Response to Ian Reeve - Re: [GRRN] Local responsibility principle
Tue, 26 Jan 1999 23:10:36 EST

Responding to Ian Reeve (and not wholly on point, I admit, but...):

You have raised a number of important issues surrounding the cultural
determinants of waste. I too am a fan of Mary Douglas' "Purity and
Danger" (also her "Risk and Culture" with Aaron Wildavsky and "The World
of Goods"). Isn't it true though that Douglas was primarily concerned
with cultural definitions of "pollution" as opposed to waste per se? In
some ways these are two very different things. Yes, waste is connected to
disorder and chaos, but is it still so connected to danger?

Waste has been associated with pollution for most of the history of
Western civilization because it was implicitly and explicitly connected
to evil, disease and death (this has been the basis of pollution in
almost all cultures). During the last century with advances in health and
technology, this connection of waste to pollution has become less clear.
Simultaneously, our ideas of waste have progressed to include numerous
less dangerous objects...most packaging material, durable goods, paper
products...the end result, one might hope, is that there is an
opportunity for more distance between waste and pollution as culturally
defined stuff.

Perhaps this is what recycling is about as a cultural phenomenon-the
separation of waste from pollution on the level of values and social
definition, the movement of discards back into the neutral world of
natural resources. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to move things to
what for all intents and purposes is pretty obvious rational policy
(recycling vs. putting stuff into a high tech hole in the ground).
Indeed, recycling by its very nature is more conducive to free market
competition than trash disposal. But it's so hard to get make this stuff
happen! What gives??!!

In many ways waste is now almost a category connected to consumerism as
opposed to notions of purity and danger, fear and evil. Waste is often
just material that you bought that you don't want anymore (or never
wanted in the first place). It isn't perceived of so much as pollution as
valueless "stuff." What you want is a "good." What you don't want is not
really a "bad," it's just...trash.

All that said, it is most definitely hard to consider where we are headed
over the next century. What does this all mean? What are we doing here in
this world of waste management? Are we just flailing around? Tilting at
windmills? Is this really a fight against mindless capitalism? Or are we
simply trying to remake capitalism in a way that will be less harmful to
the earth (but just as harmful to each other)? Are we actually trying to
move our economic systems closer to utopia? Or are recycling and solid
waste professionals simply glorified janitors? Are we just silly little
people who think we see monsters in the lake when all it is is our
reflection? Is recycling just an environmentalist's version of
baseball-a game with infinite variety and honored, hallowed rules and
tradition, that seems at once to be both about everything and nothing but
itself? Or is this just an interesting way to make a living?

The way we think about this stuff has everything to do with where we are
going and who they will think we were one hundred years from now. How
much of this is a cultural war and how much economics?




>From: (Ian Reeve)
>Bill Sheehan wrote:
>>Maybe things are different in North America than in Australia, but this
>>characterization of waste politics does not make sense to me. The
>>of waste as a health hazard liability led to localization of waste
>>through local government control a century ago. The recognition that waste
>>a profitable liability has led to massive centralization of wasting and
>>attempted marginalization of resource conservation in the past decade.
>>I'd like to think that "the pendulum" is swinging in a new direction as the
>>connection between unsustainable resource extraction and wasting is becoming
>>more evident: from waste as liability to waste as resource. This can lead
>>centralization (as in industry take-back systems) or to localization (as in
>>discard malls -- or recycling estates as they are called in Canberra).
>>NIMBY is a response to waste facilities, whether centralized or localized,
>>large or small, in one's neighborhood. NIMBYism is usually justified and is
>>one of the primary levers moving the pendulum towards 'waste as resources.'
>Bill, the centralisation - local responsibility axis I was referring to is
>really only applicable to the site of decision-making about waste disposal,
>and particularly long term planning, which I would call waste management
>politics. Of course, many in the sanitary engineering - waste engineering
>profession might prefer that these decisions were made on rational
>scientific principles without the intrusion of messy politics, but one has
>only to examine the deliberations of the legislatures at local, State and
>Federal level to see that waste disposal decisions are political decisions.
>The concentration of market power in the waste collection, transport and
>disposal industries, or the concentration of industry recycling
>responsibility in the Duales System Deutschland, or the addiction of modern
>industrial economies to resource wasting, also involve centralisation of a
>sort. But the processes involved are different to what it is that makes
>politicians decide it might be a good idea to put responsibility for waste
>disposal in the hands of a single government authority, or take that
>responsibility away from such an authority and disperse it among a number
>of local authorities, or to hand it all over to the private sector.
>From what I have looked at, it seems that these political decisions are
>almost never based on a 'rational' assessment of options, but rather are
>the outcome of the interplay between ideas about waste that go back to the
>Dark Ages, selective scientific assessments, experts' favoured solutions,
>simplistic notions of governance (like carrots and sticks) and, probably
>most importantly, political expedience and self-interest.
>Of course, nimbyism looms large in politicians' assessments of whether
>voters are going to keep them in power or not. As you rightly say, much
>nimbyism is justified, but nimbyism is just one side of a coin, the other
>side being the acceptance of collective responsbility for the disposal of
>waste. Social animals that we are, and given the practicalities of
>achieving political consensus, collective responsibility is easier to
>obtain amongst a small group of people who feel some sense of community
>than among three million inhabitants of a large city. To a certain extent,
>this is what drives the pendulum I referred to. On the one hand
>centralisation of government responsibility for waste has the appeal of
>economies of scale, rationalist long term planning, coordination of effort
>and uniform standards. But on the other, if centralisation also means
>establishing new centralised landfills, then its political appeal
>evaporates. Local responsibility becomes an attractive principle.
>Much of this would change and the pendulum would take a new direction if
>waste was viewed as a resource, as you rightly point out. But as a fan of
>Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger", I prefer to think that people will
>always find something to identify as "waste", something ambiguous in its
>properties, something yucky, something that won't stay where it is put but
>returns to threaten you. I think there is a reasonable amount of evidence
>to suggest that the plastic bag and the emissions from burning it has
>become the miasma of the late 20th century and the industrial wastes in
>landfills (the media's toxic time bombs) are like the 'filth and
>corruption' that was the focus of late 19th century sanitary zeal. From
>Douglas's ethnographic point of view, little has changed in the individual
>understandings of waste that structure collective behaviour. So, yes,
>waste is and should be seen as a resource, but I suspect it will be a long
>time before people see a landfill in their backyard as no more of a
>nuisance than a quarry.
>Ian Reeve


David Biddle
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