waste garbage
Photo: UN Photos

Waste – the repressed legacy of our inheritances

Three interesting books show the intellectual background to the waste problem. How will mankind deal with it in the future?

ISLAMIC TIMES – How can the topic of waste be linked to travelling? For Professor of Philosophy Oliver Schlaudt, this is not a contradiction in terms. With his fascinating book Zugemüllt, he presents an unusual travelogue. The expedition leads to the landmarks of our waste culture, be it a waste landscape in Bitterfeld, a hazardous waste landfill on an artificial island in the Rhine or the world’s largest underground landfill in Hesse.

For him, this “travelling is no longer an escape from self-created reality, but a full confrontation with it.“ He calls for a different kind of exploratory courage. Encounters with the monuments of the Anthropocene force the observer to realise that there is no longer any such thing as the foreign or untouched landscapes.

The signs and legacies of our consumer society in the environment are clear, at least if we open our eyes. In his Rubbish Theory, Marcos Buser speaks explicitly of rubbish as cultural heritage, thereby relativising the romanticising idea of a dominant culture.

Rubbish has huge dimensions

The phenomenon has enormous dimensions. Between 1900 and 2015, humanity is said to have produced an estimated 1,315 gigatonnes of solid and liquid waste and a further 643 gigatonnes of gaseous emissions, a total of 2 trillion tonnes of waste.

The Temples of Waste Modernity (Cyrille Harpot), which lie on the route of the journey, are a reminder that for the first time in natural and cultural history, waste is being produced that is no longer absorbed by the biosphere. The result is an “incurable rift” and the end of the circular economy.

The problem cannot be contained nationally, as the plastic pollution of the earth impressively demonstrates. There are 100 million tonnes in the oceans and the figure is growing every day. The legacy forms the Great Pacific Garbage between Hawaii and the Californian coast, an area three times the size of France. Reading this passage of the report recalls a quote from Reiner Kunze: “…and in the end, at the very end, the sea will be blue in memory.”

“The disposal of the human waste that accumulated in the modernised world (…) was the real purpose of colonisation and imperialist conquest,” argued sociologist Zygmunt Baumann years ago.

Although the colonial era has come to an end, the fact remains that the export of waste from industrialised countries is a dubious business and is part of the tradition of exploitation.

Foto: Freepik

Exporting our affluent waste

For decades, our affluent waste has been exported to holidaymaker paradises such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. Fast-moving fashion items from the USA and Europe that have not found a buyer are shipped to South America and end up in the Chilean Atacama Desert. In a report by NDR, you can read about the overproduction of the perverse system of fast fashion. “Much of what the industrialised nations don’t want ends up here in the Zofri free trade zone: 59,000 tonnes of clothing per year.”

Back to Germany, to the former coal mining areas around Bitterfeld. By flooding the craters created by coal mining in the area, artificial lakes are being created, creating new holiday areas. The idyll is somewhat deceptive. It is estimated that around 200 million cubic metres of highly contaminated groundwater is flowing through the rock beneath the city over an area of 25 square kilometres.

For decades – as SPIEGEL reported in 1990 – a gigantic amount of toxic wastewater (enough to fill a tanker lorry from Hamburg to Melbourne) was disposed of in the region. A former chemical combine delivered the waste from its reaction furnaces and stirring machines. The poison travelled from the Mulde to the Elbe. It has been detectable in the fish of the Wadden Sea ever since.

Nobody can say exactly what substances are forming underground today and where these unknown substances will reappear one day. Hundreds of pumps siphon off contaminated groundwater every day to keep the cesspool in check. There is probably no other solution in sight for a century.

In his argument, Schlaudt points to a paradox. Today, we are dominated by the ideals of cleanliness, hygiene and sterility. “Industrial dirt gives us the illusion of purity, which conversely allows us to overlook the other.”

The philosopher concludes: “In the light of this analysis, rubbish increasingly appears as the socially unconscious, the collectively repressed.” The consequence is clear: everything repressed will one day come back with a vengeance.

Foto: metamorworks, Adobe

Not without a vision

The journey through Germany does not leave the reader without a vision. Recycling, which we know is only effective to a limited extent, seems to be the solution of rationality and technology today. Schlaudt calls for a turnaround towards a genuine circular economy. He sees – for example – in the philosophy of humus or the intelligent use of bacteria not just a low-tech variant, but a metaphysical and cosmological alternative.

And: We must learn again to give things a value. This means not buying products that only promise a short lifespan.

In Garbage and Spirit, Guillaume Paoli examines thinking in post-normal times. His thesis: pollution is already created in the mind. The starting point of his reflections sounds dramatic: “The slogan of prosperity for all has turned out to be an incitement to collective suicide.”

Paoli examines the solutions to the environmental problem and the fundamental question of technology. In the axis years between 1970-75, the belief in progress fizzled out in the western industrialised nations. This was followed by half a century of inactivity, looking the other way and lazy excuses.

The thinker’s concerns about the future of mankind remain to this day, because „where the saving does not appear, the danger also grows.” In the spirit of the philosopher Günther Anders (1902-1992), who formulated his reservations about modern technology early on, he calls for a courage of fear. This attitude must be fearless, not panicky, loving, not egotistical and an invigorating one that drives us „out into the streets instead of into the corners of the parlour.”

On the intellectual side, Paoli shows the history of approaches to solving environmental problems. The spectrum ranges from the hope of a „green“ industrial revolution, the transition from bad to good technology, to utopias of a return to a harmonious biosphere and the perfect recycling centre. Politically, he shows the paths that range from the call for a revolution to moderate, evolutionary reform models.

Another extreme is symbolised by the ideas of technocrats who place people under the supervision of algorithms and artificial intelligence in the future. Daily politics follows the logic of increase, from the idea of endless growth to investments financed by new debt, to a sprawling bureaucracy.

Ecology and economy belong together

For the thinker, it is important not to forget the economic connections. For him, the question is whether our economic system and a functioning ecosystem fit together at all. Not only the product, but the waste itself is already there in the beginning.

“It is impossible to completely recycle materials. The capitalist economy is accelerated entropy.” For Paoli, the proliferation of waste in the world correlates with the endless spiral of the abstract valorisation process called capital. For people, the fatal situation is reflected in the feeling of growing alienation.

It is undisputed that the ecological crises in which the emerging epoch finds itself throw people into a dilemma. There seem to be no alternatives to the idea of endless growth and – as Paoli states – simple adaptation will ultimately replace the ineffective opposition between progressiveness and conservatism. And, one might add, it is to be hoped that mankind will not take refuge in the old aberrations of ideologies.

Foto: Bahatha.co

In the Muslim world

In the Islamic world, activists such as the Englishman Fazlun Khalid have been calling for decades for a rethink and – while respecting the sources – a renewed awareness. His book, The Signs of the Earth, published in 2019, is inspired by a Qur’anic verse: “There are signs on earth for people with certainty. And also in yourselves. Do you not understand?” (Sura 51, Adh-Dhariyat, 20-21) He points out the necessity and obligation for Muslims to preserve and protect creation in a collective effort.

In doing so, he links the environmental issue with the social and economic principles of the doctrine and thus creates a vision of moderate capitalism. In the meantime, hundreds of scholars and organisations have summarised the Islamic position on ecology in detail in a document called Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth.

The initiative demonstrates that Islam is a source of inspiration for sustainable development and environmental protection.

The global entanglements of environmental problems leave the authors of the manifesto no choice: solutions will only be found in cooperation with activists, organisations and governments from all over the world.

A common goal is to push back the widespread fatalism. “The desert grows, woe to him who harbours deserts” – Friedrich Nietzsche had already issued this warning against the emerging nihilism of modernity.

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