This week in ENVS, we examined the last two objects of the textbook—french fries and e-waste. The textbook traced the history of the potato from its origins as inedible, bitter and toxic wild varieties native to South America to the modern domesticated monoculture. The Columbian Exchange brought Andean potatoes to Europe, where they were initially regarded with suspicion, only cultivated when and where cereal crops failed. The Russet Burbank potato, developed in 1872, has since dominated the commercial market, due to both its disease resistance and, later, its suitability to frozen fry production. Just like any other monoculture, industrial potatoes for the fast food market require staggeringly large chemical inputs and displacement of smaller-scale, independent subsistence to maximize “efficiency.” This monoculture advances under a guise of profit-driven rationality, yet I think we should realize how irrational and destructive the process of engineering the world into a carefully controlled and fertilized monoculture can be. Let us not forget what happened to the last great potato monoculture.
E-waste is an incredibly tangible example of a spatial fix in neoliberal capitalism. Pictures from Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and Guiyu, China look essentially dystopian. Even without knowledge about the lead and mercury content of e-waste, images of children wandering through endless heaps of discarded electronics are visceral reminders of modern inequality. At these basically illegal dumping sites, the sky is filled with an ominous wafting smoke and a palpable sense of desperation. The economic value of these dumps provides an additional sinister twist to the situation; from a certain perspective, “informal recyclers” are just reprocessing materials into raw material inputs. This hazardous exploitation of unemployed laborers in developing countries, however, is hardly what comes to mind when one thinks of recycling. I think this examination of e-waste on the disposal/recycling side offers an important counterpoint to market-oriented technological optimism. The claim that more technology is the solution to ecological problems must be weighed against the very real exploitation and pollution that technology’s inevitable disposal will have.