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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.

Reading the Riots: An Environmental Problem

Landfill

Clearing away the waste

The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.

One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters  – and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.

If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them  into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).

This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.

What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)

It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.

In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.

It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians,  is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.

Protests, plastic bullets and plasticity

As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.

By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)

In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.

Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.

But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.

There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.

I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.

 

It seems like another country

I saw Channel 4 News’ story this evening about uncollected household rubbish. Living in a borough where wheelie bins have been de rigeur for a number of years now – honestly, I don’t know how we ever managed without them – it shocked me that there are still appear to many councils who collect household waste in the traditional black bin liners. Seeing the  mountains of black bags stuffed full with more than a week’s worth of  rubbish really did highlight the postcode lottery that appears to exist in household waste collection. At first, I thought it was just an outside of London thing but, no, even Haringey council was affected. I shudder to think what will happen with the public sector cuts.

Of course, the councils do have a good reason for stopping collections when there was heavy snow and ice, in the interests of safety. But I also understand that the situation is made worse by industrial action, with bin mean working to rule. Ok, so they have right to fair employment conditions, but what are they are not happy about? Apparently, they are taking industrial action because they could stand to lose up to £4,000, because the council has a legal obligation to equalise the pay of men and women doing equal work. All of a sudden, this industrial action seems quite chauvinistic – equality’s great but not where out interests are damaged. Now, that really does sound like another country – the past!

Eric Pickles – Liar, Liar

Captain SKA calls George Osborne, Nick Clegg and David Cameron liars. But it seems that the government as a whole suffers from pathological mendacity.

Even straight-talking, cuddly, Yorkshire man, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, can’t help being economical with the truth.

So, under the proposed Localism Bill, the government is going to repeal the power of local authorities to charge for waste collection – or, as he likes to call it, impose a bin tax or fine. (The power was given under sections 71-75 of the Climate Change Act 2008.)

Instead, the government wants to encourage local authorities to reward households according to how much they recycle. It cites Windsor and Maidenhead council as an example, where households are given points which can be redeemed at local businesses. (The same scheme is also operating in Halton borough council.)

What Eric Pickles fails to mention is that the whole point of charging for waste collection was never to be an extra source of revenue. The charges would have solely been used to fund some form of incentive for recycling (and the costs of administering the system). A ‘pay as you go’ recycling scheme would essentially be a way to redistribute money from the least environmentally conscious to the most environmentally consciousness. In a sense, it was a way for the state – or the local community – to recognise desirable behaviour.

So what’s the alternative? Well, the scheme operated by Windsor and Maidenhead Council and Halton Council are administered by Recyclebank. The incentives are funded from general taxation, from whatever the council saves by not having to fork out on landfill tax. But, as well the money only coming from the local community in the form of council tax and business rates, there is the additional source of the central government grant (and thus society at large). This isn’t exactly in keeping with the idea of localism and decentralisation that the government is trying to promote.

But, where is the actual money going? It is not going to the households based on how much they recycle – they are only getting points and vouchers. The hard cash is going businesses that take part in the scheme, according to the consumer choice. The state therefore is giving up control over the distribution of taxpayers’ money to the market. Furthermore, when the government talks about incentivising households, it is really redistributing money from individuals and households to business. In light of the last two years of bank bailouts and public sector cuts, incentivised recycling is not what it seems.

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