by Michael Hennessy Picard (postdoctoral fellow @ McGill Law Faculty), Olivier Barsalou (professor of law, UQAM) & Tina Beigi (bioresource engineer & environmental auditor)
Fig. 1 New York City Garbage artwork by Justin Gignac
The climate talks in Bonn are now over. This 23rd Convention of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change Conference was tasked to detail the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which entered into force on 4 November 2016. Despite the renewal of past commitments rebranded as new alliances [see the “Powering Past Coal” initiative led by Canada & the UK; the transfer of the Adaptation Fund from the ineffective Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement], the COP-23 has failed to match global environmental commitments with a commensurate action plan. Little has been achieved to reduce pollution emission levels. Worse, some argue, the year 2017 has witnessed a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, thwarting the goal to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. As a response to the stalling of global climate action 15,000 international scientists recently launched a warning to humanity on the near-future perils of population explosion, massive pollution and biological annihilation (Ripple & al., 2017). Even the Pope, as leader of one of the most conservative institutions in the world – the Catholic Church – has personally addressed a letter to participants in the COP-23 urging them to increase their level of cooperation.
Considering the broad consensus among scientific and moral authorities on the necessity to fight rising temperatures, the lukewarm commitments of COP-23 are generally attributed to a lack of political will. Especially troubling to most commentators is the unrestricted coal consumption of China and the USA, the two first economies in the world, whose reliance on fossil fuels could potentially crush the international community’s hopes to mitigate climate change. Sovereign states seem to be locked in fossilized ideologies of global economic competition, which stall any global environmental policy. In short, two years after its negotiation, the Paris Agreement is already threatened by heat death. The Kyoto Protocol had aimed for a 5% cut in carbon emissions. Instead, CO2 levels increased 58%. Will Paris follow Kyoto into the pits of hell?
COP talks, a waste of efforts?
To answer this question, maybe one way is to address the framing of environmental issues themselves. What if the shortcomings of environmental regulation are part of a more fundamental problem: the evacuation of waste from human cognitive mapping. In climate talks, we usually tend to forget that fossil-fuelled greenhouse gases are not only mere pollution but, above all, waste, i.e. a negative externality derived from human activities. If the Paris and Bonn Conventions were – like many others – a waste of effort, it’s because they failed to recognize that the object of negotiations was waste itself. Accordingly, climate change conventions are emblematic of the cognitive inability to recognize that we live in an irreversible era of global waste. Evidence even suggests that legal provisions constitute waste themselves: the 1,000 or so international environmental agreements operating today are ineffectual, merely ratifying business-as-usual outcomes (Kellenberg, 2014). The Paris Agreement is no different; it’s another waste of efforts. Its residual function is not to protect and preserve nature and the environment. Rather, it establishes a complex set of norms, institutions, and practices designed to distance and swap waste on a global scale.
The law here acts as a lustration tool: the law purifies and expiates waste’s corrupted nature by transforming it into a positive value, the protection of the environment. Following Norbert Elias, distancing and externalizing waste have been key components in the historical construction of civilization. Law plays a civilizing function in the quest for purity, by distancing human culture from its own excretion. Law is a purifying apparatus designed to distance human activity from the ubiquitous reality of waste accumulation. This is the reason why law seems unable to tackle global environmental issues. The main function of law is not to protect the environment, but to cover up the disgraceful dejections of human activity with the veil of ignorance.
Fig. 2: Kirsty Robertson “Plasticglomerate”, E-Flux Journal 78 December 2016
As environmental law reveals, we now live in a new era: the Molysmoscene, a geological era shaped by human waste and its management. The term Molysmocene was coined in the 1960s by French marine biologist Maurice Fontaine to refer to a future wasteland era, an era which we now live in. Molusma means “filth” or “stain” in Greek (μολυσμός). Through the lenses of the Molysmocene we may apprehend the dark side of globalization, its accursed share, the excremental sludge, depletion and maximum entropy at the heart of mass production. Waste is the unavoidable residual material of human activity, and never has its volume had such a structural impact on geology. Stratigraphically, waste deposits form part of a new geological record marked by human alterations of the earth’s ecosystem. In the landfills of Rio and Jakarta, the mountains of trash piled by human activity are becoming a new layer of the earth crust, known as the “archeosphere”. Organic debris can take, as one paleobiologist summarized, the “fecal express route from surface to seafloor” (Zalasiewicz, 2016). In the deepest ocean fauna, recent research has uncovered evidence of extraordinary levels of toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB. When it doesn’t disintegrate and sink all the way down to the abyss plastic can drift across oceans as a garbage patch of solid waste. We now begin to understand that the planet’s capability to absorb our wastes has eroded. The production of wastes is greater than what can be absorbed by the planet’s sink mechanisms.
Since the planet has been entirely colonized by waste – from plastic debris in the Arctic to electronic discards in Nigeria –, the distancing of waste is no longer possible under the process of civilization. Our worldview is now covered by layers upon layers of waste. For instance, metaphors of waste have colonized international relations, where “failed states” have come to symbolize wasted sovereignties in the Global South, from Somalia to North Korea. Waste management also relies on cognitive processes, discursive practices, and modes of action similar to those used to deal with what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “wasted lives”: the lives of millions of individuals lost in homeless shelters, refugee camps, dry lands and flooded areas. As with carbon pollution, we collectively treat these individuals as negative human externalities, refugee quotas, or tradable wasted lives. In the financial sector, the dissemination of junk bonds toppled international markets. Online, social media fills the digital mind with junk infotainment. Throwaway culture has spread packaging waste worldwide. Even the New York art scene is colonized by consumer waste culture, refashioned as recycled political statements in expensive galleries. At university, what we call interdisciplinarity is often the practice of academic dumpster diving, whereby scholars rummage through other disciplines to feed off surplus intellectual capital and gain credence in their own field of expertise. As scholars, inscribed in the more general trend of commoditized higher education, we participate in the production and recycling of wasted ideas. Finally, recent revelations of sexual misconduct across disciplines and industries have called men to “deal with the fact that [they]’re probably trash” (Damon Young, The Root, 14 nov 2018). The world is irremediably transformed by human garbage. Welcome to our junkyard planet, welcome to the Molysmocene.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted lives: Modernity and its outcasts. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Elias, Norbert. “The civilizing process, Vol. I.” The history of manners 310 (1978).
Kellenberg, Derek. “Waste of Effort? International Environmental Agreements.”, Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists March/June (2014), 135-169.
Minter, Adam. Junkyard planet: Travels in the billion-dollar trash trade. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013.
Ripple & al., “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”, BioScience, bix125.
Zalasiewicz, Jan. “What mark will we leave on the planet? A history in layers”, 2016 Scientific American 315:3, 31.