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April 22, 2013

Earth Day: An Opportunity Not to be Wasted

Posted by: Katie Heasley

Happy Earth Day! We're celebrating with a guest post from Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, editors of  Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice.

Earth Day 2013 is on Monday, April 22nd, and like many environmentalists, we are ambivalent about it. Like many public campaigns for increased environmental awareness, it solicits planetary awareness at an individual level, channeling personal will into a drive to make structural changes. Much environmental thinking and action has a similarly ambivalent relationship to scale—how big is the problem? What can one person do? What does heightened awareness really mean as a way to seriously intervene in the accelerated decline of air, water, and land quality? And yet, because we work on garbage and waste, categories in which the imaginary and the material are more than usually intertwined, Earth Day strikes us as a political event that should not be wasted. The EPA website cheerfully introduces its Earth Day events by arguing “On Earth Day, EPA reaches out to people of every age, race, and economic status to ‘own’ the environment, to commit to environmental protection as one of your top priorities. Why is this important? Because many people don’t see ‘environmentalism’ as an important issue in their lives. When actually having clean air to breathe, water to drink, and a neighborhood safe from toxics is important to ALL of us!”

The rhetoric here is slightly misleading; of course people do believe that having clean air and water is neighborhoods safe from toxics is important. How, exactly that can be accomplished is a potentially overwhelming question. Questions of this nature—of scale, representation, of individuals and systems—were posed twenty years ago, in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson’s by-now canonical essay critiquing postmodernism. In the essay, Jameson introduced the postmodern sublime, which describes how emergent economic logic subsumes modernist individuality and authenticity into massive technological assemblages. Previous versions of the sublime, such as Kant’s and Burke’s, centered on human encounters with a Nature that was nearly unthinkable in scale and power, encounters that at first challenged but finally affirmed an individual’s ability to understand herself as part of a total and coherent system. But the postmodern sublime’s unthinkable cannot be grasped, for it is produced by a global technological system built on the uneven distribution of human labor and misery, which ruptures any ability to see and believe in a coherent historical or aesthetic narrative.  The postmodern sublime is disjointed and schizophrenic, and yet for Jameson, if it can’t produce awe and wonder, it can at the very least produce “joyous intensities” in the midst of paralyzing despair.

Some of these joyous intensities can be found in work that describes present possibilities for agency and change within current forms of scale and embodiment. The logic of postmodernism, at least as of 1991 when Jameson’s essay was first published, described an historical moment in which the advent of a truly disembodied global capitalism changed how individuals understood the idea of scale, both in historical and personal or affective terms. Scale has recently been central to environmental scholarship, from Rob Nixon’s attempt in Slow Violence to think about the environmental damage “that occurs gradually and out of sight” and that is “dispersed across time and space” to Timothy Morton’s argument in The Ecological Thought that to think the ecological thought “we may need to think bigger than totality itself.” Scale is the central problem for how environmental thinking struggles to coordinate a global economic system with the daily, lived experience of environmental decline, a decline that is experienced anxiously by subjects even as it is slowly recorded in their bodies and homes.

Our book Histories of the Dustheap began with a recognition that the conflicted rhetorics of environmentalism and ecological awareness in the twenty first century might be productively seen as an effect of the postmodern sublime. Global climate change, environmental degradation and its related social ills all register as a problem of scale. We focused on garbage in particular because in many ways it is the perfect sign of the problem of thinking about scale and trying to think in a new way because of the problems of scale—everyone knows what garbage is when they see it, but every bit of garbage we see littering the streets is produced by a network of productive forces that is nearly unthinkable in their reach and power. Dealing with garbage – making it, sorting it, responding to it—is something every one does, but our ability to distance itself from having to work and live with it is also one of the easiest ways that we can see how global capitalism actually turns some people into garbage. Garbage is a record of lost histories, a register of who counts as fully human in the world, and yet on a day to day basis, it is, in its smallest and largest incarnations, a sign of an environmental crisis writ both large and small. Perhaps more powerfully, garbage, for us, became the daily reminder that the fragmented histories of Jameson’s postmodernism can always be reassembled into a coherent narrative of global capitalism’s excesses and failures, and that the social and cultural stories garbage can tell us can allow us to both feel and see those failures as well as to counter them with other stories about the value humans place on objects and people. Although Earth Day in its very name—the unthinkable size of the planet and all its inhabitants; the easy, knowable span of a day—crystallizes the problem of scale, the difficulties of believing that an individual action can have a larger systemic effect, it seems an opportunity not to be wasted. 

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