Hervé Corvellec – The Anthropocene is the Age of Waste

In his keynote speech Hervé Corvellec argues, that the Anthropocene is the age of waste because converging forces have made possible normalization of waste and habituation of wasting. He further argues, that the social sciences and humanities have a potential to unfold the normalization of wasting practices, and offer possibilities for creating counter-movement for de-normalizing of waste.

Summary of the lecture in a text form can be found here.

On the Multiple Spatio-temporal Scales of the Wasteocene

A Comment to Hervé Corvellec By Olli Pyyhtinen

In his keynote, Prof. Hervé Corvellec proposes a fascinating perspective on the much-discussed question of the Anthropocene. Corvellec insists that Anthropocene, the age of the human, is best understood as the age of waste, Wasteocene, and argues that ‘waste production has been instrumental in making the Anthropocene’. Therefore, if we want to understand how we have ended up in the Anthropocene, so Corvellec suggests, we must turn our eyes to how wasting and polluting have become institutionalized and normalized on a large scale.

Indeed, we have colonised the soil, the marine environment, and the air with our waste to the extent that there is no longer any untouched nature, ‘uncontaminated by human remains’, but ‘[t]rash becomes nature, nature becomes trash’ (Yaeger 2008: 332). Yet, there are also less evident landscapes of waste besides the more visible ones, such as the Great Pacific garbage patch, littered beaches, smelly heaps of landfills, or the smutty cityscape of overflowing trash bins, that are widely circulated in our cultural imagery. Let us think, for example, the clean, smooth surfaces and perfectly ordered spaces – the sleek modern homes displayed in interior magazines, shopping centres, or luxury hotels, for instance – presented and idealised by the contemporary consumer culture. They are no less unsettling waste-wise, even though waste is nowhere to be seen in them. In those well-ordered spaces with glossy surfaces, we meet again the story of the city of Leonia by Italo Calvino that Corvellec discusses in his keynote. They have our collectively produced mountains of waste as their reverse side, and they hide the repercussions of our intensive wasting. Judging by those spaces alone, one would easily get the impression that things would simply vanish once we are done with them. The reality is, however, different. No matter how hard we bin them, flush them down the drain, and have them carted away, things refuse to disappear. Waste simply cannot be made to go away. Attending to the ubiquity of waste implied by the notion of Wasteocene dispels the fantasy of the Away to which waste could simply be expelled so that we can carry on our wilfully ignorant lives. Waste is not contained in some vague imaginary ‘out there’, but every place is a place of waste. We are inextricably entangled with waste in complex patterns of economical, ecological, political, and corporeal interdependency. Human togetherness always implies being also together with waste, and we share a joint future with it whether we liked it or not.

Corvellec’s keynote suggests that social sciences have a lot to offer to the analysis of the Anthropocene by increasing our understanding of its practical root cause (i.e. systematic wasting). In this short comment, I would like to make a modest supplement to this suggestion. Besides giving us a better sense of the practices, processes, and systems that have led humanity to the present predicament, to me social sciences can also significantly help us grasp the spatiotemporal scales of the Anthropocene/Wasteocene. Our contemporary trashscapes change humanity’s relationship to the Earth in a profound manner. By drawing from philosopher Michel Serres (1995), today waste could be said to comprise a world-object in that it has one or more dimensions compatible with one of the world’s physical dimensions. With its waste, our civilization has left its mark on – and thereby appropriated – every corner of the world. Instead of ‘being-there’, Dasein (Heidegger), the human is now being-everywhere. While previously our physical existence was bounded by locality, with rather weak effects on the world in its entirety, now humanity has become a physical variable in the physical system of the Earth, comparable to the tectonic plates (Serres 1995). We pollute the whole Earth and its every part.

Of course, the Wasteocene concerns not only such large-scale ‘entities’ (or relational fields) as the marine environment or the climate, but it exists simultaneously on multiple scales, starting from the tiniest grains of existence such as microplastics, incineration ash particles, and dust. This challenges the conventional sociological understanding of scale that we meet in the nested vertical hierarchy embodied by the micro–macro distinction. Waste materials and their fluxes are much too heterogeneous and messy to fit the pre-given compartmentalized categories offered by the labels ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ (for a rebuttal of the micro–macro model, see Pyyhtinen 2015; 2017).

Waste also unsettles our accustomed ideas of what is ‘small’ or ‘large’ in the first place. While for example the micro- and nano-plastics found in oceans appear remarkably tiny, they have far-reaching effects and are almost ubiquitous, acting on the life of oceans, on the food chains of sea birds, fish, and ourselves, too: the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in most plastic bottles enacts not only new kinds of social, cultural, and economic relations and practices, but also new waste realities. All this makes the plastic particles in fact quite large. What counts as small and large ultimately depends on relations and amounts: the more related an entity is, and the further the relays of associations it is part of extend, and the more abound it is, the ‘bigger’ it is. To me, Corvellec’s point that wasting has become systematic and normalized on multiple scales illustrates this nicely. One discarded plastic bottle may not seem to be that big of a deal, but when less than half of the 480 bn bottles sold in 2016 were collected for recycling and only 7 percent of those collected were transformed into new bottles, the aggregate effects become gigantic. All in all, instead of judging whether things are ‘big’ or ‘small’, it might be better to look at whether they are ‘linked or separate, aggregated or disaggregated’ (Latour & Hermant 2006: 50). Size or scale is entirely dependent on the chains of associations and relays of actions an entity or a practices is part of. Whereas entities or practices woven with various activities, elements, locations, and temporalities are more effective, entities with only few associations and links to other entities (and entities very few in number) remain small, insignificant, and almost without any effects.

So far I have discussed spatial scales alone. What about the temporal scales of the Wasteocene? To grasp the presence and effects of waste across society as well as the challenges it poses, I would argue that it is not enough to examine its multiple scales only in spatial terms (a dimension with which the invigorated fairly recent discussions and debates around scale in human geography have almost exclusively been preoccupied (see e.g. Brenner 1998; 2001; Howitt 1998; 2003; Marston 2000; Marston et al. 2005; Jones et al. 2007; Fraser 2010), but it is at least equally important to attend to its temporal scales, too. For example, much of the plastic produced globally is used in packaging, which is treated as disposable, manufactured for single use. And yet, plastic is a remarkably durable material, as it can take up to 100, 200, or even 1,000 years for plastic objects to decompose. It is important to incorporate the anticipated waste-futures of consumer objects, present already in their present, in the analyses of their production, consumption, and use. This dimension of future can be conceptualized aptly by means of the notion of deep time (Ialenti 2020), used more commonly in geology to refer to geologic events which have a time scale significantly greater than that of human lives and plans (Hora & Von Winterfeldt 1997; Wilkinson 2005). Importantly, the wasteness of plastic packaging, for example, does not appear only after it has been disposed, but it ‘seems to be inscribed in its form and function, in its smooth surface, in its very plastic materiality’ (Hawkins 2017: 18). The deep time of the discarded material is folded into the material and our relations with it from the very beginning, and it is important to take this temporality into consideration. Waste is what will be left of us; it is the material residue of our existence and civilization. It is in and through waste that our present persists past its term.

All in all, considering all the intensive and normalized wasting that has continued for a long time, humanity has been so indifferent to the Earth, that perhaps we should call the Anthropocene the ‘Anthrobscene’ (see Parikka 2015) and the Wasteocene the Wasteobscene. We have treated the Earth as it were our own – let me remind you, once again, the idea of appropriation through dirt and filth. We have polluted it ‘with hardly [any] costs or responsibilities’, as Corvellec stresses. It is as if our shit was not shit at all (and polluting the Earth) but clean; the French word propre at the root of appropriation means not only ‘proper’, ‘characteristic of’, and ‘one’s own’, but also ‘clean’. We have made the Earth carry the costs of our wasteful and excessive mode of life that none of us have been willing to accept, a situation to which Corvellec refers in his keynote with the notion of ‘negative externalities’. Indeed, our laws and contracts, much like the narratives of modernization and globalization, for example, have typically only cared for the actions, communication, and conflicts of human beings and remained blind to nature (Serres 1995; Pyyhtinen 2021). Perhaps one way to create ‘counter-movement’ to the normalization of waste that Corvellec calls for is, therefore, to acknowledge the Earth as an actor that participates in public life. In the book Natural Contract, published originally in French almost 30 years ago, in 1992, Michel Serres insisted that in addition to the contracts that we have between humans, we need to envisage ‘a new pact to sign with the world: the natural contract’ (Serres 1995: 15). Today, Serres’s manifesto seems more actual than ever. There is an urgent need for ‘terrestrial’ thinking (Latour 2018) in the Wasteobscene.


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About the speakers

Professor Hervé Corvellec

Hervé Corvellec is a Professor of Business Administration at the Department of Service Management and Service Studies, Campus Helsingborg, Lund University. Corvellec’s field of research and teaching is organization theory. He has been working with infrastructural issues, such as public libraries, railroad planning, wind power siting, and risks in public transportation. For the last decade, he has been building a vibrant research network, focusing on the issue of waste, especially on the issues of circular economy and waste prevention. In his keynote, Corvellec suggests that the Anthropocene is the age of waste.

Associate Professor Olli Pyyhtinen

Dr. Olli Pyyhtinen is an Associate Professor at the New Social Research programme (NSR) at Tampere University, Finland. His research intersects social theory, philosophy, science and technology studies, economic sociology, and the study of art, and he is the author of for example The Simmelian Legacy: A Science of Relations (2018), More-than-Human Sociology (2015), The Gift and Its Paradoxes (2014), and Simmel and the Social (2010), and co-author of Disruptive Tourism and its Untidy Guests (2014) and Tervetuloa jäteyhteiskuntaan! (2019; ‘Welcome to the Society of Waste!’).