Life at the edge

Roma gypsies and the limits to growth

In 1972, four young scientists used a computer model to look into the future. Using data and reason, they outlined chilling scenarios for humanity that considered the boundaries of a finite planet. This story is about one community that bumps up against the limits to growth every day, living off the remains of our disposable economy.

India has its ragpickers; Bangladesh its shipbreakers. In Niger’s dusty mining towns, slum dwellers recover radioactive scrap metals from uranium mines to build homes and fashion cooking utensils.

Around the world, the poor are combing landfills in search of precious materials that escape official waste management circuits. Unable to participate themselves in the consumer economy where the interval from shop to trash is ever diminishing, they nonetheless peck away at the toxic legacy it leaves behind.

But one needn’t cross the globe to see these human scavengers in action. Thousands of Roma live in shantytowns of Paris, tucked away in dark corners of the city of lights, beneath motorways and in vacant lots. In scrap yard settings and under threat of police raids and expulsion, they burn electric wires and take apart white goods.

The most disliked community in France, nearly four French citizens out of five see the Roma immigrants as beggars and thieves, according to a study by the French Commission on Human Rights. And while some Roma may resort to this, dare penetrate into one of dozens of encampments scattered around the periphery of the French capital and a different kind of story emerges.

In makeshift enclaves, shacks of discarded planks and plastic tarps stand teetering along muddy alleys, strewn with litter. Without running water, sanitation or electricity, it requires a certain kind of resolve to get it through the day and the camps are a flurry of activity.

Women with colourful headscarves cook giant stews outdoors from open stoves carved out of metal drums. Old men in disheveled suits and battered hats wander off with shopping trolleys presumably in search of discarded treasures. All around, gutted machinery, rotting mattresses, empty water bottles and great nests of tangled cables pile up, providing habitat for sizable rats.

Over time, the trash spreads into the surrounding fields creating wastelands that delineate the perimeter of the settlements. Thick clouds of black smoke rise from giant bonfires in the distance, where electric cables and car batteries are being burned down to their elements. On a grim winter’s day, these scenes resemble what science fiction might portray as the end of the world. A place where a handful of survivors survey the remains of a civilization recently vanished, sifting through the rubble to salvage what might help get through the day.

But look beyond the misery, and there’s a faint scent of disorderly industry here too. In a very literal sense, of resourcefulness. Many Roma get by scouring the streets of the capital for anything useful that might be used in the camps, or otherwise reduced to their constituent elements for resale. With the most basic of tools — hammers, chisels, fire — they participate in a vital transformation process from which precious resources are reclaimed and flushed back into the economy.

During my visits to the Roma camps with photographer Steven Wassenaar, during a particularly harsh crackdown by the French government, I saw beautiful, dark-eyed babies learning to crawl in the mud. One young girl told me she was home from school looking after her baby brother while her mother was at the factory. In a different world, she might have been someone I too would have entrusted with my own child. Bright, poised, self-reliant. She looked barely eight years old, but had cultivated the authority of a matriarch.

The sights of children living in squalor were haunting. But what struck me most was not the display of poverty. It was the legacy of spoiled abundance.

Despite a relatively efficient municipal waste management program, a city like Paris generates enough residual trash for an entire community to subsist on, and the sight of people rooting through supermarket and municipal waste bins has become commonplace in the capital. Unlike the traditional market forces — labour, natural resources — that traditionally stimulated the movement of people in search for a better life, it seems unthinkable that trash may also have become an invisible agency of migration.

Of course, this is an oversimplification, and the question of Roma integration within Europe is far more complex. But the message is this. The destitute near and far need not starve for the magnitude of waste generated by modern consumer societies.

In some cases — such as that of the Roma — the remains of our throw-away economy attract a category of informal “eco-workers”. Put otherwise, there is an import of “human resources” in affluent regions.

In other cases, our e-waste is exported — often illegally — to vast dump yards in the developing world, to countries like China, India and Ghana. An investigation by Interpol in 2013 revealed that nearly one in three containers leaving the EU contained illegal e-waste destined for developing countries, while, a few years before that, Greenpeace had found some 25,000 workers toiling in e-waste scrap yards in Delhi alone. The volumes of waste generated by our de-facto economic model is thus spurring the movement of people and obsolete goods around the globe on a massive scale.

These movements represent the tail end of material flows through the global economy — materials whose inherent value do not cease to exist simply because they’re embedded in products that we no longer want, or that no longer work — oftentimes by design. The average mobile phone has a lifespan of less than 2 years in developed countries and contains some 40 elements from the periodic table — including indium, one of several rare metals said to be running out.

Trapped in billions of discarded mobile phones and electronic devices, copper is another metal whose known reserves have been said to pose concern. Estimates of exploitable copper reserves differ significantly, but the differences appear negligible when one considers how dependent we’ve become on this malleable element for everything from power cables to water pipes. Some projections see new copper production fizzing out in a matter of decades.

This doesn’t mean that, over the next few decades, all copper will have been extracted from the Earth’s crust. It means instead that additional copper exists only in theory. It either hasn’t been found yet, or when it has, it may be present in such diluted form that it just won’t be worth the effort and cost to dig it up. For mining is itself a resource-intensive industry that leaves it’s own trail of waste and pollutants, often damaging local ecologies and contaminating water supplies. Final consumer products contain only a minute fraction of the resources that went into producing them. Look for the rest, upstream — in mines, factories and waterways.

Many of our planet’s finite resources are likely to face a similar fate to copper and indium as they continue to be sifted through our economy at an incredible rate. Colossal efforts are put into locating and extracting them, only to find them — a few years later — abandoned in landfills, reduced to ashes in incinerators, sequestered in the most improbable of places — from the peaks of Everest to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean where bottles, plastic bags and other litter were recently discovered by scientists.

Only in the best of cases are they recycled into hybrid materials of lesser quality in official recycling centres that can more aptly — than the Roma — deal with the toxic elements often contained within. Of the 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste generated each year around the world however, only about a fifth is recycled.

Great advances have been made over the past century, bringing material comfort, longer life expectancies and simply incredible devices and technologies. With 80% of resources consumed by only 20% of the world’s population however, many people around the globe will only ever collide with our modern riches along assembly lines, in mine shafts or dump sites.

Even if we are of the mind that our planet and the majority of its inhabitants exist only in service of our supply chain, that nature has little intrinsic value over and above the raw materials it delivers, there is reason for concern. In simple accounting terms, the books show that the inputs to production are being vastly depleted, calling into question the entire business model. How will we keep feeding the factories? If the global economy had but one CEO, surely (s)he’d be investigating this question.

He’d no doubt find inspiration in the “Cradle to Cradle” doctrine — a closed-loop approach to design that would see finite resources shape-shifted as needed in perpetuity. He’d perhaps consider that as we approach an age of resource scarcity, any form of planned obsolescence as an impetus for continued economic growth is no longer tenable: we were once cunning enough to create products that could reliably stop working on schedule; we must now be wise enough to build for longevity.

Finally, he might see that any virgin mineral extracted from the earth’s crust today is far too precious to ever be let out of one’s sight. This might give rise to innovative new business models that simply reshuffle organizational functions along new lines: parts of the budget dedicated to sourcing and procurement might go into recycling. Parts of marketing would go into after-sales service. Lobbying into R&D.

We already have plenty to work with, it’s a matter of doing things radically differently.

In the meantime, the Roma may be on to something. The semi-organized wastelands in which they attempt to eek out a living may one day become the kinds of places where industry must look to, to sustain production. The mines of tomorrow.

Read more stories by Carolyn lebel
Discover more photos by Steven Wassenaar

Paris-based freelance writer and digital media consultant.

Paris-based freelance writer and digital media consultant.