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Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

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