“We’re now living on a permanently polluted planet”

15.10.2020 | Environmental historian Dr. Simone Müller talked to AcademiaNet about the roots of global unequal trade with hazardous waste material and what the personal and structural issues are that need to be solved to drive towards a sustainable future.
Dr. Simone M. Müller
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(© Simone M. Müller)

Dr. Simone M. Müller

Today we’re speaking to Dr. Simone Müller from the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Dr. Müller, to those that don’t know you, what do you do and what drives you in your work?

I'm a global and environmental historian working on the global waste economy, i.e. the trade with hazardous waste that began in the 1970s with a particular focus on trade schemes from Global North to Global South. I study the structures and dynamics that nourished that unequal trade and what lead to its international regulation. And, specifically, how does the legacy of it influence our relationship with the environment and our planet today.

As a historian I'm always trying to understand how we got to where we are now. How do past decisions and cultural history shape our today. On top of that, working as an environmental historian is intricately linked to my personal desire to see ecological change for a better future. Exorbitantly rising amounts of waste in connection with global trade and an unequal world is a key issue.

Throughout the 20th century, we in the Global North started to accumulate so much stuff. Our over-consumption, based on synthetic chemicals ranging from plastics to pesticides, has created ever rising amounts of hazardous waste toxic to us and our planet. We’re now living on a permanently polluted planet. Looking into the past to see how that system of waste generation and its global trade developed in the first place is crucial. What solutions have we tried that didn’t work, and what solutions have we tried that did? That can help us towards a more ecologically sustainable future.

Do you feel hopeful for the future?

I feel both hopeful and frustrated. The frustration comes when you see the patterns from the 1980s repeating. Our attitude towards waste has changed very little. In the 1980s, we already discussed that instead of talking about waste disposal, we should not be generating so much waste in the first place. Production and consumption should change. We’re still discussing this today. At the same time, we do little and simply want waste “out of sight.”

What is also frustrating is how, for example, today’s trade in plastics or e-waste simply continues as “recycling” although we have an international and UN-led governance system in place that theoretically forbids trade with hazardous waste material. To see how there's a continuity of the externalisation of hazardous waste material is incredibly frustrating.

But what is hopeful for me is to uncover the history of the people that have successfully worked against the unequal trade with hazardous waste material in the past. Like how Greenpeace in alliance with countries from the Global South have managed to push through UN Conventions. To see what it takes to change the system.

Essentially, we’re facing two issues: one personal and one structural. The personal issue is that we need to admit that waste is not going away, no matter where we put it. The Global North need to take responsibility for the waste we produce and not continue externalising it to someplace where we don't see it, which is usually somewhere in the Global South.

The structural issue is that we currently have a patchwork-type global regulatory system. It’s a system that allows differences between countries of what counts as hazardous waste or recycling and what doesn’t. This facilitates a trade. Global environmental issues, such as hazardous waste but also climate change or biodiversity loss, cannot be solved through international patchwork regulation. We need a universal, planetary solution.

How do you view the effect of potentially cataclysmic events—such as the Beirut explosion in August?

Campaigns with a clear message [based on a specific event] always work well. In the case of the global waste economy, it was the story of waste barges, called ghost ships, such as the Khian Sea or the Karen B that drew people’s attention. We had environmental activists, acting locally in the communities where the hazardous waste was supposed to arrive, working with environmental journalists. Together they built a campaign that was easy to grasp because it used an image of this one particular ship carrying toxic waste from North to South. That really helped push the issue of hazardous waste trade. So it’s the smart use of a particular event by activists and environmental journalists, translating it so that the broader society understands what is at stake.

We also need a favourable political and economic situation. In the global waste trade, the Basel Convention [an international treaty designed to reduce movements of hazardous waste between nations, specifically aiming to prevent the transfer from “developed” to “less developed” countries, ed.] came right at the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was a situation where there was a lot of possibilities and options politically. E.g. new power dynamics allowed the countries of the African Union to step up. In the US presidential election, both candidates framed themselves as “environmentalists,” and people in both the Global North and the Global South urged politicians to recognize hazardous waste as a problem.

We need both: clever campaigning and political opportunity.

Last year you won the Henrietta Larson award for your article on these issues, called Hidden Externalities: The Globalization of Hazardous Waste. What does that mean to you?

As an academic, you always work in conversation with others and you want your work to resonate. You want others to recognise what you’re doing, to usher the scholarship along and to start changing society—that’s particularly the case when you work in a field like environmental humanities or environmental history. So for me the award meant a recognition that people are responding to what I do and that they are engaging with the argument I’m making.

You contacted AcademiaNet to ask us to feature the award in our News section. Is it particularly important for women academics to be proactive once they’ve won a prize, for example, to be heard and seen?

Absolutely. It did take a kind of conscious un-training of expected female behaviour to put myself forward rather than wait around for being the one that’s sought out. I’ve slowly learnt not to disregard highlighting the work that I do. In our time of social media and online platforms, it’s just an extension of the conversations we are already having at conferences. So I started reaching out to platforms like AcademiaNet or the university press office, and began thinking about it as no different than writing an abstract for a conference. I talk about my scholarship on the global waste economy because I think it’s important and I can contribute to conversations about a sustainable present and future.

My wishful thinking is that the scholar and the institution that employs the scholar along with their outreach facilities, can work hand in hand. So that the actors with different expertise can access all the avenues of promoting scholarship, to translate the scholarship in a way that sparks conversation beyond the discipline or even the ivory tower of academia.

That’s an eye-opening take on it. Dr. Müller, it’s been inspiring to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time.

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and

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