Wendell Berry, the author of “Waste”, makes a convincing argument that people cause as well as suffer from the problem of waste. In the article, the author recounts how he has become acutely aware of the waste problems in his rural area. He notices trash polluting the rivers near his farm.
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He infers that his neighbors upstream are both carelessly wasting and improperly disposing of highly dangerous items. He concludes that this practice causes significant threats to human health and to the environment. He indicts society at all levels for allowing a culture of planned obsolescence and excess packaging to persist. He makes a powerful case that this indulgence leads to the waste of human resources as well.
Berry observes rising rivers flooding his fields with trash, such as cans, and plastic jugs. He expresses frustration concerning this mass of packaging and broken products with no other destination, at best, but a landfill, and at worst, someone’s yard or a local river. Berry’s experience is by no means confined to his “beautiful river” community.
Such wastefulness is ubiquitous. In the college cafeteria, students, who are allowed to serve themselves as much as they wish, thoughtlessly throw away perfectly good food. Whether because of taste, lack of appetite, or weight concerns, entire trays of uneaten food fill the garbage bins.
A recently observed student served himself pizza, salad, chicken, noodles, and a wrap sandwich, tasted each, and tossed the rest, a nearly universal pattern. Besides food waste, consider the end of semester trash piles, composed of the plastics, paper, textiles, metal, and newly obsolete electronics that briefly furnished a dorm room. This toxic e-waste will likely end up poisoning poor kids elsewhere. Thus Berry’s identification of waste problems is applicable nearly everywhere.
Berry further notes the ill effects of the current system throughout our environment. The practice of planned obsolescence and excessive packaging both pollutes and unnecessarily consumes energy, water, and other resources. As just one example, huge forests are sacrificed for trivia such as disposable chopsticks and political mailers. Deforestation is linked to increased CO2 levels, thus potentially contributing to global climate change.
Berry carries the notion of ill effects on humans a step further. He asserts that industrial food production isolates most people from this traditional means of livelihood. He links this to the fact that kids and the elderly have few ways to contribute meaningfully in Western society.
Berry links the centralization of food production and productive power to an overall deterioration of values and chronic unemployment. Thus the system of planned waste built into current practices has negative effects on the environment, on human health, and on society.
In conclusion, Berry draws a direct connection between what he describes as, “the gathering of the productive property and power into fewer and fewer hands” on the one hand, and an ugly visual landscape, a toxic environment, and wasted human lives, on the other hand. As a call to action, his very personal reflection on the trash drifting by his farm is an effective one. By taking action now, we may be able harness our creativity to halt the destruction of our ecosystems and our society.
Berry, W. (1990). Waste. In What Are People For? (pp. 127-128). New York: North Point Press.