Tag Archives: Poverty

Blomkamp, Ballard and the Hidden Politics of Overpopulation

“Squeezed out of existence”: The binaries and boundaries of overpopulation in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and JG Ballard’s “Billennium”

By Lizzy Steenkamp

In environmentalist discourse, the question of overpopulation is a controversial one as it is often still perceived as a problem exclusive to developing countries that exists only due to a lack of education that leads to large families (Fletcher 1198). In literature, overpopulation has been interrogated in many imaginative ways, and the two instances that will be discussed here – Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium and J.G. Ballard’s short story “Billennium” (1962) – are important contributions to the field because they actively work against this assumption that the blame for overpopulation lies in the actions of the poor. These texts accomplish this by shifting the focus to the ways in which the structures of authority fail the poor and deliberately force them into a worse and worse condition. The subject will here be approached through the dystopian lens of the everyday life in overpopulated society as facilitated by narrative and cinematic technique. In terms of this, the primary foci are the ways in which boundaries and dichotomies are influenced by the increase of population. The boundary between the private and the public will receive special emphasis, as well as the effect of this on human interaction as well as alienation from the self and the loss of agency. The roles that societal institutions of authority play as catalysts for these processes will also be taken into consideration.

The deadly competition for Earth’s resources and space due to an increase in population is an issue that has not always been accepted as a valid concern, and is still considered a myth in even the most educated of areas. In terms of recent history, overpopulation emerged as a prominent threat after World War II and the subsequent “baby boom”: the effects were discussed in terms of important problems such as “security, the environment, poverty, food production and economic development in the global South” (Fletcher 1198). Overpopulation first began to be conceived of as an imminent threat in the late 1950’s, which eventually resulted in such preventative resources such as the United Nations Fund For Population Activities in 1969 (1199). The link between environmental degradation and overpopulation was only overtly established in the public consciousness in the seventies, largely to the Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb (1968) that contained accurate warnings about “environmental collapse, human suffering and massive starvation”(1200). The environmentalism of the 1980s saw the popularisation of an old argument that placed a lot of the blame for the population problem on the poor, labelling this class as a threat to the international community. Continue reading Blomkamp, Ballard and the Hidden Politics of Overpopulation

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Perceptions of Waste

– Megan Reddering

Since I started recycling three years ago my perceptions of waste have drastically changed. I realized that about seventy-five percent of what I previously took to be waste could actually be recycled. This reduction in my own production of waste has made me more aware of waste and how it comes to be waste. When can something be classified as waste? Is this classification different for different people? Why is there a difference in what people consider to be waste?

In my neighbourhood it is waste and recyclables collection day every Tuesday. I go for a run every Tuesday at six in the morning and I noticed that already at that early time homeless people with their trollies start rushing towards the neighbourhood. Many people put their waste bags and recycle bags out the night before, so these early birds I’ve see migrating up the Dalsig hill are doing so in hope of getting the best pick out of our waste and recyclables.  Whenever I see them digging about in the bins it seems like they are on a kind of a treasure hunt and I am ashamed that what appears to be waste to me and the rest of the neighbourhood seems so precious to them.

This made me think back to the December holidays when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in the industrial area that is right next to one of the informal settlement just outside Plettenberg Bay, and I realized that all the shacks I had seen were made out of things that had been used for other purposes before. I did a lot of work with the children in the area and I was completely blown away with how little they are satisfied with. They made anything they laid their hands on into some kind of toy; old bottles, crates, boxes and ropes are just some of the things I saw them playing with or reusing as it were.

During the time I was volunteering at the soup kitchen a room in the building used for something else previously was being converted into a little classroom to keep the smaller children whose parents cannot afford to send them to crèche off the streets and to provide a safe place for activities for the bigger children during school holidays. While the classroom was being fixed up we did our activities outside on the stoop and the one day one of the kids came running to me very excitedly with a big crumpled and muddy poster he had picked up somewhere, which I could see had previously been used in a classroom and said, “Teacher for classroom” with a huge very proud smile on his face. The poster was in no condition to go up on the wall and I had to throw it away once the children had left.

Looking back on my time at the soup kitchen and seeing the homeless people every Tuesday I have realized that these are perfect examples of how huge the differences are on the view of what waste is in a country like South Africa with such great economic inequalities. I read an article by D. Scott on low carbon citizenship this week and this quote from that article sums up the point I want to make, “The best way to reduce carbon consumption is to be poor.”

December 2012
December 2012
December 2012
December 2012


Conspicuous Destruction

– Dr Megan Jones

When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?

I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.

Refuse and Refuge

Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport.  The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers