By Carol Pang
In February 1992, The Economist leaked an internal memo that Lawrence Summers, the then chief-economist of the World Bank, circulated in December 1991. Summers wrote, “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries? … I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable. … I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted … Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare-enhancing.”
In summary, Summers’ reasons for exporting toxic waste to poorer countries are threefold: 1) the value of a life (measured in earning power) in a less-developed country is lower than in a rich country, that is, it will be cheaper to lose a Congolese life than an American life to pollution; 2) the costs of pollution increase disproportionately as pollution increases, hence costs will be reduced if pollution is exported to cleaner less-developed countries; 3) the demand for a clean environment is more vocal in rich nations – the offloading of rich-nation waste will improve the aesthetics of effluent dumps and ease the pressure from rich-nation environmentalists. The World Bank tried to play down Summers’ morally dubious arguments by saying he was merely trying to provoke debate.
Nevertheless, in advocating the dumping of rich-nation toxins on to poorer continents, Summer must have grasped the principles of what Rob Nixon, in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, characterises as slow violence. According to Nixon, slow violence is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction … that is typically not viewed as violence at all”. Nixon points out that the delayed effects of slow violence will eventually decouple the causes of the violence from the actual violence; the casualties – human and environmental – will pass unseen and uncounted. Nixon worries that in our age of turbo-capitalism and technological time-savers, we would not have the attention spans to apprehend the slow erosions of environmental justice.
The invading of countries with mass toxic wastes is clearly a form of slow violence. Nearly 30 years after the leaking of Summers’s memo, we can see that the outsourcing of toxicity from rich nations to poorer nations is happening on an unprecedented scale. For instance, ABC Radio National reported in March 2017 that container loads of electronic wastes from Australia, including broken computers that are considered hazardous and illegal to ship out of Australia, have been found at the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana. The reporter found that the children who earn their living from the dump have contracted skin diseases and life-threatening health problems, and many will not live to see their twentieth birthday.
An irony is that the better educated rich-nation residents are about the benefits of recycling, the more virtuous they can feel about having done their part to save the environment. However, rich-nation recycled wastes often end up flooding poorer countries. For example, Al Jazeera reported in January 2019 that Malaysia is fast becoming the world’s top destination for plastic waste. A number of illegal recycling plants have sprung up to process plastic waste exported from other countries in an industry worth $840 million. Not all the imported plastic can be recycled and will end up at landfills or be burned, at huge environmental costs.
Waste dumping in developing countries is now on such a scale that Nixon’s concerns about slow violence being invisible should lessen; politicians and lawmakers can no longer afford to ignore the health and environmental hazards caused by these wastes. On a transnational level, the 1989 Basel Convention international treaty was established to prevent the dumping of hazardous waste in developing countries. Meanwhile, the 1991 Bamako Convention aims to protect African countries which continue to be disproportionately affected by the dumping of harmful chemical materials. However, the application of the Bamako Convention is limited due to a lack of resources and enforcement.
On a country level, to their credit, some governments have attempted to take direct action. China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018 in an action that shook the world junk trade because, since 1992, nearly half of the world’s plastic trash has been sent to China to be recycled or disposed. While some commentators were initially hopeful that China’s ban would make countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia revamp their own waste management systems, the rich countries have simply diverted their waste to Southeast Asia, causing scenarios such as the afore-mentioned plastic dumping in Malaysia. Environmental activists call for countries to reduce their wastes at source instead of shipping their wastes out of sight to developing countries. In a November 2018 report by National Geographic, Yeo Bee Yin, the Minister for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change, and Environment in Malaysia, declared that “no developing nation should be the dumping site for the developed world.” According to Yeo, the government has shut down 30 illegal plastic processing plants and is taking steps to permanently ban non-recyclable plastics. Yeo said China’s ban forced Malaysia’s hand and inspired her to push for comprehensive reforms and turn Malaysia greener, with zero single-use plastics by 2030. “It was a good wake-up call,” Yeo said. “What the China ban told the world is that we must rethink plastic use globally and we of this generation must solve the problem. By 2050, our world will have more than 10 billion people. Can you imagine how much plastics will have accumulated by then?”
Carol Pang is studying for a Master in English, specialising in American Literature and Culture, in Uppsala. She is privileged to witness the era-defining change in government during Malaysia’s 2018 general election, along with hopes of a brighter future with Malaysia Baharu (New Malaysia).
Illustration: Merle Ecker