Hazardous Travels. Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy

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Hazardous Travels: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy

Dr. Simone M. Müller

Over the course of 1971, Egypt was struck by an epidemic of paralysis in water buffalos. The animals first developed paralysis in their hindquarters, then showed difficulty in breathing and trembling in the forelimbs. Over time, they could no longer urinate or defecate. After roughly two months of suffering, the animals had to be put down or died. Approximately 1200 to 1300 water buffaloes succumbed to this strange epidemic and many a family fortune vanished with the animals. Epidemiological investigation led to the suspicion that a new pesticide had caused the death of the water buffalos. Supported from a financial loan from US AID, Egypt had bought the pesticide from a company in the United States that had sought foreign markets for a product unsaleable in the United States. In the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, stricter consumer protection and environmental legislation, the pesticide had failed U.S. registration. Instead of being disposed of as hazardous waste in the United States, however, it resurfaced in Egypt where less strict laws were in place.

How did the trade with hazardous waste develop?

The story of Egypt’s water buffaloes is one of the first episodes in the history of the global waste economy and the commodification of toxic waste material within a global system of externalization and material mutability. To this day, the same materiality is not everywhere hazardous waste. Intricately linked to the environmental turn of the 1970s with its stricter legislations and rising costs for toxic disposals, industrial countries increasingly started dumping their unwanted toxics cheaply someplace else – with less strict and less expensive regulations. Often, these were places in the global South. By the 1980s, a fleet of hazardous waste barges, such as the infamous Khian Sea, roamed the world’s oceans in search for a dumping ground. Since the 1990s, it is primarily the industrial world’s electronic waste that finds its way to the global South for ‘recycling.’

                                      break the toxic waste habit klein

                              The Christian Science Monitor, ‘Break the Toxic Waste Habit’, 08/02/1993.

Hazardous Travels is the story of the global waste economy as a system of global externalization mechanisms through which one country dumps its toxins on another. These externalization mechanisms are integral part to an economic system that sustains its growth through the appropriation of cheap ‘waste land’ – or ghost acres as we call these lands in our research group – all around the world. In the end, the system creates a global geography of unequal valuations of life.

What can we learn from the history of global waste trade about environmentalism, global inequality, and the world economy?

Hazardous Travels extrapolates the changing structures and dynamics underlying the international trade in toxic (waste) material. The study weaves the analysis of economic and ecological theories and international regulations backing the global waste economy with their actual application in hazardous waste management. It aims to unveil the myriad construction processes of who and what constitutes hazardous waste and how and why the political, economic, and cultural construction of toxic materiality changed between the environmental turn of the 1960s and 1970s and the implementation of international regulation of toxic waste mobility in the 1990s. The story is told from an America in the world perspective. The United States are by far the largest producer of hazardous waste material in the world, but also one of the decisive key actors in attempts to frame international regulations on hazardous waste management.

How can we write a global environmental history?

Finally, the study combines an intellectual theoretical analysis with a material approach to toxicity studies. Hazardous chemicals are key actors in the story. This not only sheds new light on the political and economic processes so far exhibited in global waste studies, but also contributes to a material history of global environmental history writing.

Contact: simone.mueller@rcc.lmu.de