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
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?