The Conventional Wisdom

Man-made waste has become an issue. It’s OK. Once the mess cannot be ignored any longer, then action will be taken. We are almost there.
Life is complex; we need solid and well-tested rules to get by. We shall call these rules The Conventional Wisdom (1), in other words, what worked in the past should work in the future.
Today most people believe that waste takes care of itself. It is part of the conventional wisdom.  The political agenda is full of propositions to promote growth and production. Very little thought is given to the management of waste generated. We can’t blame them. The public doesn’t care. Once CO2 is released and lost in the atmosphere, or plastic bags are drawn out of sight into the oceans, or urban waste is dumped and hidden in landfills, the problem is solved. Waste is not an issue. It will disappear, somehow, as it has done all through history.
But waste cannot take care of itself any more. These are the reasons:
  1. Too many people. There are 7 billion people, and growing, generating waste.
  2. Too much waste. New technologies have increased production rates, and waste, exponentially.
  3. Too long lived. Some of the man-made waste lasts hundreds of years.
As a result, today waste is piling up, fast, but we don’t want to see it.

The conventional wisdom is built upon ideas forged in the past. The world has for centuries been a world of scarcity and misery and poverty and hunger. Waste had never been an issue for humankind. Production was.
But the world has changed. Today’s technology and mass production have turned the tables around. Production is not an issue any more. Waste is. The idea that waste takes care of itself is not valid anymore. Just take littering along the road as an example. It may take up to 400 years for a plastic bottle to degrade in the ditch.
But the conventional wisdom doesn’t see it this way. New ideas are seldom welcome. People listen to the convenient, the familiar and the accepted only. Sometimes a fearless fool embraces a new and challenging idea: man-made waste is a threat. The masses never do it. Those who don’t comply with the conventional wisdom are labeled as fools and radicals and dangerous. Galileo Galilei had his own share of enemies.
The conventional wisdom is never shaken by farsighted individuals. The conventional wisdom is quite resilient. It is only when the cruelty of facts cannot be ignored any longer that the conventional wisdom tips over. We are almost there.

(1)    The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom. The Affluent Society. John Kenneth Galbraith.

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