Tag Archives: Earth

Waste and problem creation

-Melissa Da Costa

Fifty years back, when paper bags ruled the consumer circuit, concerns started arising about their impracticality on domestic and environmental levels. Not only were paper bags no longer durable enough, but people became concerned about the amount of trees that were cut down to fuel the world’s growing consumer needs. “That’s terribly environmentally unfriendly!” they cried. “There must be another way!” And so, to solve the problem of the paper bag, the plastic shopping bag was invented.

Manufactured from polyethylene, plastic shopping bags were lightweight and durable, and successfully solved the problems that the paper bag had introduced. However, the aforementioned merits were exactly the problems with the plastic bag. Their light weight allowed them to travel great distances on the wind, and their resistance to decomposition meant that they remained in the environment for thousands of years. In addition, because these bags are mass produced on one side of the world, shipped all over it to be used, and then shipped back to where they started to be recycled, created the even greater problem of excessive fuel consumption. What was originally sought out as a solution to an environmental problem was in fact the start of an even greater dilemma.

Another solution to a popular consumer problem was the introduction of the disposable plastic water bottle in the place of bottles made of glass. Inexpensive, shatter resistant and lighter to transport, the plastic water bottle seemed like the rational way to go. Both disposable plastic bottles and plastic shopping bags, however, are manufactured using petroleum, and play a role in the combustion and inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels.

In both cases, supposed solutions to interconnected environmental and consumer-driven problems have resulted in further problems, yet the same problem-solving methods are continuously employed to solve new resultant problems. The reasoning and problem-solving methods utilised in these processes are obviously not the right ones. Something in our problem solving therefore needs to be altered in order to solve problems without creating new ones. The situations need to be looked at in a new way to prevent the same mistakes being made over and over again.

Being only a third-year Fine Arts student, I can offer no solution to these problems at this point, and the knowledge that we are stuck in this pattern of recidivism has turned me into a cynic. I no longer have faith in a humanity that turns its attention away from the problems that it itself creates. All I can do right now, therefore, is to hope that by writing posts such as this, I can open the eyes of a few of the people around me to the ineffectiveness of our current “solutions” to environmental problems, and hope that together we can change our problem-solving patterns to finally end the patterns of problem creating.

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling and waste management in consumerist culture

– Taryn Bernard

Like many cultural practices, recycling has deep historical and ideological roots. As a modern practice, recycling originated in America in the 1970s when there was growing awareness of environmental issues and a strong uprising of environmentalist activists who later coined the 3 R’s: “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.  In contemporary globalised and consumerist society, recycling is framed as a way to protect the environment, a “moral” activity, but also a trendy one – a middle-class and elitist activity, ranked high on the “hip hierarchy” along with purchasing organic products from weekend farmers’ markets. Deconstructing the act of recycling might look like this: search out the arrowed triangle, and once the stamped product has been consumed, sort through your waste and throw it in the appropriate bag for collection. But the activities of “searching” and “sorting” don’t seem to curb production, nor do they prompt us to reduce consumption, two variables fundamental to the neoliberal capitalist system, to the continued dominance of big businesses and to environmental degradation. The “recyclable” stamp is not only a contemporary sign, but a modern myth so steeped in cultural ideologies and practices that it’s hard for us to recognise it as such.

According to Barthes, the sign derives its value from its surrounding context. On a macro-level, we understand the sign in a consumerist context. On a micro-level, individual instances of the sign contextualise and frame our interpretation of it. When situated on a consumable product, the recycling sign tells us “this company cares”. When visible in their corporate social responsibility report, the company says “we are doing good things” and “the corporate citizen is a moral citizen.” Cloaked in the green robe of sustainable development, neoliberal corporations appropriate environmental discourse of the 70s and declare their love for the environment, while simultaneously whispering “most profit for the least cost”. Companies clean up the environment, engage in “waste management projects”, because dirt and waste bottleneck their economic growth, not because they want greener pastures, and this leads to the production of more waste. The politics and rhetoric of recycling merely mask the problems of overproduction, overconsumption and resource-depletion, all of which can be addressed by the first two R’s – reduce and reuse –  and by halting the production and consumption process, rather than simply disguising negative externalities with modern recycling processes.

Recycle_Logo_copy

The value of waste

– Dr Tilla Slabbert

Ten years ago I moved to a small coastal village in the Western Cape where I now live within walking distance from the beach. One of the rituals that came to form part of my life is a diligent gathering of washed-up and discarded garbage whenever I walk the dogs. For most of these years, my immediate neighbour was a seventy something Dutch man who immigrated to South Africa in the late 1950s. I say was, because he sadly passed away less than a year ago. Jan was a real character; a positive and vibrant man who managed to banish one’s own fears of growing older. A true raconteur, he could capture his audience with colourful anecdotes, always ending on a humorous note. He used to laugh heartily at his own jokes. Two years ago, Jan and his wife sold their house and moved to another part of town. In packing up—and to my great disgust—he promptly dumped a load of unwanted waste across the road amongst the fynbos; in the vicinity of one of the footpaths leading to the beach. Broken garden tools, old buckets, a huge fifty gallon drum, and other junk littered the area. My partner and I later removed most of the garbage, but the drum, filled with bags of dog poop, we left behind for the time being, intending to collect it at a later stage, once the stench has faded a little.

Life carries on, one postpones, and after a few months the drum was covered by the resilient vegetation.  Two weeks after his birthday, and the day before his death, I had the honour of hugging Jan’s tall but faded body for the final time.

Recently the municipality removed some of the rooikrans in the neighbourhood and the hacking once again exposed the drum. It now lay rusted and eroded. Walking past it the other day, I thought: Jan is gone, the drum remains. I suddenly realised how self-righteous and selfish one can be when you become selective about what seems precious. Inorganic waste supposedly outlives humans, but could it not serve a purpose when it unearths nostalgia about those no longer visible? Or does it merely become valuable because it has been aestheticized by time? Once it has acquired a kind of weathered appearance, faintly resembling its previous form, like the murky outlines of a memory. The reflection brought another of Jan’s tales to mind.

During his youth on their farm in Holland, he was kicked in the face by a horse, losing all his teeth; he ended up wearing dentures before he turned twenty. On his arrival in South Africa (by ship), he was so pleased with the sight of Cape Town in the distance that he cheered madly, knocking his own dentures from his mouth. The set promptly plonked overboard and disappeared beneath the waters of Table Bay. As I stood staring at the rusty drum, I imagined hearing the teeth clicking with muffled laughter, lolling about somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. I envisaged them covered with nettle and sea slugs or swaying gently beneath the flux of oceanic silt: out of sight. On the other hand, perhaps there is a sea nymph somewhere on a rock, grinning widely and knowingly at those huge fishing trawlers, harvesting their loot.


1-IMG_2914 1-IMG_2915

First reading of 2013 – The Natural Contract (1990) by Michel Serres

the-natural-contract

Welcome back to the members of our reading group. The first reading for 2013 consists of two chapters from Michel Serres’ book, The Natural Contract (1990). If any of our blog readers know Serres’ work or has read this book specifically, share you thoughts in the comments below.

Here is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

“Global environmental change, argues Michel Serres, has forced us to reconsider our relationship to nature. In this translation of his influential 1990 book Le Contrat Naturel, Serres calls for a natural contract to be negotiated between Earth and its inhabitants.

World history is often referred to as the story of human conflict. Those struggles that are seen as our history must now include the uncontrolled violence that humanity perpetrates upon the earth, and the uncontrollable menace to human life posed by the earth in reaction to this violence. Just as a social contract once brought order to human relations, Serres believes that we must now sign a “natural contract” with the earth to bring balance and reciprocity to our relations with the planet that gives us life. Our survival depends on the extent to which humans join together and act globally, on an earth now conceived as an entity.

Tracing the ancient beginnings of modernity, Serres examines the origins and possibilities of a natural contract through an extended meditation on the contractual foundations of law and science. By invoking a nonhuman, physical world, Serres asserts, science frees us from the oppressive confines of a purely social existence, but threatens to become a totalitarian order in its own right. The new legislator of the natural contract must bring science and law into balance.

Serres ends his meditation by retelling the story of the natural contract as a series of parables. He sees humanity as a spacecraft that with the help of science and technology has cast off from familiar moorings. In place of the ties that modernity and analytic reason have severed, we find a network of relations both stranger and stronger than any we once knew, binding us to one another and to the world. The philosopher’s harrowing and joyous task, Serres tells us, is that of comprehending and experiencing the bonds of violence and love that unite us in our spacewalk to the spaceship Mother Earth.”