The human footprint isn’t big enough

C4's Dumped, where contestants live on a landfill, is supposed to show us we're creating too much waste. We should draw the opposite conclusion.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Take 11 volunteers and tell them they’re going to be taking part in a testing ‘eco challenge’. Give them the impression that they’re going to be whisked off to the Amazon or Africa. Then watch their jaws drop when they realise they’ll have to live for three weeks on a thousand tonnes of rubbish on a patch of ground next to a real working landfill site. Welcome to Dumped, Channel 4’s new eco-reality show.

It’s a great pitch because it works at so many levels. You’ve got the usual mix of reality TV oddballs (the blonde bimbo, the New Age mystic, the tattooed joiner); lashings of schadenfreude as the poor saps struggle to create some kind of life in everyone else’s crap; and most importantly, there’s the Big Message that humans are greedy and wasteful and we produce an unbelievable amount of rubbish. According to the show, the thousand tonnes of rubbish featured in Dumped are produced in Britain every two minutes.

However, not everything is quite as it seems. The show has got caught up in the current ‘fake TV’ controversy because it’s not a real landfill site (it’s a specially created area of rubbish next door to a landfill), and the participants have been given running hot water and plentiful food (for health and safety reasons). These revelations seem out of kilter with the proclaimed aim of the show. ‘Stuffing your face’ doesn’t sit easily with ‘tough eco challenge’. In fact, one or two participants have actually started moaning that life is becoming too easy, despite the fact that they have to sleep on bare wood in a rough-and-ready shelter of their own making.

Yet the allegations of fakery miss the point. It’s not the presentation of Dumped that is the problem – it’s the ecological message that it communicates. The suggestion is that if we see all the material we throw away in one place, we will be shocked into changing our planet-killing ways. By living on the dump, the participants will apparently show us just how wasteful we really are, and how useful all the stuff we throw away can be.

The story so far is that the group has built a shelter. It consists of a big plastic sheet draped over a scaffolding frame, with wood panels nailed to pallets for sleeping on. The group has the chance to build a rudimentary shower that will use solar power instead of electricity. Then there’s the composting toilet we see constructed in episode two, which seems to amount to shitting in a bucket, tipping some sawdust on top, and dumping the lot in a composter.

All of this is damned hard work, it would seem, and it’s not made any easier by the sights and smells of rubbish, the hot weather, or the presence of super-smug ‘eco-design expert’ Rob Holdway. He seems to have a talent for using the contents of a dump to produce rubbish (literally) versions of the most basic creature comforts we have at home. The real waste is not the pile of rubbish, but the skills and talent of someone who could probably contribute something far more useful to society.

Having criticised the slightly shell-shocked group for its lack of imagination in building the shelter, and cracked the whip every time the team members wanted to take a break, Holdway persists in telling us how all this rubbish represents an enormous waste of resources. Actually, it’s mostly construction waste – old bits of concrete, brick and timber, which would be difficult to use again easily. The rest of the waste is made up of rotting food, used paper and cardboard, plastic and glass – none of which is worth very much at all.

This point was beautifully illustrated by another exercise for the contestants – the chance to earn some money by scavenging for scrap. Middle-aged personal trainer Selena Lethbridge-Carr took this idea to heart and went on a one-woman mission to gather up as much plastic as possible, hoping to earn a few quid for the group but mainly to, err, tidy up. The Dumped website says Selena ‘believes she is pretty green. She lives on her boat, recycles everything, eats only organic and avoids any products she thinks are harmful to the environment.’

The website fails to mention that she’s also pretty stupid. A skipload of plastic and hours of hard work later, the scrapman informs her that all her effort is in vain: the plastic is worth absolutely nothing. Or, as she put it herself: ‘It took me most of the day to pick all of this plastic up, so in terms of labour vs productivity: zilch; job satisfaction: 100 per cent; outcome: zilch. But at the end of the day I got this off the ground and for me that is the main thing.’ It might make you feel better, Selena, but if such an outlook were replicated on a national scale, society would grind to a shuddering halt.

The team members do make some money from their scavenging: £45. Given the effort and personnel involved, that’s considerably less than the minimum wage would have offered – and even this princely sum is mainly the product of finding a copper boiler, worth £25 to the scrapman on its own.

The one contestant with his head screwed on is the tattooed joiner, Darren. He lives a pretty wasteful life – most notably, refusing to wash underwear. The feeling of crisp, fresh underpants and socks is so important to him that he throws them away after one use and buys a whole new set. If that seems mad, Darren’s general attitude to the whole set-up was refreshing. ‘There’s a lot more things to worry about than just the rubbish. The government for one. The laws. The education. Those things are more important to me than the rubbish’, he said. Knowing an indoctrination exercise when he sees one, Darren made the sensible decision to leave the camp after just a couple of days. While the rest of the group slog it out on a thousand tonnes of crap, Darren has decided that two weeks in Las Vegas with his wife is more to his liking. Very wise.

Dumped contains a whole bunch of mixed messages. It tells us that we throw away valuable material, something which will be demonstrated by the unexpectedly comfortable life that the group can fashion. But spending time on a rubbish dump proves to be rather like wearing an ecological hairshirt – rather unpleasant. Some of the contestants, like Selena, seem to positively revel in this latter-day mortification of the flesh.

This reflects a contradiction in the way green ideas are presented in society more generally. On the one hand, we’re told that we’ll all die if we don’t change our ways pretty soon; even waiting a decade may be too late. On the other hand, ‘changing our ways’ seems to amount to energy-saving lightbulbs, recycling and not flying so much. Or maybe it’s not a contradiction. Maybe all this green moralising has only been given the time of day because at present it demands a minimal sacrifice. As a result, criticism of the environmentalist agenda has been relatively muted. In fact, a bit of moralising is seen by many as a good thing in a society struggling to find some shared values.

Ultimately, there’s something rather distasteful about Dumped. For many people around the world, picking their way through landfill is not a gameshow or an eco challenge but a way of life. And the development that might rescue them from that existence has been called into question precisely by green thinkers and campaigners. What we need is not less development, but more material wealth. If that means a bigger ‘ecological footprint’, then so be it. The alternative is to accept that allowing billions of people to scratch a living in any way they can – even scavenging on dangerous tips – is acceptable in the name of saving the planet.

In three weeks, the participants in this particular slice of ‘reality’ TV will be taking the coach home to central heating, rat-free kitchens and comfortable beds. It’s the kids on landfill sites in the not-really-developing world who have been dumped.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Dumped runs all this week on Channel 4. Visit the website here.

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