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Discards studies and degrowth studies have the potential to build creative collaborations by expanding the concept of throughput. This contribution suggests a crossroads where these collaborations may occur and provides evidence of a moneyless economy based on exchanging discards as an example of a project already attempting to degrow through shifting the value of unwanted items.
Creating discards (ideas and/or objects) and discarding derive from beliefs and practices that vary across social/cultural groupings of people. What is considered the “correct” thing to do with waste often has colonial histories that normalize and spatially expand specific thinking about wasting while obfuscating other beliefs and practices (Bird-Rose, 2003). However, if we accept that there is no normal way of dealing with discards across space and time, rather that there are as many ways of wasting as there are ways of being, then we may regard the current ecological crisis, or the birth of the Anthropocene as in part being driven by socially and ontologically specific wasting practices (among various other systematic practices), not only in the creation of garbage, mine tailings, and climate change but also in mass extinctions, suggesting a general wasting of the earth itself. Where for the first time this overall human waste appears as sedimentary layers and alterations in both living and non-living systems; it creates a recognizable shift in the geological history of the Earth (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). The socio-economic nature of this wasting process has been named the Capitalocene by Donna Haraway (2014) in an effort to de-naturalize the creation of this new geologic era from being generated by anthropos in general to being a residue of the growth and expansion of capitalism. By recognizing a Capitalocene Haraway locates capitalism as one of many economic practices (albeit among the most destructive).
Degrowth scholars research solutions or work-arounds to the expansion of the Capitalocene. Sustainable degrowth studies seek to decrease society’s throughput where throughput are the resources (materials and energy) a society uses and/or consumes and then returns to the environment as waste (Kallis, 2011: 874; Daly, 1994). Many degrowth theorists recognize that in order to sustainably degrow, new political and economic regimes will be needed that may or may not be compatible with existing systems (Kallis, 2011: 875).
If practices and beliefs around discarding are socio-cultural and often (neo- /post-) colonial artifacts then what is waste and how throughput is constructed within degrowth are valuable for rethinking as a decolonial project. The decolonial option delinks the what Sousa Santos (2007) refers to as abyssal thinking and Mignolo (1999) refers to as border thinking where western thought is considered the norm and singular way of being/thinking/acting to produce logic, truth and facts while other ontologies are considered secondary with only the possibility of creating myths/beliefs/ traditions (Sousa Santos, 2007: 1). By denaturalizing and thus decolonizing ways of thinking about waste one may practice a decolonial degrowth in order to move beyond the Capitalocene. For it is not simply decreasing throughput that is necessary to have lower/sustainable interactions with the natural environment but that throughput should be reconsidered as a non-natural expression of other systems through which power moves. By changing concepts of what should be wasted and what should be repaired or shared, as for example, whether objects such as electronics and other machines should be repairable and reusable before they are recyclable new cultures generated around waste can counter current notions of consumption with the goal of discarding after use.
One project in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico suggests other options for thinking about resources, throughput and wasting. El Cambalache (The Swap in English) is a collective intermediary and organizing body for a network, a moneyless exchange-based economy. El Cambalache receives unwanted things that are often considered waste, especially electronics as well as clothing, candles, cosmetics, curtains and anything else that people no longer want and offers for knowledge sharing, services, workshops, and mutual aid. For example, we currently have a language exchange for two hours every Tuesday night and laptop maintenance classes on Thursdays where people learn to assemble new computers out of old discarded laptops by salvaging the parts. Participants in the network participate by choosing what they want from the store room or the list of learning and mutual aid opportunities and exchanging the same things or services.
The project is run by a six woman collective and based in decolonial thought. We work to create economic interactions that are not driven by colonial, hegemonic abyssal thinking; following degrowth, we use what is already there and fix what we can. The project strives to dismantle capitalism by decreasing our dependence on money which in part explores the changes in economic relationships suggested by degrowth.
After three months in practice (and ten in developing theory) El Cambalache has had around two hundred people participate and it continues to grow. The project is small but it suggests a shift in how discards are valued. That being that all items in the economy, be it a shirt, laptop, pencil or a class all have the same value because as the motto suggests, “these are all things people don’t want or knowledge, abilities and services we want to share.” By directly taking items out of the waste stream and giving them an economic (albeit non-capitalist) exchange value, the project seeks to practice other, new theories of value. We accept whatever is offered, we assume it will be valuable to someone, because it was once valuable to the donor. Building on what would once have been discarded but now has been placed in the Cambalache economy, we transform discard culture while fomenting exchanges of all kinds. The project poses a question, “Can non-capitalist economies function based on the waste and discarded resources from capitalism?” And, “Will local projects, as they spread and grow, be able to counter global ideas, practices and residues such as the Capitalocene?” “Is it possible to enact degrowth by rethinking how throughput is conceived and practiced?”
Degrowth theorists provoke us to reconsider how objects and materials are produced and move through our practices, economies and social relations then finally discarded. By moving towards an ideal end-life of objects where low contamination and environmental impact have been part of their useful life, degrowth theorists suggest that we can slow the destruction of life-sustaining natural systems. One suggestion for shifting the length and type of throughput, is to embrace the modality of decoloniality in order to encounter and embrace other ways of discarding. El Cambalache is one such project that is engaging in this process by creating other lives and economic interactions for objects that risk being discarded and may serve as a possible model for options for degrowth.