A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Making War in Secret for the Future (A Toxic Tale from the African Anthropocene)

Gabrielle Hecht, University of Michigan

Massive dumping of carbon dioxide, radiation, plastics, sediment, and aerosols is changing our planet and our bodies. Monitoring those discards offers a key mechanism for generating knowledge about planetary change. Some name this epoch “the Anthropocene,” marking the apotheosis of waste as both material process and epistemological tool. 

The Anthropocene’s remarkable resonance has made it a “charismatic mega-category” across the humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences.  Yet interdisciplinary conversations easily falter, especially when critics observe that the notion can obscure massive inequalities by attributing the unfolding catastrophes to an undifferentiated humanity. Debates rage about origins and nomenclature (Capitalocene? Chthulucene?). The Anthropocene thus poses significant challenges for qualitative analysis. How can we hold the planetary and the particular in the same frame? How can we gain purchase on the entanglement of waste, toxicity, and violence that drives this epoch? Rather than rename, I propose we qualify the term in ways that attend to its paradoxes. Here: the African Anthropocene.

Consider mining in South Africa. This massive rearrangement of earthly materials has long defined Johannesburg’s topography, beginning with the 19th century gold boom. In the 1950s, the first 10,000 tons of South African uranium was extracted from gold tailings piles. Pursuing this uranium down one path takes you to enrichment plants, missile silos, atomic explosions, the atmosphere itself… where radioactive tracers endure, providing evidence of our warming planet. Another path leads you through power plants, on to factories that fashion munitions from spent nuclear fuel, and finally to postwar Iraq, where civilians inhale the debris of depleted uranium munitions. Or you can stay in Johannesburg, where corporations and individual miner-entrepreneurs continually revisit these piles of waste, hoping to extract further value.

Ontological instability generates violence. Particles from tailings piles seep into water supplies, where people bathe themselves and their things, absorbing heavy metals, solvents, and radioactive particles. Toxicity emerges from these entanglements: encounters between chemicals and pipes brings molecules trapped in metallic structures up to metallic surfaces, leaching out new materials…which become toxic when, carried by water, they trickle down throats and attack cells. Toxicity endures through temporal frictions—the uncomfortable rubbing between human time, corporate time, geological time, the time of metallic integrity, the time of radioactive decay.

If the sacrificial topography of waste around Johannesburg rises above the horizon, in the Northern Cape, the waste of national dreams goes in the opposite direction. There, the site of Vaalputs is the burial ground for radioactive waste from South Africa’s apartheid-era nuclear program. But Vaalputs doesn’t merely index apartheid waste. Two decades into democracy, the ANC-led government kindles dreams of national nuclear expansion. In these dreams, Vaalputs indexes mastery: it becomes a sign that South Africa can manage modernity’s future waste. Or it indexes nightmares: for one community activist, “this dumping is making war in secret for the future.”