Quantum urbanism in action: To protect earth, rethink waste

By undertaking this process of rethinking within the context of ‘quantum urbanism’ we will have to revisit everything from our concepts of work, value and productivity to realities of price points, business models, embodied energy and global supply chains

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | December 6, 2018


#earth   #environment   #waste management   #quantum urbanism   #solid waste  
Photo: Arun Kumar
Photo: Arun Kumar

How can Quantum Urbanism help us rethink waste? It is as much a question as it is an open invitation to explore our relationship with waste and how deeply wedded that relationship is to systems thinking and everything else that comes bundled with it. 
 
Simply put, Quantum Urbanism is a way of reconfiguring urban life at the level of each individual’s set of activities so that sustainability and resilience becomes an integral part of daily urbanity (See the first three articles in this series published in Governance Now dated July 16-31, 2017, August 1-15, 2017 and August 16-31, 2017). Not many associate waste with a conceptual framework. Nor do they see the need for such a rubric. Yet, if there was a need for one it is now. Waste is a direct outcome of what we call our life and the world that feeds and powers it. But the world is changing dramatically in direct and indirect ways. Climate change is real and literally upon us. For those few remaining doubters, the ferocity of the floods in Kerala, the intensity of the heatwave in Europe or the rapid desertification of the once lush tropical parts of world is all the evidence they should need. 
 
That’s the primary direct change in our world: one that has dramatic existential implications for the future of humanity. Yet this direct change is indirectly linked in many ways to our ways of life. We often contextualise life by personalising it to our immediate surroundings. It is this personalisation that assigns meaning on a daily basis. Such daily meanings literally stack one upon another over time producing and reproducing life as a cultural and organic artefact and as a set of norms, practices and codified behaviours. We call it ways of life. In short, life is as much a set of cultural and social processes as it is an existentialist end state. 
 
Ways of life as pathways to waste
Ways of life are also necessary and critical to our survival. It can even be argued that such pathways can be directly traced to our genetic instinct for survival embedded in each one of us, and also the collective reason why we have been so successful in colonising Earth. Yet in localising life thus we often end up giving undue attention to certain aspects and very little attention to other equally critical dimensions. What this means is that our immediate understanding of life is determined by our needs, demands and our expectations of what should be the minimum set of requirements for an acceptable quality of life.
 
There are two clear implications that emerge from this. First, life has to reach a generally accepted and consistent quality for it to be called life. Second, ways *to* life have to contribute to this acceptable quality of life for ourselves, our immediate family and larger community in the foreseeable future for it to become ways *of* life. This isn’t clever verbal jugglery and mere wordsmithing nor does it ignore the realities of extreme poverty and the inhumane life led by millions of people around the world where notions of quality of life, living standards and the subtle distinction being made between ‘ways of life’ and ‘ways to life’ are, quite frankly, unnecessary intellectualism that doesn’t solve the immediate problem of hunger and deprivation. But there is a catch here. For that catch to become visible, one must have the patience to go through this exercise of evolving a conceptual framework of waste. 
 
Now, let’s take a concrete example. The context within which this particular example is placed is an average middle-class experience of a global city. Assume that a middle-class denizen of Delhi or Mumbai, or for that matter Stockholm, Shanghai or Singapore, wants to spend the weekend relaxing with his family and generally destressing. Leisure, like work, is a critical aspect of life. 
 
Let us assume that this family decides to go to a theme park. Once there they go on different rides, have gourmet dishes from the food court, frolic in the pool, maybe have an ice-cream or two and in general do things that many of us reading this would be familiar with and can relate to. Now, whether they had a good time or not would depend on whether they felt that they got what they expected, what they wanted and what they demanded within a reasonable timeframe and price point. 
 
In short, there are certain broadly accepted parameters of what would constitute a good and relaxing day. That in turn contributes to the quality of life. Over a period of time, it becomes way of life for an average middle-class citizen in a global city. The same logic applies to every other aspect of life for an average middle-class citizen, whether it is work, food or shelter. Each aspect needs to measure up to certain standards to be considered an acceptable quality of life, and by extension a way of life. 
 
What this example shows is that an acceptable quality of life, or standards as some would prefer to call it, is foundationally based on consumption and partaking of products, services and resources involving institutions, companies, infrastructure, people and value. In short, something is produced, distributed, transacted and consumed by people on a daily basis. And from this process emerges the life as a produced cultural and organic artefact. Yet from this process too emerges a different kind of production, one that comes out of the act of consumption. If one were to take our example, the family that spent a day at the leisure park in consuming the rides, services and food also ended up producing a carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. 
Waste, then, is a direct outcome of our life. It is clear that our earth is finding it difficult to support our life because of what we consume, how we consume, how much we consume, who all consumes it and by corollary who all don’t and what we emit, how we emit, how much we emit, who all emits and again by extension who doesn’t emit. 
 
A choking Delhi is as good an alarming example as one can give of not only the perils of a consumption-driven society, but also of deeply connected issues of equity, access, justice and waste. One cannot really approach sustainability, ecology and resilience without taking into account people and their deeply personalised and localised relationship to different aspects of life. It is precisely for this reason that one must, as a matter of urgent imperative, unpack notions and definitions of waste with a view to develop a more robust and flexible conceptual framework that redefines and relocates waste as part of larger ecological framework. There are two kinds of waste.
 
Visible waste: Product from a system
The first is the visible kind. It’s seen for the simple reason that we choose to see it. Our imagination of this kind of waste is mainly physical and material. Think about the word ‘waste’. It is likely that your mind would throw up images of rubbish in your street corner or garbage piling up in sundry parts of a city. Dwell on that thought for a moment more. You would most probably find your mind drifting to memories of unpleasant smells and a certain feeling that is an uneasy mixture of revulsion and distaste. The visibility of waste acquires a visceral nature that is intensely emotional and personal.
 
This results in a few standard starting points. Expounding a few will be useful, if only to unravel how value is constructed. Waste is smelly; it is of indeterminate form and of uncertain value, if not any value; waste is a problem for both society and economy and waste needs disposal and a system for it; and last but not the least that people create waste. All such starting points emanate from and converge on a particular notion of productivity. 
 
That notion stands on two prongs. The first prong requires that for activities to be considered as productive they should produce something of value. Additionally, it is not just the act of producing that holds up the prong, but that also what is produced needs to be of some value. Value is functionally defined as the embedded ability of what is produced to be transacted for something of a similar value or more in the marketplace of human activity and action. The same logic powers almost every single concept within the modern economy and society.
 
Take for example the concept of work. Work has to be necessarily productive, and the term ‘productive’ is used in the same sense of producing something of value. Value here has the same characteristics of being valuable enough to be exchanged for something else of value. The primary, and often the sole, medium of exchange within the formalised economy and society is money or its various analog and digital denominators. If analog, think cash and coins and if digital, think any of the countless mobile wallet applications. 
 
The second prong emerges from the first and as an antithesis. The act of producing becomes productive only when what is produced has value. Yet from that act emerges non-production where something is produced incidentally or accidentally. It doesn’t have value mainly because it was not intended to be produced in the first place. We also know it as byproduct and it has both physical and material characteristics. Again, value in this case is exactly defined as the embodied ability to be transacted for similar or high value. Since a byproduct has no embedded intentionality – in the sense of being produced through a thoughtful process of considered human inputs, raw materials, costs and investments, its value is indeterminate and often established through the mechanics of a post facto valuation. A large part of this non-produced other after being filtered through this post facto process ends up being categorised as having no or negligible value. Think of the discarded cement, bricks, wood, tiles and different materials from the large construction site that ends up on dumping grounds or, in often the case of Indian cities, spills out grotesquely on the roads, parks and public spaces. This is what we call as visible waste. 

Invisible waste: Product of a system
The second kind is the invisible waste. It is invisible not because we choose not to see it but because we choose not to recognise it as waste. This lack of recognition comes from our inadequate understanding of how structures of power, processes of society and the mechanics of a globalised economy create a system that denotes a transactional and cultural value matrix on every single human activity. It is this matrix that in the ultimate analysis ends up positioning and defining waste as an unintended, indeterminate and unproductive entity, and non-waste as intended, productive and determinate entity. This system also powers every single aspect of modern society and economy, from business models of companies, policy and regulatory frameworks, structures of governance and public finances and the provision of civic amenities. 
 
The matrix of what is valuable, and hence desirable, and what is not, and hence undesirable, is defined by this matrix. Value is always connected to a base of transaction connected to a monetary system. Simply put, value is almost always sieved through a financial filter. We know it as systems thinking and market dynamics. It fundamentally tunes our assessment and understanding of what we consider as viable socially, politically and economically. What is viable and what is not more often than not do not connect to concerns of access, equity and justice. Counterintuitively, it also often decouples itself from principles of affordability, demand and supply: three dimensions that are the bedrock of conventional economics. Yet in this explanation about value, valuation, its matrix and the emergence of a system and systems thinking, the connection to waste is still not clear or explicit. One may also be forgiven for thinking that the above exposition is quite abstract, random and unclear. 
 
A concrete example, however, should help make visible what is today largely an invisible waste that is generated as much as by systems thinking as by its institutions, structures, processes and mechanics. There are over a billion people in the world who go hungry every day, and it is estimated that anywhere between 10 and 20 million of them are in India. The definition of hungry includes any human being who does not get more than a meal a day. An average supermarket, irrespective of whether it is in India, the US, the UK, EU or Japan, destroys anywhere between 25 to 45 percent of its food and food-based products because of specific rules and regulations connected to ‘sell by’ dates. These dates are not expiry dates that are mandated by government-certified laboratories supervised by food standards commissions of various countries. These ‘sell by’ dates have over a period of time emerged as a result of global supply chain management systems that are directly connected to various suppliers from all across the world. The fundamental business model of the global retail chain and their networks depends not as much on price points and affordability as on continuous circulation and movement of goods and products, especially food and allied products. In short, food has to be move out of shelves within a specified time period, which is where the ‘sell by’ date comes in. So food and allied goods – whether simple ones like bread, butter, milk, yoghurt or more complicated ones like processed and canned meat, beans, ready to eat meals – will move out of shelves to be replaced by newer food products and goods.
 
The seemingly simple question of what happens to the food that is perfectly edible and could by all yardsticks – scientific, technical, moral and ethical – be given to the millions who are hungry, but shockingly is not, has been explored in some detail and contrasting styles by two authors. Mark Boyle has written ‘The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living’ that details his one year of living without any money. It is written as a personal story, but lacks none of the rigour that facts, figures and statistics bring to the table. His book helps us understand how our obsession with systems thinking and the logic of globalised supply chain that necessarily accompanies it creates a logic that skews supply chain dynamics by incentivising dumping and destruction of goods and products rather than redistribution to the needy. Boyle not only makes a strong case against money and how one can have a good quality of life without it by actually living without it for a year, but also builds a specific case about how retail chains often go to ridiculous lengths to destroy goods and products so that they don’t get redistributed. Boyle, in fact, in an effort to prove how much good food is wasted every day writes about how he cooked an absolutely free three-course gourmet meal with help of friends for over a 1,000 people with food products that had been discarded, but literally spirited away by him and his friends from dumping yards before they could be destroyed. 
 
Tristram Stuart in ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’ makes the same specific case as Boyle, though in a style more suited to an academic book and with data, figures and statistics that perfectly good food and allied products not only ends up in the bin but actually gets destroyed deliberately as part of a globally connected supply chain management system that creates a matrix of valuation that is far removed from the political economy of inputs costs, raw materials and the way food is grown by small and marginal farmers. 
 
Some facts derived from Stuart these two books would be useful here to round off this example. Some wouldn’t come as a surprise, but some might. India wastes over $14 billion of food every year due to lack storage facilities and Sri Lanka wastes about 40 percent of all fruits and vegetables that it grows, for precisely the same reason as India, even though the per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables in the island nation is less than 100 grams per person. These two facts might not come as a surprise to many, but it shouldn’t lead to an easy conclusion that wastage is a problem only in the developing countries of Asia and Africa. The USA wastes close to 50 percent of all its food grown and processed, though the country is home to 35 million households that do not have secure access to food. Britain wastes 20 million tonnes of food every year though it has over 4 million people who go hungry every day, while the EU has over 43 million people who are at the risk of having no secure access to food. Japan, a nation known for frugality and a thoughtful way of life and living, wastes more than 100 billion dollars’ worth of food, with much of what is wasted imported from outside the country like caviar, whale meat, sushi and exotic fruits and vegetables. 
 
Is Quantum Urbanism the conceptual way forward?
Both Boyle and Stuart more or less make the same fundamental point using the specific example of food. The logic of systems thinking creates structures that favours specific kinds of efficiencies directly connected to scale and size. In systems thinking both scale and size is used interchangeably. The viability of a business model is seen to be directly connected with an ability to reach an adequate number of people so that goods, services and products are directly linked to specific price points. In short price point, which becomes a proxy for value which is necessarily and predominantly pegged to a monetary and financial system, becomes a fundamental standard that is sought to be maintained irrespective of the context or the conditions. 
 
Again, in short, the logic of systems thinking while creating massive production and distribution capacities due to its focus on size, scale and standardisation almost always creates an oversupply. It is, of course, a lesser known and well-hidden fact of the systems economy. Since the correct price point is a critical requirement for a viable business model – read as profits for companies and corporations – there is an extremely powerful incentive to dump and destroy goods and products than to give away or redistribute. Any redistribution will affect demand, price, brand positioning and, of course, will lead to several uncomfortable questions. 
 
What is applicable to the global retail food and agriculture industry is also equally true for many of the other sectors ranging from automobiles, computers, mobile phones to medicines, garments and even housing and shelter. The issue is not as much about the correlation between demand and supply as it is about maintaining a globalised business model where oversupply is rather the norm than the exception. 
 
There are three specific and interconnected ways in which Quantum Urbanism that can contribute to break this self-perpetuating cycle of oversupply, dumping and destruction connected to size, scale, standardization and a business model that understands value primarily as a price point that is directly connected to a monetary and financial system. The intention, of course, is not to underestimate or underplay the global financial system or the monetary transactions that take place. The primary objective of Quantum Urbanism is to reposition our daily lives in a direct and practical manner so that we understand some of the most fundamental relationships that we take for granted in a new light – like the deep-rooted ties between value and waste – so that we are sensitive to ecology and environment and can also force the concerns of sustainability and resilience to the mainstream political economy.
The first is the concept of embodied energy as an alternative matrix of value for an individual to understand and assess their activities and how those activities connect to local ecology, global environment, and their own carbon footprint. In short, all products, goods and services can be understood as entities that contain within themselves a specific amount of energy that can be quantified. What that amount of energy is can be calculated by what all goes into producing those goods and services and how those goods and services reach their final destination and how they eventually get consumed. 
Such a matrix makes explicit three things. First, it makes the real life cycle cost of a particular set of goods, commodities and services absolutely clear. Second, it automatically sets up a reference point to the current business model based on price points. Third, it allows people to get all the relevant ‘at-source’ information about the goods, products and services that they are consuming. 
 
Thus, the concept of embedded energy removes the current information asymmetry that obscures the origin of goods, products and services, the mechanics of distribution, especially those related to supply chain management, and the way they are consumed, dumped and destroyed. What this will eventually do is remove the cloak of invisibility that currently surrounds oversupply and hence by default converts into waste what is otherwise usable by millions of people who actually need them to keep their body and soul together. 
 
The second is the concept of a bio-circular economy that is increasingly becoming popular with sustainability professionals and companies and institutions looking at different business models that are ecologically and environmentally friendly. The premise of bio-circular economy is simple. With the right mix of people, institutions and technology, and at the right scale, which is local and hyperlocal, there is a practical possibility to create an economy that is a closed loop system where everything from inputs to outputs can be audited and regenerated. Resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling. This is in contrast to systems thinking that results in a linear economy which is a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production.
 
With embodied energy as an alternative value matrix, in addition to price, there would be a need to audit how each unit of energy thus embodied is used and reused so that the entire life cycle cost of a particular goods, products and services are recovered. Additionally, the concept of reduce, reuse and recycle becomes concrete and practical with the concept of bio-circular economy. Within the framework of a bio-circular economy, embodied energy audits will have to necessarily be local and hyperlocal and involve communities and groups right from its inception. There are several concrete examples of bio-circular economic systems that are already in operation. These range from the massive waste-to-energy plants in Sweden, where the country now imports waste to feed its waste-to-energy system to standalone systems ranging from rainwater harvesting, solar energy to organic composting mechanisms and processes for farming and gardening.
 
The third is a local governance model that directly connects communities, groups and neighbourhoods in a transparent and open manner to their localities, activities, civic amenities and public finances. It is here that digital platforms and technologies, especially national digital identity systems, can play a crucial role. One of the main reasons as to why invisible waste remain invisible is because local communities and groups have very little role in the global supply chain systems that power modern retail networks and supermarkets. With a national digital identification system connected to different institutions, systems and networks, including private corporations and their supply chain managements, it becomes easier for local communities to have greater say on how surplus goods, products and services will be used for the betterment of their own areas. It also allows them to have a greater say in how their resources will be utilized and for what purposes. 
 
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is also probably the toughest of the three ways being suggested. It is also the toughest simply because it requires political reforms at the ground level. Such a local and hyperlocal governance model has the potential to rewrite the rules of urban local bodies and the democratic framework in Indian cities. Having said this, it is not as if this is an outlandish or an abstract suggestion. Estonia, for instance, has already integrated its national digital identification system where a unique number is given to each individual, much like our Aadhaar number, to institutions, services, corporations and even the democratic system for electronic voting.
 
Quantum Urbanism, quite clearly, has the potential to help us break out of the current conceptual quagmire of systems thinking that has led us to a place where climate change is threatening our planet and our existence. Whether that potential is fulfilled depends to a large extent on our innate ability to look back into the past, learn from our mistakes and make concrete efforts to move away from our destructive behaviour based on narrow and self-serving notions of value, work, productivity and waste. We need to treat our planet and its finite resources with respect and care that it deserves, and we need start walking the talk by changing our collective behaviour, our institutional structures and processes and by investing effort, energy and money in ecology, environment and people. A good starting point would be to rethink waste, value, work and productivity.  
 
Swaminathan is research fellow at Uppsala University, Sweden, where he is part of ‘Future Urbanisms’, a long-term research programme looking at issues of sustainability and resilience in the context of cities.

(The article appears in December 15, 2018 edition)

 

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