Sink: The Dirt of Systems

Sinks are a device within environmental studies that describe spaces and processes that capture and channel wastes. This paper first explores sinks both as a cultural figure of environmental understanding, and as an important technoscientific instrument within current attempts to describe the global carbon cycle in relation to climate change. The movement of wastes to and through sinks is often characterized as a metabolic operation, and this metabolic framing forms a key part of this investigation. Drawing on Serres’ notion of the parasite, the paper considers how waste, noise and interference may characterize other types of metabolic exchange that allow for a revised approach to sinks.

The second section of this paper considers how waste “spills” across environments in space and time. Spills are a way to describe the movement and exchange of wastes that do not conform to a clear trajectory or network, but rather express more formless and even disruptive geographies. Three “spills” then structure this examination into the movement and mutation of waste, including the elusive transfer of carbon found within the “missing sinks” in the biosphere; the indistinct exchanges of carbon and other wastes that occur with human and nonhuman bodies; and the uncertain exchanges and accumulations of carbon wastes in the future.

This investigation argues that sinks point toward the revision of the notion that environments are or should be in metabolic balance, in favor of more complex and hybrid ecologies and exchanges that incorporate the transformative capacities of waste. Concluding with Bennett’s discussion of the “ecology of matter,” this paper then suggests that the dynamic qualities of waste and matter require renewed attention to environmental exchanges, practices and imaginings.

Published in Environment and Planning D, vol. 27, issue 4 (ISSN 0263-7758), 666-681.

For additional work on climate change, see the collaborative project, Weather Permitting.