A new article in Science, Technology and Human Values brings up an issue that has been at the forefront of waste studies for several centuries: the relationships between technology, trust, taboo, sewage, and potable water. Kerri Jean Ormerod and Christopher A. Scott‘s “Drinking Wastewater: Public Trust in Potable Reuse,” is a short, focused piece on one area of the country already short on water: Arizona. While their piece doesn’t delve into the complicated Douglasian politics of matter out of place and how politics and technology play into the categorization of allowable and intolerable matter, their article is useful for thinking about sociotechnical systems and human values in relation to discards.
In the coming decades, highly treated wastewater, known as reclaimed water, is slated to be a major element of municipal water supplies. In particular, planners propose supplementing drinking water with reclaimed water as a sustainable solution to the growing challenge of urban water scarcity. Public opposition is currently considered the primary barrier to implementing successful potable water reuse projects; nonetheless, public responses to reclaimed water are not well understood. Based on a survey of over 250 residents of Tucson, Arizona, this article assesses the relationship between trust in the professional institutions responsible for municipal water development and willingness to drink reclaimed water. Results demonstrate that public acceptance of potable reuse is contingent on trust in the authorities who influence design of sociotechnical systems for water supply and reuse—including water and wastewater utilities, regulators, consultants, academics, and elected local officials. Findings emphasize the highly interdependent social and political factors that inform personal decisions to support or reject potable reuse. The authors suggest that achieving greater acceptance of potable reuse will require bringing local and regional water policy in line with public values, as well as finding ways to incorporate these values into the planning process.
By Zoltán Glück
Originally published in Tidal on March 13, 2013
In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy the inequalities at the heart of New York City could scarcely be missed. While hundreds of thousands of public housing residents went without heat, hot water or electricity, Mayor Michael Bloomberg rushed to get the stock exchange up and running within 48 hours—a stark reminder of whose lives and well-being are valued by current administration. In the immediate aftermath of disasters such contrasts lay bare the violence of race and class. Who is able to leave and who is able to return are questions about access to resources, vulnerability, and the existing geographies of economic and social inequality. But it is through the process of reconstruction that existing racial and class iniquities are truly reproduced and deepened. In New York City, as the power has finally come back on for residents and as reconstruction efforts plod along, it is perhaps time for a look at how these dynamics are playing out.
In early November, 2012 I attended a meeting in the Red Hook loft apartment of the self-styled neighborhood power broker, Kirby Desmarais, the purpose of which was to build stronger lines of communication between various groups working on relief efforts in Red Hook. These included Occupy Sandy, the NYPD, the National Guard, a representative from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, and a sizeable group of small business owners in Red Hook: over 30 people in total. The meeting itself was uneventful, the National Guard did not plan to do any more than distribute boxes of freeze dried meals, the Mayor’s Office could not promise anything concrete, and 76th Precinct Police Captain Schiff remained mostly silent. Occupy Sandy would continue to collect and redistribute material donations, provide hot food, and build its databases of residents requiring home-delivered meals and needing medical assistance. Those of us working with Occupy Sandy began to feel uncomfortable as it became increasingly evident that the underlying purpose of the meeting was for the group of small business owners to establish direct lines of access to the various institutions with power over the recovery effort. One particularly disturbing aspect of the meeting was its racial composition. In this predominantly working class Black and Latino neighborhood, the small business coalition who were hosting the meeting had only managed to invite one single long-term black resident, a well-known local organizer, Reg Flowers. Such an exclusion of black community leaders from the table was, as Reg put it, at the very least “problematic and it may even be dangerous.” Sadly, such exclusions are also increasingly common and they bear witness to the important role played by gentrification in shaping the forms of recovery and reconstruction in Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy.
From the outside, Red Hook recovery efforts have been lauded in both the media and in activist circles as a stirring example of “community” self-empowerment and mutual-aid. What is less evident from most of these superficial accounts, however, are the deep social fissures and inequalities that are hidden beneath facile notions of “community.” The emergent pattern of racial and class-based exclusions in Red Hook have historical roots; they are also emblematic of a process that I am calling here disaster gentrification: that is, the use of disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy to initiate or consolidated gentrification projects.
Class and Race in Red Hook
Before Hurricane Sandy hit, Red Hook was already on the cutting edge of Brooklyn gentrification and had been for a few years. Urban homesteaders had moved in, lured by the waterfront, the aura of feeling slightly farther away from the rest of the city, and what the New York Times glibly calls “the pioneer spirit that has brought chicken coops, beehives and funky bars to a once-desolate industrial stretch of Brooklyn.” As some of this growth has come through the reconversion of previously empty warehouses and industrial areas, Red Hook is often presented as benign form of urban regeneration and creative re-use of a post-industrial landscape. But as with the pioneers of old, people lived in Red Hook before the recent influx of entrepreneurs.
Red Hook has long been a working-class neighborhood. Much of the neighborhood’s urban fabric dates back to its 19th century history as a major hub of maritime commerce. Since the construction of its first port in the 1840’s Red Hook has been home to waves of immigrant populations; Irish, German and Italian workers came for employment on its docks. By the 1920s it could claim to be one of the busiest freight ports in the world. The first of the Red Hook Houses were built as part of a Federal Works Program initiative under FDR in 1938 to accommodate the growing number of dockworkers. Administered by the New York Housing Authority (NYCHA), these tall brick structures are still a defining feature of the neighborhood. Home to 8000 people, they remain the largest affordable housing tract in Brooklyn (and the second largest in New York City). The last installment of the Houses were built in 1955. Then, with the advent of containerization in the 1960s, shipping moved to the larger ports of New Jersey and Red Hook’s economic vitality declined.
During the latter half of the century Red Hook followed the pattern of many de-industrializing urban areas in the United States: white flight opened up space for Blacks, Latinos, and one of New York City’s first Puerto Rican communities. Meanwhile, disinvestment and capital flight from Red Hook, as in many other parts of Brooklyn, left the neighborhood derelict and abandoned by government, public services, and landowners alike. As the late great geographer Neil Smith has argued, neighborhoods like Red Hook were “lost” for capitalist profit extraction: practices such as redlining ensured that no new capital would be invested in these enclaves of urban poverty. This set the stage for Red Hook’s more recent history of gentrification. As Smith argues, gentrification is effectively a “back to the city movement for capital,” through which such “lost” urban spaces are re-conquered for the purpose of profit extraction. Of course, the conquest of the “new urban frontier” inevitably entails the displacement of those who once lived there.  Thus, as capital began moving back to the city, it spelled a disaster for working class people across Brooklyn: eviction, harassment, highly racialized tough-on-crime policies, the forcible displacement and dismembering of communities.
Census data bears witness to the rapid transformations that have been reshaping neighborhood like Red Hook. Economic indicators show that Red Hook has seen its median monthly rents increase by upwards of 70% along the water front since 2000 (and 101% in the area directly above the Red Hook Houses), on par with the most rapidly changing census tracts in Williamsburg over the same period. The growing economic disparities in the neighborhood are also evident in this rental data: the median rent at the Red Hook Houses is still $369 per month while loft apartments a block away on Delevan street are listed at 1,900$ per month. This “rent-gap” between what working-class residents have been paying for decades and the promise of ever-rising rental incomes from an affluent gentrifying class is what fuels both property speculation and the forced evictions of long-time residents. Such processes are at the heart of Brooklyn’s changing political economy—they have also had dramatic impacts on the changing racial demographics of its neighborhoods.
As a recent Fordham study has shown, Brooklyn is home to four of the country’s most rapidly changing neighborhoods as measured by racial composition. In Bed-Stuy, for example, the white population has grown by over 600% over the past decade. Meanwhile, the Center for Urban Research estimates that Brooklyn lost 50,000 African Americans to economic displacement between 2000 and 2010. Red Hook has lost 17% of its Black population and 14.4% of its Hispanic population over the same period. As people are priced out of the neighborhood, block-by-block census records show that the Black and Brown population of Red Hook has quickly receded away from the main commercial strip of Van Brunt street and is now predominantly concentrated in the Red Hook Houses. The old Puerto Rican community of the waterfront has vanished, displaced by affluence and whiteness.
Similar violent processes of displacement and conquest have led the New Orleans Tribune to describe gentrification as “the new segregation.” Gentrification may be analyzed as economic project which displaces the poor and benefits the affluent, but it also articulates itself as a racial project whose violence is vested on people of color. Where it unfolds in neighborhoods like Red Hook, such processes bear out Stuart Hall’s famous argument, that “race is … the modality in which class is lived.” As Hurricane Sandy swept through Red Hook, its waters swept over a social geography already deeply injured by the racial and class inequities of gentrification. It is thus imperative for reconstruction efforts to take these existing divisions seriously, because to ignore them is to be complicit in reproducing and deepening them.
Recovery Work and Disaster Gentrification
Dynamics of race and class have impacted Post-Sandy recovery work from the start. On the one hand, the sheer urgency relief work during the first few days created an initial atmosphere of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual-aid with residents and incoming activists working, cooking, and canvassing together. I became heavily involved with Occupy Sandy at its inception and helped set up the recovery hub at the Red Hook Initiative on day after the storm where the words “community-powered recovery” were repeated often and proudly. Indeed, it was inspiring and invigorating to see such spontaneous good-hearted, meaningful, and highly effective work being done. However, the lack of analysis around race and class was evident very early on and lead to a number of problems in the day-to-day dynamics of recovery work.
One of the first problems we encountered was the casual racism of charity work. During the first few days after the storm a well-intended Christian group began partnering with the NYPD to distribute supplies using NYCHA housing police. They also asked the police to provide “crowd control” for the lines of predominantly the Black and Latino residents waiting for much needed supplies such as flashlights, pampers and baby formula. This use of the police put an immediate strain on the relationship between local residents and activists and created a scenario in which race and resources separated the two groups: inside—a group of predominantly white volunteers managing resources; outside—people of color waiting in line in the cold for hours, with the police doing “crowd control.” This highly racialized treatment of aid-recipient as potential criminals was symptomatic of the staggeringly different ideologies concerning what recovery and reconstruction should look like: the philanthropic Church group thought of themselves as providing a service (which apparently required security). This was a stark contrast to the collaborative, solidaristic, mutual-aid project that Occupy Sandy had been trying to build over the course of the first weeks. Weekends were difficult for similar reasons. The neighborhood would be inundated with (predominantly middle-class white) volunteers who were dispatched to canvass, cleanup, gut dry walls, and distribute food. Much good work was done, but the racial stratification of volunteers and residents clearly began to reinforce existing oppressions, turning aid-recipients into passive agents in a process they had increasingly less and less control over.
A second and more serious way that existing structures of oppression were reproduced and deepened was through the activity of a group of small business owners in Red Hook. On December 5th, 2012, more than a month after the storm, Mayor Bloomberg finally came down to pay a visit to the storm-ravaged neighborhood. He did not bother to stop at the Red Hook Houses—home to 8000 of Red Hook’s approximately 11,000 residents—where his administration repeatedly failed to come to the assistance of tenants living without heat, electricity, and in some cases without even running water for weeks. Instead Bloomberg’s visit included stops at the upscale Fairway super market on Van Brunt street and a meeting with local NGOs and members of ReStore Red Hook, a coalition of small businesses in the neighborhood. Of course, in the eyes of city government these are the constituents that matter. It is to them that questions are posed about the neighborhood’s recovery needs. It is to them that recovery grants and special low-interest rate reconstruction loans are offered (currently the predominant means of disaster relief offered by the government). Or, as Kirby Desmarais once gleefully put it: “They are prioritizing the businesses in Red Hook because they know that they feed the community so well.”
This is the myth that is often repeated by the entrepreneurs: that “small businesses keep Red Hook alive.” What is quietly elided, however, is the question of who and what is being kept alive? As the figures on economic displacement indicate, it is not the working-class Black and Latino Red Hook which is being “kept alive” by these businesses—and $19 skirt steaks at Home/Made are clearly not priced to provide sustenance for this community. Rather, as small businesses take up the mantle of speaking for “the Red Hook community” they are also putting forward a vision of what such a community should look like. It is telling that the conversation with Bloomberg reportedly focused on “how to attract more shoppers to Red Hook,” re-opening the subway stop at Smith and 9th street, and how to increase foot traffic along Van Brunt street. This vision of recovery and reconstruction is clearly a vision of gentrification-based recovery.
The agenda of the small business coalition was captured succinctly by ReStore Red Hook founder, Monica Byrne, at a community meeting in early November: “we will not stop until every single small business in Red Hook re-opens its doors again.” As a vehicle for fund-raising, grant applications, and political lobbying, ReStore Red Hook has become a pivotal actor in the dynamics of recovery and reconstruction in the neighborhood. The example of a large grant awarded by the Brooklyn Community Foundation in December for Sandy recovery work is symptomatic. Through personal connections with Carlos Menchaca, Christine Quinn’s official liaison in Red Hook, a coalition of five organizations in Red Hook (including NGOs, residents and small businesses) were able to secure a large grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation. Without any community oversight over how such funds ought to be disbursed, 80% of the funds were ultimately allocated to ReStore Red Hook. In a neighborhood where over 70% of the population lives in public housing, to allocate 80% of incoming resources to small businesses along a gentrifying corridor simply callous. It is also a form of institutional racism reproduced and replicated through everyday practices. By mobilizing cultural, legal, and political capital to control incoming resources and funnel them towards small businesses, this coalition is indirectly working to disempower and displace the working-class Black and Latino community of Red Hook.
As such, ReStore Red Hook represents the consolidation of the gentrification project after Hurricane Sandy. It is the vehicle through which a gentrifying class in-itself has become a gentrifying class for-itself. It is the consolidation of a class project insofar as it actively organizes a small business class around a common interest. But it must also be understood as a consolidation of whiteness. As meetings in loft apartments become conspicuously racially homogenous and resources are syphoned away from the Black and Brown residents of the neighborhood, disaster gentrification is also project that “ReStores” segregation, poverty, and white supremacy.
Towards a Disaster Anti-Capitalism
As the coalition of small-business owners in Red Hook began to control the direction of reconstruction in the neighborhood, they also began to push Occupy Sandy organizers out. Frequently, insider vs. outsider language and appeals to “the community” were used to keep Occupy organizers out of meeting spaces or to question their legitimacy on listservs and in public meetings. Meanwhile, the Occupy Sandy relief hub at the Red Hook Initiative was displaced after its first week of operation when the RHI board of directors decided that they needed to “return to our normal programming.” Contentiously, RHI continued to collect disaster recovery funds even as their own involvement in the recovery efforts scaled back enormously. According to one source who attended a closed meeting with RHI, the non-profit has accumulated over $2 million in Sandy recovery donations. Conspicuously, the eviction of Occupy Sandy from RHI occurred precisely after organizers began to ask questions about how RHI was allocating the recovery funds. A number of us who had originally helped set up the relief hub at RHI after the storm urged them to use a participatory budgeting method for distributing the resources, however the organization has remained completely opaque about how such resources will be used. Indeed, after the initial days of spontaneous good will and solidarity, NGOs and small businesses in Red Hook began jockeying for position and funding to the detriment of pan-neighborhood solidarity, not to mention social justice. In this atmosphere of self-serving political myopia many of us who worked to start a “People’s Recovery” in Red Hook left or were pushed out; some went to other nodes in the Occupy Sandy network, while others withdrew from the recovery efforts completely. In this context, we may draw a number of lessons from the intersections of disaster-recovery and disaster-gentrification in Red Hook.
To begin with, the social justice work of Occupy Sandy organizers in Red Hook was particularly vulnerable to being sidelined, subverted, and evicted due to the fact that they did not have deep roots or strong alliances in the neighborhood. Such alliances and ties would have been pivotal for building more effective resistance to the intense political and economic forces of disater gentrification. By comparison, in neighborhoods such as Sunset Park, where Occupy has been engaged in community organizing and anti-gentrification work for the past year, the post-disaster organizing has been more enduring and robust. In the immediate wake of the storm, Occupy activists organized a number of community assemblies in Red Hook with the aim of building a decision-making body through which direct community oversight of recovery efforts might be achieved (including an ill-fated campaign to demand rent abatement from NYCHA). Such efforts were effectively undercut as the important decisions over resource allocation and negotiations with politicians were happening elsewhere. Without a deep organizing base in the neighborhood, Occupy Sandy’s medium-term projects in Red Hook foundered. Ultimately, in order to resist disaster gentrification it is crucial to have a pre-existing base of anti-gentrification organizing. Such a base would have also provided more susatinable, effective, and meaningful ways for “outside” organizers to plug in. Much good political organizing work was done in the days after the storm, but without strong neighborhood alliances this work was quickly demobilized, coopted, and neutralized.
In the long run, the conversation about a just reconstruction must also find strategic ways to talk to small business owners. Despite the short-term gains that ReStore Red Hook might achieve through back-room deals with state functionaries and donation drives, theirs is a losing strategy in the long run. The true beneficiaries of Hurricane Sandy will not be small businesses, but rather the large banks who provide reconstruction loans, the companies who receive the reconstruction contracts, and the emergent industry of eco-disaster-capitalism which sees social catastrophe as a business opportunity. Loan providers are already projected to make $1 billion in profits annually from these loans. By contrast, as of late January, out of the 1,119 small businesses that had applied for federal loans in Brooklyn, only 89 had been approved. Those “lucky” enough to be approved will be saddled with huge debts for years to come and some will even have to put up their homes as collateral. Such a system individualizes and atomizes the burden of reconstruction; it also tears apart the fabric of our communities, pushing some into narrow and self-serving alliances, leaving others to fall through the cracks entirely. Indeed, the petty battles over the pittance of resources and funding that do come to neighborhoods like Red Hook end up reinforcing racial and class divides and destroying neighborhood solidarity. As Tom Agnotti has pointed out, such divisions leave neighborhoods vulnerable and fractured in the face of large-scale developers who are then able to move into the neighborhood without much (unified) resistance. If recent talk about moving toxic sludge from the Gowanus canal to a site in Red Hook materializes, all of the neighborhoods residents will stand to lose from the effects of environmental racism and broken solidarities.
Ultimately, with the increasing frequency of ecological calamity around the world, social justice activists must begin imagining long-term and pre-emptive strategies for coping with disaster. This means deep neighborhood-based political organizing adequate to the needs of the nascent modality of resistance, something we might call disaster anti-capitalism.
 Buckley, Cara, and William K. Rashbaum. “Power Failures and Furious Flooding Overwhelm Lower Manhattan and Red Hook” October 29th, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/30/nyregion/red-hook-residents-defy-evacuation-warnings-drinks-in-hand.html. (Accessed, February 1st, 2013)
 Neil Smith. “Towards a Theory of Gentrification” Journal of the American Planning Association. Vol. 45.4. 1979.
 Neil Smith. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routeledge: London. 1996.
 See, for example: http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2012/01/rental-of-the-day-5-delevan-street/ (Accessed January 12th, 2013)
 A compelling visualization of this data is available through the Center for Urban Research interface here: http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/comparinator/pluralitymap.htm (Accessed January 12th, 2013)
 Beaulieu, Lovell. “Gentrification: the new segregation?” New Orleans Tribune, 2012.
 Feldmen, Emily. “Hard-Hit Small Businesses Denied Post-Sandy Loans” January 25th, 2013.http://brooklynbased.net/email/2013/01/hard-hit-small-businesses-denied-post-sandy-loans/ (Accessed February 1st, 2013)
 Sataline, Suzanne. “Why a victim of Sandy doesn’t want an S.B.A. loan” February 12th, 2013. http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/why-a-victim-of-sandy-doesnt-want-an-s-b-a-loan/?src=rechp (Accessed February 1st, 2013)
 Angotti, Tom. “Ikea and Red Hook’s Racial Divide” Gotham Gazette, June 2004. http://old.gothamgazette.com/article/landuse/20040615/12/1008 (Accessed February 1st, 2013)
Nearly a year ago, I posted about a lawsuit brought against the City of New York by the People’s Library of Occupy Wall Street for trashing thousands of books during the eviction of Zuccoti Park. The story resonated with a lot of people because the destruction of books is seen as a special type of waste in our society. In terms borrowed from Mary Douglas, trashing books is taboo, and intolerable social transgression. In another post, I wrote about how systematic trashing of protest groups’ bodies and materials has been one of the New York Police Department’s tactics to maintain power and control over protesters and “public” space.
“Our clients are pleased,” said Normal Siegel, who represented Occupy Wall Street in the suit. “We had asked for damages of $47,0000 for the books and the computers, and we got $47,000. More important–we would not have settled without this–is the language in the settlement. This was not just about money, it was about constitutional rights and the destruction of books.”
The settlement document is available here, and includes how the money is divided by not only the people’s library, but also two other groups whose items were landfilled or went missing during the police raid. However, the books and the People’s Library take the headlines.
It is interesting to see how different media outlets are discussing the action towards the books during the eviction of Zucotti Park. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times refer to the “seizure” of books, a phrase absent in the settlement. The Huffington Post calls the city’s relationship to the books one of “destruction.” NBC News adds the qualifier “so called” to this destruction.The Los Angeles Times also headlines the “destruction” of the books, and additionally runs the headline above a photo of a sanitation worker with a white face mask putting items into a garbage truck during the eviction. The story contained a quote from Siegel, the OWS attorney: ”They actually threw the books in the back of these sanitation trucks that I call ‘grinders,’ and they grinded out the books and incinerated them.” The New York Times adds that:
Lawyers for the city said Brookfield [the owners of Zucotti Park] had hired a private carting company to help remove items from the park and take them to a landfill.
Lawyers for Brookfield replied that the police had directed the company to hire workers to clear “refuse” from the park and that Brookfield employees had helped city workers load material.
In response to the settlement, New York City released a statement reiterating earlier arguments about sanitation and cleanliness that rationalized the original eviction: ”It was absolutely necessary for the city to address the rapidly growing safety and health threats posed by the Occupy Wall street encampment.” Apparently proper sanitation requires riot gear and batons.
What is particularly interesting about the settlement is that it does not focus on how people were treated, but how books were treated. In my publication on “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement” I argue that people and objects associated with social movements such as Occupy Wall Street are both treated like waste by those in power as a way to demonstrate tolerable and intolerable challenges and and what constitutes ‘out of placeness’ in relation to the status quo, as well as ideas of ideal citizenship and the Other.
Occupy Wall Street, known for its critique of the financilization and corpretization of everyday life and governance, has leveraged the status of private property as a constitutional right and the high cultural status of the book in their struggle with state tactics to lay waste to dissent. There are some contradictions here, particularly the use of private property as a entry point into addressing the violation of the right to protest in semi-public spaces. But the trashed books work as an interesting boundary object that allow a conversation between Occupiers and the City government about rights and power. The meaning of the books and their treatment are plastic, interpreted differently by each group, but with enough immutable content–the taboo of certain types of trashing, whether that be of books, private property, or constitutional rights in general–to maintain integrity in the legal system.
An international group of scientists, including the young Chelsea Rochman and Mark Anthony Browne from California, with the support of the veteran marine scientist Richard Thompson from the UK and a host of others from the USA and Japan, has called on policy-makers to classify plastic waste as hazardous waste. Their argument, published in the latest issue of Nature, states that classifying plastic waste as hazardous waste is not only a more accurate description of its toxic activities, but will also allow effective action to be taken against such harms. Note that they are not calling for the end of plastics– though they target PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate as the most hazardous of the hazards–but for a more rigorous infrastructure that comes with a new classification.
According to a hazard-ranking model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous… The monomers making up some plastics, such as polyethylene (used to make carrier bags), are thought to be more benign. Yet these materials can still become toxic by picking up other pollutants. Pesticides and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls are consistently found on plastic waste at harmful concentrations 100 times those found in sediments and 1 million times those occurring in sea water. Many of these are ‘priority pollutants’: chemicals that are regulated by government agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because of their toxicity or persistence in organisms and food webs. [...]
With a change in plastics categorization, numerous affected habitats could immediately be cleaned up under national legislation using government funds. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 would enable the EPA to clear the vast accumulations of plastic that litter the terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats under US jurisdiction.
This call is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first is that it is gutsy and straightforward in its identification of plastic pollution as an unmitigated harm, but it is even more remarkable that this balls-out call has been published in Nature, the world’s most cited interdisciplinary scientific journal, and a mainstay for scientific and scientifically-interested communities.
Does this signal the support by the UK publishers of a definition of plastic pollution based on unmitigated harm? There is an ongoing political rigamarole going on in the United States between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the chemical lobby group called American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and other stakeholders as to whether plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) is really–truly, surely, demonstrably, always–harmful to consumers or not, the call to skip the back and forth and assign hazardous waste status to plastics we know contain or recruit chemicals we already call hazardous is refreshing, simple, yet still a bold step given politics in the lead author’s home countries. My hat is off to you, Rochman, Browne et al.
Secondly, the call to reclassify plastic waste as hazardous is remarkable for its ability to scale up to meet the severity of the problem. As the article indicates, the production of plastics is increasing exponentially. Most waste does not make it to the landfill or recycling center, but escapes into the environment. Our current infrastructure, from recycling to landfilling, is failing to contain plastics and its harms. By reclassifying plastic waste, both production and collection infrastructures change dramatically in ways that the authors say will both reduce the amount of plastics being produced, and better contain those that are.
Finally, the report is one of an increasing number of cases of scientists willingly becoming public experts rather than sequestered specialists. There has always been a small culture that propagates the idea that scientists are ethically responsible for their findings, expressed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists founded by former Manhattan Projectphysicists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in discussions about how science is inherently political such as in Mary O’Brien’s publication of “Being a Scientist Means Taking sides” in The Professional Biologist. Yet, this is still a ballsy feat in the United States with its strong prejudice against scientists “speaking out of turn.” Scientists are popularly thought to be the tools of policy in a well run technocracy, not the source of calls to action and creativity in the policy realm. The idea is that impassioned scientists lose objectivity and the ability to do good scientist. But many scientists might argue that their research creates these politics. Looking at shore after shore covered in plastics, and bird after bird with plastics in its belly, conducting study after study that shows the toxicity of plastics and their chemicals, even while you are wearing, sitting on, and eating from plastics, what is a scientist to do? Ethically, as experts and scientists, they are bound to publicize their knowledge, contributing to the public sphere and what some have called “technical democracy.” While Robert Oppenheimer states the role of science, scientists, and open inquiry in a democracy in dramatic terms characteristic of his time, and of his rigorous work in science and ethics following his work on the Manhattan Project:
There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer” in Life, Vol. 7, No. 9, International Edition (24 October 1949), p.58
Hosna J. Shewly‘s “Abandoned spaces and bare life in the enclaves of the India–Bangladesh border” in the January edition of Political Geography looks at spaces abandoned by the state, but still subject to other state powers, and their production of “bare life,” Giorgio Agamben’s term for what happens when state power strips a person down to just being a body, a “life exposed to death.” In short, the article is about how liminal discarded spaces work via exclusion and control to politicize life in a certain way. Shewly shows how abandonment by the state is not just a leaving behind of something, but the creation of a type of violence.
Abstract: Based on an ethnography of the enclaves in India and Bangladesh, this paper explores enclave dwellers lived experiences of vulnerability where life is trapped in-between two states. These enclaves are geographically located in one country but politically and legally belong to another. The absence of a home country’s rule of law and the irregular presence of the host country’s sovereign power and control construct, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, a ‘space of exception’ where everyday life is characterised by exclusion from legal rights, but nonetheless subject to law, socio-political exploitation and gendered violence. By situating Agamben’s ‘bare life’ in these enclaves, this paper argues that the conceptualisation of bare life as solely a sovereign production paints an inadequate picture of the zone of abandonment. The paper argues that in addition to the sovereign creation of bare life, social and gendered dimensions are essential for a nuanced approach to this concept.
One of my favorite journals, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, has just released an early view of an upcoming article, “Symbolic Violence and the Politics of Environmental Pollution Science: The Case of Coal Ash Pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina” by Vanesa Castán Broto. This article, like many others in discard studies, uses waste and pollution and their multiple, ambivalent, contested meanings to look at scientific knowledge construction, hegemony, and social/environmental justice.
Abstract: Environmental justice movements often contest environmental knowledge by engaging in scientific debates, which implies accepting the predominance of scientific discourses over alternative forms of knowledge. Using Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence, this paper warns that the engagement with hegemonic forms of knowledge production may reproduce, rather than challenge, existing social and environmental inequalities. The argument is developed with reference to a case study of coal ash pollution in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The case study shows that the construction of knowledge in a scientific project led to the exclusion of local definitions of the situation and the dismissal of their observations of environmental pollution. The case suggests that the capacity of different actors to put forward their interpretation of an environmental issue depends on the forms of symbolic violence that emerge within hegemonic discourses of the environment.
Resumen: Los movimientos de justicia ambiental buscan a menudo impugnar el conocimiento del medio ambiente mediante la participación en debates científicos, lo que implica aceptar el predominio de los discursos científicos sobre formas de conocimiento alternativas. Usando el concepto de Bourdieu de violencia simbólica, este ensayo advierte de que adoptar un compromiso incondicional con la ciencia como una forma hegemónica de producción de conocimiento puede conducir a la reproducción de desigualdades sociales y ambientales, en lugar de su desafío. Este argumento se avanza en referencia a un estudio de caso de la contaminación de cenizas de carbón en Tuzla, Bosnia y Herzegovina. El estudio de caso muestra que la construcción del conocimiento en un proyecto científico condujo a la exclusión de definiciones y observaciones locales de la problemática ambiental. El caso sugiere que la capacidad de diferentes actores para presentar su interpretación de un problema ambiental depende de las formas de violencia simbólica que surgen dentro de los discursos hegemónicos sobre el medio ambiente y su manejo.
It has been one week since the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2012. In celebration, let’s look at the movement through the lens of discard studies.
My article, “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement“, has just appeared in Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest (volume 11, no. 3) as part of a special edition on Occupy. The article will be a free download for the first two months after publication.
Originally, the article included a photo essay. In the spirit of Occupy, I sought Creative Commons permissions (CC-BY-NC) for photos that were not in the public domain or taken by news media– originally, the Occupy edition of the journal was going to be full open access. When they changed the terms to two months of open access, CC licenses were no longer valid. The current article has only three photos. Here is the entire photo essay of how trash and discards were used in Occupations all over the world, supplemented with excerpts from the original article. Note that some photos contain expletive and potentially offensive language and images.
Part 1: Anti-Occupy Tactics- Trashing Materials
At around 1 am on November 15th, 2011, police came into a tented Liberty Plaza and began handing out fliers. The fliers said Occupiers had to leave the park or face arrest. Shortly after Occupiers ran from tent to tent to spread the news of pending eviction and arrest, police began tearing down tents and putting them in dumpsters…. No one could return to the park to gather their belongings. In the end, everything in the park– clothes, books, tents, medications, backpacks, laptops, kitchen supplies and food– were put into a garbage truck and transported to a city sanitation transfer station.
In New York City and in other occupations, taxonomies of trash were used as a conscious effort to restrict access to space and to define and discipline protesters. Over and over, in different evictions, city governments and police demonstrated their belief that political gatherings such as Occupy are dangerous in their filth, regardless of material sanitary conditions. As Mary Douglas so eloquently puts it, “As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder” (1966: 2). And in the eyes of those in power, the essential nature of Occupy is disorder. It is dirt.
These images may seem exhaustive, even redundant. But that is the point: across the world, from New York to Paris to Melbourne, designating entire encampments as trash was a common tactic of municipal governments and their police forces. The ability to designate, and then forcibly treat, another group’s possessions as trash is a show of power, and is particularly ideological in nature.This is just not a case of clearing areas as efficiently as possible. Even objects of obvious worth, such as libraries, laptops, backpacks, and kitchen supplies, were indiscriminately trashed.
In the days after the New York City eviction, some Occupiers went to retrieve their belongings from the Sanitation station where police said they were “storing” them. The hundreds of books from the People’s Library were of particular concern. The books and other belongings had been compacted in the truck and dumped to the concrete floor, effectively destroying them. They had clearly been subject to identical treatment as regular trash.
Not only do the Mayor’s office, police and dominant media control the terms of public conversations about Occupy in terms of sanitation so Occupiers have to constantly demonstrate their cleanliness in public, but more importantly, such derogatory symbolism rests on a binary: clean and dirty, safe and dangerous, us and them. This is the contest between Bloomberg and his police, and New York City Occupiers. The Mayor and police work to make the Occupiers Other, and Occupiers strive to exercise their rights as citizens to assemble and protest. This contest is often fought in terms of filth and waste.
For example, before the eviction of Liberty Plaza, Mayor Bloomberg told Occupiers they would have to leave the park for cleaning. In response, the OWS Sanitation Working Group called for a park-wide, OWS-initiated clean up. Bloomberg had ruled that the Occupation was unsanitary and so the city would have to clean up after them, while OWS maintained that they were good citizens and took care of their space. Hundreds of protesters scrubbed Liberty Plaza until it sparkled and there was no possible material evidence of unsanitary conditions. The “cleaning eviction” was cancelled. When Liberty was raided one month later, Bloomberg claimed it was due to his mounting concern that “the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community.”
Part 2: Anti-Occupy Tactics- Moral Trash
Tactics of making waste and trash out of the belongings and encampments of Occupiers did not stop at the material level. As many Occupiers know, the mainstream media, municipal governments and the police also used filth rhetorically to classify Occupy.
As the images above attest, slippage between moral and material filth is foundational to anti-Occupy rhetoric. Many of the images are drawings, cartoons, or illustrations rather than documentary photographs, which highlights the role of filth in the popular or opposition’s imagination.
The contest of filth and belonging is not new. The recorded history of those in power seeing threats to their social order as “filth” stretches as far back as medieval times. More recently, Ezra Pound’s Cantos regarded “the multitudes in the ooze,” citizens and their political leaders, as a flood of excreta, with democracy as a sea of swampy sewage. In contrast, Pound’s description of his desired enlightened dictator was neat and tidy, even shinning. In the last three centuries, the rhetoric of waste has usually been class-based, where the bourgeois “[condemns] the excremental working classes,” a pattern suited to a movement protesting the yawning gap between the rich and poor (Inglis 2010: 216). In every recorded case described by Inglis, filth and waste are used to describe the inferior, unregulated, disorderly and dangerous Other that pose some threat to the system of rule.
Within this understanding of the role of waste in protest, the seemingly contradictory acts of Bloomberg, the police, and other opponents to Occupy whereby they decry waste even as they create waste by turning entire encampments into trash make sense. They are methods to define and control what they see as dangerous disorder, specifically a danger to dominant social order. These are exercises in classing protesters as non-citizens. As Them. As Other. As Trash and Dirt.
Part 3: Occupy Tactics - Occupy’s Waste Infrastructure
One of the unique aspects of the Occupy movement compared to similar movements is the encampments. In these densely populated impromptu urban settlements, perfect strangers have to live together. In this context, ideals for how the world should work must be put into practice on the ground.
First and foremost, there must be toilets. There were hundreds, even thousands of people at Liberty Plaza on any given day before and after the eviction, and few accessible toilets in nearby businesses. Protesters had to figure out a way to rent, pay for, and site sani-potties. In New York, this meant an alliance with the United Federation of Teachers’ to place the sani-potties in the union’s loading dock. The UFT’s president said, “we are happy to help Occupy Wall Street to continue to be a good neighbor.” There was also a laundry service at Liberty, recycling stations, and, of course, the Sanitation Working Group, a facet of every Occupy encampment around the world.
Various infrastructures for sanitation were, and continue to be, part of a system of citizenship within the Occupy movement. Signs in Zucotti Park announced: “We are all part of the sanitation effort,” “We at Sanitation uphold the Good Neighbor Policy, which is a great guideline of our values and respect for each other in this community,” and “Thank your sanitation workers! It starts from the ground floor.” These services and signs were part of the rules and values of citizenship in the Zucotti encampment, all of which mirrored what Occupiers expect and demand from the 1%. According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, “dirt” is all about maintaining good citizenship, where beliefs and practices about filth and contagion uphold social values and what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The way Occupiers treat dirt and trash is symbolically similar to the City’s efforts to alienate them: in both situations, dirt is about maintaining a set of ordered relations, and rejecting inappropriate elements. For Occupiers, these ordered relations involved respect, sobriety, and cooperation. One of the three community rules at Liberty Plaza, drafted through a consensus process, was “Keep it clean. This plaza and these flowers are important to the community. Our ability to uphold the beauty of this park well represents our commitment to a better world.”
Very often, the cleanliness of the park was articulated as a direct testament to protester’s desires for just, “clean” politics. Signs declared, “Today we clean up our community, tomorrow we clean up Wall Street,” and admonished, “If you can’t clean up after yourself, you can’t clean up this corrupt world.” This sentiment is so strong that one protester self-identified as a cleaner: “We [Occupiers] clean. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.”
Not only was basic maintenance part of the citizenship-building process of the Zucotti encampment, dirt, trash and discards were also used as the raw material to imagine a better world. At the height of the encampment, Zucotti boasted a grey water system as part of the People’s Kitchen, a bike-powered composter whose compost was cycled to several nearby community gardens, a recycling depot, and a reuse station to fuel the movement’s cardboard aesthetic. These environmental amenities, constructed from scratch for public use, were a concrete manifestation of the better world Occupiers seek. In this better world, waste and trash were a thing of the past, as citizens’ duties included using resources as fully as possible. In many conversations, prolific waste was seen as a necessary product of exploitative capitalist production.
Together, the rhetorics and actions of cleaning up and building a wasteless future come to bear directly on Occupy’s message for just citizenship from 100% of society. Not only is littering and leaving messes for others to clean a breach of citizenship in the park, it is also an ethical breach in politics and finance. Not only is wasting, trashing, and discarding an undesirable act in the park, it is also undesirable and intolerable from institutions outside of the park. Wall Street is a notoriously bad housekeeper. It is worth noting that after the eviction of Zucotti, the “ethics of doing your chores” continued as the Sanitation Working Group cleaned foreclosed houses for reoccupation, and cleanliness continues to be a goal in meetings and other shared spaces within Occupy, though in different forms.
A second way that trash, dirt and waste plays into the tactics of Occupy is the argument that things that ought not be discarded have been wasted and trashed by the wealthiest 1% of society, banks, governments, and corporations. Many Occupiers involved in the eviction of Zucotti whose belongings were “stored” in dump trucks carry their crushed laptops to public gatherings as artifacts of injustice. The People’s Library called a press conference after the eviction and piled hundreds of trashed books in front of reporters to demonstrate the intolerable politics of trash practiced by Bloomberg and the police.
The same tactics are also used in a more symbolic sense. Members of Occupy Student Debt donned graduation caps and gowns made of garbage bags to symbolize how their degrees and earning power after graduation were worthless under the weight of their debt. Occupy Museums built a miniature model of a house in Harlem threatened with foreclosure out of discards and presented it to the Museum of American Finance, asking that the depreciated status of the property be ensconced in an elite cultural institution as part of the master narrative of how American Finance affects everyday people. Various testimonials on the “I am the 99%” tumblr site make reference to how their lives, futures, or degrees are “going to waste” or “being wasted” because of the corruption and inadequacies of institutions meant to support them. In each case, the rhetoric of waste, trash, filth and discards are used to critique the disproportionate power of a minority to discard the rights and livelihoods of the 99%. There is an implicit argument here that a citizen or resident of the United States should not be treated like trash by definition of what it means to be an enfranchised person.
Like their opposition, Occupiers also use the rhetoric of dirt, filth, waste and uncleanliness to characterize corrupt governments, the financialization of governance, and the corporate priority of profit over good citizenship. The London encampment sported a much-photographed sign reading “Compost Capitalism.” A direct action from OWS involved scrubbing Wall Street with brooms to “clean up” Wall Street. Protesters threw garbage at the Barcelona Stock Exchange.
In conclusion, to focus on the physical and material aspects of dirt and trash within Occupy or to keep a tally chart of when and where trash appears and whether or not it actually carried dangers of tuberculosis as some media claimed is to miss the point of the roles of waste, discard, dirt and filth within the movement. Instead, we must focus on the different logics of transgression attendant to waste and dirt. We can see that ideas about filth, waste, and transgressions make up an ongoing political debate about the ideal society by both Occupiers and its opposition. While many new tactics that use trash and filth to argue for or against certain types of order have been innovated on both sides of the Occupy movement, these are the terms over which contests about what counts as tolerable and intolerable conditions, right and wrong, citizenship and the Other, acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what constitutes “out of placeness” have been waged for centuries, and will continue to be waged.
Douglas, M. (1984). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, Ark Paperbacks.
Inglis, D. (2011). “Dirt and denigration: The faecal imagery and rhetrocs of abuse.” Postcolonial Studies 16(39): 207-221.
This article was written by Max Liboiron, New York University, and edited by three members of Occupy Wall Street who wish to remain anonymous.
D. Asher Ghertner has a new article in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography entitled “Nuisance Talk and the Propriety of Property: Middle Class Discourses of a Slum-Free Delhi.” We’ve had quite a bit of scholarship on discard studies coming out of geography lately, and Ghertner’s paper on class, aesthetics, and “nuisance talk” is the latest addition.
Abstract: This paper examines the narratives through which associations of private property owners in Delhi depict slums as zones of incivility and “nuisance.” In tracing how this “nuisance talk” travels into and gains legitimacy in popular and state visions of urban space, the paper shows the role of discourse in justifying and enacting exclusionary urban imaginaries. As a lay term, nuisance is widely used to identify forms of aesthetic impropriety. But, as a primary element of environmental law, nuisance operates discursively as a catchall category allowing diverse private grievances to be expressed in terms of environmental welfare and the public interest. The widening depiction of slums as nuisances hence reworks the public/private divide, inserting once local codes of civility into the core of public life. By examining how nuisance talk circulates between property owners’ associations, the media, and the government, the paper shows how slum demolitions have become widely read as a form of environmental improvement.
D. Asher Ghertner writes about aesthetics, urban politics, and governmentality.
Currently “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement” is published as a forthcoming article in Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, but will soon be part of a special issue on the Occupy movement. From August until September, the special issue will have free and open access. When that open access ends, I will post an expanded version of the article on this blog with a full photographic archive.
Both Occupiers and our opponents have used waste and discards—figuratively and literally—in strategies to create and cultivate a new social movement on one hand, and to maintain power and control over protesters on the other. This study will look at the roles trash, waste, filth and discards have played in tactical decisions by both sides of the movement from the point of view of a New York City Occupier. Overall, the examples examined of trash, filth, discards and their attendant transgressions make up an ongoing political debate about the ideal society by both Occupiers and its opposition. These are the terms over which contests about what counts as tolerable and intolerable conditions, right and wrong, citizenship and the Other, acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what constitutes ‘out of placeness’ have been waged.
Liboiron, Max. (2012). “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement,” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, Routledge.
Occupy Wall Street, and specifically representatives of the People’s Library, are suing New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, its police commissioner Ray Kelly, the Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, and other City officials in the seizure and discard of 2,798 books during the raid on Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011.
If you are not familiar with the trashy tale of the People’s Library, which Discard Studies posted about in November, here is the refresher: In the middle of night on November 15, 2011, the NYPD violently evicted Occupy Wall Street’s encampment at Zucotti Park by order of Mayor Bloomberg. Property that was not carried away in the arms of Occupiers was loaded into City Sanitation garbage trucks, compressed, and taken to the 57th St. Sanitation Garage. Many of the 3,600 books were missing or damaged, along with laptops and other library equipment.
There are several notable aspects to this complaint filed today in US District Court. First, the suit is not about the money, and barely about the books. As reported by the Village Voice,
The lawsuit asks for $47,000 in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. But in recognition that sanitation employees, who the city doesn’t indemnify against punitive damages, might get stuck with the bill, Occupy Wall Street took the unusual step of limiting its request for punitive damages to $1,000.
Bloomberg and the police have been using City services, including Sanitation and the MTA (public transit system), in their efforts to quash protesters. In the past, Occupiers have cheered Sanitation Workers in the streets around lower Manhattan, but in a statement put out by the People’s Library, this enthusiasm stops short of the Commissioner:
We cannot allow the Mayor and his commissioners to get away with these violations of law and constitutional rights. We have now filed a Federal lawsuit to demand accountability from the city and its officials, demanding both compensatory and punitive damages.
It will be interesting– and telling– to see how the split between Sanitation workers and the Sanitation Commissioner play out in this complaint. Will it be analogous to descriptions of the relationship between Ray Kelly, NYC Police Commissioner and individual police brutality? Were Sanitation workers just following orders? Where there some “bad apples” in uniform the night of November 15th? Are they “out of control”? Since the Sanitation Department will probably never be afforded the power of the Police Department, some of these criticisms seem absurd. But the uneven power relationships between workers and their employers, including the ability for those in power to use workers to further their own ideological goals, is one of the many interrelated grievances of Occupy Wall Street.
The tricky politics of OWS vs the Sanitation Department via the People’s Library is only one of the unique aspects of the lawsuit. The second, at least for Discard Studies readers, is how the act of discarding a library by force is being leveraged to accomplish a great range of political work. The Librarians state that the goal of the suit is to obtain public acknowledgment that the raid as a whole was fundamentally unconstitutional: “We believe that the raid and its aftermath violated our First-Amendment rights to free expression, Fourth-Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure, and Fourteenth-Amendment rights to due process, as well as the laws of the City of New York regarding the vouchsafing of seized property.” The books, as owned, seized, destroyed, and missing media objects, are being used to address the entire set of issues brokered by the raid. Moreover, the lawsuit may bring documents and other evidence to light about the decision-making and planning process behind November 15th, which has remained out of the public sphere.
If the Discard Studies post in November was about the ability of the state to willfully discard citizen’s belongings as a show of power, this post is (happily) looking forward to how a citizen group’s ability to call out the power to discard has larger political ramifications for the use and abuse of power by the state. Bloomberg: you’d better watch what you discard.