Intentional Waste

The deliberate destruction of goods, or the production of goods and events which use up a lot of labour but are of no practical value. It has been widely practised in traditional societies and, in some form, in most societies, with the partial but significant exception of our own.

Fertile ecologies have one big problem in common: they are too productive for their own good. Surplus is produced that—unless checked, managed, destroyed or removed—will eventually destroy the system. Lakes can become so rich with life that they die; many forests rely on periodic fire to clear out their choking abundance; the spruce fir forests of North America, left undisturbed for long enough, become so richly and closely entwined that the birds can’t get to the spruce budworm which, left to breed in peace, will in due course destroy the forest.I59

Human societies, too, have been extraordinarily productive. The more successful they are, the more capital they accumulate. Here we need to use the distinction made in Capital between:

a. the foundation capital on which everything else depends—essentially genetic inheritance and the fertile, watered ecology—which has to be preserved at all costs; and

b. growth capital, whose growth produces more growth which, if not held in check, will ultimately destroy foundation capital itself.

In order to limit or prevent that growth, growth capital has to be controlled, in one or more of three ways:

• By preventing its growth.

• By destroying it, or discarding it, following growth.

• By ensuring that—whatever it produces—its output does not take the form of further growth capital. That is, let it produce only useless ornaments, or extravagant, labour-intensive carnivals—let it be wasted. For then its impact on foundation capital is zero or minimal, in comparison to its impact if it did something useful, such as building machine tools or motorways, training construction engineers, or making productive investments that produced more growth.

If growth capital is allowed to accumulate unchecked, it will produce more than can be contained in a closed-loop system, and the system will in due course break down. However, if part of that capital is intentionally discarded (in sufficient quantity), or used up in carnival and play, folly and fun, this will reduce production to a level at which it can be kept within the limits of a closed-loop system, making it possible that the ecosystem (or community) will endure.

Waste-reduction has a key place with respect to foundation capital, for soil fertility and some scarce materials have to be conserved—ideally what is ‘waste’ to one part of the system should be a valuable input for another. But the central economic ethic is not about reducing waste in all its forms; it is about sustaining or—if necessary—increasing it in some of its forms, acknowledging growth capital as having lethal potential and thus wasting it, managing it, using it for decoration and delight, or destroying it.

In response to this—whether by understanding, instinct or accident—former societies have devised many ways of getting rid of excess. Weapons, jewels, artefacts, even ships, would be deposited in the grave of a chief. Traditional societies organised an endless series of little crashes: creative-destruction-moments, kaikaku-parties. A frequent event would be the “potlatch” (the word is from the Chinook language of the Pacific Northwest coast of America, but the practice is widely present). This was a competitive ceremony of mutually assured destruction in which each contestant would have to more-than-match his opponent’s sacrifice of his own possessions, often by burning, to the point of material devastation for the property of both. In this same profligate tradition, the Egyptians built more pyramids than there were pharaohs to bury in them; and the Florentines and Venetians of the Renaissance spent in abundance on churches, paintings and carnivals.I60

But it was not only about sacrifice: when gifts are given, something comes back. As the anthropologist Marcel Mauss writes,

Gifts to humans and to the gods also serve the purpose of buying peace between them both.I61

This is contract making: there is a gift, there is the obligation to reciprocate, and the imbalance between what is given and what is received can be rather large: whereas God gives the gift of life and the whole world, all He gets back is a mere cathedral. Mauss summarises:

those gods who give and return gifts are there to give a considerable thing in place of a small one.I62

The medieval cathedrals and the astonishing churches—big works of art in little villages—used up the excess wealth which is the curse of a stable society. Cultures have to a large extent been organised around the task of finding celebratory ways of destroying la part maudite—“the accursed share”, as Georges Bataille describes it—the capital which would otherwise endow resilient societies with the curse of growth.I63

It can be a process of the utmost decorum. A modern demonstration of an ancient version of this comes from people who are not famous for their profligate lifestyles. At the Royal Academy in London in 1995, there was an exhibition of Tibetan art. In one of the rooms of the exhibition, four monks in their saffron robes toiled for weeks at a large and complex work of art: a sand mandala, made in intricate geometric shapes of coloured sand, guided by written instructions which they were translating from words into pattern. There was a sense of gravity, intense concentration, even reverence, in the room, and the great pattern, still unfinished, had a meaning for those who could read it, and beauty for the rest. The climax of this quiet festival was to throw the whole lot into the Thames.I64

Yet for the market economy, things are different. From the early years of the Industrial Revolution, society needed all its resources to invent and build its way through its difficult, touch-and-go transition: from a small-scale society depending on local economies and firewood to a giant industrial economy depending on a correspondingly massive infrastructure of engineering, transport, complication and regrettable necessities. As it walked this punishing route, it could not afford to discard surplus over and above the unintended waste that came with its technology—with the vast investments into which it was being forced, material want was all too evident and it needed to use or invest all the resources it could get. At the same time, it gradually lost the reciprocities of bonding, of culture, loyalty and place, and turned instead to the price mechanism: “I will deal with you if and only if you are competitive; otherwise I will deal with Fred, whose prices are lower.”I65

The new market state, therefore, has not recognised surplus as a problem and destroyed it accordingly. Instead, its surplus has been conserved and valued; in fact, it has been reinvested. The modern economy has turned the problem of surplus into more surplus, to be used, in turn, in the production of even more, at compound interest. Capital—including human capital (population)—breeds capital. But a system that breaks free of constraints on its growth is the curse of ecological ethics; this is the sin that won’t be forgiven. The resulting exponential growth postpones the necessary process of destruction, ensuring that human society loses control of its inevitable unleashing. Modern society doesn’t understand surplus; it carefully conserves it, invites it in like the Trojan horse. It stores up this excess—this accursed share—ready and waiting for the crash. As Bataille comments, “It causes us to undergo what we could bring about in our own way, if only we understood.”I66


The Lean Economy

What will the Lean Economy do about surplus? It will be built on a systems-literate foundation of closed-loop systems for all its primary resources. Its small-scale labour-saving elegance will waste potential labour by making full-time work obsolete. Rediscovering the community building blocks that make a society, free of the taut high-tension grid of competitive prices, it will integrate economics into a culture which recovers and values the gift of choice.

Instead of having to produce to common competitive standards, it will instead be able to choose labour-intensive, inefficient methods: it will cultivate land as it wishes, work with whatever loving craftsmanship it knows, take time off, make music, think, sleep, cherish philosophy, control its own population, know its own political economy and ecology well enough to understand the deep ambiguous meaning of waste, and recover the intelligence of the early cultures that knew that they had to destroy, or waste, or spend on spectaculars, because their ecology and their lives depended on it.

The inhabitants of the Lean Economy of the future could, perhaps, build cathedrals and pyramids, but there are probably enough of those. It would be better if they concentrated on being interesting. If so, they will have moved beyond the primitive ethic of competitiveness. Relations between inhabitants of these enduring and resilient lean political economies will not be reduced to their ability to compete, but enriched by their talent for surprise.


Related entries:

Growth, Lean Economics, Slack and Taut, Script, Leisure, Sorting.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: