Is climate change a bunch of garbage?

Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner, editors of Global Garbage, discuss the connection between garbage and climate change.

Our book Global Garbage was published on December 12, 2015, the same day that the United Nations Climate Change Conference reached the historic Paris Agreement committing 195 countries to a global reduction in carbon emissions. A few days later, we travelled to Germany to talk about our book as part of a public debate on garbage and the future of cities, organized by the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft at the University of Bonn. The location felt somehow significant, since Bonn hosts the secretariat of the UN’s climate change organization (UNFCCC) and the FIW building, where the debate took place, sits virtually in the shadow of a massive UN glass office tower.

Empty shoes left in protest at the Place de la République in Paris following the cancellation of the March for Climate Change due to security concerns, November 29, 2015. Photo by John Englart.

So it’s not surprising that the location and timing of the debate made us wonder whether the audience would ask us about climate change. It took some time for the discussion to circle around to this topic, but in the end we got there thanks to a question from the audience by architectJohanna Schäfer, who asked us (live and via twitter) why, when talking about garbage, cities, and culture, were we not also talking about climate change.

This was exactly the question we were hoping for, but we suddenly realized we hadn’t thought about how to answer it. Our book is about the many forms that garbage can assume in the era of globalization (material, aesthetic, political, human, etc) and the different critical perspectives (philosophical, anthropological, historical, geospatial, etc) that are needed to study those forms. The book does not address climate change per se. And yet, given the role that material waste and consumer excess play in producing carbon emissions and shaping attitudes towards global warming, there are clearly links to be made between garbage and climate change. What follows is a more fully developed version of the spontaneous response we gave in Bonn.

First, it’s worth comparing the visual cultures of garbage and climate change. Many artists today are working with waste materials. In her chapter on ‘Trashtopia’ in our Global Garbage book, Maite Zubiaurre argues that art works such as street artist Francisco de Pájaro’s Art is Trash installations or media artist Daniel Canogar’s Other Geologiesseries show the transformation of garbage from individual waste products of intimate scale to a dystopian mass phenomenon encompassing the globe. Artistic engagements with garbage are highly diverse, but what they all have in common is that they make newly visible what is often rendered invisible: our waste.

Why is this important? Cultural critics such as Slavoj Žižek have argued that part of the reason why no real change is possible in the global economic system that currently mass-produces garbage is that everyday waste (however you want to define it) is systematically being pushed out of sight (see this video clip of Žižek in The Examined Life). In an attempt to keep everyday life clean and ‘natural’ by collecting and dumping waste, garbage not only disappears from our view but also from the political and environmental agenda. At the height of the #YouStink public protests in Beirut last year, as garbage piled up in the streets, we saw what happens at a political level when this process of “disappearing” breaks down and waste become impossible to ignore.

So how, with these ideas in mind, can garbage be connected to climate change? Greenhouse gases are a form of waste marked by an extreme lack of visibility. In contrast to traditional forms of garbage that have to be rendered invisible through waste management practices, gases such as carbon dioxide and methane already elude our vision from the start. This makes it all the more difficult for climate change to gain political visibility.

Although the majority of scientific studies support the theory of global warming, policymakers worldwide have been dodging the issue for a long time. Even following the Paris climate change summit, it remains to be seen whether the agreement’s largely non-binding terms will turn the situation around. None of this is helped by the frequent grandstanding of climate change skeptics who politically exploit the invisibility of greenhouse gases.

Yet, the global consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly visible. For example, British Prime Minister David Cameron did not hesitate to blame the British and Irish floods of 2015-16 on climate change. The twist in this particular context is that Cameron mobilized climate change partly to distract from past government policy and planning failures that made the UK and Ireland more vulnerable to flooding in the first place.

The point we are making is that, like garbage, climate change can be politicized and de-politicized in different ways. While awareness of garbage or greenhouse gas problems is one thing, making those problems visible is another. This may sound like an obvious point to make, but it is an important one. The political battle over climate change is being fought, to a large extent, in the domain of visual culture.

“We’re sorry that we got caught. Now that we’ve been caught, we’re trying to make you think we care about the environment. But we’re not the only ones. #redlines. #D12 #ClimateGames,” Brandalism campaign in Paris, 2015. Courtesy of

A perfect example is the Volkswagen emissions test scandal and the response of the Brandalism activist-artistic movement. Brandalism, which sees itself as “a revolt against corporate control of the visual realm,” is allied with Climate Games – a “creative disobedience” action adventure game. In a recent ad takeover campaign in Paris, they posted official-looking VW advertising posters attacking/exposing the car company’s environmental hypocrisy and corporate deceit. The guerilla art project not only reclaims and repurposes the visual realm of advertising – usually reserved for corporate/branded communication – but in the process turns that system against itself to expose precisely what it has been trying to hide.

It is precisely these sorts of entanglements between art, politics, cities, and the environment that our book explores. We do so under the rubric of global garbage, but many of the insights and findings translate to the ongoing climate change debate.