Wasted: a polemic!

Students walking outside Manchester Museum which is partially swamped with rubbish
...Want Not (2018) Screenprint on paprer 310 x 550
Waste Not… Hebden Bridge is overwhelmed with rubbish (2018, Screenprint on Paper, 310 x 550mm)

At the invitation of @artistsrespondingto and inspired by a paper in Nature in December showing that the mass of our waste now exceeds (or will do by 2040) total biomass on earth, I was taken back to work I made for Rubbish Night at the Museum in April 2018. This blog polemic is the result.

The works this short account are included in the Issue 6 of Artists Responding To Zine published this month:

These poster-like works were commissioned as a stimulus for discussion at ‘A Rubbish Night at the Museum’ held at Manchester Museum in April 2018 brininging together local communities, organisations and those responsible for managing waste and our streets. Convened by local Moss Side residents’ group ‘Upping It’ fed up with the state of their streets and alleyways, there is a blog about the event here: https://www.uppingit.org.uk/rubbish-night-museum/. Waste Not… is an image of Hebden Bridge with a fly-tipped pile of rubbish in Trafford Park superimposed and …Want Not is Manchester Museum (in the University of Manchester) superimposed with rubbish from Ancoats in inner Manchester.

Students walking outside Manchester Museum which is partially swamped with rubbish
…Want Not (2018) Screenprint on paprer 310 x 550

WASTED: a Blog Polemic

There are a number of ways in which species die out.  A lack of food or water. Pressure from predators. Changes to habitat.  Many species on Earth are suffering from an intelligent predator able to bring about all these things. Some are starving. Some are poisoned. Some ore losing their homes.

But that predator is determinedly going about another lethal experiment which may yet result in its own extinction alongside that of many others.

A scientific article published in Nature last December[1] documented the scale of that experiment.  Depending on how it is measured, at some point between 2020 and 2040, humans will have created more waste than the entire biomass (living material) on the planet.

A petri dish inoculated with a single celled organism sees exponential growth in numbers until a limiting factor is reached which slows and then stops that growth.  The limiting factor can be nutrients or moisture, but more often it is the organism’s own waste.  In an early stage of Homo sapiens’ own exponential growth, Malthus wrote in 1798 of the limits of food supply leading to ‘inevitable checks’ on population growth.  In fact the intelligence of this species, coupled with a ruthless exploitation of all others, has not checked the population – but he was right in his prediction of continuing ‘poverty and misery’ persisting.

Text Box: Waste Not… (2018) Screenprint on paper 310x550

But it now seems inevitable without extraordinary economic, technological and social change, that it is our relentless creation of waste which will see us humbled.  From concrete and aggregates to metals and plastic our waste increases exponentially.  So to does the weightless waste of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere further constraining natural life support systems.

It is hard not to feel powerless.  As a citizen of one of the most privileged and wasteful nations on the planet, I am responsible.  So are you.

But there are hopeful glimmers.  Black Lives Matter is seriously challenging, in a way which has traction, the inequalities based on privilege not just here, but around the globe.  The school strikers are not accepting business as usual in the carbon economy – and are getting noticed.  Covid 19 has re-enforced our interconnectedness with one another and the natural world, challenging conventional wisdom of values and consumption.

Phil Barton   February 2021


[1] Elhacham et al (2020) Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass, Nature Vol 588, 17 December 2020, pp 442 – 444

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