Consume and discard, the true background to all environmental problems

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By Patricio Segura
 
It is not clear whether Albert Einstein ever actually said it, but the comment “if you want different results, do different things,” is certainly a great one. As is the similar statement “insanity is doing the same thing over again while expecting different results."
 
Undoubtedly, if you want to avoid the same mistakes, then you should avoid the practices which caused them. Put like this it sounds simple enough. But saying it is one thing, doing it is another -- reality is always more complicated. How do we know for certain what causes a specific phenomenon?
 
Climate change is a prime example.
 
For many people, including the decision-making elite, the message being sent to us by planet Earth is that we need to stop producing greenhouse gases. Nothing else. And working on such a premise, actions are planned to achieve that objective. For others however, including myself, the lesson to be learned goes much deeper. Yes, we need to reduce carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. But more generally, it all goes back to the fact that we, as a species, have got it wrong. We have not considered the true impact of our actions on the natural world, nor how the social, environmental and economic effects are all linked. And as the Brundtland report amply shows, neither have we thought about those people who are yet to come. If all of this has not been fully and comprehensively grasped, then, truth be told, we have understood nothing. In that case, any alternative solution to global warming will simply be more of the same.
 
Now let’s think about firewood.
 
It has been in widespread use in the region of Aysén since the beginning of settlements here, and it was the only option during periods when there was no other fuel at hand and the use of electricity was unfeasible. In this respect, there are elements of cultural identity and customary use associated with it. These days, due to the high cost of electricity and fossil fuels, for many people it is the preferred option. And it should not be forgotten that there is an economic aspect in play here, namely that many rural families obtain part of their income by selling firewood. This links the two factors already mentioned, economic and cultural, both for the producer (income and type of production) and for the consumer (expense and type of heating).
 
The issue of atmospheric pollution, however, is part of a wider problem of how to respond coherently to the challenge of managing waste from the burning of wood fuel. And this question, what to do with the waste (in this case, particulate matter), is repeated in other areas. For example, water pollution due to lack of sewerage and water treatment facilities; contamination of soil, rivers and lakes due to lack of landfill sites. The list goes on.
 
What is more, when viewed from a holistic perspective, the treatment of waste is the final part of the problem.
 
The first part involves having a balanced relationship with nature in so far as the extraction of natural resources is concerned. This means offering ecosystems the opportunity to continue carrying out their functions even after experiencing human intervention. (And carrying out functions allows services to be provided to us). In the case of firewood, for example, the demands being placed on the forests of Aysén are preventing the natural regenerative processes taking place.
 
Thus the serious problem of pollution in Coyhaique is part of a wider issue, namely how we relate to our environment. Put colloquially, we have a problem with what we are taking from and what we are putting into our ecosystems (forest and atmosphere, in this case). And this is replicated in all the localities of the region of Aysén, notwithstanding their various specificities.
 
To this can be added the fact that there is no general practice in place for the reduction and efficiency in consumption of products, nor for their reuse or their recycling. And even less so are there agreed practices in place for considering the carrying capacity and the resilience of the natural world.
 
Any proposed solution, therefore, to the issue of atmospheric pollution and other socio-environmental problems will have to take into account the two extremes of the process: resource use and waste management. Otherwise we will be dealing with limited measures that, if they do not take a holistic approach, will more than likely lead to other environmental, social and economic problems, both for the citizenry of today and tomorrow.
 
To fail to understand this will be to keep doing the same thing but under a different name. Put simply, it will mean continuing the human leitmotif of consume, consume, consume then discard, discard, discard, as if the world were coming to an end.
 
The problem, however, is that if we continue in this vein, then our world – the true, tangible one - really will come to an end. 
 
Translation by Benjamin Waters
 
 

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