We're Treating the World Like It's Disposable

Some people try not to use disposable items, but most treat the whole world like a single-use product

Brazilian farmer Helio Lombardo Do Santos and a dog walk through a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on August 26, 2019.

A friend who intends to vote for the Labor-Gesher list in next month’s election explained to me: “It could be that the union between Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis won’t get a lot of seats in the election. But in the long run, the union has the potential to rehabilitate the left.”

Under different circumstances, he might have been right. The Herut Party languished in the opposition for 30 years until the conditions for it to win ripened (as Likud), and it remained loyal to Menachem Begin that whole time. But that was long ago – in the remote times of solid modernity, during the postwar decades. Today things have changed. If Peretz fails, is there the slightest chance that his Labor colleagues will remain loyal to him? Like every other development in present-day politics, the Labor-Gesher merger may well be a one-campaign deal.

Political parties are something that belong to the last century. In today’s politics, there aren’t really any parties, but one-time groupings of politicians. If there’s anything substantive to say about the current election campaign, it is that there’s nothing substantive about it. Most of the slates are temporary combinations, some of which will fall apart soon after the election: the Arab Joint List, Democratic Union, Labor-Gesher, Kahol Lavan, Yamina – all are single-use platforms, to be discarded the moment they are no longer necessary. The media consultants who stand behind them want to provide the voter with an attractive ballot-box experience: “This time you’ll see what it’s like to vote Barak-Meretz.” There’s no point making an effort to decipher the political forces and social tendencies the various slates represent, because they are nonexistent, with one substantive exception: the one-time nature of the entire experience.

The term “one-time” has diverse meanings. People say, “You only live once.” That’s true, of course, but the one-time, single-use thrust that dominates the present era, including its politics, is less like one-time life or one-time love and more like single-use packaging or a disposable towel. The word “disposable” underlines the product’s destiny: an object that’s discarded immediately after use.

Here’s an example from another area. The food columns recently reported on several gourmet sandwich places and food bars in Tel Aviv that shut down. One can be sad over the loss, over the investment in time and money by the proprietors that has gone down the drain. But in certain cases, the suspicion arises that the entrepreneurs were just as happy to close the place as they were to open it. It’s true that running a restaurant in Israel is a costly and high-risk business – but in many cases the logic at work seems to be different: The place appears to be opened only in order to be shut down not long afterward. The investors have no intention of founding a culinary establishment that will be around for years, let alone generations. It was never their intention to acquire the trust of a stable and loyal clientele. What they actually hope for is to enjoy the initial hype surrounding the opening – a few weeks in which it’s hard to get a reservation at the restaurant, when a long line straggles outside it – then to stretch things out for another few months before suddenly closing down and cutting their losses, without even providing an explanation.

Like the Knesset slates, new restaurants and food shops are disposable, meant for single use. The case of Tel Aviv shows that there is nothing more brittle than businesses – not even buildings. Earthquakes aren’t needed: They crumble by themselves under piles of capital and shifting trends.

The oceans are full of plastic, and in properly functioning countries there’s a growing demand to outlaw plastic bags and other disposable products. Wooden straws are replacing the ones made of plastic, and sophisticated stores even avoid receipts printed on paper. So, you might think that a few consecutive decades of criticism of consumer culture have imbued a sensitivity to one-time use. In fact, however, the very opposite process is underway. The logic associated with disposables now dominates all the relations we maintain with the world. A small, conscience-ridden minority is making an effort to accustom itself to doing without single-use items, but the majority of us are moving in the very opposite direction: We are learning to treat Planet Earth itself as a single-use, disposal product. Ultimately, this is only natural: Decades of use of disposable cups and plastic bags have taught us that “use and discard” is the right way to treat the whole world – landscapes, oceans, forests, etc. But also political parties, ideologies, human beings.

The right to dispose

Florent-Claude Labrouste, the protagonist of French author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Serotonin,” is a misanthrope who describes his enmity for both his bourgeois neighbors and ecology advocates in Paris. He, too, was bourgeois but not an ecology advocate, he asserts proudly, adding that he drove a 4x4, diesel-powered car and that maybe he hasn’t done many good things in his life, but at least he contributed to the destruction of the planet. That’s a harrowing sentiment, characteristic of the author’s nihilism. But is it all that different from the approach of hundreds of millions of people in the world who are the subjects of the consumer culture? What makes single-use products attractive is the very fact that they are intended for one-time use. Throwing them out is meant to be as enjoyable as using them. And our attitude toward the world is no different: Like Houellebecq’s protagonist, the average consumer enjoys having the ability to consume it and, as the word itself suggests, thus do away with and eradicate it.

What can be done in the face of the burning world – burning not only in Brazil but also in Siberia, Greece, Indonesia, Alaska? How shall we respond to the death of the coral reefs? Those who are not indifferent will sign a petition or donate to an environmental protection organization. But another response that might be encountered is: “We have to fly there on our next vacation, because it will soon be gone.” Of course, the flight itself, and the tourism industry as such, are among the causes of Earth’s destruction; that is, the destruction of the very landscapes that the tourist wants to see.

But that’s a natural response for us. When all the children crave the pie, the reasonable person will join in the assault, before the pie is finished. Similarly, what we are saying is: The world is perishing – it’s worth grabbing a slice of it before it’s discarded.