I’m recruiting troops for the waste war
When I was a kid in Britain in the 1970s, I would sometimes sneak into my beloved Great Aunt Ruth’s kitchen and look at her cupboards. Ruth was born in 1905 and lived through two world wars. Her experience of deprivation and rationing makes her a master of recycling. And his cooking has testified to it.
Its drawers contained stacks of old brown paper bags, neatly folded, ready to be reused, along with jars, string, rubber bands, wrapping paper and foil. She reused tea bags and scoured the woods, rivers and beaches of her native Devon for food.
Some of my happiest memories with it involved scouring beach rocks for periwinkles, scooping blackberries from hedges, and combing Dartmoor bushes for blueberries, which we stored in old tubs in plastic and carried in khaki backpacks that Ruth made for children from scraps of fabric. After meals, uneaten food was carefully stored for later in reusable jars.
At the time, it seemed normal. But as he grew older it started to seem more and more strange. By the end of the 20th century, the consumer goods industry had grown so powerful and plastic so cheap to produce that most Westerners saw little need to reuse tea bags, jars, or glass jars. , not to mention the string.
Mass manufacturing and outsourcing have driven costs down, so the prices of everyday goods – from clothes to kitchen gadgets – have plummeted. It was okay to throw things away and assume someone else would clean up the mess. The dumps were out of sight and out of mind.
But now I’m starting to feel a tinge of déjà vu in my own kitchen. One of my teenage daughters became a passionate eco-warrior, inspired by the TikTok videos on zero waste lifestyles and sustainability hacks.
It hasn’t inspired us to accumulate twine yet, but my daughter encourages us to reuse almost everything else. And we have embarked on a war on food waste, scanning social media for ways to cook “discarded” beet stalks, apple cores and damaged cabbage leaves.
Meanwhile, on a macro scale, the term “circular economy” is all the rage. An unexpected twist in 21st century life, the idea aims to replace the “take, make, waste” model of the past. And as such, it reveals two important points.
First, trends in history – including our definition of “progress” – seldom evolve in straight lines, but rather in loops. Some champions of sustainable development are aware of this. British food writer Bee Wilson, for example, recently tweeted an excerpt from a 1951 book Cooking from scratch who urged readers to save and reuse “scallop shells, butter sheets, oiled apple wrappers, pickled nut liquid.”
Such is the enthusiasm (or arrogance) of youth that I suspect most young environmentalists today are only vaguely aware of these parallels. Each generation thinks it has rebuilt its world.
The second point is that if we want to fight climate change, we have to think not only about our habits, but also about our habitus, to quote a concept invented by Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist and one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century.
He argued that the way we organize our physical space, assets, calendar, and social groups reflects a mind map (a set of inherited assumptions) that we use to organize the world. It also reinforces these assumptions as we live each day. Our physical environment shapes the way we think and vice versa.
So, having grown up seeing empty jam jars stored for the future seemed natural to me to reuse them. Harvesting blueberries in the moors bushes made me scan the ground around my feet (and back away from the litter). Later, being surrounded by the constant use and disposal of plastic bags in stores instilled a different mindset.
The question we collectively face now is whether we can reshape our habits – and habitus – again. And as Josh Berson, archaeologist and anthropologist, argues in a fascinating new book Human scaffolding, the problem is not only about material goods: social, emotional and biological models are also of great importance.
“The stuff is what is important in archaeological assemblages, not to say our own daily life,” he writes. “But it’s a recent phenomenon. If we look at the deep history of human adaptation to climate change, we see things playing a subsidiary role. “
Could the pandemic trigger a change? Perhaps, given that even some elites are forced to rethink (see, for example, a book by Felix Marquardt, The new nomads, about how he was once addicted to the conference and the Davos lifestyle, but is now giving up the habit).
But for my money, it’s the attitudes of young people that could prove to be really important. They are the ones who will have to live with the mess we leave behind. No wonder they are excited.
And for those of us with popular memories of wartime rationing, we should celebrate the fact that culture can change when there is a need. Everyone salutes those reusable bottles, butter wrappers and discarded carrot stalks, especially on TikTok.
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