Small hands, close to the ground

The story below reflects the way in which two projects I’m currently working on – Waste Stories and a project called Water and Fire – have begun to combine in my mind. Water and Fire is a collaboration between the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow in the UK with the Universities of Cape Town and Western Cape in South Africa, together with the most important partner, the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation. It’s about the ways in which the Climate Crisis is already having a palpable and damaging impact on people’s lives. In Southern Africa, global heating is driving increasingly frequent droughts, flooding and runaway fires. Over the past three years, the Water and Fire project has been asking people living in marginalised neighbourhoods in the Cape Flats area outside the city of Cape Town to tell us stories of their own direct experiences of water scarcity, flood and fire.

Our co-researchers have produced many photos, videos, hand-drawn images and pieces of text in the process. We’re now approaching the end of the project and I’m asking people in the Forth Valley region of Scotland (where Waste Stories HQ is located) to engage with some of these materials and use them to try to imagine a future Forth Valley in which the impacts of climate change are more obvious. I’m mediating this through our sister website, Stories of an Earth to Come, which contains a selection of these images and texts. You’re welcome to go there and have a look – but please come back and read the rest of this post!

Working on these two related projects at the same time has inevitably led me to make connections. One of the most striking things about the South African experiences is the way in which waste and rubbish feature. The places in which our co-researchers live do not always have any, let alone adequate, domestic waste collection services and the photos they have shared with us show a build-up of rubbish on streets, in gutters and on open ground.

The precarity of these settlements also means that those living there may be driven out as the Earth’s changing climate renders them effectively uninhabitable.

The following story combines some of these issues with our own proximal experiences, here in mild, temperate central Scotland. It also reflects some of my own personal politics and concerns; my own family settled in the UK after escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe, and I am here because they were allowed to stay and, eventually, prosper. The title, Small hands, close to the ground, comes from something someone said to me about how good primary school children are at getting involved in beach cleans. It belongs to both projects, but I am publishing it here first.

Small hands, close to the ground

Whatever else you think about it, you have to agree the town is a lot cleaner since Stirling joined the Guest Worker scheme. I’ll admit I had my doubts at first. When the idea started to circulate – I remember hearing someone talk about it on the Today programme one morning – well, I thought: that’ll never work.

It wasn’t long after that Priti Patel formally announced the start of the scheme. Apparently there was no need for a parliamentary vote, as, like the Rwanda programme, the Home Secretary had been advised it was covered by existing law.

You could see the logic – rather than sitting around idle in detention centres, being supported by the State while waiting to be processed, refugees were to be given a choice: a new life in Rwanda, or join the Guest Worker scheme here. Earn your keep by working in the social care or agricultural sectors and, at the same time, earn Loyalty Points that could be used to support your visa application.

Over in Perthshire, the Council was quick to embrace the scheme. Brexit and the never-ending war on Europe’s borders with Russia had wiped out the fruit-growers’ supply of seasonal workes and, since the first pandemic, crops were frequently left to rot in the orchards and poly-tunnels. The warmer summers had led some farmers to diversify into larger fruit, such as mangoes and coconuts, which could more readily be harvested by robots, but continued demand for traditional British berries meant that they still desperately needed a human workforce in spring and early summer.

Stirling was a bit slower to join the initiative, but the crisis in social care funding eventually meant that no council could afford to say no to free (or at least, very cheap) labour.

The first camp near here was erected in 2027, on the flat land behind Fallin bing. That was the year that we first recorded temperatures in excess of 40 C and the wetland had mostly dried out.

I’ll admit I was a bit concerned when the first Guests arrived. We’d all seen the stories about the migrant hotels in Glasgow, after all. Stirling had opted to host Guests from sub-Saharan Africa: people fleeing places that had been rendered uninhabitable as the world’s weather changed. That meant that as well as getting a workforce that was urgently needed to fill gaps in the care sector and keep Forth Valley Royal clean, the council would earn carbon credits through the International Climate Mitigation Market. I don’t think I was alone in wondering how easy it would be for people who’d come from such a different culture and climate to adapt to ours. But the camp’s Health and Wellbeing Support team made sure they kept to the curfew and, that summer, there was no trouble.

Fresh concerns were raised the following year when some families, rather than single adults, were moved here as part of the scheme. Noone had anything against them per se, but our schools were already overstretched and a lot of people worried about having children who quite probably had PTSD mix with our own kids. It was a public safety issue and we all felt our children’s wellbeing had to come first. On the other hand, we didn’t want to see Guests unable to work because they had to look after their children.

I don’t know who first thought of the solution, but it was a stroke of genius. Why not let the Guests earn extra Loyalty Points if their children did useful work too? Stirling had faced a growing problem with litter as a combination of funding cuts and rising oil prices had forced the Council to reduce the domestic waste collection service, first to once per month and then to once every six weeks. Waste piled up in gardens, drying areas and closes. In some places – Kings Park, for example – residents got together and organised Rubbish Runs, taking it in turns to pull trailers filled with their street’s waste to the coup, just like they already drove each other’s children to Fairview. In less affluent areas, noone could afford to buy petrol anymore and the pavements were soon buried under a mix of household waste and seagull-shredded black plastic or purple Council-issue refuse sacks.

A pavement in Stirling is ocvered with the contents of domestic waste sacks.

So, soon after the first families arrived in the camp, small teams of Guest Workers’ children began to appear in the town in the early mornings, under the attentive eye of one of the Health and Wellbeing Support team. With their small hands, and being closer to the ground, they soon demonstrated how much easier it was for them to pick up the rubbish that had increasingly plagued our streets.

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