this is where the wheels fall off

The public mood on twitter towards tonight’s Panorama investigation into illegal tyre exports fluttered between bemusement and mild annoyance. Most people didn’t get it – why tyres? Why not expose something more politically or socially significant than a humble wheel of rubber?

In the UK, we have no use for worn out tyres. We dump them up in big piles; they are a blight on our countryside. But over in Vietnam, organised criminal gangs can’t wait to smuggle them into China – they do a roaring trade supplying them to kilns where they are burnt to make ceramics.

This dichotomy illustrates something quite fundamental – our divergent attitudes towards resource scarcity. The term itself is an embryonic concept that we are still thinking through in Britain and western Europe; it is only spoken of in higher circles – chiefly among green groups and government leaders.

We are lucky that it hasn’t yet translated into reality for us. It may never do so in our lifetimes. But over in the Asia-Pacific and the developing world, it is there, at the frontline of every daily experience. People don’t have enough of the basic essentials and landfill sites are scavenged not by seagulls, but human waste pickers. These guys even have collectives now.

I’ve lost count of the number of conferences I attend here in the UK where the messaging is all around waste as a resource – but the irony is that we often don’t have a use for it. So until we do, will the public really engage in a way that is truly meaningful and significant? There may be genuine concern, but 60% of us still can’t be bothered to recycle in England.

Progress is being made, but make no mistake, programmes like Panorama don’t just expose the wrongs of society when it comes to green issues, but the sheer scale of our apathy and detachment as well. I looked at all those tyres and thought ‘what a waste’. Most of you reading this probably registered similar feelings.

But outside of our wheelie bin world domination bubble, who on earth is really tuned in – let alone listening? 

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