Like many mothers, mine often told me to finish the food on my plate “because children are starving in India.” I could never figure out how throwing out my soggy broccoli could take away food from the starving; but I did absorb the moral lesson that waste is a terrible thing. This anthropologist has some questions about food waste, hunger, and abundance. Recently, people interested in the food system have been bombarded with figures like “40% of all food is wasted.” Governments and corporations all over the world are launching campaigns to reduce or eliminate waste from the food chain.
Waste is akin to dirt, famously defined by Mary Douglas and Edmund Leach as “matter out of place.” It is not a natural category, but a cultural one, which means that waste in one place can be a valuable resource somewhere else. Can we say the same thing about abundance?
In Singapore, where I have taught and researched on food during the last two years, the head is the most delicious part of a fish, and the skin, bones and even scales are fried up into tasty snacks. In other places, people relish fish livers, hearts and other innards. But in the US we generally throw away (waste) everything except the fillet. Your idea of waste depends on your definition of edibility, which is culturally relative, so how can you possibly compare how much each country wastes? If something is not considered food, it cannot be wasted. And those definitions change over time too. When I was a child, nobody I knew ever left the skin on a potato, unless it was baked. Even then, you never ate it. Potato peelings were waste, categorically different from uneaten or spoiled mashed potatoes thrown in the trash. By the time I was in college, you could order fried potato skins covered in butter and cheese. New potatoes were available by then in most grocery stores, and people learned to eat them with the skin on. Did potato peels magically turn from waste into food? When did that happen, and who was responsible? Just to make things a little bit more complicated, I would note that the mashed potatoes prepared for Thanksgiving dinner in my house always have to be completely peeled, while it less formal meals we often leave the skins on, unless they are green.
Instead, the consensus of social scientists and historians is that hunger and starvation are caused by poverty, the lack of money to buy food. Way back in the 1960s Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prize winning economist showed that modern famines result from twisted politics and inequality, not a lack of tractors or herbicides. Mike Davis effectively extends the blame to the ideology of free trade in his history of mass Indian starvation. Hunger and starvation are profoundly political, and they often accompany abundance and prosperity. Given money, a free press and political will, nobody dies of hunger.
Archaeologists have further complicated any simple connection between waste and hunger. Traditionally the “peak” of civilization has been measured by the abundance of possessions and grave goods, glorious architecture and intricate works of art. All of those things can also be seen as wasted time and labor. A culture that wastes nothing leaves almost no archaeological signature—everything was used and reused, and people did not spend their time burying valuables or filling garbage dumps for posterity. Long ago, Bill Rathje and Randall McGuire showed that at the “peak” of Classic Maya civilization, the average person was had a shorter life, and was considerably shorter than both their “preclassic” ancestors and “postclassic“ descendants who built no palaces and carved no monuments. Times that appear prosperous and abundant are not necessarily good for the average person. Perhaps the French surrealist sociologist Georges Bataille was right when he claimed that civilization and prosperity are all about conspicuous waste, the construction and destruction of useless monuments, and the accumulation of joyless trinkets.
If you follow through on this logic, most of the products of our own culture are destined to become waste. If anything, the moral condemnation of wastage just makes us accumulate things instead of throwing them away; a fascinating study of 32 homes in contemporary Southern California found them stuffed to the point of bursting with possessions, and most garages were used to store stuff instead of parking a car. The recycling center, the garage sale, EBay and Freecycle can be seen as ways to turn waste into virtue. But does composting the left-over broccoli on your plate really eliminate waste? Or does it just make you feel better?
Ironically, the waste from one time can later become treasure: a steady source of tourist dollars, the proud heritage of a nation, riches worth looting for collections and museums. Once again Bill Rathje was prescient—his excavations of landfills showed they were a treasure trove of artifacts and materials, and he predicted that one day when plastic and metal is more costly, they will become valuable enough to mine. In a sense, the present moral panic about waste is an anti-politics machine as defined by James Ferguson, a depiction that justifies bureaucratic intrusion into everyday life. Like my mother’s admonitions, it turns the violence and inequality of a global consumer culture into a matter of personal morality.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2017. “Wasted.” Anthropology News website, August 25, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.582