Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, a new book by British author Tristram Stuart, will soon be hitting shelves in the UK and the US. It’s is a detailed indictment of the massive amount of edible food that industrialized countries throw away, both in the factory and at home. “In America, around 50 per cent of all food is wasted,” the Telegraph summarizes, “while over here [in the UK], we dump 20 million tons of food every year. Put all this together and—to make a wearisomely predictable but inescapable point—you could easily feed the world’s hungry several times over.”
The Movement Behind the Man
Both the book and its author have close ties to a new kind of conservationism, colloquially known as “freeganism.” Members of the movement cut down on waste—and make a point at the same time—by living partially or entirely off of food they find in other people’s trash. Lars Eighner described the practice in his famous essay “On Dumpster Diving,” and freegans like Stuart have turned that efficiency into advocacy. The Guardian described their message: “If we waste less food, we’ll need less land to grow it on, and hence will cut down fewer trees; we’ll use less water to irrigate that land and less carbon to transport and process the food it produces.”
That message is catching on. A Welsh millionaire and professional sculptor has taken up the freegan lifestyle, inspired by his experiences with discarded electronics in Japan. A new website, freegan.info, notifies the community about big scavenging opportunities like college move-outs.
The relentless drive for efficiency has motivated some excellent innovations. Stuart himself claims to make cottage cheese from leftover custard donuts. Food banks have expanded, particularly in the US, to help grocery stores donate their unsold extras to the homeless. At the same time, Stuart leaves some questions unanswered. Waste criticizes stores and factories for overstocking their products, but as the Financial Times points out, overstocking can make good economic sense. How can what looks like a complete waste of private property be the daily routine of a profitable, competitive industry?
Questions like that aren’t particularly important to culture and lifestyle, and they’ve rightly taken a back seat to more pressing issues, like how to make cottage cheese. Inevitably, though, freeganism and other conservation movements are growing out of private life and into public policy. In the halls of government, those nagging questions of efficiency are critically important, and the economic underpinnings of this cultural movement will demand some scrutiny.
As it turns out, Stuart makes a common but crucial mistake. He ignores the invisible. With all the focus on obvious waste—dumpsters, landfills, and so on—it’s easy to forget that our most precious resource is something we never find in those places. And no, I’m not talking about air.
The Question Restated
When we recall the industrial successes that have shaped modern life, we usually think of new inventions—plastics, automobiles, and so on. The greatest victories of industry, however, came not from new products but from making old products cheaper. Most of what we consume today—food, clothes, housing, refrigeration, steel, light, and so on—has been available for centuries. Our products are usually nicer, but the biggest difference is the price.
It’s not immediately obvious why our goods should be so cheap. After all, the nails I buy in a hardware store are made with machines vastly more expensive than the forges and hammers blacksmiths once used. They’re also shipped farther, and their quality is more consistent. By all rights they should cost more than they used to, but instead they cost orders of magnitude less. Why?
In Nature, Much Goes To Waste
Although a wire nail requires more machinery, electricity, and gasoline than the cut nails and hand-made nails that came before it, it demands much less of one crucial ingredient: human effort.
The most important resource in the world is us. Our labor and our time. Our blood, sweat, and tears. Things that still take a lot of human effort to make are expensive. Nearly everything else is cheap, because we’ve figured out how to get it without working so hard.
If we look at the history of America’s GDP per capita, a rough estimate of how much stuff the average American made each year, we can see that process in motion. The typical worker in 1790 had a harder job with longer hours, yet he produced forty times less than he would today. Forty times less. Compared to the modern workforce, early American workers wasted more than 98% of their time and energy.
As human effort has become more productive, it has also become more expensive. Many early conservation practices—using the entire buffalo, so to speak—no longer make sense now that the proverbial buffalo is cheap and the labor to process it is expensive. This is what Tristram Stuart is missing when he criticizes our overstocked grocery stores and factories. True, their garbage is red ink on the balance sheet, but getting rid of it requires learning more about what customers will buy and applying that knowledge at every stage of production. That costs precious time and effort, which are too valuable to waste on a problem that overstocking solves so cheaply.
Once again, the answer to our question is Henry Hazlitt’s most important lesson. The challenge of economics is to mind all costs, both the obvious, like a pile of garbage, and the invisible, like an hour misspent. Human effort is our dearest resource, and we should be happy to spare it even at great material expense. Conservation movements all too often neglect these human costs, and if our governments make the same mistake, we’ll find ourselves a good deal poorer with no idea why.