Trash, Pollution, and the Rural World

I have really enjoyed getting back into some scholarly habits the past couple weeks. I have even engaged in this primitive activity where I open a bound stack of paper and read the words, in order, written on each. I’ve heard that some scholars call it reading.

I was pretty excited to read some of the contributions to the Stephanie Foote’s and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s little volume called Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Culture, Social Justice (MIT 2012). The book collects a series of articles on the history of trash, waste, and rubbish, and grounds them, to varying degrees, in the cross-disciplinary nexus of material culture studies and critical theory. The book, however, avoids being too theory laden and manages to speak to practical issues as much as conceptual ones. This practical edge reflects a particular strength of recent work on the history of trash and discard.  

The article that caught my attention most in the volume was Phaedra Pezullo’s “What Gets Buried in a Small Town: Toxic E-Waste and Democratic Frictions in the Crossroads of the United States.” She looks at the politics surrounding the discard of PCB in Bloomington, Indiana and locates her treatment in a larger consideration of rurality and pollution in American (although arguably also in global) history. Marginal places, like the rural west (e.g. North Dakota or Alamogordo, New Mexico) become the settings for morally ambiguous practices. It is hardly a leap to apply many of these paper to my recent research in the Bakken Oil Patch in sparsely populated western North Dakota or role in excavating Atari games from a landfill at the edge of a small town in New Mexico. 

In fact, the long Western tradition of sparsely populated, “wild” places as the source of various kinds of corrupting influences (from the so-called Germanic hordes who supposedly destroyed the Roman world to the uncivilized “wildlings” in the Game of Thrones) has provided a context for activities that would be far more problematic in the more densely built up core. The willingness to treat the periphery in a different way also captures the binary logic of Western colonialism where behaviors and attitudes unacceptable in the core meet with ambivalence in colonial places.

This process of internal colonization follows the rough and irregular edge of a rural-urban divide across the United States. Pollution caused by extractive industries in, say, the Bakken Oil Patch in western North Dakota, is simply the “price of progress” for residents of the core and for small communities who see sacrifice as a road to deeper integration with the core and access to economic and political power. In Pezullo’s study of Bloomington, Indiana, the social, economic, and political power of companies like Westinghouse helped to protect the use of PCBs in manufacturing in Indiana even as the risks became visible and known to the community. The absence of strong counterweights to wealthy and powerful corporate interests pervades the Bakken as well.  

Pezullo’s observations on pollution in rural America could likewise be applied to the dumping of thousands of unsold and returned Atari video games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This moment in time reflects the “remoteness” of Almagordo from the prying eyes of shareholders. The presence of White Sands missile range nearby only reinforces the suitability for this sparsely populated stretch of rural land for activities set apart from the settlements and interests of most Americans. 

The next paper in the book looked at the discard and collection of trash on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Further chapters considered the pollution present in minority neighborhoods impacted by hurricane Katerina in New Orleans. Most of the papers considers the social construction of discard practices and pollution as mediated through varying degrees of economic and political remoteness. For anyone interested in grasping better how trash fits into our modern (and arguably premodern) world, the studies contained in this volume are valuable reads. 

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