Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Down in the Dumps


Trash river. Via.

I'd like to think that the reputation of Don DeLillo will continue to advance in the new century. Maybe David Cronenberg's film of Cosmopolis will help solidify his presence in Transatlantic culture. But the difficulty of some of his writing, and the current mood against many male American contemporary writers, suggests that his influence might dwindle. This would be a pity because he has a rare prophetic power. His novels have shown an unerring ability to get right to the pressure points of the 20th century. He finds the right target with metronomic consistency: terrorism in Mao II; assassination and conspiracies in Libra; atmospheric disaster in White Noise. These concerns - with the possible exception of assassination, which seems to have fallen out of fashion - will continue to be relevant in the 21st century. European imperialism, after all, defined the 20th century as much as it did the 19th - its bloody unravelling was at least as important in shaping our world than was its heyday.

I mention DeLillo because he's been much on my mind lately - I've been wondering about the Cronenberg Cosmopolis and considering White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event", which has some relevance to a project I'm planning. But mostly I've been realising what an extraordinarily prescient book Underworld was. It's vast and almost unreadable - by the time I got to the end, shellshocked, I had the feeling I hadn't been paying proper attention for at least 200 pages - but there's no dentying the central importance of its theme: waste. Trash. Garbage. Rubbish.

In the past few days the following stories have emerged: The Italian Mafia has been illicitly dumping toxic waste in the oceans. A loathsome British Swiss company called Trafigura has poisoned 31,000 Ivorians by having its toxic sludge dumped in landfills in Abidjan*. Egypt is suffering a garbage disposal and public health crisis because it slaughtered all its pigs as a response to Swine Flu. (That last link via BLDGBLOG.)

However it works out, rubbish is going to be a major preoccupation in this century. It's not impossible that civilisation itself will break down and whoever remains of us will spend their remaining days scavenging the planetary trashpile in the manner of Threads or The Road. (My, I'm cheerful today!) And it'll be a prime concern in all of the more optimistic and likely scenarios. We don't just have to deal with the stuff that we make every day - we're going to have to do a fair amount of sifting through the rubbish already dumped into the world. It's an issue with vast social, political and even geopolitical consequences. Our use of Africa and the Far East as outsourced landfill is going to come back to haunt us - not just in cases like Trafigura, it's also believed that illegal dumping is fuelling piracy in the Horn of Africa. There was recently a heartbreaking post on Metafilter about the use of Ghana as a digital dumping ground, spawning a cottage industry in identity theft using details taken from dumped hard drives. The PBS film that forms the spine of the Mefi post is chilling, and pictures from the ewaste zone are apocalyptic. It's the Alang of computing.

(Even charitable forms of dumping have unwelcome consequences - charity clothing suffocating African textiles industries, for instance.)

So waste is going to be important. We're going to spend decades clearing up leftovers as well as making them. We're going to be curators of the stuff. And we might as well take some interest and pride in this fact.

How to deal with this? Here's one idea. It occurs to me that there's some potential to make recycling centres civic palaces - a grand new industrial typology for the new century, like Les Halles or Smithfield. Like the great markets, these palaces need not be perfectly fragrant or beautiful, but they can be sources of pride, identifiable hearts of the local economy, a public organ. Could they be actual markets - large-scale neighbourhood swapmeets or freecycling centre? What social structures could be evolved to regulate this kind of economy? A greater recycling centre - an actual centre, not a peripheral drive-to facility like a car pound - could be an engine of community.

* No one from Trafigura is sitting in a jail cell at the moment. Why not? What kind of justice system are we (or the Swiss) running here?

5 comments:

Bea said...

There are two "materials recovery facilities" beside my home, which is itself fronting the local gym, restaurant, business center, and karaoke bar. While it is not exactly a place where people go to hang out, there is substantial bumming around outside it.

People are forever coming round by foot, in cars, or by tricycles to deposit their garbage. You are likely to pop in if you want to look for a gate, an old crate, or some barrels. Sometimes people at the restaurant pop by to "see what's there". Recently we procured an antique bird bath.

At malls these days (some of our last remaining bits of "public space" for leisure here), there are "waste markets" where people bring their old appliances and batteries, trade old paper for new, etc. in between shopping.

Not to the level you speak of, but a different perspective perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Trafigura is a revolting company, but its Swiss based, not British. It's a spin-off operation deriving from activities by the American Mark Rich, the criminal pardoned on Bill Clinton's last day in office (useful to have such powerful friends).

Its been involved in dubious dumping activities right from its inception. Proof, given that it trades out of 36 countries, that the supply of sociopaths that would wish to work in such a company is worldwide. A fine advert for globalisation.

J

Will said...

Bea - that's not far off what I mean. It needn't be a place where people want to spend their evenings, but it could play a role similar to "going to market" pre-supermarket/online shopping - a venue for social interaction, somewhere where you might run into a friend or a neighbour, and where there's always something unexpected and new. That's possibly very naive and optimistic, but it helps to have a bit of naive optimism when thinking about areas of human misery like this. Malls could be bases for this, but it would be better if they weren't car-reliant venues. I reviewed a good book recently called "Big Box Reuse", which looked at alternative uses for redundant Wal-Marts - one was a flea market.

J - I've made a correction, thanks for pointing that out. I was thinking that it was a surprise that the word "racism" wasn't being used to describe Trafigura's attitude to Africa and Africans - they clearly considered a place where they could do as they please, seeing its inhabitants (later, the claimants) as non-people. But maybe they are just sociopaths, and if they thought they could get away with it cheaply in Chelsea, or Zurich, they would do it there. Equal-opportunity sociopaths.

Anonymous said...

"if they thought they could get away with it cheaply in Chelsea, or Zurich, they would do it there."

I think that is true. The question of ownership or nationality is very interesting here. This company is Swiss-based (merely a flag of convenience) but based across the globe. The MD was educated in Melbourne and bases himself (I think) in Canada. These companies don't really belong to anyone, sitting above national boundaries. Governments and politicians court them, not the other way round.

After all, isn't much of what we're seeing at the moment in the financial sector a stripping of assets from anywhere convenient in favour of people who see themselves as being beyond national allegiance? For all the faux-patriotic posturing of London city workers, how many of them feel a link to Britain, and in particular, a link to other British people? No sense of responsibility at all. Pensions? Strip them. Assets? Strip them. Taxes? Avoid them.

Would they dump in Chelsea? Of course, no problem. If it caused a stink (lliterally or metaphorically) they'd just move somewhere else. No loyalties except to the source of revenue; no sense of place; no sense of responsibility.

The lesson of recent history is that everything is up for grabs. The choice of who to exploit is simply down to expediency.

J

Will said...

It's interesting to compare the media treatment of the rich when they threaten to leave the country to the media treatment of a one-day strike by public service workers. One group should be appeased; the other group is holding the country to ransom. It's unpatriotic, that's what it is.

There does appear to be an unlimited supply of sociopaths to work in these formations of radical wealth redistribution.