Millington, N., & Lawhon, M. (2018). Geographies of waste: Conceptual vectors from the Global SouthProgress in Human Geography.

Geographies of waste, which include examination of its flows and politics, have demonstrated empirical differences and contrasting approaches to researching waste in the Global North and South. Southern waste geographies have largely focused on case studies of informality and (neoliberal) governance. We draw on Southern theory to argue that this focus can be productively extended through greater consideration of the production of value and the role of materiality and technology in the wastescape. We argue that a relational understanding of multiscalar wastescapes contributes insights into the distribution of costs and benefits as well as what enables and constrains the extraction of value for different actors.

Lawhon, M., Millington, N., & Stokes, K. (2018). A Labour Question for the 21st Century: Perpetuating the Work Ethic in the Absence of Jobs in South Africa’s Waste SectorJournal of Southern African Studies, 1-17.

For centuries, economic relations in southern Africa were profoundly shaped by interventions that sought to attract and coerce workers to participate in colonial and apartheid economies. These interventions included efforts to change the meaning of labour. Colonial powers sought to instil in colonial subjects a belief that work has worth beyond its productive value, and that work itself is virtuous. In recent decades, the classic labour question of how to create workers has been upended: public discourse emphasises the need to create jobs. This job-creation agenda is not limited to southern Africa; this is evident in the inclusion of decent work as one of the new Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. There has, however, been limited critical inquiry into the contemporary relevance of the modern work ethic in a context of widespread unemployment and limited demand for labour. In this article, we draw on interviews with people in South Africa’s waste-management sector to argue that the modern work ethic continues to have influence despite the sector’s limited ability to provide adequate financial remuneration for productive labour. Interviewees contrast the positive value of work with negatively connoted state ‘handouts’, and indicate ambivalence about the substitution of labour with technology. They also emphasise entrepreneurialism, suggesting extensions of the historically understood work ethic: good, respectable, dignified citizens are no longer just those who labour; they now must also work to create a need for their labour. We argue that reflecting upon the disjuncture between an ethic that compels labour and an economic context with limited scope for productive labour usefully contributes towards a project of deconstructing the assumption that jobs ought to be the primary means through which to claim resources, dignity, moral worth and full citizenship.

Pierce, J., Lawhon, M., & McCreary, T. (2018). From precarious work to obsolete labour? Implications of technological disemployment for geographical scholarshipGeografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 1-18.

The displacement of jobs via mechanization and automation has long been understood as uncomfortable for labourers but also an intrinsic part of a process of ‘creative destruction’ leading to further growth in capitalist economies. This article argues that a seismic shift is currently underway in the dynamics of the labour market with regard to automation. Technologies of automation are capable of a rapidly rising proportion of all of the tasks that capital is willing to pay for and that humans are capable of doing. We highlight the geographically differentiated implications of this ongoing transition, and emphasize that geographers are importantly situated to analyse the political and economic implications of what is likely the start of a radical restructuring of the relationships between labouring, resource distribution, and indeed human ethics.

In Preparation

Millington, N. & Stokes, K. Salvage Accumulation and Infrastructures of Value: Rendering waste into resource in contemporary South Africa.

This paper considers the conversion of recyclables into economic value in contemporary South Africa, with a primary focus on Cape Town. We follow differing forms of recycling for profit and trace the material processes through which recyclables are rendered into tradeable commodities. In doing so, we analyze processes of valuation as materials are produced, collected, and reprocessed, analyzing the points of economic translation—what Anna Tsing (2015) calls ‘patches’—in the conversion of recyclables into monetary value. This paper’s significance lies in its contribution to understandings of new dynamics of accumulation at the edge of purportedly formal economies, with resonance for both the South African waste sector as well as the green economy more broadly. As an industry that threads viscerally between the formal and informal, waste is a particularly fruitful space from which to theorize contemporary processes of accumulation oriented around green agendas. We empirically highlight the processes of profit-making in the South African wastescape in order to better understand the contemporary South African waste regime in a moment in which waste is increasingly being rearticulated as a source of profit. In doing so, this project furthers scholarship on primitive accumulation and the monetizing of environmental degradation. In a spirit of critical dialogue with recent work on primitive and salvage accumulation, we aim to understand how processes of salvaging are deeply embedded in and reshaped by existing dynamics of primitive accumulation through the uneven incorporation of purportedly informal economic practices into the contemporary economy.

M. Lawhon, N Millington, & K. Stokes. The politics of value in heterogeneous configurations of waste in South Africa.