It tastes acrid and unfamiliar. The smell is nasty. It fills your nose and mouth. It makes you uncomfortable. Your eyes start to irritate. If you’re indoors, you close the windows and turn on the fan. If you’re outdoors your mind turns to wanting to get indoors immediately. You look up again.
The smog is thicker, denser now. The sun has become a bright moon behind an intense smokescreen. From Newtown and the Queen’s Park Savannah you no longer see the skyline of either downtown Port of Spain nor the Laventille hillside. The smog has become a rolling cloud. It rolls in and covers everything.
Now this description might seem a little bit over the top. Yet for many in POS it is the exact situation that occurred this week.
It is a wake up call. What was once seen maybe as a “risk” – something with the potential to become a problem – is now a problem. Problems are distinct to risks because they are already damaging us. The La Basse is a problem growing by a 2011 estimate of 840 tons of rubbish a day. That’s 1100 trucks per day!
Maybe someone might offer a counter-argument that it isn’t the La Basse that is the problem but rather a certain type of person who sets fires in a garbage dump, which is the problem. Most would counter by suggesting it’s more significant to look at the issue of how and why humans produce so much garbage and waste rather than to blame people for burning it.
Rubbish in most societies has the ability to become overlooked. Many suggest this is because our modern consumer-capitalism way of life produces so much garbage, so constantly, and so casually that we tune out from it.
This invisibility is partly because many of us are encouraged to think: we make rubbish, but somebody else comes and takes it away.
For anthropologist Robin Nagle, the act of creating rubbish is a very intimate thing. Apart from when we are a sleep there is little time in the day when we do not produce some form of litter. The tissue to blow your nose, the packaging to eat or drink something, the tidying up your room or desk, these daily gestures produce material. They leave debris.
Nagle says this has created cognitive problems amongst large populations. We produce debris constantly yet somehow the consequences of such constant production have been “invisiblised”. Another cognitive problem is the perpetuation of an unsustainable economic system whose central premise, aside from accumulating wealth over all other considerations, is to produce more and more waste.
Many of us might not see ourselves culpable in this unsustainable madness. But the reality more accurately is that almost all of us consent everyday of our lives to this unsustainable way of life.
This is of course “false consciousness”. We make trash and it’s consequences become invisible. Yet it’s not invisible. It’s in a landfill or blowing around our streets or floating in our rivers and seas.
Hopefully news the Beetham landfill is to be closed is true. The landfill itself isn’t lined so polluted run-off leaks into the groundwater and goes directly into the Caroni Swamp with all the damage that does to the ecosystem there. But after it’s closed then what? No one should have to live near landfills and toxic (apocalyptic) smog.
In a refreshing and brutally honest commencement address at the UWI in 2010, the late Angela Cropper offered remarks about Caribbean culture. She broke down the culture into various aspects and challenged the students to prove her diagnosis wrong – of which she said she would be most happy.
She spoke of Caribbean culture as composing many different cultural parts. So there is a culture of materialism, of individualism, of violence, of civic complacency, of corruption, of nihilism, and one part she called a culture of half-arsed-ness.
Cropper described this half-arsed-ness as, “the Caribbean tendency to do only as little as would get us by; to go for cosmetic rather than fundamental changes…No doubt we have indulged in this tokenism because this is very easy to do.”
To borrow her thunder, we need to stop with the half-arsed-ness. It won’t be easy but we need to fundamentally transform the ways we think about trash and what each of us produces daily. Our future is at risk and it’s a problem we need to fix here and now.