Capitalism Is Ruining The Planet, And Pigs Might Fly

The home insulation program has been scrapped. And the emissions trading scheme has been abandoned.

But try not to worry too much. We are all a lot more environmentally sustainable than you imagine. Just look what happens when a little piggy goes to the market.

In 2008, a Dutch conceptual artist, Christien Meindertsma, chose a single pig and followed what happened to every part of it as it was slaughtered, sold, distributed and processed around the world.

Pigs are not just made out of ham. Her pig – Pig 05049 – went into 185 separate products. Pig hair goes into paintbrushes. Protein from the hair is used to soften bread dough. Some pig skin is eaten (scratchings), and some sold to become practice canvas for tattoo artists. Pig leather becomes safety gloves. Collagen from the skin is sold to become glue, beauty masks, an ingredient in energy bars and a binding agent for liquorice.

Gelatine is derived from the collagen, which goes into pretty much every dessert – jelly, cupcakes, nougat, custard pastry, marshmallows, chocolate mousse, ice-cream and tiramisu. That’s just the outside of the pig.

The bladder becomes the skin of a tambourine. Haemoglobin goes into cigarette filters, and is added to ham to enhance its appearance. From pig’s bone fat we get antifreeze, floor wax, toothpaste, crayons, anti-wrinkle cream, make-up foundation, and hair conditioner.

And even bullets. Gelatine from pig bones helps move gunpowder into shell casings.

There are more than 150 other products. No pig bits are wasted.

But Meindertsma’s findings are extremely counterintuitive. We’ve been taught that we live lives of reckless, wasteful consumption. We’re told we have “affluenza” – an illness of consumerism with symptoms that include high credit card bills, environmental degradation and moral soullessness. Australia’s affluenza theorist, Clive Hamilton, has written that “consumer capitalism loves waste”.

By contrast, every school child learns that the Native Americans used “every part” of the buffalo they killed. Often they did – that’s subsistence living for you. But sometimes they herded them off cliffs (“buffalo jumps”) thousands at a time.

One 19th-century explorer, Meriwether Lewis, saw tribes killing “whole droves” of buffalo, salvaging only “the best parts of the meat” and leaving the rest to “rot in the field”.

Even at their most frugal, earlier societies could never match the resourcefulness of the global marketplace.

Pig 05049 shows how magnificently complex and refined global capitalism really is. Everything in a pig can be sold to someone, somewhere. Nobody wants to miss an opportunity to profit, even if it involves selling pig bones to be burnt into ashes which are then sold again, and again, and again, eventually helping produce German train brakes.

Or, to put it another way: waste is expensive. Time and energy are extremely valuable, and, as farmers know, so are pigs’ pancreases (to produce insulin).

After all, our entire economic system has developed on the idea that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We sell things that other people can use better.

A competitive economy encourages businesses to be less wasteful. To reduce the amount of energy used in production, or to reduce packaging to its absolute minimum, is to save money.

Ikea “flat-packs” its furniture because it’s more economical to ship that way, and it burns fewer fossil fuels for their buck.

Walmart justified its packaging reduction program (a target of just 5 per cent less packaging by 2013) by pointing to the $3.4 billion the company would save. Corporations aren’t altruists. That’s why a 2008 survey found that 76 per cent of corporate sustainability efforts were aimed at reducing package waste.

Anybody who has travelled in the past few years will have seen that many hotels don’t wash linen any more, unless it is specifically requested. Good for the environment, perhaps, but definitely good for the bottom line.

Even the globalisation of food produce is an example of market forces pursuing sustainability.

“Food miles” advocates believe we should only eat food produced locally, that it’s environmentally obscene to be transporting food across the world.

But the biggest carbon contribution of food isn’t how far it has travelled. It’s how efficiently it was produced. And efficiency is caused by things like climate. So a British government report found that importing tomatoes from Spain was more sustainable than growing them locally. A study by three New Zealand academics found that the same was true for apples grown in New Zealand and sent to the United Kingdom.

Sure, that seems bizarre. But we live in a world where tiny bits of pig are used to produce the copper that makes up computer circuitboards, and other bits used to reduce moisture in newspaper. Globalisation is definitely weird. But it’s not as unsustainable as everybody says.