We’re Drowning In Our Own Trash

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Thomas Malthus has suddenly become popular again. While Americans are concerned about fuel prices, much of the rest of the world is concerned about food prices. In countries like Egypt and Bangladesh, and in regions of Africa, riots have erupted over a shortage of food. In other countries, like China and India, when rice is shipped, it’s shipped under the protection of armed guards.

Global production simply can’t keep up with global consumption. And so people are asking: Was Malthus right?

Malthus, an economist and demographer from the 19th century, is known for predicting that population growth moves more quickly than the expansion of food production. As he former moves geometrically, and the latter arithmetically, its inevitable that population overcomes production. As a result, Malthus predicted, people will starve.

Many experts now believe that the 19th century proved Malthus incorrect. The Green Revolution increased global food production, helping it keep pace with global population growth. It allowed us to keep consuming.

But with anything you produce, you also have waste. And, given the growing consumption, unless one is very careful about production technologies, you have waste on a massive scale. As photographs by Chris Jordan and our daily experience of taking out the trash and seeing litter everywhere can testify, our consumption of goods leads to an overwhelming volume of trash. So much so that the scale of the numbers can be difficult to comprehend. Consider some numbers Jordan uses:

  • Two million plastic beverage bottles are used in the US every five minutes.
  • 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags are used in the US every hour.
  • 426,000 cell phones are retired in the US every day.
  • While 106,000 aluminum cans are used in the US every thirty seconds.

And that’s just the waste we can see. Waste gases from power plants are filling the air that we breathe, leading to the early deaths of tens of thousands of American and hundreds of thousands or millions around the world. Invisible carbon dioxide is turning the oceans so acidic that shell fish are having a harder time growing their shells while it changes our entire planet’s climate.

The point here is pretty clear. We’re drowning in a sea of our own waste.

This point changes the way we have to understand Malthus. For him, it was a two-way balance between consumption and production. Now, it’s a three-way balance between production, consumption, and waste.

And it’s no longer simply a question of whether we can have another Green Revolution to increase production, because even if we did that we would only increase our waste problem.

We have to begin addressing this question of waste. If we are to feed more people – and we will have to, given predictions of global population growths – than we should also free more people of the sea of garbage and poison and waste our production has created.

Part of this will be to examine of our own, personal consumption habits. Each of us should find ways to reduce our waste, whether it’s by bringing lunch to work, or by using cloth bags at the grocery store, or by driving smaller cars. Whatever it is that works for you, I’d urge you to try it.

Will that be enough? Certainly not. But it is a start.  A start to be expanded on every day.


(Photo credit: Chris Jordan, www.chrisjordan.com