WASTE AND SQUANDER
I'm no economist by any definition. I never really studied it. It was one college subject I was careful to avoid taking, and I graduated successfully without one. I was a student of architecture at the time, and economics surely would have been useful in the business of architecture. Moreover, my academic interest was unusually wide and encompassed almost every subject in art, literature, music, theater, history, languages, mathematics, engineering, sociology, and all natural sciences. Economics was one exception. I knew it was devastatingly boring even without having even attempted to read a single book or article on the subject.
Ignorance is bliss and it sometimes breeds confidence. In my first year in America, I was a first-year student at Santa Rosa Junior College. One day, sitting in a bull session of fellow students, I proclaimed out of the blue that America thrives on waste. But there was no response from the group, only silence. To this day, I don't know why. Was my declaration too profound? Was it mystifying? Was it simply incomprehensible because it was out of context? Was it totally silly? Was it too obvious to elicit any comment? No one even asked what I meant by what I said. Someone could at least have said that much even though I had no courage left after that silence to elaborate on it. One student, known as a pinko, a socialist leaning chap, nodded, which in the sour atmosphere of anti-communism in those days, made the situation uncomfortable. Chattering on sundry subjects resumed quickly.
In my hubris, however, I was convinced that I wasn't understood. Watching Americans throw things away was appalling to me. To a foreign student newly arrived from a country still in post-war reconstruction, abundance of consumer goods in America was shocking enough; but the wastage seemed criminal. People were throwing out sheets of blank papers, not to speak of half-used papers. Pencils at half-length went into a trash. More food than the family can eat was cooked at every meal and much of it was often thrown out. Lunch bags were crushed and thrown away as were grocery bags; empty bottles and jars were just dumped. Old shoes and clothes were often considered unfit to be worn. Broken toys rarely got fixed; old furniture went into dumpsters. Americans, I also observed, broke things quickly; they handled roughly and pulled out knobs and ripped handles. It seemed as though the underlying belief was that things were disposable and that's why they were things.
America was floundering in affluence and churning out waste in colossal quantities, and affluence and wastage were inseparably linked. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the saying goes. If it is broke, throw it out and get a new one, so it went in everyday life. Waste promoted purchase, which in turn kept the industry going.
A half century later, I am supposed to be wiser. Yet I still don't understand economics, and I am convinced as ever that what I declared then not only made sense but is still absolutely true if also obvious. America still seems to me a wasteful society even in the age of recycling. It is still true that with appliances we are told that it is cheaper to get a new one than to fix the old one even when the damage is very minor. What used to be reparable parts in an appliance are nowadays often concealed and sealed away so that there is no way of replacing them. A walk on any sidewalk, in a city or suburb, on the trash collecting day, suffices to convince any of us of the enormous quantity of things that Americans throw out. When I pick out a wad of clean papers out of the office trash and use them as note pads, I look cheap and stingy. So, I do it surreptitiously. After both sides have been covered with writing, I use them to line the basket of garbage for mulching. Material shortage was everyday life when I was growing up, and the habit dies hard.
My sense of thrift is not unique to me, of course. I share the sentiment with immigrants from poor countries; I also share it with older folks who lived through the Great Depression. Hardcore ecologists sympathize with me. Those in poverty understand me. Pioneers in America no doubt behaved like me. For younger Americans today, material shortage is a fiction even for college kids away from home who might go around scavenging stuff from sidewalk trash piles to furnish their apartment.
So, there is thrift of necessity on the one hand when we are in dire need and cannot afford to squander anything. But there is thrift that arises from a moral sense on the other. I grew up in conditions of severe material shortage during and after the war. But I was also inculcated early on the moral sense of thrift from Shintoism that pervades life in Japan whether one is a Shintoist or not.
We were taught to express reverence toward all the gifts of nature as though they were sacred; that included natural resources as well as consumer goods as their extension -- utensils, tools, furnishings, toys, food, etc. We were taught to be kind and gentle to things as to people and handle them with tender loving care. It was a virtue to make household objects last long and serve us better. Americans appeared to us outrageously rough in handling things. They seemed so quick to break them even though American products were so much more sturdily made than Japanese products in those days. They bang and throw things whether they were sturdy or fragile.
In our Japanese way of thinking, wasting is not just wasting. It is an offense against the beneficent deity and it comes closest to the Christian notion of sin. There is a singular word in Japanese that encapsulates the moral notion of thrift: motta'i-na'i. On one end of the scale the word signifies sanctity and reverence. It can therefore mean sacrilegious, as vandalizing a shrine, polluting the sacred river, or neglecting a tombstone to be buried in weeds. Presence of a deity can itself be
Not all Japanese are morally conscious of wasting and squandering, of course. But the sense permeates the deep layer of their psychic life. Most still handle objects more gently than average Americans. They hesitate to rip a giftwrap in reverence both to the thing and the person making the gift. They don't throw out food as readily as Americans. For the Japanese, of my generation at any rate, it requires enormous effort to learn to be wasteful.
In the last decades, practicing thrift has become even more difficult. Consumer goods today last much longer than they used to be. Socks and sockings needed darning in the old days; they don't even get much misshapen nowadays. Shirt sleeves used to get thin in the elbows. People used to unravel an old sweater and re-use the yarn for a new knitting. T-shirts may shrink or stretch a little or get discolored but they don't wear out unless you hold your cat tight against it until she starts scratching it all over. Shoes can still be resoled; but they require a good deal of punishment before they get cracked, torn, or split apart and end up totally unusable. Dresses become devastatingly outmoded before I wear them out. Many products are less well made today than they used to be fifty years ago; but they are still amazingly but also frustratingly durable. They last and last and last.
Among those who find squandering difficult, there are those in need and there are those who are naturally parsimonious. But there are also wise housewives who practice husbandry (to use a curious anachronistic word). Mine runs deeper. It pains me to throw out anything unless it has become totally unusable.
Fifty years in America, I am learning to thow out things more liberally for the sake of American economy. But it's still painful just the same.
T. Kaori Kitao, 07.04.04