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The sewage dump of capitalism

Jesse McLaren

November 12, 2015

Less than a week into a mandate for real change, the federal Liberal Environment Minister granted permission for Montreal to dump 8 billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence river.

“I wish there were a magic bullet here, I wish there were other options,” said Catherine McKenna. As Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said, “Environment Canada has confirmed what we knew from the start: a planned dump, even if it is not the ideal solution, is far better than having an unplanned dump. Not doing anything, and risking an unplanned dump, could have catastrophic consequences for the river.”  

So there’s going to be a sewage dump, the only choice is whether it’s intentional or accidental, and we shouldn’t worry about it. According to Montreal city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin, “The river has a significant dilution capacity. This does not pose a major concern for the environment.” For capitalism, the solution to pollution is dilution—and this “solution” carried out over centuries has led to a climate crisis.

Environmental racism

For Canadian capitalism, this is inherently colonial as it pollutes Indigenous territories. As well, environmental racism concentrates pollution in Indigenous and racialized communities, like Chemical Valley that surrounds Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

McKenna claimed there would be more consultations with First Nations, but as the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake explained, “The MCK only became aware of the situation when informed by the media…We are outraged that those who should have taken care of this issue during the past several years have allowed the situation to deteriorate to this point… What we will see in this plan is an assault on Mother Earth.”

Indigenous communities defending their land are leading the climate justice movement to save the planet on which we all depend. Kahnawake students walked out of classes in protests of the sewage dump, explaining: “Not only do we believe that dumping the sewage is wrong, there are many others who agree with our statement. Thousands of people from the Greater Montreal area signed their names on a petition and sent it in, but it wasn’t taken into consideration. Why is this? Why are people’s voices being ignored? The people of Montreal are being affected directly.”

Indigenous protesters also blocked Mercier Bridge, challenging the claim that there’s no alternative and exposing capitalist priorities: “Alternatives exist, they’re out there. Instead of putting $166 million in the Olympic stadium, instead of putting $11 million in baseball fields that no one cares about, instead of a new aqua-park, instead of decorating the Champlain Bridge with lights for the 350th anniversary, that money could have been used to create bio-methane plants that would solve this long-term. So if you believe there’s nothing else we can do, you’ve been duped, you’ve been fooled. The solutions are there, we just need to demand them.”

As well as short-term alternatives of dealing with sewage utilization, there’s a long-term need to deal with sewage production—which gets at the stinky heart of capitalism.

Capitalism: a shitty system

For thousands of years humans lived in a sustainable relationship with the land—consuming animals and plants, and returning nutrients to the soil through our natural waste. But capitalism created a rift in this natural relationship by driving people off the land and into the cities, depleting the soil of its fertility.

As Marx described, “Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres…It disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the fertility of the soil… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” As capitalism globalized, the depletion of the soil also took on a colonial character: “For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”

By separating people from the earth, not only does capitalism prevent human waste from returning to replenish the soil, but it concentrates it in the cities and then dumps it into the rivers. As Marx described in Capital volume 3: “Excretions of consumption are the natural waste matter discharged by the human body, remains of clothing in the form of rags, etc. Excretions of consumption are of the greatest importance for agriculture. So far as their utilisation is concerned, there is an enormous waste of them in the capitalist economy. In London, for instance, they find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.”

Only under capitalism would natural human waste be concentrated in such enormous amounts that it depletes the soil of nutrients and threatens us with disease; and only under capitalism would a solution be massive sewage systems that dump our waste into rivers, either accidentally or intentionally. As Engels wrote in The Housing Question, “When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure than is produced in the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and what colossal structures are necessary in order to prevent this manure from poisoning the whole of London, then the utopia of abolishing the distinction between town and country is given a remarkably practical basis.”

It’s true that there are no “magic bullets” to deal with sewage, but this does not mean there are no options—but we need to demand them. In the short term, this means respecting Indigenous sovereignty, stopping the sewage dump, and investing in better treatment facilities. In the long term we need to dump this shitty colonial and capitalist system, and replace it with a healthy relationship amongst peoples and between us and our planet.

Join the 100% possible climate justice protests on November 29, as part of a global day of action.

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