The Waste Mentality

Waste mentality! That phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of reusers everywhere! Where did it come from? Why does this subversive meme sneak into our minds? What harm is it doing?

SETI means The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Frequently associated with the astronomer Carl Sagan, it inspired the movie Contact. Millions of people have signed up their desktop computers to work on analyzing the radio data from the galaxy while they aren’t actively using them. There are articles and television shows galore about the implications of discovering some day that other intelligent life exists in the Universe.
But have you ever thought about this aspect of the search? What are we looking for? For the most part, we are looking for waste energy! One of the suppositions that drives the search is the feeling that we are going to be picking up cosmic reruns of I Love Lucy. The assumption that is never explicitly stated is that this advanced civilization we are looking for has the same pathological inability that we have to control their energy emissions. We assume they are wasting their energy to send their silly signals out into the universe where some primitive, garbage producing, lower civilization is on tenterhooks to eavesdrop. Do you see the problem here?

Can you imagine an advanced civilization that does not direct its energy signals at their intended targets?

Even we primitives are virtually on the cusp of a network of digitally controlled emissions. Imagine a world where every road and street has a node every thirty meters. The node would sense whenever a receiver is in the neighborhood (such as a computer in a passing car) and send out a tiny e.g. 0.1 watt, signal that is undetectable more than sixty meters away. The signal would connect to all of the broadcast and personal signals in the world, digitally separated, and the connection would be handed off from one node to another as the receiver moves along. Even this technological dream uses radio emissions, but the next iteration would probably eliminate those.

The picture of an advanced civilization, that we should be using, is surely not one of a brilliantly lit up globe wastefully sending out gobs of energy for no purpose. Instead, we should be imagining a globe that looks dark from the outside, with all of its communication and visual energy confined to specific global targets. Even when communication is needed to roving space ships or other planets, would they not have ways to form a narrow ray of energy that goes exactly where it is supposed to?

In short, the waste mentality leads us astray in ways that we don’t even realize. Isn’t it about time that we got rid of that mentality? The way to do that is to get rid of the practices that produce it. Let’s stop this insanity of producing garbage, let’s stop designing for waste and start to use ZERO WASTE thinking in everything we do.

And the implications for SETI? I don’t know, but probably we should be thinking about picking up signals that are specifically directed at interstellar communication, rather than waste energy signals. Since such rays would have to sweep the sky, they would be intermittent. Perhaps that would make a difference in the way that signals are searched for. But it does mean that failure to find stray emissions might not mean as much as we think.


Have you heard of junk DNA? Yes, DNA, our genetic inheritance. Our living essence. Junk? How can our living core be junk? Where did this concept come from?
Once again the Waste Mentality is misleading scientists – in this case, biologists.

Fortunately, many biologists have come to realize the silliness of applying waste concepts, based on our obsession with garbage, to the way nature creates life.

Thirty years ago, when I first heard the term junk DNA, I scoffed. After all, I was working in Zero Waste and I could not imagine that nature, with millions of years to refine its methods, needing to conserve the mechanism of winding and unwinding and reproducing DNA, would cavalierly carry along completely useless DNA (90% of the genome too!). No, I told everyone I knew that the only junk was junk thinking – the waste mentality. But most of the world was assuming that garbage is somehow natural.

Now it is being realized by geneticists that there is no such thing as junk DNA. There is only function that we have not deciphered yet. The DNA that resides outside of genes is used in more subtle ways than simply making protein molecules. In Zero Waste terms, the genes create the product but the other DNA controls the processes that make use of those products.

Now suddenly in the December 2010 issue of Scientific American, comes along this article:

The Importance of Junk DNA

Biologists continue to be surprised by what was once dismissed as wasted space.

Genes make up only about 2 percent of the human genome. The rest was for many years ignored as “junk DNA”. But over the past decade, biologists have come to understand that this space is an incredibly important part of the genetic code, home to a vast, unexamined treasure trove of information that controls how genes behave. A more thorough investigation of junk DNA could upend our understanding of the delicate interplay between genes and the environment and could lead to entirely new strategies in medicine’s endless struggle against disease.


So is anyone looking for the junk gene that makes us see garbage everywhere, even when there isn’t any, or any need for it? How long will it take for us to evolve a Zero Waste gene?

For a discussion of how our environment affects how our brains present the world to us, click here to see a stunning presentation by Richard Dawkins.

Are you ready for some Zero Waste successes for a change? Click here!