Although there is a growing interest in eco-fiction, there is little fiction on zero waste, says public health official and author Virginia Aronson. We had a brief conversation about her novella, the concept of zero-waste and eco-fiction, and the modern way of living.

Virginia Aronson is coming from a background of nutrition and public health, and is currently the director of Food and Nutrition Resources foundation and as well as the author/co-author of more than 40 books. Her novella Mottainai: A Journey in Search of the Zero Waste Life tells the story of a typical American millennial finding his path to zero-waste life.

As a public health officer, Aronson is well aware of the effect of storytelling on individuals, and she masterfully turns this into an advantage. She creates a unique style of eco-fiction in the form of a modern fairy tale. Needless to say, the story does not have an intention to be believable, yet still, Greer is a refreshingly relatable character. She incorporates elements of popular culture with such delicate balance and incredible humour, she manages to fascinate with each sentence and appeals to the modern souls simultaneously.

What is mottainai exactly?

V.A.: The word actually translates to “how wasteful” or “what a waste” and was adopted by Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai in her global work to encourage a steep reduction in environmental destruction.

How did you encounter it?

V.A.: I have always been a minimalist as I am not very materialistic and prefer to travel light through my life. However, I am often struck by how much stuff we accumulate in our home. With regularity, I encourage my boys to purge with yard sales, giveaways and donations, and fortunately, we are not avid shoppers in this family. Still, things seem to accumulate. This led me to do some research and I came across mottainai, the Japanese concept of no waste. I cannot say I am able to lead a zero-waste life like the characters in my book, but it is certainly something I aspire to.

How exactly is the concept of mottainai linked with Zen Buddhism?

V.A.: I linked the two for the story to illustrate a quiet reverence for nature and simplicity, which is what Buddhism teaches. Buddhists encourage us to do only what is best for ourselves that is also best for the world we live in. Japanese Buddhists teach about the inter-relatedness of all things, working to live in harmony with the natural world. This means being mindful of all living things, of all nature, which means living simply and with little waste.

Do you think mottainai will catch on in the West like Zen Buddhism?

V.A.: I don’t think most people know the word mottainai, but are very aware of the idea of cutting back, reducing food waste, phasing out single-use plastics, and recycling. Although now with COVID-19 there has been an uptick in the use of plastic for safety reasons plus much more waste from takeout food containers, as well as a surge in food waste. Hopefully, this is just a temporary step backward from all the progress that has been made, at least in public awareness.

 

“A common situation in the U.S. is that college grads have education debt, so they must work long hours at jobs that suck up all their time without providing much psychological satisfaction”

 

Why did you prefer a fictional form to convey the message of zero-waste philosophy?

V.A.: I was researching the concept of zero waste for my own understanding when the idea for the story evolved. As a public health educator, I find people learn most readily from hearing other people’s stories, whether they are true or told in fictional form. It’s easier to learn while you are being entertained than it is to plough through lots of facts. For this reason, many of my books are built on either interviews with real people or stories of fictional people who convey messages I believe are worth sharing. I included the information at the end of the book for interested readers, people who wish to know more, and educators. So one can read the story and skip the resources if desired. My goal is to educate and entertain without boring the readers.

And enter Greer Grassi, the dissatisfied millennial we all can relate to. He seems to emerge from observations. 

V.A.: Greer is a stereotypical young and ambitious person with a busy life that feels empty. I find this to be a common situation in the U.S., where college grads have education debt so must work long hours at jobs that suck up all their time without providing much psychological satisfaction. Greer was finding his job, and therefore his life, to be soulless. People of all ages feel stuck working to support themselves and their families, and now so many are stuck at home—or in their parents’ home—doing remote work during COVID-19. So it is difficult for many people of all ages to be fully in their lives and find the satisfaction inherent in that.

Have you had a radical transformation like Greer? How did your journey towards a more eco-friendly life begin?

V.A.: I wouldn’t say I’ve had a radical transformation as I’m kind of an old hippie, but I do fantasize about moving to a big plot of undeveloped land and living in a tiny house in the woods. Where I would allow people to be buried naturally: no coffins, no preservatives, just bodies in the ground in nature. Of course, I could only do this with state/local legal approval, but natural burial grounds are becoming increasingly popular here. Talk about zero waste; why not end this life without wasting anything?

What do you think about the current status of environmental fiction? Are there any writers you could suggest?

V.A.: There seems to be a great deal of interest in environmental or eco-fiction. One of my most recent favourites is the dystopian novel Clade by the Australian author James Bradley. Lately, I’ve been reading about the importance of valuing natural capital which includes the concept of converting industrialized farmland and ranchland to small family farms and wild land. I have read some great memoirs on the topic. Wilding by Isabella Tree is an exceptional account. As for books on zero waste, there is much to read but little fiction. Hence, Mottainai: A Journey in Search of the Zero Waste Life.

 

For those who are curious to know more about the book: Greer Grassi, the protagonist and narrator, is a corporate ladder climber, whose material needs grow as fast as his pay check. His empty life is filled with high-cost, luxurious items and university debts. Visited by his fairy god-mother guru Martin, he is introduced to Mottainai. With a little push from the love of his life, Grace, he agrees to travel to outskirts of Japan for a training program under the supervision of a cranky old man who has problems with staying honest. What started off as a mere act turns into something profound and zero-waste philosophy infiltrates all of Greer’s begin as he begin to realise the “potency of emptiness”.