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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


GRUBLER, Lizette  e  SCHENCK, Rinie. An exploration of earth system vulnerability in the context of landfills in the Anthropocene. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.1, pp.182-204. ISSN 2224-7912.

The Anthropocene refers to a geological epoch dominated by humans. Within this epoch atmospheric, geological, hydrological, biospheric and other earth systemic processes change due to human activity and can no longer only be ascribed to nature. The far-reaching effects of human activity lead to vulnerability of the earth system. One of the consequences of human activity that has a profound impact in the Anthropocene and that acts as a catalyst of vulnerability, is waste. In fact, Hecht (2018:111) has described the Anthropocene as the "apotheosis of waste". Within the context of the Anthropocene this article explores Martha Fineman's vulnerability theory and Louis Kotzé's related and extended framework of earth systemic vulnerability. Both Fineman and Kotzé argue for a destabilisation of traditional legal subjectivity. Their point of departure is not the Western, liberal autonomous subject, but rather the universal vulnerable subject that demands a responsive state. A responsive state should produce sources of resilience to counteract universal vulnerability. Kotzé's theoretical extension of Fineman's universal vulnerability to earth system vulnerability is in step with the nonhuman turn, a movement associated with the late twentieth century, and set on the decentering of humans. Instead, the movement accentuates the agency of nonhumans. By extending the universal vulnerable subject to be more inclusive and encompass the nonhuman subject as well, the vulnerability of other elements of the earth system can also be highlighted. Fineman's response to traditional notions of subjectivity emerged as a critique of formal equality. It is therefore necessary to consider whether the notion of the universal vulnerable subject is relevant in the South African context. The latter is characterised by a human rights approach advocating substantive equality. Although the South African approach to human rights therefore differs from the American one, Kotzé highlights other shortcomings of human rights in the Anthropocene. They create space for vulnerability theory to enhance approaches to complex problems associated with the epoch. The concept of the universal vulnerable subject can, for instance, be utilised to question the anthropocentric approach to subjectivity. After establishing that vulnerability theory and earth system vulnerability can contribute to the South African socio-legal discourse on the Anthropocene, the authors explore earth systemic vulnerability of vulnerable subjects in the context of landfills. These vulnerabilities, cautions Kohn (2014:27), are not innate to the vulnerable subject but are produced by relationships between the subjects and their environments. Building on this proviso, the article demonstrates that earth systemic vulnerability is caused by relationships between vulnerable human and nonhuman subjects and the landfill environment on both micro- and macroecological levels. It traces personal, relational and institutional vulnerabilities of both nonhuman and human entities. The article traces nonhuman and human vulnerabilities related to microecological bacterial relationships in the context of waste decomposition in landfills, personal and relational vulnerabilities caused by relationships between waste pickers, other stakeholders and their environment, and eventually global relationships that expose personal, relational and institutional vulnerability of macroecologies. By introducing a broad and expansive universal vulnerable subject inclusive of nonhuman entities, the authors endeavour to contribute to the legal theoretical foundation of waste management by advocating a progressive approach to waste theory. This analysis is analogous to similar work done within the context of climate change. Within the Anthropocene there is room for theoretical work using a wider lens that not only concentrates on the local context, but rather highlights the vulnerability of micro- and macroecologies. Due to scope considerations two other aspects of the vulnerability analysis will be considered in a forthcoming article, in which we will consider how vulnerable subjects use sources of resilience to counter earth system vulnerability and investigate the role of the responsive state in the creation of sources of resilience.

Palavras-chave : vulnerability theory; Martha Fineman; Louis Kotzé; solid household waste management; socio-ecological justice; ecological justice; environmental justice; Anthropocene; earth systemic vulnerability; nonhuman turn; waste pickers; landfills.

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