Accepted Paper:

Excreta2Energy: Human Waste as Laboratory for Capital in Urban Ghana  


Brenda Chalfin (University of Florida)

Paper short abstract:

Through what technologies, knowledge practices and political arrangements is the bodily waste of Ghana's urban underclass rendered a source of value? What are the ethical and economic implications of turning urban dwellers' excreta into electrical power to be sold back to them?

Paper long abstract:

Drawn from Ghana's edge-city of Ashaiman, this paper examines the workings of an international NGO turned private utility invested in converting organic wastes - human faeces prime among them - into electricity through a massive biodigester. In development parlance this process is known by the short hand E2E, excreta to energy. The following questions are brought to fore: How does human waste in the global south emerge as a laboratory for development capital? What are the ethics of turning the excrement of the urban poor into new sources of value in the marketplace of urban sustainability? Why is the worth of urban bodies reduced to waste-making in lieu of productive labor? How do ideologies and practices of sustainability science obscure the appropriation of urban space and resources?

The paper traces the initial standing of Ashaiman's E2E program as a laboratory experiment, transition to field training exercise, and eventual emergence as a bona-fide business proposition funded by the leading lights of development finance. Georges Bataille's (1988) notion of general economy, centered on the co-production of waste and value, provides the theoretical touchstone along with sociologist Jason Moore's (2015) thesis regarding the contradictory transformations of nature in the context of late-capitalism. In this E2E experiment, the paper argues, the paired valuation of bodily waste and devaluation of the persons who produce it reflect a broader move to redraw and purposefully exploit "the boundary between the human and the non-human" in the search for new sites and sources of surplus.

Panel P199
Towns, public areas and discards. Encounters of the rural and the urban