Through Zero Waste Eyes: Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition” #FoodForThoughtFriday

Hannah Arendt wrote “The Human Condition” 60 years ago, a time before fast fashion and single-use convenience items. Yet she already predicted the “waste economy.” It is almost shocking how her analysis is still just as valid today as it was in the 50ies.

Conditioned to Trashing?

Recently, I started re-reading a book I first encountered in my early college years—Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Other than in college, this time I promised myself to read it more carefully 😉.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998 [org. 1958]).

In general, I like reading some books again after some time has passed. However, I do not get to do it very often, because most of the time I’m just too curious about reading something new. Yet some books and texts do deserve that kind of attention, since are very dense and you can read them over and over again, discovering new things each time. So from time to time, I do let them draw me in again.

But most importantly, re-reading books gives me a better appreciation for what has happened to me in the meantime, for the new place that I’m in, or for the new perspectives I gained.

Being in the mindset of zero waste and all that, this time I started noticing things that I absolutely did not expect to find in Arendt’s book. Especially since it was first published in 1958, meaning that all the superabundance we live in today could, at the most, be surmised. From what I remembered, I was expecting something critical on capitalism and consumerism, but certainly nothing on wastefulness and abundance.

Have We Become a Waste Economy?

In the chapters on labor and work, Arendt concludes that our lifestyle has reached the point that

“our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world” (The Human Condition, 134).

And now let’s remember that Arendt’s world, about some 60 years ago, was by no means as crowded with fast fashion and other short-lived superfluous items as our world is today.

How did it come to that? Piggy-bag riding on her famous distinction of labor and work, she also introduces a distinction of consumables and usables items.

Close up of plastic waste

Usables like plates, cups, cutlery, and bottles have become consumables that end up on landfills after only one use.

Consumables are the product of our bodily labor, like fruits and veggies. If not consumed relatively quickly, they decay. So, no matter whether consumed or not, we are always in the condition of having to produce more consumables.

Usables, however, are the product of work with our hands, typically of the crafts, and are more permanent and durable. So, ideally, we only need one table or one cast iron pan in our entire life (and sometimes they can even be passed down to the next generation). In a growth-based economy, however, this longevity is a problem.

When everybody has enough pans and clothes, and we want to keep producing furniture, pans, and clothes, how do we sell all those new items? How do we make durable usables decay?

Planned Obsolescence and (Fast) Fashion

And that’s where (fast) fashion and planned obsolescence come in. We have to make sure to continuously devalue all products by making durable items transient.

Fast fashion – made to only last a few months at most

Throwing away a durable item means to declare that it is of no use anymore, to no one. This way, Arendt writes, we start

“treating all use objects as though they were consumer goods so that a chair or a table is now consumed as rapidly as a dress and a dress used up almost as quickly as food.” The Human Condition, 124).

Nevertheless, materially all these treated-as-consumables remain durable. Like we know from the vast amounts of plastic in the oceans, there is no “away”.

In a growth mindset, we simply don’t care enough about its natural counterpart: decay. Thrown away plastics might have disappeared from our lives, but it will stay on our planet, and will, eventually, make its way back into our lives on beaches or our plates.

Designed to Be Trashed

And this treatment of goods fits, Arendt continues, the way we produce them. Ever since the industrial revolution and the division of labor, things like tables and dresses aren’t crafted anymore. We have replaced all craftsmanship with the dull micro tasks that are necessary to keep the machines of mass production running.

You could say that by devaluing the efforts to produce a table, we devalue the product as well. And this seems to give us the permission to throw away tables and dresses like dirt simply because we don’t want to own them anymore (by the way: keeping them in the storage for the slim probability of a second life means paying for storage space until we have the courage to give those items away for good).

Be Home on Earth

Arendt also asks: Consider that making a home means to accustom yourself to the things you use, then how can we ‘be at home on earth’ when there is a constant flux of things coming in and things being tossed and we furnish our lives with worthless throw-aways items?

To-go cups, plastic cutlery, tissues, convenience items are designed to go in the bin

We are prone to forget that to produce use objects, we so thoughtlessly toss away, we need material that is

“removed […] from its natural location, either killing a life process, as in the case of the tree which must be destroyed in order to provide wood, or interrupting one of nature’s slower processes, as in the case of iron, stone, or marble torn out of the womb of the earth” (The Human Condition, 139).

Arendt continues that, rather than being at home on earth, we conduct ourselves “as lord and master of the whole earth”, of the same earth we thereby destroy. In every fabrication of a use object we carry this “element of violation” and we have “always been a destroyer of nature”.

Re-reading Arendt, it appears that the workings of capitalism have been accustoming us for today’s strategies of fast fashion and planned obsolescence for a very long time.

Well, I hope some of this resonates with you. Let me know if you think that this is just my focus on sustainable lifestyles and zero waste talking here and I am just reading way too much stuff into that.

Filed under #FoodForThoughtFriday, Article, Book Recommendations

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your reflections on Hannah Arendt’s book. I am also surprised that Arendt was able to ‘predict’ the extent of consumption and wastefulness that we would come to embrace. And these bad habits have become such a ‘normal’ way of life for so many of us. Reading Arendt’s distinction between consumables and usables shows how far we have strayed from their original meaning. Mindless consumerism is demanded of us, especially at this time of year. Posts like yours remind us of the ongoing need to stay awake.

    • Hi Ruth, exactly. Because it is all around us, we have to be super attentive all the time – otherwise we end up with tons of useless stuff. As you mention it, I am really asking myself whether Arendt was good at predicting or consumerism was already out of hand more than 50 years ago. Maybe that calls for a dive into the history of consumerism .. Cheers, Hanno

  2. Hey Hanno, thanks for the post and also: “You might know me from pictures like “Feet Next to Groceries” or “Farmers Market on a Rainy Day”. ” – this made me laugh out loud.

  3. Existing without the answers to the difficulties you’ve sorted out through this guide is a critical case, as well as the kind which could have badly affected my entire career if I had not discovered your website.

  4. I simply wanted to thank you so much again. I am not sure the things that I might have gone through without the type of hints revealed by you regarding that situation.

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