Kingston en Grey

Kingston BurnsIt is late Friday evening, March 13, 2015. The final rays of the sun struggle to get through the cloud of smoke that had wrapped around the city all day. Yet it came with no rainbow and it was unclear whether it was a bringer of hope or harbinger of worse things to come. The blanket of smoke, a gentle phrase for the cloud of toxins and carcinogens that had been belched from the flames engulfing Kingston’s dump, had already sent many behind their locked doors and masks. Several schools across the city had closed, and some children suffering from respiratory illnesses had to be taken to hospital.

It seemed most fitting that this fire had broken out on the heels of the start of the 2015 National Budget Debate, and our Minister of finance warned us to prepare for hard times, a statement that is only alarming because, well, if what we are currently experiencing is not hard times of Dickensian proportions, exactly what do they have planned for us? ┬áThe Jamaican dollar is sliding so far and fast it seems to be trying for achieve ascendency and we really ought to change the term from ‘cost of living’ to ‘cost of not dying’.

Once again our revenue raising measures are about raising taxes, because it is a truth universally known that the best way to effect change is to keep doing the same thing over and again, because one day you will get a different result.

So, never mind that our environment is an actual goldmine that does not have to be sold off or destroyed in order to offer us great rewards. Never mind that our people deserve to live in a world where they can breathe freely. Never mind that we have much more to earn from the creative than the traditional sectors.

This latest fire at the Riverton dump had started on Wednesday afternoon. It is not the first, but certainly it has had the greatest impact. Yet we are a country of tragedies, and so, as clear as the smoke before our eyes is the truth that we will get over this. Not in the good way, which means we will learn from it and fix the problem, but rather that we will slap on a bandage to this latest gaping wound and move on. We will learn knew ways to cut and go through.

Michael Elliot's Riverton the Movie poster

Michael Elliot captures the dystopian nature of the latest Riverton Dump fire

As the smoke continued to drift across the city, many called for answers and pointed to the issues of leadership and waste management that could have led to this. And it really is very easy to point accusing fingers at out inept leaders who are intent on out doing each other in how quickly they can completely ruin the economy while claiming to save it. And yes, the state of Riverton and these fires that threaten to engulf us are the result of ineptitude, and corruption and mismanagement.

But what is your/our responsibility in all this? How much of the garbage burning at Riverton comes from us? Why does proper recycling continue to elude us?

There was a time when we recycled out of necessity, plastic bottles were used and reused. Oil bottles became drink containers for work or school; boxes and bottle stoppers were turned into trucks and bread bags and newspaper into balls. But now plastic comes so easily and cheaply that we do not have to find ways of reusing it.

gully pollution

Plastic bottles choke this Kingston gully leading from the city to the sea

We are so keenly focused on this fire that we are not asking the larger questions about pollution in this city as we fast become the land of wood and begrimed water. Over the years our air has slowly blackened and much of it was spreading from around the dump, slowly creeping further into the city. An early morning journey down The Washington Boulevard will reveal air thick and brown.

As Friday wore on, many people posted images on social media, marveling at the hills and mountains they could not see. But maybe wrapped up in this smoke that threatens to steal our every breath there is some poetry. It might just be a metaphor for our need for vision and clarity.

Maybe this smoke that crept from the festering underbelly of the city, into the enclaves of the middle and upper classes (even those on the surrounding hills), into all nooks and would-be crannies, behind louvres and into fortressed bedroom windows because steel bars cannot keep this intruder out; maybe this smoke will clear our vision.

Or maybe, when the smoke clears we will just have another party.