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An essay by Robert Lynd


Title:     Waste
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

When Mr Churchill referred in Manchester to the piling up of armaments as so much misdirected human energy, he said something with which men of all parties will agree, except those few romantic souls who believe that it is a bracing thing to shed the blood of a foreigner every now and then. Obviously, if two men live beside one another, and if each of them is so afraid of the other's climbing secretly into his back garden that he hires a watchman to walk up and down the garden path all day and night with a six-shooter in his hand, he is wasting on his fears a great deal of energy that might be expended on cabbages. Again, if there is a stream running between the gardens, and if each of the householders is always preparing for the day when the other may question his right to use the water, he will have to hire other strong men, and many a man who might have made a good blacksmith or barman may be turned into a sailor. The situation is so absurd that it does not bear thinking about except as a game: the military aristocracies who treat preparation for war as a form of sport are in this entirely logical. On the other hand, when the burgess fulminates against war as though it were the only example of wasted human energy that does not bear thinking of, he is shutting his eyes to the fact that the whole of modern civilisation is built upon a foundation of waste where it is not built upon a foundation of want.

Our estimates of men and nations rise and fall with their capacity for waste. The great nation, in the eyes of the Imperialist, is the nation that can waste the world. It is the nation that can mow down harvests of savages without even the comparatively decent excuse that it wants to eat them. It is the nation that can make the genius of other nations as though it were not--that can ruin harbours and send ships worth a million pounds to the bottom of the sea. I do not say that there are not other elements that have a part in the greatness of nations. But the power of destruction alone is enough to make any nation supreme for a day--and the supremacy of no nation lasts much longer--and remembered in history. Similarly, with individual men and women. "Everybody," said Emerson, "loves a lover." It would be almost truer to say that everybody loves a wastrel. In our boyhood we love those who waste themselves. In our discreeter years we envy those who can waste the lives of others. It has often been noticed that youths and maidens have a tenderness for drunkards and rakes. They reverence the genius of life wasted almost more than the genius of life fulfilled. Byron, whose vices killed him in his thirties; Sydney Carton, who was seldom sober; Mr Kipling's gentleman-rankers, "damned from here to eternity"--these awake a passionate devotion in the breasts of the young such as is never lavished on successful grocers. It is the prodigal son, and not his respectable brother, at whom affectionate eyes look round as he passes along the street. Perhaps it is because he is so much more obviously trying a fall with destiny than the grocer. The mark of doom makes a more picturesque effect on the brow than a silk-lined bowler hat. According to this view, the wastrel owes his appeal largely to the fact that he is a fighter in a lost cause--the cause of those who have lifted hands against the universe.

The reverence of middle age for the wealthier geniuses of waste, however, cannot be explained on grounds like these. One does not think of Lord Tomnoddy or Sir Alexander Soapsuds as a warrior against destiny. The prodigality of the rich appeals to us for quite other reasons than does the prodigality of the prodigal. We endure it chiefly because we envy it. The dream of being a rich man who can thrust out men and women from their homes to make room for pheasants, who by sheer economic pressure can force us to make bonbons for his guests when we ought to be making boots for ourselves, who can take a man who might be a duke and turn him into a flunkey, lulls us into a kind of satisfaction with the world. The man who has the power to waste fields and men and women and money and labour is the king who rules in every vulgar heart among us. His royal wastefulness in food and servants and ornaments brings him, it may be granted, not a teaspoonful of added health or an eggcupful more of happiness. Even the poets, who have so often sung for rich masters, have always had the grace to warn them that over-eating and over-drinking and over-confidence in this world's goods were merely three death's-heads dressed up in seductive bonnets. But the truth is we never believe the poets when once we have laid down the book. Our ideal of wastefulness is firmly rooted in us beyond the attacks of any aesthete with his harmless little quiver of phrases.

Even when we are not rich ourselves we can imitate the rich in their wastefulness. There is nothing the average servant scorns more than the house in which she is expected to make use of the torsos of loaves, and in which she is forbidden to sacrifice odds and ends of meat to the little gods of the dust-bin. She loves the house where there is milk for the sink as well as for the children and the cat. Years ago, when some people were advocating a tax on salt, they did so on the ground that no one need suffer since at present everybody puts on his plate several times as much salt as he ever uses. Hence, if we were more careful with the salt, such a tax would be a tax not on salt but on wastefulness. It is the same with mustard. I remember a Scotsman once asking me in a hushed voice if I knew how Colman had made his fortune. I thought from my friend's solemn air that it must have been in some sensational way--by buying a deserted gold-mine or running a South American revolution. But my friend merely pointed to the plate from which I was eating. "He made it," he declared solemnly, "out of mustard you leave on the edge of your plate."

Perhaps the Scotsman was right in shaking his head so gravely over our extravagance in mustard. But somehow I, too, have the kitchen's taste for superfluities, and enough never seems half so good as a little more. Horace described the happy man as the man who had enough and something over for servants and thieves. "Oh, the little more, and how much it is!" Even if we grudge it to the thieves, we love it because of the sense it gives us that we are no longer struggling in the water but sitting in triumph on the dry land. The average Englishman dislikes Tariff Reform, not entirely because he has grasped the economics of the subject, but because it would bring in a system which would compel him to be as thrifty as a Frenchman and as careful as a German. One must admit to a certain degree of sympathy with him. When one hears of French peasants (as I once did) calling round after the meals of the rich to carry off the scrapings of the plates to make soup for their families, and of their doing this not because they were very poor, but because they were very thrifty, one's heart suddenly rejoices at the sight of the tattered old flag of prodigality again. One does not want to see thrift given the extreme character of an orgy.

On the other hand, a good many of us get an easy sense of the heroic by living in lordly wastefulness. It appeals to us as a kind of enlargement of our personality. That is why so many of us shrink with horror from such social economies as a kitchen or a heating apparatus that would serve a street. We like our own fires and our own bad cookery. It is as childish as if we wanted our own footpath and our own moon, and no doubt we would insist on these if we could. We pretend that romance would leave the world if the sausages were turned by a citizen in a municipal cap of liberty instead of by a wage-slave, and that freedom would be dead if we warmed our toes at a civic fire. I wonder that no one takes exception to the communal warmth of the sun.

The present wastefulness would be little worse than an insane joke if all this multiplying of cooks and parlourmaids did not absorb such an amount of reluctant youth and deftness and energy. But, alas! our ideals of private citizenship seldom mean that we do our work privately ourselves. They only mean that we privately hire somebody else to do it. In other words, they are usually a violation of the private citizenship of somebody else. Consequently, though we enjoy helping in the wastefulness of it all as a puppy enjoys tearing a book, we do not feel justified in elevating our tastes into an ethical system. We are simply grabbers of the corn supply. Probably, even in a hundred years, people will look back on our present west-European society and marvel at the common habit of prosperous men in sitting down to a table where there are far more dishes and elegancies than they can ever absorb, while men, women and children walk the streets empty. I seldom sit down to dinner in a hotel without a sense that I am being offered three people's food. No, a society that gives three people's food to one man and one man's portion of food--or less--to three people must be the laughing-stock of angels. The social waste that results from railway monopolies and battleship programmes and the warren of small shops in every city is as nothing to this. Except, perhaps, in so far as it is the cause of this. On the whole, however, the problem of waste goes deeper than battleships, which are but toys and which will disappear as soon as the nations grow up and cease making faces at each other. It is a problem on the same level with lust, which, indeed, is a form of waste. It is one of the great problems of egoism, which is more concerned with mastery than with truth or common-sense or gentleness. Not mastery of oneself--just gimcrack, made-in-Birmingham mastery. This is the Mammon of our conceit upon whose altars we are willing to offer up the sacrifice of the wasted earth.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Waste