Green Or Gone

Record Drought & Heartbreak: Italy's Farmers Reap The Damages Of Climate Change

CERVERE — It hasn't rained in two months. The corn has not grown. Six out of ten hectares of this plain field are completely parched. "It's late now," says Giovanni Bedino, running his dark fingers through the dry leaves of the corn. The farmer, now 59, has been working the land since he was 15.

"Since the day my father passed away, I have done nothing else," he says. "I love this job, but a year like this takes away your love and leaves you sad. The corn died, it was born small and it remained small, stuck, without water and not even a bit of humidity. We couldn't water the fields and nothing came down from the sky. I remember, the summer of 2003 was a very difficult one — but it wasn't even close to this year. I have never seen such a drought."

Watch Video Show less

A Picturesque, Damning View Of Our Wildfire Planet

Salento, the very southeastern tip of Italy, is a flat and shrubby land of farmers, stunning beaches and simple rural villages built around Baroque churches. Thousands of Italians and foreigners flock to this part of the Puglia region on the heel of the Italian boot every summer, lured by its promise of a rustic, idyllic break.

My family is there now, like every summer, because that's where they (we!) come from: my grandfather was one of the farmers that looked after the centuries-old olive trees, vineyards and orchards that grow in the parched, deep red earth under the scorching summer sun.

But it has more recently also become a land of wildfires. Dozens of hectares of farmland have gone up in smoke during a series of testing heatwaves — the harshest of which is predicted to hit later this week. The flames have sieged the highways, scared tourists off the camping sites, then danced towards the beaches, in scenes I have not seen there since I was born. It is just one flare up in a rash of fires that have consumed some 103,000 hectares across Italy so far this year.

Of course, it's part of a continental, if not global, inferno. The world has watched in awe as wildfires ravaged places as far away as Siberia and Turkey, California and Canada. Earlier this week, tourists and thousands of residents were forced to flee the Greek island of Evia after it experienced the worst heatwave in decades, propelling temperatures well above 40℃ and creating ideal conditions for fires to rage. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Tunisia's fires have suddenly turned deadly. After Greece, Italy has recorded the second-highest number of wildfires in Europe so far, with southern regions like Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia burning at unprecedented speeds.

Watching from a distance, I couldn't help but see the events as predictable — most of my generation has known the dangers of climate change for years. When a major UN climate report this week described climate change as an inevitable, unprecedented emergency that is happening sooner and faster than expected, that too was no surprise.

We've been warned plenty of times before. We knew there would be consequences, damages, casualties. We have, indeed, seen the fires spreading.

And yet it's a different feeling not only to know about the threat of wildfires but to see it on your doorstep, closing in on your family, devouring the increasingly arid land your grandfather used to look after. Even if I've always been conscious of climate change and have tried to act accordingly, I never thought it would touch someone I know so soon. It's frightening, mesmerizing, hypnotic — like watching a fire burn — to think that even myself and my generation have been staring at reality, and yet never truly realizing that it's already happening. That it's coming for us.

What Is The True Risk Level For The Great Barrier Reef?

In case you missed it, the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO recently revealed its draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" — a decision that appeared to shock the Australian government.

In an opinion piece published June 30th in The Australian newspaper, Environment Minister Sussan Ley acknowledged climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and that it "has been through a few rough years."

She has also suggested, however, UNESCO's draft in-danger decision is a surprise and was politically motivated. Neither of these claims is credible.

So let's look at Australia's reaction so far, and why criticisms of UNESCO's draft decision don't stack up.

The poster child for climate change

An in-danger listing of a World Heritage property recognises a decline in the "outstanding universal value" that makes the site internationally significant. It sets off alarm bells to identify the underlying causes of decline, and triggers stronger interventions to prevent further damage.

Ley foresees a negative effect of the proposed in-danger listing on reef tourism. However, there's no evidence from the Galapagos Islands, the Belize Barrier Reef or the Everglades National Park — all World Heritage properties and tourism hotspots — that an in-danger listing led to any discernible impacts on tourist numbers.

Most tourists, international or domestic, are already well aware of the pressures facing the Great Barrier Reef, but they are still keen to see it. From 2015–2018, more than two million visitors each year used a tourism operator to visit the reef. During 2020, COVID led to significant decline in visitor numbers so this period has been particularly difficult for the tourism industry.

Ley also claimed Australia, and the reef, didn't deserve to be the poster child for climate change perils. But why can't they be? The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most obvious examples of the costs of inaction on anthropogenic climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. And for the past two decades Australia has meticulously documented its ongoing deterioration.

According to Australia's regular reporting to UNESCO, the major causes of the reef's decline in outstanding universal value is pollution from agricultural runoff, which has now been eclipsed by heat stress from climate change.

Extreme summer temperatures in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have reduced coral cover and changed the mix of species, altering the biodiversity and other World Heritage attributes of the reef for many decades to come.

Clown fish in the Great Barrier Reef; a World Heritage Area since1981 — Photo: David Clode

Unless global warming is stabilised soon, the reef will become unrecognisable. Indeed, in 2019, Australia's latest five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report projected the future of the reef as "very poor."

Is Australia doing enough?

Ley also suggests Australia is doing everything it can to protect the reef — but is it really?

UNESCO certainty doesn't think so. The draft decision from UNESCO, which will be considered next month by the World Heritage Committee, noted that interventions to reduce inshore pollution over the past five years have been "largely deficient."

There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels. But the slow progress in meeting many of the water quality targets is documented clearly in the 2017–2018 and 2019 reef Water Quality Report Cards, produced jointly by the federal and Queensland governments.

UNESCO cites Australia's poor progress on reducing emissions as an additional area requiring considerable improvement, to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and Australia's responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention.

Australia's record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is very poor.

UNESCO has also asked Australia to work with it to develop corrective measures and to ensure the revised Reef 2050 Plan — the overarching framework for protecting the reef to 2050 — addresses the threats.

An in-danger listing is a call to arms to all countries to work together to save the reef from human-caused heating. So the ongoing collaboration between Australia and UNESCO could then enable the Great Barrier Reef's removal from the in-danger list.

Is Australia suddenly being singled out?

Ley wrote that the Great Barrier Reef was suddenly and unexpectedly "singled out" for an in-danger listing, which she interpreted as a suggestion that "Australia can single-handedly change the emissions trajectory of the whole world."

However, the dialogue between UNESCO and Australia on the Great Barrier Reef's protection has a long history. And in making its in-danger recommendation, UNESCO acknowledged Australia "on its own cannot address the threats of climate change." But UNESCO does appear to have concerns about Australia's record on emissions reduction.

For example, in 2011 the World Heritage Committee expressed "extreme concern" over the approval for liquefied natural gas facilities on Curtis Island within the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. A year later, it asked Australia to ensure coastal development isn't permitted if it effects the outstanding universal value of the property.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, prior to the annual meetings of the World Heritage Committee, UNESCO raised the possible inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the in-danger list.

There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels around the Great Barrier Reef — Photo: Axiom/ZUMA

Significantly, in 2017, the World Heritage Committee emphasized the importance of state parties (countries adhering to the world heritage convention, such as Australia) undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is an important pathway to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties.

UNESCO invited all state parties to act on climate change under the Paris Agreement "consistent with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities."

So what are Australia's responsibilities?

Ley is correct to point out that all 29 World Heritage listed coral reefs, scattered throughout the tropics, are extremely vulnerable to human-caused climate change.

However, Australia is responsible for the world's largest coral reef system, and has far higher capabilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than other, less wealthy countries.

But Australia's record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is comparatively very poor. And despite being responsible for 20 World Heritage Areas, we have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world.

The federal government continues to spruik a fossil-fuelled, gas-led COVID recovery, with ongoing subsidies for new coal mines. This support for coal and fossil gas is inconsistent with Australia's commitments to the World Heritage Convention.

Rejecting the science-based assessments by UNESCO is further damaging Australia's reputation as a laggard on addressing climate change. Surely, Australia can do better.

Keep reading... Show less

Hot Canada! How Climate Change Impacts the Weather

Professors Christian Jakob and Michael Reeder explain how heatwaves form ... and why they weather is a part of climate change we should pay closer attention to.

Eight days ago, it rained over the western Pacific Ocean near Japan. There was nothing especially remarkable about this rain event, yet it made big waves twice.

First, it disturbed the atmosphere in just the right way to set off an undulation in the jet stream - a river of very strong winds in the upper atmosphere - that atmospheric scientists call a Rossby wave (or a planetary wave). Then the wave was guided eastwards by the jet stream towards North America. Along the way the wave amplified, until it broke just like an ocean wave does when it approaches the shore. When the wave broke it created a region of high pressure that has remained stationary over the North American northwest for the past week.

This is where our innocuous rain event made waves again: the locked region of high pressure air set off one of the most extraordinary heatwaves we have ever seen, smashing temperature records in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in Western Canada as far north as the Arctic. Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6℃ this week before suffering a devastating wildfire.

What makes a heatwave?

While this heatwave has been extraordinary in many ways, its birth and evolution followed a well-known sequence of events that generate heatwaves.

Heatwaves occur when there is high air pressure at ground level. The high pressure is a result of air sinking through the atmosphere. As the air descends, the pressure increases, compressing the air and heating it up, just like in a bike pump. Sinking air has a big warming effect: the temperature increases by 1 degree for every 100 metres the air is pushed downwards.

High-pressure systems are an intrinsic part of an atmospheric Rossby wave, and they travel along with the wave. Heatwaves occur when the high-pressure systems stop moving and affect a particular region for a considerable time. When this happens, the warming of the air by sinking alone can be further intensified by the ground heating the air – which is especially powerful if the ground was already dry. In the northwestern US and western Canada, heatwaves are compounded by the warming produced by air sinking after it crosses the Rocky Mountains.

How Rossby waves drive weather

This leaves two questions: what makes a high-pressure system, and why does it stop moving?

As we mentioned above, a high-pressure system is usually part of a specific type of wave in the atmosphere – a Rossby wave. These waves are very common, and they form when air is displaced north or south by mountains, other weather systems or large areas of rain.

A man cools off in Lynn Creek in North Vancouver during Canada's heatwave — Photo: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/ZUMA Press

Rossby waves are the main drivers of weather outside the tropics, including the changeable weather in the southern half of Australia. Occasionally, the waves grow so large that they overturn on themselves and break. The breaking of the waves is intimately involved in making them stationary. Importantly, just as for the recent event, the seeds for the Rossby waves that trigger heatwaves are located several thousands of kilometres to the west of their location. So for northwestern America, that's the western Pacific. Australian heatwaves are typically triggered by events in the Atlantic to the west of Africa.

Another important feature of heatwaves is that they are often accompanied by high rainfall closer to the Equator. When southeast Australia experiences heatwaves, northern Australia often experiences rain. These rain events are not just side effects, but they actively enhance and prolong heatwaves.

What will climate change mean for heatwaves?

Understanding the mechanics of what causes heatwaves is very important if we want to know how they might change as the planet gets hotter.

We know increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing Earth's average surface temperature. However, while this average warming is the background for heatwaves, the extremely high temperatures are produced by the movements of the atmosphere we talked about earlier. So to know how heatwaves will change as our planet warms, we need to know how the changing climate affects the weather events that produce them. This is a much more difficult question than knowing the change in global average temperature.

How will events that seed Rossby waves change? How will the jet streams change? Will more waves get big enough to break? Will high-pressure systems stay in one place for longer? Will the associated rainfall become more intense, and how might that affect the heatwaves themselves?

Our answers to these questions are so far somewhat rudimentary. This is largely because some of the key processes involved are too detailed to be explicitly included in current large-scale climate models.

Climate models agree that global warming will change the position and strength of the jet streams. However, the models disagree about what will happen to Rossby waves.

From climate change to weather change

There is one thing we do know for sure: we need to up our game in understanding how the weather is changing as our planet warms, because weather is what has the biggest impact on humans and natural systems.

To do this, we will need to build computer models of the world's climate that explicitly include some of the fine detail of weather. (By fine detail, we mean anything about a kilometre in size.) This in turn will require investment in huge amounts of computing power for tools such as our national climate model, the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS), and the computing and modelling infrastructure projects of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) that support it.

We will also need to break down the artificial boundaries between weather and climate which exist in our research, our education and our public conversation.

Keep reading... Show less
Green Or Gone
Carl-Johan Karlsson

What Greta Thunberg Reminds Us About The Limits Of Adulthood

Now 18 and officially an adult, the climate activist's message isn't changing. And what about our own grownup rationalizations?

It's 2021, and that means Greta Thunberg can lawfully grab a beer in her hometown pub. Of course, to someone who's started a global movement, dressed down heads of state and fronted Time Magazine as Person of the Year, obtaining Swedish drinking rights may not seem like a big deal.

And yet in her unlikely rise from 15-year-old school protester to global icon, Greta's reaching official adulthood is noteworthy. She made global headlines on her 18th birthday back in January, taking the opportunity to troll her critics: "Tonight you will find me down at the local pub exposing all the dark secrets behind the climate- and school strike conspiracy," Greta tweeted.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Natalie Unterstell

Brazil, The Price Of Becoming The Saudi Arabia Of South America

Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil and gas company, may post big numbers but it has a backward strategy.

BRASILIA — The year was 2009. On prime-time Brazilian TV, an ad celebrated the country's energy self-sufficiency and the blessing that pre-salt oil had been. Politicians in the National Congress avidly debated how to use the proceeds from offshore oil exploration.

Meanwhile, another critical negotiation was taking place at the UN: the 15th Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. While the conference was widely regarded as a failure, Brazil presented an ambitious proposal to reduce deforestation and cut emissions by 2020. It was the first time that the country had committed to such a goal on the international stage and enshrined it into law. Not a word about the oil, gas or fossil fuel industries.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Brigitte LG Baptiste

Climate Migration, A Very Different Global Crisis Is Coming

While the pandemic has restricted people's movement, climate change will increasingly do the opposite as populations move from the worst to less affected zones.


BOGOTÁ — Scientists warn that climate change could trigger a veritable collapse of our civilization in this or the next century. The worst-case scenario currently being put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has temperatures rising 4 degrees Celsius, and sea levels rising 1 meter by 2100.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Natasha Niebieskikwiat

Chinese Fishing Fleets Are Sweeping South American Oceans Dry

A new Greenpeace report warns that foreign fishing fleets, mostly from China, are gobbling up every bit of marine life they can into 'stadium-sized' nets.

BUENOS AIRES — A recent survey of fishing in the South Atlantic by the environmental group Greenpeace suggests that Argentina's sea waters are "under siege" by a fleet of foreign vessels.
The NGO found hundreds of foreign ships, mostly Chinese, but also Korean and Spanish, competing for fish in international waters on the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that Argentina administers for up to 200 miles from its shore. The area affected is not covered by national or international laws, and a survey from 2019 already found signs of a depletion of resources due to over-exploitation.

"The lack of fishing control is such that at the time of monitoring we found more vessels bordering Argentine waters than the number of vessels authorized within the EEZ," warned Luisina Vueso of Greenpeace in the report.

Greenpeace recently counted at least 470 boats in a biodiversity hotspot.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Yann Verdo

The Plastisphere: Ocean Pollution May Trigger Next Pandemic

Plastic pollution has contaminated our oceans to the point where a new ecological niche of anthropic origin has been coined: the 'plastisphere'. The bacteria that proliferate there could lead to the next health crisis.

Study after study, and each more damning than the last.

A study from December 2019 in "Scientific Reports' described how a region of the world as remote as Easter Island (Rapa Nui) could have its coasts littered with plastic debris: marine currents connect it to an intensive fishing zone off the coast of Peru and the densely populated coastal areas of the South American continent.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Antonio Orti

Regenerative Travel: Will The Pandemic End Mass Tourism?

A global pandemic and weariness in many places of cheap, mass tourism may hasten a real paradigm shift in the travel sector. Or not.

BARCELONA — While some airlines, as bizarre as it may seem, continue to offer "flights to nowhere" — on planes that take off and land in the same airport, just to assuage the need for certain tourists to fly — others in the tourism sector are embracing a concept that goes in the complete opposite direction.

The trend is called "regenerative travel," and its aim, says Silvia Grünig, a city planning specialist at Paris University and lecturer in sustainability at Catalonia's Open University, is not only that visitors take care not to degrade, in any way, the places they visit, but that they actually improve conditions there. They should make things better, in other words, and not just for the sector, but for locals, the environment and travel in the future.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone

Green Colonialism: The New Face Of Environmental Hypocrisy

If you hated greenwashing, you'll be appalled by green colonialism.

PARIS — From renewable energy solutions to recycling innovations, everyone is busy touting their so-called "green" credentials. But as we've seen with the term "greenwashing," the vocabulary of the environmental movement can be turned around quite sharply on any would-be hypocrites. Among those accused lately of exploiting the banner of ecology (while actually causing it harm) comes another term: "green colonialism."

Around the world, echoing political and territorial colonialism of the past, there is a growing number of examples of countries and companies crossing borders to make the same mistakes that got us into this perilous situation in the first place: mismanagement of land, destruction of ecosystems in the name of "progress," and a general disrespect for the quality of life for indigenous communities.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Youenn Gourlay

Ahmed The Elephant, A Mystic Man-v-Nature Tale In Ivory Coast

The pachyderm was believed to have special powers, but was also seen as dangerous, and ultimately was transferred to a nature reserve. What does his story tell us?

BOUAKÉ — Despite his imposing size and dark gray skin, Ahmed the elephant passes almost unnoticed in the vast wooded savannah of the N'Zi nature reserve, northeast of the city of Bouaké. Karl Diakité, operations manager at N'Zi River Lodge, the reserve's ecotourism center, lowers his voice to a whisper as he describes the elephant's daily routine: "He has found a watering place, and feeds on roots, branches and bark. He's adapting himself gently to his new habitat."

Diakité is whispering because the elephant is only about 20 meters away. Trackers and rangers are also close by to ensure the safety of both the animal and that of nearby villages. The reserve is soon to be fenced off on 25,000 of its 41,000 hectares.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Vanessa Nicolav

Brazil: What's Fueling The Fires In The Pantanal

SÃO PAULO — One of the world's most important biodiversity regions is experiencing the worst drought and the worst series of wildfires in decades. Yes, the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland area, in western Brazil, is burning.

So far this year, fires have scorched more than 1.2 million hectares of land, about eight times the area covered by the municipality of Sao Paulo, an unprecedented situation, according to André Siqueira, a biologist with the ONG Ecoa who has been working in the region for 31 years. The Pantanal is also the world's largest flooded grassland. Natural cycles cause the land to flood periodically, and thousands of hectares of land remain underwater in June and July every year. "This year, we didn't have that," Siqueira says.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Audrey Garric

Greta! Will COVID-19 Make Or Break The 'Climate Generation'?

Although the coronavirus pandemic is dominating global politics, Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg and her peers are hoping to turn their activism into tangible policy change.

PARIS — For young environmentalists, the date August 20 holds a double importance. First, it marks the two-year anniversary of their movement Fridays for Future: On Aug. 20, 2018, a then-unknown Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, began a school strike in front of the Stockholm Parliament demanding urgent action in combating climate change. Since then, millions of students have followed her lead, boycotting their classes and taking to the streets en mass.

Then, on this year's Aug. 20, the muse of the fight against global warming, accompanied by three other leading figures of the movement, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). They presented the Chancellor with a long list of demands, proving that, despite COVID-19, the unprecedented mobilization of the "climate generation" has not weakened.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Aparna Agarwal*

Toxic Cities, Expendable Lives: The Waste Crisis In India And Beyond

Unless we question the socio-economic structures associated with the production of waste and waste management, we'll never dig out of the waste crisis.


Over the past few decades, Delhi has been bombarded with objects. These objects, deemed as trash by most inhabitants of the city, become a source of livelihood for many. Present in every nook and corner of the city, and in bulging landfills, these "wasted" objects pose a grave danger to the city's existence, both aesthetically and ecologically.

Quite noticeably, it is as if Delhi's end life sits poised among the three landfills in its three corners. Landfills are ablaze with fires and the toxicity of these materials seeps into the nearby water bodies. The neighboring colonies are inhabited by disposable lives (waste pickers), representing the toxic sinks of the city.

These planned and orderly toxic sites are at once representative of the growing anthropogenic concerns and anxieties and simultaneously reflect the inside-outside binary created through years of cultural constructions around dirt and pollution, specifically in the Indian context, where not just "wasted" objects but also bodies involved in dealing with waste are relegated to dirt and stigma.

It is only when these wasted materials embark upon their post-consumption journeys and are dumped onto the orderly sites of mounting landfills — the city's eyesores — that the toxicity and disorderliness of the afterlife of materials disturb the visual aesthetics of those who reside in the inner spaces of the city.

Willful ignorance

Even as we live through the visible and ever-increasing waste crisis, we fail to gauge the afterlife of waste. Maybe a few years ago, many of us imagined waste as merely an administrative concern, limiting it to the realm of management. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) vans would come, pick our waste from nearby dhalaos and dump it at the designated site. For dirt, loosely mapping onto waste has always been construed as "matter out of place." Its right place is always some other space, which is not occupied by "common people."

Yet today, as we become more developed and technologically equipped, the presence of waste (physically and metaphorically) haunts us more than ever before. There is little connection between us and the material we dispose of. Once it reaches inconspicuous locations, such as a landfill, we forget the connection we had with them. There is a deliberate distancing of waste. It is generated by us and hidden somewhere else, in the far-removed peripheral and marginal corners of the city.

Heavy reliance on scientific knowledge and technology-based solutions, followed by landfills as the epitome of technical artefacts and built-infrastructure of cities, has obfuscated the challenges posed by the waste crisis. By construing waste as a matter of techno-managerial concern and that of disposability, we are externalizing its presence. Here, technology is construed as scientifically sound and politically neutral infrastructure, which shall eventually contain the waste crisis in the city.

The recent installations of bio-mining infrastructure across the three landfills (Okhla, Ghazipur and Bhalswa) are projected as grand efforts by the three municipal corporations in Delhi in overhauling the crisis, while simultaneously making the lives of waste workers invisible. While time will tell what future these "recent" technological advancements hold for Delhi's waste crisis, what is important is to understand the processes that continuously perpetuate the momentous growth of waste in the city.

There is little connection between us and the material we dispose of.

Lending a political and sociological lens will help us unravel the labyrinthine problems of caste, ecology, consumerism and the spatio-temporal axis of the waste crisis. Waste is not just a rejected negative value of our living. It also embodies rather the present-day consumerist lifestyle and the social relations of a capitalist society. As dutiful citizens, we are so obsessed with "rightful" and "orderly" disposal of waste that we fail to gauge the afterlife of waste and the moment of waste constitution.

As waste studies scholar William Viney discusses, waste isn't just matter out of place but also matter out of time. Time is the primary factor in determining what constitutes waste. An object's use value and material condition may not wither off, but its temporality can define whether it is useful anymore. For example, radio cassettes and re-fill pens are common objects available with kabadiwalas (local waste dealers).

Rag pickers sorting recyclable materials in India. — Photo: David Talukdar/ZUMA Wire

A discarded pair of shoes, tossed in order to make way for new ones, is a common sight around landfills. Ragpickers then wear those shoes to climb said landfill. That wasted shoe acquires use value for ragpickers. As one waste picker told me, "What is kooda for you, is actually kabaad. Do not confuse the two."

Thus, wasted matter — out of place and out of time and pushed toward the margins of the city — is brought back to life by the creative and bricolage efforts of waste pickers, laboring to sustain their lives and renewing the city by injecting all the harm onto their bodies. Similarly, kabadiwalas collect discarded materials on their tricycles from across the city and sell them off to relatively bigger traders, furthering the processes of renewing urban economies and recycling.

But even as waste pickers and kabadiwalas tirelessly and disproportionately bear the burden of capitalism's detritus, they are barely recognized for their laboring-infrastructure. The way waste workers are pushed to the margins of the city and with the burgeoning increase in the dumping of materials, the waste crisis is nowhere near its end. Rather, it is very much endemic to the existence of profit-making economies. Unless a product is marked as "obsolete," "useless' or "out of fashion," there will be no room for new products and subsequent profits.

Garbage in Gotham

Moreover, the presence of waste has become such a visceral part of our lives that today it cannot be ignored, even in the "reel" world. The interactions between the non-human (wasted materials) and human world has created an "order of chaos' that is difficult to escape in present times.

The cinematic presence of waste in the movie Joker symbolically maps onto the life of a dejected, exasperated and anxious being in a modern capitalist world, surrounded by trash bags in the fictional Gotham City. This projection of the trash crisis was illustrative of the emptiness of materials and ourselves, where, if deemed "useless," humans and materials are pushed to the darkest corners of the cities.

Likewise, the recent Netflix series Leila showcases a state of urban dystopia, where sprawling landfills have become a central part of our lives and the drinking water from taps is black. But if we scratch the surface, we aren't looking at a dystopic future but are living in a toxic reality, where groundwater is highly contaminated, the disposable lives (waste pickers) carrying the burden of consumerist lives are suffering from skin diseases, tuberculosis and asthma.

Yet, the broader public discourse on waste is painted as a practice of discarding the trash in the "right place." It is construed as our duty to not litter the city. The moral governmentality of waste disposal has overpowered the discourse around waste so strongly, that it is even difficult to ponder upon the social and political constellation surrounding the production of waste and the economies of waste disposal.

Waste is both the antithesis of development and also a by-product of development.

Both these fictional depictions reveal not just the visible crisis of waste, but also how the continuous processes of interactions between humans and non-humans have altered our habitat along with the existence of our being, which is continuously striving to be more "useful" and "productive" in such abject times.

As much as waste is stereotypically illustrative of disorder and chaos, an analysis of its ontological existence reveals the dark and shameful secrets of human society. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman famously argued, "Waste is the mid-wife of all creations." The irony of our times is that the more developed we are, the more wasted we are. Waste is both the antithesis of development and also a by-product of development.

The present order of living, based on the capitalist model of development, produces by default disorders of waste. Thus, waste as an individual managerial entity doesn't mean anything. It is pertinent to acknowledge and understand the way it gets embedded in our daily lives from the moment we are born.

For example, from the surgical material that's used when we are born to the time we die, the materiality we leave behind constitute waste and are disposed of in some manner or the other. This constitution of waste is defined not just by virtue of a matter and disposability but also by the ecology, space, time, social relations and the afterlife it acquires.

The unequal times we live in force us to oversee the totality of the waste crisis through the smokescreen of development, hierarchical clean spaces and imposition of a particular form of aesthetically built environment. Unless we question these socio-economic structures associated with the production of waste and waste management, we can't really overthrow the waste crisis.

Mitigating waste production is not a matter of behavioral change and the associated moral governmentally around it — for example the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. Rather, it requires engaging with the hegemonic cultural practices and stigma (of impurity and dirt) associated with waste and waste work. It requires dealing with the profit-led order that demands the continuous production of materials in order to sustain itself and the hierarchical stigmatized spaces and disposable lives which sustain these processes.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, as we struggle to maintain the usual order of living in the time of COVID-19, we have generated a disorder of medical waste, lying across the landfills and streets of Delhi. Waste pickers, who are anyway exposed to the dirt and pollution of humans on a daily basis, are not repulsed and scared by the presence of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, masks and gloves in the way the middle class is.

Maidul, a waste dealer who is now forced to climb up the landfill due to lack of earning, told me: "Anyways, on a daily basis, we deal with all kinds of waste. There is certainly an increase in medical waste, but prior to COVID-19 also, we saw half-dead animals, syringes and blood around the landfill. We are not surprised and bothered by the current situation. The moment we jump into the waste work, we leave our destiny to god. That is all we have."

Many workers like Maidul, who have literally been reduced to "wasted lives' — unable to sell their collected objects, forced to beg on streets, while also carrying out the work of waste — continue to sustain themselves amidst this chaos, maintaining the order of our cities.

Watch Video Show less
Green Or Gone
Alessandro Mano

The Slippery Slope Of Global Warming, From A Melting Mont-Blanc Glacier

COURMAYEUR — When the alarm sounded last year, it was because the ice on the Mont Blanc, on the border between Italy and France, was moving too quickly.

Its front had broken away from the rest of the ice lobe, separated by a huge crack, and descended three meters per day. Experts feared that 250 thousand cubic meters of ice might fall on the valley, an enormous quantity that could shatter on the rocks below, causing an avalanche and arriving on homes in the Ferret Valley, near Courmayeur.

Watch Video Show less