The Funny Thing About Waste

The funny thing about waste is that it’s all relative to your sense of scarcity.
At least that’s how a Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson titled Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity starts out. As someone who spends the majority of their time thinking about ways to waste less and help others do the same, I don’t find that notion funny at all.
The point of the article is one that has been made before: due to the very low cost of entry in online media, the traditional business models are being shaken up. What was previously a traditional economy of scarcity is now one of abundance. This sounds eerily like the pre-dotcom bubble New Economy. The fundamentals of economics don’t change, just like the laws of nature. Unlike natural laws, laws of economics are often made up by people, and later proven wrong.
Speaking of nature, the article’s author seems to think that nature is wasteful. This puts him in opposition with great thinkers such as Aristotle who said,”Nature does nothing uselessly” and also the astronomer Johannes Kepler who said, “Nature uses as little as possible of anything.” Nature is quite elegant, frugal, and beautiful. Waste is ugly.
On the other hand, Chris Anderson thinks that humans are uniquely NOT wasteful. That came as a surprise to me:

Our brains seem wired to resist waste, but we are relatively unique in nature for this. Mammals have the fewest offspring in the animal kingdom, and as a result we invest enormous time and care in protecting each one so that it can reach adulthood. The death of a single human is a tragedy, one that survivors sometimes never recover from, and we prize the individual life above all.
As a result, we have a very developed sense of the morality of waste. We feel bad about the unloved toy or the uneaten food. Sometimes this is for good reason, because we understand the greater social cost of profligacy, but often it’s just because our mammalian brains are programmed that way.

I haven’t heard of animals in the wild killing thousands of buffalo only to leave their carcasses wasting to rot on the plains, or cutting off shark’s fins for soup and throwing back the shark to die, or polluting their own habitat or that of the animals that neighbor them in the interest of pursuits not essential to their survival. Yet humans do these things in abundance. Humans may have a morality of waste, but as far as I know, we are the only animals with morality, period. In my experience humans are often quite unaware of the waste around them unless they are faced with personal scarcity and hunger. That is one of the reasons the theme and the language of this article disturbs me. The author continues:

However, the rest of nature doesn’t work like that. A bluefin tuna can release 10 million fertilized eggs in a spawning season. Perhaps 10 of them will hatch and make it to adulthood. A million die for every one that survives.

A chart in the article shows that it takes one million fertilized eggs from a blue fin tuna to result in one viable offspring, while for humans it is 1.26. The author doesn’t explain what happens to the other 999,999 tuna eggs. I always thought that they were eaten by prey or died in other ways before maturing. If so, nature isn’t wasting these eggs at all but rather using them as a resource: food for other fishes. Perhaps a study of biology will show that this is not waste, but a necessary birth population based on a yield factor.
In jumping from fish eggs to electronic entertainment, the author finds firmer ground:

What this boils down to is the difference between abundance- and scarcity-based business models. If you’re controlling a scarce resource, like the prime-time broadcast schedule, you have to be discriminating.

Scarcity of a resource makes people frugal, and less likely to take chances.

But if you’re tapping into an abundant resource, you can afford to take chances, since the cost of failure is so low.

Abundance allows you to fail with less risk. The author’s meme that technology is too cheap to meter does not ring true to me because it does not take into account the total cost of manufacturing, operating, and disposing of this technology. However, the central idea of abundance versus scarcity has relevance to the notion of continuous improvement itself. If we say that “ideas are too cheap to meter” we can encourage more creativity and problem solving. Our capacity for creative thought and invention is one of the most underutilized and most abundant resources. We need to encounter scarcity before we begin to use it. Taiichi Ohno said, “Your wits don’t work until you feel the squeeze.”
Waste exits if there is a customer or consumer who values a resource. Waste exists not merely when a consumer feels a pang of guilt, but when a resource is not respected. An infinite resource may not have a recognized value, until it is missed. Those of us who live in parts of the world without a lot of sunlight appreciate the sun only after the summer months have passed into autumn and winter. Yet holistically, the sun is vitally important to our health and life. If we looked carefully enough the same is probably true of any resource. It may not be possible to waste an infinite resource, but in order to come into being all resources by definition consume something: energy, time, space – physically or in our heads.
The trouble with this notion that waste is relative to our sense of scarcity is that it allows us to be as wasteful as the most abundant and least conscious one or group of us who is able to dominate the discussion. That only works for those who have access to or are effectively able to exploit those resources. If by this human-centered definition, everyone had everything they needed in abundance, then would there be no more waste?
Even in the case of a resource such as internet broadcast bandwidth where this is practically true there is a lot of time being spent, possibly wasted, on creating information and uploaded to the internet. These consumes people’s time to make and to watch. It consumes energy to power the servers, routers, computers and monitors. It is far from free. Viewed narrowly as the cost to broadcast a piece of video on the internet, for example, we can say that it is free. But there is a definite cost, and the jury is out how much lower or higher this cost is from the model of the past.
The keen awareness of waste and the recognition of waste as a bad thing help motivate us to improve our world around us. It is true that often when there is abundance there is a lack of a sense of urgency to change the status quo. While great art and cultures have flourished under civilizations enjoying abundance, the lack of motivation towards improvement has often led to decadence and decline.
The funny thing about waste is that it’s everywhere if you only look, but truly not there if you don’t. Without human perceptions of time, space, value and morality there is no such thing as waste. But alas, we exist, and waste is with us. The French poet Baudelaire left us with the words, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Let’s not let our thinking about abundance be the equivalent of waste’s greatest trick.

3 Comments

  1. sharma

    June 24, 2009 - 3:22 am

    Dear Jon,
    You have come up with an interesting debate!
    I feel that mother nature wants everyone to survive,grow,prosper as much as possible. Flower and fruits attract humans, animals, birds and insects – these, in turn help plants and trees pollinate. Is this a waste or a win-win?
    Is is appropriate to say that the production of fruits is wasteful activity, as the plants can’t eat them!!!
    The nature decides(and hopefully adapts and updates) the number of seeds required for each species’ survival and growth. This is continual improvement!
    TPS is one of the ways in which we can express our gratitude towards mother nature by way of reducing wastes.
    The perfect examples of TPS in nature is cow. Cow consumes only grass, produces excess milk than required by the calves, which is used by humans, and even the wastes(urine and cowdung) produced by the cow are useful as fuel, for methane gas production and organic fertilizer!!!
    Thanks!

  2. Jon Miller

    June 24, 2009 - 2:24 pm

    Hi Sharma,
    Before today I would not have thought of cows as particularly “elegant” but based on your description I would have to say that they are one of nature’s simple, frugal and elegant solutions.

  3. John Santomer

    July 4, 2009 - 7:25 am

    Dear Jon,
    Perhaps this is also the reason why humans, even by being mammals with morality can, at times, also be more reckless and immoral – because they have been aware of their higher survival rate and life expectancy than most other living thing on earth. They tend to take this in stride especially when he was given “dominion” over everything living on the planet. If humans were at the bottom of the “food chain”, I think we would have been more mindful of our resources and our well being – availability of resources included. Just an after thought – humanity has not done nature any favors for quite some time now. Look at the damage he has made in all the years of his existence on earth…and that’s because Einstein discovered that there are two definite things in the universe, one “The universe is infinite” – “Humans are stupid.” to a point that he will waste his resources until it will becomes too scarce to support even him. What irony!