Recognising that waste is central, not peripheral, to everything we design, make and do is key to transforming the future
Justin McGuirk is the chief curator at the Design Museum in London. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian and e-flux, among many others. He is the author of Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (2014).
The opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is problematic for many reasons, but there’s one that we rarely discuss. The ‘nature vs culture’ dualism leaves out an entire domain that properly belongs to neither: the world of waste. The mountains of waste that we produce every year, the torrents of polluting effluent, the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases, the new cosmos of microplastics expanding through our oceans – none of this has ever been entered into the ledger under ‘culture’. Of all the products of human hands, it’s the oeuvre that no one wants to own, discuss or preferably even see. Yet it can’t be assimilated into ‘nature’ either, at least not in the way that pre-industrial waste has been for millennia. This new, ‘improved’ waste is incompatible with Earth – too chemical, too durable, too noxious and, ultimately, too voluminous.
Waste is precisely what dissolves the distinction between nature and culture. Today, when the very weather is warped by the climate crisis, and plankton thousands of metres deep have intestinal tracts full of microplastics, the idea of a nature that is pristine or untouched is delusional. Nature and waste have fused at both planetary and microbiological scales. Similarly, waste is not merely a byproduct of culture: it is culture. We have produced a culture of waste. To focus our gaze on waste is not an act of morbid negativity; it is an act of cultural realism. If waste is the mesh that entangles nature and culture, it’s necessarily the defining material of our time. We live in the Waste Age.
If we look at the material ages of human history, from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age through to the Steam Age and the Information Age, we get the illusory sense that hard things are dematerialising. In fact, the opposite is true. The Steam Age launched a great explosion of material goods that has mushroomed exponentially ever since, while statistics about our current rates of waste numb the mind. What does it mean to say that, by 2050, as much as 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have accumulated in landfills or the natural environment? What does it mean to observe that more than a million plastic bags are consumed every minute globally, and that this amounts to between 500 billion and 5 trillion a year? Such numbers present a seemingly precise quantification yet one that’s utterly ungraspable. The average person just translates them into ‘a shitload’.
This is where the naming of ages becomes useful. The Anthropocene, or the age of human-driven planetary change, helps to evoke the new geological layer we are forming, a new planetary crust composed of our fossil-fuel residues, bottle tops and cigarette butts. Could we imagine any more literal entanglement of nature and waste? Some prefer a more political definition, the Capitalocene, which points the finger at a specific economic system: capitalism. But to say that we live in a Waste Age is to acknowledge both its geological and economic dimensions. It is to acknowledge that culture produces not just architecture and ingenious devices, but also a million plastic bags a minute. It is to acknowledge that growth is entirely dependent on the relentless and ruthlessly efficient generation of waste.
Is this an ungenerous and pessimistic take on human activity in the 21st century? On the contrary. Invoking the Waste Age offers the opportunity for a radical shift in late-capitalist civilisation. Only by recognising the scale of the crisis can we reorient society and the economy towards less polluting modes of producing, consuming and living. The problem is that waste has always been a marginal issue, both literally and figuratively. It has been dumped in and on the peripheries, consigned to that mythical place called ‘away’. It has always been an ‘externality’, an unavoidable byproduct of necessary industrialisation. But it is now an internality – internal to every ecosystem and every digestive system from marine micro-organisms to humans. If waste truly were to be a central issue – brought into the heart of every conversation about how things are extracted, designed and disposed of – it would transform society beyond recognition. To invoke the Waste Age is to usher in the hope of a cleaner future…