Who puts out the rubbish?

When Britain signed the EC Landfill Directive in 1999, we should have entered an era in which waste-

At the start of the 1990s, the UK's recycling rates were languishing at around 5 per cent. While West Germany passed laws committing its citizens to recycling 50 per cent of its packaging waste by 1995, the UK continued to pile the plastic on to landfill sites for another decade.

The catalyst for change came in 1999, when the Labour government signed up to the EU Landfill Directive - a legal agreement to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill in European Union member states. Scotland published a waste policy the same year; Wales's strategy was ready in 2002, Northern Ireland's in 2006, and after much toing and froing, in 2007 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally published its plan for reducing the amount of waste England creates.

Waste Strategy for England, as it was called, targeted five stakeholder groups that needed to change their behaviour to minimise the waste the country produced, as well as claw back energy by treating the residual rubbish: government, industry, retailers, consumers and the waste industry. Each stakeholder was allocated responsibilities and market-based incentives and goals were established which, if met, would ensure that, by 2020, 50 per cent of England's waste would be reused, recycled and composted.

Government

In 2006 the European Union established a Waste Framework Directive relating to the management of waste across the EU, and committed member states and their local authorities to reducing the amount of waste they produced. The UK government took this to mean tighter regulation of waste activity and delegated a much greater task to the ­Environment Agency - whose core role is to enforce environmental standards. It was now expected to take a role in setting these regulations, particularly in industry, while also monitoring targets and standards.

Paying for the green revolution was going to be an issue. A hike in the landfill tax - now at £48 per tonne of waste going to landfill, compared to £7 per tonne in 1996 - was introduced, and the universal charge to every authority, business and household that takes a tonne of waste to landfill has been the most effective fiscal measure brought in to divert waste.

The government gave local authorities the duty of delivering landfill reduction targets by increasing the municipal waste recycled or reused from 27 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2010. This involved diverting waste from landfill, helped by PFI credits to stimulate investment in waste infrastructure schemes. The councils also had to give businesses and households advice on how to minimise waste. As an incentive, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme fined local authorities £150 per tonne of waste that was above their target figures which went to landfill.

Over the past three years, the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill has reduced to beneath 2010 targets, using 78 per cent of its allocated amount. But, as long as landfill reduction remains the only way that our government passes on responsibilities and incentives to local authorities and councils, waste continues to be produced.

Industry

Could this be the year that the government finally holds industry accountable for its environmental impact? Historically, levels of waste have risen as the economy has grown, and the fear has been that, if the biggest polluters were made to reduce waste, this would force the economy to contract.

Moreover, while monitoring household waste (collected by local authorities) is fairly straightforward, central government is still struggling to find an effective way to monitor commercial and industrial waste, which is collected by hundreds of private companies.

But it is waste minimisation that is really becoming a buzzword for industry at the moment, particularly given the current economic climate. The obligations of "producer responsibility", both statutory and voluntary, oblige industry to make products using more recycled materials and fewer newly extracted raw materials, and to design products that are less wasteful in their production and use. Producers should manage the cost of these changes, not simply by handing the costs of eco design over to the consumer, but by addressing their supply chain and establishing links with different stakeholders in the strategy.

It is at the bottom of the priority list for most business - the commercial benefit in producing less waste is not immediately obvious - but slowly, as businesses begin to see the cost benefits of introducing upstream waste minimisation policies, the idea is catching on.

Retailers

Most of the UK's commercial waste comes from the retail sector, and in 2003 5.1 million tonnes out of the 6.1 million tonnes of waste produced by retail went to landfill. Retailers create waste in two areas - on their own property and by passing packaging on to consumers. The former is tackled economically, and retailers opt for the cheapest disposal method available. As in industry, private waste companies are employed to take the waste, then sift through it before taking it to landfill.

Retailers could avoid passing on waste to consumers if they reduced the amount of packaging. This responsibility includes cutting the number of carrier bags that consumers use, and the waste strategy gives retailers the chance to sign up to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which encourages them to source and market products that are less wasteful and more sustainable as well as help their consumers be less wasteful themselves.

By 2008, 94 per cent of the UK's food retail sector had signed up to the Courtauld Commitment and 61 per cent of the country's packaging waste was being recycled. On the face of it, the substantial increase from 28 per cent in 1997 meant that the scheme was working. But beneath the perceived success lies the reality of these achievements. While this was a success for recycling targets and landfill avoidance, the commitment avoids waste reduction and continues to tie the retail industry to the hungry incineration industry, leaving consumers to wonder what to do with their packaging.

In 2009 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, reviewed packaging policy and laid out a new set of priorities for the period 2010-2015. Nonetheless, he missed the opportunity to enforce packaging reductions, and again recycling pipped reduction to become the government's first priority. As far as the waste industry is concerned, the responsibility for dealing with waste remains with consumers.

Consumers

Consumers certainly have a powerful role to play in waste reduction. As the customers of consumerism and the darlings of democracy, consumers have in theory the chance to influence the behaviour of these other stakeholders. However, one symptom of being a lowly member of the stakeholder hierarchy is that environmental negligence is hidden behind a screen of covert costs and consumers are led to believe that government, industry and retailers are doing the job for them.

Defra claims that the consumer's job will be made easy if other stakeholders meet their duties to the waste strategy. The strategy states that consumers - business and individual households alike - simply need to reduce the environmental impact of their behaviour by taking a variety of simple measures. These include such habits as purchasing products and services that generate less waste and separating their waste for recycling.

As consumers are made to believe that minimisation is an upstream issue and beyond their reach, their focus is on ­recycling and composting. So far, it appears that consumers have done a good job of meeting the demands that borough councils make of them. By November 2009, the proportion of municipal waste disposed in landfill decreased from 54.4 per cent in 2007/2008 to 50.3 per cent in 2008/2009. These successes were a result of an increase in the amount of recycling that households and businesses were doing, which went up from 34.5 per cent in 2007/2008 to 37.6 per cent in 2008/2009.

Yet, while Defra's targets are being met, environmental NGOs argue more needs to be done, citing the rate set in Flanders in Belgium of 74 per cent municipal waste being recycled as the sort of levels for which the UK should be aiming.

However, it could be consumers who ask for more. They must assert their power and take advantage of their status as "partners" in the process of policy development. They must demand greener products and drive eco-design and they must be willing to negotiate the transparent cost of doing all this, rather than accepting the one they currently pay as part of council taxes and product prices.

The industry

Defra's strategy expects the largely pri­vatised waste industry to work with local authorities and deliver policy demands. Local authorities have to encourage their communities to separate their rubbish and attract investment to the waste industry using PFI credits, and the waste industry has a role to deliver a reduction in the use of landfill. A lot of their success relies on the landfill tax escalator - inflating the charge by £8 each year - taking the cost of landfilling from £40 per tonne to economically inefficient levels. Until then, industry, business and households will revert to this option while the recycling will continue to be undercut.

Nevertheless, in order to meet the EU Landfill Directive, local authorities need to develop waste infrastructure. By entering into a contract with private waste companies, local authorities are given PFI credits to pay for the use of the waste industry's service. Essentially, this is a subsidy for the industry and was aimed at encouraging the development of techno­logies that would cope with the diversion of waste from landfill in an environmentally friendly way.

In actual fact, and unsurprisingly, local authorities spend PFI credits, as they understand it, "responsibly". Credits are used to fund long-term schemes that investors know will pay off. Experimental technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion or recycling, which have relatively low value, rarely receive any money. As a result, funding is aimed at conventional incineration - the pro-cess of mass-burn in which municipal waste is treated and turned into heat and electrical energy.

Environmental campaigners argue that, while our governments continue to ignore the highest rungs of the waste hierarchy, the private interests of the waste industry will carry on ignoring the environment and more sustainable methods of energy recovery.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge