On 5 November 2015, an iron ore tailings dam burst in Bento Rodrigues near the Brazilian city of Mariana, releasing 60 million cubic meters of a reddish-brown mud-flood. This toxic flood buried neighboring villages and flowed into the Rio Doce, contaminating the river with several hazardous metals including mercury, arsenic and chromium as well as potentially harmful bacteria. The devastating and perhaps irreparable damage to the ecosystem and human health caused by this incident are the reason why it is seen as one of the biggest environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich uses this catastrophe as a starting point to introduce the concept of the Externalisierungsgesellschaft(externalization society) in his book Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis (“Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost”).
What is the externalization society? According to Lessenich, this expression describes how developed countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany transfer or externalize risks and burdens to developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia. The Bento Rodrigues disaster is an example of the environmental risk that is externalized. Extracting metals that are predominantly used by technology-hungry consumers in developed countries invariably generates toxic waste which poses a great risk for the indigenous population of many developing countries. The externalized environmental risks are not limited to those associated with mining raw materials. The developed world is also increasingly exporting its trash into the third world.
The US, for example, are the world’s largest exporter of paper trash, exporting scrap paper worth US$ 3.1 billion each year. The US is also the largest producer of electronic waste (E-Waste), estimated at more than 7 million tons of E-Waste per year (PDF). Every new smartphone or tablet release generates mountains of E-Waste as consumers discard their older devices. Re-cycling the older devices sounds like a reasonable solution bu true recycling and re-using of electronic components is quite costly and time-consuming. It is also often not clear which electronic components of devices actually get recycled. To track the fate of discarded electronic devices, Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network and his colleagues placed GPS-trackers in old electronics dropped off at US-based recycling centers. They found that a third of the “recycled” electronics were shipped overseas to countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya. Puckett used the GPS signal to identify the sites where the E-Waste ended up and visited such a location in Hong Kong, where he found that the “recycled” electronics were being dismantled in junkyards by migrant workers from mainland China who were not wearing any protective clothing that would have protected them from hazardous materials released during the extraction of salvageable E-Waste materials. There are many regulations that restrict the trading of E-Waste but the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that up to 90% of the world’s E-Waste is traded or dumped illegally. This means that even though dropping off old devices at a recycling center may alleviate the conscience of consumers, a significant number of these will not be re-used but instead shipped off to junkyards in other countries – without appropriate monitoring of how these electronic waste products will affect the local environment and health of the population.
Exporting environmental risks to developing countries by either outsourcing high-risk extraction of raw materials or simply dumping waste is just one example of externalization according the Lessenich. Externalizing occupational health risks and poverty by severely under-paying workers are other examples. Bangladesh has now emerged as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of clothing because of its cheap labor. In 2011, the typical monthly wage of a garment industry worker in Bangladesh was estimated at $91 per month – roughly one and a half dollars per day! In addition to this dismally low pay, garment factory workers in Bangladesh also face terrible occupational risks. The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in 2013 which called over 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 people is just one example of the occupational risks faced by the workers.
Lessenich’s concept of the externalization society isn’t just another critique of the global inequality that we so often hear about. The fundamental principle of the externalization society put forth by Lessenich is the interdependence between the “imperial lifestyle” of wealth and comfort in the developed world and the “wretched lifestyle” of poverty and hardship in the developing world. If those of us who live in the developed world want the convenience of upgrading our smartphones every few years or buying cheap cotton t-shirts, then we need those who manufacture these products in the developing world to be paid lousy wages. If those workers were paid humane wages and their employers instituted appropriate occupational safety measures, as well as health and disability insurance plans that are routine in most parts of the developed world, then the cost of the products would be incompatible with our current economy and lifestyle which are fueled by consumerism and the capitalist imperative of incessant growth.
The pillars of the externalization society are indifference and ignorance. We are indifferent because we see the differential in lifestyle as a Selbstverständlichkeit – a German word for obviousness or taken-for-grantedness. They were born in developing countries, so of course they have to struggle – tough luck, they ended up with the wrong lottery tickets. This Selbstverständlichkeit also extends to the limited mobility of the people born in the developing world. They lack the birthright of the developing world citizens whose passports allow them to either travel visa-free or obtain a visa to nearly any country in the world with minimal effort. This veneer of Selbstverständlichkeit is easiest to maintain if “they” and “their” problems are invisible and thus allow us to ignore the interdependence between our good fortune and their misery. We might see images of the toxic flood in Brazil but few, if any, members of the externalization society will link the mining of cheap iron in Brazil to the utensils they use in their everyday life.
A decade ago, disposable single-use coffee pods such as the Keurig K-cups or the Nespresso pods were extremely rare but by 2014, K-cup manufactures sold a mind-boggling 9 billion K-cups! A new need for disposable products that had previously been met by standard coffee machines arose without considering the environmental and global impact of this need. In theory, the K-cups are recyclable but this would require careful separating of the paper, plastic and the aluminum top. It is not clear how many K-cups are properly recycled, and the E-Waste example shows that even if items are transported to recycling centers, that does not necessarily mean that they will be successfully recycled. Prior to the advent coffee pods, our coffee demands had been easily met without generating additional mountains of disposable plastic and aluminum coffee pod trash. Out of nowhere, there arose a new need for aluminum which again is extracted from the aluminum ore bauxite – another process that generates toxic waste. Instead of feeling a sense of absolution when we drop a disposable item into a recycling bin, we should simply curtail unnecessary consumption of products in disposable containers.
How do we overcome the externalization society? We can make concerted efforts through advocacy, education and regulations that restrict exporting environmental waste, improve health and safety conditions for workers in the developing world and try to restrict our consumerist excesses by clarifying the interdependence between wealth in the externalization society and the poverty in the developing world as well as the moral imperative to abrogate the inequality and asymmetry. Numerous advocates have already attempted this approach for the past decades with limited success. Maybe instead of appealing to the ethics of interdependence, a more effective approach may be to educate each other about the consequences of the interdependence. When millions of refugees show up at the doorstep of the externalization society, “they” are no longer invisible. One can blame wars, religious extremism and political ideologies for the misery of the refugees but it becomes harder to ignore the extent and central role of the underlying inequality. Creating humane working and living conditions for people in the developing world is perhaps the most effective way to stop the so-called “refugee crisis“.
Global climate change is another threat to the externalization society, a threat of its own making. Transferring carbon footprints and pollution to other countries does not change the fact that the whole planet is suffering from the consequences of climate change. Political leaders of the externalization society often demand the closing of borders, erecting walls and expanding their armed forces so they are less likely to have to confront the victims of their externalization but no army or wall is strong enough to lower the rising water levels or stabilize the climate. The externalization society will end not because of a crisis of conscience but because its excesses are undermining its own existence.
Lessenich, S. (2016). Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis. Hanser Berlin.
Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.