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Reviewed by:
  • Burning Matters: Life, Labor, and E-Waste Pyropolitics in Ghana by Peter C. Little
  • Vincent Ialenti
Peter C. Little. Burning Matters: Life, Labor, and E-Waste Pyropolitics in Ghana. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 248 pp.

Peter C. Little's Burning Matters offers an ethnographic exploration of an urban scrap metal market—Agbogbloshie—in Accra, Ghana. A site of International e-waste dumping, the market is construed, in globallycirculating media imageries and commentaries, as a deathscape: a sacrifice zone of supply-chain capitalism that scars Black bodies, pollutes fertile ecosystems, and enables toxic processes of digital decomposition. At first glance, it's not difficult to see why. Agbogbloshie is a smoldering landscape of broken computers, old printers, abandoned appliances, discarded plastics, styrofoams, rubbers, and metals. The region is contaminated with selenium from discarded circuitboards, cadmium from old semiconductors, mercury from discarded switches and housing units, arsenic from thrown-out cathode ray tubes, antimony trioxide from disused plastic cables, and more. Heavy metals taint the local livestock. Toxic fumes enter workers' nostrils as wires are burned to extract copper. The "Most Polluted Place on Earth," as members of Ghana's NGO community depict it (77). "Sodom and Gomorrah," international media commentators claim (Höges 2009).

But that's not all Agbogbloshie is. Burning Matters presents a more nuanced and humanizing portrait. The book's ethnographic basis is a series of participant-observation immersions, participatory photography sessions, and open-ended interviews conducted among subjects working with e-waste burning in Ghana. Thirty interlocutors were interviewed; fifty were surveyed. The main period of fieldwork was from 2015 to 2018. What emerged from this is a subtle re-description of Agbogbloshie as a multiplex setting that looks different across different perspectives. [End Page 189]

The book's focus is on the embodied struggles of Accra's regional copper extraction workers. These workers tended not to speak of Agbogbloshie in terms of "dumping," "wasteland," or "e-waste," but rather of "markets" for coveted metal "scraps." For them, Agbogbloshie was just as much a place of "trade, market fluctuation, and vitality"—a life—supporting context of "plasticity, vibrancy, and vital materiality" (14)—as it is an e-waste graveyard. It was a place where mothers cared for their children, where workers goofed around taking selfies, where metal scraps were ceremonially blessed, and where social ties between urban Accra and rural chieftaincies were negotiated. It was a place to which Little's key informant, a top e-waste burner named Ibrahim, felt excited to return when he visited his home village in Ghana's north. Foregrounding these webs of relationality, Little presents a counterpoint to the dystopic gaze of hypernegativity he worries "haunts" Ghana's e-wasteland narratives (35). Looking beyond the suffering subject (Robbins 2013), Burning Matters nudges the reader toward thinking beyond the distorted prism of pure misery that Global North commentators tend to impose on Africa in global media representations.

That's not to say all is well in Agbogbloshie. Little also presents the scrapping and dumping zone as a toxic site of postcolonial dispossession and socioeconomic precarity. There, socioeconomic survival involves facing the slow violence of environmental racism alongside the fast violence of evictions from the impromptu structures they erect in Accra's margins. Marred by scars and burns, Little's interlocutors suffer from insomnia, chesty coughs, overheating, sore lungs, and heart pain. Burning Matters depicts their psychological and bodily harm as a dark consequence of extractive technocapitalism, neoliberal reasoning, and big tech's consumptive logics of planned obsolescence. Little's thesis, then, is not that the mainstream ruination narratives necessarily exaggerate Agbogbloshie's health or environmental problems. It is that simplistic horror show misrepresentations—reducing Agbogbloshie's lifeworlds to brute suffering, psychological distress, and exploitation devoid of family ties, aspirations, solidarities, values, and community—too often yield unintended consequences for marginalized communities and e-waste laborers in Ghana. His example is how Agbogbloshie-as-hellscape sensationalism plays into the hands of well-intended, but foolhardy and ineffective, technocratic interventions from global environmental and public health NGOs. [End Page 190]

Burning Matters chronicles how Agbogbloshie's distorted discursive and visual economy has repeatedly elicited a familiar strain of internationalist do-gooder...