Classifying, defining, sorting, ranking things by value, and other forms of differentiation–creating and acting on difference and similarity–are central to discarding. These activities are not good or bad in themselves, but nor are they merely technical: defining things by one set of characteristics means other characteristics are not accounted for and become unimportant in the definition system; ranking some things as valuable often devalues other things.1
In discard studies, the examples of sorting and ranking usually focus on the negative: humans-as-waste, harmful stereotypes, ghettoization, and trash animals versus charismatic megafauna. But here, we’ll look at what is often intended as a positive sorting: the universal “we” that contents that all of humanity has certain characteristics that are fundamentally similar and invariable across context. My argument is that universalism eliminates and controls crucial aspects of difference. Evoking the universal “we” is a technique of discarding through differentiation in a way that upholds dominant power dynamics.
We humans suck. Or do we?
You don’t have to look far to find universalizing statements about environmental waste and pollution. From the media: “Massive new report proves that humans are the worst species” and “Your meat addiction is destroying the planet (but we can fix it).” 15,364 scientist signatories on a BioScience article agree that “humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges” and “We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption.” In these examples, we humans are a nasty species, a trashy and greedy species. Homodiscardus.
The universal “we” is supposed to be a radically inclusive frame that argues that humans share certain fundamental and invariable characteristics even though there might be differences between us. But those differences are a matter of detail, not of essential concern. In the examples above, this kind of total inclusiveness frames global problems as coming from a global source and rallies the global troops to collectively be accountable and reverse global environmental degradation.
But let’s get empirical for a moment. Who is failing to attend to environmental challenges? The hundreds of thousands of people on climate change protests? The Indigenous land protectors risking life and limb for land? The young politicians taking office to try to change the system? You? Your children, nieces and nephews, or other young family members?
Let’s take the case of plastic pollution. Who is the “We” in the creation of plastics that end up in the environment? There are a few big plastic “we’s” in the world that extract oil and natural gas, the raw feedstock for plastics. They are: Gazprom, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, among others. Next there are the primary manufacturers who actually make plastic packaging: The Reynolds Group (who make Hefty garbage bags among many other products), Amcor (which creates food, beverage, pharmaceutical, and personal-care packaging), and Sealed Air (which specializes in food and medical packaging). The primary consumers of these plastics are brand manufacturers whose names readers may be more familiar with: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Danone, for instance, the company names on most of the washed-up plastic items documented by Break Free from Plastic. Each of these plastic production groups–extractors, primary manufacturers, and primary consumers–are their own system with interlocking parts that create plastic packaging and other plastic items. This is all long before consumers get to the grocery store.
Shifting accountability with “We”
The “we” in media headlines that make up “the worst species” usually refer only to citizen consumers and rarely include extraction industries, primary manufacturers, and primary consumers or their systems. Considerable research has shown that in climate change, the top ten emitters account for nearly three-quarters of global emissions, and those folks are corporations, not citizen consumers with first names and “meat addictions.”2 The same type of discrepancy exists for plastics–a small number of companies are responsible for the creation of plastic feedstock and primary production. Climate change and plastic pollution are not being compared by accident here. They share feedstock: oil and natural gas. As such, they also share systems of extraction, financing, political lobbying, and circulation. Their infrastructures, political economies, special interest groups, and material flows dovetail and reinforce one another. Indeed, recent journalism shows that the drop in the investment of oil and gas due to renewable energy was intentionally directed into plastics, instead. These systems work closely together, even for each other.
There is no universal “we” when it comes to waste and discarding, and to evoke it erases key actors. One of the critical frameworks of discard studies as a field is to look at how power can be understood as the forces that maintain the inside and outside of systems, that make some things seem truthy and real and the expense of other truths and realities. That means by definition there is no universal we, both those of us inside, outside, and being pushed and pulled in those systems. But the constant use of a global “we,” even in pro-environment campaigns, that is actually just consumers and not producers is a good way to shift blame, action, and accountability that lets those systems continue. This is why specificity matters, why difference matters.
Erasing difference and power with “We”
The joke was old even before it appeared in print.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger asks Tonto: ‘What are we going to do, Tonto?’ To which Tonto replies: ‘What do you mean we, white man (or paleface, or kemo sabe, depending on the version)?’
Its racist ancestry is undeniable: the joke partly evokes the picture of a feckless subordinate who will treacherously abandon his superior at the first sign of trouble—usually with the ethnic or social group to which the subordinate belongs. But even before 1956, ancient variants of the joke were meant to deflate the condescension of individuals who used the royal ‘we,’ and the insulting presumption of people who assumed, for their own purposes, what they had no business assuming. 3
The universal “we” or descriptions of “humanity’s” effect on the planet erase massive differences, including those between core emitters and consumers, as well as affluent consumers and non-consumers, groups invested in pollution and groups invested in conservation, obfuscating systems, politics, and accountabilities. At the same time, universal “we’s” reinforce difference and injustices by making one group the dominant, planet-wide group, the norm, humanity, the “we” that can stand in for everyone, casting those that deviate from the “we” as outliers, outsiders, and deviants: Others. Simone de Beauvoir calls this positionality, where one particular group stands in for all groups in general, both “the positive and the neutral [position], as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general”4 while woman is a more specific, limited, and marked, a deviation from “mankind.” Universalism of this sort creates a paradox, where “mankind” is supposed to stand for the entirety of humanity, but it simultaneously marks some humans as outsiders, less archetypal, or not quite fitting in. This is why “male firewoman” is funny, but “female fireman” is not: the neutral position doesn’t go both ways. It’s not actually neutral.
One example of an environmental, universal “we” that erases difference even as it supposedly includes everything is the concept of the Anthropocene. Coined by Nobel Prize-winning, male chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene describes the current geological age, characterized by the “central role of mankind” (his words5) in geological and ecological changes on a planetary scale:
Human activities are exerting increasing impacts on the environment on all scales, in many ways outcompeting natural processes. This includes the manufacturing of hazardous chemical compounds which are not produced by nature, such as for instance the chlorofluorocarbon gases which are responsible for the “ozone hole”. Because human activities have also grown to become significant geological forces, for instance through land use changes, deforestation and fossil fuel burning, it is justified to assign the term “anthropocene” to the current geological epoch. This epoch may be defined to have started about two centuries ago, coinciding with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.6
There is a lot of universalism in that statement. It’s the type of statement aligned with arguments that “we” are destroying the planet, conflating industrial processes with human processes. There have been humans and human processes long before the Anthropocene, after all. Industrial processes and economic processes premised on constant growth and the dispossession of land, on the other hand, are relatively new and come from someplace. Critics of the term have pointed out that, “the Anthropocene is a universalizing project, [and] it serves to re-invisibilize the power of Eurocentric narratives, again re-placing them as the neutral and global perspective.”7 The steam engine, the invention of chlorofluorocarbon gases, deforestation and other sources of large-scale environmental change did not come from humans generally, but specific cultures, systems, and times. As Kyle Powys Whyte argues, “colonialism and capitalism then laid key parts of the groundwork for industrialization and militarization —or carbon-intensive economics—which produce the drivers of anthropogenic climate change….’the Anthropocene,’ then, [is] not a precise enough term for many Indigenous peoples, because they sound like all humans are implicated in and affected by colonialism, capitalism and industrialization in the same ways.”8 These differences matter.
We aren’t all in this together
We aren’t all in this together. Referring to this kind of optimistic universalism, Anaya Roy writes about “Calling bullshit on the popular Covid-19 line, ‘We’re all in this together.’ Used to bestow naive comfort or solicit sacrifice, this slogan obfuscates the structural inequalities of racial capitalism that are being exposed & deepened by this crisis.” Terms like the Anthropocene or arguments that “we” are destroying the planet or “we” must all band together as One miss forces like colonialism and other differences in how pollution, discarding, and extraction have continually benefited some types and groups of people and burdened others. This is how universalism, designed to unite ‘everyone,’ also erases groups, people, and histories and, most importantly, descales and depoliticizes modes of intervention. Put another way, universalism is a way to discard differences and maintain business as usual.
This isn’t just an abstract, academic theory. People know that universalism discards difference and actively use it as a strategy. It’s not a coincidence that the anti-slogan to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter. On the surface, maybe it sounds nice that all lives matter–your life, my life, queer lives, women’s lives, Elder’s lives, Indigenous lives–but the reason White supremacist groups and sympathizers have adopted All Lives Matter is to make the case that Black lives are not special, are not differently and uniquely oppressed and in mortal danger. It is an aggressive, and frankly deadly, equalization that makes all lives the same when the argument of Black Lives Matter is that they are not equal. Black, Indigenous, trans, and other people are disproportionately killed by police. Period.
Erasure of differences that matter also happens through well-intentioned “equalization” and leftist politics. In “A Herstory of the BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza,” one of Black Lives Matter’s cofounders tells a story about the appropriation of the Black Lives Matters slogan by artists who transformed it into “Our Lives Matter”:
“I was surprised when a community institution wrote asking us to provide materials and action steps for an art show they were curating, entitled “Our Lives Matter.” When questioned about who was involved and why they felt the need to change the very specific call and demand around Black lives to “our lives,” I was told the artists decided it needed to be more inclusive of all people of color. I was even more surprised when, in the promotion of their event, one of the artists conducted an interview that completely erased the origins of their work–rooted in the labor and love of queer Black women.”9
Even when organizers provided parameters around ways to reuse or adapt the Black Lives Matters slogan so that its original values were maintained, groups often failed to do this, opting to extract value from it on their own terms. Another word for this is stealing. As such, All Lives Matter, Our Lives Matter, “we’re all in this together,” claims about the character of “the human species” and other aggressive equalizations are strategies of erasure and discard, and thus of maintaining power imbalances that trace along lines of difference.
So now what?
We’ve written about how waste is infrastructure rather than a lot of individual behaviour on Discard Studies before; sorting recyclables in your home is one tiny moment in an overarching recycling system that includes federal regulations and laws, municipal services, international markets, and physical trucks and buildings, pollution and chemicals, among many other things. So too with universalism. Rather than just a collection of individuals using a universal “we” and talking about humankind, universalism comes from wider system that makes these narratives so ready and available for use, so normal, even right. De-centering the coherence or ‘centeredness’ of systems is not only core to critical analysis, but also intervention or action. Discarding practices are about allowing certain centers to remain dominant in what, how, and where they discard. Discard studies, in my view, is uniquely placed to de-centering those systems to see how they become powerful to begin with: what kind of power is at work? Who is benefiting and who is not, and how does that get reproduced over and over? What are “the uneven relations and infrastructure that shape what forms of life are supported to persist, thrive, and alter, and what forms of life are destroyed, injured, and constrained”?10
At the same time, what are the ethical ways collectives come together while maintaining difference, without sorting and ranking? Or how are boundaries and categories created in ways that fulfill different forms of life and respect difference? These aren’t simple questions and there are not universal answers that will work in all times, places, and contexts. But whether it’s the Indians and Cowboys coalition against pipelines or the hundreds of thousands of White people standing for BlackLivesMatter in a way that centers diverse Black priorities and leadership, the examples are already here.
- See Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. MIT press, 2000 and Murphy, Michelle. The economization of life. Duke University Press, 2017.
- Griffin, P. (2017). The Carbon Majors Database CDP Carbon Majors Report. Parker, L., Blodgett, J. E., & Director, D. A. (2008). Greenhouse gas emissions: perspectives on the top 20 emitters and developed versus developing nations. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
- Eric Ivie, “What Do You Mean ‘We,’ White Man?,” Hunt the Devil (blog), May 8, 2015.
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Vintage, 2010)
- Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The ‘Anthropocene'”. Global change newsletter 41 (2000): 17-18.
- Crutzen P.J. (2006) The “Anthropocene”. In: Ehlers E., Krafft T. (eds) Earth System Science in the Anthropocene. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
- Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the importance of a date, or, decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4 (2017): 761-780.
- Whyte, Kyle. “Indigenous climate change studies: Indigenizing futures, decolonizing the Anthropocene.” English Language Notes 55, no. 1 (2017): 1154, 159.
- Graza, Alicia. (2014). “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Graza.” The Feminist Wire, October 4.
- Murphy, Michelle. The economization of life. Duke University Press, 2017: 141-142.