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Discussion session: Urban political ecology of waste

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  • UserDr. Tatiana Thieme, Dept. of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • ClockTuesday 12 November 2013, 13:00-14:00
  • HouseSeminar Room.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Judith Schleicher.

The world’s least urbanized countries have been the most rapidly urbanising ones since the 1960’s. As the waves of wage migration in rapidly urbanising cities in the Global South outpace the availability of formal wage labour and housing provisions, most urban growth in infrastructural and economic terms is marked by makeshift forms of improvisation and adaptation. One of the material signs of rapid urbanisation and its associated challenges concerning availability of housing, wage labour, and basic services is the abundance of garbage. The production and visibility of various forms of waste in cities like Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, or Sao Paolo, elicit paradoxical responses: on the one hand, alarmist narratives evoke the public and environmental hazards as entire neighbourhoods live in close proximity to dumpsites and landfills and ill-served (if at all) by the municipality; and on the other hand grassroots strategies to cope with, manage, and live alongside ‘garbage’ indicate that there are growing waste economies providing both work opportunities, local services, and innovative ways to re-use and re-purpose seemingly discarded materials. What if we saw beyond the paralyzing apocalyptic scenario of “wastelands” and re-examined the very notion of waste in political ecology terms? While the scholarship on the political ecology of rural environments, agricultural livelihoods and conservation practices is well established, applying the language and lens of political ecology to urban environments, particularly waste, has not received as much scholarly attention.

In this session, I propose we consider the unlikely and generally overlooked “resource” of waste, to discuss the ways in which waste becomes the locus for contested power struggles and politics over the management of resources, reflective of contradictory notions of value, ecology, worthlessness, consumption, boundaries of the self, as well as the material, infrastructural and practical logistics of discarding, collecting, re-using and re-inserting use and exchange value into “rubbish” materials. Paying particular attention to the discourses, production and reproduction of wasted goods and the invisible sanitation workers who take garbage “away,” I will draw on my PhD research in Nairobi, Kenya to ground the discussion, in particular relating to the complex power relations at different levels of the city that shape the urban waste economy and the particular narratives of youth self-proclaimed “hustlers” of waste work. I suggest that these waste-based “hustle” economies in the urban informal sector might be considered as post-capitalist alternatives, reflecting certain aspects of the “peasant moral economy” in their diversification of risk and emphasis on the small-scale and limits to growth, but very much entangled with and replicating capitalist relations.

For some background reading, please see Garth Myers’s Chapter 1: Towards a Political Ecology of African Cities in Disposable Cities: Garbage, Governance and Sustainable Development in Urban Africa (2005).

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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