Whoever destroys anything that could be useful to others breaks the law of bal tashchit, “Do not waste.”
Babylonian Talmud, Kodashim 32a (second or third century)
The thing that struck me in the quote was the definition of waste, “destroying anything that could be useful to others.” We tend to think of waste primarily as what we put in the trash and what fills our landfills. This definition, however, makes waste relational. In fact thinking about waste relationally makes it much more difficult to do so. If I have to think about how what I am doing impacts others it becomes much more difficult to act harmfully.
The converse is also true. What makes it so easy for us to waste so much is that we choose not to think about it relationally. Consumption is a linear progression from producers to consumers to landfills. The only problem is where to put all the garbage. We know that much of our electronic waste ends up dumped in Africa where poor people sift through it for valuable materials while being exposed to toxic chemicals. Your gadgets don’t just disappear when they become obsolete.
This seems to be one of the things consumerism deadens us to. We are not attached to our things because we’re always obsessed with the newest gadgets. We don’t seem concerned or aware with where the old obsolete gadgets go. It is as if we believe they simply disappear into some old Apple ][ heaven somewhere (or maybe Windows hell…I digress). But they don’t disappear. They go somewhere and they affect someone else for good or bad.
Rather than just thinking about where our waste goes and who it affects, this quote also reminds us that living in community with others, knowing our neighbors, means that more of our “stuff” can find a home where it is needed or can be shared. We can also reduce the amount of things we “need” if we hold more in common with our brothers and sisters. How many lawn mowers would one neighborhood need if they were shared. Less than one (or two) per household I’m sure.
The kingdom of God is other-centered. My guess is that garbage men and sanitation engineers will have to find new jobs in the city of God.
This is an ongoing series exploring Teachings on Creation Through the Ages. Quotes are taken from the article of that name in The Green Bible.