The “No Junk Mail Please” sign on my letter box did not stop the ACT government delivering a brochure boasting that within ten years Canberra would be recycling all its waste. That was also the day on which Australia Post delivered Juliet Lea’s package of background information to help me prepare this essay.

Given that I live surrounded by books, it was not surprising that the image that first caught my eye was of her 1990 installation “In the Dust of all Words: a poria (an other story)” in which piles of books form ranks on a grimy floor while more volumes block the light from three widows. The suggestion that book-learning could obscure as well as clarify reminds me to write for the reader over my shoulder.

The mood of this installation seemed to be that books were decaying into another kind of junk for the ACT government to recycle. We hear that the Net will make dead-tree editions redundant. More disturbing are reports that fewer people are taking their information, let alone their comprehension, from print media. One impact of the television screen is that the past is flattened into a continuous present where, in keeping with the paranoid’s universe, everything is connected to everything else in a totality of menace. The loss of cause and effect that flows from this ironing out of historical specificity encourages the evasion of responsibility. No cause: no blame. As I toyed with these responses, I also appreciated that my doubts about the visual had been stimulated by an instance of the visual.

In reading the decline of Guttenberg into this installation, had imported the decay of literacy from images of her 2001 work “Patho logo”, where the degradation is at once global and explicit? That piece showed a relief map of the continents made from food which had been left to rot. The title “Patho” invoked the spread of infectious agents. Its pattern mimicked the logo of the United Nations.

The decomposition of the kind of world that the UN represents is discomfiting to those Australians, mostly of a progressive bent, who retain faith that its charter will one day provide the basis of law between states and inside every nation. Lamentations that Australia’s international reputation will be damaged by our responses to indigenous people, of refugees, or carbon levels focus on what the UN will think. Surely, it it is the reputation of the United Nations that should make its members feel shame. Its financial corruption and bureaucratisation are legendary. Its subversion by United States imperialism began before the founding conference in 1945, was exposed by the Australian writer Shirley Hazzard in her Defeat of an Ideal (1973). These crimes were compounded by the appointment of the Nazi Kurt Waldheim as Secretary-General, and lately, by CIA penetration of teams of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. In brief, when the UN has not been impotent, it is a stalking-horse for the US security state. The United Nations  is as rotten as the animal parts in “Patho logo” became after weeks on display.

Patho logo” can be seen it as a tiny example of the avalanche of waste to which it alludes. The art work contained more protein than nourishes some human beings in their lifetimes. Our species produces more than enough food to sustain its billions in a healthy diet. Millions starve each year because of its mal-distribution and millions more become chronic invalids because of too much of the wrong foods – too much fat or sugar. The pathology of these contrasting malaises has to be sought in social relationships, not the Human Genome.

Environmental groups have pointed out that the “recycling” industry is not what it claims because sorted rubbish is ending up as landfill. Yet, even if all our trash were to be recycled, the impact on the environment still would be damaging. First, the making and use of the originals, following by their recycling and then their second-round of making and usage would remain. No matter how well designed a product is in its energy use while in operation, those savings need to be matched against the energy that goes into their production or recycling.

Every year, I throw out more than a fifth of the world’s people use in a lifetime. Although writing this essay on screen, I will nonetheless use more bond paper than some children see in their entire schooling. The reasons for that lack are not just poverty. A US trade embargo against Cuba keeps kids writing on slates and scraps. Perhaps what seems to us as deprivation is a desirable goal for conservation.

To debate population policy as a choice between Tim Flannery’s 6-12 millions or Richard Pratt’s 50 millions for Australia is beside the point. Australia cannot sustain that Flannery’s minimum number if every adult were to drive a Toorak tractor. We would fare better with 50 millions on push-bikes. That substitution can be applied to every item of consumption.

Much of the material that is scheduled to be recycled should never have been cycled. Our planet cannot afford sustainability paid for by ceaseless growth. For instance, most of the 20 billion PET bottles in Europe in 1999 would never have been produced under South Australia’s “No Disposables” bottling laws that require a 5c refund on soft-drink bottles.

At issue is whether capital cannot survive in stable state. By its nature, capital must expand or implode. To beat off competitors, each firm seeks to reduce its unit costs through replacing labour with machinery. That investment can be afforded only by pushing out ever more commodities to keep up profit rates. The needs of capital induce endless needs in consumers.

This competition has intensified with globalisation and monopolising. As each conglomerate seeks to capture all the sales, their combined output must exceed the total effective demand.

Recent talk about moving into “Natural capitalism” indicates that its proponents know nothing about the workings of either capital or nature. They fail to see that the waste from competition is how the capitalist system thrives. Equally, they assume that biological change is efficient in the way that capital seeks to remain profitable by eliminating its competition. In the case of nature, evolution requires waste in the spawning of mutations which may help a species to survive a changing environment. Design in nature thus is not perfect adaptation but more of a rough fit. To think that capitalism can follow nature is as false as the 1940s belief in the Soviet Union that inherited characteristics could be acquired to hasten the creation of a communist utopia. Before 1953, the Soviet biologists had the excuse that genetics lacked the proof that came with the double helix. Today’s advocates of natural capitalism have no justification beyond a need not to challenge the dominance of capital.

Military spending is attacked as waste, as something which the world does not need. Few of the weapons that are produced are ever used in war, and so can be classified as wasteful. Were they to be used, they would create ever more waste. Yet within the logic of capital’s expansion, they are never wasteful. Yet rulers in the impoverished states that spend up big on weapons need guns to oppress their populations, and to plunder. Similarly, in the richest empire, the USA, its proposed anti-ballistic missile system is not necessary for protection. Rather, it is very much needed to secure the health of the corporations that contributed to George W. Bush’s campaign funds, that is, necessary to keep the arms industry running as a motor of capital expansion.

In 1876, Frederick Engels pointed to the devastation of landscapes that had come as the unexpected outcomes of progress. For instance, the clearing of Italian forests had destroyed dairying and increased the destructive force of run-off. His hope was that science would help us to recognise and thereby master our destructiveness. Much that Engels knew 125 years ago was forgotten by the Soviets. Some of it was learnt again only as our species acquired the capacity to destroy life on earth. Since then, the spread of ecological consciousness has battled to keep pace with the destruction of habitats.

For the future, we can be certain that the survival of the planet will not occur by accident. The unintended consequence of plundering natural resources will never be their sustainability. That necessity demands conscious interventions by those who have the least to gain from the waste that expands capital. Art cannot save a single tree. But it continues to deepen the awareness required for us to learn and to act.