An ethics of surplus and the right to waste?
On discards and degrowth
by Max Liboiron
At the most recent Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Chicago last month, Josh Lepawsky and I coordinated a pair of panels on discards, diverse economies, and degrowth. As a concept, degrowth has taken off since the last global recession. At its most basic level, degrowth is about production without economic or material growth, and it encompasses a great diversity of types of economies that might achieve this: steady-states, gift economies,community economies, solidarity economies, and so on. As such, degrowth is also a way to organize social life, including ethics, values, and norms, as well as the systems of worth and circulation at the core of economics. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, authors write that: “‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.”
Lepawsky and I are interested in degrowth because of what it means for waste. Accounting for and with waste will ground-truth new economic imaginaries: how do they deal with left overs, excess, externalities, and by-products? How do they manage toxicity that is already permanently on the planet, and how do they avoid creating new toxicants? At the same time, discussions of new systems of value and circulation can vitalize discussions already underway in discard studies around surplus, valuation, reuse, scale, and the social side of technical systems.
In this post, I want to focus on surplus and dépense in particular. Growth and surplus are two different things: sometimes it is a good idea to have a surplus of food or other materials such as in preparation for winter or drought. Growth is the idea that surplus, whether in the form of profit or production of goods (or both), is the goal of economies, rather than one of many ways of organizing goods in a variety of economies. There can be surplus without accumulation being the main driver of production.
This brings us to dépense. Let’s say you’ve saved up some food for the winter, and the winter was shorter and warmer than expected, leaving you with extra stored food at the end of the season. What do you do with it? Proponents of degrowth might say: “waste it!”
Originally signifying the expenditure of excess energy in the writings of George Bataille, under degrowth the term dépense has come to highlight how some forms of wasting can be celebratory, ethical, and at the very least thought about in terms of what positive social values wasting might engender. Authors of Degrowth mention the practice of potlatch by Indigenous peoples of the Northeast coast, a mix of consuming, gifting, and destroying goods in a celebratory feast. We could also consider the Freedomite Doukhobor‘s practice of burning all possessions, including houses and clothing, every few years as a protest against materialism. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, the point of thinking about dépense is that “The different patterns of excess energy use [or wasting] characterize and distinguish different types of societies across space and time. Excess can be spent on sacrifice or festival, in war or in peace. … How should we go about the removal of the problem of energy and excess?” (87). How should we waste?
What would happen if we paired an ethics of surplus, where accumulation was always temporary and not the goal of economic production, with processes of wasting that enacted social values? In this situation, we might have a right to waste. If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of behaviour, and degrowth has ushered in a new ethics of surplus, then celebratory, ritualistic, generous, thoughtful wasting may very well become a social norm that would gain the status of a right.
Of course, this assumes that wasting doesn’t cause harm to health or environment. It also doesn’t address what to do with the already existing surplus of legacy wastes we have to manage from nuclear waste to plastics. Yet this is precisely the power of the concept of degrowth: it is an economic imaginary, a politics of possibility, that can allow us to look at old questions with new frameworks.
Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland researching plastic pollution.
This piece was originally published on the Discard Studies website.