Book reviews | by Andre Marais

by Feb 14, 2012Magazine

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers, New Press, 2005
On average, each American produces almost 4.2 pounds (2 kg) of garbage a day, almost a third of it in packaging. This staggering statistic starts Heather Rogers’s book on garbage, a beautifully researched book with a lot of numbers, facts, and figures – without burying its central argument. The stats are actually essential because the scale of the garbage problem is incredible. Americans produce 500 billion pounds of garbage every year; the country consumes 30% of the world’s resources and produces 30% of all its wastes. In this galvanising exposé of our consumer culture and its built-in-obsolescence and treadmill obsession to acquire the next best thing, Rogers takes us through the enormous ecological toll thereof. I think perhaps a more accurate subtitle could have been The Social Consequences of Garbage. The book offers lessons for emerging societies like South Africa in the throes of conspicuous consumption, where critical anti consumerist voices are few and far between.
In asking where it all goes, Rogers tells us about the fascinating history of rubbish, although she concentrates essentially on the last 100 years. She debunks the myth that garbage has always existed. Instead she shows how people had to be taught to waste. Before, people were either so poor that their belongings had to be used over and over again, or, more –significantly, their belongings were designed to be used over and over again.
Rogers introduces us to the roles that developed in a time of low garbage levels: the men and women who collected human waste to sell to farmers, and the people who swept roads clear of horse manure to facilitate an easy crossing. Yet, the central theme of Rogers’s book is the way in which modern capitalism created our ‘garbage problem’. In its desperate drive to sell commodities, it found that objects that lasted did not make as much money, so capitalism invented disposability, selling it to consumers as convenience. Hence we have disposable bottles, disposable razors, and disposable nappies. This flawed logic organises our production and consumption patterns.
It was after WW2 that the idea really took off. The car industry was the most innovative in this respect. In the 1950s, Detroit could build far more cars than it could sell. Rogers describes how car manufacturers convinced car owners ‘to get rid of still functioning vehicles by tapping into the psychology of aesthetic desire’. General motors planned to overhaul the entire design for each model every year. In the words of a Ford executive, ‘the change in appearance of models each year increases car sales’.
To combat waste we are often urged to recycle. However, this is very much a diversion. The ‘please recycle this product when finished’ label that often reads on the outside of a drink gives the manufacturer some green credo, even though they are producing millions of ‘use once’ tins. The recycling industry gives the false impression that something is being done about waste and makes people stop questioning why the stuff is produced in the first place.
So why don’t we have re-usable bottles and why do we need disposable razors? In a fascinating chapter, Rogers examines how packaging companies in 1950s America were well aware of these questions. ‘Keep America Beautiful’ is the most famous anti-litter campaign in history. Contrary to popular belief, it was not started by an environmentalist, but by packaging companies that wanted to shift the blame for waste onto the individual consumer.
In the obscenity of all of this, competing companies soon found that extra packaging, disposable containers or ever-changing marketing materials gave the competitive edge over rivals who remained stuck in the same old re-usable bottles stage. Companies like McDonald’s, with their ‘send it back’ –policy, found that recycle containers allowed them to continue manufacturing disposable commodities and claim that it was eco-friendly. Recycling can never be the answer, as Greenpeace discovered that 50% of plastic sent abroad was so contaminated it could not be recycled.
This book is a useful resource and strengthens our argument that capitalism is inherently wasteful. If we are to save our planet we will fundamentally have to change how the society uses, produces, and regards material goods that currently occupy our lives in such a huge way. In short we will have to reexamine our very relationship with commodities. Few books have such immediate relevance in our daily lives. As Heather Rogers concludes, ‘all those traded appliances, cars, clothes, and the mountains of wasted packaging are actually not the product of an economy that delivers its benefits to most people. On the contrary, the biggest beneficiaries of trash-rich-marketplace are those at the top. Garbage is the detritus of a system that unscrupulously exploits not only nature, but also human life and labour.”
So comrades, the next time you BUY ask WHY!

SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa, edited by Sokari Ekine, Pambazuka Press, 2010
The recent role of SMS technology in the revolutions in North Africa is perhaps overstated at times. It no doubt played a complementary role rather than being a central component in the revolutions. This book predates those events and contains essays and case studies that examine how SMS has been used in Africa for activism and mobilisation. Essays include a report by Amanda Atwood on Kubusana experiences in Zimbabwe setting up mobiles as a means of sharing much-needed news outside of government propaganda. Another essay deals with the collection of data on children’s rights violations in the DRC in 2004. A fascinating piece by Tanya Notleys and Becky Faiths called ‘Mobiles in a Box –  Developing A Toolkit with Grassroots Human Rights Advocates’ recounts the work and tests mobile support systems for activist groupings fighting for social change.
The book provides readers with a decent understanding of the state of mobile SMS usage in Africa today. The essays are written by developers, activists, and researchers who are committed to the continent, and they cover the various ways in which SMS can be applied for advocacy work – everything from alerts about political unrest to sharing health information. Instead of projecting technology as the panacea and solution, it is modest in assessing its uses in social organising. A useful book for activists everywhere in an otherwise under-researched area.
Battle of the Classes
Dear Paulo: Letters from Those Who Dare Teach, edited by Sonia Netto, Paradigm, 2008
This book is for any teacher caving under the pressure of the job and at the end of their tether, feeling defeated, isolated and demoralised by the system. It is a heartfelt response from teachers, academics, and community workers to the work of the internationally renowned Brazilian revolutionary education theorist Paulo Freire. It brings together new teachers terrified of having to confront their first day in the classroom with seasoned academics whose work has largely been inspired by Freire. It is both a loving memorial and a call to action to work and strive for social justice, praxis and democracy –  ideals championed, envisioned, and brilliantly articulated by Paulo.
Teachers around the world currently find themselves in a precarious situation subjected to privatisation and rigid accountability agendas, deskilled and robbed of autonomy. I think what this book does is inspire hope. The letters in the book come from a wide range of teachers, from pre-school to graduate school teachers from urban, suburban and rural settings, with students who are both poor and privileged –  an amalgam of teachers from all countries. Highly recommended.


Edward Carpentier –A Life of Liberty and Love, Shiela Rowbotham, Verso, 2008
Before the South African writer Olive Schreiner returned from Europe in the early 1900s, she was part of a close circle of intellectuals that included Eleanor Marx and the person that is the subject of this magnificent biography written by one of Britain’s leading feminist writers.
The gay socialist writer Edward Carpentier had an extraordinary impact on the cultural and political landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A mystic advocate of free love, recycling, nudism, women’s suffrage and prison reform, his work anticipated the sexual revolution of the 1960s. This universally acclaimed biography portrays his life and ideas in relation to the social aesthetic and intellectual movements of his day and explores his friendships with figures such as Walt Whitman, EM Foster, Isadora Duncan and Emma Goldman. Carpentier’s books were burnt by the Nazis and other fascist regimes and remain controversial to this very day. I learnt a lot from this book and highly recommend it.

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