University of Wisconsin–Madison

Living With Waste: Visualizing New Economies and Slow Violence

From nuclear disasters to the transnational hazardous waste trade to the increased presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, waste pervades modern economies and ecologies. One of the defining features of contemporary life is the ubiquity of waste, though this is largely hidden through management that attempts to keep waste out of sight, and thus, out of mind. By documenting and visualizing some of the multiple ways that waste exceeds the boundaries of such techno-managerial approaches, both materially and discursively, this cluster will investigate everyday and exceptional experiences with waste as a “parallax object” that allows scholars to interrogate the “modernist shibboleths of cleanliness, hygiene, and sanitation, and the often unjust and highly exclusionary sociospatial orders produced through them” (Moore 2012, 2). While STS-based approaches to waste often view waste as an assemblage (Lepawsky and McNabb 2010, Gregson and Crang 2010), we contend that waste offers myriad paths through which to understand how modern science, technology and culture become embedded in the infrastructure and life-worlds of today, despite attempts to distance ourselves from it in both space and time.

The proposed Living With Waste Holtz Center cluster will therefore bring together research, teaching, and outreach activities that ask questions such as: how is waste fashioned as a techno-managerial object and how does waste exceed such understandings? Under what conditions do different publics seek to live with waste versus eliminating or displacing or modifying it? What is the relationship between waste and environmental justice? A full understanding of waste as a parallax object necessitates interdisciplinary analysis. Key personnel are housed in the Department of Geography and the Law School. Moreover, Geography personnel come from different sub-disciplines with different skills, knowledges and approaches. Further, an important component of the success of this cluster will be the ability of key personnel to speak across disciplinary divides, a skill at which we are all practiced. Key personnel are affiliated with certificate and degree programs across campus, which will gain STS a new working audience including graduate students and faculty. Through existing ties to LACIS, CHE, The Nelson Institute, the Cartography Laboratory, International Studies, Development Studies, Legal Studies, and planned affiliation with the Holtz Center and COWS, this cluster will integrate geography, anthropology, materials science, arts and humanities, law, sociology, curriculum and instruction, community and environmental sociology, English, and other fields.

Working across these disciplines and with experts and community members, our first aim is to increase the visibility of waste, by directly interrogating the spatial and temporal fixes employed to distance it. Here, we employ geographic visualizations (geovisualization) of a novel dataset tracking transnational trading of hazardous waste in North America. We complement these with case studies to elicit stories from the United States’ Midwest, where many facilities are locally managing these transnationally traded materials. Our second aim is to examine the material-discursive production, distribution, and struggles with waste by different publics. We take inspiration from recent projects as Fortun and Frickel’s call for Disaster STS and post-Fukushima research (2012); literature on the (in)visibility of waste and environmental justice (Pulido 2000, Moore 2008, Nixon 2011); the Waste and Science, Technology, and Environment research hub at Memorial University; and work that questions divisions between experts and lay people (e.g., Wynne 1992, Epstein 1995, Collins and Evans 2007, Ottinger 2013).

We seek to cast a wide net in terms of what counts as waste and how it is understood (Moore 2012), including but not limited to: industrial hazards and the aftermath of disasters; organic garbage; agricultural, pharmaceutical, and electronic waste; sites of waste management (landfills, incinerators, recycling and reprocessing centers, biodigesters); zones of exclusion and Anthropocene environments (e.g., Petryna 2002, Masco 2004, Robbins and Moore 2012).

Sarah A. Moore
Assistant Professor, Human Geography

Robert E. Roth
Associate Professor, Cartography and Geographical Information Systems

Morgan Robertson
Associate Professor, People-Environment Geography

Stephanie Tai
Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin, School of Law