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Waste in the Year of the Locust

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
August 19, 2004


"Only want sets a limit to waste." [Tantum volo terminus sets deserta.] — Latin Proverb

Growing up, I can remember my mom trying to guilt me into cleaning my plate because "children in China were starving." At the time I knew there was no causal connection. I knew there was no way the kids in Beijing would be less hungry if I ate more food. This was during the late 60's and early 70's. I wonder if mom knew the Chinese famine ended in 1961? Whatever her motive, my siblings and I got the point. Do this date I have no problem cleaning my plate, as well as others.

Prompting this train of thought was a request from a reader to "Do a column on wastefulness. Like, how, kids never finish all the milk they pour on their cereal!"

There are many ways to waste food. Food left on the plate is as wasteful as over-eating, and both are symptoms of a cultural malady. Here the complaint was as superficial as sugar-laden milk, yet it speaks to the much larger issues of waste and want in the industrial world, and the wanton waste of the ecological systems on which the industrial world relies. One need look no further than nearest McDonalds or "all-you-can-eat-buffet," to understand how want and need is interchangeable in a world of plenty.

In the United States we pride ourselves on abundance. Both the haves and have mores, wear consumption like a badge of honor. The have-nots purposely strive to a level of achievement to the point of casual consumption. Here in San Diego County we are so committed to our wasteful ways we are even willing to place a landfill on top of a fresh water source, in the middle of a pristine canyon as to accommodate the luxury of a disposable lifestyle.

Can you say Gregory Canyon Landfill?

Early in their education kids are taught greed is good and you can never have enough stuff, and there is always more where that came from. Sure it's subtle, but the message is always persistent, designed for you viewing pleasure. Why wouldn't kids waste milk? There is always more milk. Just like there is always more Big Macs, more choices and more opportunities to eat. Unfortunately eating less and eating healthy are as popular as eating steak with a spoon.

As a culture we pride ourselves on our abundance, and will let nothing stand in our way to maintain it. Generations raised on the cultural belief there will always be more, are prone to waste what's in front of them. This is what we do. It's the American way. Every aspect of feeding ourselves has a mountain of waste associated with it. From planting to packaging, the process is now in the hands of multinational agribusiness conglomerates laying waste to the environment.

Kids can only reflect the culture in which they are raised, hence the super-sized portions and unfinished meals.

Elsewhere around the world, children live without the luxury of choice. It is safe to say parents in Sudan don't need to plead with their children to finish their dinner. The civil war in Sudan has pushed millions off their land, and to the brink of disease and starvation, with U.S. sanctions only adding to the misery. It is impossible to imagine a dad in Dafur telling his kids to finish their porridge because children in California are starving to death.

As usual famine is never the result of biological processes. At work in Sudan, as it was in Somalia, Iraq, and North Korea in the 1990's, starvation is a political tool tied to resource allocation and politics. Population pressures only magnify the suffering.

For those readers not in the know, the fighting in Sudan is the both religious and economic in nature. At the root of the conflict is the Islamic people of the north waging a campaign of genocide against the Animist and Christian populations of the south in order to gain unfettered access to the oil fields in the southern portion of the east African country. Adding to the problem facing the displaced families is a plague of locusts and the coming rains.

In the California we take our bounty for granted, and any culture that abandons temperance and frugality in the name of profit and prosperity, will eventually find itself struggling to make ends meet in a diminished environment.

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