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Everyday Lies

Our throwaway society

A trip to the waste disposal site provides an insight into human nature

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Like almost everyone else, I regret the throwaway society: I remember the days when even socks were darned and whatever was broken was repaired. How can we value anything very much if we just dispose of it when it breaks or is damaged?

My regret, however, does not prevent me from acting like everyone else in a throwaway society. My electric toaster went on the blink recently, I bought another much more cheaply than I could have had the old repaired and took the defunct appliance to the waste disposal site about two miles away. There, at the entrance, was prominently displayed a notice: THE STAFF CANNOT HELP YOU.

What did this mean? That the site employed only persons severely handicapped, and therefore that they were unable in the most literal sense to assist? Or did it mean that the staff, inclined to be bolshie, were unwilling to help? Or again, did it mean that the staff had been instructed not to help, probably because the company wanted neither to pay the necessary insurance premiums nor accept liability for injuries to their staff that could result from their efforts to assist the old and frail, or merely to be gallant?

Here was an instance in which I was glad that a notice was at least in error and quite possibly a lie: for in fact, the staff at the waste disposal site have always been helpful, indeed eager to help, the alternative to helpfulness for them being to stand around endlessly doing nothing, surveying people struggling with their former refrigerators and other ejectables.

But as Adam Smith remarked: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Even the waste disposal company was not able to alter human nature.

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