Waste According to Wendell Berry

April 22, 1994

By Michael Jessen

Wendell Berry's short essay on waste provides some thoughtful post-Earth Day insights on the magnitude of our garbage problem.

Much of the problem, he says, can be attributed to the "intentional flimsiness and unrepairability of the labor-savers and gadgets that we have become addicted to" and to the load of plastic, aluminum and glass containers and packaging that results from shopping.

Berry puts the blame on an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom -- "a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom".

"The mess that surrounds us, then, must be understood not just as a problem in itself but as a symptom of a greater and graver problem: the centralization of our economy, the gathering of the productive property and power into fewer and fewer hands, and the consequent destruction, everywhere, of the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community", he says.

It is the source of our unemployment, Berry continues, not only of the legitimate labour force, but also of children and the elderly. "The ecological damage of centralization and waste is thus inextricably involved with human damage.

He concludes that we must learn to see the trash problem, "not as the side effects of 'more jobs' as its manufacturers invariably insist that it is, but as evidence of good work not done by people able to do it."


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