Tag Archives: Ecology

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 Queer Ecology of Derek Jarman’s Garden

– François Olivier

Derek Jarman was an independent filmmaker in Britain during a period which stretched from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His films express a decidedly queer sensibility and depict homoeroticism on screen during a period marked by the homophobia of Thatcherite politics. In a review of one of his films, the noted film critic, B. Ruby Rich, fondly describes Jarman as the “King of Queer” and explains that “as an artist and activist, Jarman has a life history that seems to encompass the very development of modern gay culture” (49). In 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive, and discussed his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness in Kent, near the nuclear power station. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness in London, aged 52.

With the humble Prospect cottage as the central feature, Jarman filled his garden with drought-resistant native plants, rusted and weathered debris found around the shingle beach, and traditional English flora (which include an impressive number of rose variations). In his garden, flotsam and jetsam compliment the forms and shapes of the exquisite plant life, and vice versa. Michael Charlesworth describes Jarman’s found objects as “things that most people would see no beauty in, or would see their value exhausted. They bring a connotation of collage, of art brut or arte povera, of a garden made by an ‘Outsider’” (136).

Recently two ecocritics have written about Jarman, and the garden he created at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. In a recent anthology of essays on “Queer Ecologies,” Mortimer-Sandilands chooses Jarman alongside Zita Grover to demonstrate a queer ecological approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands sees the relation between Jarman’s gardening, his sexual politics and the mourning of friends lost to AIDS as an example or a template for a radically alternative approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands reworks Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholia and she describes certain forms of ecotourism and present-day wildlife documentaries as “nature spectacles” that phantasmagorically preserve the ‘lost’ object of ‘Nature’ in the present to avert its complete destruction. For Mortimer this melancholic process hinders any real engagement with the environmental crisis, thus environmentalists “exist in … a condition of melancholia, a state of suspended mourning in which the object of loss is very real but psychically “ungrievable” within the confines of a society that cannot acknowledge nonhuman beings, natural environments, and ecological processes as appropriate objects for genuine grief (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 332).

Continue reading The Queer Ecology of Derek Jarman’s Garden

How big were the fish?

 – David Reiersgord

When I think about waste, I am reminded of my childhood. I am reminded of lazy summer afternoons somewhere in central Minnesota where I spent much of my adolescence fishing. Once upon a time, there were fish in the lake – small fish and big fish. Many of my first memories are of my grandfather taking my cousins and I out in the boat. It instilled in me a bond with nature, with the outdoors, and most importantly fish. I grew to understand how the lake worked; I grew to learn how the patterns of waves affected where fish would be; I grew to learn what the sky looked like – and how the air began to smell differently – before it was going to rain; I grew to learn how water depth influenced the type of fish in an area. We used to catch many fish on this lake. But as I got older, I began to notice a change. It was as if the lake was empty, save for the water and one bastard of a fish.

I am reminded of a particular song lyric when I think about this lake: “Now progress takes away what forever took to find”. It used to be boats and canoes on the lake. Then it was boats, canoes, jet skis, jet boats, water tubing. I tell my grandfather – whenever I happen to find myself ‘up north’ – that there are not any fish in the lake anymore. I know it kills him to hear this; but he defiantly tells me otherwise even though he and I both know he is wrong. I am sure he blames it on Obama, but we both know it is the abundance of gasoline excreted by the boats; moreover, it is perhaps, more importantly, the ecology of the lake that has changed. There is a particular species called the Muskellunge, which is one impressive fish designed specifically to hunt, kill and eat other fish, birds, whatever it can find. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided to transport many of the ‘muskies’ to the lake. Over the course of several years, the wise guys at the DNR transformed the lake into a dying bowl of water. Now, the boats that come to fish are in search of the ‘muskies’ and the populations of other fish have been all but decimated. Muskies used to be considered waste because there are difficult to catch, do not taste particularly good (too bony) and are nuisance for the ecology of lakes.

I do not fish on this lake anymore because it is a waste of time. Instead, I sit on the stoep looking out at the lake trying to imagine what it was like before the muskies came, before we came. I wonder how quiet it was. How big were the fish?

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.


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


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.”