It’s excellent news that the HK government are unable to get the money necessary to go ahead with their plans to build an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau off Lantau Island. No doubt the problem will now be postponed until the new administration takes office later in the year. The people who organised the opposition to it had every angle covered and put forward a very cogent argument for rejecting the incinerator and adopting a more suitable form of waste disposal. However, I’ve not heard or read a single word about the wider issues that overarch this matter, namely global warming, the urgency of kicking our fossil fuel habit, and the need to abandon a system that promotes, and cannot see the limitations to, exponential economic growth.
The best science shows that our refusal to address the problem of global warming has put us on course to wipe out huge numbers of other species this century, and that there is a good chance that we might also be among them. Deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels are the two main driving forces behind global warming, and if we continue to do nothing useful to tackle these problems we are probably condemning our children to an appalling future of extreme weather conditions unlike anything we’ve previously experienced, plus a dreadfully impoverished biosphere which may well make life scarcely worth enduring.
We have been warned countless times about the need to ‘leave fossil fuels before they leave us’, but this has had no effect because our carbon emissions are going up at record rates, whilst the maniacal search for more sources of fossil fuels – no matter how environmentally devastating – goes on relentlessly. As long as the holy grail of endless economic growth is sought then this will continue unchanged, as economic growth has gone hand in hand with the exploitation of fossil fuels, and in particular the exploitation of cheap oil. To keep growing the economy we need an ever increasing supply of cheap oil, but as we have now reached the peak of production of cheap oil we see governments around the world sputtering on the verge of financial collapse. Without cheap energy to drive the economy, the economy collapses. We are quite simply reaching the limits to growth, and we are seeing the Club of Rome’s fears, as expressed 40 years ago in their book The Limits To Growth, coming to fruition.
However, which government will even come near to recognising this, never mind making the massive changes entailed by it? Every decision taken by every government should now be determined by the urgency of controlling global warming, the need to drop fossil fuels, and the inevitability of transforming our industrial civilisation to a steady state economy. All massive changes, but inescapable.
Consequently, when considering which system is best for dealing with HK’s waste problem, we need to have these broader issues firmly undergirding our deliberations. If the notion of endlessly pursuing more economic growth is taken as given, then any form of waste disposal is going to be part of a system which constantly promotes more and more consumption, as that is what creates economic growth. Therefore, instead of helping us conserve our resources – so many of which are approaching their limits – the more successful a disposal system is in getting rid of waste, the more successful it will be in brushing the real problem under the carpet. How happy the government will be to have a system which gets rid of waste efficiently and without unpleasant side effects: this will enable them to promote more and more consumption because there will be no problem with the waste that comes out at the end – it can be efficiently dealt with! So, the engine of economic growth and relentless consumption will continue unabated until we really do drive the whole world economy over the cliff. Not to mention the effect this will all have on global warming.
On the other hand, if we start from the assumption that we’ve got to try to tackle global warming now, and that part of that is by going to zero carbon, which in turn will mean stopping economic growth, then we have to reorient our production and waste disposal systems to become almost closed systems whereby everything we use is recycled and reconstituted for further use. The laws of physics ensure that this cannot be done endlessly, but for any resource which is not renewable then we must move towards a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ system. This means changing our society into one which salvages every scrap of material we can, with virtually nothing going to waste. What waste there is which is unavoidable can be disposed of with whatever efficient system we decide upon, but only as an unavoidable necessity in an economy that salvages everything for all it is worth.
If we don’t re-orient our vision in this way – and, of course, I don’t expect for one moment that this is likely to happen until it’s too late to make a difference – then choosing between different forms of waste disposal is little more than pissing into the wind. Have we as a species got the intelligence to see which way the wind is blowing?