste and strategy it adopts in harmony with ways of the natural world.

Although we have done and continue to take measures to reduce, recycle and reuse our waste to a certain extent, embedded extravagance in our lifestyles and our non-austere ways seem to negate those efforts to a great extent.

As climate scientists point out, our journey on elimination of waste as individuals and nations should first begin with the right attitude and right practice of those who lead nations and with each of us, in how we lead our day-to-day lives. According to them this is no longer an option, but a must do.

Since we are now on a rapid collision course with nature and could soon surpass a point-of-no-return, hope for us do not rest anymore only with mitigation of waste but with its near elimination at the source of its creation. That, then, is about the way we live our lives.

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at