Living in the developed world means that the consequences of overconsumption are hidden from our sight. When the sky is still sleepy, garbage trucks sweep through neighborhoods filling their cavernous plastic bellies with overflowing bins of waste. The sun comes up and a weeks’ worth of excess is already being dumped into a fenced off landfill on the outskirts of the city. Out of sight, out of mind. For the trash that doesn’t make it into the bins—the litter that threatens to stain the immaculate illusion of wastelessness—we’ve got prison work teams dotting the highways with orange and groups of middle schoolers in their “real world” ecology lessons there to pick up the leftovers, the plastic bags tangled in tree limbs and the shiny wrappers glistening in the grass. Spick and span! Look at us with our invisible mountains of garbage and our trash cans dressed like recycling bins!
This unpolluted facade coexists with the fact that the United States constitutes roughly five percent of the world’s population, yet produces almost thirty percent of its waste. To maintain this unsullied image of the virtues of development, our increased output of waste is countered by the refinement of techniques that allow us to hide the consequences of such excess. Even more salient than the increasingly advanced methods of waste management is the almost complete invisibility of the bloated corporations which feed off of our overconsumption—who have sunk their teeth so far into modern society that it isn’t until we escape our modern marvel paradise and experience the world not yet “developed”, that we finally have to witness the visible effects of our consumerist bliss.
All you have to do is cross the border from San Diego into Tijuana to see that to keep our streets clean, we’ve just been throwing our trash in the faces of those invisible workers whose lives silently fuel our project of modernity. Like burning capitalist suns, foreign corporations line the Mexican side of the border, slowly dominating the horizon until entire cities of people start revolving around their presence, lives dependent on their heat. Their gluttony is fed by the desperation of poverty, by the multitudes that flock into pop-up colonias to fill the insatiable need for cheap labor. The images of the maquiladora zones are ones steeped in irony; workers assembling products which their salaries could never afford, satisfying the consumerist needs of countries which they are explicitly barred from entering. It’s a dehumanizing scene, one which I was poignantly reminded of last month when I traveled to Morocco.
On the border of Ceuta, a sovereign Spanish city planted within Moroccan territory, I was confronted by the demoralizing reality which helped fuel my life of comfort in Spain; the exploitation of inequality that allows the success of the “developed” world. Every day, the Spanish government grants hundreds of one-day visas to Moroccan citizens so that they can enter the fenced-off city of Ceuta. These visas are primarily distributed to older women, as they are unlikely to remain in the country illegally when the visa expires (a common phenomenon among Moroccans, and the reason that they are seldom granted visas that permit them to travel abroad). So, why does the Spanish government hand out these visas? It’s certainly not to foster some sort of positive cultural exchange—in a world where capitalism supersedes morality, that’s just wishful thinking. .. Every day, these women cross into Spain to purchase electronics, blankets, and packaged foods—goods which are cheaper in Ceuta than in Morocco—which they then carry back with them across the border to be sold to Moroccans. In a single trip, they strap 40-80 kilos of goods to their bodies to be compensated with only one to three euros by the Moroccan men who contract and oversee these crossings. It’s a practice which contributes millions of dollars to the Spanish economy every year, and because of this, its inhumanity is tolerated. The common name for these women, las mulas (the mules), says it all—they have been stripped of their personhood, animalized, and reduced to bodies, mere surfaces.
It makes one question whether the purpose of national borders is really to keep things from getting in, or simply to perpetuate a system of imbalance that ensures the developed world with a never-ending supply of cheap labor and a neighboring underdeveloped market to channel goods into. It’s hardly about national security. It’s about maintaining a lopsided economic relationship by creating a permanent border—a barbed-wire barrier which keeps the happy consumer on one side and the faceless worker on the other. Divisions that can keep us from asking, “where did all the trash go?”