Waste, Social Change and the Politics of Everyday Life in Twentieth Century Britain

The following is the text of a short piece I submitted to the ongoing Friends of the Earth policy review:

Where are the resources to transform the relations between humans and their environment to be found today? One of the common answers to this question is in the combination between technology and government policy. However apparently attractive this answer may appear, in so far as it leaves out of account the everyday lives of real people, and their desires and capacities to transform their own worlds, it is inadequate to the tasks ahead. Policy alone does not allow us to ask what our common challenges are, or what kind of environment or society we wish to live in. To address these questions, we must look at the level of everyday life.

One of the central environmental questions of everyday life in twentieth-century Britain was that of waste disposal. In the 1900s there was widespread advocacy of incineration as a disposal technology by many experts. By the 1930s, controlled tipping (landfill) had come to serve this role. The objective of such technologies was to render the city sustainable by cleansing it of filth and refuse, the products of which were deposited upon marginal areas. This story is well-known. What is less well-know is the sometimes vehement opposition of those affected by refuse disposal. Local authorities, central government and private companies were all subject to complaints by residents affected. One of the key issues was the priority afforded by experts to the needs of the city over those of rural/marginal urban areas, where disposal sites were often located. At stake was a fundamental power struggle to control technology and the privileging of urban space and different conceptions of the value of nature. Opponents of controlled-tipping were often at pains to protect old-quarries and pieces of ‘waste’ land from being transformed from spaces of play and enjoyment of nature, to flat artificial spaces of plain, boring utility. Indeed, in everyday opposition to refuse tipping the defence of play was as often as important as the defence of nature.

The 1970s saw the first attempt to politically mobilise the power of these everyday politics in the rise of a recycling movement propounded by organisations such as Friends of the Earth. In its early days recycling was very much a ‘people’s’ movement, coming out of local communities as a political intervention into what was seen as the excesses of consumerism. Unfortunately, this link between recycling and everyday life was diluted in the 1980s and 1990s, as recycling schemes were increasingly subsumed by local authorities and then private industry. Today, recycling imposes a great deal of household labour, the profits of which go largely to privatised waste collection and disposal firms. However, the everyday politics of waste are still with us in, for example, the vehement opposition across the country to the imposition of waste incinerators as the ‘green’ alternative to landfill. Historically speaking, this opposition is quite right to be sceptical, as technologies of disposal have come and gone during the twentieth century, often with little regard to the needs of people or environment.

In terms of social change, all this suggests that any really effective change needs to go far beyond relying on the disciplinary mechanisms of policy and technology, which privilege some people and spaces (cities) over others (country, suburbs). Instead, it needs to devise means to reactivate the concerns of people for their everyday environments, and to support their struggles to protect them as meaningful spaces. An everyday politics of environmentalism may be the most effective untapped resource for social and environmental transformation yet. It might partly be possible to tap these energies with history itself, and by careful listening to the knowledge and memories of places and spaces facing the pressures of, for example, climate change.

Leave a Reply