Are We History?

January 29, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Question: What do all the previous civilizations that practiced recycling have in common?

Answer: They're extinct.

Squandering resources has a history as long as humanity. From the Sumerians who built the first-ever cities in the Near East 4,000 years ago to modern North America, virtually every civilization that has ever existed has tried recycling as a way to save its resources, and ultimately itself, from disappearing.

According to Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje, recycling is the world's oldest profession. Authors of the new book "Use Less Stuff", Lilienfeld and Rathje assert that people established workshops to fix and recycle old tools, weapons, pottery, and jewellery as soon as they became less nomadic and settled down into permanent living quarters.

"All these recycling specialties date back long before civilizations first codified laws that formally called attention to people who engaged in unacceptable sexual conduct as a way of making a living," say the authors.

Using the Sumerian and the classic Mayan civilizations as examples, Lilienfeld and Rathje show how at the same time they were recycling with obsessive fervour, the residents were degrading their land's future fertility and squandering what wealth they had on lavish temples festooned with decorative art.

Both civilizations recycled with gusto. They literally turned old buildings into new. The Sumerians flattened derelict structures to serve as foundations for new structures that were much higher. When it came to either temples or palaces, the Maya didn't raze a building that was being replaced. Instead, they just added a thick outer shell on top, thereby guaranteeing that the latest temple or palace would be bigger than its predecessors.

Daily utensils and tools were also recycled by both civilizations. The Sumerians had metallurgy and collected and reforged swords, plowshares, and pruning hooks. The Maya often worked broken or chipped stone tools into new shapes that had different uses.

Clearly, both civilizations took recycling and conspicuous consumption as facts of life that were not to be challenged. "Perhaps, in fact," say Lilienfeld and Rathje, "when it came to resource management and conservation, the forest of conspicuous consumption could not be seen through all the twigs and branches of the trees of recycling."

One of the most familiar and widely accepted expressions is "Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."

The behaviour of recycling and wasting at the same time is not logical, but it is all too human. We all do it. Similarly, like the Sumerians and the Maya, we choose recycling as our conservation method of choice because we cannot clearly see where our most critical threats lie -- another familiar human foible.

"The simple truth," say Lilienfeld and Rathje, "is that all of our major environmental concerns are either caused by, or contribute to, the ever-increasing consumption of goods and services."

We focus only on the symptoms -- too much waste and pollution -- rather than deal with the effects of too much shopping and purchasing. We use recycling like an aspirin. But just as aspirin does not prevent hangovers, recycling will not prevent overconsumption.

"By putting too much faith in recycling, we are actually rewarding ourselves for overconsuming," say Lilienfeld and Rathje. "Think about it. We feel good when we fill the recycling bin. In reality, we should feel good when there's no waste to put in it at all!"

TRASH TIP - "Use Less Stuff - Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are" by Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje is published by Fawcett Books. A $16.95 paperback, this groundbreaking consumer guide suggests helpful money- and energy-saving tips for everyone who cares about how we live today and tomorrow. Thought-provoking, helpful, and highly recommended.

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