Monday, December 17, 2007

Filling our heads with rubbish

A colleague of mine had a go at me about my piece on composting. You're just being obtuse, she said, everyone knows composting is good and landfill is terrible.

'I never said composting was bad,' I pointed out. 'I said that I didn't understand why it got so much attention. My concern is that it diverts us from taking more significant action and frankly, I think most of the stuff we read about landfill is tosh.'

'There you go again,' she said. A friendly row followed...

The sentiment around the landfill issue is almost universal: landfill is ugly, landfill is smelly, landfill is deadly and lasts for ever - just think of all those nappies and plastic bags - if you think otherwise you're just being obtuse.

Actually I agree with most of this. I suspect, however, that our dislike of landfill is far more to do with aesthetics and a guilty conscience than any particularly detailed reasoning about its impact on carbon emissions. And importantly, my agreement on landfill, doesn't mean I'm prepared to forgo critically assessing anything vaguely connected to it - like composting, for instance.

The problem with sentiments that become generally accepted is that it's near to impossible to have a reasoned conversation about the underlying facts. Much worse, it's open season for absurdities posing as truth. The other week I read an article which claimed that within a few years there would be no room for any more landfill - all the countryside would be a rubbish dump. Just think for a moment about the full extent of that claim - all the countryside a rubbish dump! Really? And yet people seem to believe it.

Similar 'no go' areas for any critical reasoning are subjects like nuclear energy, GM foods, the Queen Mother when she was alive... If any of this strikes a chord, there is a great little book you might like by James Whyte, 'Bad thoughts: a guide to clear thinking' - a wonderful expose of the nonesense we accept from the media.

But perhaps there is potentially more importance to sentiment than I'm allowing? Anyone close to the stock market knows its power; sentiment makes and breaks companies, inflating and reducing stock prices for little tangible reason. The property market is another example; the transition from property slump to property boom and now property crisis was in large measure driven by sentiment - not an unimportant issue for the hundreds of thousands of young people wondering if they'll ever afford a house.

So perhaps there is benefit in composting after all? If it changes our collective sentiment maybe it will lead to more significant action. Perhaps I'm not ready for what needs to be done and composting is a way of preparing me? Maybe the fear of landfill is an easier sell than asking us more directly to reduce what we consume? Just maybe someone more in tune with these things imposed the targets and delivered my plastic bin for precisely that reason?

I wish I could believe it.

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